In his column in Mint, Salil Tripathi writes:
..what drew many to his (Sai Baba’s) fold were two central claims: that he was divine, and that he performed miracles. Nearly 60 years ago, Sai Baba began producing vibhuti, or holy ash, and assorted trinkets, watches, sweets and fruits, presumably from thin air. Magicians showed these were conjurers’ tricks, but to no avail. His followers dismissed the magicians as publicity-seeking tricksters. To experience his miracles, you had to submit to him first. That meant that in a nation of massive illiteracy, he was encouraging people to shelve logic. Sai Baba deftly avoided challengers: Rationalist Abraham Kovoor could never meet him, nor did other sceptics. In The Times of India, C.P. Surendran recalls the amusing story when his mother challenged Sai Baba to give her a jackfruit, after he said she could ask for anything, and he’d produce it magically. Sai Baba hadn’t expected her to ask for a jackfruit; he couldn’t; his followers panicked and shouted at her, driving her away.
Consider the allegation made above “that in a nation of massive illiteracy, he was encouraging people to shelve logic”.
As I argued in a post 5 years back, Sai Baba was no different from and no more guilty of manipulation than corporate brand-builders and advertising agencies.
If Sai Baba had to draw attention and create a mass following, he naturally had to differentiate himself from other mortals and create a brand identity of his own. The flowing saffron-coloured robes, his distinctive hairstyle, the hype and the hoopla over his ‘magical’ powers to pull out watches and gold rings out of thin hair, his Bhajan sessions which would send his followers into a trance- all went into the creation of the unique Sai Baba brand . Without this brand pull, he wouldn’t have enticed his followers to come into his fold seeking mental peace and serenity.
So, how is this any different from an advertiser luring you into a make-believe world and leading you to imagine that by procuring a certain type of talcum powder, you would be transported to a sanitized world of blue skies and green grass, where you would have a wonderful spouse, a lovely home, a cute little dog and a smile on all the time?
If you go through the advertising history of Coca Cola and the slogans that they used during various times, you will discern a clear intent to promote a feeling of well-being subliminally and to ensure a brand association with such a feeling. How is Coke’s claim that “things go better with Coca Cola” any different from Sai Baba claiming that “life goes better when you follow me”? Can Coca Cola substantiate this claim and submit to an investigation by a panel of rationalists and eminent scientists?
In fact, Coca Cola’s website describes how even “Santa Claus’ in his red attire was a marketing creation of theirs. Millions of people- not just children- have suspended their disbelief for generations.
In his book, “buy-ology’, which I have discussed earlier, Martin Lindstrom says:
Almost every leading religion has ten common pillars underlying its foundation: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, story telling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.
But, what is not so well acknowledged is the fact that these pillars happen to have a great deal in common with our most beloved brands and products.
and goes on to provide examples from both, for each of the ten pillars.
When brands and products can cast a relentless spell on seemingly educated people and make them delude themselves into a false sense of well being, why accuse Sai Baba of encouraging illiterate people to shelve logic and single him out?
If godmen are guilty, so are ad men.