Ashram Visit: 5 July 2001

at the microphoneWhen the festivals occur in Prashanti Nilayam, devotees travel for days to reach the ashram. It is not uncommon to find devotees have arrived during the night after the accommodation office has closed, and sleeping on the grass as the dawn breaks. It is Guru Pournima, the festival of the Guru (and Sage Vyasa) and the ashram is crowded. So crowded, I cannot get into the darshan hall. Neither can many others, we have to make do … just as those who have arrived from overseas during the night have to make do …

The Day of Guru Pournima

Since the commencement of the convention, each evening there have been cultural programs and presentations in the Poornachandra Hall. The side doors have been rolled up and crowds mill about the various entrances. Tonight, I pass that by and aim for my favourite eatery, the North Indian Canteen. As there is no convention on and the final declarations deliberations have been taken, I encounter large crowds of delegates making purchases in the shaminas between the West Blocks, and in orderly queues for the various canteens. I had earlier decided to make an effort to manage impatience. I was most certainly presented with opportunities in the canteen. I was surprised, once I put the brakes on my mind (Who is being impatient?, I ask myself), I was then able to internally process the frequent invasions of Indians in to the queue right in front of my nose …

It has been raining, the sand is wet, my feet are dirty and my trouser cuffs are getting wet as I search in the dark for my chappals. The sweet smell of rain and sticky humidity pervades the atmosphere. It is dark now as I glance down toward Canteen Avenue. It is a solid wall of bodies full across that wide avenue, silhouetted by the occasional car motoring slowly through the throng. I catch the eye of a lady who is in the same group as myself. She has been working as a seva dal in Poornachandra Hall assisting the delegates; she told how lovely it was to have Swami in his chair to listen to the speakers for two hours each afternoon. I replied, “Oh, that’s nice, we had a lovely two hour wait for Swami in the darshan hall each day!” She tells me of another group member who was repeatedly encouraged to come and stoutly resisted; only to come at the last moment, and he ended up being a speaker in a session with Swami present in his chair! Right there in front of Swami! I laughed with joy!

We part ways and I go home to an irritating internet connection that is not quite working properly. Drat. Have to wait until tomorrow. I ask the inner voice. ‘Tomorrow’, comes the commanding reply. Have to practise detachment, I guess. I pass men hanging palm leaves and bunting across Main Road, Puttaparthi, in the dark.

The next morning it is all go, go, go, as I head toward the ashram. People have been in lines since 2.30 am, I am told. I walk under an arch in the main street, wait for it, a little sign on the arch tells it has been ‘Erected by the Sathya Sai Baba Samithi of PUTTAPARTHY’. I was gobsmacked. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, there is a Sai Seva Samithi (a devotional group with devotees and chairperson) here?’ My, my, I read that sign with surprise. Later on I find out that the Samithi was formed several months ago, and they go on service projects in the village. They have bhajans in the Pedda Venkamma Kalanya Mantap (marriage hall – actually, this is attached the building that was Swami’s first mandir here – what we call Partha Mandir) every night, and they go on Nagarsankirtan in the village. Bhat, the temple and Prashanthi Mandir pujari, lives in Partha Mandir. Everyone likes him and smiles when they mention his name. He IS a sweet man. The other day I saw a photo of Swami’s brother and the local Inspector of Police, they were waving the Arathi lamp at a service project that was beginning, somewhere in the village. So, they have put a lovely arch over the main road, right next to the Ganesha gate, gaily coloured and decorated with three large pictures of Swami, ‘Welcome Sai Devotees – Gurupurnimam Mahotsavam’. This felt so right. Another arch has been erected near the Gopuram gate. Banners and colourful pennants hang across Main Road. I walk into the ashram.

The atmosphere has an incredible quality, I experience it the moment I enter; heat, shakti, it presses into me as my external vision is assailed by masses of humanity. Ganesha. Flames on the temple fence. Coconuts breaking (today is also known as Vyasa Purnima, the day Sage Vyasa finished dictating the Bhagavad Gita to Lord Ganesha, who broke off one of his tusks to continue writing when his pen ran dry. He is since known as Ekadanta, the single tusked.). So devotees also remember Ganesha on this most auspicious occasion. Crowds moving around the Ganesha Temple. Men asleep next to their suitcases on the grass; people have arrived by bus during the night; chappals are discarded everywhere. Next to the Mandir, a multicoloured dot matrix board flashes out an illuminated orange and green ‘Manasa bhajare guru charanam, dustara bhava sagara tharanam’. This is the bhajan Swami taught on his declaration day. An approximate translation of this is, ‘O Mind, hold onto the Lotus Feet of the guru, and cross the ocean of life’. Lines of men next to the mandir. I might join. I hear ‘crack, crack, crack’ as many coconuts are being broken. A camphor flame flares up on the gate to the Temple.

Pray before Ganesha. Walk around the temple, this is called pradakshina. Colourful garlands and bunting hang all over the temple, with pennant flags strung around the perimeter. Walk around several times, surrounded by women. Go to Murugan temple; Lord Murugan has also been decorated, with garlands gaily hanging from the sides. Crowds here also, Murugan is patron God of all spiritual seekers and aspirants. My eye catches the peacock, ever facing Murugan, his vehicle, the perpetual devotee focussed on his guru. Something has caught my eye, the garland on the peacock, the oil lamp, the lotus flowers; something taps at my intuition as I glance at the peacock: ‘the Lord and his perennial devotee’, I thought. I turn the corner of the temple and the sun breaks through the clouds above the Puttaparthi Hills. The high-rise in Chitravathi Rd cannot obscure this grand sight. How often have I seen the Puttaparthi hills in the dark, walking to darshan, and now, the Sun’s rays crack through the clouds, over the top of the hills surrounding this divine valley! I feel joy, I feel at home. I continue to gaze at the hills as I walk around Murugan.

Walk toward East Prashanthi. Looking over the heads of men I see the darshan hall is full. The far gate is closed. What to do? I wonder, as I glance down the walkway. It is a mass of people sitting down, people pushing to get through, I look at the lines beside the mandir, they are not moving, and how will the staff and students get in and pass all of this? I look at policemen’s arms waving in the air over bodies, moving people away from a gate I cannot even see. The inner voice comes loud and clear: ‘Take my darshan at the back of Poornachandra, and go, sit and listen to my discourse’.

I start to move toward the South Prashanthi footpath. There are so many people coming the other way toward the mandir. Cannot go anywhere, the primary school children are streaming down the hill, a long cord of small white clad boys all holding hands and smiling as they move quickly; Seva dal join hands to block the path. Sri Rangan, Convenor of the Books and Publications Trust, lends a hand. Next come Anantapur College girls, all in eye-catching Rose and Gold saris. They looked smart and elegant as they process down the hill from the primary school. More children come gaily cascading down the hill, I recognise a teacher here and there. Sunday Morning at this footpath is an event. Parents come and wait here after darshan, they catch their children on the way out after morning darshan, and so they spend a few precious Sunday hours with their children before taking them to lunch at the Primary School hostel. Finally the children have gone, the wall of seva dal with hands joined parts to let people cross.

I move up the path at South Prashanthi. Cannot move, there is a solid wall of women crowded around the stairwell. I say ‘Sai Ram, Excuse’ and try to (politely) push through. I look at spots along the wall which forms the back and roof of the old shopping centre. Women standing along the wall. I move on past another jam-packed stairwell. No spaces, the wall is too high, I move even further on; Aha! A place, just wide enough for me. I plop my cushion on the wall in front of me and prop my elbows on it. I glance at the watch the man beside me is wearing. 6.25 am. I close my eyes and begin to focus. I think, ‘This is my guru’s day; I will honour the guru on this festival of the guru’.

Soon, I return to the world and gaze over the decorations at the back of Poornachandra. There is a canopy of garlands with bunting and festival decorations right from the large inner Orange door right to the side of the darshan hall. I notice South African youth behind me. Look back toward Poornachandra, seva dal are scattering quickly. I focus on the door. In silence, sans music, I observe Swami come out, so fast. I join my hands, pranaams, and elbow the men talking beside me to direct their attention. Just the top of Swami is visible; he has caught everyone on the hop: the Police, bodyguards and dignitaries all move quickly to catch up with Swami. He moves forward, alone, I see his head and shoulders only. I turn and pull several (shorter) South African youth behind me to the front and point. Too late, Swami has turned and gone down the side of the darshan hall. I tell the South African youth, pointing, “Look here, keep your eyes right there and wait; Swami has gone down the side path between Poornachandra and the darshan hall to give darshan to all the women who cannot get into the hall. They are sitting out the back – Swami will go and bless them, for they will not have any other darshan.” I give up my place and push forward some more youth from South Africa. After some moments, Swami emerges and I point through the youths, saying, “Look, here he comes!” Such a brief glimpse and Swami has entered the darshan hall. I leave and walk west to Building A.

(I later found out that these lads had arrived that very morning from Pretoria.)

Here at Building A, I put my cushion down and sit on the steps. I am alone. After a time, the loudspeaker at the front of this building bursts into darshan music. Swami is still walking around giving darshan. When he (obviously) reaches his seat, the music stops. I hear microphones bump, and young voices begin to intone Ganapathi Prarthana, (Invocation to Lord Ganesha) then a lengthy guru sloka (chant). I hear guru and Guru Purnima several times during this sloka. A male speaker introduces the morning program, two speakers and divine discourse.

Professor Gopinath, Head of the Anantapur Ladies College of the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning speaks.

She is colloquially known as Jai Maa. I must to convey to you just how clear this loudspeaker is. No echo, no boom, no squelch, it is crystal clear sitting here. The sound is ever so much clearer and with less sharp treble than the speakers in the darshan hall. That is probably on account there are so many speakers placed so high up. Whatever. I enjoy a magnificent speech, I feel like I am sitting just in front of the actual people speaking.

I listen to Professor Gopinath extol the glories of Sai. Then, she breaks into story and regales us with recollections of her visits to Swami whilst she was in the company of her mother. She describes several incidents with Swami. One in 1948, he was only twenty-two years old. She spoke of bhajan singers who sang on and on, and Swami telling them not to think they are the best, he does not like this. She tells of women coming dressed in their best saris. Swami told, “This is not my idea, do not do like this”. Professor Gopinath spoke about her role as Principal of the Anantapur Ladies College. Patience and listening to all these children with their fears. Professor Gopinath speaks impressively, highlighting from several different angles the saying ‘Fulfil the role you have come here to play’. She warms to her theme, saying that we should play our roles to the best of our ability; it is alright to wear jewellery and best saris, so long as the role is played with humility. We should aim to please the director of the play, so that we might play better and bigger roles. A captivating speaker with a wealth of devotion and wisdom. I was very taken with her talk.

Another speaker recaps the points Swami has made to the Convention delegates.

I hear microphones go bump, thwack, and then Swami’s warm, how to describe, warm, no, that is no good, can a singing voice suggest rich vibrant colour? All the harmonies of the Universe? All the tones and semi-tones? With tremolo and quaver, Swami’s 75 year old voice traverses up and down the harmonic scales. I hear Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, or like that; Swami bursts out with more harmony captivating the ears, yet in the heart it is like the flute of Krishna again, your ears and your heart cannot leave off this singing.

Anil Kumar translates the song. Swami begins, I hear him mention panchabhuthas, panchapranas. I recognise the Sanskrit and anticipate Anil Kumar’s translation. The five elements are the source of the five vital life forces around the body. Swami tells something that catches my attention completely. Lakhs and lakhs (thousands and thousands) of light rays emerge from us as we look around. We waste lakhs of light rays as we waste our vision on bad sights, or look with bad sight at another person. I begin to visualise the light coming out of the eyes as people look, and I begin to explore this image, it means we are all light and all God; this is a most interesting way to look at sight, vision, and a most compelling metaphor illustrating how we can waste energy with our very sight.

Swami breaks into English, ‘See what is good’. We waste our energy, the bad karma will come to us, and we will have to suffer. Manage the senses, he pounds it in, manage the senses, and the sweet smell of food cooking comes down from the canteen, and oh, I get hungry, Oh, Swami! Do you have to do like this? I reflected. Oh, my tummy rumbled, Swami was talking about taste and the tongue, and down wafted the smell of chapattis and curry, Ohhhh, what a place to listen to Swami talk about all this! I closed my eyes and concentrated. Maybe I should be in the darshan hall…

The South African youth I met before come and sit on the steps. An ashram dog rolls on its back, wriggling. Storm clouds scud across the sky, providing a cool blanket of air-conditioning. The loudspeaker reproduces Swami and Anil Kumar faithfully. Families walk past. Young girls in dresses run. A father and his two sons sit in the sand. Another South African youth comes up; he makes circling motions with his hands and produces a laddu for us. Everyone laughs, and he shares the prasad. A coolie sweeps the path and grounds in front of Roundhouse One. Drivers wash their cars. Seva dals walk past. I see three boys pass pushing the most unique tricycle in the world, the bakery-three-wheeler. Up the hill they push, as two policemen pass by walking other way. People come and sit on the grass. More clouds drift across the grey ashram skies.

Swami goes on, continually repeating his points, master the senses, master the sight, master the tongue, breaks in to English again and again, ‘See no evil, see only good, Speak no evil, Speak only good’, he roundly reinforces his theme of true vision of humanity. Japanese and Indian men come and sit. Swami keeps coming back to that theme. Iti dristhi iti, ‘what is seen reflects the seer’. The grass strip in front of Building A is soon obscured with devotees sitting and listening, facing the speaker. A newspaper delivery boy comes on a pushbike and takes the papers inside the building. Swami speaks in English, ‘Purnima means full moon’.

Then Swami says, ‘From this day forth, Swami will grant no namaskars (blessing obtained by touching Swami’s feet). See what is good, see internally, take namaskars on the inner level. If you keep your vision pure, you will see this. Do not take bad sight and take namaskars internally, this is not good’. I leaned over toward the Brahmin sitting beside me, and said, “Swami has dropped a big one here, no more padnamaskar”, and the Brahmin looked at me and we laughed together. Oh, Anil Kumar obligingly translated more and more, golly, Swami is pushing us all inward, to purity, to the Inner Sai.

All too soon, Swami breaks into Prema mudita manase kaho, ‘Chant the name of the Lord with love’ and the discourse is over. Clap, clap, clap, I try to hear Swami sing those soft words and give up, too much clapping. A friend comes up and we walk back down to the Mandir. Om Jai Jagadisha Hare comes over the speakers. We arrive near East Prashanti; the air is warm and sweet. Men are crowding around to get prasad to take home. People sit on the grass with their travel bags, having just arrived on the bus. Announcement, a cultural program in the mandir tonight at 6PM. After searching the shoe racks for what seems an eternity, I find my chappals and leave the ashram.

As I emerge for afternoon darshan, I see storm clouds above and smell the freshness and rain in the air. I suspect a quick monsoon burst, and sure enough, just as I get inside the ashram gates, rain begins to sheet down. The wind whips up a gust, and there are crowds under the trees, all surrounding the Navagrahas (a small open shrine-temple dedicated to the nine planets). We are all under the influence of the planets, in the Vedic schema of life. I look up at the leaves. There is going to be some big raindrops shortly, I think. Quickly, I run through the rain, throw my chappals down near the generator, and take the shortcut behind East Prashanthi, to arrive in a stairwell under cover with a lot of others sheltering from the rain. It sheets down and I can see the wind gusts driving the rain everywhere. We look across, Swami is on the verandah, and here I stand trapped in the stairwell. I move to the front and take a good look after some minutes. I am not staying here, I think, and I move on. I run down East Prashanthi walkway, and observe the water pouring out the down pipes, warm frothy water running over my feet, and I recall running through inches of warm water beside this hall many a time. As I wipe feet on the soggy coir mats at the gate, a seva dal says ‘Sai Ram!’ as I enter the darshan hall. A quick frisk later, I can go, sit and take darshan.


on the steps



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