Hindu holy man Sathya Sai Baba dies aged 86
- PUTTAPARTI, India Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba,
worshipped as a god by millions of followers
worldwide, died Sunday morning in a hospital
near his southern Indian ashram. He was 86.
Sai Baba had spent nearly a month on breathing
support and dialysis while struggling with
multiple-organ failure after being admitted
March 28 to the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher
Medical Sciences, near his ashram in Puttaparti
village in Andhra Pradesh state.
Women selling marigold garlands broke down in
tears outside the ashram when the news of his
death was announced, and followers began trickling
into the temple complex where the guru's body
would lie in state Sunday night through Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of devotees are expected
to pay last respects. A funeral with state honors
is planned Wednesday morning.
The saffron-robed Sathya Sai Baba had a huge
following, with ashrams in over 126 countries
and Indian devotees including high-placed politicians,
movie stars, world-class athletes and industrialists.
He was said to perform miracles, conjuring
rings, watches and "vibhuti" a sacred ash
that his followers applied on their foreheads
from his overgrown and unkempt Afro-style hair.
But rationalist critics led campaigns against
him, calling him a charlatan and his miracles
fake. Several news reports also alleged he committed
sexual abuse against devotees allegations he
denied as vilification campaigns.
Officials and celebrities expressed sadness at
the guru's passing, remembering him as a "great
pious personality" who worked selflessly to help others.
"Sri Satya Sai Baba was a spiritual leader who
inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful
life, even as they followed the religion of their
choice," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in
a statement. His death is "an irreparable loss to
all, and the nation deeply mourns his passing away."
A heavy police deployment, in place for weeks as
Sai Baba's condition worsened, was using barricades
to restrict road traffic Sunday, while shopkeepers
were told to close to limit the number of people in town.
Andhra Pradesh state declared four days of mourning,
with its top official calling Sai Baba "a symbol of love, affection and passion."
"Sri Satya Sai Baba has given his great self to
the service of humanity," Chief Minister N. Kiran
Kumar Reddy said. "He will be remembered for ages
to come by all sections of people all over the world."
Born Nov. 23, 1926, as Sathyanarayana Raju, he was
said as a child to display a tendency toward
spirituality and unusual intelligence, which he
expressed through music, dance and writing poetry and plays.
In 1940, at the age of 14, he declared himself
an "avatar," or reincarnation, of another Hindu
holy man called the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a town in
western Maharashtra state, who died in 1918.
As the young guru attracted followers, his home
of Puttaparti grew from a sleepy village into
a vibrant town with the sprawling "Prasanthi Nilayam"
ashram built in 1950, as well as a large hospital,
a university and schools run by his Satya Sai Central
Trust, set up in 1972 with donations from devotees.
The trust estimated to be worth at least $8.9 billion
and possibly much more also established spiritual
centers in the cities of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai.
It built another hospital in Bangalore, where
Sai Baba had a summer home, and funded water
supply projects in several southern states.
Though no successor has been named to run the trust,
it has assured "there is or will be no vacuum,"
according to a recent statement released after the
guru was hospitalized.
Health woes over recent years had forced Sai Baba
to cut down on public appearances. He survived a
stroke and a series of heart attacks in 1963. In
2005, he began using a wheelchair, and a year later
he fractured his hip when a student fell from a
stool onto the guru.
Sai Baba was also mired in controversies, with
several news reports about allegations of sexual
abuse and fake miracles.
A 2004 television program by the British Broadcasting
Corporation called the "Secret Swami" featured
interviews with at least two American male devotees
claiming the guru had fondled their genitals and
exposed himself to them while claiming it was part
of a healing ritual.
Though he denied the allegations and was never
charged with any crime, the reports led some to
break with the guru.
The ashram also said Sai Baba had survived an
attempt against his life, with six devotees
including the guru's personal assistant killed
in his bedroom in June 1993 after allegedly trying
to attack him. Facts of the case still remain a mystery.
Sai Baba was never married and has no children.
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