For reasons I cannot now recall, I have always wanted to stay and at an ashram. I came across, by accident, the ashram of Sri Babu; found the bizarre and the spiritual – the swindled or the enlightened – I know not.
In 2006 I embarked, for the first time, on the Great Arc of India. I was saddled to a KTM Paris / Dakar motor bike following the Great Arc Meridian, without maps, just a compass pointing north as the crow flies to follow 77’41’, without taking advantage of the roads. The splendid delight of pure off road ridding.
On this particular journey I journeyed with a great India friend of mine, Uday Bhan Singh, a kindly gentleman I have travelled on numerous adventures across India. I was on my motor bike, Uday travelled with his first great love, a Willies 1945 world war 2 Jeep. It was very kind of Uday to invite my son Alexander and Alexander’s school friend Dom to travel with him and experience off-road Indian riding shot gun upon a Willies. For Alexander the two great experience of this trip was the Ashram of Sri Baba; and a particularly out of the ordinary experience when we arrival by accident at a small village temple. The temple story is for another time.
Four days out from the tip of India, KanyaKumari, we stumbled upon the town of Pattaparthi, in Andhra Pradesh, wishing for nothing more than a place to greet the weary, refresh, sleep and be on our way. Another nights rest soon forgotten. On the other hand, and by mishap, we had arrived at an ashram. This night has not been forgotten so quickly; Pattaparthi this is the spiritual home of a Guru called Sri Babu.
Guru are not an uncommon sight in Inidia. Bright orange robes stand them out; rather like meeting a dog colour defines a priest or vicar. Little did I know then I had stumbled upon the Vatican. However Sri Baba reverence is above that of a mortal Pope.
To tell this story with its point, I need to bring the humour of the occasion to the fore and have respect for the summit. If I told badly, it is of fundamentalism, brainwashing and an ideology I do not understand – expressions with western permutations: Or to someone from an Indian culture, it is a story of conviction, compassion, understanding, a great love of a Great God. And here at Puttapathi it makes it easier to accept as true, a God who can be seen here, touched and walking on earth performing miracles.
That said, culturally an ashram does not relate to me. It could never engage me. I could only ever be an observer to this outlandish place of pray. I am not sure if a Cathedral is any different.
However to show respect for this Ashram, and to understand the ability of Sai Baba, one most have an understanding of the rugged lands in this part of India. This is peasant farming land. A land of scrub. A land speckled with many small obscure villages; the villagers living from the land as they were created by the land. A countryside you could journey at any time over the past 2000 years, life has not changed, until that is once comes across Puttaparthi.
Central to all these obscure villages, or small towns, is the superstition that adheres to the peasant people, ruled by a native God passed down from father and mother; furthermore played out in temples of differing size and importance. Each will be the home to a God or Deity, a Sprit or an Idol; whichever is the favoured character will be worshiped by the villagers as they go about their work in the fields. Interesting these Gods are very territorial, said to be jealous of each other, and worship with great faith within their own village. Villages pay reverence to their Gods; by bathing them in milk or in honey, or both; and then these Deities are placed on juggernoughts (the original meaning of name we how use for lorries,) chariot like constructions, to be paraded around the village boundary, as if to show the village God the lands he or she rules. And this personal village God is the source of an abundant harvest; or, if the mood is otherwise – shortages and famine.
Before the story of our visit to Puttapathi I should go back to the time of the Immaculate Conception, and a village of straw dung huts, skinny cattle, rice fields and a temple – that is until before an important date changed the path of Puttapathi – February 1926.
As with Mary at Jerusalem two thousand years before, Sai Baba mother, Eswarammain, was cautioned in a vision not to be alarmed when the Will of God called.
On that same morning in February 1926, as Eswaramma drew water from the village well, as she heaved the water bucket to the surface, a large ball blue light came towards her and glided into her. Nine months later, the 23rd November 1926, Sai Baba was born to transfer the fortunes, not only the dusty village of Puttaparti, but ultimately of 130 million people in 166 counties.
And to support this Immaculate Conception, – the birth of a God – Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, the emanate nationalist and freedom fighter, poet, philosopher, and yogi, came out of his meditative trance to announce ‘God had been incarnated the previous day’. Once He had brought this message to the world, He returned to his vow of silence. Silent for the remainder of His earthly life.
Sathyanarayana Rujy, the future Sai Baba had been born.
As we arrived into the Puttaparti, and in no particular order, came the airport; then the universities; then the music colledge; followed by the hospital; and soon came the suburbs; finally the new towering walls of the Sri Baba citadel, Prashanthi Nilayan ashram, created for the many believers, and many non-believers, who make this pilgrimage.
And these walls are shocking, and if it was not my fascination to see God inside I would have dismissed God heaven as a prison facade and turn the bike around. These towered 20’ walls, dark, forbidding and intimidating, hold the outside – outside, keeping the inside – inside.
Intertwining the citadel are the teaming narrow clammy damp streets, cows chickens and running children – all together weave a mediaeval labyrinth around the diameter of these grey depressing walls.
At intervals, breaking holes in this walls, are the gatehouses. Each is patrolled, and at each one we were moved on until the hullabaloo of some Indian system allow, or not to allow, the passing of believers or non-believers through these gates belonging to a Hindu St Peter.
I think we were all rather taken back as why we had been allowed entry. Most persons teaming the gatehouse were of the peasant community. It seems as if the thronging mass of a whole Indian village were trying to make their way inside, carrying their sick and old on their backs. Not all were fortunate; many families tried to pull all together and so make a better case to be allowed within these walls of Heaven. Strangely not all Gurus seemed welcome. The unfortunate stood their ground and collected in the gatehouse entrance, some prostrate on the damp ground in protest, in frustration, but all refusing to accept they were not allowed entry into Heaven.
Strangely, having been allowed within the citadel of the Ashram, I had no immediate experience of feeling the love, the peace and the happiness myself, which had seemed likely from the will of the people trying to get into this community. On the country Uday and I looked around; the immediate impact of this concrete space, high concrete blocks, was to shiver.
As Uday and I shivered I could see, but not feel, a radiant love from the mass of humanity all walking dazed and in awe of being within the compound of the God. The people smiled and were joyful and happy, and unlike I, as an observer and an accidental pilgrim, could and would challenged what I saw. The masses were in wonder of being allowed inside the Holy Walls.
For all the concrete this was a place of extraordinarily strong belief.
Already by the age of four the belief in Sai Baba was already evident. Beggars would appear at the family house requesting to be in company of the Holy Child to show their respect.
He was soon called ‘Guru’ or ‘Brahmajani’ (Realized Soul). Miracles were performed as He entertained his peers pulling sweets, toys, flowers and fruit from clearly empty bags.
By eight Sai Baba had written great works of drama, plays and poems. By ten He formed the Pandhari Bhajan Group presenting songs of love and devotion to God.
Soon He had out grown the primitive education system of the village and became self taught, inevitable become a teacher within the village school, schooling children older than Himself.
In 1940, at the age of fourteen, the young growing Deity further advanced His religious passage by announcing He was the reincarnation of the late nineteenth century Shindi-a-saint – Sri Baba himself. Understand this: in Christianity this is to make clam to be the reincarnation of Jesus.
The villages, His family members and His growing followers were all flabbergasted. This is indeed an astonishing announcement and even true followers required some evidence, for the Shindi-a-saint-Sri Baba had only recently departed from this earth. This swift reincarnation was unexpected.
After receiving the doubters in His flock to the front, He threw jasmine petals onto the floor. Witnessed by those doubters, many still alive today, the flowers started to come to life, moving around the floor until, to suppress any doubters present, the great name of Sai Baba was written in jasmine petals – the flowers known as the Gift from God.
Riding the KTM in the Ashram was uncomfortable, for it seems this big imposing bike had brought into the heart of the Ashram the industrial might of the western world. I was imposing itself with its sight and sound and I had become conscious of Western decadence and materialism.
‘Two double rooms please’ I asked at a reception desk served by man who evidently disapproved of westerners within the citadel of God. Saying nothing he looked me up, and then down. By his demur he knew I was a non-believer.
My request did not seem unreasonable since we had already kind off ‘checked in’ to the ashram with the ignominy of having to be ‘check in’ with a photo. I had protested at this, not my first protest, and would have left at any other ‘hotel’; however I could feel an experience happening and after a western protest, complied. Having been phoographed we were then kept waiting.
However it was staring to be oppressive, Stalinist; something I had never experienced before. This off hand authoritarian manner did not change during our stay; nevertheless the followers around us had wonderful smiles, were relaxed and seamed at peace.
To be kept waiting, the newly allowed considered a small matter, for they were inside the walls. Only being able to wondering around the compound did not seem to diminish their shared love or shared peace.
‘No white to mix with Indians, separate rooms, separate building’ said the charming less receptionist after a lengthy wait.
I asked again for a twin room to share with Uday. I asked if I had been mistaken when the receptionist had replied?
Again, but loader and firmer and without rising his head; – ‘No white to mix with Indians, separate rooms, separate buildings!’
‘And who says we cannot share a room?’ I ask and then put my arm around Uday to demonstrate communally fellowship.
Without looking up – ‘Sri Baba’ – he replied very firmly, without compromise and with charmless indifference.
The sheer ignominy of this form of apartied raised all the argumentiveness within me. Nevertheless, whatever I argued, whatever sense I did or did not make, was always going to be defeated by the prudent and strong unforgiving words of Sri Baba in the ear of the receptionist.
I challenged this man to put aside the words of ‘Sri Baba’ and think of the horror of apartied and the years of oppression and distrust of division that comes by separation. To no avail.
Sri Baba sanctified words were the superior uncompromising words than any of my words of reason. So I slept in the white neighbourhood with a bed; Uday was in the ‘black’ neighbourhood on the floor. (As it happens he found this quite offensive and slept in his jeep)
For reasons I do not understand, I have learnt it is not for me, or any human kind to question Sri Baba, Uday was not allowed to visit our ‘white’ neighbourhood, I was allowed to visit his open sleeping floor of a prison camp in the township.
This is unfair, for other than Uday, who clearly was not enjoying his stay, the inmates of this ashram camp radiated love and affection and lived in expectation of seeing the living God, Sri Baba. As a Westerner I questioned like a Westerner, I can never think like a peasant Indian. I hold different reasons for life, with different aspirations; I do not accept, without questioning religious logic.
In the same year as Sai Baba announced He was the reincarnation of a Saint, 1940, this Holy family visited Hampi to receive the darsham of Virupaksha (Shiva). Sri Baba, he was still a son after all, was left outside the temple to attend to the luggage. On the contrary, inside to the parent’s amazement, they did not see Virupakaha as an idol, but Sri Baba Himself!
In the confusion they ran outside – but there was Sri Baba attending the luggage! Back inside the temple his parents raced; at the altar stood Sri Baba! This phenomenon was witnessed and the status of this God increased. Sri Baba was not yet fifteen.
Slowly devotee’s gathered around Sri Bada. Thursday bhajams (?) became daily. Soon a hut was built to house a small temple. This was rapidly enlarged, and then enlarged again as the congregation grew. Devotees started to came from afar and pitching their own tents to be within the spiritual growing community. With Sri Baba warm and generous heart, all devotees must be fed. A dining hall was built to hand out bread and fish. (in hindie)
Before He was eighteen the first temple ‘Old Mandir’ was built to worship to Him. With further spiritual recognition the village of Pattaparti underwent the transformation from village life to a town of love and worship.
Having had an uncomfortable checking in, Alexander, Dom and I left Uday to find his loggings and proceeded on our way to our ‘white’ block identified by a large letter ‘G’ written big and high on one of the soviet style building.
The janitor who patrolled this block, a jolly man who smiled as he went about his everyday ashram jobs, had no key to our room. With a nod and a smile, but with little interest of finding out how we would unlock our room, sent us ‘white’s’ back to reception.
Since our stay I am never quite sure if it is misunderstanding in languish, difference in culture, or I miss the point in his logic. However, back at reception block the receptionist, who did speak clear well-versed English, engages in a most out of the ordinary conversation. He informed me the office holding the key box was now closed and I would have to wait until tomorrow morning to collect the key to my room. I think his comment was along the lines ‘…come back tomorrow at 5am and the office will be open.’
Having been on the bike all day, tied, hungry the immediate humour of my predicament did not entertain. Westerns have this reputation in India of being bombastic, demanding and arrogant. I was all of this stereo type. With a raised voice I challenged, first with reason – for to collect a room key the day after was not reasonable or logical. Finally, to no avail, and in no uncertain terms, I explained how pomposterous and this was, and demanded the room key. It was not to be, and other than a smile and a nod that room key was not close to hand; nevertheless it would be available tomorrow.
On that note I told this man, firmly with raised voice, without being discourteous, I was going for dinner and on my return the key had better be waiting!
With no irony in his voice, in a direct matter of fact response he told us…. ‘The restaurant has now closed.’
This is a place of worship, of home of a Holy Man, and refusing not to be rattled again by his stern, uninterested off- hand comment, I still answered back – ‘We will eat in the town and be back within the hour and I demand the key to our room to be waiting!.’
I did think I had dismissed him and had the better of the conversation, and so I confidently walked to the door. However before I had reached the door, after a short silence, he shot back with a short sharp dismissing indifference, and I could see a grin… and it’s never what a man says that cuts, it’s the manner as it is said. ‘The gates are now locked and will not open until morning’. I turned slowly, my face still, my eyes fixed. I think the receptionist notice this as soon as I started to strut back to the desk. I was ready for a scrap.
He may have dealt with the arrogance of westerners, although I doubt he had never seen their bane. After I had ramped and raved about the folly of the system, tried to argue with reason, holding back from insulting, it was soon agreed we could leave the ashram for an hour. I had compromising and agreed I would be back by eight. Although we did all feel we had fallen in line.
Within four years the present temple ‘Mandir’ had out grown the growing devotees and a new ashram, the Prathanthi Nilayan, Abode of Highest Peace, was started in 1948. On the twenty fourth birthday of Sri Baba the ashram was inaugurated.
Since the completion of the ashram in 1950, Puttaparthi started the irreversible expansion from temple town to world pilgrimage centre. The university now has three campuses. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Leaning is the only college in India to have received A++ ranking in India. The majority of villages in India have no medical support. Puttaparthi has two ‘super specialty’ hospitals caterings to the needs of the poor – for no charge. The airport is tarmac and takes jets. The Institute of Music centre has an imposing guitar standing four stories high. I could go one – nevertheless you understand the transformation.
Off course Sai Baba, not unlike Jesus, had made enemies. The first attempt on His life was by adding poison to a vadas. (samosa) When offered the offending plate of vadas, He picked out the ones with poison, then without hesitation ate the offending snack. He turned blue and immediately came back into good health.
The second attempt His assassins set fire to the house He was staying in. Immediately a cloud burst above the house putting out the offending flames. No rain had fallen elsewhere in the village. The villages, still in fear for Sai Baba life, rushed to the burnt out house. Within the charred remains of the house Sai Baba slept soundly, unaware and unharmed.
Then, in 1963, mortality suddenly seemed to finally come upon Sai Baba. One morning Sai Baba suddenly fell unconscious. Over the next five days He suffered four heart attacks, refusing any form of medicine, succumbing to paralysis, lost His sight in one eye and His speech became impaired.
To this mortal pain and suffering Sai Baba indicated thought His paralysis, He had taken the pain and suffering of a devotee’s heart attack and in so doing save the devotes life.
Latter on the same year, during the celebration of Guru Purnima*, Sai Baba was assisted to the His dais (raised platform in the temple) and after gesturing for some water, proceeded to sprinkled a few drops onto His paralyzed left leg and hand. Soon, with both hands, he began to stoke his leg until His leg, His eye and His troubled left side came back to health again and standing for the first time in many weeks, continued with the service of Guru Purnima.
Having saved the life of a devote it was an appropriate time to make claim to be the reincarnation of not only the Saint Sai Baba but of Shiva himself and further of Shaki, (the divine force, restorer of balance. Every God has a Shaki. Parvati is the energy of Shiva), two of the most revered Gods of the Hindus. This demonstrates the position Sai Baba, as a Guru or God, had become. To be able a reincarnation of a Saint is one thing, and not uncommon, but to be the reincarnation of Shiva is a powerful claim.
To be mischievous we stayed out to 9, although there was no problem getting back with the walls. The gates were opened by happy guards and it seemed as if, after the great escaped, we were being escorted back inside.
I walked the compound after our return; very much because so many believers were doing likewise. I visited Uday in his quarter and saw the accommodation of a refugee camp; all cramped within the high ceiling, dusky smoked filled; very much on the setting of a Cartier Bresson or Rangu Rai picture. Within this warehouse the believers, in different stages of cooking, sat around camp fires or primer stoves. Others were in the process of setting up slim matters along the wooded floors whilst the children played differing games between the noise of the camps; all with a common interest in anticipating their own audience with Sri Baba.
I spoke with men in the best English they had. It did not matter as I struggled with the conversation, for I could see the radiating love for this Man. And although, looking into this shed, it seemed no more than a refuge, within they all had belief. They were making their own Pilgrimage, their Mecca, their Jerusalem, and now so nearly within the company of their God. One older man, constricting his eyes because off the smoke, said knowing, he could tell I had not been in the company of Sri Baba; ‘Meet with him and you will see different. You will feel his love and protection. You will never want to go elsewhere again. You will be fulfilled.’
The believers would be up at 2 am to be in the temple for His arrival and prayers at 4am. Non believers were still in bed. I was still in bed. In hindsight I should have got up; however this place had not been welcoming and I was arrogant and would not get up at 2pm for any man. Strangely I do to catch a plane…; other than this is no mortal man, this was my lost opportunity to see a God with 130 million devotes. May be I would have felt the radiance of this man, this saint, and understood not only the meaning of the ashram, but felt the pull of these men of Jesus. An opportunity lost.
Having had many months to reflect on my very short stay with these devotes, I can now start to understand the pull of this living God. Sai Baba nourishes his devotees. Pain and mishap are common in Indian life and He know how to enable his devotes to flourish in belief of their imagination, their religious emotions, enabling the tenderness, the kindness and the warm inside to prosper, enabling many to see themselves without a harsh light of life beaming down the adversity and poverty of a life; and so they become a devotee. From within themselves He has extracts this belief. He has called out his love and the soul has been nourished.
The following day, having decided breakfast on the road was better than the offering of Ashram catering, I went to settle the bill and be away as quick as allowed.
Within the concrete block, the lower floor serving as offices, I found the ‘Office of Settlement’ and a cheerful man happy to be serving his commune.
After a few pleasantries he asked for my reservation slip.
‘I am sorry, I do not have the slip, lost or left in room.’ I replied with a vague remembrance of being handed a slip with the room details, certainly without the key. In the hullaballoo of the confrontation the slip had been forgotten.
‘Sorry – I need the slip.’
‘Well I thing the room is 50 rps?’ I replied getting the money from my wallett.
‘Sorry Mr Conrad, I need the slip.’
‘I don’t have the slip – hear is 100 rps which amply cover the room’.
I can’t take money without slip.’
‘Why not?’ The confrontation of the evening before fell back onto my shoulders.
‘It is the rule here. I need the slip.’
I tried to enforce the fact I did not have the slip; surly more important I did have the rupees. I pushed the money over the counter towards him; he pushed it back; I pushed it over again only for him to return the notes to my side of the counter.
My hands went up, I was not going to be confrontational, so I left leaving the money on the counter. I had not gone far when from behind I could hear his steps and more disheartening the call of my name…’Mr. Conrad…your money, please I need slip’. Clearly he could not take any money without this bothersome slip.
I trust the money back into my pocket and with Alexander and Dom went back to first search our belonging, to no avail, and then a search of our room. Unfortunately the slip was gone, lost in all of the confrontations of the evening before.
Sai Bada has made the claim that three Sai Bada’s will come invested with totality of cosmic power to save dharma (righteousness) from anti-dharma. In1976 when asked why He had been incarnated /resurrected ‘Because that is the only way to incarnate the God within man; Therefore, in My present Avathar, I have come armed with the fullness of the power of formless God to correct mankind, raise human consciousness and put people back on the right path of truth, righteousness, peace and love to divinity’.
With the slip clearly lost, and my will to confront the receptionist with bad tidings had been reduced to a shadow of person I had been the night before; I was not for another confrontation and asked Alexander to pay the receptionist so we could eventually leave. I did warn Alexander of my problems settling the bill, and forced on him that he must, if all else fails leave the money, at the very least, on the receptionists desk.
Within fifteen minutes Alexander was back, rupees in hand, amused at the horror of this receptionist taking any money without slips.
So we all went on our way. I still have a sense of guilt at taking a nights rest in a house of God without payment.
I hope it is not considered presumptuous if a man like me, of humble station, ventures to comment on the conduct of a God.
For those who wish to observe and study the form and character of mountains one must be looking from the low lands. For the purpose of seeing and study of low places place yourself high upon the mountain as a God.
But do you need to be a God to know well the character of people, or to understand the mechanics of human frailties? Rather than as humans make judgement?
Many are sceptical of Sai Baba Sainthood, never mind His position as a God. The paradox of the west is to dismiss the likes of Sai Baba, and other as sect leaders. However, then worship on bended knees each Sunday.
I do not have an understanding of the spirituality of Palestine first century AD, but can feel, see, embrace the difference between Western and India spirituality. India allows, even encourages, the differing ways of religion. Gods come and go; formed in villages to pray too, then new God take their place. The Jains, Bauls, Tantrics, even Christens, are all are allowed to live and be accepted as part of Indian ‘ways’. Religion is circular. Hindus are born good. Christian tolerance of that, which is not Christian, not of main stream religion, is considered occult, pagan. Is this why a Christian is born a sinner?
I regret I did not make the effort to see Sai Baba. If I had, I am sure I would have seen the foundation of human love transport into human life by human faith rather than divine faith.