Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual guru for whom Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett sold his stake in the restaurant chain, has died. He was 84.
The saffron-robed preacher who sported afro-style hair reminiscent of rock musician Jimi Hendrix, died in the southern Indian town of Puttaparthi, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, after his heart and respiratory organs failed, A.N. Safaya, director at the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, said in a statement on the hospital’s website.
Sai Baba’s trust has set up schools, universities and hospitals, with various Indian political leaders providing support for his charities. Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and ex-president Shankar Dayal Sharma were present during the opening of a water project in 1995 in Andhra Pradesh state, while former premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated a hospital in Bangalore.
He was born Sathyanarayana Raju in the town and made it his hermitage, naming it Prasanthi Nilayam, the “abode of divine peace.” He died at 7:40 a.m. local time today, Safaya said.
Tigrett, according to his official website, sold his stake in Hard Rock Café to co-founder Peter Norton, and The Open magazine reported in April that Tigrett donated the entire proceeds of $108 million to Sai Baba for starting a specialty hospital in Puttaparthi aimed at providing free healthcare to the rural poor.
Sai Baba “endeared himself to the people through various institutions,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement today. “He believed that it is the duty of every person to ensure that all people have access to the basic requirements for sustenance of life.”
At the age of 14, the guru told his family that he would be known as “Sai Baba,” the title of a past Indian ascetic of whom he claimed to be a reincarnation, according to a statement on his website. In 1960, he told his followers he would “leave his body” in 2019.
While devotees believe in his miracles, including acts of producing holy ash, rings and necklaces, fruits, sugar candy and watches out of thin air, critics have dismissed them as mere sleight of hand tricks.
They “remained controversial to others and he shied away from scientific tests that would have settled forever the issue of their genuineness,” said Erlendur Haraldsso, professor emeritus, faculty of social sciences at the University of Iceland, who did research on Indian “miracle-makers.”
His followers remained convinced about his powers.
“I am a disciple of his for more than 35 years,” said L. Saiguru, 43, a software consultant. “Sometimes I feel he is right in front of me to provide guidance in life. I believe he can perform miracles.”
Allegations by some former devotees that Sathya Sai Baba had sexually abused them tarnished his image. K. Chakravarty, secretary of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust didn’t answer calls made to his office.
“We don’t regard him as a genuine miracle worker,” said David C. Lane, a professor of sociology and philosophy at San Antonio College in Texas. “I have a number of reports from former disciples that they were molested under the guise of spiritual unfoldment.”
Police in Puttaparthi have imposed prohibitory orders against crowding and meetings as thousands of devotees gathered in the town, the Press Trust of India reported on April 21. More than 2,000 police officers have been deployed as the health of Sai Baba deteriorated.
“No one can comprehend my glory, whoever he is, whatever his method of enquiry, however long his attempt,” Sai Baba wrote in a May 25, 1947, letter to his brother, according to a statement on Baba’s website.