, 48:541

Tulasi Srinivas Winged Faith. Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement

New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 448 pp. ISBN: 978–0231149334 $29.50


    • Graduate CenterCity University of New York
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s12115-011-9492-x

Cite this article as:
Turner, B.S. Soc (2011) 48: 541. doi:10.1007/s12115-011-9492-x

The life of Sathya Sai Baba offers a dramatic illustration of Max Weber’s theory of charisma, albeit set within a modern global setting. The facts about his origins and life are however obscured by a layer of later hagiography. There are three official biographies written by devotees that have become part of the apostolic literature. The basic biographical details of the ‘real man’ as opposed to the symbolic and divine person embedded in the cult are that Sathyanarayana Raju was born to a peasant family in the remote Indian village of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh on November 23 1926. The subsequent declaration of his divinity was drawn out and complex. On the evening of November 8, 1940 and in the village of Uravakonda, the young boy was apparently stung by a scorpion and, after sleeping for several days, he awoke as a different person singing songs in Sanskrit. Returning to his village he began to materialize luxury goods such as sugar and flowers which he gave to the villagers. After performing leela (play or miracles), he declared to his father ‘I am Sai, I belong to Apasthamba Suthra (the Brahma Sutras): I am of the Bharadwaja gothra(lineal descent from the Hindu sage Bharadwaja); I am Sai Baba and I have come to ward off all your troubles and to keep your houses clean and pure’. In a second episode, he revealed himself as the reincarnation of a southern Indian saint and Maharashtrian Muslim faqir Shirdi Sai Baba who died in 1918. He now demanded that people address him as Sathya Sai thereby connecting himself to the Sufi tradition of Shirdi Sai Baba who had both Hindu and Muslim followers. In the third episode in his transformation to religious leader and mystic, Sai Baba left home, announcing that Maya (illusion) had gone and his Bhaktas (devotees) were calling him. A divine halo appeared around his head signifying the transition and photographs from this period show him, seated in a tall wooden chair, wearing long garlands of flowers.

As a Hindu guru his early association with the Sufi figure of Shirdi Sai Baba was an important aspect of this narrative, because over time Sai Baba became a remarkably cosmopolitan figure combining a variety of religious traditions and with a multi-faith following across the world. Yet he left India only once in his life time. Here we have an example of how the local—the village of Puttaparthi—became the center of a modern global religion which draws self-consciously on Hinduism, Islam and Christianity to produce a new hybrid spirituality. Having established himself as a divine avatar on earth to educate human beings, he began to connect himself with other divine beings. In the late 1960s he began to issue religious discourses on Christmas day, declaring that these events marked the beginning of the Christian era. In 1971 he hinted at a relationship with Jesus Christ and a year later he claimed to be the ‘Cosmic Christ’, and by the mid 1970s the official news letter Sanathana Sarathi (way of the charioteer) carried an international logo depicting the cross of Christianity, the crescent of Islam, the fire of Zoroastrianism and the wheel of Buddhism. Sai Baba had become truly global, becoming the living embodiment of all faiths.

By 1950 the number of followers arriving in the village outgrew the original temple and Sai Baba, with the support of rich supporters, commissioned a new ashram with large halls to accommodate his devotees. The size of the Sathya Sai movement is difficult to measure with any accuracy, but over four million followers make their way to Puttaparthi every year in what we might call religious tourism to see him, to witness the performance of miracles and where necessary to receive healing. The village is now a religious city with museums, hospitals and educational centers that have been created by the movement together with the hostels and cafes that service the flocks of Sai Baba followers. There are now 1,200 Sathya Sai centers around the world, with 192 in the United States, 170 in Great Britain and 113 the Malaysian archipelago, Thailand and Vietnam.

In the famous account of charismatic authority in The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber dwells on two important issues—firstly on the authorization and legitimacy of charisma, and secondly on its institutionalization. As we have seen, the performance of miracles has been a decisive aspect of Sai Baba’s authentication, starting with his materialization of sweets in his youthful revelation. These distinctive practices have remained important, becoming integral to his healing activities. He became famous as a guru for sprinkling vibhuti (sacred ash) from his head on his followers. This act is regarded as an aspect of his mercy (daya) and his kindness (karuna). Other gifts—watches and rings—confer blessings of happiness, freedom from want, and protection from danger. Having established his personal authority, the Sathya Sai movement became institutionalised through a cluster of organizations—the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, and the Sri Sathya Sai Urban Development Authority. Within each country, there is often an organization to oversee the national movement such as the Sri Sathya Sai Central Council of Malaysia.

Despite the impressive history of charitable and educational work, the charismatic authority of Sai Baba himself has been subject to a variety of serious confrontations and criticisms. Indeed Tulasi Srinivas carefully documents the growth of Anti-Sai activism which has become a counter global movement. The most problematic issue is known as the June Incident. On the night of June 6, 1993 four young assailants carrying weapons who had entered Sai Baba’s quarters were eventually shot by police who had been called to the scene. Although no satisfactory explanation of the motives of the assailants was ever discovered, one persistent allegation was that the young men had received ‘sexual healing’ from Sai Bab when they were young students in the educational institute run by the Sai organization. Whatever the cause of the June Incident, stories of sexual abuse were regularly circulated by the Anti- Sattay Sai Baba movement. These accusations of sexual harassment of his young devotees were combined with other criticisms of his materialization of gifts for his followers. These gifts were highly diverse—honey, sweets, milk, currency, visiting cards, diamond rings, marriage necklaces, talismans, silver and gold rings, gold necklaces and the famous ash from his head. These gifts, which were allegedly produced from his mouth, were often criticised as mere gimmickry. In addition he was accused of leading a luxurious life-style and accumulating a personal fortune out of keeping with his guru status. In short his critics regarded his personal lifestyle as consistent with global consumerism rather than with spirituality.

Tulasi Srinivas’s excellent study of modern religious charisma raises a number of philosophical issues which are fundamental, not only to understanding Indian spirituality, but to the anthropology of religion as a whole. At this stage I shall turn to three issues that are endemic to the study of charisma.

The first is the question of agency. It appears that a genuine charismatic cannot choose to be a religious leader but rather they must be chosen. In short, a charismatic can exercise no agency with respect to a calling. This is true of Sai Baba. Nevertheless a charismatic must position him or herself within the religious field if they are to be recognised by disciples. To take one example in July 1957 he travelled to various sacred sites in the Himalayas to receive religious legitimacy and to confirm his status as a rising guru. He declared himself to be a guru-avatar—an avatar for all ages and a human guru, proclaiming that ‘there is only one religion; the religion of love’. There is an interesting disjuncture of discourse here. True charisma is compulsive; there is a calling that must be obeyed. To become authenticated, a charismatic leader exercises agency in presenting credible claims to a legacy—such as the legacy of Shirdi Sai Baba.

The problem of agency also characterized the life of his devotees. They experienced a sense that he called them; they did not choose to become devotees. His call is the beginning of their self-transformation. The literature of modern society is saturated with accounts of self-help, self-care, and self-development, namely a dominant discourse of identity. Unsurprisingly the modern literature in the anthropology and sociology of religion is also about how religious movements are important in empowering individuals and how new spirituality is transformative in providing techniques of self management. Winged Faith can be seen as part of this literature. It offers an account of how the Sathya Sai movement offers members of the urban middle classes a set of techniques for self transformation. The language of the post-modern self, like the language of consumerism, is primarily about agency and self production, but these notions are not easily reconciled with the ancient religious notion that humans are called by divine powers to fulfil certain roles in this world. The classical theology of charismatic grace is a language regarding the fateful calling to service rather than an invitation to craft a new self.

The second is the problem of charismatic authentication. Weber implies that pure charisma offers no necessary reward or benefit to followers. Christ offers a command ‘Follow me’, because He is the Way. The salvation promised by Christ cannot be reduced simply to an offer of happiness or material rewards. Yet followers, desiring tangible proof of charismatic powers, demand material signs and actual rewards, thereby transforming true charisma into a collection of magical tricks. Sai Baba provided healing through sacred ash from his hair and handed out rings and necklaces. The Anti-Sathya Sai movement argued that these religious gifts were just fake. In 1976 H.Narasimhaiah, the vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, chaired a committee scientifically to investigate miracles and challenged Sai Baba to materialize objects under controlled conditions, but Sai Baba simply ignored the demand for scientific testing. Similar attempts by the Indian rationalist Basava Premanand to prove that Sai Baba’s activities were simply a hoax were inconclusive. One response from Sai Baba was to note that ‘Every avatar is an amazing phenomenon. But it is also amazing not to recognise him’. The problem of authenticity is not a problem normally addressed by modern anthropology which has embraced cultural relativism with almost religious zeal. But the problem of truth claims cannot be so easily dismissed or ignored, because they are crucial to understanding the role and status of a global figure such as Sai Baba. Was he simply a clever magician who by trickery created a modern movement with millions of followers?

The third is the problem of the death of religious charismatics who claim to be divine and immortal. Winged Faith was published in 2010 and Sai Baba died on 24 April 2011. His death raises critical questions about his authenticity, about succession and about his body. Weber identified this problem clearly, but he was probably more interested in the institutionalization of charisma than its authentication. What happens next? Sai Baba had predicted that he would die at age 96 and would be healthy until his demise. He has in fact been in poor health since 2006 when he fractured a hip. The faithful may expect Sai Baba as an avatar to be reincarnated in a new figure or body; the faithful will await his return; the disillusioned will continue searching elsewhere for identity and self-creation.

In the immediate present there is a crisis about the management of the global organization, because he designated no obvious means of succession. There is also a problem about the wealth that is apparently stored at Puttaparthi. The Times of India reported on July 19 and 20 2011 that a hoard of diamonds, gold and silver had been found in Sai Baba’s personal quarters. Other newspaper reports, estimating the value of the Sathya Sai organization in billions of dollars, have suggested there is now a scramble to control the global organization and his personal wealth. The apparent conflict over his wealth raises a further problem about the nature of his religious identity. He was on the one hand the reincarnation of the ascetic Sufi mystic Sai Baba of Shirdi and on the other he was a post-modern religious celebrity with a cult following among figures such as Goldie Hawn, Sarah Ferguson and Isaac Tigrett founder of Hard Rock café. His death may spark off an unseemly squabble over the control of assets and there is a problem about the status of an avatar body.

Winged Faith is an important contribution to our understanding of the character of cultural globalization; it is not in any narrow sense an anthropology of Indian spirituality. Although she employs Weber’s sociology of charisma as a general framework, she fails perhaps to raise questions about the historical and comparative significance of charismatic movements. Weber was profoundly interested in the comparative study of a range of religious roles—priests, prophets, magicians. At one level Sai Baba was an Indian guru deeply embedded in Hindu culture and spirituality, but he claimed messiah status by identifying himself with Christ. These claims prompt some comparisons with other messiah figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We might take the life of Sabbatai Sevi (1626–1676) as one obvious comparison. A Jewish Messiah who converted to Islam in 1666, Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi had a significant impact across the western world when it was widely believed that he was gathering the lost tribes of Israel. He demonstrated his authority by transgressions of Jewish ritual and belief including pronouncing the Ineffable Name and declaring that the Law could be transgressed (Scholem 1977). When he died, his death was kept secret by an inner circle of followers, but stories soon circulated to explain his death. It was claimed that he was buried in a cave, but when his brother came to inspect the grave it was empty and the cave was full of light. A theology developed in which his death was merely an occultation and that at an appointed time he would return to his followers who thereby sustained the belief that Sabbatai Sevi was indeed the Messiah.

What lessons for the study of globalization might be revealed by a comparison of these religious figures? Sabbatai Sevi (or at least the Sabbatian movement) was a genuinely global phenomenon with followers in the Middle East, Europe and North America. The Revd Increase Mather spoke of the Lost Tribes of Israel in his sermons in late 1665 and were referred to by John Davenport of New Haven in an ‘epistle to the reader’. Sociologists who date globalization from the communications revolution of the 1970s obviously know little about cultural and religious history. In addition pre-modern forms of cultural globalization were not invariably European. Sabbatai Sevi spent much of his life in his birth place in Izmir in what is now Turkey. But there are some real differences between seventeenth-century messianism and the present-day globalism. In a consumer society, religion, both popular and serious, gets caught up in the endless cycle of consumer goods. Religion becomes essential to the manufacture of urban lifestyles and to the branding of identities. Sai Baba and his global organisation, whatever his claims to an ascetic religious legacy, merged effortlessly into the global circuit of commodities. His materializations might be regarded as manifestations of what Karl Marx had called the fetish of commodities.

Winged Faith is a readable and carefully documented account of an extraordinary modern religious figure, but its appeal is much wider. It is an important contribution to the literature on globalization and a valuable corrective to the pervasive view that globalization, especially cultural globalization, is simply westernization. Her study, which covers a range of issues in the modern anthropology of religion, can be seen as an ethnographic contribution to the notion of ‘glocalization’ (Robertson, 1992)namely the fusion of the local (the tradition of the south Indian guru and Sufi mystic) and the global (the growth of hybrid spirituality). Perhaps the commonsense conclusion is that, as a rule, globalization is experienced at the local, in villages such as Puttaparthi.

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2011