Ashram Visit: July 3, 2001

in the mandiramThe question comes to my mind, ‘What is satisfactory darshan’? (Satisfactory not referring to how I might feel or not feel implying anything about darshan being good or bad. That is a subjective ‘satisfactory’.) An intriguing reply: Preparation, Presence and Retinue. Hmm. Much food for thought in that reply.

The Convention opens …

I rise early and joined the small lines of men I observed beside the mandir. Shortly thereafter, the ladies doing Nagarsankirtan depart, the lines move forward. Around the corner, a man checks my shirt and asks me for a badge. He pulls me out and points to the end of the mandir. I am in the wrong line. This is the delegates’ line. Perhaps I should have said “Forgot, forgot!” I would have got a seat in front of the students, right in front of Swami. Opportunity knocked, and I was not quick enough. Oh well, I thought to myself, ‘Would I tell a lie or engage in nefarious machinations, to sit right in front of Swami?” No, came the answer …

I wander down toward the end of the mandir with my heart sinking toward my boots. It is dark; all I can observe is a sea of black heads. I felt, ‘Oh well, here we go, here comes the back wall!’

Not quite the back wall, however I was slightly pillar leery, and picked my seat. We were pushed forward twice by the seva dal, then men got up and ran forward. A huge expanse opened up. We moved forward slowly. I see three tall red backed chairs each side of Swami’s brown (leather) chair. The table is out. Two lecterns with microphones. No microphones on Swami’s table. ‘Do we have a discourse?’ I wondered.

Sit and wait. All the mandir lights are turned on, this really enhances the mandir, the sky blue colour brightens up and reflects with sheen. All the flowers and bunting from yesterday have been replaced with attractive garlands, silver and gold, red, yellow, these hang all round the front of the mandir. All the Chinese lanterns remain, a riot of colours competing with the chandeliers. An arch has been assembled. Violet wrapped, big gold letters announce the Bal Vikas Guru’s Convention theme: Educare. Education with human values. The diamonds and clouds of yesterday are gone. A simple arch. Last time I saw the arch it said ‘Generator, Organiser, Destructor’.

7AM. Swami comes. Moves very quickly through the women, and quickly again through the men. Takes one or two letters only. Once more, he approaches the side gate and disappears out into the East Prashanthi walkway. (There are devotees sitting down in the walkway.) Returns to the darshan hall, takes his seat behind the table. Indulal Shah gets up and motions speakers to take their chairs beside Swami.

Tiny primary school boys dressed as Brahmins in red dhoti and red shawl approach. Lectern removed, the boys commence chanting sacred slokas. They take padnamaskar and leave. Lectern is returned. Speakers each take padnamaskar and give talks on the theme of the conference. Goldstein sits beside Swami, his attention completely on Swami. Hiro from Japan gives meaning of E,D,U,C,A,T,I,O,N, I is for integrity. I see delegates making notes. Goldstein speaks, he says Guru’s must inspire, but they cannot inspire what they have not experienced. Top comment, I thought.

No microphone brought out to Swami’s table. After the last speaker talks, a co-ordinator approaches Swami. He goes to the microphone and reads out the convention program. Arathi is taken. All sing Om Jai Jagadisha Hare (the Lord of the Universe is here). Swami retires to the interview room. Morning darshan is over at 8.15 am. Prasad is given to delegates.

All this time, men get up and leave during talks. I try several times to kick-start So-hum and keep focus on Swami alone. It is difficult. I think I am tapping into the distracted, bored energy around me. I have experienced this before. You can sit in the darshan hall for ages while Swami is present, he is listening to talks given prior to his divine discourse, and absolute boredom and distraction can set in. It takes significant effort to remain focussed on Swami if you are far away from him, yet sitting in his presence for quite a time. I am seated deep down the hall near the back; Swami, far away, looks small, seated behind a table, occasionally lifting a white kerchief to his mouth. He applauds an Indian lady speaker enthusiastically. She spoke softly, quietly, and sometimes took pauses in her talk.

All the while, men get up and leave. It is like this, they go to a temple and ‘take’ the darshan of the Lord or God in the temple – the Murthy. Having done their sacred business and said their prayers, they leave. Tirupathi, Tiruvannamali, Dakshineshwar, Benares, Kedri, Badrinath, all these places they do this. Here, they have ‘taken’ the darshan of the Lord Sai whom they utterly venerate as God. You should see them if they get anywhere near Swami, an incredible effort takes place to touch his feet, have a letter taken, offer pranaams, or get some of the vibuthi he has materialised. They want this, they are devoted to this, they ‘take’ this as their devotion, their prasad. It is important after ‘taking’ darshan to also take prasad, (blessed food). All of this can be extremely alienating, off putting and even frightening at times. There can be pushing and clamour, and struggle to reach, to move. Talk about when push comes to shove, when it comes to being near a Divine Incarnation, this really happens.

Yet in here, also they are restrained, try hard not to intrude upon you, try not to tread upon any part of you, and they are being devoted, engaged in what is for them, a holy sadhana, a holy spiritual duty. So they get up and leave because they have ‘taken’ the darshan of the avatar Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and now they move on to idli, vada, tiffin or the conference sessions. Many villagers are here, they are Bal-Vikas-Guru in small villages teaching children. All this continual getting up can be off-putting, yet, after a while I ignore it. It is not disrespect and I cannot compare what is good for them with what is good for me, nor say there is any right or wrong about my staying and continuing with Sai darshan, and their getting up and leaving. It just is.

Afternoon darshan; I take lines at 1 PM. Before going leaving my accommodation for darshan, my eyes glance on the letters I have brought, for others. I ask, ‘Are you taking letters this afternoon?’ Answer comes, ‘Yes’. I pause, becoming still: ‘Are you taking these letters’? “No”, is the answer. I leave them behind. Sit outside in the sun, in the lines. Oh, I remember sitting in the sand, with the little man walking up and down the lines talking Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, do not touch Swami, do not hold Swami’s feet, only get up if Swami talks to you. Up and down out lines he used to go. One of the Institute teachers was really good. He used to come around the men’s side and say ‘Om Sri Sai Ram to you all’ and make pranaams to us. He would then tell us a little story, “Yesterday Swami told students … and we would all be sitting in rapt attention. Very effectively, he would highlight reasons why we should behave in a restrained manner in darshan. It was a very motivating way to communicate to waiting devotees. Alack, the crowds are larger today; the darshan assembly area is so big now. All this comes back to my mind as I FRY ever so slightly in the sun. Beads of sweat form and drip off my eyebrows. So much for the big drink of water before I came.

The numbers have been given out; here we go, I watch the lines go in. One, Two, oh, watch this man he gets up and crosses three lines to join line One on the way in. He smiles and determinedly pushes his way past the seva dals. It takes two of them to get him back in his seat. Up he goes again, now he is going to join line Two. Now, people from his line begin to remonstrate with him, and woops, my line is up and moving. I am in line Three. Men run past me in the mandir, oh they run and run and run, and I just walk up. “Anywhere”, the inner voice says. So I go and sit near the corner, I can see the red carpet, I am perhaps three lines back from front row. I write. Time moves on slowly. Hot, hot, hotter. Continual stream of men getting up for water. Students arrive. Little boy in front of me colouring in mandalas in a book. Fascinating, slow work, he concentrates. I return to writing.

The question comes to my mind, ‘What is satisfactory darshan’? (Satisfactory not referring to how I might feel or not feel implying anything about darshan being good or bad. That is a subjective ‘satisfactory’.) An interesting answer comes.

PREPARATION, as it is appropriate to you – whatever works for you – name, rosary bead, likitha japa (writing the divine name), meditation on his form, (or any form), divine reading, anything that focuses and excludes distraction.

PRESENCE – single pointed attention to the divine form as He gives darshan. This is a challenge, as movement of others, men getting up with letters, pigeons fighting, men talking, pushing, elbowing, music, bodyguards moving, all are opportunities to ‘take the focus’. Devotees having hysteria is also a great attention grabber, I saw a man have hysterical fits as Swami passed by, once. Swami just looked at him and kept walking. Others carried him out. So presence is a challenge.


This one stumped me. Retinue? Royal court? Followers? Train, carriage, persons accompanying, officials who compose a train; all these ideas come to mind, and did not make sense. Retinue? I write notes, perhaps continuing single pointedness, continuing presence, recall, replay, savour the divine darshan? I wait. I know He will reveal.

Retinue, Noun, ‘succession or series of people, things, events (train of thought); a body of followers. Idiomatic use = in train, properly arranged or directed.’

Going back to the Latin, RETINUE (I always like going back to the Latin) or before, but the middle-French root is “to retain” which puts a neat twist on this — we are meant as a group to retain what we’ve gotten post-darshan.

The over-plus of meaning that emerges here is ‘self management’ after darshan. Probably also, keeping that focus and image of darshan until one commences the next necessary activity.

It is a bit like so: Swami tells, ‘When you attend weekly bhajans, your bhajans start when you leave home, travel, arrive, all the while you think of the Lord, remain focussed on the Lord, think of his glories and the songs you will sing. Thus one makes a good bhajan.’

So one may also conclude a good darshan by taking the same measures. That, I suspect, is the over-plus of meaning associated with this surprising word ‘retinue’. One other thought; it may also mean ‘stay there for a while’. That is certainly part of the meaning of retinue.

Swami does not come until 4.30. He has been generally coming out at 2.45, maybe 3pm. The Convention has begun, the roller doors at the side of Poornachandra have been raised, I hear applause. Seva dals get up and talk. Men stretch, talk, some get up and leave. Lady seva dals return to sweeping the path at the rear of Poornachandra. Time moves on slowly. Legs ache and cramp. Foot goes numb. Little boy beside me gets cranky. Sporadic So-hum. More men get up and leave. Some men exchange places. Then, the penny drops, Swami is in there listening to talks. Aha! “4:30”, the inner voice tells me.


charana kamala

4:15, false start. Seva dals, Police come to attention at the back of Poornachandra. Soon a buzzing and loud conversation resumes in the mandir. Distracted So-hum. I send a message, ‘Come on, devotees drying out here!’ … inner voice replies, 4.30

Storm clouds gather. Lights are turned on above the red carpet. More chandeliers erupt with light. Blue and gold flags flap from the flagpoles lining the roadway at the rear of Poornachandra. Seva Dals, Police, all at attention. Verandah lights come on. Buzz turns to dull roar again. Men talking. Suddenly, the music starts, all heads turn to Poornachandra. I cannot see Swami. So quickly, he crosses over and a sudden squall of wind whips his hair and robe savagely, rain breaks loose and pelts down as he enters the darshan hall. Oh, the rain pelts down. He seemed to be nearly blown off course as he stepped over to the red carpet.

The video fellow is in the way. Cannot see Swami. Wind howls through the ashram, rain drums a loud roar on the roof. Quickly past the waiting women, past the students up on their knees. Swami attends the men. Bodyguards emerge. He takes a letter, looks at some other men. His hand moves, he is looking at men further into the crowd. Suddenly he whips his hand up and looks at the very men in front of him and starts giving vibuthi. Turns, moves further on, takes letters. Comes closer. I see a man get up – he has padukas (sandals – of wood, or precious metal) on a tray. Oooh, I ask, ‘Are you going to bless them’? “No” comes the answer, “Just watch”.

I watch. A man reaches out so far he is flat on the ground and touches Swami’s foot as he is walking. Swami stops, turns, piercing him with a look. Moves on. He is much closer now, liquid eyes; the wind has swept his hair awry. I see lines on his neck. He looks hot, yet I sense an august presence, splendid, majestic; at this close range, I not only see, but feel. Here is something commanding, strong, powerful, benign, with these surprising liquid eyes of love. I am stunned. He turns and walks toward the garage. The wind sweeps his robe; I see the Lotus Feet, charana kamala, for the first time, this visit. My heart leaps up. Rain pelts down.

Men get up and fall about trying to hand him letters. He leans over and accepts. Hands letters to his bodyguard, without looking. Takes more letters, hands more letters to his bodyguard. Men are nearly four feet away from Swami, perhaps farther. Bodyguards restrain hands reaching out, men almost leaping out to his feet. Swami rounds the corner and begins walking toward the mandir. Facing the institute staff, he lifts his hand, lifting again and again. Walks past slowly. When he reaches the porch, 7 or 8 students get up and go forward with their trays of prasadam. They crowd around Swami in a semicircle. Swami blesses, students take padnamaskar. They leave the porch. Swami moves on toward the mandir, lightning flashes and I hear a thunderclap. Damp, humid air. Another lightning flash. After a time, the music stops.


Sai Conference



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