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Thousands Attend Indian Guru's Funeral

Followers carry the body of spiritual guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba during his funeral inside an ashram at Puttaparti in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh April 27, 2011.

In India, nearly half a million devotees have attended the funeral of a guru whose massive following in India and overseas included many rich and powerful people. Sathya Sai Baba’s followers looked upon him as a divine incarnation and believed he had mystical powers.

Priests chanted Hindu hymns as the funeral of Sathya Sai Baba was conducted Wednesday morning in Puttaparti, the small town in Southern India where he lived and which he made famous.

The hundreds of thousands of people who lined up to pay their last tributes to the spiritual leader whom they called a "living god”" included ordinary people, high-ranking officials, top politicians, and businessmen. With his appeal cutting across religious faiths, Tibetan monks and Sikh priests were also among those who paid homage to India’s most prominent guru.

Several television channels broadcast the funeral live. A giant screen was put up in the small town for thousands of mourners who could not get close to the glass box where his body has been kept since he died of multiple organ failure on Sunday at the age of 84.

However, the burial was a private affair, conducted behind a red curtain in the presence of a handful of family members and close associates. Hindus are usually cremated, but those considered holy are often buried. Sathya Sai Baba’s burial site will become a memorial.

Sociologist Mala Shankar Das at Delhi University said Sathya Sai Baba’s charisma helped him grow into a cult-like figure to his millions of followers.

"There is no rational to it. There is no logic to it. It is just kind of a belief," said Das. "They just want somebody who can give them solace… When you talk to some followers, what they think was great about him, they just said when he looked at us, when he touched us, we were kind of blessed, and things have been going right with us."

Although raised as a Hindu, Sathya Sai Baba had preached that, "There is only one religion, the religion of love." His followers included many foreigners and his centers run in 126 countries.

But his meteoric rise to a spiritual leader was not untouched by controversy. Critics accused him of faking miracles as he often conjured up watches, gold coins and other objects from thin air. Devotees called this proof of his mystical powers. He also faced unproven charges of sexual abuse.

He leaves behind a massive trust of nearly $9 billion, which is involved in running clinics, schools, colleges and he is credited with a piped drinking water project that has helped some 750 villages. Questions are being raised about who will manage this massive trust, but members of the trust have promised to carry on his charitable work.