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Sathya Sai Baba, 84; guru was popular, controversial

Associated Press / April 25, 2011

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PUTTAPARTI, India — Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba, revered by millions worldwide, died yesterday after nearly a month of hospital treatment near his southern Indian ashram. He was 84.

The news brought an outpouring of grief from his followers, including high Indian officials, who remembered him as a pious person who worked selflessly to help others with the billions of dollars donated to his charitable trust.

The Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, where Sai Baba spent the past weeks on breathing support and dialysis, appealed for calm. Police kept tight control over road traffic and crowds. Shops were told to close to limit the number of people in town.

Sai Baba had a huge following, with ashrams in 126 countries and devotees in India including high-placed politicians, movie stars, world-class athletes, and industrialists. He was said to perform miracles, conjuring jewelry, Rolex watches, and “vibhuti,’’ a sacred ash that his followers applied to their foreheads, from his halo of wild, frizzy hair.

But rationalist critics led campaigns against him, calling him a charlatan and his miracles fake. Several news reports alleged that he sexually abused devotees, accusations he denied as campaigns of vilification.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to pay last respects in Puttaparti, where a funeral is planned Wednesday morning.