This article first appeared in Heart2Heart, November 2006.
The crescent-shaped Iguazú Falls, consisting of 270 cascades along 2.7 kilometers, where every second 176,000 cubic feet of water plunges 230 feet into a craggy abyss; the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno Glacier, a 250 square km mountain of ice, where chunks of ice gracefully fall like a carefully choreographed ballet; Patagonia, a naturalist's dream, home to penguins, guanacos, sea lions, flamingos, and whales; Iguazú National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with over 2000 known plant species, 400 species of birds, and the ruins of early Jesuit missions; the Andes, the worlds longest mountain chain, with Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas; the Pampas, a grand expanse of plains dotted with working ranches and large estates producing grain and cattle and decorated with palatial villas rich in antiques and tradition — the natural beauty of this land encompasses all this and more.
With 20 National Parks, deserts, plains, mountains, and wildlife found nowhere else in the world, Argentina is immeasurably endowed with God’s natural treasures. Another special blessing, however, occurred nearly six decades ago, a time when even villagers in Puttaparthi had not recognized the Avatar in their midst, when one Argentinean lady came to Prasanthi Nilayam for Sai Baba’s darshan. The year was 1948.
That was the start of the fascinating tale of the Sai Movement in Argentina. Before revealing how Baba, through His mysterious ways and sublime love, inspired Argentineans living across the seas thousands of miles from Puttaparthi, let's look at this dynamic land, second only to Brazil in size in South America and the eighth largest country in the world.
Argentina – Gifted and Prosperous
The name Argentina comes from the Latin Argentum, meaning silver. When the first Spanish conquistadors discovered the Rio de la Plata (an estuary on the South Atlantic coast), indigenous people gave gifts of silver to the survivors of the shipwrecked expedition. Even now, mining and exports of gold, silver, zinc, magnesium, and copper are growth industries. Apart from metals, agricultural exports (e.g. soy, vegetable oils) and manufacturing (motor vehicles, farm equipment, iron, and steel) constitute a large part of the nation’s GDP.
More than any other Latin American country, Argentina’s population is of European origin, with most of the populace descended from Spanish, Italian and other European settlers, while the largest ethnic minority is the Mestizo (European/Amerindian). Argentina’s urban areas have a European look, and many cities in the triangle-shaped country are built in a Spanish-grid style around a main square called a plaza. Approximately 70% of its 38 million people declare themselves Roman Catholic, and Catholicism is endorsed in its constitution. At the same time, Argentina is home to one of the largest mosques in Latin America and a Muslim community of nearly six hundred thousand.
Spanish is the primary language, and a literacy rate of 97.5% puts the country high in global rankings. The ubiquitous white uniform of Argentine schoolchildren is a national emblem of learning. Except for graduate studies, education is free at all levels.
From the Plains to the Port
Though Argentina’s population is predominantly urban, with four fifths residing in cities and towns, the gaucho, the legendary cowboy and nomadic herder of the Pampas (as depicted in Martín Fierro, the Argentine folk epic by José Hernández) remains a national symbol. The nation’s industry, culture, and beauty converge in the capital, Buenos Aires, one of the most modern cities in the world. Often hailed as the “Paris of the South,” Buenos Aires gracefully combines space-age high technology with a rich colonial past. Home to more than a third of the country’s people, this cosmopolitan metropolis is the nation’s largest city. Its port is one of the busiest in the world, and the people of Buenos Aires are known as porteños (people of the port), acknowledging the historical importance the port has played in the nation’s development. Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires commemorates Argentina’s independence from Spain on 9 July 1816 and is said to be the world’s widest boulevard. The Cathedral containing the tomb of José de San Martín is another popular landmark.
There are many more interesting aspects to Buenos Aires and Argentina, such as their culture, sports, music, flora, and fauna, but our focus is on how the Sai Movement developed in this South Atlantic nation.
Argentina has twenty-three provinces, but the Sai Organization’s Central Council of Latin America has divided the country into six regions. First, we look at the Sai Movement in Buenos Aires and Córdoba; then we explore Cuyo, Bariloche, Northeast, and Sante Fe.
The Genesis of the Sai Organization in Córdoba and Buenos Aires
Though Adelina del Carril de Güiraldes visited Baba in 1948, more seeds were sown in 1978 with Ananda Giri. In 1969, Ananda Giri came to know of Baba from Indra Devi, the famous yoga teacher, when he lived in the Los Angeles ashram of Paramahansa Yogananda. It was there, in 1978, that Dick Bock gave him a copy of Aura of Divinity, one of the first films about Baba, shortly before he returned to Argentina.
Ananda Giri, a yoga teacher, settled in Villa Carlos Paz, in the lovely Mediterranean-like region of Córdoba, a province characterized by stately mountains rising by calm and transparent lakes. (The city of Córdoba has a belt of historical heritage buildings, some of which date back to the Jesuits, who founded La Docta, the first university in the country.) Ananda Giri, inspired by his friend Kriyananda and the personality of Paramahansa Yogananda, decided to organize a spiritual tour of India in 1979, with one stop at Prasanthi Nilayam. He screened Aura of Divinity in Buenos Aires and Córdoba. Two seekers on this pilgrimage were Monica Zocolosky and Marta Basan. Eventually, it would be Monica who started the first Sai Center in Argentina, while Marta remained in India and lived in Prashanti Nilayam for fifteen years.
Jorge Hadad, President of the Sai Organization in Argentina for several years, says, “After news about the Sai Avatar came to Argentina in 1980 from Ananda Giri, the first Sai Centers were founded in Buenos Aires and Córdoba. Later, Sai groups started up in Mendoza and other provinces.”
By 1981, in order to accommodate the growing numbers attending the Buenos Aires Center, a house was rented on Paraguay Street. Activities at the Sai Center on Paraguay Street included devotional singing, a Bal Vikas group, seva projects, and film showings on Sai Baba.
How the Largest Sai Center in Latin America was Born
Mr. Hugo Baldi visited Swami for the first time with his family in 1981. Upon returning, along with other new devotees, he began performing extensive service. Hugo relates, “When the devotees decided to buy an abandoned mechanic’s shop on Uriarte Street and move the Paraguay Street Center there, I was initially opposed to the idea, until I had a dream in which Swami and I entered the workshop and He began to dance. This confirmed to me that the Uriarte street building was the appropriate location.” The workshop required a great deal of remodeling, but it has since become the largest Sai Center in Latin America, often with 400 devotees in attendance.
In 1983, a group from the Paraguay Center traveled to India, and after this visit the budding Sai Organization began to blossom. In 1986, Sai devotees rented a stand at an International Book Fair and sold books, gave away brochures, and screened movies on Sai Baba.
The Sai Movement Grows Swiftly
The first Coordinating Committee for the Sai Organization of Argentina was established in 1986, with Hugo Baldi as President. Over the next year, the Organization swiftly expanded. Service projects, devotional singing, and human values lessons for children and adults inspired members across the country. The Sathya Sai Baba Foundation of Argentina was established to assist the multifarious service activities. Also, in 1987, the Central Council of Latin America was created at a meeting in Buenos Aires, which drew representatives from the entire continent. Leonardo Gutter and Nassin Michaan were nominated as Central Coordinators.
How Leonardo Gutter came
to Baba is a fascinating tale. He heard about Sai Baba while
participating in a spiritual group (Sudda
Darma Madalam) started
by Monica Zocolosky. A powerful dream with Swami led to his
first trip to India in 1982. After forty days of waiting and
hoping for an interview, Leonardo decided to resign from the
other spiritual group. As soon as he did so, Baba called him
in. After answering Leonardo’s personal questions, Baba
whispered in his ear, “Sai Baba is never going to disappoint
He waited thirty days, and just before leaving for Argentina, while debating whether or not to buy another one, Baba called him in and materialized a beautiful watch. He said, “This is a special watch. It will stop every time you have a bad thought.” During the interview, the watch stopped. Leonardo was surprised and told Baba, “The watch has stopped!” Swami said, “Yes, because you had a bad thought.” Ever since then, Leonardo has been watching his thoughts to keep the watch running. The ways of the divine are truly astounding.
The Wonder of His Omnipresence
Over the next few years, the Central Council of Latin America established Coordinating Committees in many countries, creating a base for the continued growth of the Sai movement. By 1992, the numbers had grown to seventeen Sai Centers and forty-six Sai Groups in the Argentine territory. In 1998, the first Central Council of Argentina and six Regional Coordinating Committees were established, with Jorge Hadad of Córdoba as its first president. “Often when we traveled to project Sai’s films,” says Mr. Haddad, “we smelled the aroma of incense or a marvelous jasmine fragrance inside the cars, the hotels, and in the public hall, though no one had lit any incense. In numerous ways, Sai’s presence was always felt.”
Sai’s Message Comes to Cuyo
The region of Cuyo is situated at the bottom of the Andes Mountains, looked over by the 7000-meter high Aconcagua Mountain, also known as the Stone Sentinel, the highest peak in the Americas. This region of deserts and oases was the setting for a spiritual resurgence in Argentina.
After the first devotees from Buenos Aires went to visit Baba in the early 80s, they generated a stream of Sai Love through public meetings. Enrique Giaquinta and Norma Galar were among those who set up the first center in Cuyo. In the city of Bariloche, a tourist destination situated on a lake in the foothills of the Andes in South Argentina, Hugo Baldi began showing Aura of Divinity in his ‘Interlaken Hotel’. Carlos Bastias was one of many who were moved, and with Mercedes Wesley, he started the first Sai Center in Bariloche. Mercedes later became one of the principal translators of Sai literature into Spanish.
Translators Mercedes Wesley, Arlette Meyer from Venezuela, and Herta Pfifer from Chile, are largely responsible for making a number of books on Baba available to the people of Latin America in their language. Publishing the books has been a labor of love undertaken by Ricardo Parada from Buenos Aires, Luis Muniz from Mexico, and Arnoldo Zarate of Venezuela.
The Word Spreads in Spanish
In the 1960s, Ricardo Parada read the predictions of an American clairvoyant who said there was an extraordinary person born in the East whose mission would be to unite all of humanity. The prophecy stated that from 1985 this great teacher would be known throughout the world. When Ricardo saw an article on Sai Baba, he was certain this was the promised teacher the clairvoyant had spoken of.
At the end of 1987, Ricardo planned his first trip to India. In Prasanthi Nilayam, Baba called him for an interview and blessed the work of publishing Sai books in Spanish. On his return to Argentina, Ricardo, a partner in a firm specializing in publishing accounting books, had to overcome the resistance of his associates who thought bringing out spiritual volumes would ruin their business. Ricardo finally convinced them to try it with a few titles. The company grew quickly in a way no one could have imagined, and within four years they were the publishers of a catalogue of Sai books.
At a publisher’s conference in Prasanthi Nilayam in 2005, Ricardo showed how his company had managed to publish over 200 titles with Baba’s message for Spanish speaking countries. He said, “It is wonderful how Swami makes everything necessary for this work available without anyone asking Him.”
Sai Travels to Corners of Argentina
After this brief history of the Sai Organization in a few regions of Argentina, we move on to the activities — service, educational, spiritual and others — being undertaken by the country’s Sai community.
Argentina – Marching Ahead in Educare
Education in Human Values has become a major activity of the Argentinean Sai movement. Recently, the Minister of Education of Argentina met the Director of the Sathya Sai Institute of Argentina and approved the Sathya Sai EHV Program. In fact, she requested the Director of the Institute to adopt as many schools as possible, the only limit being the Sai Organization’s resources.
Pioneering efforts by the Sai devotees culminated in this national recognition. Notable examples are: the daycare center in Córdoba, later converted into a Sai School managed by Jorge and Ana Haddad; Los Bichitos daycare center in Buenos Aires where up to ten devotees serve for five days a week; a program imparting human values lessons and training in skills like music and art for the children in La Boca, and others. Daniel Coifmann, who translated the first human values book, traveled extensively in Latin America introducing the EHV program to many countries.
Miracles Clear the Way for the Mahatma Gandhi School
In 2000, t he Educational Activities got a big boost when Ricardo Parada was asked to create an Institute of Education in Human Values with the goal of establishing new Sai Schools and administering those already functioning. A committee was formed to look for an appropriate site in Buenos Aires. Nothing suitable was found until Ricardo heard of a vacant school available at a reasonable price. It seemed a great opportunity, but being a bankruptcy sale, there were legal complications in the form of employee embargos against the property. Baba guided Ricardo in paying off the employees’ claims even before the title was cleared, and the transaction went off without a hitch. Renovations began in November 2000, but there were more hurdles to overcome before the school could open on its scheduled date in the first week of March 2001.
After his initial joy, Ricardo realized that although the authorization to open the school was obtained, the Institute had not yet been authorized by the Government Organization. Extremely concerned, he traveled to Prasanthi Nilayam and delivered a letter to Swami on15 January, explaining the situation.
That same day, official approval for the Institute arrived, with all the stamps and corresponding dates, even though January is a month of judicial leave of absence for the entire country. This was yet another miracle, and all the obstacles were now cleared.
Although facing some opposition from the community and local religious institues, the school opened in March, just as Swami had indicated. The drama was not yet over, however, as the Commission of Schools mandated that by July they had to have fifteen children enrolled or their authorization would be canceled. The school had opened with only five students.
Another request brought another miracle: the school had exactly fifteen students enrolled by July. Today, the Mahatma Gandhi School has 160 students and a long waiting list. A new Sai School is scheduled to open in 2007 in Mendoza, Cuyo.
Multifarious Service Projects
One of the reasons for the extraordinary growth of the Sai Organization in Argentina has been its numerous service projects. Describing these various activities, Leonardo Gutter said in a recent Radio Sai interview:
“In Argentina, there are currently 80 to 90 centers and groups. A few centers are open 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. every day of the week. Their activities include daily seva (selfless service), study circles, and bhajans twice weekly. Three or four times a week, Narayan seva is conducted. In Buenos Aires, one center serves about 11,000 plates of food monthly to poor people. Other projects include conducting medical camps, adopting slum areas, visiting the lepers’ house, serving in the children’s hospital, etc. The important aspect is that all this is done with great love and is a continuous activity done throughout the week, every week.”
Gold from Heaven for the Helguera Girls’ Home
Swami told Monica Socolosky in her first interview that many miracles would happen. One that stands out is this:
In 1992, the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Foundation of Argentina was renting a Home for Children, which was providing shelter for street urchins and offering education and rehabilitation in a loving environment. One day, a boy from the home was cleaning flowerpots in order to plant new seeds and found two plastic bags with something wrapped in newspaper inside a pot. When he opened it to see what was inside, out fell two gold bars.
The devotees consulted legal specialists to find out who the owner was. They were told the one who found it was the owner. So it seemed a street lad had become wealthy overnight. To get further clarification and directions regarding the ownership and usage of this newfound wealth, the President of the Sai Foundation of Argentina, along with the boy and other devotees, traveled to Prasanthi Nilayam. Baba granted them an interview and told them that the gold was a product of His Will and should be used to buy a home for the orphans.
Through the sale of the gold bars and donations, the Foundation was able to purchase a house on Helguera Street, now the Girls’ Sai Home. This home shelters nine girls and is supported by the Sathya Sai Baba Foundation. All of them come from unstable families and were assigned to the Home by a judge from the Ministry of Justice. They are provided a family environment, education, loving care, and medical assistance. Three female seva dal workers live with the girls, who participate in Sai Center activities and go to the church of their choice. In September, 1993, a second house was purchased on Costa Rica Street for use as a Service Center.
Raising Up a Poor Community
Gonzalez Catan is a small community about 40 kilometers from Buenos Aires. It was built by squatters on low-lying land, which floods during the yearly rainy season when the river overflows. Many petitions were signed by the residents of Gonzalez Catan, asking government authorities to resolve this problem, but with no help forthcoming their situation remained dire and their homes faced regular flooding.
Then someone told them that Sai Baba could help. Not knowing who Sai Baba was, they imagined He was someone who lived in Buenos Aires. So, early one morning, the leader of the residents’ committee took the bus to the big city. He didn’t have any idea where to go, but his faith told him if he could find this Sai Baba, He would help them. He started by asking everyone he met if they knew where Sai Baba lived, assuming Him to be a well-known industrialist or politician. However, no one could give him a lead, and he searched for the better part of the day until he was so discouraged and tired that he was ready to give up.
Then he saw a drunken man lying in the street. He thought, “I will not ask this fellow because what can a drunk know?” But he reconsidered and asked the man, who pointed to a house across the street. It so happened that the Sai Organization Youth Coordinator for Buenos Aires lived there and he was at home. He listened to the tale of woe told by the Gonzalez Catan community representative. The Youth Coordinator promised he would visit the community with a group from the service wing to see what they could do.
After assessing the conditions at Gonzalez Catan, the devotees ordered truckloads of earth and helped the community to elevate the level of their homes by 40 centimeters. Since the floors were raised two years ago, no water has entered their humble dwellings. The Sai Organization has also held medical camps there and visits weekly with food for the children and classes in human values. In February 2002, 480 patients were examined and provided free medicine by 100 Sai volunteers. In February 2006, an eye camp was held and free eyeglasses were offered.
The flooding problem in Gonzalez Catan still exists, because the yearly overflow from the river is the primary cause. The devotees are currently looking for a more permanent solution, which may mean moving the community to higher and drier ground.
In a medical camp held in 2003, twenty-seven medical professionals participated, serving more than 500 patients and providing free medicine. Medical camps in Argentina, as stated, are a continuous activity. In Grand Bourg, Buenos Aires, two camps were held in March 2006. One focused on eye care while the other was an all-specialty camp.
Gran Rex and other Public Meetings
In addition to EHV programs, medical service and other spiritual activities, in 2004 the Sai movement in Latin America instituted Sai Public Meetings, prompted by Baba Himself. This is a unique service activity heralding a new phase of Swami’s mission.
On May 8-9 2004, a Public Meeting and Conference for Devotees was held in Buenos Aires, planned by Baba himself. Two hours before the doors opened, a line two blocks long surrounded the Gran Rex Theater, where the meeting was held. The 3200 capacity theater was filled with devotees as well as non-devotees.
While people were being accommodated and lovingly welcomed by more than 100 volunteers, devotees sang bhajans in Spanish on the stage for an hour. A high-quality photographic exhibition displaying seva (selfless service) activities in Argentina and Latin America aroused public interest. During the speeches given by Dr. Michael Goldstein and Mr. Leonardo Gutter, there was silence and serenity. When the movie His Work was shown, hundreds of eyes overflowed. After the meeting concluded, people did not want to leave and stayed in the theater lobby for more than forty-five minutes. The Ambassadors of Chile, Ukraine, Croatia, and Vietnam and notables from public and private institutions attended the meeting. The next day, 500 devotees from all over Latin America participated in workshops and listened to inspiring talks given by various office bearers. Many countries presented PowerPoint shows of their seva activities. The impact of the Public Meeting was beyond the imagination of the organizers.
Argentina has also been fortunate to have many senior devotees of Bhagavan visit the country and share their experiences. Prof. Anil Kumar and Dr. Pavan recently visited Argentina. Both of these long-time devotees of Bhagavan reported that, “the enthusiasm shown by devotees to listen about Bhagavan and learn from His teachings was overwhelming.”
If the Sai Organization has become a vibrant force in Argentina, it is because someone half a world away is pulling the strings. How Swami draws people to Him and then raises them to spiritual heights is an inspiring tale. The Argentinean devotees have had many divine experiences, but we would like to conclude with one classic tale.
Sai’s All-embracing Love Sweeping Argentina ...
The Sai movement in Latin America is going through an amazing period of rapid expansion and shows no signs of slowing down. It is truly phenomenal what is happening throughout the continent, and one can only watch in awe as Sai’s love moves from city to town and country to country. While the activities of the devotees — be they medical camps, public meetings, or EHV programs — are bringing Swami’s grace to thousands and purifying the hearts of those doing seva, the force behind this movement is, as always, the sankalpa (will) of the Avatar, which is unfolding simultaneously all over the planet. Swami once made a fist and said, “With this hand I do my work,” and then made a fist with the other hand and continued, “and these are my devotees.” There can be no better work on this earth than to offer one’s talent and skill, heart, and mind at the service of the Avatar.