Sathya Sai Baba, a Hindu holy man who was considered a living god by millions of followers around the world, died Sunday of multiple organ failure in a hospital near his south Indian ashram. He was 84 and left behind a trust worth billions.
Sai Baba was known for conjuring jewelry, food and vibhuti, or sacred ash, out of the air, which devotees saw as proof of his powers and skeptics decried as sleight of hand.
Followers wept as his body was taken by ambulance from the hospital to his ashram, where it was placed in a glass coffin with gold plating. “The passing away of Sri Sathya Sai Baba is an irreparable loss to all,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. “The nation deeply mourns his passing.”
His gentle demeanor, disheveled, Afro-style hair and tolerance of other belief systems attracted an estimated 6 million active and 33 million passive followers, including former presidents, generals, Bollywood luminaries and sports stars. His group maintains more than 1,000 ashrams in 126 countries.
His body will lie in state until Tuesday when he’s set to be cremated. Hundreds of thousands of followers are expected to attend the funeral Wednesday. Authorities have marshaled some 10,000 security officers and passed rules on illegal assembly in case the crowds get out of control.
Sai Baba once predicted he would live into his mid-90s, claiming he could choose the date of his passing. “The god has left us physically,” said the Sai Baba hospital where he died, built largely with donations from Isaac Burton Tigrett, a devotee and the founder of Hard Rock Cafe, and located near his main ashram in Puttaparthi.
His legacy is not without controversy. There were several allegations that he sexually abused young male devotees. And in 1993 six followers were killed in his ashram, four of whom allegedly sought to assassinate him. The incident was never fully explained.
“India remains a country of faith,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology. “Even those reports about pedophilia didn’t really dent his image. In this country, if you develop followers, they are very loyal. Nothing seems to shake it.”
Sai Baba was born Sathyanarayana Raju on Nov. 23, 1926, to an ordinary family in Puttaparthi, a village in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
In 1940 he declared himself the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a saint said to be a Hindu adopted by a Muslim family and considered by many a god, who had died in 1918.
The teenager attracted followers and donations, leading to the building of his main Prasanthi Nilayam, or Abode of Peace, ashram in 1950 near Puttaparthi.
Over the years, his base grew into a nearly 4-square-mile complex of hotels, a university, hospital, cricket stadium and airport that some dubbed “Sri Baba wonderland.”
As his fame spread, stories circulated about his early years. One said he was born by immaculate conception like Jesus Christ after a great sphere of blue light entered his mother. Another said he learned to recite Sanskrit after being bitten by a poisonous scorpion.
He also claimed to have raised two people from the dead and cured his followers of many diseases and disabilities.
Rationalists and skeptics who asked to study his purported miracles under scientific conditions were rebuffed. “If you want to understand the nature of spiritual power you can do so only through the path of spirituality and not science,” he once reportedly said.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Assn. in Delhi, said his group called for an investigation into the source of the Sai Baba trust’s funds, said to be over $9 billion, but got nowhere. It’s unclear who will oversee the trust, with relatives and trust officials already maneuvering for control.
“I feel he’s done great damage to India,” Edamaruku said. “In the 1960s we were moving on the scientific path, including the Green Revolution, and he went totally against it. He said everything could be solved by miracles and became the model for hundreds of other god men.”
But Sai Baba also inspired love and devotion among legions of powerful and powerless followers with an emphasis on education, public health and egalitarian values.
“He leaves behind values of peace, nonviolence and love,” said Kunal Ganjawala, a Bollywood director and follower of 35 years. “Whether in the physical body, or after he leaves it, we should continue those teachings.”
Some attributed his enormous popularity to beliefs largely free of dogma or doctrine that didn’t require followers to give up previous religious beliefs.
In 1963 he suffered a stroke and four major heart attacks but survived. He made his only “physical” trip overseas in 1968, to Uganda and Kenya to meet with devotees, with one of his group’s websites saying he ran over lions’ tails in a jeep but suffered no attacks because he looked at them with love.
After 2005 he was in failing health and confined to a wheelchair. A year later he suffered a fractured hip after a student on a stool fell on him.
Over the years, several people alleged they were victims of sexual abuse during private audiences with Sai Baba.
In the 2004 BBC documentary “Secret Swami,” filmmaker Tanya Datta interviewed two American male followers who said the guru had fondled their genitals, claiming it was part of a healing ritual.
Others from Sweden, Australia and Germany made similar allegations. A case against Sai Baba was reportedly filed in Munich but none was filed in India, which critics say reflects how well-connected he was here and supporters say is evidence that the allegations were baseless.
Officials at the tightly controlled Sai Baba trust have declined to comment over the years even as some supporters mounted a two-pronged counterattack, arguing that the reports, many of which were raised by foreigners, reflect an anti-Hindu bias, and that even things that appear immoral have a purpose and should not be questioned.
“People need gurus,” Kaur said. “Many people in uncertain professions, whether rich or poor, tend to put their faith in those who give assurances everything will be all right. Also, the myth-making that happens around these people, they grow larger than life.”
He had no immediate survivors.
Anshul Rana in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.