Divinity, Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement


Divinity, Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement of Malaysia
Come to me with empty hands. I shall fill them with gifts and grace. sathya sai baba
(quoted in Murphet 1975:77)

Alexandra Kent
Göteborg University, Sweden

abstract This paper examines how a Hindu revitalisation movement addresses the modernisation in Malaysia. Modernisation entails material development and nation-building, but also the weakening of the authority of religious institutions and the internalisation of faith. The following of the Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, is largely urban-based, attracting many Indian business people, scientists and professionals. The paper elaborates theoretical debate on the gift, pioneered by Marcel Mauss, and explores how ‘contractual’ and ‘sacrificial’ religious giving is articulated within this movement in a way that reconciles spirituality with modernity. This articulation enables devotees to bid for a position as the custodians of morality within a modern, ethnically plural society, in which the elite of the Indian minority is marginalised in several respects. keywords Sathya Sai Baba, Malaysia, gift, modernisation, Mauss his paper concerns the way in which a Hindu revitalisation movement in Malaysia attempts to address some of the spiritual and social changes that accompany modernisation. Among these changes are the celebration of the sovereign and independent individual (Guerra 1994), material development and nation-building, but also the weakening of the authority of religious institutions and the internalisation of faith: religion becomes a matter of personal preference (Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988). Bharati (1970:268) notes how the idiom of the Hindu Renaissance, ‘harnesses technological simile and parable to vindicate or exemplify ancient truths’, thus enabling basic religious values to be reiterated in the garb of modern, Western culture. Some Hindu academics argue that there is an inherent congruity between Hinduism, seen as a set of universal and eternal doctrines, and modernisation (Balasubramaniam 1985). Lee (1997) proposes that Hinduism accommodates
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© Routledge Journals, Taylor and Francis Ltd, on behalf of the Museum of Ethnography issn 0014-1844 print/issn 1469-588x online. doi: 10.1080/0014184042000191825



alexandra kent

modernity by repeatedly reissuing its religious tenets in novel, syncretic amalgamations, through historically apposite, charismatic individuals. This he contrasts with the theocentric worldview of Islam, which, he contends, gives primacy to the word of God and tends therefore to collide with the competitive pluralism of modern institutions. One of the most influential contemporary, charismatic revitalisers of Hinduism is the living godman, or avatar, Sri Sathya Sai Baba — a renowned miracle worker who was born in 1926 in a village called Puttaparthi, in Central India, where he still lives. Although he almost never leaves his country, he has attracted a substantial global following, represented by Sai Baba organisations in over one hundred and thirty countries. The living Sai Baba, who claims to be the second of three Sai Baba incarnations, appeals particularly to ‘Westernised’, middle-class Hindus (see Bowen 1988; Klass 1996; Swallow 1976). But he also attracts European and North American followers and, in Malaysia, a number of Chinese (Kent 2000). The movement is largely urban-based and includes business people, scientists and professionals in its membership. As of 1995, Malaysia was home to thirty-five registered Sai Baba centres and thirteen so-called devotional groups altogether controlled by one hundred and forty-four office bearers. Registered members of the Sai Baba organisation represent a small fraction of the normal congregations of the centres, which may number anywhere between ten and a hundred and tend to fluctuate somewhat over time since many people are active in other religious organisations as well. I want here to look at the way in which religious gifts operate within the Sai Baba movement in order to illuminate a central feature of the Sai value system: the relationship between what I shall call here ‘contractual’ and ‘selfless sacrificial’ giving. In terms of Sai philosophy, contractual giving, which underlies material progress and therefore the project of modernity, is ideologically subordinated to selfless sacrifice. This relationship, I suggest, shows how Sai Baba enables Hindus who have been acculturated to a modern way of life and its rationality to nevertheless feel that they are living in accordance with the ancient tenets of Hinduism. Although Sai teachings hold particular appeal for the prosperous middle classes and make allowance for their continued material progress, they ultimately reconcile personal gain with Brahminic Hindu ideas of spiritual elevation by promoting an ideal of socially-directed selfless sacrifice — charity. Using various ethnographic threads from the Sai Baba following in Malaysia, I intend to show how the interestedness motivating contractual gift-exchange is transformed into the disinterestedness of
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Against this background. gifts offered to Brahmins) in order to show that here too the donor is motivated by interest in returns. The Gift and Danadharma This paper is not concerned to embark on the long anthropological debate concerning the gift but will dissect out and present a small cross-section of it in order to clarify my own theoretical approach to the material at hand. It is to his analysis that I pay tribute here in my use of the notion contractual. 43– 62) . 69:1. Their advertisement of Sai Baba’s mission offers them and the broader following they represent hope of becoming significant contenders in an arena of competing ideologies — where social legitimacy is negotiated within the framework of nation building. It is in the tension between these two stances that a resolution may be teased out and fruitfully applied to the material from the Sai Baba movement. which is predominantly of South Indian Tamil extraction. The Chinese — some 34 percent of the population — are identified with economic dominance. In order to establish the universal relevance of his thesis. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 45 genuine sacrifice. and thus puts the recipient under obligation to the donor.Divinity. Mauss’ thesis is essentially that gift-giving entails an expectation of return. Reciprocation then binds the two parties in a form of bilateral and essentially symmetrical social contract. At the apex of the debate is Marcel Mauss’ classic work The Gift (1990). in which ethnicity plays a pivotal role. Mauss applies his idea to various ethnographic examples. bourgeois Indians who derive largely from Ceylonese (Jaffna Tamil) and South Indian Malayali stock. doubly marginalised group for Indian supremacy in the realm of spirituality holds particular import. the Malay ethnic group — by definition Muslim and representing some 54 percent of the population — broadly controls political power. Parry levelled pointed criticism at Mauss’ use of Hindu ethnography to illustrate his argument. In 1985. these groups are now politically marginalised both within the nation and among the Malaysian Indian community. march 2004 (pp. vol. where he so adroitly handles the issue of gift exchange. the Sai-inspired struggle by a small. In Malaysia. including the Hindu phenomenon of danadharma (‘law of religious gifts’. Once favoured by the British colonial rulers. The Indian population represents only some 10 percent of the total and is not only numerically weak but is also politically and economically relatively insignificant. This reconciles modernity with spirituality for Malaysian Sai Baba followers in a way that is peculiarly appropriate to the Malaysian political context. Sai Baba’s Malaysian following is largely middle-class and is led by a small group of urban. ethnos.

the rule is that ‘pure asymmetry must obtain’ (p. Should he receive willingly. envy) away from the giver. and hence a means to salvation’ (ibid. then he not only condemns himself by his attachment to materia. 43– 62) . enacts the sought-after ideal of liberation from attachment to comfort and fortune. exist in inverse proportion to one another: ‘Where we have the “spirit”. Also. a denial of the profane self.: 468). 56). the ideal recipient is a Brahmin who has no interest in accepting such an offering. Parry (1985) firmly rejects this application of the contractual ideal to danadharma. The contractual nature of gift-giving is eclipsed as the expiatory is brought into focus. when accompanied by a disinterested state of mind. march 2004 (pp. The giving away of worldly possessions. in his eagerness to establish the viability of his theory. has forced the Indian ethnography to fit and thereby violated the nature of danadharma. Parry argues. It is a personal sacrifice or offering up of a part of self — the giver’s spirit is cleansed through the disinterest (in tangible gains) with which he unburdens himself of his gift. an atonement for sin. selfishness. The unwilling Brahmin recipient must not reciprocate. Accordingly. The two aspects of the [Mauss] model do not hang together’ (ibid. Parry notes. Brahminical Hinduism glorifies world-renunciation as the preferable path to salvation and this necessitates abandonment of contractual exchange and interest in returns. vol. that giving a religiously charged gift with any hope of reciprocation in this world would debase and destroy its ‘spirit’ utterly. Where Mauss proposes that the spirit of the gift stimulates an obligation to reciprocate. 69:1. Detachment from the physical and social world is promoted over commitment to it. ‘The unreciprocated gift becomes a liberation from bondage to it. the essential point about the danadharma gifts is that they must not be reciprocated. For danadharma.46 alexandra kent and that the gift inspires a balanced reciprocity: ‘The thing that is given produces its rewards in this life and the next’ (p. where there is reciprocity there is not much evidence of “spirit”. the power of this gift — be it in cash or kind — is its ability to convey badness (attachment. He declares that Mauss. The Brahmin’s duty is to neutralise the negativity inherent in the gift by practising austerities or Vedic learning.: 463). desire. Parry claims. therefore. greed. Parry argues the contrary. 461). but must be transferred away from the donor in an attempt to expiate the negativity attaching to his soul. reciprocity is denied. and the two aspects. and the only benefit the donor should seek is that of karmic merit. in which the reciprocity obligation is conspicuously absent. but he also condemns the giver whose increments in merit depend on his choice of a worthy and disinterested recipient. In this paper I would like to take a step beyond the Mauss/Parry impasse ethnos.

43– 62) .Divinity. This interdigitation between the profane and the divine — the world has divine potential inherent within it and divinity has the potential to manifest in the world — permeates the material. engaging it as a means towards a final goal of sociallycommitted selflessness. His acts and proclamations are consequently both human and divine events. This theme achieves several things. he does so both as a person who has a measure of human interestedness in reciprocity and as the supreme. provides the Sai Baba community with a yardstick against which to measure the spiritual prowess of others. As we shall see. Divine Gifts The ethnography presented here traces the passage of gifts between the profane and the divine realms — realms that are realised partly by dint of the attitudes of donor and recipient. Sai Baba preaches a universalist and modernist form of Hindu devotionalism. These miraculous powers are repeatedly alluded to and often described in great detail in the apologetic literature. and it offers a politically viable strategy for presenting Sai philosophy to Malaysian society at large. which devotees understand to be manifest in the world as Sai Baba. When he gives. Gifts from the Divine Person Sai Baba as divine incarnation (avatar) has the ambiguous status of being both God and man. The crux of this is the way in which it enables the transformation of ‘interestedness’ into ‘disinterestedness’. of worldliness into sublimity. Sai Baba’s devotees strive to realise their inherent potential divinity in a forum of gift-giving and receiving that is not renunciatory. I shall explore here various kinds of gift transmission. march 2004 (pp. My ethnographic exploration here is in part intended to show how the centrality and infinite versatility of the gift in human culture may stimulate continued theoretical debate about it. Sai Baba promotes the purposive utilisation of man’s interestedness. Each elaborates the central theme of embracing yet transforming attachment and self-interest. Sai Baba is best known for his reported ability to manifest objects out of thin air and for healing the sick. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 47 by examining the issue of gift-giving and receiving in the context of the Sai Baba movement. disinterested Godhead. 69:1. vol. He declares all religions to be simply different paths towards the same final Godhead. It guides the individual in his spiritual quest. Onetime sceptics write of how their confrontation with these inexplicable events ethnos.

‘Atma lingam. ‘Improve and expand our Organisation as you go back to your places. mental troubles. 43– 62) .’ Although he belittles the materialisations as trivia. The miracles not only suggest that there is a reality beyond human comprehension but they also attract followers with their promise of divine rewards.. in exchange for his possible delivery of God’s grace. Babb (1983) argues that it is the miraculous that is the absolute axis of the movement since the teachings contain nothing unique or remarkable — they are typical of Hindu devotionalist (bhakti ) movements in general. still possesses something of him’ (Mauss 1990:12).g. such as in the case of the lingam he materialised for a Malaysian devotee. he puts his devotees under contractual obligation to him. 8:11). n. On one level. moved his hand and materialised a black elliptical shaped stone.. As a social actor. Indeed.d. education in universal human values. so that Sai Baba’s imperceptible presence becomes physically contiguous with the recipient. it is clear from devotees’ stories that the miracles are the primary agents that transform people into devotees. obliging him to receive and later to reciprocate. anything!! (Jegadesan n. 69:1. Journey to God iii:69). ‘I give people what they want in order that they will come to want what I have to give. Then only can you call yourselves as true devotees’ (Sai Baba in Rao. The gift exerts a grip upon its recipient. constantly reminding them of his hold over them. rings) are intended for wearing on the body. Sometimes he gives his gifts together with very specific instructions.48 alexandra kent led them first to wonderment and stupefaction. and finally to an utter transformation of their understanding of the nature of the world (e. They forge a social bond and in this sense the objects he materialises compare with the hau of the Maori taonga (the spirit of the thing given). Sai Baba is interested in making his devotees beholden to him..d. ‘Do Abishega’ [ritual bathing]! Can do anytime of the day. watches. The miracles initially create a quasi-contractual relationship between Sai Baba and the devotee. Sandweiss 1975). which. ethnos. commanding their participation in the implementation of the mission. about the size of an egg. He . march 2004 (pp.. Jyothi lingam’. Just don’t stop here . Sai Baba explains that the miracles exploit the baser attributes of human desire in order to catalyse spiritual metamorphosis. ‘Even when it has been abandoned by the giver . He repeated placing the lingam on my palm. Sai Baba has proclaimed a manifesto for charity. worship and meditation and has dictated that an international Sai Baba organisation should be established to execute it. vol. Many of the objects he materialises (necklaces.. Do it for sick people..

Love is what you need to give God’ (Rao. His divine unaccountability means he is not constrained by the norms of contractual relations that bind his mortal followers. nor is it symmetrical. and on the other. but he is also an instance of universal divinity that has supposedly manifested through its own volition. no matter how bizarre. selfless sacrifice. Gifts of Divinity Sai Baba is not only a person for his devotees. the alliance these gifts create is far from bilateral and symmetrical. This is because everything he does. the conduct and attitude of the mortal is crucial while Sai Baba is free from obligation and codes of morality. It is intrinsically hierarchical and asymmetrical. devotees’ desires for divine returns are subordinated to the ideal of pure. vol. On the one hand. Since he is divine. 69:1. march 2004 (pp. The beneficiary of a miracle becomes indebted to Sai Baba as person. While they understand themselves to be obliged to him. for both parties. ‘He did not cure me because then I would simply have to pay for my past sins later. but all interestedness. ‘God does not desire anything. social dimension to these divine gifts. n. A devotee’s relationship to his guru is therefore neither properly reciprocal. In all cases. one which involves social bonding and the obligation to reciprocate. is assumed to be in the spiritual interests of mankind.d. There is nothing that God wants.. Sai Baba is free from the worldly interests that enslave mankind. He himself has no need of them. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 49 Conversely. is finally resolved in an ideology of disinterestedness. However. To stop the analysis at this point would also be to miss the further development and final resolution of the issue of giving in the Sai Baba movement. unpleasant and capricious. and should repay by participating in his utopian programmes. From the other side. he is under no equivalent obligation towards them. 1:6). 43– 62) . the model of bilateral contractual gift exchange does not fit accurately. the benefits of his gifts are designed to accrue to mankind only.Divinity. Sai Baba’s humanlike interest is ultimately subsumed within divine indifference. explanation is sought and usually found through the theodicy of karma. Not only is the devotee-deity relationship inherently lopsided. When these hopes are dashed. there is a conception that human spiritual endeavour may bring miraculous rewards. As far as he is concerned.’ There is clearly a worldly. It would seem then that although interestedness plays a role for both parties in this form of gift-giving. or at least hope for returns for their efforts and they usually interpret miracles as repayment for their spiritual achievements. He claims to be unaffected ethnos. devotees often expect.

it is the ultimate ‘Self ’. They are.. somewhat circularly.. to teach you how to tap that spring . he declares. You are the designer of both these chains that bind you .: 208).. Divinity remains impassive and unaffected. or bliss. the recipient of a divine gift finds himself.. vol.d.. ‘He who has no trace of hatred towards any creature. ‘I am interested in the work. he is supposed to become beholden to Sai Baba as divinity. who takes pain and pleasure as equally welcome and who is forbearing in spite of provocation’ (Kasturi n.. 43– 62) . Every time the recipient looks at or touches his miracle gift. I am always full of bliss.. If the recipient fails. I do not cause either joy or grief. The interestedness Sai Baba shows through his gifts is really an interest in bringing about disinterestedness in his devotees. it is he who will suffer. The materialised items remind devotees of the spiritual purpose Sai Baba defines for them.50 alexandra kent by the use or abuse to which his miracles are put. it is just your fate . 69:1. These miracles as you call them are just a means towards that end . n. in the self-less service’ (Sathya Sai Council of Malaysia Publications 1984: 22). Whatever may happen.d.. If you waste this time of saving yourselves. the selfsame divinity that dwells as a potential within the receiver himself. 1:5). You will be divine if you develop such a feeling’ (Sai Baba in Rao. he is reminded of Sai Baba’s insistence that divinity is present. All the time He thinks of helping somebody somewhere or other and never for Himself. At the worldly level of illusion (maya). ‘You are God .. nothing can come in the way of my smile (Sai Baba 1968 in Sandweiss 1975:89–91). but through and beyond this. who is friendly and compassionate towards all. I have come to give you the key of the treasure of ananda. in the loving heart.. This universal force is the animating spark of selfhood. which is resident within himself and all beings.. Thus. Devotees see Sai Baba and his teachings as unquestionable truth — the direct outpouring of universal divinity. march 2004 (pp. which is to become close to Sai Baba both as person and as a state of being.. finally obliged to the ‘Self ’.. in a universal and transcendent sense. The spiritual benefit to be gained through giving and receiving is that of approximating Sai Baba’s compassionate yet unaffected state of being. who is free from the bondage of “I” and “mine”. simply means to help mankind achieve its own spiritual realisation.. Swami [Sai Baba] has no trace of selfishness. the devotee is made beholden to Sai Baba as person. I call you to me and even grant worldly boons so that you may turn Godward . that participates in all beings. The establishment of dharma (righteousness): that is my aim .. that it exists in human form and that everything and every place is imbued with ethnos.

ethnos. he bears a particular responsibility to honour this knowledge — he becomes obliged firstly to the person of Sai Baba. One devotee I interviewed had gone to Puttaparthi many times and almost all his friends had been called for interviews with Sai Baba. however. As a person. and Sai Baba explained. how one devotee’s shop was saved from a fire which ravaged the rest of the street. These stories often made a causal link between the devotee’s commitment to prayer or charity and worldly rewards. Others explained that Sai Baba apportions grace according to people’s needs and karmic deserts and not according to their desires. march 2004 (pp.d. by refusing to satisfy his longing he was helping him to vanquish the ego with its attendant hopes and expectations. 69:1. Although he admitted he was disappointed. vol. There are numerous stories that reinforce the idea of recompense for carrying out Sai Baba’s will. is something most devotees struggle with. notwithstanding his divine disinterestedness. he reasoned that Sai Baba’s nonchalance actually demonstrated his compassion. a blind young man miraculously regained his sight after he had mended a broken statue of the goddess Durga. to deliver divine favour to them in return for their prayers and devotion. Overcoming Desire Devotees beseech Sai Baba. but they ask favours of him as a fellow human who. is also able to greet them with human concern. so now I have mended him’ (in Jegadesan n. For example. offering benefits in exchange for participation in his spiritual mission. ‘I gave his eyesight back because he does too much work — God’s work. i:234). Devotees understand that desire is discordant with Sai philosophy. He mends all the Gods all the time. deified human. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 51 divine potential. Many admit to longing for an interview with Sai Baba or a miracle. They understand that to evolve spiritually. Desire for Sai Baba’s favours. but not he. 43– 62) . Following many of the prayer meetings I witnessed in Malaysia. one must progress beyond desire. As a selected recipient of God’s grace. how a young devotee was accepted into medical school even though his exam results were inadequate. devotees were urged to stand up and tell of personal experiences of miracles. but through him to the redemptive mission and finally to the development of his own inner divinity. Sai Baba interacts partly in the style of contractual relations. They mentioned how some of the most staunch devotees had been healed. as a compassionate. and how a devotee doctor who had incurred considerable debt had then won exactly the amount of money he owed on a lottery ticket. but they try to overcome this.Divinity.

43– 62) . offering charity is not a divine act per se since it may be accompanied by the wrong attitude. to become as children. It is acceptable to long for materialisations from Sai Baba if the items are then put to spiritual use and it is acceptable to be wealthy and influential if these resources are used for the benefit of the needy. I now want to turn to the gifts that pass in the opposite direction — from mortal to divinity. recluses and worldethnos. Without the inspiration given by that attitude. Charity is exalted because it is directed towards an all-pervasive divinity that is present in all beings. This in fact is the greatest gift of spirituality and religion — to make a devotee as perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. The rhetoric criticises hermits. get rid of all sense of mine and thine.52 alexandra kent Giving of and for the ‘Self’ The discussion above concerns primarily the passage of gifts from compassionate yet ultimately disinterested divinity to mortal. In terms of Sai morality. These are the intangible gifts of love that every devotee can and should aspire for — the gift of sharing and caring. However. italics original). and burn to ashes the pride that comes of the feeling that you are offering service to some one poorer and less fortunate . Seva [charitable service] in all its forms . selfless love.. You have to uproot egoistic tendency.. the urge is bound to ebb and grow dry. 69:1. it is transformed into the ideal of selfless sacrifice. it may meander into pride and pomp (Sai Baba in Sathya Sai Council of Malaysia Publications 1984:34). but not to a Brahmin. Ultimately. vol. is the greatest gift that Baba can give everyone of us. The Sai gift is exemplified by the charity activities run by Sai Baba organisations. iii:71. to give love even to those who would hate and despise us. is spiritual discipline. march 2004 (pp. devotees are exhorted to give of universal. ‘Society is the divine proliferation produced by the will supreme’ (Sai Baba in Sandweiss 1975:205). Of special interest in Sai philosophy is the fact that the self-interest driving contractual exchange is encouraged and utilised as an integral part of the spiritual process. or. to give love and receive love selflessly — for God is love (Jegadesan n. the ability to give and receive love without fear or favour.d. without expectation or reward. for. To achieve true Sai charity. mental clean-up. Sai Baba and his devotees generally deplore the classic Hindu celebration of world-renunciation. The crux here is that the purity or divinity of both the gift and its donor is actualised by the attitude with which it is given: contractual or sacrificial... the ideal gift is that given with an attitude of selfless disinterestedness. The gift that is given without self-interest and attachment is divine and manifests the divinity of the donor.

implicitly subordinates the goings on there to its own publicly brandished philosophy of sacrifice and in so doing assures itself greater social and political respectability. 69:1. Although some attend the festival and make offerings simply as thanksgiving or to honour the god. nor pilgrimages to all holy places. or in the selfless. It takes place around the full moon day of the Tamil month of thai and honours the god Murugan. but may be more explicitly contractual. The Malaysian Sai Baba organisation. Thaipusam The Tamil festival of Thaipusam is one of the most striking examples of religious gift-giving among Malaysian Hindus. Its claim to ideological superiority is permeated by hegemonic implications. nor immersion in Japa. Here. 43– 62) . love and charity. march 2004 (pp. many draw up a kind of agreement with the god in the form of a vow. Neither performance of Tapas (austerities). The only path that will help you to be liberated from Samsara is dedicating yourself to the service of others (Sai Baba in Sathya Sai Council of Malaysia Publications 1984:37). Anything from a few days to a month of ritual preparation and purification may be observed in advance of the festival and these involve ethnos.Divinity. nor study of all Sastras. socially-committed sense commanded by Sai Baba. while it patronises the festival and tries to establish brotherhood with its participants. The austerities carried out are strongly focused on the senses. The festival is celebrated annually on a large scale in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. which Sai Baba defines very much in social terms. will ever help one to cross the Ocean (cycle of birth to death). vol. and in some other smaller cities. On the contrary. Making Contracts with God I want now to take a rather different turn to look at a major Hindu festival celebrated in Malaysia. Sai Baba’s updated delivery of Hinduism makes no demand that people relinquish all their worldly acquisitions. They may pledge to perform certain austerities or to make certain offerings in exchange for and as recompense for a desire fulfilled. the religious offerings are not necessarily sacrificial either in the strictly unidirectional expiatory sense outlined by Parry. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 53 renouncers for their failure to fulfil their worldly moral duty or dharma. son of the great deity Siva. he makes it possible and even desirable for them to maintain their prosperity. emotional transformation brought about by devotion. He simply provides a way to reconcile this with spirituality through an inner.

1 They took offerings of milk. In 1997. the Malaysian following is supportive of Thaipusam and readily participates in it. march 2004 (pp. he or she first bathes in the nearby river where they may be initiated into trance by an experienced kavadi bearer. 43– 62) . Partly in obedience to Sai Baba’s insistence that his followers return to their own religious traditions. cold baths. although there is wide variation in the duration and extent to which these are followed. the penetration and the breadth of wisdom and they told me that supplicants should seek wisdom from the deity. prosperity and progeny.54 alexandra kent overcoming desire. Vegetarianism. prayers and sleeping on the floor are among the common prescriptions. They interpreted Murugan’s spear (vel ) as representing the sharpness. cheeks and skin of the upper body. When the time arrives for the devotee to carry his burden (kavadi ) up the steps to the idol. However.: 329). and the penalties that are incurred if debt remained unpaid’ (ibid. Although none of the Sai devotees I witnessed in Kuala Lumpur (1997) carried out any form of self-mortification. vol. the blessings sought or repaid in this way are tangible personal awards such as health. they explained that their aim was to raise their level of consciousness and cleanse their minds. Sai Baba and those who lead the Malaysian Sai Baba organisation phrase Sai philosophy as superordinate to instrumental folk Hinduism. They may then submit their body to piercing with hooks or skewers through the tongue. pierced their bodies with skewers or carried their babies up the steep climb to the temple at which they entreat or show their gratitude to the deity. they expressed no clear consensus about it. in Kuala Lumpur alone over one million worshippers were reported to have attended. Lee (1989) describes how transcendence of the sensory aspects of self is accompanied by the release of raw individual powers. to rekindle them and their spiritual essence. but also produce internal heat. In general. which enables the devotee to carry kavadi and carry out self-mortification. sexual and social abstinence. The austerities not only purify the body and mind. Lee proposes that this is ‘a manifestation of a religious tradition that emphasises a debt bondage between gods and men. The Sai Embrace Sai philosophy accommodates this kind of religious activity on several levels. Some said it was in principle justifiable if it helped to bring a person ethnos. evident in the form of sensational performances of multiple piercing. 69:1. Several described the pursuit of worldly benefits from him as ‘the kindergarten stage of spirituality’. shaved their heads. When I asked Malaysian Sai Baba devotees about their participation in Thaipusam.

the values of self-sacrifice and charity. 69:1. the party that represents Indian political interests in Malaysia. who constitute the bulk of Thaipusam participants. The working class. vol. However. asserts the spiritual supremacy of the middle-class Malaysian Sai Baba following over today’s politically stronger low-caste. which provides the middle-classes with an answer to the classic Hindu equation of material poverty with spiritual purification. the Sai Baba organisation leader secured forty-five minutes access to the public address system and he led his group in singing devotional songs glorifying Murugan. it was clear that the Sai Baba followers did tend to regard the low-caste worshippers who in fact usually carry out the most spectacular forms of self-mortification. low-caste Indians. combined with Sai Baba’s assertions concerning the divinity of selfless charity. One limb of their social agenda. The numerically strong. This. actually involves morally uplifting Indians in the urban squatter settlements. march 2004 (pp. among other things. This advertised the organisation’s approval of and desire to participate in the festival. Nevertheless. The mic is a populist rather than elitist party and it derives its support from the labouring classes. the Sai Baba organisation leaders come predominantly from a small group of Ceylonese and Malayalis. as uneducated and ignorant. does Sai Baba produce gold trinkets for those who are already prosperous? The rhetorical superordination of charity over individual-centred and contractual religious behaviour holds little appeal for those whose participation in charity could only be as beneficiaries. low-status participants at the festival receive substantial support from the Malaysian Indian Congress (mic). this is not a mutual arrangement. though others disapproved of harming the body. During the Thaipusam festivities I witnessed. The Malaysian Sai Baba organisation claims privileged access to Truth. although Sai philosophy embraces Thaipusam. 43– 62) . The Sai Baba organisation is at pains to dissociate itself from what it decries as idolatry and superstition and has taken upon itself the task of educating those who have become ‘illiterate in the language of the gods’. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 55 closer to an experience of God. The way in which the Sai Baba following participates in Thaipusam even though it is at the same time trying to provide ‘religious education’ to counteract ‘superstitious practices’ among labouring class Indians has political implications in Malaysia.Divinity. As noted. and non-Sai Baba devotees not infrequently dismiss the Sai Baba movement as simply a rich-man’s cult. some ask. low-class Indian population. These two groups of Indians once enjoyed ethnos. the Education in Human Values Programme. teaching them. both philosophically and also physically through their relationship with a living incarnation of Truth. Why.

every act of outward grace that others can see. Let us take a look at Sai Baba’s materialisations. that can take me far from the path that I am attempting to pursue. It contains the potential to awaken divine realisation but also the attendant risk of abuse — the attitude of the recipient is decisive for the outcome. praise. each one is also a trap . It is through the transformation rather than renunciation of the world that this potential can be realised and divinity made manifest. his material suggests that worldliness and selfinterest are necessarily inimical to divine realisation. 207).. devoid of jealousy and envy then the divine potential of the gift becomes a potent. In other words.. classes. develop envy for etc. This unity must be experienced by everyone (Sai Baba in Sandweiss 1975: 205.. castes.. they are One Atma . the recipient of a gift from a spiritually superior source has the power to determine the character of the event.. the moment one begins to measure spiritual strength or the grace of God by the physical trappings of sai grace. march 2004 (pp.. but as a potential within it.. The Transformative Power of Giving Recalling Parry’s argument. yet they are inherently equivocal — they have the potential both to corrupt and to sublimate. admire. like other elite Indians. Today. The moment that thought comes to mind. ethnos. The objects are considered to be of divine origin. all mankind is One ..56 alexandra kent privilege and influence under the protectorate. Sai Baba’s philosophy says... that is the day the spiritual trap-door opens and we fall into void. amulet and pendant. iii:70). on the contrary. 69:1. actualised force that is capable of affecting the world. fall away from the divine (Jegadesan n. vol. a spiritual trap. every ring. does this mean that those with no such physical. divine manifestations are any less blessed? . groups or kinsmen and kinswomen. The men and women bound by mutual interests in a society are not merely families. Just because I wear on my person 3 objects materialised by Bhagavan. 43– 62) . Should he transform his person into one driven by selfless love. and their final realisation is dependent upon the attitude of the receiver. The miraculously conceived object is handed over unsullied to the human world. that divinity exists not in opposition to the world. an ego trap .. as much as these are acts of grace and love. they lack anchorage in Indian political representation and the goodwill they show by their patronage of Thaipusam suggests an attempt to secure their belonging in the broader category of ‘Indian’. Sai Baba’s major concern is the divine nature that human beings all share and their potential to realise their spiritual equivalence with each other.d.

the greatest interest in the gift. God answered that in Hell each tries to feed himself whilst in Heaven they each feed their neighbour. poverty-stricken. A Sai story recited by a devotee at one prayer meeting expressed this thus. march 2004 (pp. it offers not only emotional and spiritual elevation but also hope of status enhancement. However. by implication. paediatric cancer patients. vol. They each had a two-foot spoon to eat with and couldn’t get it near their mouths. they are not excluded from the possibility. So he was shown Hell first. a desperately under-staffed home for severely handicapped children from poor. According to their Sai benefactors.Divinity. the ideal recipient of Sai charity is one with the greatest need and therefore. There was plenty of delicious food but the people were starving and miserable. In this way. rational Hinduism and they remain largely absent from the ranks of the movement. persistant sub-ethnic and intracommunal rifts within the Indian community (Rajoo 1982. In contrast to Parry’s Brahmin recipients of danadharma. The Sai Baba followers I observed in Kuala Lumpur spent considerable energy finding the most needy groups to whom they could offer charity. their redemption consists of accepting the definitions of spirituality and righteousness expounded by Sai Baba and his following and acceptance of Sai Baba as a living god. ethnos. The passage of the truly divine gift tends then to travel not ‘upwards’ towards the superior and disinterested Brahmin. In Heaven the same thing. when the divine potential in a gift is realised. 43– 62) . 69:1. Although the poor cannot realise divinity by giving charity. A man was asked by God if he wanted to go to Heaven and Hell. The man said he’d like to have a look at both options before deciding. This takes the form of commitment both to Sai Baba himself and. but ‘downwards’ towards the poor and needy. asserting his dominance over rather than subordination to the recipient. for the Sai Baba devotees. terminal. gifts of charity effect the accumulation of spiritual capital by the donor. rural families. Mearns 1995. The man asked how this was possible. there was the same food and the same two-foot spoons but the people were happy and well-fed. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 57 The moral directive is that each person should learn to recognise his ‘selfhood’ in others and try to fulfil the needs of others as if they were his own. a leprosarium and so on. Willford 1998) are reflected in the refusal of the more numerous South Indian Tamil/Hindu labouring class Indians to submit their religiosity to redefinition by middle-class exponents of a bourgeois. presumably. Nevertheless. to the Malaysian organisation.

Do everything for society and not for the individual ... x:14). In Islam helping people is a virtue and Muslims are exhorted to do so . In worship and in the eyes of God they are equal. education and medicines are required. are equal. Spurning it is an ethnos.. People should co-operate to the extent possible and provide all types of conveniences for themselves... race and colour. 69:1.. march 2004 (pp. Mahathir Mohamad’s insistence that ‘material equality is impossible because it goes against nature ..d. Sai Baba and Prime Minister Mahathir both marry material progress to spirituality in remarkably similar ways. What should be judged is not . And the latter. All are different .: 65).. 8:8. That is true devotion’ (Rao. status.. and both place responsibility for its equitable redistribution on the individual conscience rather than on the political leadership. Vairagyam or detachment does not imply renunciation of family ties and fleeing into the loneliness of the jungle. Then only will there be a feeling of one family (Sai Baba in Rao. which he claims depends upon greed. king or commoner.. participate in that activity..58 alexandra kent Building a Divine Nation Sai Baba’s agenda is largely in harmony with the nation-building efforts of Malaysia’s political leadership. It is a genuine brotherhood of pure hearts. They could grow rich because of the efforts and wealth of the poor. Sai Baba proclaims. Having received from the poor. striving for wealth but his attitude and beliefs . he proposes an alternative.d. you spend for them .. This truth cannot be denied’ (1993:67).. Where health care. try to solve that problem. [a person’s] . poor or rich. We should not depend upon the Government for everything. ‘There are many rich people in this world . rank. All Muslims.. Neither prohibits striving for wealth. vol. and. on medicines and education .. 1: 6). This tallies well with Malaysian Prime Minister Dr... n. 1:6). Worldly wealth is God’s gift... n. The former claims.d. Islamic model of equality.. It is this equality which makes Muslims brothers regardless of economic position. The basis of the brotherhood is not status of property-ownership but the spirituality that comes from faith in the teachings of Islam. It means giving up the feeling that things are permanent and are capable of yielding supreme joy (Kasturi n.. Furthermore.. 43– 62) . and not to Muslims alone. free from jealousy and envy (ibid. Spend your money for service. Where there is water shortage. Arguing against the material equality sought by socialists.

Thus they facilitate their own philosophical acceptance by the Malay leadership. The Malaysian Sai Baba organisation claims spiritual brotherhood with all compatriots. The Malaysian Sai Baba organisation is thereby able to assure the government of its heartfelt involvement in a programme formulated by the Malay/Muslim leadership. Their exclusion from Muslim dominated political power. The recipe seems well suited to a plural society striving for national unity — an ideology of material progress combined with containment of religious hierarchies and their isolation from control over public policy. use right means for earning wealth and utilise it for the benefit of society (Sathya Sai Council of Malaysia Publications 1985:43). Service to society is everyone’s primary duty. culturally besieged group of formerly privileged. Sai Baba himself puts it succinctly. I have considered the spirit of the gift as articulated in Sai Baba’s teachings and philosophy and by his Malaysian followers. Businessmen should develop a moral approach. 69:1. While Prime Minister Mahathir confines himself to Islam when speaking of spirituality. all put together with an increasing emphasis on internalised religion and the individual conscience as the check on gravitation of resources. to all.: 81). but simultaneously philosophically encompass (subordinate) Islam within their own cosmology. the Muslim Malays.cit. Miracles and Charity in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement 59 act of arrogance and ingratitude to God for His gift. but suffice it to say that both share sufficient presuppositions that Sai Baba’s teachings can enter the Malaysian context without challenging prevailing political philosophy (see Kent 1999). the Sai Baba philosophy is explicitly inclusive. 43– 62) . march 2004 (pp. and from Chinese-dominated economic power as well as from the working-class Indian solidarity of the mic means that spirituality may be one of the few forms of cultural capital left available to this small. middle-class Indians. the Indians and the Chinese. Conclusions Starting with Mauss and Parry and taking several ethnographic detours en route.Divinity. Numerous other examples of this kind of compatibility between the two leaders’ views of the relationship between the material world and spirituality could be cited. while at the same time expanding the definition of those included from Muslim. universalistic and ecumenical. What Muslims should do is to accept and value the gift without forgetting that they have certain duties in this world (op. vol. I suggest that this ethnos.

secularisation and rationalism. most of whom have been acculturated to the Western ideals of progress. Such a philosophy is reminiscent of protestant ideals. The onward march of modernity closes a classic Hindu door to salvation — renunciation — for most middle-class Hindus. vol. The cultivation of an internalised altruistic spirit is favoured over the renunciation of worldly progress in both instances. However. interestedness is integral to and a precursor of spiritual transformation rather than anathema to it. Sai Baba’s double identity as not just man but also God gives his teachings the status of supreme Truth which absorbs. reformist and certainly not as subversive of the political leadership. This qualifies devotees to manage prosperity without forfeiting their spirituality. march 2004 (pp. In all cases. In the passage of gifts from godman to man and vice versa. makes his reassertion of fundamental Hindu tenets liveable for his followers. contains and finally subordinates all religious thought and practice. This enables the Sai Baba organisation leadership to officially present its religion as. directing them towards noncontroversial ends and in this manner serving government interests well. Thus Sai re-animation of the cosmos is not only philosophically satisfying but also has implications for cultural ennoblement of those who uphold it. 43– 62) . at the very most. Thus interest in returns à la Mauss is reconciled with the expiatory nature of selfless sacrifice described by Parry through an attitude of detachment rather than physical detachment. The parallels between Sai Baba’s and Prime Minister Mahathir’s wedding of materialism and spirituality ease the delivery of Sai philosophy in Malaysia. a conclusion which differs from that arrived at by Parry for danadharma. new religious movements may offer creative alternatives even as they further the advance of modernisation. a point which Sai Baba’s followers would likely see as supporting the universality of his teachings. It could be argued that the Sai Baba organisation in fact contains these rumblings. something shared both by ‘Western’ religion and bhakti devotionalist traditions of Hinduism. the gift is transformed from profane to divine by the attitude of detachment with which it given or received. The repackaging of ancient spiritual formulae in a format appropriate to today’s world may not only resolve ethnos. 69:1.60 alexandra kent rendition of the gift squares well with the Malaysian national ideology of material development with limited state interference in the gravitation of capital. The official profile of the movement in Malaysia today exhibits no resistance. in spite of an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the political situation amongst the membership. Sai Baba’s internalisation of religion. as the material presented here shows.

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