Religion and Globalization   /   Summer 2002   /    Articles

“Beyond Boundaries”

Globalization, Civil Religion, and the Sai Baba Movement

Tulasi Srinivas

Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, India.

We had heard through reliable sourse that Shri Sathya Sai Baba was in residence at his ashram in the village of Whitefield outside Bangalore and that Sai darshan (sacred viewing) would occur in the morning. We arrived at 4 a.m., and in spite of the darkness and the cold, several hundred people had already gathered for a glimpse of Baba. Entering the ashram, we were herded into a queue (by Sai Seva female volunteers wearing blue saris and neckerchiefs) towards a series of metal detectors and then were seated in an enormous open air mantap (pavilion) facing an empty golden throne and a life-size photograph of Shri Sathya Sai Baba. Some “regular” devotees had arrived with their own pillows and shawls seemingly prepared for a long wait, while Sai devotional songs played softly in the background.

Many of the devotees were not Indian.12xIn fact, we found in surveys that the composition of devotees varied from 32% Indians and 58% “foreigners” to 13% “foreigners” and 87% Indians. The diversity of that group was startling in this small village in South India—Japanese, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Malaysians, Norwegians, Germans, Chileans, Ukrainians, Americans, and British sat in silence waiting for darshan of Sai Baba. Some groups had a leader who carried a flag with the name of their home country. I was told by ashram staff that every morning no less than five thousand people from “all over the world,” attended darshan, and on festival days the numbers often swelled to 100,000 people.23xInterview with Sai Seva Dal volunteer, 18 May 1998.

At 6 a.m. sharp, the songs increased in volume and tempo and suddenly Shri Sathya Sai Baba appeared in the mantap—a small man with a large head of hair, dressed in flowing saffron-colored robes. He moved silently, quickly, and surprisingly gracefully, through the aisles, occasionally reaching out to some devotees, and gathering the letters that they were holding out to him. Some devotees attempted to touch his feet and the hem of his robe.34xThis sacred touching called sparshan is a central act in the communication between devotee and deity. Wherever he moved in the mantap, the eyes of the entire group followed, but the devotees remained sitting and silent. After he left, people acted as though they had awoken from a daze, slowly beginning to move about and file out of the mantap, discussing their encounter in hushed tones.

In this new era of globalization, there have been significant changes in religion, and it is important that social scientists understand these changes in the “global ecumene.”45xUlf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); F. Barth, “Towards a Greater Naturalism in Conceptualizing Societies,” Conceptualizing Society, ed. A. Kuper (London: Routledge, 1992) 17–23. This paper examines the processes of globalization through the transnational charismatic Sai movement. The Sai movement has remained, in forty-odd years, an unusually peaceful and “civil” charismatic movement.56xWhen one mentions “charismatic movements,” readers tend to think of the horrors of Jonestown, Rajneespuram, and Waco. It is imperative to make distinctions between civil and peaceful charismatic movements, such as the Sai Movement, and violent charismatic movements. In the past ten years it has moved to the West, both Europe and America, and yet has remained relatively invisible in the public realm. I use the Sai movement as a lens to focus upon three major questions: first, the nature of transnational devotion and the underlying forces shaping it; second, the structure of devotional identity in a globalized world; and third, the mechanisms of cultural mediation that a transnational civil religious movement engages to become “global.”

Today Westerners are constructing their own individual religions or “spirituality” rooted largely in non-Western traditions.67xPaul Heelas, The New Age Movement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). This reconstruction of religion is part of the mainstream of Western “spiritual” experience. It is also increasingly common for urban professionals in many other parts of the world. Using the Sai movement as an example, I examine how these “urban alienates”78xA. Bharathi, Hindu Views and Ways and the Hindu-Muslim Interface: An Anthropological Assessment (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987). construct their own individual understandings of religion. It is important to examine the implications of this reconstruction of religion for our comprehension of the processes of globalization itself.

I examine the transnational Sai movement particularly through the eyes of the devotees. How and why potential devotees join the movement, the dynamics of their faith, the construction of their Sai identity, the mechanisms of cultural translation that enable the Sai movement to travel to various locations, and the organization of devotees into the structure of the Sai movement, are some of the issues that this paper addresses.89xI do not want to engage in the Orientalist idea that India is the “spiritual” “East” that “exports” its spiritualism to the West. However, I want to make the point that India has certain fundamental strengths, or, to use Samuel Huntington’s term, India is a country with a “strong civilization” that possibly engages with modernity and globalization differently.


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