Born on November 23, 1926, in Puttaparthy, Satyanarayana Raju allegedly displayed prodigious talents from an early age. His apparently supernatural abilities initially caused some concern to his family, who took him to Vedic doctors and eventually to be exorcised. Having been declared possessed by the divine rather than the diabolical, at the age of 14 he calmly announced he was the new incarnation of Sai Baba, a saint from Shirdi in Maharashtra who died eight years before Satya was born.
Gradually his fame spread and a large following developed. In 1950 the ashram was inaugurated and a decade later Sai Baba was attracting international attention. His death on April 27 2011 has done nothing to diminish his popularity – he still has millions of devotees worldwide. Just 5ft tall, with a startling Hendrix-style Afro, his smiling, saffron-clad figure can be seen on posters, photos and murals all over south India. Though his miraculous powers reportedly included the ability to materialize vibhuti, sacred ash, with curative properties, Sai Baba always claimed this to be unimportant, emphasizing instead his message of universal love. During his last years a number of ex-followers made serious accusations about coercion and even sexual abuse on the part of the guru himself, which have been vehemently denied.
Predictably, following the passing of the guru, there have been further rumours of corruption by the trustees of his organization, casting its future into some doubt. Whatever your feelings about the divinity of Sai Baba, the atmosphere around the ashram remains undeniably peaceful. You can find out more about the Sai organization at saibaba.ws.