Thursday, July 9, 2009

Losing my faith: David and the Conglomerate

Note: An edited version of this article appears on the atheist blog, "Unreasonable Faith".

Early in 2005, I found out that god was in fact, a pedophile. Curiously, this discovery occurred through an expose on the Internet by a British pianist I had met in India several years ago.

David was a staunch devotee then and we had both belonged to the Sai Baba cult. He had grown weary of Western Rationalism and had traveled halfway around the world for less depressing answers to questions about the “meaning of life” whereas I had just stumbled upon the cult by an accident of geography. In the late nineties, David had spent an afternoon at my house in India. He was entirely unremarkable and the only reason I remembered him was because I was told by an uncle that he was an extremely skilled pianist who performed for the royal family. 

With the highest per-capita number of godmen on the planet, India is a (pardon the mixed metaphor) Mecca for spiritual wanderers. Our particular godman, Sathya Sai Baba, had a following in excess of six million (the devotees will quote a hundred million). From an early age the Baba was convinced that he was a reincarnated god and along the way, he had managed to convince a few other people as well.

This fanciful delusion was powerful in a land where few have a coherent idea of what it means to be a Hindu although Hinduism is the religion they profess to practise. As a result, they are extremely susceptible to almost anything that will ease the pain of their existence. This confused polytheistic condition was, I imagine, similar in some small way to those which preceded the birth of monotheism.

On a daily basis since 1940, people have queued up and waited patiently for hours to watch a small man in a saffron gown and an oversized afro wander around while doing mightily impressive sleight-of-hand “miracles”. This phenomenon is called a “darshan” (translated as a viewing).

Among the assembled thousands are wanderers like David, who, if initially dubious, are eventually convinced by the massive spectacle of the thousands of adoring throngs. Over the past half century the Baba’s religious empire, henceforth referred to as the Baba conglomerate, has amassed considerable wealth and power and invested in socially conscious projects while simultaneously defrauding thousands spiritually and financially. The conglomerate has also built up a fanbase – a massive network of influence and power, which they have used ruthlessly to preserve the illusion as well as the illusionist, whose failings have made the occasional murder necessary.

So what was David doing at my house all those years ago? To help you understand, I must reveal my own nefarious history. My grandfather was a self-made wealthy agricultural baron in Andhra Pradesh, India, where Sathyanarayana Raju, later to become Sai Baba, was born. My grandmother had given birth to ten children and successfully raised six. In the late 1950’s, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, she discovered Sai Baba (he wasn’t very far away) and became an instant convert.

Godmen, like most entrepreneurs, need to form powerful alliances, and my grandfather’s influence meant that there were benefits to be had from our support. The Baba himself visited on a few occasions, and many years later my cancer-stricken dying grandmother refused to die until she was taken to the Darshan, 250 kms away where she then passed away peacefully. Since then, however, even as our collective devotion to the Baba grew, the family’s wealth and stature declined, and subsequent generations were pushed down the pecking order of the Baba juggernaut that was turning into a worldwide phenomenon.
From trusted lieutenants, my uncles turned into tour guides and traveling salesmen. Their responsibilities now included entertaining “special guests”. Broadly speaking, if you were white and weren’t a hippie, you were a special guest. If you weren’t white, you had to be a politician, a bureaucrat, an industrialist, a movie actor, or a famous sports personality to qualify as special. Although my father wasn’t involved with the Baba Conglomerate, close family ties meant that his brothers, my uncles, frequently brought visitors. It was during one of these chance encounters that I met David in the mid 90’s. He had just been introduced by the Baba, to his future wife, a wanderer like himself and had seemed, like everyone else, to be completely in awe of the Baba.

The next time I heard of David, it was in dramatically altered circumstances in 2005. He had published a book titled “The Findings” which contained details of his investigations into child abuse allegations against the Baba. His thesis was that the Baba was not only responsible for child abuse but also complicit in murders that had ostensibly resulted from these events. The hydra-like conglomerate that had once cradled him in its tentacles had now begun an all out attack aimed at discrediting him and destroying his reputation.
At this point in time, I was still firmly entrenched in the Sai Baba cult. Upon reading David’s document, I was shaken as a number of loose threads of information began to fit together for the first time. I knew of the corruption within the conglomerate. I had even met the Baba’s nephew, the crown prince to the sprawling Empire his father had built with his demagogue brother’s talents. I had wondered several times whether divinity was genetic and if so, how it was possible that people so closely related to the Baba could be so soundly unqualified.
Everything David had written seemed not only plausible but unmistakably true. I proceeded to be as iconoclastic as I possibly could as I raised a stink within the family about what I had found.

Most people didn’t care if it was true. They had already committed themselves to disbelieving it. Some seriously warned me to “stay out of trouble”. These were very powerful people I was dealing with, and I was related to some of them by blood. The few doubters were reluctant to actually acknowledge that their fears had been accurate. There were consequences to free speech that I was ill-equipped to understand, they said. This was also quite possibly the first time my family began to think I was crazy.
David received thousands of letters, some of which detailed similar abuses, and others that confirmed the credibility of his findings. He also began to attract death threats, as well as slander and defamation aimed at discrediting him. The “devotees” who had sworn by the Baba’s slogan “Help ever hurt never” were now coming after the pianist in droves with pitchforks in hand. The recrimination was bad enough to force David and his wife to move to an undisclosed location in France.

The Baba conglomerate also decided to pursue alternate courses of damage control in the form of “debunkings” of David’s argument on their official website as well as extensive manipulation of Wikipedia content. I can only imagine business had suffered, otherwise it really is horrible PR to put such damning information on an official website. Some of the essays and comments posted by the “debunkers” are fascinating for the insight they provide into the lengths people will go to to protect their crumbling understanding of the universe. Interestingly, the articles on the official website are color coded to let you know what information you should believe and what information you should not. I wonder whose stroke of genius that was.

Without the powerful shackles of blind faith, my fidgety mind was free to graze on other questions as I wandered away from the Sai Baba problem. I had seen a real-life example of how mass hysteria can perpetrate itself and how people can be completely powerless to discard false but long-held beliefs. It seemed completely plausible for such a process to occur on a much larger scale, particularly if it weren’t crippled by such a flawed idol.
This radically altered perspective led to several spells of depression and considerable substance abuse along with the occasional moment of clarity. I found that rational thought was staggeringly powerful but simultaneously ridiculously depressing. Escapism comes in many flavors, and religion just happens to be one of the more addictive and mentally damaging ones.

The Baba himself is now a decrepit old man. My father has attempted to convince me there is no way the Baba is still molesting children. “Think about it”, he said, “Do you really think he can get it up anymore?”. Perhaps not, but there are other forms of abuse. And what of the hundreds that have already suffered that fate? Or the many that were swindled of their life’s earnings? What about those that were murdered? These aren’t easily rationalized moral conundrums. The universe cannot possibly be a moral place. Any actively involved guardian or intelligent “supreme being” must either be completely inept, or one sadistic sonovabitch to tolerate the horrors committed by the false idols in his name.

There is, however, pleasure to be taken at the state of disarray in which the conglomerate finds itself. Now that the deity is nearly dead, the hunt is on for a successor to replace him. Viewer ratings are almost certain to decline since crucial cast member changes can often be difficult to stomach for an audience. But the producers are hopeful and there are several subplots to the Baba saga that are likely to be compelling- Is the new Baba going to keep the Afro? Is he going to continue the tradition of wearing saffron gowns? And what of the powerful blood-relatives of the Baba? Can they logically be related to the new Baba? And if not, will they keep their position of prominence? And finally, what about the gigantic empire of self-interest that they have assembled over the years? How will it adapt? Will it splinter and die or will it evolve, and perpetrate an even greater hoax?
It seems silly now to even contemplate the existence of a god. The term itself is so distorted and is such an amalgam that it has no real meaning. “God” is merely what people choose to call their psychoses, which are occasionally manifested as an imaginary friend they need to talk to in order to remain sane.

BBC Documentary on Sai Baba

Recommended further reading (Updated)

Here is some more information that might be useful to those actually interested in ascertaining what the truth is. You should be warned-none of this information is pleasant and some of it is downright repugnant. Now I will admit that a number of these websites are small scale, DIY type operations, but that doesn’t make them nutjob conspiracy theorists either. They did what they could with the means at their disposal. The fact that the BBC concurs with them should go some way towards establishing legitimacy. Every one of these people has been vilified by the conglomerate at one stage or the other so make sure you’re at your most discerning when parsing through this information. Without the benefit of an editor, these people may certainly be guilty of a little bit of exaggeration. But how much?

Exhibit A-i: The Findings, by David and Faye bailey

Exhibit A-ii: Letters from the victims
(same content as exhibit A, except broken down into sections)

Exhibit B: A phone conversation with David Bailey

Exhibit C: Responses on the official website
(the fact its even on their official website is, in my opinion, a tacit admission of guilt)

Exhibit D: Information on Sai Baba Propaganda activists
(Lisa deWitt is featured prominently on CO2000’s website, as is, oddly enough, Michael Jackson):

Exhibit E: Additional literature

And that’s excluding all the circumstantial evidence I have been privy to over the years. To give you two examples ,I know someone who was abused at the Sathya Sai Baba school and he did his very best to keep his little brother out of the holy man’s sight for fear that he might demand that he be brought for an “interview”.

I also have an uncle that went to the school and ended up getting kicked out. He never talks about it, but despite his parents’ fanatical faith, he will never go to see Sai Baba (He’s plenty religious otherwise, and believes in all sorts of merry godmen and swamis).

Then of course, there was the execution of the former students who tried to murder him. It was common knowledge in India that it was a stinking cover up. Many of the believers in my family had their faith jarringly shaken but it was nothing a fresh round of brainwashing couldn’t fix.