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The Sai Movement in Panama
Zone 2, Region 21

Heart2Heart Team

This article first appeared in Heart2Heart, October 2006.

Enchanting Panama

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.

A bewitching beach
Tropical trees in abundance

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 – A Paradise of Abundance

Located in the middle of the Western Hemisphere, on an isthmus only 80 kilometers wide in its narrowest section, Panama is a relatively thin stretch of land. It rose from the seas 2.4 million years ago, it is believed, to unite the Americas. Ironically, the work of nature was somewhat undone when Panama was split in two by the construction of the now famous Panama Canal. Though geographically tiny, by virtue of its unique setting on the schema of world’s landmass, Panama is a country where the concept of exotic begins in its name, which means "abundance of fish and butterflies" in the indigenous language of the land.

Panama lies between the Caribbean Sea at the North, the Pacific Ocean to the South, with Colombia at the East and Costa Rica to the West. The mountainous topography on the Caribbean side contrasts with the low hills and extensive savannahs by the Pacific. The climate is tropical, pleasant and warm, with 900 species of birds, 1500 species of trees and over 7000 vascular plants, for nature lovers Panama is a real tropical paradise.

Map of Panama

Children dancing, obviously having fun!
Panama Musicians - lively and rhythmic
Panama's national flower - the Holy Spirt Flower
"Pollera" - their national costume

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 Canal Map
A typical cargo load on a ship going through the canal
The bridge that spans the Americas
The lights of Panama City

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.

A Cathedral in Panama
A golden altar in praise of God

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


A relative who was living in Prashanti Nilayam at the time conveyed a message to Swami about the kidnapping and was given an interview. Baba said: “My angels are taking care of him. Don’t worry, he is with Me and after seven days I will return him, but he needs lots of prayers from everybody, so tell everyone to pray for him.”

The person asked, why seven days? Swami replied: “God took one week to make the world -I promised one week. You don’t have faith, and Panama is not praying enough.”

Back home, many people chanted the Gayatri Mantra daily. Mr. Nandwani was worried about his son’s condition, his health, what he was eating. On the fourth day, a Sai devotee heard a voice during meditation say: “I have already fed him.”

On the seventh day, the relative staying in Prashanti got an interview in which he told Swami that there was no news yet. Baba replied,“Where is your faith? He will be back soon.” At the same moment, Mr. Nandwani got a phone call from the police informing him that his son had been found and was safe and was being taken to the hospital for a checkup. He escaped from his abductors and spent seven days lost in the jungle, avoiding wild animals and crocodiles until he found his way back to civilization.

The ways of the Lord are mysterious. Although Panama has a large East Indian population, the Sai Organization in Panama actually traces it roots to Jesus Arauz, a Panamanian, who heard about Baba and went to India in the 1980s. Upon his return, he initiated study circles in his home. And that is how the movement began growing. There are more than 100 fortunate active members in the Organisation now.


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.

Celebrating Swami's Birthday
Celebrating Krishna's birthday with song and dance


At one of the public meetings in Panama, Mr. John Behner, a senior member of Latin America Sai Organisation, came to talk about Sai Baba from El Salvador and said, “If Jesus were to come to you and tell you, ‘I am the son of God,’ would you believe Him or not?

His acts will prove His identity, His works, His love, and His truthfulness. The same applies to the Sathya Sai Avatar.” Many devotees left the meeting stronger in their faith and joyous in their outlook.

Ganesh Chaturthi

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

Bal Vikas primary children in the class of 'Love'
Bal Vikas older children in the class of 'Truth'

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.”

Bal Vikas children help in packing gifts
Older children help too

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.

Showing the many activites in Bal Vikas

Bal Vikas children - happy, healthy and wise

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.


A EHV Class in Progress
Sai devotees in Colon

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.

For example, more than 200 cataract patients and over 80 hernia surgeries have been performed in the last six years free of cost. Every month, the Sai devotees provide milk and food to the malnourished population of the city, which includes many children and elderly people in dire need of nutrition and support.

Taking children's details at a Medical Camp
A cataract operation in progress


Devotees also donate blood to the hospitals and on occasions distribute food and drinks to the needy in the hospitals. To mothers of newborns, the devotees distribute specially made baskets with all the items the mothers need for their little ones.

“Actually it is Baba who keeps doing all these loving acts through us; we are just tiny particles of Himself. We pray that He will continue to help us put his words into action: Love all, Serve all,” say the devotees with gratitude and humility. However small the service activity may be, the love and dedication with which the devotees undertake the task is truly heart warming. And it is Sai who fills them with His love, guides them, and guards them as they go on doing His work.

Donating blood - the gift of life

Measuring blood pressure at a medical camp
Visiting an old age home to befriend the lonely

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 vaccination aid
Narayan Seva for the underprivileged
Organizing the donations
Supplying free reading glasses

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.

The special dental clinic
Haircut for a little one

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.

People browsing through the book fair
And those who helped at the stall of Sai books

Sai Devotees – “Bridges” to Eternal Joy

“Coming in contact with Sai often brings with it new experiences, through dreams, leelas, and realizations, but the most significant aspect is the transformation that occurs within us. He changes us for the better and with His guidance helps us to expand spiritually and grow closer to God. We develop faith, and know that wherever we go, we can meet Baba through His followers,” say the Sai devotees.

The nation may be small, but the hearts of Panamanians are big. With their ever expansive love and dedication to the Lord one can only expect that soon the Sai movement will be a pan-Panama phenomenon. “The devotees of Panama welcome all those who come to our country to visit our Centers and experience the divine presence of Baba,“ say the devotees with jubilant smiles on their faces. Yes, the joy they radiate and love they share is but a reflection of His love and their national motto Pro Mundi Beneficio meaning ‘for the benefit of the world’. It is these Sai soldiers who will be the “bridges” that will connect hundreds and thousands as days go by to the eternal source of all Bliss, Power, Love, and Glory.

Devotees singing for Sai ...with loads of love