I have just finished reading Paul William Roberts’ Empire of the Soul, the best travel book on India I have read for a long time. It is funny, perceptive and beautifully written. But for me the most interesting thing in the book, if only because it differed so much from my own experience, is Roberts impressions of Sai Baba, India’s most famous god-man. Roberts met Sai Baba and became a true believer and he describes the impressions and feelings that led to having such faith. Given Roberts’ ability to immediately see through Rajneesh (later known as Bhagawan and then Osho) I found this adoration rather strange. People have often asked me what I thought of Sai Baba and I have always given them what I believed was a good Buddhist answer – ‘The ability to perform miracles is no proof of holiness and anything worthwhile Sai Baba teaches is taught better and more comprehensively by the Buddha’. But over the years I met about a dozen people whose accounts of apparently miraculous experiences with Sai Baba seemed too convincing to dismiss as exaggeration, delusion or lying in order to impress or to get attention. So when I was in India in 2001 I decided to go to Puttapathi to see for myself. The ashram turned me off from the very beginning. It was crowded and noisy, the staff were efficient but officious and rude and everything directly related to Sai Bada himself (pictures of him, his ‘throne’ and his personal quarters) were garish and tawdry. The photos I saw everywhere of Sai Baba waving from his gold-plated swan-shaped chariots struck me as rather ridiculous. Every day while I was at Puttaparti I went down to the place where one of Baba’s sayings is posted daily. ‘Love all, serve all.’ ‘Do your duty and trust in me.’ Hardly the most profound quotes I have ever read. I also got the impression that many of the people at the ashram were little more than guru groupies. They seemed to spend all there time recounting stories of how Baba’s grace had saved them from a car accident, got them a seat in the circus despite all tickets being sold out and guided them to buy some stocks that climbed dramatically the very next day. One woman told me breathlessly how here dog had survived straying onto a busy highway all through Baba’s grace. The only spiritual teaching at Puttaparthi seemed to be, ‘I’m God. Worship me.’ Nonetheless I tried to be as objective as I could and consciously kept my critical facilities at bay. I got up at 3 AM two days after my arrival to try to get a front seat for Baba’s appearance at 9 that day. It’s all done by a lottery and I got in the front row. Then came the 5 hour wait. I decided to spend the whole time meditating so that when the time came and if Sai Baba walked passed me or even picked me for a private audience, my mind would be completely empty so as to be receptive to whatever he projected rather than me projecting my feelings on to him. Just before 9 the crowd became restless with anticipation and young men appeared and rolled out red carpets on the passages through the crowds where he might walk. Then a phalanx of very big men who looked like bouncers stationed themselves at regular intervals along the edge of the crowd and told everyone that they must not stand up. A few minuets later Indian music started to play over the loudspeaker, the whole crowd turned to the right craning their necks and God entered the hall. I too turned to get a look but my mind was still empty and I was unmoved by the awe and excitement that had obviously seized the crowd. Sai Baba proceeded along the passageway then turned left meaning that he would be passing me. I noted this but remained still and detached. As he got closer I observed him carefully. With all the good-will in the world he could not be described as physically attractive. He had thick lips, a stubby nose and his face appeared to be puffy. All the photos I had seen of him must have been taken years ago because in the flesh he was old and stooped. It also occurred to me that he was virtually the only person I had seen in the last several days who was wearing long sleeves, which I thought strange given the heat. But my mind only noted this without appending any comment or conclusion. Sai Baba was closer now. In his hands he carried letters and notes that people handed him as he passed and which he occasionally pass to the attendant behind him. A solid-looking bodyguard also accompanied him to make sure no one tried to stand or approach him although it was permissible to touch his feet, which many people did. He stopped a little before me, reached out to an elderly woman three along from me, moved his hand in a strange wiggling fashion and a grey powder seemed to come from his fingertips. This supposed ability to produce vibuthi out of nothing is what has made Sai Baba so famous and I had been able to see it close up. Although this is the only time in my life that a supposed miracle has taken place before my very eyes and despite me having really wanted to see it done so that I could make up my own mind about it, I was strangely unmoved by it. It seemed so inconsequential, so ordinary. You would expect the avatara of the Lord of the Universe to come up with something a bit more spectacular than that. If it was just slight of hand (and I’m not saying it is), it was a trick a magician who does kids birthday parties could do. Sai Baba moved on a little and was right in from front of me. I looked up at his face, for a moment he looked into my eyes and smiled and them he moved on. As before, I felt as I would have if an unremarkable stranger had walked passed me as I sat on a park bench – nothing. After it was over I returned to my room and made preparations to leave the next day.
The day I arrived back in Sri Lanka something happened that did make me wonder if Baba’s grace was at work. Almost the first person I spoke to after arriving was a man who had been a devotee of Sai Baba for more than 20 years. And it was he who brought up the subject. I mentioned to him that only a few weeks before I had been to Puttaparthi and as could be expected, he said, ‘We have come together through the grace of Baba.’ The next step in our conversation followed almost on cue; he recounted a miracle that Baba had wrought in his life. About a year before his daughter developed a persistent cough, they took her to the doctor and X-ray revealed a shadow on her lung – the beginning of TB. They prayed to Baba and a few weeks later when the girl had another X-ray the shadow was gone and in its place was an image of Sai Baba’s face. I tried not to yawn. ‘Interesting’ I said. ‘Do you still have the X-ray?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’ he replied, ‘We would never throw it away.’ ‘Would you bring it to me so I can see it?’ I asked hopefully. He readily agreed and we made arrangement for him to come and visit me. Within a few days I put the matter out of my mind because I was certain that I would never see the man again or if I did I would never see the X-ray. Sinhalese are notorious at not keeping appointments and people who tell you about miracles are very reticent at producing the evidence. Five days later, having completely forgotten about the whole matter, I happened to look out my window and saw the man walking up the hill towards my kuti – and under his arm was a large brown envelope. I was surprised. I met him at the door, ushered him inside and after he had caught his breath I asked him whether he had brought the X-ray, half expecting him to tell me some story about how it had been lost or that the image on it had faded. But again I was wrong. ‘Yes’ he said with a smile ‘I’ll show you.’ He began to remove it from its envelope but I told him not to. Now was my big chance to get to the bottom of all these Sai Baba stories and I didn’t want to spoil it. I asked him to reinterate the story he had told me some days before. He did and it was basically the same – that an image of Sai Baba’s face had appeared to the X-ray of his daughter’s lung. Of course I had no way of knowing if the X-ray was really of his daughter but I took it for granted that the man was not deliberately trying to deceive. He seemed genuine to me. I prepared myself, took a few deep breaths, opened the envelope, took the X-ray out, held it up towards the window and began examining it. The man looked on expectantly. I looked carefully at the part of the X-ray where the lungs were but I could see nothing that looked like a face. I turned the X-ray around but still couldn’t see anything. I turned it upside down. Still nothing. Then I said to the man, ‘I have to honestly tell you, I can’t see anything. Tell me, is Baba’s face on the left lung or the right one.’ ‘The right one’ he said’ sure that I would see it now. I looked again. I narrowed my eyes and squinted. I glared. But I couldn’t see anything other than the image of two lungs in whips of gray and white. I was rather disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing something difficult to explain; something that would challenge my skepticism; something that might make a good story to tell others. I turned to the man and said ‘I honestly can’t see anything. Show me where it is.’ He didn’t seem to be the least flustered by my blindness. He happily took the X-ray, pointed at the place, I looked at where he was pointing and the letdown became complete. There was nothing there other than those shadowy indistinct shapes that always appear on X-rays. Not wanting to upset him I said in a noncommittal tone, ‘Oh, I see.’
I read about an experiment where 40 balding men were given a lotion without any active ingredients and told that applying it would gradually restore their hair. Before they started using the lotion the number of hair follicles per millimeter on their scalps were carefully counted. After a month of ‘treatment’ every man reported a noticeably regrowth of hair and two month later all but a few were still convinced that their hair was thicker than before. Counting the hair follicles again showed that there had been no change at all. Sometimes the eye sees what the heart believes.