`Do not get deluded because I talk, laugh, eat and walk like you. . . . All my actions are always selfless, selfless, selfless.'- Guru Sai Baba
IN THE Oct. 28 issue of the London Telegraph's Sunday magazine, a major feature article described one of the greatest scandals to befall a guru or religious leader in our time.
Titled "Divine Downfall," the six-page expos* by British investigative journalist Mick Brown makes the case that the man millions around the world hold to be God incarnate, a healer and "miracle worker" on a par with Krishna or Christ, has systematically and for decades sexually abused large numbers of teenage boys.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba - who has only once left his southern India ashram in Puttaparthi, close to Bangalore (for a visit to Uganda), yet has followers numbering anywhere from 10 million to 50 million, depending on the source - is also accused of financial wrongs and "B-grade conjuring tricks."
But those charges have been around for years. What is new is the huge controversy now coming to a head over a document released on the Internet, called "The Findings."
It was compiled over the last three years by David Bailey, a Welsh ex-devotee, who had risen high in the guru's inner circle only to be devastated by allegations made to him by several students at Sai Baba's ashram college.
They claimed the guru had sexually abused them and said they couldn't tell anyone because they were fearful of being disbelieved by their parents and friends who were also devotees.
Shocked, Bailey quit the ashram and began building a record of evidence gained from devotees around the globe.
The completed dossier includes scores of accounts of such abuse from Holland, Australia, Germany, India and the United States.
Swedish movie actor Conny Larsson is one of those cited: "Not only did Sai Baba make sexual advances towards him, but he had also been told by young male disciples of advances the guru had made on them."
The Telegraph account told a particularly moving story of an American husband and wife who suddenly found themselves being given special treatment by the guru - out of all the thousands seeking to get near him at his twice-daily public sessions.
Simultaneously, their teenage son, Sam, was being selected for even closer ties. The Telegraph said he was given presents of all kinds, including expensive watches, which the guru claimed to have "materialized" out of thin air.
Over four years, Sam spent many hours alone with "God," just metres from his parents outside.
The parents were stunned when their son finally alleged that Sai Baba had steadily moved from fondling to demands for oral sex and, eventually, attempted rape. Sam said he had feared that to tell anyone would end his parents' happiness and incur the divine wrath of the guru.
Significantly, the harrowing stories in "The Findings" produced a flood of similar accounts from every corner of the Internet. Gradually, the stage was set for one of the most amazing battles ever spawned in cyberspace.
Browsing the Net recently, I found everything from Web sites with specious, unconvincing arguments - for example, that the whole affair was initiated by the omnipotent, omniscient guru as a kind of "divine game" to test the disciples' faith - to a host of critical chatrooms, columns and letters.
Sai Baba has been "India's most famous and powerful holy man" for nearly 60 years.
His official biographer says in a four-volume work that the "saint" was born sinless "of immaculate conception," like the Virgin Mary, in Puttaparthi in 1926.
At 13, he announced he was the reincarnation of a revered southern saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918. Even as a boy, the guru displayed signs of allegedly miraculous powers by "materializing" flowers and candies from "nowhere."
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other politicians are included among his followers, as are members of India's judiciary, academics, scientists and scores of high-profile members of the upper middle class.
There are nine chapters of the Sai Baba organization in Toronto and many others nationwide.
Nothing I have found yet on the Web or elsewhere directly meets the current charges. Instead, the pro-Baba arguments seem to consist of various ways of saying that God is God and doesn't really have to explain. His ways are far beyond anything we mere humans can understand.
Sai Baba is reported to have said recently to his devotees: "Never try to understand me."
Perhaps he eventually will be cleared of the accusations levelled against him. He may be a pure healer and a promoter of universal love.
But if this quote is accurate, he embodies the kind of guruship to be avoided at all cost.