Reflections on the Death of Sathya Sai Baba: Discernment Is A Lifelong Process

05/04/2011 02:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

Another saint has passed. Spiritual leader and Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba died on April 24, 2011. Was he more saint or more sinner, who can ultimately say? He was, above all, a human being, just like every other significant spiritual teacher on the planet.

Although I never met Sathya Sai Baba, when I learn of his death, my heart saddens. For the hundreds of thousands of people who considered him to be their guru, the countless lives benefitted from his service, the glory and suffering of this man's life, as well as the grace and challenges that faced all who surrounded him.

I remember learning about Sathya Sai Baba as a 25-year-old woman living in India. I had traveled there on a one-way ticket and was finding my way around, not even willing to use a guidebook less the "Inner Voice" I was seeking to follow be thwarted by the influence of those who had traveled before me.

The first wanna-be guru I spent several weeks with there considered himself to be a guru in the direct lineage of Sathya Sai Baba, though they had never met in person. Sathya Sai Baba was known for his miracles, and those devoted to him often found a sacred ash called vibhuti on their altars. So when a gray ash appeared on my bed in my tiny room alongside the Ganges River, I reported this to my new teacher. It was quickly assumed that I had been the recipient of this miraculous ash and word quickly spread that I was to be an important disciple of my new guru.

Something felt ... well, wrong about this. After a few days in my newfound local fame, I returned to my little room, borrowed a broom, moved my bed to the middle of the room and promptly stood up on it and vigorously swept the ceiling. Lo and behold, cheap gray Indian paint rained upon me.

I was relieved somehow -- I didn't need to be the recipient of miraculously manifested sacred ash. I was just looking to find happiness, love, and whatever this longed-for enlightenment might be, but not ash. My popularity diminished almost instantly.

Most believe that Sathya Sai Baba did indeed possess the magical power, or siddhi, to manifest fancy objects and jewels for his followers. Others suggest this was entirely fraudulent. But let us assume it might have been true -- this would not mean anything about his enlightenment or lack of enlightenment, but rather that he possessed a great power. If this power was somehow fraudulent, but faith was healed among disbelievers and people found themselves closer to love of the Divine, could it be said to be altogether bad? The benefit is that this power awakened tens or hundreds of thousands of people from the disbelief in the divine. It healed their cynicism and opened their hearts. Praise to any gift that can open hearts, let us just not mistake this for enlightenment.

Many years ago I felt the need for a great book to be written about what happens to spiritual communities when a teacher dies. I asked a writer friend if he could do it as I could not find the time. Sadly there are few resources written for support on this trans-cultural challenge that is timeless in its nature, and contains cultural and historical variables given the complexity of the times we are living in, the immensity of projections onto the guru, and the distinctions regarding the Eastern and Western psyche. It is such an important transition for each student or disciple, so many predictable challenges regarding power, leadership, loss, reorganization of the community. I wish his families and followers ease in their grieving, all of us spaciousness and forgiveness around any of Sathya Sai Baba's weaknesses, and most of all, integrity to those who are charged with the responsibility of spiritual leadership.

I have tried to write about these issues extensively in my forthcoming book The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher. However, the fact remains: discernment is a lifelong process, and there are more questions than answers. Each life, each relationship is distinct. We can simply cultivate greater discernment as we journey through a labyrinth of increasing subtlety.

Another historical figure, renowned guru, and servitor of our time has passed. Praise to his goodness and may his great influence continue touch lives and promote healing on the planet.