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Be Free: Transcend the Cycle of Birth and Death

We are blessed and fortunate to be the contemporaries of the Paripurna Avatar (perfect manifestation of God in human form) of the Kali Yuga (the present period, "dark age" characterized by ignorance), Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. His descent is for the ascent of man to realize one’s innate divinity. In His infinite compassion, He has taken a beautiful form with a sweet name and revels in divine sport (leela) so that we can interact with the divinity that is beyond name, form, space, time, attributes, and causation.

As we observe Aradhana Mahotsavam (celebration of the earthly sojourn of Baba) in April 2024 at all Sri Sathya Sai Centers around the world, let us express our gratitude to Bhagawan for showering us with His love, grace, blessings, and guidance. He is our Eternal Companion, who has blessed us with gifts for our redemption: 

His Sweet Name: Chanting His sweet divine name gives joy to devotees and verily sanctifies their lives. 

His Beautiful Form: Contemplating on His unparalleled, beautiful form gives bliss and takes us toward liberation. 

His Amazing Leelas: Hearing the stories of His divine leelas (Sai Bhagavatam) makes one forget bodily awareness and live in divine consciousness. 

His Universal Teachings: His eternal and universal message of unconditional love, the essence of all religions, applies to everyone, irrespective of race, religion, creed, ethnicity, language, and culture. 

His Compassionate Works: He has established educational institutions, medical institutions, and many magnanimous humanitarian services, providing food, water, and other necessities to alleviate distress. 

Through all of these, He confers the greatest gift–relieving mankind of the ignorance of mistaken identification with the body, mind, and intellect and urging identification with one’s true identity, the Self or Atma. The Sri Sathya Sai International Organization (SSSIO), founded, guided, and nurtured by Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba since 1969, continues to provide opportunities for various spiritual, devotional, and service activities in 115 countries around the world based on Swami’s teachings. 

Overcoming the Cycle of Birth and Death

The great Advaitic master, Adi Shankaracharya, has gifted us with the wonderful work, Bhaja Govindam, which outlines the path of spiritual and devotional practices to attain liberation. Our beloved Swami has given a series of discourses expanding on several of these verses in 1973. Earlier, in Part 1 of the editorial in the January 2024 issue, we discussed how Swami explained that good company is a ladder to liberation. In Part 2, in the February 2024 issue, we shared how one can realize Brahman (ultimate reality) through self-inquiry with equal-mindedness and divine vision. In Part 3, we will now focus on how to transcend the cycle of birth and death. 

The reason one takes birth is because of past karmas (actions in thought, word, and deed). While leading a human life, one accumulates karma. The karmic balance is not nullified on death, and thus, due to the effect of the unresolved karmas, one is reborn again and again. Adi Shankaracharya puts this very poetically:

We are all born into this world because of the consequences of our previous karmas, which is the cause of our birth. Krishna clearly proclaims this in the Bhagavad Gita, 

jatasya hi dhruvo mṛityur dhruvam janma mṛitasya cha
tasmad apariharye ’rthe na tvam shochitum arhasi 
(Bhagavad Gita 2:27)

(Death is certain for one who is born, and rebirth is inevitable for one who dies.
Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable.)

This cycle of birth and death characterizes two aspects of this world–impermanence and grief. Anityam Asukham Lokam Imam Prapya Bhajasva Maam means that one should worship the Lord for redemption because the world is temporary and offers no joy. Krishna also says that the world is Dukhalayam Ashashwatham (temple of sorrow and impermanence).

Lord Buddha, after intense penance, came up with the four noble truths, the first of which recognizes this very aspect of the world.

  • The world is full of suffering.
  • Suffering is caused by ‘Tanha’ or desire, ignorance, and attachment.
  • Suffering can be avoided by destroying the cause.
  • Suffering can be ended by knowing and practicing the Eightfold Path of right mindfulness, right vision, right speech, right action, right concentration, right effort, right livelihood, and right understanding.

Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba also emphasizes following the Eightfold Path to attain peace and bliss.

The great saint Kabirdas says,

Kabira jab hum paida hue to jag hanse hum roye
aisi karni kar chalo, hum hanse jag roye

Kabira, when you were born, you were crying while family and friends rejoiced.
Live life in such a way with noble actions that when it is time to leave, you are smiling while family and friends are crying.

Death is inevitable for all beings that are born. This may happen in childhood, youth, middle age, or old age. One should be alert and ready to face death at any time by leading a divine life. Swami says that one should pray to God, not merely for a long life but for a divine life. We are born because of our previous karmas–the good ones giving good results and the bad ones giving bad results. As we sow, so we reap. We are all born, and our only goal should be not to be born again!

Breaking The Vicious Cycle

Thus, we are architects of our own destiny. Whenever the fruits of the actions are good, one enjoys pleasure. Conversely, one undergoes pain due to the effect of negative karmas. That is why life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. To transcend this cycle of birth and death, the Lord has given us six clear solutions.

Selfless Service

Whenever we are involved in action, we should do Nishkama Karma, action without attachment. We should dedicate our actions and the fruits thereof to the Lord, being convinced that He is the doer. When we do action this way, the same actions that otherwise cause bondage will not bind us anymore, and we will be free. Then, we will no longer be subject to the cycle of birth and death.

In this issue, we share a beautiful service project, Tiny Homes. Initiated to serve people without homes in Seattle, USA, this project is now being implemented in 20 cities across the USA and continues to expand.

Spreading Swami’s message in communities through Sathya Sai Education in Human Values (SSEHV) is another outstanding service. The most recent example is the inauguration of a Sathya Sai School in Paraguay in February 2024. This has been the fulfillment of a grand dream through the tireless and loving efforts of the devotees.

We also have the inspiring story of another monument of divine love brought into reality by the tireless efforts of devotees–Sai Prema Nilayam (Abode of Sai’s Divine Love) in Riverside, California. It completed one year of service as a spiritual center from which many devotional, educational, and service activities are conducted at regional, national, and international levels. The story of Sai Prema Nilayam illustrates that the sincere and loving efforts of devotees are always crowned with success by the blessings and abundant grace of Bhagawan Baba.

Divine Knowledge

This is another solution for our liberation that the Lord has blessed. He states:

yasya sarve samarambhah kama-sankalpa-varjitah
jnanagni-dagdha-karmanam tam ahuh panditam budhah 
(Bhagavad Gita 4:19)

(The enlightened sages call those persons wise, whose every action is free from the desire for material pleasures
and in whom the reactions of work have been burnt in the fire of divine knowledge.) 

In this issue, we revisit a divine discourse that Swami delivered in 1974, revealing various aspects of His true nature, His unfathomable divinity, His unsurpassed glory, and His divine mission for humanity. It is beautiful and touching to experience Him revealing inner secrets about Himself, along with the significance of His name and works, with profound prophecies about the future. In this discourse, He proclaimed in 1974 itself that great works would happen in the future, and to the amazement of all, major projects like super-specialty hospitals, a university with three campuses, and massive water projects serving millions were launched by Bhagawan.

The issue also contains a precious letter written by Bhagawan to a Western devotee, Charles Penn of the USA, where He proclaims that He has come for the entire world and is not confined to any particular place. Swami also outlines the path for the spiritual seeker to reach the highest goal by practicing the two qualities of discrimination (viveka) and dispassion for material objects (vairagya) with intense longing for God and sadhana

Love for God and Complete Surrender

Lord Sri Krishna proclaims in Bhagavad Gita: 

sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokshayishyami ma shuchah
(Bhagavad Gita 18:66)

(Abandoning all dharmas surrender to Me alone.
I shall give you liberation and relieve you from sins and grief.

This is the way we get freed from all our sins and sorrows. We must make human effort sincerely by following the path of selfless service, developing pure love for God, and embarking on Self-enquiry to find out who we are. Ultimately, we need God’s grace for liberation. That is why, in the Bhaja Govindam poem, it is said that one should pray to Lord Murari (slayer of the demon Mura) to get out of the cycle of birth and death.

Swami, in His first message to humanity, says in His first bhajan,

Manasa Bhajare Guru Charanam
Dusthara Bhava Sagara Taranam.

(Oh Mind! Hold on to the feet of the Guru,
the Lord, in order to cross the ocean of samsara.)

Complete commitment to God, holding on to Him, and surrendering to Him are important. In this poem, ‘Mura’ also refers to demonic qualities, like anger, greed, pride, pomp, darkness, negativity, and temptations. So, the Lord removes all these demonic qualities in order to confer bliss on us. Swami says beautifully that people take medicine to cure themselves of diseases. However, one should take the medicine as prescribed so that one does not have to repeat it. Similarly, an individual having taken birth should try not to be reborn. 

Swami always advises us to start early, drive slowly, and reach safely in this journey of life. That is why, in this issue, we celebrate young adults who have ‘started early.’ They share reflections on being resilient in the face of adversity and challenges by surrendering to God and having a positive mindset.

Listening to Stories of God (Shravanam)

Swami gives the example of King Parikshit, who attained liberation in only seven days by intensely listening to Srimad Bhagavatam (Stories of the Lord, primarily Lord Krishna). Another saintly king named Khatvanga attained liberation in less than an hour by one-pointed, intense contemplation on the Lord. Bhagawan Baba, even in His previous incarnation as Shirdi Sai, emphasized that just listening to the stories and glories of the Lord in itself is a wonderful sadhana to attain liberation.

This issue is also replete with stories of God, showing how Swami protects and transforms our lives. Ms. Creta Schierman (an officer in the SSSIO) shares her beautiful experiences with Swami, emphasizing the transition from form to formless, which is apt for Aradhana Mahotsavam.

Then, there is the experience of a long-standing devotee and educator, Dr. Art-Ong Jumsai, who narrates how he and his family were protected by Baba during the Second World War from bombings, even before he came to know Swami! This clearly shows that Swami is our eternal companion who was, is, and will be with us, guiding and guarding us.

The sharing of another devotee, Mr. Maarten Wagener, relates how he experienced Swami’s presence even before seeing Him and how He guided and protected Him. Today, he feels Swami’s constant presence and guidance, which inspires him to play a role in the SSSIO. 

Four-fold Sadhana

Swami explains in the Sutra Vahini that to get out of the cycle of birth and death, one should follow the Sadhana Chatushtayam (the fourfold Sadhana) of:

  • Viveka (Discrimination between real and unreal)
  • Vairagya (Dispassion towards the worldly and temporary)
  • Shadsampatti (Six Virtues of Sama or mind control, Dama or control of body and senses, Uparathi or withdrawal from the external), Titiksha or forbearance, Shraddha or unwavering faith, and Samadhana or equanimity.)
  • Mumukshatwam (Intense Hunger for Liberation)

That is why one should be engaged constantly in good action, in thought, word, and deed, all the time. Swami makes it clear with an insightful Chinna Katha (small story).

A king used to ask three questions of all people who met him:

  • Who is the best among people?
  • What is the best of times?
  • What is the best of all actions?

The king was very anxious to know the answers to these questions, but he was never satisfied with the answers he received from various people.

One day, he went to the forest for recreation. He was moving about the hills and plains and became very tired. He saw an ashram and wanted to rest there. By the time the king reached the ashram, a sadhu (holy person) was watering some plants. The sadhu noticed that the king was exhausted. He stopped watering the plants, ran to the king, and gave him delicious fruits and cool water. At that time, an individual wounded all over the body was brought to the ashram by another sadhu. As soon as the sadhu saw this, he went to help the individual, cleaned his wounds, and gave him some herbs to cure the wounds. He also comforted and consoled him with sweet words. The king then came to the sadhu and wanted to express his gratitude and take leave. The sadhu blessed the king, but the king still wanted answers to his three questions and enquired if the sadhu could enlighten him. The sadhu responded that the answers to the three questions could be surmised from the actions the king had just witnessed in the ashram. The king requested the sadhu to elucidate further.

The sadhu said that when the king came to the ashram, he was watering the plants, and that was his duty. At that time, upon seeing the king, he had given up his duty. He came to the king and served him water and fruit. This was done following proper tradition, as the king was his guest. While relieving the king of his thirst and hunger, another injured individual entered the ashram. Therefore, he gave up his duty of serving the king and went to the other visitor to serve him. So, the king received the answers to his three questions.

Whoever comes seeking service from you is the best of individuals at that time. Whatever satisfaction you can give him by serving him is your duty, and this is the best work that you can do at that time. The best time is the present, when you can do something. You cannot predict the future as it is a mystery. The past is history, and you can do nothing about it. Thus, the present time in which you can fulfill your duty, the service you can render to the person who comes to you, and serving the person who seeks your service are the three best things in answer to the king’s three questions.

Thus, if we live in the present moment doing selfless service to everyone, our lives will be redeemed.

Grace of God

The Shirdi Sai Satcharitra records the story of Dr. Pillay, whom Shirdi Sai Baba was very fond of. At one time, the doctor had a severe case of parasitic infestation with Guinea worm. Unable to bear the pain, the doctor prayed, “The pain is most excruciating and unbearable. I prefer death to it. Please stop the pain and distribute the burden of my past karma to ten future births of mine.” But Baba, in His infinite compassion, responded, “Why should he suffer for ten births? In ten days, he can work out the sufferings and consequences of his past karma.” So it happened that in ten days, Dr. Pillay was completely cured. That is how divine grace burns away the consequences of karma.

I want to conclude with a profound revelation from our dear Swami. On one occasion, when our family had a major crisis, we prayed to Swami intensely and, by His grace, came out of it. At that moment, I said, “We had no choice but to go through the karma. However, Swami helps.” Subsequently, when Swami called us for an interview, He rebuked me, saying, “What you said is not correct. With My grace, any amount of karma can be reduced to nothing in a trice.” He further illustrated the point with an example of a mountain of cotton that could be burned to ashes with just a single matchstick. We must have divine grace to redeem our lives. In His discourse on May 17, 1968, Swami says that the best way to get His grace is to implicitly, completely, and immediately follow His teachings. We should live in love all the time. 

Finally, Love is the ultimate cure for the bhava roga (disease of worldliness). If we live life in this manner with Love for God and Service to All, every moment gets sanctified, and we can avoid repeating the cycle of birth and death.

Jai Sai Ram