By Aijaz Rahia
The Associated Press
PUTTAPARTI, India (AP) — Thousands of mourners paid last respects on Monday, April 25, to Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian religious leader revered by millions for spiritual and healing powers, but dismissed by some as a charlatan who passed off magic tricks as miracles.
Sai Baba’s death Sunday triggered an outpouring of grief from followers who included Indian politicians, movie stars, athletes, and industrialists. Most remembered him as a pious, selfless person who worked to help others with the billions of dollars donated to his charitable trust.
Within India, the 84-year-old guru was instantly recognizable, with a halo of frizzy dark hair and orange robes — the color of holiness in India.
His photographs adorned millions of homes, car dashboards, and lockets worn by Indian and foreign devotees. Many made annual pilgrimages to his ashram in Puttaparti, a town in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where he was born.
Upon his death, thousands flocked to the ashram’s main auditorium, where his body lay displayed inside a glass coffin surrounded by flower garlands and devotees in prayer.
Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar wiped away tears as he sat with his family and other mourners. Some sang religious songs.
Hundreds of volunteers — men dressed in white trousers and shirts with blue scarves, and women in saris and yellow scarves — guided mourners in an orderly line around Sai Baba’s body, above which stood a life-sized portrait of the guru.
Piles of shoes, discarded by those entering the ashram, lined the road outside the temple complex. Police controlled road traffic and crowds in the town.
The Dalai Lama said he was saddened by Sai Baba’s passing. “I would like to convey my condolences and prayers to all the followers, devotees, and admirers of the late spiritual leader,” the Tibetan Buddhist leader said in a statement.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, said the country would remember Sai Baba as someone who “inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful life.”
Sai Baba’s body will be on display through Tuesday, and hundreds of thousands are expected to visit before his state funeral Wednesday morning.
Sai Baba spiritual centers, or ashrams, exist in more than 126 countries. He was said to perform miracles, conjuring jewelry, Rolex watches, and “vibhuti” — a sacred ash that his followers applied to their foreheads — from his hair.
But rationalist critics called him a charlatan and his miracles fake. Several news reports alleged he sexually abused devotees — accusations he denied as smear campaigns.
The allegations and criticism did not reduce the intense devotion from his followers.
Health problems forced Sai Baba to reduce public appearances in recent years. He had been hospitalized for nearly a month.
The trust — estimated to be worth at least $8.9 billion and possibly much more — has no named successor, but a statement said there would be no leadership vacuum. ♦