Sathya Sai (& the Royal Wedding)
That India can do with some divine guidance, is of course, beside the point.
By Sharib Ali
With all due respect to His Holiness, last week – and the way the stories unfolded in the media – revealed deeply recurring similarities between the two events: the death of Sathya Sai and the royal wedding. Both were extravagant affairs drawing millions to them, and driving media crazy to the extent of giving everything else a royal ignore. And both had a kind of institutional endorsement which was, to say the least, intriguing, and at the same time deeply revealing.
Sathya Sai’s funeral, quite like its media counterpart, had the entire political who’s who lining up to pay their respects. PM Manmohan Singh and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi’s almost official visit was the crowning glory for the God-man. It makes one wonder whether they were there to thank him for his crucial role in maintaining peace and providing solace to millions of illusioned people through an era of political degeneration, or whether they were there to ask for some spiritual relief for the country, and especially for the present government. To think of it, of course, India can do with some spiritual guidance. But then, that’s beside the point.
The question the funeral raised was what Sathya Sai meant for the country, or should we say, the nation of India, that he had to be wrapped in the tri color and sent off with a 21 gun salute – an honour reserved for the nation’s best. And who was the honour meant for? Sathya Sai the God, or Sathya Sai the man? Or is it impossible to differentiate the two?
Sathya Sai the God, who claimed that ‘There was no one to understand Me until I created the whole world’, and that ‘The whole world will be transformed into Sathya Sai Organization and Sathya Sai will be installed in the hearts of one and all’, had left behind his earthly manifestation quite some time before all the state-honour celebration happened. In fact, he left it almost 10 years too early by his own estimate. But divine matters are always subject to divine intervention, and I believe, quite fortunately so. That Sathya Sai the God was widely believed to be a sleight-of-hand charlatan, and that all such allegations, to which he characteristically never responded, were never spoken of, are of course, not relevant here. For, these are all divine matters, and one can’t really argue about gods; at least not in India.
Sai Baba the man, among other things, was a not-so-uncommon mix of philanthropic ventures, some highly credible allegations of pedophilia, and an observer of (four) inexplicable murders in his bedroom, investigation results of which were suppressed by the highest of political authorities in India.
But it is not surprising that in a land’s intricate and complex present which is informed and defined by a rich history of myths and similar mythical figures, Sathya Sai was only and unquestionably a god-man of divine power and benevolent gestures for his people, always beyond the boundaries of rationality and reality, and existing luxuriantly in people’s collective suspension of disbelief.
Regardless of the complexities of his characters – his 5.5 billion dollar empire, his swanky cars, and as many accusations – Sathya Sai, like many others before, and arguably like an entire such tradition, was for all purposes and consideration, a provider of water, education and health, topped with generous amounts of spiritual guidance.
Probably the only legitimate claims for the state honours were the drinking water projects that apparently benefitted millions, and the various educational and health institutions that he built. Of course, that the institutions were criticized by many as places of inculcation of cult worship is again not relevant here. The important question is: isn’t the act of returning a small percentage of people own gifts in the form of ‘prasad’ a fundamental part of the profession of being a god-man? Very much like, as my friend from Syria suggested, Corporate Social Responsibility. Of course, the state honors, considered in this light, do not really feel out of place.
This is not demeaning the respect that the large number of people had for him, or his role in providing them spiritual solace. We all have the freedom to pick and choose our gods. But the god-man, who was wrapped in a tricolor and given a 21 gun salute, is, quite like the English monarchy, an institution.
An institution that is not only highly irrelevant to the secular democracies, but also deeply inimical to it. The state endorsement for such institutions is reflective of not only the conflicting character of such polities, but also of the various illegitimate claims that still form a constituent element of most of them.
And quite revealingly, again, the way the mainstream, corporate media adopted and sensationalized the two events as their own, to the extent of suppressing legitimate voices – such as, the war in Libya, the Syria problem, tornado in America, – is a reflection of the decreasing relevance of its role as professed gate keepers of our values of freedom, democracy, and secularism – a role which gives it the legitimacy it enjoys as an institution of the people.
On the brighter side, that this website can carry something like this, and a number of other voices on all matters concerning the people, voices which find it difficult to find their way into the walled fortress of the mainstream media, is of course, a sign of the refreshing vitality of the newer forms ready to stake their claims.
– Sharib Ali is a student of Media and cultural studies, Tiss. He is presently interning with Himal Southasia.