An epistolary encounter between a Gandhian physicist and Puttaparthi Sathya Sai Baba in the 1970s
The medical bulletins continue to say that Sathya Sai Baba is in a critical state. Many of his followers who have assembled in the town of Puttaparthi are said to be on the verge of delirium as they have long suspended their faculty to accept the real and the inevitable. The Andhra Pradesh government has shown some panic and has enforced prohibitory orders in the town. The police have formed a fortress around the hospital where the Baba continues to live with the help of machines. There are many rumours flying thick and fast on the treasures of the trust and the battles that will invariably unfold. Amidst all this, the media continues its coverage with an uncritical candour, which almost borders on awe and deference. The coverage only bolsters the mythology that the godman wove around himself all through his life.
Let me try to put my discomfort about the Baba in perspective by going back to an exchange that took place between the godman and a Gandhian physicist in the mid-70s. The debate had taken place in the name of science, of course and, more importantly, ‘scientific temper’– a phrase that aspired to the connotation of ‘common sense’ but is now sadly out of circulation.
The Gandhian who took on the Baba was H. Narasimhaiah, who had a Ph.D in nuclear physics from the US and was the head of the prestigious National Education Society, started in the pre-Independence era. Narasimhaiah, from a backward class community, was known for his simplicity. He always wore a Gandhi cap. He wrapped himself in a Khadi dhoti and a full-sleeved, crumpled Khadi shirt. A bachelor, he lived an ascetic life in a never-locked, tiny hostel-room in the National College at Basavangudi, in Bangalore. The room roughly measured 10 feet by 10 feet and just had a bed and a cupboard. His staple diet was an austere version of the ‘upma’ and his luxury drink was tender coconut water. He had participated in the Quit India movement in 1942 on Gandhi’s call and was lodged for two years in the Mysore and Yeravada prisons. Perhaps Narasimhaiah’s greatest moment in life was when Gandhi put his arm around the young man’s shoulders when he visited the National High School in 1936. He was all of 16 then. In this historic picture that hung on the lime-washed wall of his room, the Mahatama is seen bending his head to listen to what the young man has to say. Everybody around, including Mahadev Desai, are captured with their gaze transfixed on Narasimhaiah. Anyway, at the time of the debate with the Baba, Narasimhaiah was the vice-chancellor (VC) of the Bangalore University and a public intellecutal.
In 1976, Narasimhaiah set aside a sum of Rs. 25,000 in the university budget to probe miracles, superstitions and paranormal experiences. A panel of eleven members, among who were top scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, psychiatrists from Nimhans, lawyers, writers and physicians, was drafted to conduct the probe and create public awareness. Narasimhaiah as the VC was its chairperson. It was made clear at the outset that the university or the panel was not trying to speak against any religion, nor was it on an atheistic trip. This was considered a significant public duty of the university to ward off a social evil that came in between peoples’ progress. One may find this public-spiritedness astonishing given the degeneration that is the university system today, when the primary role assumed is to conduct exams and mint degree certificates.
So as a part of this process, the panel decided to investigate the Baba of Puttaparthi who had gained popularity (in the panel’s eyes ‘notriety’) for plucking a gold chain, a gold ring or smear-ash from thin air; for coughing up ‘shiva lingas’; for making petrol out of water; curing the incurable etc. They had decided to take on the Baba after many of his minions in smaller towns had admitted to trickery in their miracle project or had been exposed by the panel members. On 2 June 1976, Narasimhaiah, on behalf of the panel, dashed off a letter seeking an appointment with the Baba. Here is an operative excerpt of the letter translated from the Kannada:
“Dear Swamiji: As you are aware many people in our country firmly believe that you are capable of miracles. They also believe that you can create goods out of nothingness and from thin air. This does not agree with the established principles of science. Many of us are puzzled by this unusual phenomenon attributed to you… Also, we are worried that many in our country are under the influence of superstition, which will eventually have disastrous consequences on them… Besides being well-known for your miracles, you are also well-known for serving the cause of truth. Hence, we’ll be grateful if you give us time to discuss with you the miracles you perform and also investigate them in a controlled scientific environment. We have no doubt whatsoever that in the name of the truth that is often equated to the divine you’ll co-operate with our experiments. Kindly indicate the place, date and time of the meeting.”
There was no response to this letter and therefore a reminder was sent on 16 June 1976. When that too was met with silence, a third and final letter, provoking the Baba to respond, was written by Narasimhaiah on 5 July 1976. Excerpt:
“Dear Swamiji: You haven’t responded to two of our earlier letters… There is a halo around you because you perform miracles. When your miracles are proved to be illusory you will be reduced to a common man. Since you fear that your halo will be stripped by our investigations you are avoiding us. You may be thinking that both ‘divinity’ and your ‘divine self’ are beyond such examination. But you know very well how spurious that position is… Any man should explain and prove what he has said. This is a minimum that one can expect from a decent human being. It is not very difficult to mislead or cheat people, but no man can ignore his conscience. You know this pretty well… In the lives of great man we don’t find a gap between their word and deed. This is clear when one studies the life of Buddha, Vivekanand and Mahatma Gandhi. They have always encouraged their followers to be critically alert and question their teachings… Was there any secret in the lives of these people? When we compare your life with that of great human beings and religious masters we find a lot of inadequacies. You have scarified truth and made mystery your trump card. All great men have preached that truth is god and falsehood is a sin… We don’t intend to accuse you or hurt your feelings through this letter… This is the last letter that I’ll be writing to you. If you don’t respond by 19 July 1976, we’ll assume that you have nothing to say and will be constrained to release it to the media. I am still confident that you’ll demonstrate moral courage by meeting us.”
Narasimhaiah reproduces all the three letters in his book Tereda Mana (An Open Mind) published by Christ College Kannada Sangha in 1992. Needless to say the third letter also met with no response and, as planned, it was released to the media. Expectedly, it created quiet a storm. Narasimhaiah further challenged the Baba and asked him to give him a pumpkin from thin air, instead of a tiny ring. Interestingly, after the debate started raging in the press, the Baba started a vilification campaign against of the university panel and Narasimhaiah, in particular. He called them ‘worms’ who couldn’t grasp his divine attributes. In one of his speeches made in Bangalore, Narasimhaiah reports, the Baba called the panel members ‘dogs’ and ‘ants.’ He described himself as a star that would never diminish. He arrogantly claimed that there was no force on earth that could examine him.
Narasimhaiah and the distinguished panelists did not let go at this point. They took a unilateral decision of meeting Baba at 10 am on 29 May 1977, at his Whitefield residence. The swamiji’s followers warned them of dire consequences if they carried out their plan, but they still went ahead and reached the place on the appointed day with a small army of journalists. They couldn’t penetrate the fortress that was his ashram, just like it is now. After this episode, Narasimhaiah claims that the Baba by and large reduced his indulgence with miracles. He stuck to preaching and social work.
Looking back at this encounter between a rationalist, fearless Satyagrahi and the Baba demonstrates many interesting shifts, both in terms of moral positions and public debates, in a span of 35 years. As I indicated earlier, the phrase ‘scientific temper’ that represented a Nehruvian dream and an Enlightenment ideal has now been extinguished from public discourse. As young adults in the 80s we were asked to write essays and illustrate ‘scientific temper.’ It was a cherished value of our curricula. As a result, we ended up reading and reproducing well-argued pieces by Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Oppenheimer, Haldane, J W N Sullivan, Homi Bhaba, Richard Feynman and others who were propagating the values of science.
Now science seems to have been replaced by technology in the public space. Obviously one can’t speak of the values of technology as one spoke about that of science because there aren’t any. Technology is only about application and consumption and it suits the times well. It is ideologically neutral. I am tempted to say that as more and more technology surrounds us, our pre-occupation with dogma and godmen has increased. One wonders whether technology and pop-spirituality are strange bed fellows. With science having receded from the public intellectual space, reason too appears to have met a cul de sac. Narasimhaiah could reconcile his Gandhianism and physics, or science in general, because both were obsessed with truth. As we saw recently in Anna Hazare, the nature of ‘satyagraha’ has also altered today.
I sincerely hope the Puttaparthi Baba will not betray his own foretelling and will be around till he turns 96.