Secret Swami - Why You Should Be Your Own Master

Posted on June 7, 2017

An interesting thing happened to me one month ago at the yoga school where I take classes. In fact, I do not take classes there anymore, and my story will explain why. The school has devoted teachers, and I really liked going there, so it is a great pity. The school has a small yoga hall that displays, at the front wall, a gallery of masters, but I know only a few of the faces. A face I recognize with joy is that of Ramana Maharshi. But I am not keen on the portrait of Sai Baba, at the bottom of the portrait list. About him I feel very uneasy, for some time ago I have watched a one-hour BBC documentary film, shot in 2004, Secret Swami, directed by Tanya Datta.

The documentary is very well made, and it should be disturbing to followers of Sai Baba that have mustered the courage to view it. At least, so it seems to me. At the BBC website, in the long list of comments on the film, you can see that opinions on its merits are sharply divided. The film consists of a number of extended interviews with followers, ex-followers and critics of Sai Baba, with running commentary. Most of the interviewing is done by Tanya Datta. You can find a full transcript of the interviews on the BBC website.

Some critics that are interviewed are quite clearly on a debunking mission. They explain how the so-called miracles of Sai Baba – materializing sacred ashes and small objects – are in fact simple conjuring tricks, by demonstrating (to a delighted audience in some Indian village) how these feats are performed by simple sleight of hand. I also watched this with delight, but, to be quite honest, I had never ever believed in the miracles in the first place. This pouring of sacred ashes for me is in the same category as dispensing incense by swinging a censer, which I used to do myself as a choir boy, long ago, when I assisted at Church services.

To me the serious miracles of life are to be found elsewhere. When I suddenly arrive at understanding with someone that I could not connect with before, to me that is a genuine miracle.

But some followers in the BBC film really believe that Sai Baba is creating something from nothing. Believing that such a thing is possible may seem harmless folly, but in fact there is something quite worrying about it. Every belief that gets me out of sync with reality is potentially harmful to me, for it makes me less effective in dealing with the real challenges of the outside world, the trials of harsh reality that we all have to cope with.

If you believe that it is possible for a human to create stuff from nothing, then this inevitably has an effect on your beliefs about other things, serious things, too. It becomes more difficult for you, for instance, to have a proper perspective on issues of food production and distribution, water scarcity, energy conservation. If you believe that stuff can be created from nothing, then it becomes easy to believe in abundance of food and energy. Alas, abundance thinking cannot solve our food and energy problems, for food and energy production obey the laws of the physical world. To understand these laws we need science, not wishful thinking.

But the documentary has other points to make. Some devotees were filmed in secret (hence the title of the film) and one of them, Dr Michael Goldstein (a medical doctor), who thinks he is in private, can be seen to make a lightning fast transition from a seeming state of spiritual tranquility to a very real one of fuming raging fury when the interviewers confront him, quietly but insistently, with incriminating material about his swami, mostly accusations by former devotees. Some of the accusations are grave and alarming. In 1993 there was a murder case at the ashram. Intruders into the ashram, armed with only knives, were killed with firearms by police officers. But there was never a court case. Former disciples accuse Sai Baba of having abused them when they were children. Again, this never made it to a court of justice. Serious stuff.

If you are into Sai Baba and you watch this documentary, and you have enough intelligence to see that the film poses serious questions, then this encounter must create cognitive dissonance, shock. So at some point I entered into a serious conversation with my yoga teacher. I told her that I had watched the documentary, and that as a result I felt very uneasy about the inclusion of the secret swami in the guru gallery of the school. To my surprise she had watched the film, too. “And what did you experience?” “First it shocked me, but then I took counsel with my spiritual master, and he told me that I could let it go. So I did.”

At that point it became clear that I could not stay at the yoga school. There were other things, too. A suggestion of my yoga teacher, earlier, that physical attraction to women, which she sensed in me, distracts from divine love. This sounded much like the priests that I remember from my boarding school years. They tried to practice divine love and charity, but struggled in secret with their own suppressed sexuality. So I had been there before, with no wish to visit this painful territory again.

Yoga, if it is practiced seriously, offers a way of self-liberation, it suggests a path. We can decide that this is the right track for us, but we need to keep our own wits. For we are, and always will be, responsible ourselves for finding the path that is right for us. That responsibility can never by handed over to someone else.

We are all our own masters, for life takes us to task for the decisions that we make and that are not right for us. Evading an issue by saying that a spiritual master has given us absolution, that strikes me as, well, childish. We need to grow up and behave as adults.

We define ourselves by our actions. What should I do? What would the man do that I wish to be? If I do not quite know how I wish to be, maybe I can find out by taking counsel with people I trust and admire. Would the ones I admire do the thing I am contemplating? If the answer is no then I should maybe reconsider. Next, I take my own counsel. And then I act. And then the mysterious being that I am defines and unfolds and recreates and transforms itself by its own doing. And that is another genuine miracle.