Thursday, February 15, 2018

Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa!

Steve pointed me to this excerpt from The Cambridge Companion to Miracles (pp 194-195):

There are many examples of such 'marvellous' happenings. Perhaps the most famous contemporary guru associated with the miraculous is Sathya Sai Baba. Sai Baba was born in 1926 to a poor family in Andhra Pradesh and his life is surrounded by devotees bearing witness to his miraculous powers. He claims to be a reincarnation of the saint Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918) and also to be an incarnation (avatara) of Shiva and Shakti. His career has been of increasing claims to divinity supported by a large organization and thousands of devoted followers. At the heart of his teachings is the idea that we are all God and that the difference between him and others is that he has realized this. He advocates what he regards as the universal human values of truth (satya), right conduct (dharma), non-violence (ahimsa), love of God and world (prema) and peace (santi). He also teaches the unity of world religions and service to humanity.31 These teachings, which are typical of Hinduism after the nineteenth century, are accompanied by miraculous events and Sai Baba demonstrating miraculous powers. The most important of these is materializations of objects such as watches, necklaces, rings and gold ornaments. Of particular importance is the manifestation of ash (vibhuti) from his finger tips, although other substances are also said to be produced such as red powder for tilak marks, turmeric powder, sweets, fruit, holy water and Siva lingas. Ash is sacred to Siva and, significantly, the term vibhuti is used synonymously with siddhi. He is also attributed with powers of clairvoyance, levitation and appearing in two places at once, or bilocation. One of the most recent claims to a miracle by Sai Baba was in 2006 when he told his devotees that he would appear in the moon. The large crowd that gathered were disappointed because of the overcast weather.32 Sai Baba does not appear to perform healing miracles.

The important point is that Sai Baba is said to perform miracles as a sign of his divinity. These manifestations are taken to be evidence for his claims by devotees and evidence of his fraudulence by his critics and rationalists. There is much controversy surrounding Sai Baba. On the one hand there is good work funded bythe Sai Baba centre or ashram and many positive claims have been made about the transformative effect of the guru on people's lives; yet on the other he has borne the brunt of negative criticism that his 'miracles' are in fact sleight-of-hand33 and accusations of sexual abuse and even complicity in murder.34 With Sai Baba we have a curious mix of a traditional yogic understanding of powers, as attested in yoga literature, in a very modern context with a Western understanding of miracles. Sai Baba himself would seem to be aware of this context and speaks to both Hindu tradition and Western belief in miracles as the disruption of material causation.


31See Lawrence A. Babb, ‘Sathya Sai Baba’s Magic’, Anthropological Quarterly 56 (1983), 116–24. Also idem, Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). For a general survey of his life see


33Erlendur Haraldsson, Modern Miracles: An Investigative Report on Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba (New York: Fawcett, 1997).

34David Bailey, A Journey to Love (Prasanthi Nilayam: Sri Sathya Sai Towers Hotels Pvt. Ltd, 1997).

Just a few brief comments for now:

1. Sai Baba claims to be a kind of savior. An enlightened one. Of course, it's quite possible he's a fraud, per above.

2. However, if Sai Baba is truly performing "miracles", then (from the Bible's perspective) he's a false prophet or an antichrist. The Bible warned us against false prophets and false messiahs (e.g. Deut 13:1-5, Mk 13:21-23).

3. Sai Baba's "signs and wonders" are more reminiscent of Jannes and Jambres and Simon Magus (e.g. ash from his fingertips, materializations of objects) than biblical miracles performed by true prophets like Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, etc. In a sense, Sai Baba's miracles are cheap parlor tricks or small potatoes compared to parting the Red Sea or the walls of Jericho falling down or even creating a gnat. Maybe a better way to put it is: I suspect there's a point at which Sai Baba would have to say "this is the finger of God".

4. Although Jesus and the prophets of the Bible performed signs and wonders, they didn't rely solely on signs and wonders to verify their claims (e.g. John 4:48).

5. If Sai Baba is performing bona fide miracles, albeit false miracles from the vantage point of Christianity, then that undermines atheist claims that miracles are impossible, that there's nothing more than the physical or natural realm. These atheists posit a universal negative against miracles and the supernatural, but if Sai Baba isn't some charlatan, then these atheists are felled at one stroke.

Atheists like Stephen Braude might argue "miracles" are possible within the natural realm. Perhaps humans have seldomly tapped abilities which may seem preternatural, but which are entirely explicable on naturalistic grounds. If so, that depends on their specific arguments and whether Sai Baba's miraculous powers can be accounted for given their specific arguments. For instance, telekinesis could explain levitation, but how could it explain materialization or bilocation?


  1. "yet on the other he has borne the brunt of negative criticism that his 'miracles' are in fact sleight-of-hand. Erlendur Haraldsson, Modern Miracles: An Investigative Report on Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba (New York: Fawcett, 1997)."

  2. Ex. 7:22 says the magicians "did the same" (ESV). Does Scripture explicitly describe the magician's abilities as "miracles?" I've often wondered about that.

    1. Thanks, Corey. That's a good point. I just meant "miracle" in a general sense. I think what I wrote above (especially #3) is vague or hazy, really. I should have taken care to present better and clearer ideas rather than dashing off a mishmash of incomplete thoughts here. Apologies.

  3. Here's a review I posted a few years ago of the book Patrick has cited. Even if all of the miracles attributed to Sai Baba were genuine, his miracles would be inferior to Jesus' miracles and Christianity's by a wide margin.

    And here's something I wrote about attributing apparent miracles to human psi.