Indian spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba, worshiped as a god by followers worldwide, has died in a hospital in southern India at the age of 86.
Sai Baba died Sunday of multiple-organ failure at the hospital near his spiritual center, or ashram, in Puttaparti village in Andhra Pradesh state. He had been hospitalized several weeks earlier in a critical condition and spent his final days on a life-support machine.
The death of the Hindu guru known for his Afro-style hair and saffron robes drew an outpouring of grief from his followers in Puttaparti and elsewhere and tributes from prominent Indian politicians, movie stars and sports figures.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Sai Baba was a spiritual leader who inspired “millions” of people of all faiths to lead a “moral and meaningful life” and whose death is “deeply mourned” by the nation.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy declared four days of mourning culminating on Wednesday with a state funeral expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Sai Baba’s body is due to be on public display on Monday and Tuesday for followers to pay their respects. Police have set up barricades in Puttaparti to control the crowds.
As a youth, Sai Baba claimed to be the reincarnation of another holy man, Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918. From his ashram in Puttaparti, Sai Baba built a network of schools and health centers that spread his influence around India and the world and won him public praise for his charitable work and teachings.
But critics of the guru called him a fraud for claiming to perform miracles by conjuring gold coins, watches and other objects at public events. Several male followers also accused him of sexual abuse.
Poor health had forced Sai Baba to scale back his public appearances in recent years. He began using a wheelchair in 2005 and fractured his hip in an accident the following year.