Sathya Sai Baba, a Hindu guru revered by millions worldwide, died on a Sunday, April 24, 2011, near his ashram in Puttaparthy. He was 84.
His death, after nearly a month of hospital treatment, was announced by the ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, in the south of India.
Sai Baba had ashrams in more than 126 countries, and his devotees in India included high-level politicians, movie stars, world-class athletes, and industrialists.
He was said to perform miracles, conjuring Rolex watches and “vibhuti” — a sacred ash that his followers applied to their foreheads — from his halo of frizzy hair.
Rationalist critics led campaigns against him, calling him a charlatan and his miracles fake. And several news reports accused him of sexually abusing followers — accusations that he denied, and for which he was never charged.
Among Sai Baba's estimated six million followers are hundreds of top Indian politicians, industrialists, tycoons, Bollywood stars and sportsmen such as cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Overseas, they include Goldie Hawn and Isaac Tigrett, the founder of Hard Rock café. Sarah Ferguson has visited one of his ashrams.
Sathya Sai Baba’s birthname was Sathya Narayana Raju. He was born in 1926 in Puttaparthi, which was part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency and now part of Andhra Pradesh. According to the accounts of his devotees, in 1940, at the age of 14, he survived a scorpion bite. Following which, Raju announced himself a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba.
His popularity grew over the years, and in 1944, the first ‘Mandir’ in his name was built in his hometown. Over the years, several other temples and other establishments were built for him across the country.
As part of philanthropical works, he started Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation in the 1960s. Sai Baba founded many schools and colleges, hospitals, and other charitable institutions in India and abroad through this trust.
Since Sai Baba founded his first permanent meditation centre more than 60 years ago, a vast construction programme funded by donations has converted the remote village where he was born into a thriving small city with dozens of temples, its own 220-bed specialised hospital offering free treatment, a university and an airport where charter planes bringing devotees from around the world arrive every day.
Volunteers working with Sai Baba's NGOs have effectively delivered disaster relief and undertaken large-scale developmental works that have brought water or sanitation to hundreds of thousands of people.
There are thought to be more than 1,200 centres of his Sathya Sai organisation in over a hundred countries around the world.
Many devotees considered him a living god, and credited him with mystical powers including the ability to conjure objects out of the air.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described his death as an "irreparable loss".
"He was a spiritual leader who inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful life even as they followed the religion of their choice," said Mr Singh.
His organisation has financed health and education projects, among them hospitals and clinics that claim to cure illnesses beyond the capabilities of mainstream medicine.
Born without wealth or advantage as Sathyanarayana Raju, Sai Baba declared himself the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a 19th century guru, when he was 14. Followers claim that, after being stung by a scorpion, the teenager began singing devotional chants in the ancient language of Sanskrit, which he neither spoke nor read.
The young religious leader, who accepted devotees from all faiths, quickly won fame for supposed mystical powers including the ability to conjure objects including gold watches out of thin air and to heal. Critics said his miracles were simple magic tricks.
Sai Baba was also the subject of a series of allegations of sexual abuse of young male followers. Participants in a 2004 BBC documentary, The Secret Swami, accused him of massaging their testicles with oil and coercing them into oral sex.
Sai Baba was never been charged with any offence over the sex abuse allegations and had denied all the charges against him, claiming they were part of a campaign to defame him.
"Some people out of their mean-mindedness are trying to tarnish the image of Sai Baba. I am not after name and fame. So, I do not lose anything by their false allegations. My glory will go on increasing day by day," the guru told followers in 2000.
In 1993, six people died violently in the spiritual leader's private rooms. The incident has never been fully explained. One possibility is a dispute between followers over money.
Sai Baba had predicted his own death in 2019 but said that, having been reborn as the second reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, he would be reborn as the holy man's third and final reincarnation in 2023 in a small village in the state of Karnataka. His followers claim that, as he has died earlier than foreseen, he could return as early as next year.
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