Elitist press spouts asatya on Baba

BY Vamsee Juluri| IN Media Practice | 14/05/2011
To anyone who has paid unbiased attention to what Baba has said it is quite clear that his teachings emanate from a conviction in the idea of a singular divinity.
VAMSEE JULURI takes issue with those who have written to ridicule him
Sathya Sai Baba’s legacy is not easy for one to summarize given the vast difference in perception between those who knew him (and for the most part became his devotees) and those who didn’t (and for the most part became his critics). Even if we were to acknowledge that this gap is largely insurmountable since it involves issues of belief, and believers cannot expect the general public and press to share their views (and vice-versa), there are still some questions that need to be asked if some of the commentary on his life was reasonable, and even if it was ethical. I raise these questions not only because of a personal and family connection to the memory of Sai Baba, but also because I believe that the media (and media studies) community has not paid enough attention to issues of faith, allowing a growing polarization to set in between the English and the vernacular-language press on the coverage of religion (and even within the English press, an hierarchy of sorts; the hippest magazines seem to be the ones that are most cynical about religious sentiment). Of course, some of the mainstream western news media have their own standards and practices when it comes to judging non-western religions, and that is something that played out in the past few weeks as well.
The first question that one must ask is simply whether it is ethical for commentators to make fun of the suffering and death of someone they are writing about. One can make a certain amount of allowance for righteous journalistic outrage against everything critics think Sai Baba symbolized; superstition, deception, immunity from prosecution. But does the rage against a symbol justify a volley of abuse against a man? I do not recall reading comments with such a level of mirth and meanness about a man’s impending mortality even in reports about fallen tyrants and mass murderers. For example, when the Guardian's Kapil Komireddi wrote that "God spent his final days in a life support system," he wasn't just being ironic, but was also making the insouciant accusation that Baba’s illness and mortality were final proof that his critics were right and more importantly, his followers, the whole lot of them, were wrong and plain fools. This assumption though reveals a lack of understanding of the cultural dimensions of belief in India. To his followers, Baba was not just a guru or a god-man, but god, or at least an avatar of god. To a culturally sensitive observer, that point in itself should not be shocking. The idea of avatars, and not just the ten grand ones, is not an uncommon one in Hindu life. There are numerous people who have claimed, and are also believed, to be avatars of some deity or the other, but their mortality is never in doubt. To some critics though, even that claim alone is offensive, perhaps because of their own beliefs, or perhaps because they see it as a sign of India’s continuing backwardness. In any case, the question remains whether it was appropriate to shout eurekas at the death of someone revered by so many.
Ethics and sensitivities aside, there was also a desperate lack of generosity in assessing even some objective issues. Even as some reports, like Outlook's, reluctantly noted the one thing they thought Baba had done right (he resisted pressures to support the Hindutva parties during Ayodhya) they disingenuously tried to ignore the depth of his principles that made him take such a stand at the time (and this was a time when the sort of pluralistic Hinduism Baba stood for could hardly be taken for granted). But to anyone who has paid the slightest bit of unbiased attention to what Baba has said, written, or sung it is quite clear that his teachings emanate from a very strong conviction in the idea of a singular divinity adored in various forms by a diverse yet ultimately equal and connected humanity. Unfortunately, the very teaching that most opponents of religious fundamentalism and intolerance ought to have appreciated was, instead, dismissed, once again in Kapil Komireddi's peremptory language, as "banal." This criticism, of a guru who spoke a language and an idiom of the land, is also surprising coming from writers who might normally fault Hindu gurus for being too elitist and Sanskritist. Baba’s speeches and writings carry a depth and resonance in his original Telugu that cannot always be appreciated in translation (although the hundreds of thousands of followers who read him in dozens of languages other than Telugu apparently still do), and engage with metaphysics, mythology, folklore, and do go well beyond “vegetarianism, love and peace."
Another uncanny mode of denial also came up on a point for which even neutral observers have acknowledged Baba deserved credit; the massive projects undertaken by his organization to provide free education, medical care, and water. Incredibly, a somewhat casually written line in Time magazine's report  implies that Baba turned to philanthropy not because of his belief in service, but only because he was embarrassed by a colorful stage-magician who “exposed” his tricks. Those who are familiar with his life know that Baba built his first hospital, although a tiny one, long before any such incident took place, and tales of his generosity, miraculous or mundane, have been reported from as early as his childhood. Also, popular as that conjuror’s tale has been in the press, there is also another fact that is not perhaps so well known. There was at least one skillful stage magician (and quite a celebrity himself) who also famously tried to expose Baba’s supposed sleight-of-hand and ended up admitting that what he witnessed was beyond his know-how, if not outright comprehension. He became a follower of Sai Baba after this incident.
While some of these may seem like mere details, they do point to a larger question that those who believe in objective journalism should ponder. Is it good practice to exclude from a story all those who are familiar with a subject only because they are sympathetic to him? Conversely, does focusing almost exclusively on those who are hostile to a subject bestow a greater measure of objectivity? And one more question, because it does seem relevant. How important is it to read up on the life of a person you want to write about? Admittedly, the material on Baba’s life is mostly written by devotees and too full of mysticism and devotion for lay readers to tolerate. But there are other works too, like Bill Aitken’s insightful and well-reasoned Sri Sathya Sai Babathat could have helped some writers avoid clichés and assumptions. I am still not sure whether it was a lack of homework or a flash of intuition though that led Caravan's writer to claim that Sathyanarayana Raju started calling himself “Sathya” Sai Baba only because he wanted to pose as the “real” (sic.) Sai Baba. But that sort of clairvoyance was handily around for anyone who wanted it in these past few weeks. Even more than the “god-man” they loathed, it seems like it was some members of the press that ended up playing god. After all, only an omniscient being could have declared without a bit of evidence that “Baba feared for what lay beyond his own life.” Such a phrase, though, wouldn’t have been out of place in a UFOs and celebrity-ghost sightings sort of tabloid one finds in American supermarket aisles. Sadly, it wasn't there that it appeared, but once again, in The Guardian.
(The writer is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of The Mythologist: A Novel (Penguin).)
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