In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sathya Sai Baba

  • Introduction
  • Overviews on Sathya Sai Baba and His Movement
  • Major Works on Sathya Sai Baba and His Movement
  • Narayan Kasturi’s Official Biography Sathyam Sivam Sundaram and Other Biographies by Devotees and Ex-Devotees
  • Other Works of Narayan Kasturi on Sathya Sai Baba
  • On Sathya Sai Baba’s Early Life
  • On Sathya Sai Baba’s Connection with Shirdi Sai Baba
  • Sathya Sai Baba’s Discourses and Writings
  • On Sathya Sai Baba’s Teachings
  • On Sathya Sai Baba’s Powers
  • On Sathya Sai Baba’s Transnational Movement

Hinduism Sathya Sai Baba
Antonio Rigopoulos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0257


Ratnākaram Sathyanārāyaṇa Rāju alias Sathya Sai Baba (Telugu: Satya Sāyibābā) was born in the village of Puttaparthi (Telugu: Puṭṭaparti), in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, on 23 November 1926. He was the fourth of the five children of Pedda Veṅkama Rāju and Meesaraganda Easwaramma. From the early 1940s young Sathya established himself as a charismatic guru claiming to be the reincarnation of the popular Maharashtrian saint Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 15 October 1918) and presenting himself as the avatāra of the age. He fixed his headquarters in his native village by founding the ashram of Prasanthi Nilayam, lit. “abode of highest peace,” where he eventually died of a cardiorespiratory failure on 24 April 2011, at age 84. In India and throughout the world his devotees number in the millions, predominantly from the urban upper-middle classes. Portraits of him smiling under a round mass of hair clad in an ocher robe are familiar both in public spaces and in private homes. His towering fame was and is due to his alleged miraculous and healing powers, which have always been his distinctive mark, attracting masses of people from all over the world to Prasanthi Nilayam in order to have his darshan (lit. “vision”), sparśan (lit. “physical contact”), and sambhāṣaṇ (lit. “conversation”). Materializations were his characteristic feat: besides the production of ashes (vibhūti) which he gave out daily as a token of his grace, he is credited with the creation of rings, pictures, stones, rosaries, fruits, sweets, various types of food, statues of dieties, and a myriad of other items. He himself subdivided his avatāric career in three phases, the first sixteen years of his life being characterized by childish play (bālalīlā), the next sixteen years by miracles (mahiman), and starting from his thirty-second year up to the end of his life by teaching (upadeśa). From 1953 onward his teaching activity has been intense, both through his public discourses and through his writings: steeped in bhakti, his instruction follows the tenets of non-dual (advaita) Vedanta and insists on a spiritual regeneration of the educational system and the practice of sevā, service to society, as is typical of neo-Hinduism. Sathya Sai Baba’s transnational movement promotes social service and education in human values through the creation of schools, hospitals, and a variety of charitable works.

Overviews on Sathya Sai Baba and His Movement

A presentation of Sathya Sai Baba’s milieu through the founding tales of his native village of Puttaparthi and the prophecy of saint Veṅkāvadhūta, the chosen deity (iṣṭadevatā) of his family to whom the guru’s advent is linked to, is in Rigopoulos 2014. White 1972 has been the first work to utilize the expression “Sai Baba movement” with reference to Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba (and others that were close to the Shirdi saint, such as Upasni Maharaj and Meher Baba), and to suggest the connection of both with the integrative deity Dattātreya and the 15th-century poet-saint Kabīr. A summary of Sathya Sai Baba’s message and triune avatāric theology in his own words is provided by Karanjia 1994, whose author came to Puttaparthi in 1976 and was able to interview the guru at length. An insightful analysis of his expansive self-definitions that account for the guru’s uncontainability and competence as domain crosser is in Copeman and Ikegame 2012. Along these lines, Srinivas 2001 highlights Sathya Sai Baba’s “rooted universalism,” i.e., his capacity of spanning through the dichotomies by presenting himself as a universal persona who is nevertheless grounded in the Vedas and traditional Hinduism, and whose constituency is made up of both middle- and upper-class Hindus and Western devotees. An engaging essay on the dynamics of the guru’s free-floating, transnational charisma, acknowledging his self-portrait as a global savior figure, is offered in Srinivas 2013, while the same author focuses on the development of the guru’s ashram as an ideal sacred polis in Srinivas 2010: the aesthetics and architecture of Prasanthi Nilayam fuse together tradition and futuristic elements that are appealing to both Indian and international followers, mirroring the cosmopolitanism of the Sathya Sai movement. Srinivas 2018 examines how religion is spatially embedded in Bangalore city, where Sathya Sai Baba’s figure plays a major role. Steel 1997 is a valuable compendium covering a variety of topics on the life and times of the guru and offering a great deal of information on his mission, teaching, and influence. Ruhela and Robinson 1982 is an edited collection of introductory articles on the guru’s figure and his charitable and educational activities, first and foremost his education in human values program.

  • Copeman, Jacob, and Aya Ikegame. “The Multifarious Guru: An Introduction.” In The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Edited by Jacob Copeman and Aya Ikegame, 1–45. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.

    The authors underline the significance of Sathya Sai Baba’s expansive self-definitions: by pointing beyond himself through a strategy of genealogical diversification he was able to expand his appeal from local to global guru, proving his uncontainability and competence as domain crosser. In his role as avatāra he exemplified both accessibility and unattainability, such interplay being crucial in the maintenance of a guru’s authority and charisma.

  • Karanjia, Rustom Khurshedji. God Lives in India. Puttaparthi, India: Saindra, 1994.

    An interview that the guru granted in 1976 to R. K. Karanjia, owner-editor of the Bombay newsmagazine Blitz. It lasted more than two hours and it was the longest-ever interview that Sathya Sai Baba granted to any journalist. He presents his mission and triune avatāra theology based on the advent of Shirdi Sai Baba, himself, and the future Prema Sai Baba, advocating what Karanjia defines as “spiritual socialism.”

  • Rigopoulos, Antonio. “The Construction of a Cultic Center through Narrative: The Founding Myth of the Village of Puttaparthi and Sathya Sāī Bābā.” History of Religions 54.2 (November 2014): 117–150.

    DOI: 10.1086/677807

    The article analyzes the founding myth of Puttaparthi and how Sathya Sai Baba appropriated it in order to justify and foster his cult. Located in the Anantapur district of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Puttaparthi literally means “multiplier of termite mounds” and tales centered upon termite mounds (Telugu: puṭṭa) are a characteristic of India’s pastoral areas.

  • Ruhela, Satya Pal, and Duane Robinson, eds. Sai Baba and His Message: A Challenge to Behavioural Sciences. Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

    A collection of twenty-seven introductory articles on the guru’s figure and teachings, his link to Shirdi Sai Baba, and his goal of “educational reconstruction” of India through the establishment of schools and colleges in Prasanthi Nilayam and throughout the country based on the human values of truth, righteousness, peace, love, and non-violence. It comprises four articles by the guru himself plus a final chapter of 101 sayings of his.

  • Srinivas, Smriti. “The Advent of the Avatar: The Urban Following of Sathya Sai Baba and Its Construction of Tradition.” In Charisma and Canon: Essays on the Religious History of the Indian Subcontinent. Edited by Vasudha Dalmia, Angelika Malinar, and Martin Christof, 293–309. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    The guru is said to foster a “rooted universalism” by positing himself as a universal persona grounded in traditional Hinduism. Such theosophical universalism is a characteristic of the Sathya Sai movement, whose constituency is made up of two main groups: urban middle- and upper-class Indians; non-Indian devotees plus the Indians of the diaspora. Politically, the guru is seen as a moderate, having repeatedly voiced his objection to hindutva.

  • Srinivas, Tulasi. “Building Faith: Religious Pluralism, Pedagogical Urbanism, and Governance in the Sathya Sai Sacred City.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 13.3 (2010): 301–336.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11407-010-9083-2

    The author examines the growth of Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram of Prasanthi Nilayam as an ideal polis. The architecture of the guru’s sacred city is aimed at being aesthetically traditional—a living memorial—and at the same time appealing to cosmopolitan devotees through its futuristic elements. Its objective is the ethical regeneration and transformation of the guru’s bhaktas.

  • Srinivas, Tulasi. “Sathya Sai Baba.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 5. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan, 625–633. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    An introductory essay on the guru’s figure focusing on the the dynamics of his “nomadic charisma,” showing the productive interplay between Sathya Sai Baba’s charismatic personhood and globalization. Having achieved the status of a global avatāra-guru-sant, his free-floating charisma extends to different geographies and times, enfolding both traditional and revolutionary aspects.

  • Srinivas, Smriti. “Highways for Healing: Contemporaneous ‘Temples’ and Religious Movements in an Indian City.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86.2 (2018): 473–496.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/lfx058

    Within the context of Bangalore city, the author analyzes “the sacrality of urban sprawl,” i.e., how cities are important arenas for the recruitment of devotees and the construction of habitats to house new spiritual maps and ideas of selfhood, particularly for the old and new middle class. Herein, Sathya Sai Baba’s figure plays a significant role in the spatial embedding of contemporaneous religiosity.

  • Steel, Brian. The Sathya Sai Baba Compendium: A Guide to the First Seventy Years. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1997.

    This compendium covers over 300 topics on Sathya Sai Baba in alphabetical order. Divided in two parts—“The Life and Times of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba” and “A Compendium of Information on the Mission, Teachings, and Influence of Sathya Sai Baba”—it also provides a concordance between the American and Indian editions of the Sathya Sai Speaks series and a bibliography of over 325 texts.

  • White, Charles Sidney John. “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints.” Journal of Asian Studies 31.4 (1972): 863–878.

    DOI: 10.2307/2052105

    The author was the first scholar to coin the expression “Sai Baba movement,” linking Shirdi Sai Baba—along with a few disciples and connections of his, such as Upasni Maharaj and Meher Baba—to Sathya Sai Baba. He visited the guru’s ashram in Puttaparthi in 1970 and was the first to highlight the relevance of the god Dattātreya and of the poet-saint Kabīr for understanding the Sai Baba movement.

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