Sathya Sai Baba, who died on Sunday, was seen as a reincarnation of god by millions, having preached an eclectic blend of Hindu religion since the time he claimed to be an ‘avatar’ at a young age of 14.
The many attacks by rationalists on him and what he stood for did not derail the immense following he achieved as he grew from this once obscure hamlet to achieve demi god status in India and abroad.
Born as Sathyanarayana Raju in November 23, 1926 in Puttaparthi, his devotees claimed he started singing Sanskrit verses, of which he had no knowledge, one day in March 1940 after being apparently stung by a scorpion.
Within two months, the teenager claimed to be a reincarnation of the more famous Shirdi Sai Baba, who had reportedly stated before his death in 1918 that he would reappear in the then Madras Presidency eight years later.
In no time, the boy gathered a following as he stepped into the world of spirituality. Word spread that Raju could make objects such as food and sweets materialise out of thin air.
As time went by, and he came to be recognised for his mane and flowing orange robes, the boy transformed into Sathya Sai Baba, frequently producing with a flick of his hand ‘vibhuti’ (sacred ash) and small objects such as Shiv lings, rings and necklaces.
Puttaparthi became his base, eventually transforming the once small village into a lively pilgrimage centre, with its own railway station and air strip.
The spiritual guru built a temple in 1944. Four years later he founded Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Supreme Peace) at Puttaparthi.
He also opened ashrams at Whitefield on Bangalore’s outskirts and at Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. He made it a point to tell his followers not to give up their original religion.
He preached: “My objective is the establishment of sanatana dharma, which believes in one god as propitiated by the founders of all religions.”
Sathya Sai Baba, however, ran into critics who repeatedly challenged him to make the objects materialise in “controlled conditions” — to prove that he was not indulging in trickery.
The godman brushed away the attacks, which abated over the years, even as his spiritual empire expanded. Today, his devotees are spread over some 130 countries and number in millions.
Simultaneously, Sai Baba plunged into charitable work.
His movement began providing free medical treatment, both in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, as well as free education for the poor.
Sathya Sai Baba was also credited with unveiling drinking water schemes in drought-prone Anantapur district, where Puttaparthi is located, and to the city of Chennai.
Food is sold at hugely subsidized rates at his ashram here – even to those who do not follow him.
In 2001, the digital radio network, Radio Sai Global Harmony, was launched to spread Sai Baba’s message of harmony and peace.
He acquired a huge following that included political leaders, film stars and industrialists — and millions of ordinary folk.
But controversies always dogged Sai Baba.
He was accused of sexual abuse. The BBC once produced a documentary that showed him in poor light.
Sai Baba remained single. Not much is known about his personal life.
The killing of four alleged intruders into Sai Baba’s bedroom by police in 1993 still remains a mystery.
From 2005, Sai Baba had been using a wheelchair and his failing health had forced him to make fewer public appearances.
Two of his elder sisters, an elder brother and a younger brother have died. Some of the children of his sisters and brothers are today active in the trusts formed by him.
Many believe he died a day after he was admitted to the hospital March 28 and that his relatives waited for an auspicious time to make the announcement.