The Sathya Sai Baba movement is inspired by South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba (1926 — ) who teaches the unity of all religions. Some followers of him have faith in his claim to be a purna avatar (full divine incarnation) of Shiva and Shakti, who is believed to have been predicted in the Bhagavad Gita. This means that some of his followers see him as a God. They are engaged in singing devotional songs called "bhajans" and service (seva). Its official organization is the Sathya Sai Organization. However the Sathya Sai Baba movement extends beyond the organization.An important aspect of the faith of adherents is the miracles attributed to Sathya Sai Baba. The number of adherents is estimated between 6 and 100 million.
Sathya Sai Baba was born on 23 November 1926. As a boy Sathya Sai Baba performed many miracles (levitating, materializing fruit, sweets, pencils etc., clairvoyance). When he was around 14 he announced that he was a reincarnation of the fakir Sai Baba of Shirdi. In order to prove it he dropped some jasmine flowers which arranged in the words "Sai Baba" in Telugu. He performed spectacular miracles for them such as healings, materializations, making his face appear on the moon and proving his omnipresence. In 1963 he declared to be an incarnation of Shiva and Shakti. In a 1976 interview he claimed to be a full divine avatar.
Sathya Sai Baba gained followers in India since the 1930s. Outside of India, he only became popular since the 1960s and 1970s. The number of Sathya Sai Baba centres in the United Kingdom grew during the period 1970 until 1983 from 2 to 51.
An important practice in his ashram in Puttaparthi is the darshan (spiritual sight) that Sathya Sai Baba gives. During darshan Sathya Sai Baba walks among his followers. He may listen to a few chosen persons, accept letters, or materialize and distribute vibhuti (sacred ash). It is said that darshan has spiritual benefits for those who attend it, and is a traditional practice of Indian spiritual leaders. People may wait hours to get a good place for darshan. Sathya Sai Baba sometimes invites people for a group interview with him in a room in the ashram 's mandir (Hindu temple). Followers consider it a great privilege to get such an interview. Sometimes a person from this group is invited for a private interview.
Sathya Sai Baba's manifestations of vibuthi emphasizes his claim to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba who used to take ash, called udhi, from an ever-burning fire, called dhuni.Vibuthi is an ancient Hindu symbol, among others associated with Shiva.
Sathya Sai Baba resides much of the time in his main ashram Prashanthi Nilayam ("abode of peace") at Puttaparthi. In the hot summer the guru leaves for his other ashram called Brindavan in Whitefield, India (sometimes called Kadugodi), a town on the outskirts of Bangalore. He has left India only once for a visit to Eastern Africa in 1968.
He is a prolific orator in his native language of Telugu , and also speaks passable Tamil. He claims to be the Kali Yuga purna avatar (full divine incarnation of this era) of Lord Shiva and Shakti. He says that he is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent and can create matter from mere thought. He also stresses he is free from desires, and that this is the state that one should aim to attain, consistent with the Vedic teachings. He plays down his claims about being an incarnation of God by saying that everybody is God but that only he realizes and experiences this fully. In correspondence with his perceived divinity, followers often capitalize references to him in their writings ("He", "Him" etcetera).
Sathya Sai Baba has prophesized that he will reincarnate again in the 21st century as Prema Sai Baba to finish the spiritual transformation of the world, starting with India, where his previous and current incarnations have begun. He has said that he will die after he has become 93 years old but there is no official statement for the popular belief among followers that he will die when he is 95 years old (96 according to Indian counting). Sathya Sai Baba has stated that his three incarnations will help to usher in the Golden Age of mankind that will come soon.
Sathya Sai Baba has said that he performs miracles to attract people and then to transform them spiritually, telling his followers not to focus on his miracles. He can be seen in person to perform these miracles in the form of materializations of small objects, for example jewelry such as bracelets, rings, watches and especially vibhuti (holy ash).. He said in a 1976 interview that these trinkets have symbolic value, and offer the owners protection by reminding them of his protecting powers when in danger.Occasionally, at Maha Shivaratri, he publicly produces lingams that come out of his mouth that devotees claim materialize in his body. He says that he can heal the diseases of his devotees by either his spiritual power or by taking on the disease himself. There is anecdotal evidence that supports this claim.
Babb wrote in a 1983 article that "the miraculous are absolutely central to this religious movement" and that the plausibility of these miracles "seems to pull people into convictions ostensibly at odds with what their own subculture deems to be common sense and considered judgment." He wrote in that article that his observations are based on his contact with the local following of Sathya Sai Baba in Delhi that according to Babb included a sophisticated and cosmopolitan elite. Babb further wrote in that article that the energy of Sathya Sai Baba’s "magic" can have "life-transforming effects on devotees."
Sathya Sai Baba has said that all of his acts have meaning and significance. So many followers interpret the acts and sayings of the guru as teachings, sometimes even as personal teachings. Some followers, especially in the ashram, attribute coincidences to Baba’s will and try to find a sometimes hidden meaning in them. Babb wrote in a 1986 book that some devotees tend attribute every event to Sathya Sai Baba's will and tend to see the world as an enchanted garden. He says that when a person dreams about him then this is because of his will and this is a form of his communication with people. Followers report dreams that contain messages from the guru to them. Some people became devotees after having such a dream.
He teaches a rather traditional but eclectic form of Hinduism that come from many sects and movements including advaita, occasionally drawing from other religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity. He says that he has come to restore faith in, and the practice of, the Vedas. He says that a very important way a person can emancipate oneself is through self-less service to ones fellow man (seva).
Sathya Sai Baba has repeatedly stresses the importance of sadhana (Hindu spiritual exercises) for example by meditation. He asserts that sadhana is important for achieving moksha (liberation from ignorance and from the endless re-births due to karmic consequences). Sathya Sai Baba teaches the importance of Bhakti yoga (Hindu devotion to God).
He preaches a strict morality with regards to sensual desires (including food, sex, meat, alcohol). Some of his exhortations are to put a ceiling on desires. By this, he seems to mean that followers should not waste time and money. He teaches that the world is just maya , that only God is real and that the seeming diversity of all life is another illusion. All life is one, he says. The meaning of life is to experience this oneness with God and other living beings.
Followers attribute many miracles to him which they witness in his presence and in their own countries, like spontaneous vibhuti manifestations on the pictures of the guru in their homes, and bilocation, the appearance of Sai Baba in their own presence while he is also in another place. They also report that he has materialized out-of-season fruit several times. He says he performs these miracles to attract people and then to transform them spiritually.
Sathya Sai Baba said that he does not speak through other people in a discourse in 1962. In spite of this, the British author Lucas Ralli claimed that he received messages from Sathya Sai Baba and wrote in his books that his claim was endorsed by Sathya Sai Baba in an interview. His books with messages from Sathya Sai Baba are sold by the Sathya Sai Book Center of America.
The anthropologist Lawrence Babb wrote that he considered the teachings of secondary importance in the cult when compared to the emphasis on the miraculous. Babb further wrote about the Sai doctrine that "[..] there is little relatively to dwell upon, or at least nothing very distinctive. His philosophical views are simplistic, eclectic, and essentially unoriginal." The anthropologist Alexandra Kent notes that this lack of originality is in correspondence with Sathya Sai Baba's claim to revive old truths.The British newspaper the Times described Sathya Sai Baba's teachings in 2001 as "a collection of banal truisms and platitudes.
Globally, local Sathya Sai Baba groups assemble to sing bhajans (devotional songs). Baba says that concentration on the name of God with the help of bhajans will easily lead to concentration on God and to higher devotion. Bhajans are sung at nearly every meeting. Bhajans are simple verses. One line is sung by a lead singer and is then repeated by the rest of the group. In those bhajans the name of traditional Hindu deities have sometimes been replaced by the names of Sathya Sai Baba. In addition they study Sathya Sai Baba's teachings and the holy books of the various world religions. They also perform community service, which they call seva. The greeting Sai Ram is used by followers.
There are both independently founded Sai Study Groups worldwide, and also local Sai Samithis (Sathya Sai Baba groups) are part of a hierarchical structure called the Sathya Sai Organization. As of 2007, the chairman of the organization is the American Michael Goldstein. The logo of the Sathya Sai organization is a stylized lotus flower with the text of the five human values written in each petal. These are Love, Truth, Peace, Righteousness and Non-violence. This text version has replaced the old logo with the symbols of the main 5 or 6 world religions in the petals.
The charter of the Sai Organization says that every member should undertake sadhana (spiritual discipline) as an integral part of daily life and abide by the following nine-points code of conduct.
Sathya Sai Baba is the figurehead to a number of free educational institutions, charitable organizations and service projects that are spread over 10,000 centers in 166 countries around the world.
The Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Prashanti Nilayam is the only college in India to have received an "A++" rating by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (an autonomous body established by the University Grants Commission). Besides this institute, there is also an Institute of Music and an Institute of Higher Learning in Anantapur, which is a women's college.
The Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences in Puttaparthi (also known as the Super Specialty Hospital) is a 220 bed facility providing advanced surgical and medical care free of cost to the public. It is situated 6 kilometers from the guru's ashram and was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao on November 22, 1991 and was designed by the Prince of Wales's architectural adviser, Keith Critchlow The Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences in Bangalore is a 333 bed facility with advanced operation theatres, ICUs and CCUs meant to benefit the poor. The hospital was inaugurated on January 19, 2001 by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Other eminent participants were Abdul Kalam, Michael Nobel (distant relative of Alfred Nobel), Noah Samara and Anji Reddy. The hospital has served 250,000 patients, free of cost, from January 2001 to April 2004.
The Sri Sathya Sai General Hospital was opened in Whitefield, Bangalore, in 1977 by Sathya Sai Baba to provide free care to poor local villagers. Since that time, the general hospital has grown to a building that provides complex surgeries, food and medicines free of cost. The hospital has, since its inception, treated over 2 million cases.
The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust runs several general hospitals, two super specialty hospitals, dispensaries, eye hospitals and mobile dispensaries and conducts medical camps in rural and slum areas in India.It was in the year 2000-2001 the largest recipient of foreign donations. The Trust has also funded several major drinking water projects. The first drinking water project, completed in 1996, supplies water to 1.2 million people in 730-800 villages in the drought-prone Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh. The second drinking water project, completed in 2004, supplies water to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) through a rebuilt waterway named "Sathya Sai Ganga Canal". The Chennai water drinking project was praised by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi said that although he is an atheist, he differentiated between good spiritual leaders like Sathya Sai Baba and fake godmen. The third drinking water project, expected to be completed in April 2006, would supply water from the Godavari River to half a million people living in five hundred villages in East and West Godavari Districts. Other completed water projects include the Medak District Project benefiting 450,000 people in 179 villages and the Mahbubnagar District Project benefitting 350,000 people in 141 villages. In January 2007, the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust revealed that it would undertake another drinking water project in Latur, Maharashtra.
His Educare (formerly called Education in Human Values) program seeks to found schools in all countries with the explicit goal to educate children in the five human values and spirituality.
The Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust is the official publisher of the Sathya Sai Organization. It publishes the international monthly magazine called Sanathana Sarathi in English and Telugu. According to their website, they shelve over a thousand books and provide Sai-related literature in 40 languages. The book trust also supplies CDs, DVDs and audio tapes. In various nations, similar publication trusts are maintained in their own native language.
On November 23, 2001, the digital radio network "Radio Sai Global Harmony" was launched through the World Space Organization, USA. Dr. Michael Nobel (distant relative of Alfred Nobel] and one of the patrons for the radio network) said that the radio network would spread Sathya Sai Baba's message of global harmony and peace.
Kelly wrote that the Sathya Sai Organizations reject the label Hindu. According to Kelly, they its founder as the "living synthesis of the world's religious traditions" and prefers to be classified as an interfaith movement.Kelly further wrote when comparing ISKCON with the Sai Baba mission (he does not write which Sai Baba mission he means) that the Sai Baba efforts in Fiji are ambiguous where ISKCON is dogmatic and structured, proliferating where ISKCON is planned and controlled, self-contradictory where ISKCON is clear, gentle where ISKCON is stern, and to put it most broadly, open where ISKCON is closed. Kelly further stated that the Sai organization in Fiji does not ask its members to undergo initiation or to commit themselves to obey particular leaders.
Former followers Nagel asserts that the atmosphere surrounding Sathya Sai Baba is clearly Hindu, in spite of Sathya Sai Baba's claim to foster and unite various different religions and that he dropped all Muslim elements that Shirdi Sai Baba practiced. This however may be due entirely to the location of his Ashrams and therefore most of the people he is physically acesible to are born Hindu.