The recent passing of controversial Hindu guru Sai Baba has inspired me to review this fascinating book, which is centred around one woman's experiences at his ashram in Puttaparthi. Starting out in the spirit of open-minded exploration, London journalist Ishtar ventures to India in the hope of discovering something more meaningful than her habitual round of young lovers, wine-soaked evenings and the general rat-race that is life in the metropolis. However, she is aware of the clichés of Westerners seeking to 'find themselves' in the mystical East, and approaches the matter with an overview of humour and self-parody which in no way detracts from the serious nature of her endeavour. Indeed, it renders it more valid, for she is aware of the tack surrounding this 'living avatar', and is certainly not expecting...to fall in love with him.
As Ishtar's journalistic background might suggest, 'Lord of the Dance' is written in a fluent and entertaining manner, with plenty of essential information and concise background included. It also works as a travelogue: one experiences the colourful chaos, idiosyncratic characters and exotic flavours of India along with the intrepid traveller and her somewhat disapproving daughter, who accompanies Ishtar for the first part of the voyage. It is easy to empathise with the emotional and psychological dilemmas of this self-proclaimed 'mid-life' voyage, which eventually finds the author alone at the ashram. We look over her shoulder at the perilous pilgrim's path, the twisted banyan trees, the ubiquitous beggars and the other Westerners, some cynical, many entranced. Indeed, once picked up, 'Lord of the Dance' is almost impossible to put down, for a plethora of reasons. Primary for me is that the topic of Gurus fascinates me, and I wanted to find out what the months Ishtar spent living in the ashram and working in the attached orphanage had taught her about Sai Baba. Was he a charlatan and sex molester as some accounts attest, or a materialistic playboy like Bhaghwan/Osho, or the real deal?
I am pleased to say that Ishtar does not dictate on this matter: rather, she offers her experiences for our assessment. We learn that she fell in love with Sai Baba as do the devotees of Lord Krishna with him. We see how Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba is regarded by all in his domain and far beyond as a living incarnation of Vishnu. We sit with Ishtar during darshan, and experience her elation as his gaze glides in her direction in the crowded hall, and her mortification when it fixes on some other disciple, especially if that person is female. We laugh with her as she battles with those oh-so-understandable daemons of ego, and feel empathy as she berates herself for reactions she deems childish. Soon she realises that it is not the love of human men she needs, so much as the love of God: which this one being appears to emanate. She is then faced with the dilemma of separating the god from the man, and the devotee of the Divine from the shakti/wife. Meanwhile Sai Baba drifts around the ashram in a state of utterly detached cosmic beneficence, materialising vibhuti here, distributing a blessing there, and inevitably pissing a whole load of his pilgrims off each time he singles a person or group out for a coveted 'private audience'. The complexities of hierarchy within an ideal of unconditional love are amply demonstrated in these pastiches, which show the author as both spiritually aspirational and delightfully human.
It would be a shame to give any more away: I thoroughly recommend that you read it for yourself. As travelogue, account of self-discovery, insight into Sai Baba and Indian spirituality, and just as a thoroughly entertaining novel, I highly recommend 'Lord of the Dance'. And whether Sai Baba himself was 'genuine' or not is for each of us to decide for ourselves. It is worth noting however that he funded many local amenities and charitable organisations, including the orphanage/school in which the author worked as a volunteer (there are some fabulous descriptions of the characterful, affectionate children she taught), as well as founding a water supply scheme benefiting 750 villages in the drought-prone district.
May he, and all those who are deserving, abide in Samadhi.