Heart2Heart team, with the help of John Behner and devotees from Bolivia
This article first appeared in Heart2Heart, February 2007.
Nestled in the heart of the highest and longest mountain range in Latin America, the amazing Andes; protected by beautiful 6,500 meter peaks on one side and humid Amazon jungles coupled with dry planes on the other; blessed with the second largest lake in South America, the sacred puma-shaped Lake Titicaca, which is impossibly deep and covers 8,030 square kilometers.
It is host to the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, which has an area of 10,582 kms containing a staggering 10 billion tons of salt; home to the largest indigenous population in South America, comprising nearly five million of the country’s total eight million.
Bolivia is a breathtakingly beautiful country conferring an authentic South American experience of Indian cultures and dramatic superlative landscapes in the Southern hemisphere.
Spiritually Rich and Serene Heritage
The Bolivian way of life consists of the unique Andean culture; fashionable fusion music, which is a blend of traditional and modern; and their serene and in-built inclination to spiritual principles. It is one of its kind in the modern world. Timeless forts, temples, and amazing ruins (startlingly preserved and many still in use today) are testimonies to the glorious history of this land, which was once an important part of the ancient Incan Empire. One of the most spectacular displays of ancient ritual is during the Bolivian holiday of Yintip Raymi, or the Solemn Feast of the Sun. This large and elaborate sun ritual dates back thousands of years. “Once you visit Bolivia,” it is said, “you will feel the power of the sun and the awe-inspiring landscape, and you will also understand how this culture came to worship the sun.” That is how fascinating and distinct Bolivia is!
Quechas and Aymaras, the native Americans of this land, constitute nearly fifty-five percent of the population. They have existed for two thousand years. It is from the Aymaras that Bolivians have inherited the Ayni or system of community sharing. Each member of the community helps the other in a society of giving and receiving. The Aymaras also started and left a legacy of polarities based on man and woman, and their language was considered to be one of the most advanced and well structured in the world. The Quechas, the other ethnic group, were renowned for their excellent farmers with advanced systems of irrigation, terraces, and soil conservation schemes; roads paved with smooth stones and good communication systems.
The Incredible Incan Civilisation
In fact, the concept of truth, no stealing, no lying, and no laziness came to the Bolivians from the Quechas. And not many will know that it was actually a Quecha leader who started the Incan Empire (the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, which formed 13 states that occupied what is now Bolivia, Peru, northern Chile, Ecuador, and the north of Argentina), which lasted for five centuries until the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century.
The Incas greatly influenced the ethnic communities of this region. In Inca mythology, nature played an important role, and, therefore, the concept of spirit of unity, worship of Panchmama (Mother Earth), and reverence for the Sun —all of these came from the Incas to the Bolivians. The Incas also had a strong belief in reincarnation. which was symbolized in their symbol, the ‘Andean Cross’, based on the Southern Cross constellation. and which represents the current life and different stages of the after life.
Bolivia Today – Changing At A Fast Pace
The Spanish conquest of Bolivia in the 1500’s changed greatly changed the demographic and cultural landscape of this land-locked country. With 80% speaking Spanish as their first language, Spanish today is the official language along with Quecha and Aymara. A great majority of Bolivians in the present day are also Roman Catholic, and many native communities interweave pre-Columbian and Christian symbols in their worship.
Bolivia was, in fact, the last Spanish possession to achieve independence. Thanks to Simon Bolivar (who is the inspiration for the country’s current name), Bolivia became a republic in 1825. La Paz was made the country’s capital, which is the highest administrative capital city in the world. Rich in natural resources like silver, natural gas, iron, and magnesium, Bolivia has always been a “gold mine”, which unfortunately was often exploited and not used optimally for the country’s advantage, partly due to years of unstable political rule even after becoming a republic.
But in recent times, Bolivia has begun to blossom into a culturally, spiritually, and politically rich nation and recently elected a descendent of Indian origin as President in 2005. And with Sai’s grace and guidance reaching the country through mysterious channels, the whole process is only getting expedited. But when and how did Baba enter Bolivia? And how has it changed the Bolivian mindscape? This is a fascinating story, and you will read all about it as we go along.
Sathya Sai Baba Comes To Bolivia
The first Bolivian to visit Sathya Sai Baba was Ramiro Sotelo Murillo in 1974. His visit did not immediately lead to the formation of the Sai Organisation of Bolivia but sowed the seeds for it in the form of contacts he made among friends while in Prasanthi Nilayam.
In 1978, Gustavo Mendez brought books on Sai Baba from Mexico and also information about this ‘marvelous being on the Earth’. Gustavo’s sister, Emma Mendez, says, “From the moment I started reading this material, I was convinced that it was authentic and that these were messages from an exceptional being. I eagerly shared all this material with family and friends. We started to study His books in a small group and began practicing His teachings in our lives.” This was the beginning of Sai Organization in Bolivia.
“During 1979, while visiting Mexico,” Emma continues, “I had the opportunity to meet devotees who were returning from India. They had received a gift —a medal with the image of Swami on one side and an ‘Om’ on the other. It was really a beautiful gift.”
Swami’s inspiring messages and fascinating stories started flowing to Bolivia slowly but steadily, and the Mendez family’s faith deepened every day. In 1981, they received material that helped them to organize a Sai ceremony with devotional songs and Arathi, and soon small Sai groups were born, which blossomed into Sai Centres in the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz, the capital city and the largest city of Bolivia respectively.
Eye Will See
Gustavo Mendez and his wife, the fortunate instruments of the Lord, continued to visit other cities, carrying with them books and photos of Swami. They visited Potosí, Tarija, Trinidad, and Sucre. And everywhere they went, miracles happened. Looking back more than a decade and half, Mrs. Maria Teresa Doria says:
“It was the year 1989. My daughter Karina was going to lose her sight permanently. Many ophthalmologists had examined her and explained how the pigmentation in the retina was not normal, and how there was a progressive deterioration of the optic nerve. Even though one of her eyes was no longer responding and the other was deteriorating fast, I somehow was not willing to accept the stark prognosis. One of the doctors even recommended that 17-year old Karina be inscribed in the Institute for the Blind, so that she could learn Braille. To me, it was totally unacceptable. I wanted to leave no stone unturned, and, in a desperate effort to find a cure, I took her to Christian prayer sessions, to spiritual healers, to doctors of alternate medicine — all of which was of no avail.
Then, one day on the TV, I heard a discussion on spiritual gurus where there was a mention of Sai Baba. They showed a picture of Sai Baba too, and He looked so brilliant and beautiful. When they started talking about His miracles, I was even more enthralled. During this time, I was attending a conference on health and happened to meet a person who directed me to the home of Mrs. Mendez. Once there, I bought three or four books about Sai Baba and also got some vibuthi. Every night I started applying this vibuthi over Karina’s eyelids, and to my amazement and joy, she started getting better every passing day. One night, Karina even had a dream where she saw Swami. Our house at this time was pervaded with the smell of jasmine. Swami’s grace was mysteriously percolating our lives. Later, when I took her for medical check-up, the ophthalmologist was amazed at the regeneration of the optic nerves. ‘She is normal,’ said not one but all the three doctors who examined her. I knew Swami had completely cured Karina. I needed no more confirmation of His divinity. From then on, my faith has been concrete and complete.”
Stream of Endless Vibhuti
Hundreds of miracles like this instilled devotion and installed Sai in the heart of Bolivians. Narrating an interesting account, related again to vibhuti and Mendez, Sr. Javier, a long-standing devotee, says,
“In the year 1990, we were invited to visit a group of people who were studying metaphysics. Mr. Gustavo Mendez spoke to them about the miracle of vibuthi, which could cure just about anything. He had also brought many books about Sai to the meeting, but what the people wanted was a sample of vibuthi, and no one seemed to have any. I remembered that I had a small amount in a plastic bag in my pocket, but it was not enough for more than four or five people to receive a little sample. I did not want to help distribute this, purely to save myself from incurring the displeasure of many who will not be able to receive. So I turned the little bag over to a lady devotee, Ms. Anita Ardaya, and over 80 people lined up to receive a sample! Each one took a small piece of paper to keep the vibuthi safe, and the lady started giving out a spoonful to each one. When I saw the size of the first spoonful, I wanted to protest but instead I decided to step away from the scene (as if not connected with it) and let her do the distribution. And she kept giving spoonfuls not to three, four, thirty or fifty; all eighty received their generous samples and when Anita returned the bag to me I was completely dumbfounded. The bag had the same amount of vibuthi as was there previous to the distribution! The hair on my arms literally stood on ends.”
Miraculous Medicine Man
The story of every Baba devotee from Bolivia is a beautiful revelation of His omnipresence and omnipotence. Sr. Javier has many more to share but we will move on with one more scintillating tale from this veteran devotee.
“In the year 1989,” Javier says, “I was with my friend, Mendoza, who was returning to Chile and offered to take any gifts for my friends there, as I had lived with my family there previously. I thanked him, and while I was wishing him well before bidding goodbye, I told him to remember about our discussions about Sai Baba. He had always listened intently when we had spoken about Swami, but he had never joined the Sai Organization or participated in Sai activities. Before he left, he said he would surely keep an eye out for Swami in Chile.
When Mendoza returned, his first declaration over the phone was, ‘I have news of Sai Baba in Chile.’ When we met later, he narrated a strange story. It was about a TV program he had seen in Santiago (capital of Chile), where an uneducated ‘shaman or curandero’ (Indian medicine man) spoke of miracle cures. The interviewer on the TV asked this person what he cured. The poorly dressed mystical physician said, ‘Everything.’ He was asked again, ‘How do you cure?’ And the reticent ‘medicine man’ couldn’t really explain, and finally said, ‘In reality, it is not me who cures.’ Obviously, the next question was, ‘If it is not you, who is it?’ The man modestly just shook his head and the program ended.
The next week, on the same program the ‘medicine man’ was back. Now, he had brought a friend who had just returned from India. His friend explained how he had gone to India and found himself in the ashram of Sai Baba. He had gone for darshan and sat in the lines like everyone else, without knowing anything about Baba. All of a sudden, he said, a sevadal was asking for him by name. He thought it was for someone else with the same name and didn’t bother to respond. But the sevadal came again, so he got up. The sevadal said, ‘Swami wants to talk to you.’ When he went into the interview room, Swami smiled at him and asked him if he knew the ‘medicine man’, giving his complete name. ‘Oh yes,’ said the friend, and then Baba asked him if he would help Him. Swami then gave him a small envelope with the name of N. N. written on it to be given to the ‘medicine man’. When this person returned to Chile and told the ‘medicine man’ about the present for him from India, the ‘medicine man’ said, ‘I do not know anyone in India.’ But when he opened the envelope and saw Swami’s photo, he cried out, ‘Oh! He is the one who cures my patients. What is His name?’ Swami had sent the photo just in time to help the medicine man with his TV interview.”
Mind-boggling are the ways of the Divine. He reaches out to His devotees in a million ways, each one more astounding than the other. It is because of such experiences of His love and power that the Sai Movement grew in Bolivia and Sai centres sprouted in many cities apart from the administrative capital city of La Paz.
Ask and You Shall Receive
In February 1993, for example, the Organisation formally opened in Sucre, which is the constitutional capital of Bolivia as well as the seat of her supreme court. The previous year, Armando Salvietti had seen a photo of Sai Baba in a newspaper, which he had cut out and put away in a box. In his mind, he said, “If You are really God and know everything I am thinking, please help me to find out about your teachings, and I will take Your photo out of the box.” Not three days went by and someone knocked on the door and offered books on the life and message of Sai Baba! Armando bought all the books and started studying them intently. One thing he read that fascinated him was that Sai Baba materialized objects for His devotees. He went to the box and took out the newspaper clipping, and said, “Please send me a medal with Your photo on it.” And within ten days, Armando’s sister-in-law returned from Argentina and brought a medal with Swami’s image on it, saying this is the picture of a Saint from India.
There was more to come. A group of friends from Santa Cruz had visited Swami and had brought back some vibhuti. They gave some to Susana, Armando’s wife, attesting, “It cured anything”. Susana was then suffering from chronic ulcers, and the doctors had recommended an operation. But she was not for the idea; instead she decided to travel to India with her husband.
They came to Prasanthi Nilayam and were fortunate to be called for an interview. Swami asked her, “Why are you so worried about your health?” And before she could answer, He said, “I know, I know,” and explained in detail the causes of her ulcers. The couple was waiting for Swami to say that He would cure the ulcers, but He said only, “Everything will be fine, I am always with you.” Then He put His hand on her head and said, “I bless you and all your family.” But Susana was still feeling that nothing had changed. One amazing fact of the whole episode was that she had heard Baba speaking everything to her in Spanish, because she does not know English, but her husband, and another devotee from UK, had heard Baba speaking in English and not a word of Spanish! It was all an unsolved puzzle.
On their return journey to Bolivia, the couple landed in Miami (Florida, USA), where Susana went for a check up of her ulcers. The doctors said, “There are no signs of any ulcers, she is in excellent health”. Susana was ecstatic with happiness, and no one could shake her faith in Swami now. Soon after they reached home, she decided to open a Sai Center in Sucre to spread the good news of Swami and His message. Soon the centre grew, and the Salviettes helped form the Sai Foundation of Bolivia in 1995 to aid the service and other spiritual activities of the Bolivian Sai Organization. Armando became the first president and recently, in 2006, Susana took over. There is another devotee who helped Armando with the setting up of the Sai Foundation, Ms. Sonia Rojas Salvatierra, and her experiences are equally remarkable.
The Divine Doctor Cures All
“It was in the early nineties,” says Rojas Salvatierra, “I was returning from a trip to Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires, not having slept for about 72 hours. When I arrived at the airport in Bolivia, I was advised that my mother was being operated upon. I quickly went to the hospital, notwithstanding the severe headache mainly because of my lack of sleep. But after I got a few hours of sleep and returned to the hospital to see my mother, the headache was worse. I became too weak and had to be hospitalized. It was such a bad time that I thought it was better to die than continue in the situation. The diagnosis was out: I had an incurable disease that, if operated on, had only 50% chance of recovery. There were some new treatments, but these were in an experimental stage and did not guarantee recovery. Cisticercosis is a disease of worms in the brain, and I had sixteen of them in the reproductory stage. I, however, opted for the experimental treatment, which required that I remain hospitalized for one month for the administration of the medicines.
I remember the doctor who always woke me up at night to tell me that everything would be alright and to take my medicine. He was always smiling. After my recovery, I went to Mexico for a check up at the Institute of Neurology as they had more experience with this type of disease. A friend asked me to take an envelope for some of her family members in Mexico. While I was waiting for the envelope, I saw on her table a book with a photo of the doctor who attended on me in the hospital at night during my sickness. I asked her, “Who is the doctor?” She said, “Take the book and read it.” I was hurrying to the airport, so I just put it in my bag. In the plane, I opened the book, and the first thing I saw was this message, “It is not important that you do not know me, the only thing that is important is that I know that you need me.”
Later I tried to find these words in the book but could never locate them. I continued to read and was surprised that the doctor who had attended on me in the hospital was a man in India named Sai Baba, who said He was God. You can imagine my frustration when I returned to Bolivia and went to the hospital to inquire from my doctor about this Sai Baba. The hospital administration presented me with the doctor on the night shift, but he was not the one who had attended to me, but everyone said there had been no change of doctors. It was probably a confusion caused by my medication, I thought.
I was almost ready to accept that explanation when I decided to call the woman who had loaned the strange book to me. She said that I could call someone in Argentina named Leonardo Gutter and gave me his number. Leonardo was very pleased to receive my call and said that he was planning a trip to Bolivia. When he came, he brought a film about Sai Baba. When I saw the film, I could confirm that the doctor who took care of me for one month in the hospital was the same Sai Baba, and not a doctor.
It was incredulous that this ‘gentleman’ in India had come all the way to Bolivia to help me cure in the hospital. I had a hundred questions to ask Him. When I arrived in India after a few weeks, the first thing I noticed about Sai Baba was that His hair was exactly the same as the doctor who had looked after me in the hospital. His eyes were the same, his smile was the same! For reasons that I still don’t understand, I know it was Swami who chose me for this divine drama.”
The Lord’s pure love flows to where it is needed. One need not even ask. He has come to convert our troubles and tribulations into happiness and bliss, and every single moment, He is engaged in this divine endeavour, whether we realize it or not. This one experience changed Sonia’s life for ever, and she dedicated all her energies in His work, serving as Coordinator for the Sai Organization of Bolivia for four years till 1996 and later working with the Sai Foundation.
The Mendez family, Sonia, Susana, etc. are not even the tip of the iceberg of the Bolivian Sai Movement. For every mind-altering incident we hear, there are hundreds that are locked in the deep recesses of the every devotee’s heart forever infusing them with faith, confidence and spiritual energy just like the Alicia Arispe’s.
All Round Protection
“It was in 1995 that I started to know about Sathya Sai Baba,” says Alicia. “I decided to join a group of devotees that were traveling to India for His 70th birthday. For me, it was a moving experience. I am a retired teacher and founder of a private school where I was the director for ten years. When I went to India, it caused a serious problem with the supervision. The supervisor, a Catholic Priest, while I was gone, tried to remove me and put a Catholic nun in my position. It was the last year for me before retirement, and it was very important to qualify for my pension. I cried in front of Swami’s photo after I returned, resigned myself to whatever He decided for me and went to school. When I returned from School and was passing by the open door of my meditation room, I heard a voice say, “Don’t worry, everything will be alright.” By this time, the memorandum naming the catholic nun to my position had already been sent to the district supervisor. I had given up all hopes. But, strangely, the district supervisor raised some objections and renamed me as director of the school! I was joyous and was able to complete my career in peace. In fact, Swami has protected me in many situations since then and my life has seen wonderful changes after I made Him an indelible part of my life.”
Mother Healed By The Divine Mother
If that was how Swami has transformed the life the Alicia, let us now read the story of another Sonia, Sonia Bascope, the youngest daughter of Delfina Mendizábal, who shares how having Swami in our lives is like having access to an infinite reserve of support, strength, grace, and peace. “In the year 1994,” says Sonia, “it was determined that my mother had cancer. I started asking questions about life and why this was happening to our family. I got no satisfactory answers." In 1995, she was submitted to an operation. The cancer was in the nose, and during the operation the doctor had to cut out a part of her palate. I was told after the operation that she would only live for only six months and also suffer much pain.
I was desperately looking for answers to my questions at this time and someone told me about Sai Baba. I arrived at the home of the Mendez family where I found books and vibhuti. I started going to the Sai center in the home of the Petersens. My mother at this time was receiving all the treatments indicated for her condition. But when she felt pain, I would put vibhuti on her face and then give her it to eat. I also showed her how to do the Light Meditation.
Slowly, her pain began to disappear and she lived for an unbelievable nine more years! Even her palate closed up little by little. My mother accepted Swami completely to the extent that she would tell visitors, “Swami is God”. In spite of everything, my life has become much richer spiritually because of Swami. I also got the answer to my questions after knowing Swami. I know now that we are eternal and life is continuous. This has helped me to lead a happy life.”
Life, without Swami, they say is a hopeless end but with Swami, it is endless hope. For thousands of Bolivian Sai devotees, life with Swami is, in fact, endless hope, health and happiness. And the universal message of love and peace of Baba has been percolating to every strata of the Bolivian society.
Sai Public Meetings
Inspired devotees have been organizing Sai Public Meetings every year in different cities. As recently as 2006, a Public Meeting was organized in Santa Cruz, which was attended by hundreds of devotees and newcomers. Gustavo Mendez and his sister were the first devotees named in charge of the organisation in 1993, and national retreats of the Sai Organisation are held every year to share organizational and spiritual experience. With representatives from other countries like Argentina, Brazil, etc. coming for the public meetings, including senior devotees like Nassin Michaan, Leonardo Gutter, Carlos Rivas, Marcelo Berenstein and the like, the Sai Movement in Bolivia is touching more lives than ever.
‘You must speak for me’
Narrating an elevating episode of how mysteriously Sai’s name and message enlightened souls in a catholic church, Senor Javier says,
“One morning in 1999, I received a call from a friend, Father Hugo, who is also a Catholic Priest. He invited the devotees of the Sai Centre of La Paz to give an exposition about Sai Baba in the Iglesia Monticulo Church, La Paz, but needed an immediate answer. When I saw the interesting possibilities for sharing Swami’s message, I accepted the invitation for the same evening. But very soon I saw how imprudent this was. I called the Centre president and asked her to speak at the church but she asked me to do it. Only then did I realize the problem that I had created. I tried to call my friend, the priest and cancel the engagement. But I was unable to get him on line in the morning or afternoon. Other center members offered to go and give me moral support, but no one wanted to talk on the spur of the moment.
Finally, thinking that the presentation would probably be to a small group in an adjoining room, I reconciled myself to present something. But I was still completely unprepared. I remembered another friend and asked him to speak and he politely refused. The only other possibility was to turn to Swami Himself, and say, ‘Swami, please, You must speak for me.’ I started looking for messages in Sathya Sai Speaks volumes, and I found three sheets of printed messages of Swami in my desk that I had read and copied for future reference. It wasn’t much, and I could hardly concentrate on my work. When I went to the church at 7 PM and met the priest, I asked him about the venue. He pointed to the main church, and also said this was to be part of the mass ceremony. I was to speak first about Sai Baba and His message, and then the father would give the mass, I gathered. Some devotees who had come had brought vibhuti. I tried to be calm.
The church was full. It was the evening mass. I stepped up to the microphone, and to my surprise my voice came through in a pleasant tone, and ideas flowed seamlessly. To me, it was clear Swami was speaking through me. There was a question and answer period, and several questions were asked about Sai Baba and Jesús. When vibhuti was distributed, a couple was sitting next to a devotee. The lady got up to get vibhuti, but the husband remained seated. When she came back to her seat, she said to her husband, ‘Here, put some of this on your knee’. He rolled up his trouser and applied it, and then suddenly ran to the front to get some more! All this drama was over that evening at 9.30 and the father finished the mass making several references to the teachings of Sai Baba. Everyone sang hymns to the Lord and there was peace and love everywhere in the air.”
Peace and love and more of it every moment — that is that Bolivia is inching to every passing day and Sai devotees in Bolivia are doing all that they can. In 2006, a workshop to stimulate education in Human Values was organized by Mrs. Isabel Toyos, the Education coordinator for the Southern Council, while the youth wing of Cochabamba (a city in Central Bolivia) are engaged in some outstanding service activities with the Maria Auxiliadora community.
‘Another Claudia is Born’
Claudia, a youth member from Cochabamba says, “I want to share with you what I have experienced with the youth and what has caused me to see life with a different perspective. I became a member of this group about a year ago. As part of the activities of this group, we wanted to do serve in needy communities. One of the first communities we selected was Maria Auxiliadora, where we started taking used clothing for the residents. However, we saw that there was a greater need for sharing Human Values with the children, so we started going once a week and telling stories, singing songs, staging dramas, and playing games — essentially, just giving love. At this time, my life was filled with a big hole, there was no love in my heart. After I started working with these children, I started discovering that the love that was always there in my heart. I had plenty left over to share with everyone after I had spent time with these children. All this has filled me with so much happiness which I cannot imagine. It is as if another Claudia is born in this moment. Now there is so much to do, and so much to give. I have transformed. I have learned that to love is to serve.”
Bolivia ...Marching to Bliss
Service always gives more to the giver than the receiver. “You are all caskets of Divine Love; share it, spread it, express that love in acts of service, words of sympathy and acts of compassion,” Swami says, and the Sai devotees in Bolivia are doing exactly that by reaching out to the needy and underprivileged. Very poor families living in the shores of Rocha river who use contaminated water for cooking, washing, and even drinking, have lit candles for ages and do not know what electricity is. They live in tiny and flimsy houses made of straw and pasteboards. They are being taken care of by devotees from Cochabamba. They visit this community regularly, donate clothes, food, water, and cans and attend to their problems.
“It is only when one engages in selfless service that love can be purified,” Swami says, and the Bolivian devotees know that the only way to love Swami is to serve the disadvantaged. With every Bolivian devotee becoming a shining candle of selfless service done in gratitude and reverence to the divine, the day is not far when Bolivia, though land-locked, will be love-filled and will not only be beautiful but will also be Baba-filled and Baba-blessed in every inch.
Dear Reader, we are sure there are many more devotee stories and there is much more seva (selfless service) happening in Bolivia, which we could not present to you in our time constraints for this article. We will collect and collate these and bring you more accounts in future issues. Thank you for your time.