Indian guru's hoarded riches raise doubts over charitable works
Thousands of followers around the world believed the Indian guru Sai Baba was a god, but since his death it has emerged that the fortunes people donated to him were not all invested in good works.
By Gethin Chamberlain, in Panaji
8:30AM BST 03 Jul 2011 The Telegraph
The Indian guru Sai Baba’s life seemed to have it all: sex, money and religion.
A lifetime of claiming to be the incarnation of God had brought him a £5.5 billion fortune and a worldwide following of 50 million people. It also brought accusations that he molested his young acolytes and used cheap trickery to perform his miracles.
Yet all this is now in danger of being eclipsed by the extraordinary saga which has been playing out since his death in April, a story of hidden treasure troves, of mountains of gold and diamonds, of missing millions, all set against a backdrop of a struggle for control of his empire.
In his prime, the diminutive holy man with the bright orange robes and huge afro haircut could count kings and presidents among his friends, and the likes of Sarah Ferguson among the admirers of his home-spun, “love all, serve all” philosophy.
The film actress Goldie Hawn has visited his religious centre or ashram at least three times and donated tens of thousands of dollars to his projects; the Duchess of York paid a call after her marriage broke up; while the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who gave £40,000 for a statue of the guru, and a myriad of Indian politicians and Bollywood stars claimed inspiration from his message of putting service above self.
Sai Baba’s sprawling, non-denominational ashram in the town of Puttaparthi in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh was a beacon for Indians and westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment, no matter what their original religion - which the guru said they could maintain.
Now, though, it is riven by scandal: the guru’s closest aides have turned on each other, there are claims of death threats being made, and the police have been called in.
The edifice began to crumble when members of the Sathya Sai Central Trust, which runs the ashram, a religious centre, decided that speculation about what might be inside the guru’s private chambers was getting out of hand. The rooms had lain apparently untouched since the 84-year-old spiritual leader was taken ill in March.
The Trust decided to open the rooms, but with caution: the police were kept at a distance and the media were locked out. A select group assembled, including the controversial figure of Satyajit, Sai Baba’s carer, apparently the only person who could penetrate the chambers’ elaborate security. They took the lift to the first floor, opened the door and stepped inside.
What they found made even the wildest rumours seem tame: stacked around the room were piles of gold, diamonds and cash. Cashiers with counting machines were summoned and reported that the haul included £1.6 million in rupees, 98 kg of gold and 307 kg of silver. (No figure was provided for the diamonds.)
The Trust denied any previous knowledge of the hoard, said it had immediately paid tax on its value, and denied any impropriety.
If the Trust hoped that would satisfy the millions of devoted followers who had sent money from around the world in the belief it would be used to spread Sai Baba’s teaching or help educate the poor and treat the sick, it was mistaken. The love and compassion of which he preached gave way to rumours of more treasure hidden away around the sprawling building, of false ceilings and further underground hoards. Meanwhile Sai Baba’s niece, Chetana Raju, claimed she had received death threats for complaining about the search.
One source within the ashram said: “The police have definite intelligence of the existence of secret vaults, and concealed storage in false ceilings and behind false walls in Sai Baba’s personal living quarters. They strongly believe that the wealth hidden there could be much more than what was actually found, perhaps on a staggering scale.”
Suspicion began to grow that vast sums had already been smuggled out. Three days later, police stopped a car carrying Trust members near the border with a neighbouring state - and found the equivalent of £50,000 in cash inside. The Trust first denied any connection with the money, then claimed it had been donated by devotees to pay for a memorial.
The revelations have tested the faith of even the staunchest devotees, said a former member of Sai Baba’s security and intelligence wing. “News is constantly trickling in from Puttaparthi that Sai Baba devotees have been shaken by the huge haul of wealth as well as big cash seizures in the following days,” he said. “Many Sai Baba devotees I know, real hard-core devotees that is, are not even attempting to defend or deny the gold, cash hauls, and are in a complete state of confusion.
“Some blame trust members, while a few are asking, 'Why did Swami have to keep so much gold and cash? Didn’t Swami always say he never accepted gifts?’ Who to believe or what to believe?”
Even Sai Baba’s most vociferous critics are taken aback by speed with which the empire is unravelling. “Even a couple of months ago, what has now happened was still unimaginable,” said Robert Priddy, the Sai Baba organisation’s former Norwegian leader.
Mr Priddy was once a believer but lost his faith as the allegations of sexual abuse which dogged Sai Baba’s final decades began to mount - though not before himself donating a total of £13,500.
“Devotees around India have at last begun to raise many questions and demand answers about the riches of Sai Baba and other gurus,” he said. “There have been protest demonstrations. It is a remarkable turnaround.”
The implications have not been lost on the people of Puttaparthi, whose livelihoods depend on a constant stream of pilgrims. It was a tiny village when Sai Baba was born there; as he grew in stature it became a thriving town, but business has slumped since his death.
The big draw of Sai Baba was the darshan - a glimpse of the God made incarnate - that came twice a day as the little man with the big hair walked among the faithful, sharing a few words with the lucky ones, before taking his place on the long stage beneath which he is now buried.
As many as 10,000 people could pack into the gaudy main hall, with its golden lions, pink, blue and white colour scheme and glittering chandeliers dangling overhead, to listen to his message of love and compassion.
In later years a stroke obliged Sai Baba to make his way through the vast hall in a specially converted car before taking his place on the stage in his removable white leather car seat, trimmed with gold painted plastic. Still the faithful came.
But India is not short of gurus and the fear in Puttaparthi is that those seeking enlightenment will now turn their attentions to other, more vital, sages.
Even if the followers to drift away, there is still a £5.5 billion empire up for grabs, including 1,200 centres in more than 100 countries and a string of hospitals and schools around the world - and there is no shortage of contenders to take control.
The front-runners include 39-year-old R.J. Ratnakar, the guru’s nephew, who owns a petrol station and a cable television network, and Satyajit, 33, Sai Baba’s closest companion for the last nine years.
But they face a spirited challenge from Isaac Tigrett, the Hard Rock cafe founder, one of the guru’s earliest and staunchest supporters - so much so that he borrowed Sai Baba’s “love all, serve all” slogan for his restaurant chain to help publicise the guru’s message. Mr Tigrett, who donated £4 million to build a hospital at the ashram and has spent much of the last few years at the compound, claims to be the guru’s “living will”. Sai Baba had, he said, confided in him along his plans for the future of the organisation - and he would reveal all later this year.
That cut no ice with the board members of the Trust, however, who dismissed his claims.
For former devotees like Robert Priddy, all this is simply proof that they were right to walk away when they did. “I feel satisfied that his death 10 years before his own prediction and under such inauspicious circumstances further vindicated my views on the falsity of his claims of omnipotence and divinity,” he said.