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The author had personal experiences of his materializations and never found any evidence of fraud. One such incident was where Baba said something in an interview with him about a `double rudraksha'. Haraldsson couldn't understand what this was and kept pressing Baba to explain what it was. After Baba and his interpreter failed to convey its meaning, Baba seemed to get impatient and then closed his fist, waved his hand for a moment and then opened it to reveal an acorn-like object which was actually two rudrakshas grown together. Baba gave this to him as a present, but not before he took it back into his hands and blew on it. Then when he opened his hand it was decorated with golden shields on the top and bottom held together by a short golden chain so that it could be worn on a necklace. Haraldsson has a note that he took this `double rudraksha' to some botanical specialists who considered his piece to be genuine, although it is so rare that they (experts on rudrakshas) had never seen one before.
When asked by Haraldsson how he does it, Baba replied: "Mental creation. I think, imagine, and then it is there." When materializing, he simply waves his hand with quick circular movements and then the object shows up in his hand. He sometimes even pulls up the sleeves of his robes to show skeptical people that it's not a trick. However, Haraldsson's main purpose in visiting him was to try and get him to submit to controlled scientific experimentation, and this Baba refused saying he was not going to use his powers for demonstration, only for the good of his devotees. However, according to some interviews in the book with people who were around him when he was young before he got really famous and had a huge following, he often did use his powers for demonstration or just to have fun.
Baba, apart from claiming to not want to use his powers for demonstration, also seemed to imply in his discussions with Haraldsson that there was nothing to gain from such experimentation. He claimed that scientists could not understand the spiritual and "the spiritual starts where science ends." This statement got me thinking and I think it has some validity. Imagine for a moment if this man truly did have the power to materialize any object he wanted, teleport, ect... Say he was tested under controlled conditions and found to actually have those powers. What would science do with this information? How could they ever even think about incorporating this data into their theories of the world? How would they explain it? They couldn't. The only way to explain it would be to create a whole new fundamental theory based on mind, and not matter. For his powers, if authentic, point to the primacy of mind to control and direct matter. But mind is outside the reach of science. Mind, as apart from the brain, is something that's not material, but manifests in the material world. Scientists can only study its effects, not the thing itself.
Even so, I'm still a fan of parapsychology because controlled experimentation is valuable in the level of proof it provides. Whether or not science could ever hope to explain paranormal phenomena, like esp, psychokinesis, levitation, etc... it is at least valuable to prove that these things are real.
In this book, Haraldsson mostly sticks to describing the paranormal occurrences people report around Baba. However, he does mention comparisons of his reported phenomena and those of other saints and 19th Century spirit mediums. He doesn't explore these comparisons in much depth, just sort of mentions them in passing. If you're interested in that topic I would recommend another White Crow Book, "Natural and Supernatural" by Brian Inglis--a very good historian of the paranormal. Haraldsson also just touches upon Baba's spiritual teachings, with a small chapter devoted to that. Finally, he addresses critics of Baba and weighs the various skeptical arguments made against him.
Overall, the book is very well done and Haraldsson covers a great many incidents in Baba's life, criticisms, various theories about him, and first hand observations. It is a great collection of testimony regarding this enigmatic figure of the modern world. There's no definitive proof, as in a scientific experiment, but there is probably the closest thing to it--numerous reports by people who witnessed the miraculous up close and first-hand, including the author. This, combined with critical analysis and follow-up with others who claimed to have seen the same thing. And these are people from all walks of life, from University professors to doctors and scientists, westerners, and lay people. In the case of Sai Baba, this is as close to proof as can be provided. I commend Mr. Haraldsson for this comprehensive and valuable work.
As a last thought, the stories in this book reminded me of the set of books called "Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East". I only read the first 3, but was compelled by the spiritual teachings in it. In this set, supposedly a true story of the authors travels in the Far East, the "Masters" as he called them regularly perform many of the same miracles as Baba was reported to have performed many times. So, I may have to go back and revisit that collection and finish it.
To believe, or not to believe? That tis the question, and each reader will have to decide on his/her own.
This review mainly focuses on the painstaking and thorough investigations by Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson into the paranormal phenomena associated with Sri Sathya Sai Baba and conclusions drawn from these investigations, as documented in this book. The review does not touch upon some other matters covered by the book and completely excludes Chapter 32, The Western Critics, of the book.
[Cautionary Note: Chapter 32, The Western Critics, has unproven and malicious allegations regarding Sri Sathya Sai Baba. A Western TV media documentary/programme is referenced by Haraldsson in this chapter for these unproven and malicious allegations. But Haraldsson has omitted to mention that a major figure of this documentary had his lawsuit on the matter in a US court of law, self-dismissed and with prejudice (which means that he cannot file a lawsuit on the same matter in any other court in the USA)!
In my humble opinion, most powerful Western media outlets have a strong bias against Sri Sathya Sai Baba and perhaps had (and may continue to have) profit, and possibly other, motives in widely publicising sensationalist negative allegations about him. In the coverage they have given of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, in my humble opinion, the Western media outlets certainly do not come across as unbiased and balanced reporters of facts.
Some Sathya Sai devotees who saw and read these widely publicised Western media unproven and malicious allegations seem to have come to believe them to be true. In Chapter 32, Prof. Haraldsson mentions a few such Western Sathya Sai devotees. Prof. Haraldsson himself seems to have come under the sway of such negative propaganda and has given his opinion on the matter seemingly based on a Western media channel's documentary and taking shelter in the word "may", which I find to be very objectionable and highly irresponsible for an academic researcher of Prof. Haraldsson's stature. I strongly condemn this statement of Prof. Haraldsson in this chapter.
In my opinion, Chapter 32, The Western Critics, of this book does not contribute in any way to the investigation of the paranormal phenomena associated with Sai Baba. So I have completely ignored it for this review. I suggest to readers that they treat Chapter 32, The Western Critics, as the effect of powerful Western media negative publicity about Sai Baba on Prof. Haraldsson as well as some Western Sathya Sai "devotees" he mentions in it. I further suggest to readers to either skip reading Chapter 32 or read it without coming under the sway of such negativity like Prof. Haraldsson seems to have come under. End-Cautionary-Note]
As I understand it, the field of parapsychology (psi phenomena) is the scientific field that investigates paranormal phenomena like materialization and other miracles. As far as I know, in the career of the world famous god-man of India, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the best known parapsychology researchers of the world who have investigated him are the author of this book, Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson and, to a limited extent, Dr. Karlis Osis.
Dr. Karlis Osis writes in the foreword of the book about Haraldsson's study of miracles of a religious leader to be a first of its kind and that the book "describes paranormal phenomena of extraordinary variety and strength attributed to one of the most remarkable men of the (20th) century". (I presume that this foreword was written for an earlier edition of the book in the 20th century.)
My view is that through this book, Prof. Haraldsson has made a great contribution to methodical and truthful, to the best of his knowledge, capture of evidence based on observation and experience of fairly reliable witnesses including himself, of paranormal acts/events (phenomena) related to Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and put them all together from a four decade perspective, slightly over two years after Sai Baba's passing away.
Prof. Haraldsson has taken a balanced/unbiased view of these paranormal phenomena associated with Sai Baba. He does not seem to be a devotee of Sai Baba and has demonstrated the skepticism demanded from a scientific investigator into such matters by very carefully examining various "normal explanations" for the reported paranormal phenomena. To my mind, an appropriate way to look at this book would be to view it as arguments made by a lawyer giving the testimonies of many fairly reliable first-hand witnesses (including some testimony of the author himself), providing and examining both pro (genuine miracles) and contra (not genuine miracles) views, and then putting forward the lawyer's conclusion on the matter. The reader of the book can play the role of a juror/judge and decide whether to accept the lawyer's (author's) conclusion or reject it entirely or come up with a different conclusion of his/her own.
Haraldsson writes about how he and Dr. Osis came to hear about Sathya Sai Baba during their visit to India in 1972, which eventually led to their first meeting with Sai Baba in November 1973. Immediately, Sai Baba showed them his materialization miracles by creating vibhuti for them and a ring for Dr. Osis. They tried to explain to Sai Baba their need to scientifically investigate such phenomena under controlled conditions. Sai Baba responded that the methods of science could not explain such miraculous phenomena and that they were outside the realm of science. Haraldsson and Osis tried to put across to Sai Baba that science had neglected studying such phenomena and that by him demonstrating his powers under controlled conditions, new knowledge about these mysterious phenomena could be added to science. Sai Baba responded that he was not a showman and that "he could use his paranormal powers only for the good of his devotees". Haraldsson writes insightfully that Sai Baba was a man of religion and not of science.
Haraldsson records the paranormal phenomena that Sai Baba demonstrated to them directly (though not under controlled conditions) in two separate visits to India by them (Haraldsson and Osis). He writes about Sai Baba paranormal power experiences related by distinguished Indians like Prof. V.K.Gokak, a distinguished academic, and other Indians.
As experiments had been ruled out by Sai Baba, Haraldsson directed his main efforts to finding and interviewing old devotees and ex-devotees who had observed Sai Baba extensively, some of them at very close quarters. Haraldsson visited many cities in India for this purpose like Madras/Chennai, Salem, Kuppam, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Calcutta. He states that he tape-recorded most interviews and ensured that the interviewees read "the relevant passages" (their documented testimony) and approved it. He has gone mainly for first-hand testimony and generally excluded second-hand testimony as second-hand testimony is considered to have weaknesses (even by courts of law). For these detailed testimonies, an entire chapter is typically devoted to testimony of one or two persons.
The witnesses whose testimonies about Sai Baba's paranormal phenomena have been captured in great detail are a scientist of a premier Indian science research institute, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Indian royalty, long-time devotees who spent a lot of time with Sai Baba and were physically very close to him, South Indian (Carnatic) classical music singers, then college students from Madras who stayed with Sai Baba for some periods, an Economics graduate who chose to stay with Baba, and was very close to him, for 16 to 17 years after finishing his studies, and a famous Russian painter who lived in India and his famous former Indian movie-star wife. A couple of these witnesses moved away from Sai Baba after some years of association and are referred to as ex-devotees by Haraldsson.
Haraldsson also writes about the Indian rationalist critics of Sai Baba. He interviewed a famous Indian senior academic and rationalist critic. He also interviewed a senior journalist critic who got changed into a devotee after an interview that Sai Baba gave him. A South Indian newspaper's claimed exposure of materialization by Sai Baba in 1992 as not genuine, is shown to be a false exposure (debunked) by Haraldsson.
Haraldsson presents systematically collected data from most of the interviewees including ex-devotees which he got by having them answer a multiple-choice questionnaire of over 100 items. Most of the questions were about their specific paranormal experiences with Sai Baba and the number of times they had such experiences.
Parallels are drawn between Sai Baba's paranormal phenomena and that of some historical religious figures from Christianity as well as mediums. Many of these parallels are given in the context of particular phenomena like dazzling light, teleportation and bilocation. One chapter titled "Extrasensory Perception" deals with mind-reading capability of Sai Baba.
After having provided all the witness testimonies and some other material, Haraldsson searches for "normal explanations" for the reported paranormal phenomena.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, Haraldsson examines "THE QUESTION OF PROOF". He writes that science traditionally uses experiments to confirm that phenomena are genuine. As Sai Baba did not permit experiments that path was closed. However judicial systems "have evolved interrogation and corroboration of witnesses, investigating relevant contemporary documents and so on, as ways of accruing evidence". But human testimony does have weaknesses due to which courts "rely primarily on the quantity of testimony and on consensus of witnesses". That has been "our" approach, Haraldsson writes.
Haraldsson states that numerous followers including ex-devotees who have extensively observed Sai Baba give a general consensus about the genuineness "of the frequent appearance of objects in his presence, or on his body on certain occasions".
In the concluding chapter of the book, Haraldsson puts forward "a few speculative hypotheses regarding the causes and nature of the mysterious phenomena around Sai Baba" and examines their validity. Haraldsson writes that some of the phenomena could have a "normal explanation" but not the bulk of them. Haraldsson states that the hypothesis that Baba had psychic powers which allowed him to "produce various phenomena when he wants to" is supported by an "endless number of observations and experiences" and so has to be accepted for bulk of the phenomena.
Prof. Haraldsson, in my humble opinion, has been a truth-seeker and has spoken the truth about paranormal phenomena associated with Sri Sathya Sai Baba, despite many powerful people in the media and scientific circles not wanting to hear and know such science shaking truth (to be more precise, current mainstream science shaking truth).
P.S. Notes of my reading of the book are available on my spiritual blog.
I shared the above review (excluding the cautionary note on Chapter 32 which was added later) with Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson, author of the book, after which he wrote me, "This is a fine and fair review."