The Origin of Akhanda Bhajan
It was a dark time in the world - World War II raged, and the British still ruled India. But in a small corner of the country - the village of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh - the Divine light of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the Lord of the Universe born in human form, shone increasingly effulgent. Ever since my grand-uncle Sri Seshagiri Rao and his family had made their initial trip to see Him in 1944, the bonds of love between the young Avatar and these early devotees grew quickly, and He very soon became the centre of their lives. My parents, Dr. R.S. Padmanabhan and Kamalamma, and the extended family would make the difficult 3-day journey from Bangalore to Puttaparthi whenever they could, to enjoy the proximity of Divinity. Once there, all their activities revolved around Swami; He would talk with them, play with the children, lead them all to the Chitravathi river bed for late afternoon satsangs, and constantly teach spiritual truths through everyday events. Bhajans quickly became a part of the evening routine in the Patha Mandiram, and the devotees would lose themselves in the melodious namasmarana.
It was always difficult to leave their beloved Swami at the end of each visit, so in 1945, my parents, my aunt’s family and six other devotee families from Bangalore decided to hold their own bhajans on Thursday evenings, at each of their houses, in turn. Those were the days of curfews and rationing, they had no phones with which to communicate, and lacked easy access to vehicles. Nonetheless, they held their Thursday bhajan sessions without fail for a whole year, often walking miles to each other’s houses in the dark. Towards the end of that year, someone had the idea of conducting a 24-hour bhajan to celebrate that milestone, with simple prasadam to be served after arathi. The idea quickly caught on, and they excitedly sent a postcard to Sri Seshagiri Rao in Puttaparthi, asking him to convey their plan to Swami and seek His permission and blessings.
The enthusiastic reply came by return post – Swami was thrilled with the idea and stated immediately that not only would He bless the event, but would attend in person! Well, this was more than they had bargained for! Alarmed, Sri Seshagiri Rao’s daughter, my aunt Sunderamma, tried to walk the fine line between appreciating Swami’s enthusiasm and saying “no, don’t come!” to the Lord of the Universe! She wrote back to her father saying, “We will not be able to look after Swami properly, the place is small, there is no vehicle to transport Him here…” Soon after the postcard was mailed, they received a telegram from Sri Seshagiri Rao saying, “We’re on our way!”
And so, Swami arrived a couple of weeks prior to the planned 24-hour bhajan in February 1946, and enthusiastically participated in every aspect of the preparations. The small group of devotees organised the altar and decorations, and pooled their rations of rice to make the prasadam that would mark the event’s completion. Swami was such an integral part of the preparations that it did not occur to any of the devotees that they would need His photograph for the stage until the day of the event – they had just assumed He would sit on His throne to receive their bhajans!
The day of the Akhanda (non-stop) bhajan dawned and preparations were nearing completion. Suddenly strangers started arriving at the venue, family after family, all asking, “Is this where the Akhanda bhajan is to be held?” “Yes”, my aunt replied, “but who are you and why have you come?” “Oh, Swami came to us in our dreams and told us to come and participate in this wonderful event!” As more and more people streamed in, some from as far afield as Chennai and Mysore, my aunts turned increasingly purple in the face! They stared at the growing crowd in disbelief and were anxious about their ability to feed everyone with the limited resources they had.
Several of my relatives were older than Swami, and a couple of my aunts, despite their absolute devotion to Him, would speak to Him with familiarity and sometimes scold Him too! One in particular, Savithramma, marched up to Swami and started to berate Him, “Who asked you to bring all these people? How will we feed them? You better come to the kitchen and say “akshaya [always full]” to all the pots! Otherwise our manam [self-respect] will be lost!”
Swami tried to calm her down, saying softly, “Savithramma, don’t worry. These are all my devotees, and they have come because I asked them. You will have enough, don’t worry.”
But she was having none of His explanations, “No Swami, you have to come and say “akshaya!” And so saying, she dragged Him by the hand to the kitchen, and handed Him two coconuts to break! He did so, sprinkling the coconut water on the pots of pongal, and said “Akshayam, akshayam, akshayam”. He turned to Savithramma, “Happy, Savithramma?” “Yes Swami”, she said, beaming.
And so, the first Akhanda bhajan started at 10:30 am and proceeded blissfully for the next 24 hours. Swami Himself was present for many hours and the devotees enthralled everyone with their musical outpouring of love and devotion. At the end, the elders reverentially performed mahamangalarathi to the young Lord, and my aunts started distributing prasadam to the gathered throngs. The women served prasadam…and served some more…and yet more….and it went on and on! Although the bhajan had finished mid-morning, the prasadam distribution stretched into the afternoon, then the evening, and into the night. Hearing that free food was being distributed, the surrounding villagers started coming to partake of it, and my aunts and those who helped them serve, grew increasingly weary.
Finally, exhausted and chastened, one of my aunts arrived at our home, where my father had brought Swami, and entreated Him to stop the never-ending stream of pongal. Swami pretended to be astonished, “What? First you say you want me to make it akshayam, now you want me to stop it?!” “No please Swami, we are very tired, please make it stop.” After teasing them some more, Swami eventually agreed and the pot finally ran out of pongal! So Swami, in His inimitable and loving way, taught us clearly that it is important to ask God for the right things, and to trust that His plan is for the best!
Tired, but triumphant at the success of their Akhanda bhajan, the small band of devotees resolved to repeat the event every year. And for the next 28 years, with great devotion, they did exactly that. Swami, drawn especially by His love for my parents, attended and participated in all but three of them. Each year, at my father’s request, Swami would provide the date for Akhanda bhajan. At the appropriate time, my father, brother Prithvi, aunt Sunderamma, and in later years, I, would travel to Puttaparthi to formally bring Swami to Bangalore in our car, typically the day before the bhajan started. He would stay in our home - what great joy there would be on the day the Lord arrived! – and my father or brother would drive Swami to the bhajan venue in our car, and back home again at meal-times or whenever they wanted Him to rest. Although cooks were hired to prepare meals for the large crowd of family and friends who would gather in our house, and to make prasadam at the bhajan venue, my mother would herself cook separately for Swami and serve Him His meals with her own hands. During those precious days, which grew more frequent as Swami spent more time in Bangalore and established His ashram at Whitefield, Swami was our constant Divine companion, guide, guru, and friend, the most important member of the household. As I reflect on those wonderful times, and the many sublime truths and practical lessons Swami taught us both by example and precept, I realise again that His life truly was His message.
In 1974, speaking in the Lalbagh Golden Jubilee Hall Bangalore, after the 25th Akhanda bhajan that He Himself attended, Swami directed that this auspicious function, should become a global event. He lovingly told the faithful devotees that began it, “the lamp that you have lit and fostered, will now spread to the whole world!”
Geetha Mohan Ram, USA
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