Millions of devotees in Ottawa and in more than 100 countries around the world recently celebrated the 75th birthday of Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual leader they believe is God.
But a growing number of leaders of the movement in Canada, Sweden, the U.S. and other countries have quit: they say Sai Baba is a sexual predator.
UNESCO also recently cancelled its co-sponsorship of a conference in Sai Baba's home town of Puttaparthi, India, saying it was "deeply concerned about widely-reported allegations of sexual abuse involving youth and children that have been levelled at the leader of the movement."
Raj Midha, the president of Ottawa's brand new $2-million Sri Sathya Sai Spiritual Centre on Hunt Club, is a believer. Like many devotees, he wears a large ring given to him by the guru. "He materialized it from thin air," Mr. Midha says.
Television documentaries produced in Australia, India and other countries have used slow-motion to show that such "miracles" are really just clever sleight-of-hand by Sai Baba. But Mr. Midha shrugs off this and other allegations about Sai Baba. "With all big leaders, there have always been people who didn't like them. Even Jesus was crucified."
What Mr. Midha wants to do is tell how Sai Baba has changed his life and others. He shows off the 156,000-square-foot centre with pride, and points to Sai Baba teachings posted on the walls of the building. He says those teachings can be summarized in eight words: "Love All, Serve All", and "Help Ever, Hurt Never."
Mr. Midha, a telecommunications engineer, believes Sai Baba cured his wife's cancer, and he credits his own work with the Shepherds of Good Hope and other charities to Sai Baba's teachings. On the centre's second floor, he is reverent as he enters Sai Baba's bedroom, which comes complete with bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the worship area on the ground floor.
Sai Baba has taken only one trip out of India, and that was to Uganda. But Mr. Midha and other devotees firmly believe their leader can transport himself around the world at will. Mr. Midha says they know Sai Baba uses his Ottawa bedroom, because they leave a glass of water on his bedside table, and often the glass has been half-drained. About 200 devotees regularly worship at the centre, and some report having seen the holy man while they were praying.
Conny Larsson, a psychotherapist, and once a well-known actor and film star in his native Sweden, has a very different view of Sai Baba. He first met Sai Baba in 1978, built his own apartment near the guru's headquarters in Puttaparthi, and remained a devotee until last year. Mr. Larsson was the spiritual co-ordinator of the Sai Baba movement in Sweden, and says he brought tens of thousands of people to India to see Sai Baba by speaking at conferences, writing a book about Sai Baba, and speaking on radio.
"Now I feel very guilty," he says. For the first five years he knew Sai Baba, Mr. Larsson says the guru regularly practised oral sex on him, and asked that Mr. Larsson do the same for him. The guru's explanation, as it has been for many young men, is that he was correcting Mr. Larsson's kundalini, or cosmic force.
"I was brainwashed," said Mr. Larsson in a telephone interview from Sweden. "As a child I was severely molested, and when he did this to me, he told me he was going to correct something. And in my mind, I thought God was healing me of this tragedy. This is the reason he could do what he liked. "Everyone told me I was very special. They puffed me up. For a person so molested and hurt as a child, it was a relief to be someone."
By 1986, Mr. Larsson had talked to many young male devotees, most of them attractive blond westerners, who told him they too had had sex with Sai Baba. He believes Sai Baba has had sex with many more reluctant male followers. Why do they do it? He says it's because "everyone believes he is divine. They want to believe because they have nothing else," he said.
For more than 50 years, Sai Baba has been India's most famous holy man. The number of his followers is estimated at somewhere between 10 million and 50 million, and they include India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vaijpayee; Isaac Tigrett, the co-founder of the Hard Rock Restaurant chain; Simon de Jong, a former New Democrat MP from Saskatchewan; and Kris Singhal, founder of Ottawa's Richcraft Homes. Birendra, the king of Nepal, Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew's former wife; and many other celebrities have also made pilgrimages to see the guru.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Sai Baba's ashram, and what was once a small village now has an airstrip, a university, a hospital and enough hotels and apartment blocks to accommodate tens of thousands of people. "When you see all these important people moving around there, kings and queens moving around as if they were common people, you start to believe he (Sai Baba) has a divine plan for all mankind," said Mr. Larsson.
Twice a day, Sai Baba strolls among the thousands of devotees seated in the main temple and chooses people from the crowd for private interviews. Often those chosen for private interviews are young men like Mr. Larsson once was. What prompted him to quit the organization and start speaking out was the abuse suffered by a young Swedish man who asked for his help as a psychotherapist, after six interviews with Sai Baba.
"He told me about the same things that happened to me. The swami opened his trousers and started to masturbate him. He withdrew, but the swami insisted." Mr. Larsson then brought the man to a meeting of Swedish leaders of the Sai Baba movement, and told his own story as well. The majority of the leaders resigned, and Mr. Larsson, like many other ex-devotees, put his story on the Internet.
Mr. Larsson's story is one of many that appear in another Internet posting, The Findings, a 42-page document amassed by David and Faye Bailey, former devotees who once lived in Puttaparthi, and edited a magazine to propagate Sai Baba's teachings. Mr. Bailey is a British concert pianist and taught students at the Sathya Sai Baba College. When some of his students complained to him about being sexually molested by Sai Baba, he quit the organization and began documenting the stories of abuse.
Glen Meloy, a retired management consultant in California, is another former devotee who is using the Internet to warn others to keep their sons away from Sai Baba. After 26 years of following Sai Baba, he quit when he heard the story of a 15-year-old California boy who said he had been abused on multiple occasions. Mr. Meloy said this boy and others in families of devotees "were born with the idea that Baba is God. So they submit because they're afraid to displease their parents, let alone God himself, who's asking them to participate in these acts."
Mr. Meloy is now bombarding politicians, the White House, Indian newspapers, and the FBI with allegations of abuse by the Indian spiritual leader. He says he gets 50 to 100 e-mails and phone calls a day from former devotees, many of them looking for advice on what to do about the tales of abuse they have heard.
To date, only one former Canadian devotee is willing to go public with his story of being sexually touched. Marc-Andre St. Jean of Montreal said that when he visited Puttaparthi in 1992, Sai Baba took him into a private interview room, and asked him to drop his pants. Then he touched Mr. St. Jean's genitals. He said he had a kidney problem and at the time he thought Sai Baba was just trying to help him.
But Mr. St. Jean's story, and that of the son of a Quebec family of devotees, helped persuade seven co-ordinators of the Sai Baba movement in Quebec to hand in their resignations.
Alain Groven of Montreal's South Shore was the province's representative on the national Sai Baba council. He said he and other co-ordinators resigned after comparing the stories of Quebecers to those of Mr. Larsson and others who suffered more severe abuse.
Mr. Groven said that last year, the Canadian organization gave Sai Baba $90,000 as a birthday present, and the 70 centres across Canada probably donated even more this year, for the 75th birthday.
[One woman said that] she and the other Montreal-area co-ordinators who resigned wonder why so many others have remained devotees. "But when you believe he is God, and you have invested yourself in a spiritual community, it involves too much to suddenly decide he is not God. Your whole spiritual world falls apart. It's too hard to bear," she said.
V.P. Singh of Windsor has been president of the Canadian Sai Baba organization for the past 30 years. He said he does not care to read the allegations against Sai Baba, and like most other devotees, he obeys his guru's command not to use the Internet.
"I have known him for 30 years, and I have had a nice experience," he said. Mr. Singh said the Canadian and other leaders who have resigned from the organization around the world "can do whatever they want to do; it's their business."