Illustration by Juliana Neufeld
By Vivek Shraya
Sri Sathya Sai Baba was an Indian multi-faith guru who was widely adored, worshipped and criticized. He died on April 24, 2011. This was twelve years earlier than he’d predicted.
I loved Sai Baba so much that I wrote about him in my first book, God Loves Hair:
“When man is bad, God comes to Earth in a human body to bring change. This is what I learn in Sunday school. I learn that man has been bad and God, as promised, has come. God lives in India. His name is Sai Baba, which means Divine Mother and Father. I learn that Baba has come to remind everyone that they too are God, but they have just forgotten.
I understand that I am supposed to be focusing somehow on remembering my own good ways, but it is so much easier to love His. I wear His face around my neck. I plaster my bedroom in His photos, transforming it into an enchanted altar, candles included. He is my rock ‘n roll God, with an afro to match. I stare at Him for hours. Can you see me? God is my first love.
I tie a red ribbon around a tree in the field to mark it, render it holy and meditate at its foot during recess. I conjure rain to prove His love for me – Brahma let it rain, Vishnu let it rain – and it pours. In my dreams, I am in a crowd waiting for Him. He walks right to me. We sit together and He tells me things I won’t remember in the morning. But Him actually visiting me in my dream confirms our bond. God is my first best friend…”
As I grew older, I began to question what I read to be inconsistencies in Sai Baba’s teachings. Karma, for instance, no longer felt like an adequate justification for the horrors of our world; it wasn’t enough to say, “Well, that person must have done something very bad in a past life,” because the God I loved was merciful—wasn’t He? My mom told me to pray for answers but no answer ever came. So I stopped asking questions. With that came the end of prayer, as well.
I watched Sai Baba’s funeral on the internet, holding the cyber-hand of a friend via IM. Earlier in the week I’d scoffed when my mom had mentioned that many Sai Baba devotees were speculating he would resurrect like Jesus. Grief makes people delusional. And yet, as pundits performed the last rites around his body, which was wrapped in orange sheets, I found myself whispering to my computer screen: “Wake up Baba! Wake up!” I realize now that we weren’t delusional. We were believers until the very end—no, beyond the end—and this was one of his greatest gifts to us: to audaciously and persistently believe in the impossible.