Sathya Sai Baba (from Vogue Magazine - Canada Edition, December 1975)
In the eyes of most Indians, it seems, there is only one reason for a westerner to go to Bangalore, despite it being by far the most pleasant city in India - Sathya Sai Baba, the most famous spiritual leader in India. As thirty airport taxi drivers battled for control of my luggage they all seemed to shriek with one accord, "Baba is in Puttaparthi, I take you now?"
After much heated contention a mean-looking, crapulous tough decided I would be hiring his cab and we went. Baba can generally be found either in Whitefield, more properly the Sri Sathya Sai Arts and Sciences College, ten miles from Bangalore, or in Puttaparthi, the village where he was born and where he has built an ashram (spiritual retreat), a hundred miles away in Andhra Pradesh. To this latter place we were now heading, a long bone-shaking, hair-raising ride on a crumbling ribbon of road through the parched, bleak plains of Karnataka and into the desolately beautiful hills of Andhra.
Four shattering hours (and a quantity of dead dogs) later, the driver declared that we had arrived. And where had we arrived? At a tiny stone and thatch village nestling in the brown cupped palm of enormous black-capped hills. Like any other little village in this remote part of the world, except that, as we screamed round a bend of trees, there was a vast walled enclosure within which could be seen tall concrete buildings and, unusual for such a dry place, a considerable number of healthy-looking trees. As a mark of respect, perhaps, the driver slowed down as we entered the ashram, which is known as "Prasanthi Nilayam", abode of the highest peace (coincidently the meaning of "Jerusalem"). At a tiny office, located behind a monstrous hangar-like building which bore the sign "Poornachandra" (full moon), I was welcomed by a chubby, genial little Indian and given the keys to a room.
"How much will that be?" I asked.
The little man looked offended. "Baba takes no money," he said.
"Not even a donation?"
I wanted to point out that I was a sceptic and would that make any difference, but I resisted. My room was utterly bare with a tap-and-bucket bathroom and bucket-flushing loo, which was more than expected. After settling in and rigging up, by ingenious means, my mosquito net, I walked around the ashram. The large concrete buildings, which all contained rooms like mine, circled an inner enclosure, marked by a small stone wall, which was dominated by a white-domed temple with an upper and lower veranda. The upper veranda had an extraordinary pair of huge silver doors, emblazoned with the insignia of the world's major religions, and the entire building was covered with moulded images which ranged from elephants to what looked like flying armadillos. Seated on the sandy ground in front of this building, women to the right, men to the left, were about fifty people, mostly Indians, waiting for darshan (when Baba comes out).
At the entrance to this area a sign claimed "You are in the Light, then the Light is in You”; another told me to remove my shoes. I went in and sat down next to a Western-looking youth.
"Sai Ram," he said. It was the common greeting here, linking Baba's name to that of Ram (God). I was told that Baba would soon appear and that I should wait. Half a shifting, scratching, sweating hour passed and suddenly a strange hush fell over the already silent crowd. Everyone began looking towards the low pillared veranda of the temple where a small figure in a long orange kaftan-like robe, with a shock of frizzy hair, was now standing. Baba stepped out into the sunlight, the crowd raised their pressed palms in salute, a ges- ture meaning "You and I are one". He stood gazing intently at the women's side, occasionally shaking his head slowly and (apparently) writing in the air
An odd thing happened to me: I felt at once absurdly happy, unable to suppress a lunatic grin, whilst at the same time sure that, unaccountably, was about to burst into tears. Baba began to walk towards the women, his robe so long it hid his feet, yet he moved with extraordinary grace and elegance, stooping to talk, taking notes from some, and for one, suddenly revolving his right hand in a curious polishing motion and producing, seemingly from nowhere, a small quantity of whitish powder which he placed in her outstretched palms. She looked thrilled.
This was the materialisation of vibhuti I’d heard so much about. (Vibhuti is a sacred ash, "the purest substance that has been through the fire".) Dark suspicion clouded my mind: it must be a trick, he must hide it up his sleeve, it must be explicable. But no, here he was, a few yards from me, doing it again and, no matter how hard I looked, or was to look in the future, there was no explanation-the polishing motion and the spurt of vibhuti. Yet I had my doubts.
When he reached me he stood for a few moments, gazing at me with a strange half-smiling puzzled expression and kind bottomless eyes. I felt a great mental peace and a rushing sense of release in my heart and, for some reason, tears rolled down my cheeks. When it was all over I think I probably put it down to hypnosis and vigorously resumed being a sceptic and remained one for a long time. But, in the words of Dr. S. Bhagavantam, nuclear physicist and once adviser to the Indian Government, "After three or four years of doubt and questioning I have come to accept Baba's actions as those that transcend the known laws of science. Though they have also added to our awareness of what we do not know.”
The Indian definition of a spiritual master falls into two categories: that of the consciousness of man rising to godhood, and that of the divine consciousness descending into manhood. Baba is believed to be in this latter category. He is now fifty and, since his early childhood, has performed every miracle ever attributed to Christ and many more. I witnessed many such "miracles” over the course of a six month stay and am no longer in a position to doubt their authenticity. But, as he continually says himself, miracles are not important. "The real miracle," as everyone kept telling me when I first arrived, "is the love he sows in your heart."
In the Hindu system of things, we are now in the Kali Yuga, the last and darkest of the four great cyclical ages, when spirit has reached the nadir of its immersion in matter and is due to rise again. Baba's teachings primarily emphasise the need for fostering the four vedic virtues - Sathya (Truth), Dharma (Right Conduct), Shanti (Peace), Prema (Love) that man may purify his karmas (burden of actions good and bad from this and previous lives) and free himself from ignorance and, ultimately, the wheel of birth and rebirth. He claims that the miracles or leelas (divine play) are performed in order to attract people to him so that they may come to understand his real teaching - "I give you what you want in the hope that you will eventually want what I want to give you." And it was true that, after a while, I realised that I was not there because I was impressed with miracles; I was there because, in Baba's teachings and within the strict routine of ashram life, I had come to understand something fundamental about myself, that I believed in God, indeed had to believe for anything to make sense. But, like many others, Baba often points out that you do not have to believe, you can experience directly through meditation.
What is meditation? More outright rubbish has been written about the subject than about any other in the past few years. The simple theory is that man wants to be happy yet seeks this happiness in transient things which by their very nature make him unhappy. Meditation is a gradual pulling away of the mental energies from the exterior, sensual world and a focussing of them on God, in some form, or on the mind itself, so that that which sees, observes itself. The mind is pictured as a lake which is constantly rippled by desires; when the desires are quelled the surface becomes smooth and reflects, uninterruptedly, the heavens. The technique itself falls, broadly speaking, into two attitudes - that of bhakti, the devotional aspect, where the object of meditation is not the self but the guru, God or Christ, and the aim is to merge, as lover and beloved, into one; and that of jnana or advaita where the idea of self is expanded to encompass everything, and God, self and universe are one. The results are identical, so they say. Like any other worthwhile activity it requires years of diligent practice before any degree of mastery can be attained. That, I suspect, Is why Baba seems more intent on people being good-combating lust, anger, greed, hatred, envy before they meditate seriously, for without morality there is no real meditation.
I was at Prasanthi Nilayam for four months before I managed to get a private interview with Baba. People have waited much longer without success. What is it that keeps them there? Whether one accepts him as a divine incarnation or not, it cannot be denied that there is something about his presence which makes one willing to believe he might be. There is something beyond the miracles and his bizarre appearance (though seemingly trendsetting to us, he has looked and dressed the same way for thirty-five years), a gentleness, a charisma and a grace that is, simply, unearthly. Even two hard-headed para-psychologists I met, Drs Osis and Haraldsson from the American Society for Psychical Research, who were solely interested in proof of miracles (and found it to their satisfaction), had to admit there was something else here that could not be measured and analysed-the overwhelming devotion Baba seemed to inspire in all who came, statesman and peasant alike. The politicians who fly from Delhi and the poor farmers who walk from Rajasthan, even the hippies and ageing eccentrics from California, know that in Baba's eyes they are worth only the extent of their devotion to God. It has a humbling effect.
As I sat with a small group of pious Indians in Baba's interview room, lurid scenes. of past depravities wafted, in Cinemascope, through my head. He came in smiling like everybody's mother and father and, immediately, about a foot from my nose, began waving his right hand, from which, or rather from a hole in space, came spinning and sparkling a large rosary of coloured stones. When it had fully appeared (suspend your disbelief) he held it up for all to see and began explaining that each stone had some significance which I now forget, then he placed it over the head of an old lady who was so overcome with delight that she had to be wheeled into a corner to calm down. Several more things were "made" for other people, then Baba began taking us separately into another room.
It was a very tiny room and when I finally stood there alone, all the doubts and questions in my mind had vanished and, somehow, I knew (and still know) that he was everything people believed him to be. I was overwhelmed with an intense feeling of joy and peace that was to last four or five days. Ananda the Indians call it - bliss. Baba, the remote and powerful figure I had watched in awe for months, hugged me like a long lost friend and, in a surpassingly loving way, began to tell me, I suppose, my worst faults, indeed he told me things no one could have possibly known, answered every question I would have leaned forward asked, and gave advice which I still treasure. Then, in front of my goggling eyes, he materialised a white oil on the palm of his hand and proceeded to rub it into my chest, repeating the process when he had used up the first batch of oil, offering no explanation for the action. I hardly said a word throughout the whole interview yet I emerged knowing I had been given what most needed-love and reassurance. I felt, and still feel, inexplicably closer to him than to anyone in the world.
I stayed on at Prasanthi Nilayam for two more months until the Sivarathri festival. Sivarathri, as Baba explained, means that man must transform by sadhana (spiritual work) the rathri into sivam, the night of darkness and fear, doubt and delusion, Into the day of wisdom, courage, the certainty of faith and realisation. It is one of the two major Hindu festivals and over a hundred thousand people came to the ashram, primarily to see the Lingodbhava - literally "the pouring forth of the lingam". Lingam is the ellipsoid symbol ubiquitous in India, it signifies "that in which all things merge and out of which all things emerge."
Each year at this festival Baba produces through his mouth a lingam which is said to grow in his stomach over a period of weeks. The act itself symbolises nothing less than the very process of creation - the universe emerging from eternity into time - and as such is seen to be a confirmation of Baba's divinity. All day long bhajans (chanted hymns) were sung in the enormous Poornachandra hall by the twenty thousand or so folk who managed to squeeze in; the rest sat outside. In the evening Baba gave a discourse on the need to control the mind. After about forty minutes he broke off mid sentence and sat back in his chair as if in pain. I was sitting a few yards away and was somewhat disturbed by this. Immediately the bhajans were resumed and Baba leaned back and forth, gasping yet smiling. It struck me as an intensely private act, like watching a woman in labour. After several minutes of this he leaned forward sharply and opened his mouth. I saw what can only be described as a brilliant shaft of light followed by a large glittering object shooting out. He caught the object and sat back holding it up, smiling like a proud mother. Later he walked through the crowd holding the lingam and I saw it clearly - it was about twice the size of a large hen's egg and of translucent green crystal, yet inside it there appeared to be something glowing brightly, as if alive it pulsed and sparkled. I have never seen anything like it. I could feel my hair standing on end and kept thinking that I had just witnessed something so extraordinary I could not even begin to grasp its significance. The lingam was finally placed on a stand so that all could see it, then Baba disappeared and everyone sat singing bhajans through the night.
I would not have believed any of this last year either. Baba is essentially a personal experience, not something that can be written or even talked about. Most of the devotees I spoke to regard him as an embodiment of love, and you cannot define that. In spite of the hullabaloo around him his essence is simplicity and unpretentiousness; he shuns all publicity and is, in a curious way, totally alone, without any real organisation. When I was told that he accepted no gifts or donations it was true - during the six rent-free months I spent in the ashram no one ever approached the topic. The only money that changed hands was for food and his books, at cost price; he has been known to give people money to help them stay there. He vociferously disapproves of the gurus who come west and make fortunes. He has travelled out of India once himself, to Uganda, where he told the Asians to leave before Amin did. I met a number who took his advice and saved everything. Although he now has thousands of followers in America there are no plans for travelling to the west. But, since he has said he will live to be ninety four, it must remain a possibility.
More than anything, for me, he is someone who can say, with Christ, "I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life"; he is not a book of law, he is a living example, his life is his message; and if asked now what my religion was I would probably reply "Sal Baba". And what would that mean? The answer is perhaps to be found in the simplicity of his own words to me:
"The sun is up here in the sky; it is the passing cloud that hides him from your vision. The sensory world is the cloud that hides the Atma (Spirit), ever shining in the firmament of your heart. The same mind that gathers the clouds can also disperse them in an instant: for it is as the wind which collects them from all quarters and renders the sky dark; and the next moment, changing direction, sends them in a scurry to wherever they came from. Train the mind to disperse the clouds, not to gather them.
"The individual has come to birth in order to reveal the splendour of the spark of Godhead which it is. The body is the wick of the lamp, yearning for God is the oil which feeds the flame. But like the rat which, attracted by the strong smelling cheap stuff inside the trap, neglects all other articles of food in the granary and falls prey to its foolishness, man too neglects his real sustenance and wastes his life in pursuit of mortal riches."