So farewell then, Sai Baba. Not immortal obviously, but an extraordinary human being by any standards. Even if what he did was just close-up conjuring, then, as with the most convincing psychics - Uri Geller and Daniel Home, for instance - he took it to new and fantastic levels.
I remember reading books about Sai Baba years ago, at a time when I had yet to make up my mind about psychic phenomena, and being deeply confused. How was it possible that an ordinary person could make things appear from thin air? Sweets, little ornaments, or quite big ones sometimes - he just waved his hand in the air and there it was. As he walked around he would produce these things and give them to people. Of course it can't be done - it's just conjuring. But somehow it wasn't.
Sai Baba didn't do investigations, but in the 1970s Erlendur Haraldsson and Karlis Osis got close enough to observe him in action and to interview some of the people around him. Haraldsson subsequently wrote a book, Miracles Are My Visiting Cards. He carefully considered all the evidence and pointed to some quite serious difficulties for any fraud hypothesis. I don't have the book, but I do have an article which he co-authored from the SPR Journal, April 1995, in which he writes:
Apparently Sai Baba sometimes produces objects in response to specific situations, on demand, or, for example, fruits out of season and not locally available, or rare objects. Sometimes in group audiences Sai Baba may, for example, produce an amount of sweets onto the palm of someone's hand. He then distributes all the sweets until they are finished. Then a new person comes along who was not seen by Sai Baba, or was absent, and asks for a piece. Sai Baba then produces more of the same thing. Haraldsson and Osis observed such an incident.
After being outdoors for hours Sai Baba is reported to produce steaming-hot foods, so hot that those present find them hard to hold. He does this dressed, as always in the hot Indian climate, in one thin robe, which, when there is a breeze, falls rather tight to his body. He also seems to produce his phenomena with the same ease and frequently whether he is in his interview room, travelling in a car or an aeroplane, or when he is somewhere outdoors on a journey.
Haraldsson points out that for over a period of five decades Sai Baba had a number of close associates, who inevitably must have known if fraud was taking place, since they had access to his living quarters and took care of his personal belongings. The guru was constantly handing these objects out - as many as ten or twenty a day - and they would have to be procured and stored. Over the years many of these people left the ashram and some subsequently turned their back on Sai Baba and left his movement altogether. It's difficult to imagine that somewhere along the line one of these people would not have blown the whistle if their former employer was indulging in a tacky deception.
Haraldsson also interviewed a number of people at length for his book and says they all reported that they were as baffled by the phenomena the day they left Baba's ashram as the first day they observed them. Some were highly critical of other aspects of his life or teaching - there have been particularly damaging allegations of sexual abuse, for instance - but this was something they had no explanation for.
So what about the films that claim to expose him. The most ubiquitous of them was made in 1992 by an Indian TV station and shows Sai Baba in front of an audience in a public ceremony taking a large memento of some kind from an assistant and presenting it to an architect. Immediately after handing it over he swirls his right hand in the air and produces a gold chain, which he also hands over.
A newspaper, Hyderabad's Deccan Chronicle analysed the performance and claimed it showed him covertly receiving the chain from the assistant under cover of the memento. According to the paper's "highly reliable sources", the fraud was so obvious that Sai Baba's top staff panicked when they saw the tape on the monitors and ordered all copies of it to be destroyed.
Haraldsson went to India to investigate, taking Richard Wiseman with him to supply his expertise on close-up magic. The pair persuaded the newspaper to dig out the film and show it to them (this was before it was publicly available, obviously). This is from their article in the SPR Journal:
To assess the possibility of sleight-of-hand it is important to study two crucial moments on the videotape. The first is when Sai Baba puts his hands under the memento apparently to support its weight. There is a moment of hesitation as the weight is shifted, during which Sai Baba's left hand and [his assistant's] right hand touch, or nearly touch. At this moment the necklace could have changed hands from [the assistant] to Sai Baba.
The other crucial moment is when Sai Baba lets go of the memento, places his right hand under the memento, and possibly touches his left hand. At this moment Sai Baba could have shifted the necklace from his left to his right hand.
In the Deccan Chronicle it is stated that Sai Baba "takes the gold chain from his personal assistant". However, this definitely cannot be seen on the tape. The chain is not seen until it appears at the end of the swirling circular movement of Sai Baba's right hand.
The meeting and touching of Sai Baba's and the assistant's hands would have given the assistant an opportunity to pass an object into Sai Baba's hand. The question is, however, did such a transfer take place? The tape does not contain enough information to assess this question with any certainty. If such transfer did not occur there needs to be another explanation for why Sai Baba moved his hand over to his assistant's hand. Was it to help him support the heavy memento until it was safely in the hands of the architect, or was there some other reason? We can only guess.
Wiseman had the tape enhanced by a specialist fraud-busting company, which made it clearer to view but did not reveal any additional information.
The film certainly provides evidence of the means by which the act of materialization could be faked. What it doesn't provide is any direct evidence that it was faked. As is usually the case that little detail doesn't matter. After it had circulated among sceptics' groups abroad the British press simply declared that the supposed miracle had been revealed as a "tawdry sleight-of-hand".
I wonder if there will now be some kind of reassessment of Sai Baba in the West. The psychic stuff in his biog is hard to avoid and it will be interesting to see how commentators deal with it.
For me the real-fake dichotomy is not the most interesting thing. It's hard to avoid comparing "miracle-workers" like Sai Baba - and there have been others, in India especially - with Jesus of Nazareth, at least in the context of supposed miracles. It's been a cliché in the past century and a half, even among Christians, to overlook the New Testament miracles as a distraction. What made Jesus so astonishing to his contemporaries is to us, in our more knowing, sophisticated times, merely an embarrassment. If we're interested in the man at all it's because of his essential goodness.
I expect that distinction will be made in the weeks to come with regard to Sai Baba. The only obituary I've seen so far is in the Guardian, which one would expect to consider him and his ilk a repulsive throwback to the dark days of superstition. In fact the article was quite balanced, dismissing the miracles as "gimmicks", but recognizing the very considerable achievements of Sai Baba's charitable foundations, for instance the costly feat of bringing a rich new supply of fresh drinking water to Chennai and improving the lives of millions.
But are psychism and spirituality to be separated? Eastern mystical religions have long viewed psychic phenomena - siddhis - as a concomitant of spirituality, an inevitable experience on the spiritual path. We Westerners can call this a "narrative", implying that it's a convention fashioned by the cultural imagination, and we can then slot Sai Baba neatly into it. Spelled out, this would mean he was just faking because it was the way to be recognized as a super-star guru. Doubtless, that's how some secularists would view Jesus too. Conjuring tricks, coincidental healings and other exaggerated claims were a way of claiming the attention of the masses and getting them to listen to his homilies about living a better life.
Twenty years ago I would probably have gone along with that sort of construction. Now I'm not at all so sure.