Death of an avaricious God 263

God is dead.

He died last April.

He had been incarnated as a man known as Sai Baba. He performed miracles. And he never accepted gifts, but simply couldn’t help becoming very rich on donations for his good works.

From the Telegraph:

A lifetime of claiming to be the incarnation of God had brought him a £5.5 billion fortune and a worldwide following of 50 million people. …

The big draw of Sai Baba was the darshana glimpse of the God made incarnate – that came twice a day as the little man with the big hair walked among the faithful, sharing a few words with the lucky ones, before taking his place on the long stage beneath which he is now buried. …

As many as 10,000 people could pack into the gaudy main hall, with its golden lions, pink, blue and white colour scheme and glittering chandeliers dangling overhead, to listen to his message of love and compassion. ..

In his prime, the diminutive holy man with the bright orange robes and huge afro haircut could count kings and presidents among his friends, and the likes of Sarah Ferguson …

There’s glory for you!

… among the admirers of his home-spun, “love all, serve all” philosophy.

And “con all” practice.

The film actress Goldie Hawn has visited his religious centre or ashram at least three times and donated tens of thousands of dollars to his projects … while the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who gave £40,000 for a statue of the guru, and a myriad of Indian politicians and Bollywood stars claimed inspiration from his message of putting service above self.

Sai Baba’s … non-denominational ashram in the town of Puttaparthi in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh was a beacon for Indians and westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment, no matter what their original religion – which the guru said they could maintain.

Now that he’s dead, the spiritually enlightened are finding out that even a God can have his faults.

After a decent  interval, the stone was rolled back from the mouth of his tomb and … No, wait! That was another story. The discovery in Puttaparthi was this:

Members of the Sathya Sai Central Trust, which runs the ashram, a religious centre, decided that speculation about what might be inside the guru’s private chambers was getting out of hand. The rooms had lain apparently untouched since the 84-year-old spiritual leader was taken ill in March.

The Trust decided to open the rooms, but with caution: the police were kept at a distance and the media were locked out. A select group assembled, including the controversial figure of Satyajit, Sai Baba’s carer, apparently the only person who could penetrate the chambers’ elaborate security. They took the lift to the first floor, opened the door and stepped inside.

What they found made even the wildest rumours seem tame: stacked around the room were piles of gold, diamonds and cash. Cashiers with counting machines were summoned

A procession of cashiers bearing counting machines, hurrying to the treasuries! A movie scene that.

… and reported that the haul included £1.6 million in rupees, 98 kg of gold and 307 kg of silver. (No figure was provided for the diamonds.)

The Trust denied any previous knowledge of the hoard, said it had immediately paid tax on its value, and denied any impropriety.

Well, we don’t see anything too bad there. Why shouldn’t God be rich when he comes to earth?

Thing is, they’re accusing him of deception, of getting money under false pretenses, of being wily and worldly and not sufficiently God-like. What a shock!

Rumors spread “of more treasure hidden away around the sprawling building, of false ceilings and further underground hoards”. …

One source within the ashram said: “The police have definite intelligence of the existence of secret vaults, and concealed storage in false ceilings and behind false walls in Sai Baba’s personal living quarters. They strongly believe that the wealth hidden there could be much more than what was actually found, perhaps on a staggering scale.”

Suspicion began to grow that vast sums had already been smuggled out. Three days later, police stopped a car carrying Trust members near the border with a neighbouring state – and found the equivalent of £50,000 in cash inside.

What, those honest Trust members, so quick to pay taxes, stole money and tried to smuggle it out of the country? (But why such a paltry sum once they were doing it?)

The Trust first denied any connection with the money, then claimed it had been donated by devotees to pay for a memorial.

The revelations have tested the faith of even the staunchest devotees, said a former member of Sai Baba’s security and intelligence wing. “News is constantly trickling in from Puttaparthi that Sai Baba devotees have been shaken by the huge haul of wealth as well as big cash seizures in the following days,” he said. “Many Sai Baba devotees I know, real hard-core devotees that is, are not even attempting to defend or deny the gold, cash hauls, and are in a complete state of confusion.

Some blame trust members, while a few are asking, “Why did Swami have to keep so much gold and cash?  Didn’t Swami always say he never accepted gifts? Who to believe or what to believe?”

Why indeed? And who and what to believe? The eternal questions.

God’s death is turning out to be bad for business in the area:

The implications have not been lost on the people of Puttaparthi, whose livelihoods depend on a constant stream of pilgrims. It was a tiny village when Sai Baba was born there; as he grew in stature it became a thriving town, but business has slumped since his death.

Mind you, miracle-worker though he was, he’d lost control of his own limbs well before the end came:

In later years a stroke obliged Sai Baba to make his way through the vast hall in a specially converted car before taking his place on the stage in his removable white leather car seat, trimmed with gold painted plastic. Still the faithful came. …

But death is a real bummer. Gods should not let it to happen to them.

India is not short of gurus and the fear in Puttaparthi is that those seeking enlightenment will now turn their attentions to other, more vital, sages.

The commercial empire God acquired remains:

There is still a £5.5 billion empire up for grabs, including 1,200 centres in more than 100 countries and a string of hospitals and schools around the world – and there is no shortage of contenders to take control.

The front-runners include 39-year-old R.J. Ratnakar, the guru’s nephew, who owns a petrol station and a cable television network, and Satyajit, 33, Sai Baba’s closest companion for the last nine years.

But they face a spirited challenge from Isaac Tigrett, the Hard Rock Cafe founder, one of the guru’s earliest and staunchest supporters – so much so that he borrowed Sai Baba’s “love all, serve all” slogan for his restaurant chain to help publicise the guru’s message. Mr Tigrett, who donated £4 million to build a hospital at the ashram and has spent much of the last few years at the compound, claims to be the guru’s “living will”. Sai Baba had, he said, confided in him along his plans for the future of the organisation – and he would reveal all later this year.

That cut no ice with the board members of the Trust, however, who dismissed his claims.

“Even a couple of months ago, what has now happened was still unimaginable,” said Robert Priddy, the Sai Baba organisation’s former Norwegian leader.

Norway is a nation with an exceptional appetite for BS. Norwegians award Peace Prizes to terrorists and  community organizers who’ve never achieved a damn thing. So we’re not surprised to learn of a Norwegian branch of the Sai Baba cult. Though Mr Priddy seems to have been given pause before the posthumous revelations broke:

Mr Priddy was once a believer but lost his faith as the allegations of sexual abuse which dogged Sai Baba’s final decades began to mount – though not before himself donating a total of £13,500.

Allegations of sexual abuse? God was lubricious as well as avaricious?

For former devotees like Robert Priddy, all this is simply proof that they were right to walk away when they did. “I feel satisfied that his death 10 years before his own prediction and under such inauspicious circumstances further vindicated my views on the falsity of his claims of omnipotence and divinity,” he said.

Into the most faithful heart a little doubt may creep. But there’s a good chance that the disappointed Mr Priddy, and the kings and presidents, and Sarah Ferguson and Goldie Hawn, and Isaac Tigrett of the Hard Rock Cafe chain, and Sachin Tendulkar, and the politicians and the Bollywood stars will find someone else’s claim to omnipotence, divinity, and complete lack of any care for base material things such as filthy lucre, more lastingly believable. Any day now.