I have to begin writing this piece by making an honest confession that I never viewed Sathya Sai Baba as an incarnation of God. I even refuse to elevate him to the level of a saint. With his demise, Sathya Sai Baba leaves behind more than three million devotees spread across the globe. As a modern day guru who helped transform lives through institutional means, his influence is unparalleled.
In a long-established practice in India, a sacred person often takes the name of a deity or a former sage. At the age of 14, he proclaimed he is the reincarnation of Sai Baba from Shirdi, Maharashtra. The original Sai Baba was a roving mendicant who lived with lepers, shared his supper with stray dogs and at a time, when it was considered dangerous to do so, he actively worked towards reducing the prejudices and misperceptions Hindus and Muslims had towards each other. His teachings never recognized boundaries and he didn't have a scripture or an ideology to guide him through.
In India, we are known to have great respect for the mystic sages and gurus who meditate in the snow-clad Himalayas and we surely cannot deny the popularity of Godmen in a society like ours. Of course, we have had self-styled Godmen who are also known as tricksters like Osho or the more recent Swami Nithyananda. Osho's output of the "interpretation" of Indian texts specifically deviates towards a generation of disillusioned westerners. On a more personal note, reading his commentaries on "philosophy" simply doesn't cut through.
It is indeed ironic that when our philosophy teaches renouncement, our philosophy is manipulated and used by people like Osho and the likes as way of getting attached. In the case of Sathya Sai Baba, I always considered him as a magician who knew the art of drawing crowds towards him. The spiritual legacy he leaves behind is open to debate. His proclamation that he will answer the call of death in 2022 and his death at the age of 85 in 2011 proves that no one can ultimately predict death. While I do not question his credentials as a samaritan who worked relentlessly getting Puttaparthi on the worldwide map from an obscure village in Andhra Pradesh, we also have to acknowledge the fact that he managed to bring water to the parched Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.
The other day I heard a devotee saying, "Sri Sathya Sai Baba is not dead. He just left his mortal body to fight his evil forces and detractors and he will be back in the next forty days." While I do not question the faith people have in him, I just believe that faith must arise after a round of questioning. For now, let us please eulogize his charitable work and stop at that.