Sai Baba, a controversial Indian "holy man" presides over a spiritual kingdom that includes one of the world's largest ashrams. He claims to have millions of followers.
But the guru, who is approaching 80, has a history of sexual abuse allegations that in recent years has made media headlines around the world.
Former followers of the aging swami reportedly call him "a sexual harasser, a fraud and even a pedophile."
One man says Sai Baba ordered him to drop his pants and allow the guru to massage his penis. He later said, "Sai Baba was my God -- who dares to refuse God? He was free to do whatever he wanted to do with me; he had my trust, my faith, my love and my friendship; he had me in totality."
Despite such revelations and the growing scandal that surrounds Sai Baba he continues to be worshipped at his ashram. Twice a day he parades about and makes appearances to the faithful, entertaining them with what seems like little more than magic tricks.
Sai Baba's so-called "materializations" include making watches and jewelry appear out of "thin air."
At functions his followers rock back and forth with "shining eyes" seemingly in trance-like or hypnotic states. Perhaps in this condition they are prepared to believe almost anything.
The guru holds court within lavishly appointed rooms decorated with gold leaf and hanging chandeliers.
"Sometimes I think the ashram is a madhouse and Swami is the director," said one recently devoted disciple. Does Sai Baba prey upon the psychologically and emotionally vulnerable? "When you don't have problems, you don't go to the ashram," says a disciple.
But there may be casualties amongst the true believers.
A Malaysian woman reportedly had a psychotic breakdown, attacked ashram workers and was taken into police custody. She sat in a holding area almost catatonic, mumbling "darshan, darshan, darshan" repeatedly.
Sai Baba has accumulated substantial influence and prestige within India. That influence includes some prominent leaders such as former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The Times of India reported in 1993 that the guru's followers include "governors, chief ministers, assorted politicians, business tycoons, newspaper magnates, jurists, sportsmen, academics and, yes, even scientists."
His popularity is easy to understand. Sai Baba has built a hospital that offers free services, partly financed by a $20 million donation from Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Café. Its pink façade makes it look more like a palace than a hospital. And in the entrance area there are images of Sai Baba.
Sai Baba's charities have reportedly been plagued though by "rumors of chicanery and worse."
Nevertheless Illustrated Weekly of India stated, "God or a fraud, no one doubts the good work done by the Sai organization."
But does the guru use his accumulated good will and "God-man" status to get into people's pants?
The sex abuse claims are strikingly similar and seem to fit the same pattern.
"During my 'private audiences' with Sai Baba, Sai Baba used to touch my private parts and regularly massage my private parts, indicating that this was for spiritual purposes," wrote one former devotee. "He grabbed my head and pushed it into his groin area. He made moaning sounds. As soon as he took the pressure off my head and I lifted my head, Sai Baba lifted his dress and presented me a semi-erect member, telling me that this was my good luck chance, and jousted his hips towards my face," the man said.
When the devotee later talked about his sexual encounter he was thrown out of the ashram.
"Each time I saw Baba, his hand would gradually make more prominent connections to my groin," said another former follower.
All of the allegations reportedly involved mostly teenage boys and young men in their 20s.
This story is hardly new. In 1970 a book by Tal Brooke titled "Lord of the Air" later renamed "Avatar of Night," told the story of a devoted disciple's disillusionment upon learning of Sai Baba's sexual appetite.
More recently a document called "Findings" accumulated accounts of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse from the guru's former followers.
An excerpt from the document reads, "Whilst still at the ashram, the worst thing for me -- as a mother of sons -- occurred when a young man, a college student, came to our room, to plead with David, 'Please Sir, do something to stop him sexually abusing us&These sons of devotees, unable to bear their untenable position of being unwilling participants in a pedophile situation any longer, yet unable to share this with their parents because they would be disbelieved, placed their trust in David; a trust which had built over his five years as a visiting professor of music to the Sai college."
Since the release of "Findings" the Sai Baba sex scandal has grown and gained momentum.
A California man named Glen Meloy, who spent 26 years as a devotee wanted to launch a class-action lawsuit against the Sai Organization in America. "You've got all these kids who are scared to death to do anything that will do disrespect to their parents, in a room with someone they believe to be the creator of the whole universe. This isn't just any child abuse; this is God himself claiming to do this," Meloy said.
One former Indian ashram volunteer petitioned India's Supreme Court to investigate Sai Baba. "I've spoken to 20 or 30 boys who have been abused, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are 14-year-old kids made to live in his room and made to think it's a blessing. In most cases, their parents have been followers for 20 years and are not going to believe them. American citizens have been knowing about this abuse and taking American boys to Puttaparthi and feeding them to him," he said.
UNESCO yanked its co-sponsorship of an education conference in India linked to Sai Baba and stated it was "deeply concerned about widely reported allegations of sexual abuse involving youths and children that have been leveled at the leader of the movement in question, Sathya Sai Baba."
After Conny Larsson, a Swedish actor went public about his coerced sexual relations with the guru; the Sai Organization in Sweden was shut down.
India Today ran a cover story about the scandal, as has England's Daily Telegraph.
Labor MP Tony Colman raised the issue in Parliament.
Former British government minister, Tom Sackville said, "The authorities have done little so far and that is regrettable."
But it seems that the guru's ardent followers can rationalize almost anything.
One such disciple concluded in an essay published on the Internet, "First of all, I believe that Sathya Sai Baba is an Avatar, a full incarnation of God ... any sexual contact Baba has had with devotees -- of whatever kind -- has actually been only a potent blessing, given to awaken the spiritual power within those souls. Who can call that 'wrong'? Surely to call such contact 'molestation' is perversity itself."
A "potent blessing"?
"When he does it, he has a purpose," concludes another still devoted follower.
Other devotees have rejected reports about their guru's sexual abuse completely regardless of how many of his alleged victims come forward to tell their stories.
One said, "I think this is a projection of his devotees' problems. You hear a lot of rumors&but for me it's not important. When you're happy, why doubt it?"
Note: This news summary is based upon an article titled "Untouchable" (note: dead link) by Michelle Goldberg, which appeared in Salon Magazine, July 25, 2001