Religion does not often feature on this blog, not with peaceful stories anyway, so it is probably appropriate to be writing about my Easter Sunday that started with an Archbishop of Canterbury tale and continued with news of the death of Sri Satya Sai Baba, 84, India’s most revered guru. It ended with two hours of magical Sufi singing in a Delhi park (above) by a Qawwali group from Pakistan that defied fundamentalist Islam and bound together the peoples of the two neighbouring countries who have more in common than their quarrelsome leaders let on.
The tale stemmed from a six-year old girl writing to God asking him “how did you get invented?”. The letter reached the desk of Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of Britain’s Anglican church, who amazed her family by personally replying with a simple explanation. He said it was a “difficult question” but he thought God might say: “Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised….. Then they invented ideas about me, some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – especially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like”.
Yesterday morning a friend emailed me saying it was nice that the Archbishop could write in simple language! That goes for theologians of most religions, I guess. Gurus have a gift for simple language and often mislead their gullible followers – ranging from the very rich to the very poor – in a country such as India where religion is deeply ingrained in the culture and daily life – a far cry from the nation dominated by unbelievers where the Archbishop reigns. It is indeed easy to be cynical about India’s many saffron-robed “god-men” who often turn out to be self-serving con men that cash in (literally) on the emotional, and sometimes physical, weaknesses of their adoring congregations.
Sai Baba (below) however was different from most other gurus. He claimed he was more a living god than a mere god-man, being a reincarnation of an earlier revered guru who died in 1918 and preached a humanist creed spanning both Muslim and Hindu religions. From his base at Puttaparthi in south India, he built a worldwide following of 30m devotees and wealth of an astonishing Rs40,000 crore ($8.8bn £5.5bn) – a legacy that is already being fought over by his family and trusts.
His many his philanthropic activities helped him overcome controversies that included allegations of sexual abuse and of misleading followers by performing apparent miracles such as producing holy ash, and gold chains out of the air.
The BBC website summed up the conundrum of his life: “To his devotees, Sai Baba was an avatar, an incarnation of God in human form, who appeared on Earth to preach his inspirational message in one of India’s poorest corners. To his critics, he was a fraudster dogged for years by controversial allegations of sexual abuse yet protected from prosecution by virtue of his powerful political sway.”
But the strength of his appeal was underlined by an Indian friend who told me: “For Hindus, religious figures like this provoke a larger sense of personal trust, faith and surrender which make life more manageable and bearable”. Yesterday, Indian television stations had continuous coverage of his life with messages of sorrow and admiration from virtually every politician in India including the prime minister, vice president, and leaders of political parties. Hundreds of thousands of followers are expected at his funeral on Wednesday.
Later yesterday, the strands of my day came together when, in an audience of some 4,000 people, I listened to Bhakti (devotional) music at an open-air concert organised by Seher, a Delhi-based cultural organisation.
The high spot was two hours of Qawwali – a popular form of Muslim music that goes back nearly seven centuries – performed by three famous brothers (Sher Miandad (left), Faiz Fareed Ali Raza and Fakhar-uz-Zaman) from the Pakistani province of Punjab. Sung in a chanting and often raucous style, Qawwali is immensely popular in India and Pakistan. It reflects the Sufi mystical side of Islam and binds the two countries together, though it is shunned by the fundamentalists who are gaining ground in Pakistan.
The songs told how the human soul is greater than the hypocritical lessons of many religious preachers – “When you fly on from this world, no-one will ask your religion or community”. The archbishop and Sai Baba would agree.