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Asia

Followers say goodbye to Indian guru

Sai Baba was a well-known Indian "godman," or guru. While he was followed by many, he was also distrusted. After his death, it is unclear what will become of his multi-million dollar fortune.

Spiritual leader Satya Sai Baba (middle) was very influential

Spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba (middle) was very influential

Hundreds of thousands bid farewell to Sathya Sai Baba, India's most influential spiritual guru, as he was laid to rest with state honours in the southern town of Puttaparti. He died recently of multiple organ failure.

Amid the chanting of Vedic hymns and holy verses, a team of 18 priests performed the last rituals before the coffin of the 85-year-old spiritual guru was lowered into a grave on Wednesday. It was at this very place, the Sai Kulwant Hall, where the "godman" gave blessings to his devotees and delivered discourses for decades.

Devotees pay tributes to Sathya Sai Baba in Puttaparti, India, on the eve of his funeral

Devotees pay tributes to Sathya Sai Baba in Puttaparti, India, on the eve of his funeral

In attendance at his funeral on Wednesday were a host of politicians, bureaucrats and film stars. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi were among the thousands of mourners who paid their respects. Millions followed the burial live on television.

High emotions

There was an outpouring of emotion among his followers. Among them was Arjuna Ranatunga, the former Sri Lanka cricket captain, who has been a follower of Sai Baba for 10 years and became close to the guru. "I think it is a sad day not only for us but for the entire world," he says, "I think the amount of things he has done for people in the world, you can’t put it in words."

Ashok Chavan, Maharashtra’s former chief minister also says he will miss Sai Baba. "We all Sai devotees are in a situation of grief, extremely sad about Baba’s passing away," Chavan says. He adds that Sai Baba has been a great strength, not only to all Sai devotees, but especially to the Chavan family, which has been associated with Sai Baba for more than 45 years.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, second right, pays his last respects to the Hindu holy man

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, second right, pays his last respects to the Hindu holy man

Millions of followers across the globe believe Sai Baba possessed supernatural powers. Using the donations that he received over the years, he built a sprawling empire of free hospitals, schools, clinics and prayer centers.

Devotion and scorn

The billionaire guru’s charities and claimed miracles won him both devotion and scorn. Critics pointed to Sai Baba’s incredible wealth (more than 9 billion US dollars) and levelled accusations of fraud that sit alongside more serious claims of sexual abuse and murder.

Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, says Sai Baba’s charitable work is questionable. Whereas anybody who does philantrophic activities should be welcomed, he says, there is a "very, very serious doubt" when it comes to Sathya Sai Baba's intentions.

Thousands of tearful devotees, including top politicians, gathered Wednesday for the funeral of Sai Baba

Thousands of tearful devotees, including top politicians, gathered Wednesday for the funeral of Sai Baba

"He claimed to be a god at the age of 14 and the first philanthropic work we see is when he attains the age of 70," Edamaruku explains. "If the mission of his life as an avatar or as a real god was to make considerable philanthropic activity for the poor, why did he not do it up to the age of 70?"

Legend has it that Sai Baba is reportedly the reincarnation of the great spiritual guru Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918 and is worshipped as a saint by Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Over the decades, he acquired a pan-India following of millions, cutting across languages and faiths. Edamaruku says, Sai Baba leaves behind a troubled legacy.

Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning

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