Sathya Sai Baba as Avatar: "His Story" and the History of an Idea
Thesis DisciplineReligious Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
I begin this thesis with a brief account of my meetings with popular South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba (1926- ) and very brief a discussion of recent fraud and sexual abuse allegations that have been made against him. I note that one of the key factors involved in this, also accountable for his extraordinary popularity, is his divine persona-especially his self-proclaimed identity as "the avatar"-and I review previous academic studies pertaining to this. In contrast to most previous studies of Sathya Sai Baba, which align him primarily with Śaiva traditions and with the "Sai Baba movement", I note a strong (and long running) affinity in his ideas for Vaiṣṇava traditions (especially the Bhagavad-Gītā and the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa), and I add that his background as a member of a traditionally highly regarded bardic caste may have contributed to his divine persona. I further investigate this persona via a history of potentially parallel traditional and modern avatar ideas. I show something of the manner in which many of the avatar concepts and myths to which Sathya Sai Baba refers originated and developed, especially invoking the episteme of "resemblance", posited by Brian Smith, the idea of "inclusivism"-which I adapt from the work of Paul Hacker and Wilhelm Halbfass-and traditional (Sāṁkhya) processes of "distinction", "categorization", and "enumeration". In addition to these, I much refer to Max Weber's analysis of "pure types" of authority-traditional, charismatic, and rational-showing that Sathya Sai Baba draws upon all of these in legitimating his claim to be "the avatar". I also show that his divine persona draws upon a strong affinity that he exhibits for advaita ("non-dualism"), especially that of Śaṅkara, and that his personal history of intense devotional and ecstatic/yogic spiritual practices was likely important in the formative stages of this persona. I further suggest that the history of his geographic locale, in which there are strong themes of sacred kingship and ecstatic/advaitic/poetic/devotional sainthood, may have contributed to the production and reception of his persona. On top of this, I note that the influence of a number of modern avatar figures, especially Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo, is patent in his avatar teachings, and I compare and contrast him with a number of other significant modern figures. Based upon all of this, I consider the question of whether Sathya Sai Baba ought to be regarded as a "traditionalist", both vis-à-vis modernity ("Neo-Hinduism", as defined especially by Paul Hacker) and "innovation". I conclude that, in contrast to most previous scholarly characterizations, he is certainly innovative, but that he ought not to be considered a "Neo-Hindu"-most appearances to the contrary being due to his borrowing or extrapolating ideas in a very traditional manner from typical Neo-Hindu thinkers (especially Vivekananda), as if these ideas, and those that framed them, were thoroughly traditional. Finally, I outline a couple of major themes in his avatar teachings: an ambivalent attitude to his role as an exemplar, which I note to accord with earlier and parallel avatar ideas; and strong docetic tendencies, which similarly, in contrast to some scholarly characterizations, find parallels in popular portrayals of other avatar figures.