His followers say Sai Baba is a God on Earth, and they generously support his multi-billion-dollar religious empire. But some former adherents are coming forward with dark tales of the guru sexually molesting young men.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba -- "The Protector," "The Infinite," "the Creator" -- has only once left India, where he reigns as arguably the country's most famous living swami. But Sai Baba is here tonight at this temple in east Vancouver. Sai Baba is sitting in the ochre robe on the wooden throne at the front altar, smelling the eye-stinging incense, listening to the spine-tingling chants and watching the earnest, multiracial followers bow to him. Sai Baba is omni-present.
So be-lieves B.C. Sai Baba president Nami Thiyagaratnam, who teaches management studies at the University of Victoria. To devotees, Sai Baba is an avatar, God on Earth, born of a virgin mother. Separated by gender in the Vancouver temple, the scores of East Indians, Caucasians, Japanese, blacks and Chinese followers who sit on the red carpet revering Sai Baba believe he paranormally transports his invisible soul throughout the globe.
They are convinced that at this moment he is gazing contentedly at them and other adherents conducting similar rituals of worship around the planet at 6,700 Sai Baba temples, charity hospitals and schools, mostly in India, but including 500 centres in the U.S. and 70 in Canada. Dr. Ray Ludwig, 60, a Vancouver physician, puts his awe for the Indian avatar succinctly: "Sai Baba, to me, is like a thousand Mother Teresas. It was the greatest day of my life when I met Sai Baba 15 years ago. He transforms people to an altruistic lifestyle."
But deep troubles are emerging in Sai Baba's wealthy, glorious universe, where people of all religions, from Christianity to Buddhism, are meant to come together, because, as Sai Baba teaches, "all faiths are facets of the same truth."
Accusations are mounting that Sai Baba has been sexually molesting comely young men for decades during private meetings at his giant ashram in India, where thousands visit each week.
The round-faced "saint" with the Jimi Hendrix hairdo, who is known for miraculously manifesting out of thin air everything from wristwatches to sacred stones and ash, has never admitted to sexual assault. But followers in Canada and elsewhere acknowledge they've taken part with him in what they call "sexual healing."
As the number of disturbing accounts grow, followers around the world and across Canada have been feeling betrayed. Greater Vancouver boasts one of the bigger North American Sai Baba contingents, with several thousand members, about 75 per cent of them from the city's large Indo-Canadian community With the sex scandal rapidly being unveiled on various Internet sites and in a few newspapers, Sai Baba has told his adherents, whose numbers range from 10 million to 50 million, depending on whom you talk to, not to sign on to the World Wide Web.
The abuse charges are producing a mix of confusion and sadness, defensiveness and sublime indifference among those who remain acolytes. Thiyagaratnam, speaking at the Sai Baba Centre at 1659 East 10th, says he's not surprised that people are trying to ruin the reputation of such a wondrous man. After all, he says, people also persecuted Jesus Christ and Buddha. "It's very acrimonious and we're sad. But people are entitled to their opinion." The charges are taking their toll, however.
UNESCO recently cancelled its co-sponsorship of a conference in Sai Baba's hometown of Puttaparthi, in southern 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."
The many celebrity admirers of 75-year-old Sai Baba -- including Indian president Atal Bihari Vajpayee; Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock restaurant chain and House of Blues; Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew's former wife, and dozens of prominent Indian professionals -- have so far been silent. But graphic charges have come from all over the world.
London's Sunday Telegraph newspaper and India Today magazine recently reported the case of American Sam Young, a young man who said he was repeatedly abused by Sai Baba in a private room while his unwitting parents remained outside, feeling blissful that their son was getting so much of the divine one's attention.
Former Sai Baba leaders such as Swedish psychotherapist and former film star, Conny Larsson, who says the guru regularly performed oral sex on him and asked for it in return. Sai Baba was said to have claimed he was simply correcting Larsson's inner "kundalini" energy.
David Bailey, a Welshman who had risen high in Sai Baba's inner circle, fell away after hearing numerous accounts of how young men's sessions with Sai Baba, which started out as purported sexual healing, eventually turned into molestation. Bailey has been compiling the stories, called the Findings, on a Web site.
Californian Glen Meloy is one of many former adherents who are busily "e-bombing" decision-makers, including the White House, U.S. Senators, the FBI and Indian newspapers, with warnings to keep young males away from Sai Baba.
Still, no criminal charges have ever been laid against Sai Baba, although some speculate that's because of his exalted position and charitable work in India, where he's opened numerous well-appointed hospitals, schools, colleges and water-treatment facilities.
Dr. Michael Goldstein, the influential U.S. president of the Sai Baba organization, this year dismissed all the accusations. He says they're unbelievable and that Sai Baba remains divinely pure, filled only with "selfless love." The answer for those who doubt, says Goldstein, is to show more faith.
But Goldstein's attitude draws the disdain of people such as Vancouver's Tony Cleary, who walked away last year from the group after 15 years of high-level dedication. Cleary, a 57-year-old businessman, said it's difficult to leave. "Sai Baba makes you feel so important because he tells you he's chosen you."
In addition to the sex allegations catalogued by Bailey, a friend, Cleary is concerned about what he estimates are the billions of dollars that well-meaning devotees give to Sai Baba and his various charities. "It's a huge enterprise," Cleary says. Sai Baba is said to be the reincarnation of the revered Indian saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918. But Cleary said Sai Baba's teachings are "pretty standard stuff.
"It's basically Hinduism with an eclectic mix of Christianity and Buddhism, so it will appeal to more people." Despite his anger, Cleary still believes Sai Baba probably has miraculous powers, including the ability to "astral travel," which allows his soul to traverse the globe.
Cleary also believes Sai Baba, who has only physically travelled to Africa many years ago, may transport himself to sleep in various sacred beds that devotees keep for him around the world, including in Vancouver. So far in Canada, two people have agreed to go public with accounts of Sai Baba's practice of "sexual healing," sometimes known as "genital oiling."
But they offer ambiguous interpretations of what happened. Marc-Andre St. Jean said in an interview from Montreal that when he was 19 and had a private session with Sai Baba, the guru pointed at his genitals and said, "Something slow."
Although St. Jean didn't know what Sai Baba was talking about at the time, he said the guru then "asked me to drop my pants. He made a materializing motion with his hand and there was cream on it. He applied it to my scrotum." St. Jean thought at the time the event was not sexual -- but more like "going to the doctor" for what he found out was a urinary infection -- but St. Jean has since quit the group after hearing and believing the mounting allegations of molestation.
St. Jean, now 29, remains bemused. "The charisma of Sai Baba is incredible," he says. "The love was flowing from him. All this still bothers me a lot. It's scary." In Langley, by contrast, Sai Baba leaders Ann and David Jevons remain defiantly loyal to their divine master.
Although they witnessed Sai Baba conduct a "sexual healing" on their son's genitals more than a decade ago, they say the guru did it because their son had a lump on his testicles, probably caused by an anti-miscarriage drug she had taken during pregnancy.
"I know Sai Baba has done sexual things," says Ann Jevons, 62. Ann and David, 65, acknowledged in an article for their newsletter that Sai Baba can show less interest in adults such as themselves and more interest in children and young people in general -- showering them with rings and watches that he mysteriously materializes out of nowhere.
But Jevons thinks sexual healing is a good thing, because "there is a kundalini point between the anus and the genitals, where human energy starts." It is totally understandable, she says, that a saint would want to help people by curing disruptions in the flow of such a crucial life force.
"Sai Baba is faultless," Jevons says. "He just opened the largest hospital in south India. He's done incredible service to the world. His accusers are wrong. And we're no gullible believers."