This article first appeared in Heart2Heart, October 2006.
A narrow strip of land bordered on two sides by gigantic water bodies, the most popular isthmus, which forms a natural land bridge between the two large continents of North America and South America. This ia one of the rarest places in the worl,d where you can go from the wild untamed nature of the Pacific coast to the laid-back influence of the Caribbean – from one paradise of nature to the other –- in a matter of hours. Host to seven living Indian cultures, a Miami-style capital city, exotic tropical rainforests, bewitching beaches, and a world renowned engineering marvel, the Panama Canal. This is the fascinating land of Panama.
So how and when did Sai enter this beautiful land of Panama ? We will come to that interesting story later, but before that let us know a little more about this Central American country, which is often hailed as the Bridge of the World.
Panama and Its People - Diverse, Dynamic and Delighting
Since the discovery of this isthmus in 1501 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, followed by Columbus, Panama and its eponymous capital city have been an important international center purely due to its strategic geographic position. The Colon Free Zone [a free zone in the province of Colon] located at the entrance of the Panama Canal is the second largest of its kind in the world and the first in the Western Hemisphere . With easy access to four major ports, built with most modern facilities and covering an area of 600 acres, it is the most advanced International Shipping Center in Latin America.
Panama is a melting pot of many cultures. The majority of population is Mestizo (or mixed Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and African descent), and 80% of them are Roman Catholic, though the state has no official religion. More than half of its 3.2 million population is urban and live in the Panama City-Colon metropolitan corridor. The dominant language for the funloving and get-along Panamanians is Spanish, which is also their official language, but English is very common in this culturally dynamic and aesthetic land.
We can go on talking about Panama's modern cities, its world class infrastructure, its flourishing trade with the US, its banana export, etc., but what is more interesting is how the Sai movement took off in this country, which is thousands of miles and seas away from Puttaparthi.
The First Panamanian In Puttaparthi
The first visitor to Prasanthi Nilayam from Panama was Dany Nandwani. He waded through the Chitravati River to see Sai Baba in 1962. He recalls that in those early days, there was no altar in the Mandir as there is today, just Swami’s chair and a wooden shelf with a photo of Shirdi Sai and another of Abraham Lincoln. Dany was only 19 years old then, but he was taken with Baba and became devoted for life. Since then, his family always basked under the divine love and protective umbrella of Lord Sai. Just six years ago, in the year 2000, the Nandwani family was conferred a great blessing, though, after a huge test by Baba. Dani Nandwani’s son, Ashok N. Nandwani, president of a chain of stores in a booming commercial center, was kidnapped.
“My Angels Are Taking Care Of Him” – Baba
Devotional Wing of the Sai Organisation
There are presently five Sai Centers, one each in Panama City and Colon City, the second largest city, and three in Chiriqui City. All the centers conduct weekly bhajans and celebrate with great joy the calendar of events and festivals observed by Baba’s devotees everywhere.
Bal Vikas In Panama – A Silent Sai Revolution
Bal Vikas, we know, is based on the five universal human values. It is education in Human Values that develops the finer and more important aspects of a child’s character, thereby cultivating a complete and well-rounded personality. In Panama, this is accomplished through the five teaching techniques of silent sitting, storytelling, prayer, group singing, and group activities.
Bal Vikas classes are innovatively divided into four age groups:
Ages 4 to 6 - based on Love
Ages 7 to 9 - based on Peace
Ages 10 to 12 - based on Truth
Ages 13 to 15 - based on Right Conduct
Held once a week on Fridays, the Bal Vikas classes are looked forward to eagerly by the little children. How do the classes help them? What do the children actually do in a Bal Vikas class? This is how one child narrates a typical Bal Vikas session –
“I Will Surely Forgive” – A Bal Vikas Student
“At 3:38 p.m. I get ready. I tell my Mum to please take me to my class on time, which begins at 4 o’clock. I know Baba likes punctuality. Later on, I close my eyes and chant three OMs. I suddenly feel relaxed and soooooo good. Then, while the meditation is going on, I feel like I am flying through the sky on Aladdin’s magic carpet, as my teacher takes us to this magic ride with our eyes closed. I have learned that if one concentrates, one can really feel as if one are somewhere else. After my teacher asks us to open my eyes; I am back in class after a really enjoyable ride on the clouds.
I enjoy stories, especially about the lion and the rat. When the rat was pleading for forgiveness, asking the lion not to kill him, I had tears in my eyes. I could feel the fear in his little body, so when the lion forgave him I almost jumped up with joy. I actually live in the story, depending on how the teacher tells it. At home now when my brother asks for forgiveness I will surely forgive him – that is what I learned today. Nobody is too big or too small to be forgiven or to be helped. I love singing especially when we are allowed to stand up, clap, and sometimes dance. I leave my class very happy with a chocolate, biscuit, or sweet. Sai Ram, God Bless All.”
Isn’t this wonderful? The transformed outlook of the children toward their parents, elders, and teachers and the respect the children develop for other religious views is the sweet fruit that the Bal Vikas classes confer on the small children. And this is something very precious, which formal academic education never provides. Every three months there is a Bal Vikas newsletter, which carries the impressions of these young enlightened minds.
Bal Vikas Children during a Bhajan Ceremony
In the May of 2006, Bal Vikas gurus organized a sports day with 40 children participating in Panama City. There are around 65 children with 12 teachers in Colon and Panama currently. Every three months the Bal Vikas children enthusiastically organize the bhajan ceremony by themselves.
On Guru Poornima, the Sai Youth organized the Laksha Archana Japa, comprised of 1008 Malas [chanting the divine name a lakh times collectively]. About 125 children took part during Baba’s birthday celebration program, performing dances and plays and singing bhajans.
Teaching Profound Lessons Practically
In the Bal Vikas classes, the students apart from learning how to sing bhajans, pray, and meditate, learn the very important virtue of seva (selfless service). They understand why one must do seva and get the practical feel of its benefits. Seva programs are organized for the children many times in a year. Accompanied by their teachers and mothers, they go to a senior citizens’ home and make sandwiches and give out milk, juice, and fruits. They also visit Mother Teresa’s Home for old people and SOS, an orphanage, and spend hours playing, talking, and serving.
“There is nothing more precious in the world than true education. It reveals the Divinity that sustains the Universe and promotes the welfare of mankind materially, mentally, and socially. Only through education do we understand creation and the truth about humanity,” Swami says. And by His grace, little children in far away Panama are now learning true education. Education that will liberate not only them but also through them a whole section of humanity and confer joy to all.
Seminars and Adopted Schools
A workshop on EHV apart from Bal Vikas classes, Human Values events are organized by devotees in different city schools to train teachers how to teach the children to be better human beings and enlightened citizens.
In Panama City, the Centro Educativo en Busca de una Mañana school has been adopted by the Sai Organization. Also, King’s School in Panama City and Escuela Las Lomas in Chiriqui have immensely benefited from these seminars. The first of these is a school and detention center for children convicted of minor crimes, such as drugs or theft. After the Sathya Sai Human Values program was in place for over a year, the Director of the school, Mrs. Gloria Powers, said that two boys started fighting. One of them ran to the kitchen and got a knife and was chasing the other boy. Gloria was afraid, but she intercepted the boy with the knife. As soon as he saw her, he dropped the knife, embraced her and started to cry. The Sathya Sai values had saved the day, she says.
Serving The Needy
Panama, though blessed abundantly
with natural resources and a vibrant economy, has its own share
of health problems as well. The Sai Organisation under the
banner of Sathya Sai Medical Service have been engaged in various
service projects to help those in need.
Recalling an incident of how Swami came to the rescue of devotees, a Panamanian narrates,
“Sai Ram” and Sai Rushes To Rescue!
“A devotee was driving her car, which was full of ladies who were going to do service at the Mother Teresa old people's home in Colon City, Panama. They go there every Thursday with food for everyone. This home is close to the Free Zone of the Panama Canal, so there is lots of container traffic. The lady who was driving failed to halt at a stop sign, and a huge container was approaching down on their car. The ladies in the car screamed, and when she saw it she screamed too — "Sai Ram". The only way to avoid the accident was to accelerate the car, but in her nervousness she hit the brake instead of the gas. Somehow the car was surprisingly accelerated by hitting the brake and the accident was avoided. Her friends said why did you stop now? The brakes worked after they had got out of the way of the container. She said, note down the time, because when we get home you will see there is a message for us.
When they returned home, the devotee and the friends asked her maid if there were any messages. The maid said a strange thing had happened. In the shrine room, Swami's picture had fallen off the wall, and when the maid went to pick it up, she said Swami had winked at her from the picture. The picture had fallen off the wall at 12:20 PM, just the hour that the ladies had noted down. The maid is not a devotee, and some of the ladies were also not devotees, but this miracle of Baba has now opened a new dimension in their lives.”
A Continuous Saga of Service
Baba, in His own inexplicable ways, has entered the hearts of many in this tiny nation. And it is His love that inspires them to reach out to the downtrodden and the needy. Every week, the Sai devotees organize Narayans Seva for the underprivileged people on the streets and distribute packets of milk, bananas, and biscuits. Sometimes even the street dogs are given milk. As Shirdi Sai said, ‘I reside even in them’ . Also, another Narayan Seva organized is once a month for families of sick people who are in the hospitals.
Providing Provisions To the Needy
Five days a week, the devotees send milk to the MUCEC Center, where street children receive education. Once a month, 50 to 60 undernourished children come to the Center, where the devotees provide them with breakfast, consisting of milk, cereal, fruit, buns, biscuits, and chocolates.
“On the recent Janmasthmi day [celebrating Lord Krishna’s advent], we gave breakfast, a notebook, pencil, sharpener, and a colored pencil to each child,“ says a Sai volunteer. “On Easwaramma Day [commemorating the death anniversary of Baba’s mother] on 6 May, 30 bags of groceries were distributed. For Baba’s birthday, 4 to 5 seva (selfless service) events were organized in the space of a week. This year, we plan to complete 15 cataract operations,” say the devotees with great enthusiasm, great love and broad smiles.
In the city of Chiriqui, a devotee runs a grocery store, and people who need raw food go to him and he provides it to them free. Advanced Medical care is freely given to undernourished children, who are taken to a clinic and then followed up on their cases. Clothes, food, shoes, and school supplies are distributed many times during the year to people with low resources, while comprehensive Medical Camps are organized once a year.
Sai Devotees – “Bridges” to Eternal Joy