LET ME TAKE YOU BACK TO TORONTO, CANADA IN THE LATE NINETIES. It was a time of grunge, flannel shirts, amazing dance music, the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry, skater boys, and general angst. We listened to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, the Beastie Boys, and A Tribe Called Quest.

There I was, a high school dropout with an identity crisis, using alcohol, cigarettes, and psychedelics to navigate my confusion and frustration with life. I was looking for a way to transcend my pain and couldn’t find one. I was in an unhealthy relationship, struggled with severe insomnia, and had depression and anger issues. My relationship with my parents was strained, to say the least.

Although I was raised in the Sathya Sai Organization, I left it when I was about 13. So, in addition to being a high school dropout, I was also a Bal Vikas (Sai Spiritual Education) dropout. In fact, if I could have excommunicated myself from the organization, I certainly would have. Only due to my mother’s insistence did I keep a photo of Swami in my bedroom. I swore that I would never go back to my former life.

A Future Tense with Flimsy Friendships

One Halloween, about a month before my eighteenth birthday, my friends and I were in line to see the Rocky Horror picture show in downtown Toronto. We were sneaking alcohol into the theatre. I had finally gotten out of my bad relationship, and as my eighteenth birthday loomed, I started to reflect seriously about my life. Standing in my drag queen costume and platform heels, bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other, I decided that I’d had enough. I was sober from that day onwards.

The funny thing about sobriety was that I suddenly had no social life. I was no ‘fun’ anymore. I was then in a weird transitional period, as I knew I couldn’t return to my old life, but I didn’t know what was ahead. At the time, I was enrolled in a third high school. My attendance was spotty, my performance was lacking, and I was on the brink of getting kicked out. It was possibly my last chance.
I knew I had to become a better person, but I didn’t know how.

“I also learned that transformation is not about the memorable flashy moments; it’s about incremental progress, facing yourself day by day, week by week, month by month.”

Nightmare Turns into a Dream

My parents suggested that I choose an Ishta Devata (personal deity), a form of God to focus on. This didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world. So, I started thinking of Krishna, Durga, or Lakshmi as the top three candidates to be my Ishta Devata. I was in no hurry to choose one. What was the rush?

One night, around the spring of 1999, I was fast asleep (for once), dreaming of my friends and I hanging out in a park. The dream was suddenly interrupted by a blaze of light. All that was visible was a figure in an orange robe, sporting an afro, with the left hand raised. This figure communicated a telepathic message to me and departed.

I woke up startled. It was about 3:00 AM in the morning. I said aloud to my empty room, “I think I just had a dream about Swami!”

It was Wednesday morning. I was in a state of shock for the next two days. I attended my classes and came home without speaking to a soul. By Friday morning, I had calmed down enough for the message to settle into my consciousness. I told my parents that Swami had appeared to me in a dream and said, “Fixate your mind on Me. I will take care of the rest.”

In that direct experience, I saw the mercy and compassion of God! I had just taken one step towards the temple, and the Lord Himself came out to meet me in the street where I stood.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

Thus began the great love story of my life. Things began to turn around for me. I started to put myself in places where it was easy to think of God. I began singing bhajans and participating in (even leading!) service projects. I performed in a nonprofit musical band. I finally got some new friends who didn’t mind that I was sober.

I graduated from high school as the class valedictorian and got admitted to the university of my choice. It was a new life for me, with my loving parents supporting me every step of the way.

Now, I would love to tell you that since then, I’ve been an exemplary devotee, and everything has gone smoothly and beautifully. But I realized, to my great surprise, that being a devotee does not mean being exempt from the trials and tribulations of life.

I also learned that transformation is not about the flashy moments; it’s about incremental progress, facing yourself day by day, week by week, month by month. Two steps forward, one step back.

I used to have so much shame about my past. I often wondered what my life would have been had I not slipped so early. But I had to experience that dark night of the soul in order to be redeemed.

Swami Vivekananda says, “Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.”

I have had many dark times since, as recently as last year (2023). But the difference is that now, I have the courage to face my demons. I have the army of God behind me. The name and the form are my sword and shield. I don’t need to cower and hide in consumption, distraction, alcohol, illicit substances, or shallow relationships. I can do battle with my inner enemies and win the war.

The Miracle of Transformation

Looking back, I can’t believe how far I’ve come from the person I was 20 years ago or even a year ago. This is the promise God has made to each one of us: that we all have a fighting chance of living up to our divine nature.

“Man (manava) has to become God (Madhava); that is one’s destiny, the plan and purpose of one’s being armed, as no other animal is, with the sword of discrimination and the shield of renunciation.”

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, January 25, 1963

Finally, I would like to say that if you had told my jaded teenage self that she would one day be sharing her story with you in this manner, she would have laughed in your face. And yet here we are. For me, this is the greatest miracle.

Ms. Ellesha Wanigasekera  



Ms. Ellesha Wanigasekera was born in Toronto, Canada, but spent her early childhood in Trinidad and Tobago, where her family was first introduced to Swami by the book “Sai Baba Avatar” by Howard Murphet. She was raised by the vibrant Trinidadian Sai family before migrating back to Toronto and finding her faith there. Ellesha moved to the San Francisco Area in the USA in 2018. She has subsequently served the SSSIO at the center, regional, national, and international levels, mainly in her capacity as a writer and editor. She holds a degree in English but is a CPA by profession, working in public accounting.


First published in Eternal Companion Vol. 3, Iss. 2