Since Sathya Sai Baba has been in the news recently, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding life at Sathya Sai University, in case you, or someone you know, is considering attending. With Baba’s death, I doubt many people will want to study at his university. In fact, I don’t think it made sense to study there even when he was alive.

If you’re unfamiliar, the university aims to provide secular and spiritual education together as one package. Unfortunately, it does a bad job at both unless, of course, you happen to completely agree with Baba and the way of life they teach. But, again, that’s practically the only benefit while the costs are tremendous.

The problem with the university, which is residential-only, is that it’s a bad place to learn stuff, and more generally a bad place to live or grow. The first thing anyone needs to learn is opportunity, which is highly restricted here. I studied computer science, and we were allowed practically no access to the Internet, and having a laptop of your own was frowned upon. Why? Because, to hear the authorities say it, students misuse it by watching movies. Oh, the horror! The problem comes from their idea of discipline, that no student should do anything they disapprove of. Watching movies, or listening to music, is considered immoral. This is like the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. You can’t take an entrance exam for a course offered at another university because, who knows what you’ll do when you’re out of campus? Oh, by the way, students are allowed to leave campus only once in six months, and sometimes not for a year. This place is not just a metaphorical prison, but also a literal one. If word gets around that Swami’s students (as Baba is referred to) are watching movies, what will people think?

So the knee-jerk reaction is to suppress anything and everything that might look bad, no matter the human cost to the victims. You’d have a depressing life if you were to live in a way that no one disagrees with, but that’s what they try to enforce here. So, no laptops, no listening to music, and no cell phones. No one stopped to ask what the basic purpose of a university is, if you can’t learn. If you can’t talk to your folks back home, well, you’re supposed to learn detachment, anyway. I’m not kidding. This is surprisingly childish, and it’s ironic that the authorities are more immature than the students they are nominally looking over.

The authorities are not the only ones looking over students’ shoulders. They recruit “spies” among the students to do some of the dirty work for them. Again, I’m not kidding. This is like a mini-CIA. Great to watch a movie about, I’m sure, but a toxic environment in which to actually live and grow.

The real problem is that you are given no room to figure out what principles and practices you want to live your life by. When you’re in college, you’re figuring out how you want to live your office, and that requires some amount of freedom. It’s intellectually and emotionally crippling to be denied that freedom, just as it would be physically crippling if you were forced to not leave your crib as you grow.

Without that freedom, essential to life, this place is an intellectual prison. They have certain approved kinds of music, approved plays (spiritual, most of the time), and so forth. The university claims to produce well-rounded people, and it does — if you have no tastes or preferences of your own.

Another lesson is not to combine secular education and spiritual “education”. (The quotes are there because we don’t all agree that watching a movie is a moral problem, to say the least.) When you combine them, you’re not good at either. I didn’t grow spiritually in any way at all.

And you can’t question anything. The place expects mindless compliance rather than a healthy give-and-take. You’re not allowed to question the “elders”, because Baba says you should respect your elders. Baba’s philosophy is sometimes like something out of Monty Python. Everyone knows that when a group, in any society, gets unconditional respect, they tend to become undeserving of that respect. One example is a professor who’d give eloquent lectures on controlling your senses and not giving in to temptation and so forth, but who had pictures of naked girls on his laptop. And was, how shall we put it, “interested” in one of his (male) students. Another didn’t bother to lecture for almost one month straight. We can’t blindly respect elders because not all of them are deserving of our respect. In fact, it’s funny to mandate respect. You can respect someone only if you think they have something to teach you by the way they live their life. Otherwise you’ll only get lip service.

So students learn not to speak up for what they believe in, assuming they still have beliefs of their own that haven’t yet been vacuumed out by the system. Students learn to agree with the authorities on their face, and then do whatever they want behind their backs, to the extent they don’t get caught. Is that the kind of training you want to give?

For example, we had a role-playing situation where you’re supposed to pretend you’re working at a company, and your boss is berating your subordinate for something he didn’t actually do. What would you do in that situation? Most people said they’d keep quiet, and tell the subordinate later, in private, that it was not his fault. I wouldn’t like to have such a boss, but it’s exactly this kind of spineless people this place tends to produce.

Students are not the only ones infantilized. After I finished my first semester chemistry course and started the second, the professor for the first scolded me for asking too many questions in the semester that ended. Why didn’t he say anything while the first semester was in progress? Because the prof for the second sem scolded him for allowing me to get into the habit of asking too many questions. It’s odd for a grown man to behave that way, but nobody in this place has the freedom to think for themselves. Not to mention that faulting a student for asking questions would be hilarious if it weren’t so crushing and humiliating. As the second semester progressed, the new professor would ignore me, sometimes not even allowing a single question during the one-hour lecture. He’d just ignore me, which in addition to being humiliating, encouraged me to stop learning. That’s probably the worst thing you can do to a student — kill the drive to learn. This person presumably didn’t stop to think why he’s here, and what his purpose as a professor is. Dr. Sundareshan would have been more useful to society had he taken up a job delivering pizza.

If no one — neither the inmates nor the authorities — thinks for themselves, how else can the place turn out except as a mental prison that crushes the spirit?

Anyway, from that point on, I’d just mug up the stuff, regurgitate it during the exams, and move on. The exams anyway just tested mindless memorization rather than thinking. Later, I discovered that the head of the CS department didn’t know how to shut down a Linux server (“punch the power button!”) or didn’t know the faintest thing about the topic of a dissertation on which he was nominally guiding a student (me). I bet he wouldn’t know a virtual machine from a vending machine. He did have some comments on how I should format the report, though.

So, if Sathya Sai university sucked as a place to learn stuff, and was a downright oppressive place to live, did it at least provide the spiritual education that it claims to? Unfortunately, Baba’s teachings (to use a charitable word) are full of contradictions and not worth the paper they’re printed on. They are frequently disempowering and regressive, almost Talibanistic, for example, when he says that children who don’t respect their elders are better off dead.

Another time, he called the Internet a waste-paper basket, because apparently someone had told him that there’s some stuff on the Internet that’s not compatible with his opinions. Sorry, Baba, but the Internet is one of the great innovations of our time, and if you don’t understand that, you’re just a moron rather than a guru who can guide people to enlightenment. I mean, wouldn’t you expect that if god were to descend onto the earth, he’d at least know what the Internet is?

Good-bye, Baba. The world is better off without you or your university.

Footnote: All this doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful to Baba and the university for providing me free education for many years. I am — deeply. I thought a lot about whether it would be appropriate for me to just walk away after benefitting so much from their generosity. I ultimately concluded that since I decided this is not a good college, donating to them isn’t the best thing I could do, though I did donate a moderate amount. Instead, I plan to donate to other worthy causes at the appropriate times. But no question about it — I do want to give back to the world.

None of which changes the fact that going to this college is not worth the cost, intellectual and emotional. Years after graduating from this college, I’m still uncomfortable with people, distrustful of groups, and in general not as happy as I would be if I went to another college.

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