Jim Yardley’s Article About Satya Sai Baba – Another case of NYT’s Hindu Disparagement?

Editors’s Note:

  • We consider the New York Times to be, generally speaking, the best newspaper in the world. We have written articles praising the NYT by drawing comparisons with other excellent newspapers. The NYT has excellent reporters who write sensibly about areas they know well.
  • But we also find a strain of cultural and religious supremacism in New York Times reporters and by extension in the Editorial Board of the New York Times.
  • This strain gets more intense and virulent when NYT discusses Indian or Hindu concepts. Admittedly, these are concepts that so far remain beyond the ken of NYT reporters or Editors. Rather than spend the time to learn or understand, the NYT reporters tend to become condescending or downright prejudiced.
  • It is our journalistic duty to point this out to our readers and offer our opinions. Last month, we performed this duty with our article titled Gandhi & Lelyveld -Are Editors of Washington Post and New York Times Biased Against Hindu Ethos? Today, we express our opinion of the article about Satya Sai Baba by Jim Yardley of the NYT.
  • But we have no wish to be unfair and we invite Mr. Yardley and/or any New York Times editor to provide their comments, opinions or criticism of our point of view. We shall print them verbatim.
Sri Satya Sai Baba, a major Religious figure in India and the World, passed away on April 24, 2011. This was a major event in India. Prime Minister ManMohan Singh attended the funeral. The most celebrated Indian of our era, the Cricket Superstar Sachin Tendulkar, wept at the funeral. An estimated 900,000 people attended the funeral and it was televised nationally in India.

The scale of the event presumably persuaded Jim Yardley of the New York Times to write an article about the passing of Sri Satya Sai Baba. He titled it A God Is Dead, but It’s Business That May suffer Most. As the title suggests, Mr. Yardley devotes the bulk of his article to the business impact on Puttiparthi, the town where Sri Satya Sai Baba lived.

This is certainly worth a serious business discussion. Sri Satya Sai Baba was a major figure by any standards. His organization, as Mr. Yardley writes, has service groups in every Indian state and major city as well as Ashrams in 126 countries. Based on the reports in the Indian media, the estate of Sri Satya Sai Baba is estimated to be about $20 billion. If true, this would have made Sri Satya Sai Baba one of the richest men in the world. His philanthropic work matched his stature. Mr. Yardley does adequate justice to this philanthropic work and its impact on the city of Puttaparthi.

Did Jim Yardley Deliberately Disparage Sri Satya Sai Baba?

Jim Yardley reports that Sri Satya Sai Baba “accepted all religions and never asked people to discard their faith, only to practice it better”. This in itself makes Sri Satya Sai Baba unique and distinguishes him from other major religious figures in the world who believe in persuading people to convert from other religions.

Yet, Mr. Yardley simply states this fact, adds a quote from one of Baba’s followers and moves on. He does not contrast this positive attitude of universal acceptance with the beliefs of uni-iconic religions that profess superiority of their own faiths above all.

Then Mr. Yardley moves to comments that we find disparaging. Read Mr. Yardley’s own words:

  • Critics labeled him a fraud and bemoaned the Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs.
  • As with other self-proclaimed godmen, Sai Baba was denounced as a fraud by many skeptics, who disparaged as sleight of hand the “miracles” he performed…..
  • Controversy also arose about claims of pedophilia toward teenage boys, accusations denied by his organization. No charges were ever filed.
Any one who reads the New York Times understands the code language of the sentence “No charges were ever filed”. It is a legally acceptable but underhanded way of convicting someone without actually saying so. These “code” sentences enable reporters to express their own deep prejudices under the guise of fair reporting.

We think these comments are atrocious and we find Mr. Yardley’s attempts disgusting. Why?

When a reporter includes a serious and disgusting charge of “pedophilia towards teenage boys”, we believe it is imperative for the reporter to state the sources of these charges and the evidence the sources provide. It is also imperative for the reporter to explain what became of the charges and why they were never filed or dropped.

Mr. Yardley does nothing of the sort. He uses a damning phrase “controversy arose about claims” to validate rumors. He does not provide any details about who created the controversy and the basis for it. Then he inserts the code sentence “No Charges were ever filed”.

If no charges were ever filed and if it was just a “controversy”, why include it at all? In our opinion, Yardley’s inclusion of this unsubstantiated, disgusting topic in his article was a deliberate act and sheer journalistic misconduct. We confess to being disgusted.

What about the Editors of the New York Times who approved this article? Didn’t they pause at the insinuations of Mr. Yardley? Did the Editors go back to NYT’s coverage of the treatment of young boys by Catholic priests? Did they notice how careful they were in writing about that topic and how they ensured that all articles met at least the minimum standards of journalistic veracity?

Is this an evidence of different standards being applied to NYT articles about Christian Religious leaders and Hindu Religious leaders? In our opinion, it is.

Disparate Treatment by Jim Yardley and the New York Times?

We remind readers that during their lifetime there were allegations made against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and against Teresa, the Christian Nun from Kolkatta, who was “saintified” by the Catholic Church. These allegations are so well known that they can be found in the Wikipedia articles about these figures. Unlike Mr. Yardley, we do not intend to sully our articles with such rumors or baseless allegations.  

The question is how did the New York Times deal with allegations or “controversies” about Dr. King and Nun Teresa? Were these journalistic coverages similar to Jim Yardley’s writings about Satya Sai Baba in his NYT article? We don’t think so.

Why the huge difference? Because Dr. King and Nun Teresa were Christian and Satya Sai Baba was Hindu? We are inclined to believe so for want of any other explanation. But we remain open to any arguments Mr. Yardley or the NYT Editors may wish to make in defense of Mr. Yardley’s writings.

Finally, there is the basic universal concept of decency and respect for those who have passed away. Even the New York Times follows the universal tradition of respecting those who have passed away and shelving negative comments or allegations when writing about them. Witness the New York articles last week about the passing of a veteran TV Anchor. These were respectful articles that expressed sympathy and described the good work of the Anchor. We liked the Anchor and we were happy to read NYT’s respectful coverage.

But, as Mr. Yardley has demonstrated, the New York Times does not apply these universal traditions of decency & respect to Indian or Hindu religious figures. The fact that a Hindu religious figure is revered by millions around the World actually seems to move the New York Times to greater contempt.

For example, Mr. Yardley does not stop at disparaging Sri Satya Sai Baba but he also includes the ritual slur of “Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs”.

Religious Entrepreneurs?

It is our understanding that most Christian Churches pass a collection box among the attendees of the Church’s Sunday Service. We gather it is sort of expected that people who attend the service put some money in the collection box. Does this practice make every Christian Church a business and its Pastor a “religious entrepreneur”?

The Pope is the Head of the Catholic Church, a vast global entity with billions of assets around the World. As an example, the Christian Church in India has an annual budget that exceeds the budget of the Indian Navy, according to a published American report. Does this make the Pope a “religious entrepreneur”? And would Mr. Yardley call this a “European predisposition”?

In contrast, Satya Sai Baba, as far as we know, never demanded any money from his followers. He saw about 30,000 followers every day, according to Mr. Yardley’s article. But as far as we know, no collection box was passed around to these followers and no one felt compelled to give money to Satya Sai Baba.

So, we ask on what basis does Mr. Yardley label Satya Sai Baba a “religious entrepreneur” but exclude the Christian Pastors and the Pope from this label?

We doubt Mr. Yardley has any basis except probably a deep seated bias.

A Bias for Organized Religion?

There may be another innate bias against Hindu Religious figures at play here. The Pope is an establishment figure, an establishment presumably respected by Mr. Yardley. So he probably considers the Pope to be a valid religious figure, validated to a great extent by his establishment. Similarly, the Muslim Imams around the world are also establishment figures as heads of their mosques. Whether Mr. Yardley respects the Imams or not, he is smart enough to keep his opinions to himself.

But Hindu Dharma does not believe in any religious establishment. A Hindu worships God directly, seeks God’s blessings directly and asks forgiveness from God directly. Hindus do not need middlemen between themselves and God, their creator. In contrast, Christian Catholics cannot confess to God directly. They need to visit a middleman, a Catholic Priest in a Church, an establishment building, to carry their confession to their own creator. 

The presence of a central established structure is probably the reason reporters like Jim Yardley cannot denigrate Christian Religious Figures or practices. The fear of Muslim retribution makes it dangerous for reporters like Jim Yardley to denigrate Muslim religious figures or practices.

But the lack of a central established structure and the passivity of Hindus eliminates any fear of or any  risk in denigrating Hindu Religious Figures or practices.

Denigration Intended in the Term “self-proclaimed religious godmen”?

We consider Yardley’s term “self-proclaimed religious godmen” to be a far worse denigration than the term “religious entrepreneur”.

First and foremost, the term “godmen” is a slur, pure and simple. There is no concept of “godmen” in Indian culture or religion. The closest term is “Avatar”. Jim Yardley knows this because he quotes a devotee of Satya Sai Baba describing him as the Avatar of the first Sai Baba. And no one in America, let alone a NYT reporter, is unfamiliar with the term Avatar, thanks to the spectacular movie.

So in our opinion, Mr. Yardley’s use of the derogatory slur “godmen” is a deliberate, premeditated denigration of Satya Sai Baba and other Hindu religious figures.

And the term “self-proclaimed” goes to the heart of Mr. Yardley’s bias for organized Religion with central establishment structures and his bias against free, democratic, non-structured religions, mainly Hindu Dharma. 

How did the Editors of the New York Tim
es allow this kind of denigration to be published in their newspaper? Can we deduce that they share all of Mr. Yardley’s prejudices? We would love to know their reasoning.

We do wonder what Mr. Yardley or the NYT Editors would have written had they lived about 2,000 years ago. Would they have termed Jesus as a “self-proclaimed religious godman”? After all, he was a solitary figure with only his own band of followers. How did the religious establishment of that era, the Jewish Temples of the Middle East, describe or treat Jesus? How does that treatment resemble the treatment by today’s New York Times of Hindu Religious figures? Would the Editorial Board of the New York Times enlighten us?

It is important to disclose to readers that we are not and have not been followers of Satya Sai Baba. We are not and have not been followers of any religious figure. Our deep disgust of the comments of Jim Yardley against Satya Sai Baba is based on principles of human dignity, equal treatment of all religions, contempt for journalistic misconduct and abhorrence of what we see as religious supremacism.

We believe that Mr. Yardley is free to express any opinion he has. But freedom is not license. So we feel that Mr. Yardley should be called to task for his unsubstantiated allegations and his engagement in religious slurs against a man revered by his followers in 126 countries.

We also believe that the Editors of the New York Times can and should be condemned for severe editorial misconduct. They do not print Yardley-like denigrations written by Saudi Mullahs against the Jewish Religion. But they have no problem in printing what seem to us as obvious, deliberate denigration of a major Hindu figure like Satya Sai Baba and a blanket slur against religious “Indian predispositions”.

The Jake Brigance Approach 

We do not wish to insult any Religion, any Religious Figure. If any one is offended by our examples, we apologize. But we also ask any one who is offended to think about the extreme offense inflicted by Mr. Yardley’s NYT article on the followers of Sri Satya Sai Baba.

We ask readers to understand that we use comparisons with other Religious Figures and practices to illustrate our points and to drive home to readers the disparate treatment we see against Hindus in the New York Times.

This is sort of a “Jake Brigance” approach featured in John Grisham 1989 NYT bestseller “A Time to Kill”. This approach was first used in our January 2010 article titled Cultural & Religious Defamation Tacitly Accepted by New York Times Editors? – Our Perspectives.

The Indian Government Wakes Up

The behavior of Jim Yardley and the New York Times is typical of the media and academic establishment in America, Europe and Australia. Every few weeks, a new attack is made on revered Hindu figures or on Indian Religious beliefs. Not only are many people in India fed up with these persistent attacks, but the normally passive Indian Government seems fed up as well.

This is why the Indian Government has proposed new regulations that would hold “content” organizations accountable for objectionable content. We support the effort but we disagree with the solution.

Rather than potentially banning media organizations, the Indian Government, in our opinion, should employ the great American weapon. American society discovered the need for a means for enabling the average American to protest imperious and damaging actions of major organizations. So America established the Class Action Law, a major legal innovation that enabled the average American to sue large, powerful organizations on behalf of an entire class of Americans. It was and remains the perfect weapon for a democratic society.

We think the Indian Government should use this great American innovation. Indian Society and its Government should establish a Class Action Law that would enable Indians to sue “content” or media organizations for baseless, objectionable comments and for demonstrated disparate treatment of Indian religions and religious figures.

This would be a perfect solution for a large democracy like India. An average Indian cannot fight against religious slurs and attacks from a global media giant. But India has a over a billion people and a Class Action Law would enable an average Indian to sue a global media giant on behalf of an entire class of Indians, like for example the entire class of Satya Sai Baba followers.

In our opinion, the mere discussion of such a Class Action Law would become an instant and effective deterrent against religious disparagement, especially disparate disparagement by global media giants.

The Image of the New York Times in India

A few days ago, we saw the new Bollywood film Shagird, a movie about the nauseous link between Politicians, Police and criminals in India. One of the characters in this extremely well made, intense movie is a New York Times woman reporter in search for a story in Delhi.

The portrayal of this New York Times reporter is very unflattering. She is shown to be abrasive, completely un-informed and desperate for an interview with a terrorist. She goes around with a pandering Indian “journalist” who acts as her facilitator and translator. She is shown to scream at this man and constantly berate him for not delivering what she paid for. Finally, she lands her interview which turns out to be trap. She is kidnapped with her facilitator and an Indian TV reporter. Then she completely falls apart in captivity. 

We were not just surprised but stunned at this portrayal of a New York Times reporter. We have not seen Jim Yardley in action in India nor have we seen his colleagues in action in India. So we have no knowledge about how they behave in India. We do recall the Vietnam era novel “The Ugly American” that made the case that Americans behave in an exemplary way within America but in an extremely ugly way outside America. (Hence the title).

Frankly, we are inclined to believe that, despite the huge bias we see in the NYT articles, the portrayal in Shagird was an exaggeration. But we wonder whether with such smoke, there exists some evidence of a fire?

We think Jim Yardley and the Editorial Board of the New York Times should watch Shagird. Then, perhaps, they might ponder the reasons why a democratic society that is friendly to America thinks so poorly of New York Times Reporters.

If they do, will it make a difference? We hope so but we are not sanguine. Because we realize that deep seated religious supremacism is hard to eradicate.  

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