May 22, 2011

Sai Baba's place in the history of self deification

The recent death of Sai Baba has once again brought this controversial figure in the limelight. An interesting feature Sai Baba is his efforts of self deification that he worked at constantly throughout his life. By self deification I mean declaring yourself to be God. Sai Baba has tried to equate himself with every god imaginable. To start with, when I visited Sai Baba’s ashram many years ago, I saw that nearby shops were selling several pictures of him in the attire of Shivaji. Sai Baba had Ganga flowing from his afro hair and a snake around his neck. Also, there were several comic book style story books where Sai Baba performed several “heroic” deeds like freezing one of his teachers and reviving him with a drop of water. Sai Baba has also been known to take passages from the Bible and declare himself to be the person identified by Jesus. Kalki avatar of Lord Vishnu is famous in Hinduism, said to be his tenth and last avatar on earth. Kalki is supposed to come on earth riding on a white horse. For his 60th birthday, Sai Baba rode on a chariot drawn by four white horses. He did not deny that he was trying to impersonate Kalki.

While Sai Baba failed in these endeavors to become Jesus, Vishnu and Shiva combined, he achieved spectacular successful in his first attempt: that of becoming Sai Baba. Baba claims to be the incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a saint beloved by the people. Shirdi Sai Baba’a legacy is looked after by a trust. The website of this trust bluntly declares that “Shri Saibaba has no disciple, heir and nobody is seated on his Asan. Please do not believe anybody pretending himself Shri Saibaba by wearing similar dress”. The present Satya Sai Baba’s only claim to being an incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba is his own declaration; he is even rejected by the person whose name he takes. But due to his vast empire and ability to publicize himself, Sai Baba has managed to blithely ignore this little website, which obviously cannot compete with him.

Sure, Sai Baba has built hospitals, schools and provided water for hundreds of villages. But no sane person with true feelings of social service would want to be declared a “god” for their efforts. His ridiculous attempts at godhood include raining down ash on devotees, and this act is often deconstructed for the public by mildly talented street magicians. In one of the more revolting videos doing the rounds of youtube, Sai Baba makes puking motions for as long as five minutes and vomits a spit-surrounded and absolutely disgusting gold sphere which he then brandishes to the crowd. But spit or no spit, Sai Baba and his gold balls did manage to capture the Hindu world’s imagination for a while, and he is a fairly popular deity. However, he failed to achieve ultimate stardom, which is a place at the top of the hierarchy of 33 crore Hindu gods. He should have taken lessons from his predecessor Krishna whom he was trying to replace with Kalki. Krishna in his time carried out similar steps of self deification, but was exponentially more successful.

In the story of the origin of Govardhan Pooja, we are told that the pile of dung symbolizes Govardhan mountain. Krishna has used this mountain to shield the villagers against Indra’s torrent. But why was Indra raining torrents in the first place? Krishna had challenged the villagers who were worshipping Indra: “Why do you worship Indra? He is nothing, I am Vishnu, more powerful than any other God.” Indra was angered to hear these words, and a battle ensued. Krishna won, courtesy the Govardhan mountain, and the villagers stopped worshiping Indra and started worshipping Krishna instead.

Today Indra is regarded as a silly character who is always running to other gods. He has no other role but to demurely shower flowers over the heroes of Mahabharat and Ramayan (in the TV serials at least). But before Krishna usurped his position, Indra was a powerful god of thunder, the almighty god of rain and weather that controlled human lives and slew the most frightening demons. Many stories before Krishna’s time attest to this. He was revered as a true king of gods, and in his time he too had obtained that position through self deification. Having killed Vrtrasura, a very powerful Asur, Indra declared himself the supreme god and demanded that people give him a share of the yagya offerings. And before Indra, who knows? Some radical scholars say that the Asuras were gods before Indra, and Indra usurped their position. Except for the Asura’s back-story, all the other stories are very well known to us, Sai Baba’s antics and Krishna’s challenge to Indra are actually quite popular, and Indra’s defeat of Vrtrasur is a fairly well known story. It is just the analysis that is different here.

Self deification is also seen in myths outside of this linear progression. In a well known story, Lord Ganesh won the rights to first worship and elevated himself from crores of other minor gods. There are any number of other Hindu gods, specially local ones, who are found by normal people and kings, and who identify themselves as gods and demand that temples be built for them in return for favors. Manakamana, Taleju and Pashupati are just a few names in the tradition. Self deification is a recurring theme and the most common method of establishing godhood in Hinduism. And in every generation, it has worked. The popularity of gods rises and ebbs according to fashion trends. But unlike fashionable clothes that are discarded every second day, gods at the peak of fashion manage to stay there for years, sometimes for centuries like Krishna.

Sai Baba also was trying to act in this time honored tradition of establishing his own godhood. But in this case, I am happy to think that he failed to gain the topmost position. I can only contemplate with horror what would have happened if he had succeeded, in 200 years our future generations would be worshiping Sai Baba as the major Hindu god. Previous gods might have established themselves through the same process, but we have already built fabulous myths around them. Replacing them with the bland stories of Sai Baba is distasteful to me, and hopefully to most other Hindus as well.


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