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Grief, tributes for Indian guru Sai Baba

PUTTAPARTHI, Apr 24 – Sathya Sai Baba, one of India\’s most famous gurus, died in hospital on Sunday, triggering a global outpouring of grief and tributes from devotees across politics, sport and entertainment.

He was 85 and finally succumbed to multiple organ failure after being in a critical condition for more than three weeks, his doctors said.

Thousands of Hindu followers massed at the Institute of Higher Medical Sciences hospital where Sai Baba had been treated in his hometown of Puttaparthi, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

Police used barriers to hold back crowds of mourners and appealed for public calm after the death was announced.

"Sai Baba is no more with us physically. He breathed his last at 7:40 am and died due to cardio-respiratory failure," a statement from the hospital said. "His body will be kept for public worship for two days on Monday and Tuesday."

Devotees had congregated in the town over recent weeks to hold special prayers asking for a miracle to allow Sai Baba to recover.

He was credited by millions of people across the globe with having supernatural powers, including an ability to conjure objects out of thin air, remember past lives and cure terminal diseases.

Instantly recognisable for his wild curly hair and saffron robes, he was followed by politicians, judges and generals in India as well as cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, Hollywood star Goldie Hawn and legions of the poor.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the nation would deeply mourn the death of Sai Baba, who "was an inspiration to people of all faiths."

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"He was a spiritual leader who inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful life," Singh said, adding that the softly-spoken guru taught "the universal ideals of truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence."

Tendulkar had earlier said on his Twitter page that he was praying for Sai Baba\’s health and asked others to join him.

The guru claimed to be the reincarnation of a former holy man, Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918.

His organisation has funded health and education projects in India, including hospitals and clinics that say they are able to cure ailments beyond the capabilities of mainstream medicine.

From his ashram in Puttaparthi, he established schools and centres that spread his influence worldwide.

Among his supporters was the former owner of the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants, Isaac Burton Tigrett, who went to live in Puttaparthi and donated much of his fortune to the Sai Baba trust.

Puttaparthi grew from a village into a major pilgrimage town, boasting a university and even an airport as Westerners, Indian students and the destitute clamoured to be close to a man they saw as an incarnation of God in human form.

As well as hospitals and clinics, the Sai Baba organisation operates drinking water schemes, a museum, a planetarium and an international network of prayer rooms.

At public meetings, his showman antics in which he would miraculously produce gold coins or watches on stage brought him both fame and notoriety, with critics accusing him of being a fraudster.

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He also faced allegations of sexual abuse of young male followers, which his opponents said were ignored by Indian authorities due to his power and popularity.

His death on Sunday was covered by Indian television news channels with reverence as interviewees remembered meetings with Sai Baba, his apparent miracles and long record of charitable giving.

"He was more than a teacher, friend or husband," said Kiran Nanda, a follower for 40 years. "In many ways, big and small, he showed his compassion and love for all humans. His work was his message."

Among the Bollywood stars paying tribute was Vivek Oberoi who said that "the body is merely a vehicle. His spirit will continue to guide us as always."

The future of Sai Baba\’s hugely wealthy trust, which is funded by donations and has been criticised for lack of transparency, is uncertain and some observers predict a power struggle among his closest aides.

Sai Baba had used a wheelchair since 2005 and made fewer public appearances after fracturing his hip in 2006.

His body will be buried on Wednesday in line with the practice for spiritual leaders in India in contrast to the regular Hindu custom of cremation.

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