Millions of people worship Sai Baba as God incarnate. More and more say the Indian guru is also a pedophile.

Published July 25, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the most powerful holy men in India presides over the world's biggest ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, or Abode of Peace, in a remote town located in a barren corner of Andhra Pradesh, a desperately poor state in a desperately poor country. The town boasts a shiny planetarium, two hospitals that treat patients for free, a college, a music school and immaculate, colorful playgrounds. Luxury apartment buildings are springing up on land that just a few decades ago was covered with ramshackle mud huts. And there's a brand-new airport to serve the wealthier devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, a 75-year-old south Indian man with a big bushy Afro and a warm smile.

Somewhere between 10 million and 50 million people worship Sai Baba as God incarnate, and they stream into Puttaparthi from six continents, sleeping in one of the ashram's 10,000 beds or at one of the town's many guesthouses. Meanwhile, the growing number of ex-devotees who decry their former master as a sexual harasser, a fraud and even a pedophile has hardly put a dent in his following, though their voices are getting louder.

"Sai Baba was my God -- who dares to refuse God? He was free to do whatever he wanted to do with me; he had my trust, my faith, my love and my friendship; he had me in totality," says Iranian-American former follower Said Khorramshahgol. What Sai Baba chose to do with him, Khorramshahgol says, was to repeatedly call him into private interviews and order him to drop his pants and massage his penis. Other former devotees contend Sai Baba did even more. No matter -- in this part of the world, faith is absolute. Believers don't refuse God, and they don't question him.

On Puttaparthi's outskirts, a Hindu temple has a statue of Sai Baba among its pantheon of deities, standing right next to Krishna. In the town, every conceivable surface is adorned with pictures of Sai Baba wearing an orange robe and a benign smile. There's a photo of him garlanded with fake pink flowers in my hotel room and a giant portrait behind the reception desk. Each afternoon, a speaker across from my bed pipes in music praising the guru. When I buy a pen to take notes, it has Sai Baba's smiling face on it.

Days at the ashram revolve around an event known as "darshan," when Sai Baba walks through an open-air, pastel-colored hall (called a mandir) and shows his precious self to the assembled multitudes. It takes place once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and people line up for hours beforehand. Everyone is desperate to get in first, because sitting near the front means that Sai Baba might say a few words to you, accept a letter or even invite you into his special chamber for a private interview. Private interviews are the raison d'être of life in Puttaparthi. They're where Sai Baba does most of his famous materializations -- ostensibly conjuring up objects like rings, watches and necklaces from the air as gifts for the faithful.

The afternoon I went to darshan, I spent 45 minutes waiting in a line outside and 45 more minutes sitting cross-legged amid thousands of other worshipers on the marble floor of the mandir. There were almost as many foreigners in the hall, which can seat about 15,000 people, as there were Indians. Dozens of chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was decorated with gold leaf. At the foot of the mandir was a stage, with a door leading into the guru's private interview room.

Just when the boredom was growing interminable, recorded music started up and a charge went through the crowd as necks craned for a glimpse of Sai Baba, a slightly frail figure wearing his customary floor-length robe and fluffy nimbus of black hair. He gave a little Princess Di wave as he walked from the women's side to the men's side (everything at the ashram is strictly segregated by sex) and then back again, taking some of the letters that were fervently offered to him as he passed. All around me women's eyes were shining, and some of the women rocked back and forth ecstatically. Sai Baba then exited the way he'd entered, and it was over -- in less than 10 minutes. An angelic-looking retired woman from Denmark told me she'd been doing this every day, twice a day, for three months.

Darshan is just about the only event that occurs at the ashram. There are no indoctrination or even meditation sessions. Aside from strict vegetarianism, Sai Baba prescribes no particular practices. His teachings are flowery and vague, combining colorful Hindu mythology, a Buddhist focus on transcending worldly desire, the Christian idea of service and an evangelical emphasis on direct experience of the divine. According to "Ocean of Love," a book published last year by the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, "there is no new path that He is preaching, no new order that He has created. There is no new religion that He has come to add or a particular philosophy that He recommends ... His mission is unique and simple. His mission is that of love and compassion."

This pleasant vagueness allows believers to project anything they like onto Sai Baba. People see his hand everywhere, and in Puttaparthi's spiritual hothouse nearly every occurrence is viewed as fresh proof of his power. Apart from letters and the coveted interviews, the accepted way to communicate with Sai Baba is via dreams and visions, and thus the town teems with people interpreting their subconscious hiccups as gospel. An American named George Leland said that Sai has come to him in the guise of a Tijuana, Mexico, traffic cop and a Japanese airline passenger. A 32-year-old Argentine woman told me she gave up her Buenos Aires apartment and her medical studies after Baba summoned her while she slept.

Stories of sacred synchronicity abound. A wheelchair-bound cancer patient from Holland, abandoned by her husband and living with friends who were Sai devotees, had a series of dreams in which the guru beckoned to her. She insisted that she told no one about the dreams, yet one day her friends surprised her with a ticket to India. The ring he materialized for her looks cheap to me -- one of the stones had even fallen out -- but to her it's a talisman that has helped fight her grinding pain.

To some, Sai Baba radiates love and whimsy, while to others he's stern and tricky, destroying their relationships or afflicting their bodies in the service of their spiritual advancement. Leland, a big, stately 61-year-old who looks like Hollywood's version of a powerful senator, told me, "Swami's job isn't to make you happy, it's to liberate you." In his case, that meant giving up his career as a motivational speaker and then his marriage. "Sai Baba is the most powerful being that ever came to the planet," he said over breakfast at a popular Tibetan restaurant in town. Leland, who has lived in Puttaparthi for four years, feels he must follow him, but that doesn't mean he enjoys it. He said sadly, "Even at this moment, my mind doesn't want to believe that God doesn't want me to be happy, to have a relationship, to be prosperous, to enjoy life."

"Sometimes I think the ashram is a madhouse and Swami is the director," said Rico Mario Haus, a recent 24-year-old convert. I'd met Haus, a Swiss man whose square black glasses lent a bit of quirkiness to his wholesome good looks, two months before in the seaside state of Kerala. We'd both been extras in an Indian musical, and we'd both learned of Puttaparthi from a Sai Baba follower on the set. Ironically (or, as it now seemed to Haus, portentously), we'd played Western devotees of a towering guru who saved the soul of the errant hero. At the time, Haus was a cocky kid planning to ride his motorcycle to Kashmir. Now, wearing white pajamas, he said, "Baba was calling me. When you believe in God, there are no coincidences." Nevertheless, he'd kept his sense of humor and found a certain subversive delight in telling us about the lunatics he lived with. "When you don't have problems, you don't go to the ashram," he said.

Most of the time, Puttaparthi's ambient spiritual hysteria is fairly faint. With its good restaurants and relatively clean streets, the town can be quite pleasant. But there are occasional bursts of madness. One afternoon, a young Malaysian woman had a psychotic breakdown, attacked ashram workers and was dragged away by police. I later found her at the police station, half-catatonic, mumbling "darshan, darshan, darshan" over and over again. At dinner another evening, Haus pointed out a wan Austrian woman tugging around a listless little boy. She was frenzied because she'd had a dream in which Sai Baba instructed her to abandon her 7-year-old son and live on the streets as a beggar, and she didn't know whether she had the "strength" to do it.

Of course, outsiders expect insanity in fringe religions. But Sai Baba isn't just any cult leader. Because he isn't well known in America, it's hard to convey the awesome power he has in India. In addition to the droves of foreigners who flock to see him, Sai Baba's acolytes include the cream of India's elite. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is a devotee, as is former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. A 1993 article in the Times of India counts among the guru's followers "governors, chief ministers, assorted politicians, business tycoons, newspaper magnates, jurists, sportsmen, academics and, yes, even scientists."

Even if you don't believe in the miracles he's credited with -- resurrections, faith healings, materializations -- his phenomenal popularity in India is easy to understand. Just outside Puttaparthi is an enormous hospital he helped build that provides free cardiology, optometry and nephrology care to all comers. It was funded in part by a $20 million donation from Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Café. The pink façade looks like a cross between a Mogul palace and a wedding cake. One enters into a domed hall with marble floors resplendent with images of Sai Baba and other deities -- Jesus on the cross, the Buddha, the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Yet for all the architecture's Las Vegas excess, especially in a country where many can't afford even rudimentary medical care, the hospital claims impressive figures: 10,594 free cardiac surgeries, 9,090 kidney operations, 382,328 outpatient consultations.

A host of other charity projects has also won Sai Baba favor with the masses. One of his projects installed 2,500-liter cisterns in several villages in Andhra Pradesh. Indian children who might otherwise never have access to higher education covet spots in his free colleges. Though rumors of chicanery and worse swirl around all these ventures, even Sai Baba's critics admit that he has eased some of the region's suffering. "God or a fraud, no one doubts the good work done by the Sai organization," wrote the Illustrated Weekly of India.

All this helps explain why there has never been any official action against Sai Baba in India, despite the dozens of ex-believers who insist that his claims to divinity mask a wholly human craving for the bodies of the ashram's young men and boys. The evidence is strong that Sai Baba uses his power to get in his followers' pants. It's also strong that life is slightly less brutal for lots of poor Indians because he exists. Some call him a saint and some call him a lecher. Possibly he's something of both.

The stories about Sai Baba's sexual misconduct are all remarkably similar. "During my 'private audiences' with Sai Baba, Sai Baba used to touch my private parts and regularly massage my private parts, indicating that this was for spiritual purposes," wrote Dutchman Hans de Kraker in a letter sent to French journalist Virginie Saurel. In December 1996, when de Kraker was 24, Sai Baba allegedly asked him to perform oral sex: "He grabbed my head and pushed it into his groin area. He made moaning sounds," de Kraker wrote. "As soon as he took the pressure off my head and I lifted my head, Sai Baba lifted his dress and presented me a semi-erect member, telling me that this was my good luck chance, and jousted his hips towards my face." When de Kraker reported to others what had happened, he was thrown out of the ashram.

American Jed Geyerhahn, who was 16 when Sai Baba started coming on to him, echoes de Kraker's account: "Each time I saw Baba, his hand would gradually make more prominent connections to my groin." The stories are endless, and endlessly alike, concerning mostly boys and men from their midteens to their mid-20s.

They're not new, either. In 1970, Tal Brooke published a book called "Lord of the Air," later renamed "Avatar of Night," a vivid, detailed account of his mind-blowing days as a questing young acolyte and his total disillusionment on learning of his guru's sexual rapacity. Yet it's only recently, thanks in large part to the Internet, that various victims, their parents and defecting officials from within the Sai Organization have banded together to direct the energy they once poured into worshiping their master toward bringing the man down.

It all started with a document called "The Findings," published in late 2000 by long-term devotees David and Faye Bailey, whose marriage was arranged by Sai Baba. Part of the nearly 20,000-word piece is given over to evidence that Sai Baba fakes his materializations and doesn't magically heal the sick -- revelations that seem self-evident to nonbelievers but provoke fierce debate in devotee circles and blazing headlines in the Indian press.

Most of "The Findings" consists of testimony of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. "Whilst still at the ashram, the worst thing for me -- as a mother of sons -- occurred when a young man, a college student, came to our room, to plead with David, 'Please Sir, do something to stop him sexually abusing us,'" Faye writes. "These sons of devotees, unable to bear their untenable position of being unwilling participants in a paedophile situation any longer, yet unable to share this with their parents because they would be disbelieved, placed their trust in David; a trust which had built over his five years as a visiting professor of music to the Sai college." These pleas eroded the Baileys' faith and finally made them go public.

Since then, the movement against Sai Baba has been snowballing. In the past few months, ex-devotees have contacted the FBI, Interpol, the Indian Supreme Court and a host of other agencies, hoping for help in their battle against the guru. A California man named Glen Meloy, who spent 26 years as a Sai devotee, is trying to organize a class-action lawsuit against Sai Organization leaders in America, modeled on the one recently launched against the Hare Krishnas.

His faith was shattered when he was shown excerpts from the diary of his close friend's 15-year-old son, detailing several incidents of molestation. The child of devotees, the boy had been raised to worship Sai Baba as God, and obliged when the master reportedly ordered his disciple to suck his penis. "You've got all these kids who are scared to death to do anything that will do disrespect to their parents, in a room with someone they believe to be the creator of the whole universe," said Meloy, his voice choked with fury. "This isn't just any child abuse; this is God himself claiming to do this."

Hari Sampath, an Indian software professional now living in Chicago and a former volunteer in the ashram's security service, is petitioning India's Supreme Court to order the central government to investigate Sai Baba. His greatest concern is for Sai Baba's Indian victims, who generally have a much more difficult time speaking out than Westerners do. During his time at Prasanthi Nilayam, he said, many students at the ashram's college told him they were pressured to have sex with the guru. "I've spoken to 20 or 30 boys who have been abused, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are 14-year-old kids made to live in his room and made to think it's a blessing. In most cases, their parents have been followers for 20 years and are not going to believe them," Sampath said by phone from Chicago. "Westerners have little to lose by coming forward. The Indians have to go on living among Sai Baba devotees."

Sampath also wants the American government to intervene, on the grounds that "American citizens have been knowing about this abuse and taking American boys to Puttaparthi and feeding them to him."

So far, the anti-Sai Baba forces have scored a few victories. Many senior devotees have defected. Last September, UNESCO yanked its cosponsorship of an education conference in Puttaparthi, explaining that it was "deeply concerned about widely reported allegations of sexual abuse involving youths and children that have been leveled at the leader of the movement in question, Sathya Sai Baba."

Late last year, after Conny Larsson, a Swedish film star who once traveled the world speaking of Sai Baba's miracles, went public about his coerced sexual relations with the guru, the Sai Organization in Sweden was shut down, along with a Sai-affiliated school. A cover story in the weekly magazine India Today reports that following a story in England's Daily Telegraph, "Labour MP Tony Colman raised the issue in Parliament. A former home office minister, Tom Sackville, also took up the matter, saying, 'The authorities have done little so far and that is regrettable.' There is a movement now to urge the British Government to issue warnings to people wanting to visit Baba's ashram."

Given all this, one might suspect that Sai Baba's following would be in decline. Yet when one looks around Puttaparthi, there seem to be enough bright-eyed converts to replace every defector, enough denial to obscure even the most well documented allegations and, perhaps most of all, enough fierce belief to trump ordinary moral judgments.

July 5 was a festival day at the ashram, a day when Sai Baba addresses his devotees. The faithful started queuing before 4 a.m. to get into the mandir. Arriving at Prasanthi Nilayam at around 5:15 a.m., I had to walk for 20 minutes to get near the end of the ladies line. Women were running and jostling from every direction to join the queue, and I'd have been pushed back about 150 feet if a pretty Indian girl in white hadn't yanked me in front of her. In the end, after waiting for more than an hour, I didn't get in, and ended up sitting outside the mandir in a crowd of hundreds who kept shoving to be closer to the gate, nearer to their lord's sacred energy.

Many of these people believe the official line that the charges are all lies. They're "completely false," said the director of the Sai Organization, a tiny, ancient man who, like every other Indian official I spoke with in the organization, asked me not to use his name because "nobody here works on an individual basis. There is no spokesman besides Sai Baba." He speculated that the accusers are driven by "jealousy or frustration. Maybe they are very ill and not being cured, or they have desires that are not being fulfilled."

Sai Baba, who hardly ever grants media interviews, alluded to the allegations himself at an address last year, saying, "Some devotees seem to be disturbed over these false statements. They are not true devotees at all. Having known the mighty power of Sai, why should you be afraid of the 'cawing of crows'? All that is written on walls [or] said in political meetings, or the vulgar tales carried by the print media, should not carry one away."

But the guru's alleged interest in his followers' phalli is pretty much an open secret among old hands at the ashram. The eerie thing about this story isn't just the evidence of widespread sexual abuse in one of the world's biggest cults -- after all, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Hare Krishnas, one is seldom surprised to find perversity in the shadow of piety these days. What's also strange is that many of Sai's followers seem to accept that their chastity-preaching guru takes young men, including minors, into a private chamber, asks them to drop their pants, masturbates them and occasionally demands blow jobs. They believe the stories, and they believe that he's God.

In an online essay called "Sai Baba and Sex: A Clear View," an American devotee named Ram Das Awle says, "First of all, I believe that Sathya Sai Baba is an Avatar, a full incarnation of God ... AND, from what I've read and heard, I'm inclined to think some of the allegations about Baba are probably true: It appears likely to me that He has occasionally had sexually intimate interactions with devotees." After several rambling paragraphs, the essay concludes that Sai Baba touches men to awaken their "kundalini" energy or to remove previous bad sexual karma, and that "any sexual contact Baba has had with devotees -- of whatever kind -- has actually been only a potent blessing, given to awaken the spiritual power within those souls. Who can call that 'wrong'? Surely to call such contact 'molestation' is perversity itself."

According to Leland (the American ex-motivational speaker), "when he does it, he has a purpose." Leland says he knows a boy of 15 or 16 who was asked to touch Baba's "genital area" during an interview. "Then Baba beckoned him to touch his feet. When the boy looked up, Baba had his robe lifted and a big boner -- a Shiva lingam. Not much else happened." Leland suspects such incidents are part of Sai Baba's plan to spread his word. "Probably more people are going to know about you if there are allegations that you're a pedophile than if you say God is incarnated on earth."

Sai Baba has also been called a second-rate magician. Even some of his believers say they've seen him faking materializations, though to them it's part of his playfulness and ineffability. Yet there's nothing amateurish about his genius for suspending disbelief. Haus, the Swiss follower, seemed to have an open mind and didn't mind discussing the charges against Sai Baba, but he didn't believe them. "I think this is a projection of his devotees' problems," he said. "You hear a lot of rumors here, but for me it's not important. When you're happy, why doubt it?"

He's probably lined up outside the mandir gates right now, one of thousands of men hoping for a talk with God.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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