Some background: During the 1970’s Baba would hold a yearly Summer Course for his college students, generally in his Brindavan ashram near Bangalore, typically during the months of June and July. Teachers and well-known specialists from various disciplines would give classes of general interest to the assembled participants, which included the Brindavan College boys, the Anantapur College girls, and selected individuals from the darshan-attending public, consisting mostly of Western devotees visiting from abroad that Swami chose to give badges to for admission. There were many spiritual talks given by Baba and prominent spiritual illuminants invited for the occasion; and, of course, there were bhajan sessions, and sometimes special musical and dramatic performances. These summer meetings were a major highlight in the ashram calendar, and those fortunate enough to be able to attend would look forward to these events all year.
In 1976 Swami chose to do the Summer Course a little differently. He decided to hold the conference in the southern hill station and resort town of Ootacamond (popularly known as Ooty), and all the speakers that year were only selected from among his college students. It was a wonderful experience, with Baba sitting among the audience and attending most of the sessions, seeming very pleased with his student speakers. But what made this particular Summer Course memorable beyond all the others, was what happened at the end, after the official scheduled Course was finished and most participants had left. The buses for the Anantapur College girls had arrived on time, loaded up the girls and left for Anantapur, a town 400 km away in Andhra Pradesh. Swami had left early, to visit an Indian Army base on the way back to Bangalore, and speak to the officers and men at the invitation of Major General Mahadevan, the chief of the Southern Command, and an ardent Sai Baba devotee. When the Course was done, almost all the Western devotees had utilized the long lineup of waiting taxis outside and returned to their hotels or ashram flats. The only ones left in the hall that evening were the Brindavan College students, whose buses had not arrived, and a few devotees (about 10 or so, myself included) who were in no hurry to leave.
After milling around the hall for thirty minutes or so when their buses had still not shown up, the college boys got out their musical instruments and decided to organize themselves into a circle on the floor and start a bhajan session. The singing was so beautiful that the space which had been somewhat chaotic before, began to feel very satvic and sacred. The voices were so good and the ambiance was so sublime, the singing and chanting was totally transporting. Around the middle of the third song, Swami suddenly appeared at the back door of the hall. We were all completely surprised and, catching our breaths, filled with awe and wonder at the sudden turn of events. The boys stopped their bhajan and made way for Baba to walk through their midst to the front of the room. Swami was beaming from ear to ear; he looked like he was made out of exquisitely-fine Swiss chocolate, his skin radiant and glistening in the subdued lighting of the hall. He told everyone to gather in close around him, have all the doors and windows shut, have the sound system turned off, the lights turned down even further, and then he launched into an over one-hour hush-hush secretive account of his early years, which had never been revealed before. Fortunately, I had pen and paper ready and took down as much as I could of Dr. Bhagavantam’s running English translation (whenever Baba momentarily interrupted his enthusiastic telling to give Bhagavantam a chance to speak). It was totally magical. Here’s a transcription of what I and others who were there, remembered, as we reconstructed it from notes taken during and after the talk. To my knowledge there were no recording devices present.
Baba’s Early Life Stories
It all started fairly innocently with a certain Mr. Kote Subbanna, a shopkeeper in the little town where Baba was attending secondary school. This Kote Subbanna knew of Baba's skill in writing poems and songs, and so he would come to the school to find Raju. Whenever some new medicine came in, or some fine cloth or other items appeared in his shop, Kote Subbanna would beg Baba to write some special lyrics and teach boys to sing them, and thereby, in a pleasant and melodious way, let all the town people know of the arrival of these good things. One boy would go in front, holding a little placard made of woven bamboo-mat on which the name of the newly-arrived goods was written in decorative letters. The rest of the boys would then follow in procession, marching through the streets singing the song written by Swami. Even the merchant would go along with the boys, and undoubtedly, a long file of happy street urchins would tag along, as well. And so this advertisement procession became a regular delightful feature of the town, enjoyed and anticipated by all the people, except perhaps by the other shopkeepers.
Swami mentioned how, once, when a new tonic preparation called Balabhaskara had arrived, he wrote some fine Telugu lyrics to go with this beautiful name, which means 'dawning sun'. The jingle went something like this. "Listen everyone! Balabhaskara is here! This wonderful Balabhaskara has been found. Come one and all, young and old, whatever disease you have got... soon it will vanish. Whether it be a swollen leg or a swollen head, whether it be diarrhea or constipation, here is one medicine for all ailments... made by the great Ayurvedic Pundit Gopalacharalu of Madras. It is a perfectly pure tonic, good for all ills... and now our famous Kote Subbanna has this good thing available in his nice shop."
Soon this medicine became very popular in the town and Kote Subbanna earned a lot of money. It didn't take long for the other shopkeepers to come to Swami and request him to write poems to help sell their merchandise. But Swami had a more important role in store for his lyrics than advertising unsold goods. Soon his lilting rhymes would become his principal means for correcting and transforming a number of souls who had strayed away from the ancient dharmic paths. During the school recess he returned to Puttaparthi. Of course his poetry went right along with him.
"O you have become the worst fellow! Why do you persist in following wrong ways? When all the people get to know about it they will not allow you into their houses. Even your relations will not allow you near their cooking vessels and your friends will beat you with their chappals. What sort of age is this when people abandon our ancient traditional style of dress and wear these mustaches sitting like big insects under their noses.” And then his chorus of boys would start chanting, “Hitler Mustache! Hitler Mustache! Hitler Mustache!"
Now, in those days there was a great deal of fervor and agitation for national liberaton. The British, who were ruling the country, tried to suppress the Freedom Movement, and wherever the freedom struggle surfaced in some place, they would come and beat up the local people. Whenever the Congress Party tried to hold meetings, the members were arrested and put in jail. It was in such an atmosphere, that two Congressmen came to see Swami. They told him that they wanted to hold a big meeting in Bukkaputnam and they requested him to write a song about the country's difficulties and woes, highlighting how much better off the country would be in the future when it achieved its independence.
They dressed Swami up as a girl in a skirt and sari and put him in a beautifully-decorated jula, and in this way carried him up on to the stage. Swami was holding a baby in the form of a doll. Then rocking the baby to and fro, he sang a lullaby to it, "Don't cry little baby, don't cry. If you cry like this they will not call you a worthy son of Bharat. Are you crying because that murderer Hitler is preparing to make war against immortal Russia? Don't weep, little one. The Red Army is there; Stalin will lead it to victory and the killer Hitler will himself be killed. There's no need to cry. Or are you crying because this country is under oppression and wants its independence? Don't cry little one. Soon we will all act together and fight for freedom. Then Bharat will be a free country again and regain its ancient glory. So don't grieve, don't cry."
Like this Swami went on for a half hour singing to the little baby, telling about a number of public figures and how the British would soon leave India, and the country would achieve its independence. Everyone joined in the refrain, telling the baby not to cry. The police were there, and when everyone sang and clapped they also clapped along and enjoyed the song. Some British officers were also there; they could not understand Telugu. They saw that everybody was happy listening to this girl singing to her baby, so they were happy too, and the meeting became a great success. Soon everybody in the surrounding area came to know of this meeting. The song was on everyone's lips.
Swami spoke of another time when he played the part of a girl on the stage and managed to fool the whole audience. At that time, Swami took the role of the famous actress and dancer named Rushyendramani, who was known all over southern India from Madras to Hyderabad for her incredible feats of dancing. Her pièce-de-résistance was to stack various items such as bottles and vessels of water on her head, and then while whirling around would start bending down, working all those things that were balancing on her head to move to the back of her head so they would stay up there while she picked up a kerchief on the ground, with her teeth, all the while dancing and swaying and clapping her hand cymbals, and the lights would glisten off her sparkling jewels and the little mirrors she had all over her gown. She was superb, but when Swami impersonated her, she gave the all-time best performance ever. No real Rushyendramani could have done what Swami did that night.
It all came about when in celebration of school day, the headmaster of Swami's school decided to raise money for the construction of some new buildings, by sponsoring a gala cultural program featuring this famous performer, Rushyendramani and her troupe of dancers and orchestra from Madras. This was a very big thing; word went out to all the towns for miles around, posters were plastered everywhere, attractive pamphlets were distributed and there was great excitement for weeks preceding the function. Everyone was looking forward to this greatest event to hit that little town in living memory. A very popular lady of that region, named Ramasubbama, who was the first lady to be the head of the district school board, was invited to be the guest of honor presiding over the School Day function. The District Collector, a British officer named Horsley, who was much feared and who acted like a maharajah of that area, and was treated as such, was also invited. He agreed to come with his retinue.
But then, at the last minute word came to the headmaster that Rushyendramani could not come. He was appalled. He sat in his office slumped in his chair. All the tickets had been sold out; additional room had been made in the hall, some partitions were taken out so more people could be accommodated, and another bunch of tickets were been printed up and they were also quickly sold out. Ramasubbama was coming, the Collector was coming, so many officials and important people were planning to attend. The whole region was abuzz with anticipation of the famous Rushyendramani performance, and now all that would have to be cancelled. He was in a desperate fix and went into a deep depression.
Within minutes of the headmaster getting the news, word leaked out to the whole school and the rumor spread that Rushyendramani had cancelled. She was not coming. It was at this point that Swami went to the headmaster's office, found him there very sad and said to him, "Excuse me Sir, I have a solution that will turn the bad new into good news. I'm prepared to play the part of Rushyendramani. Whatever she planned to do in her dance performance I will also do, and I will even do it better; no one need know that she has not come." Swami didn't say if he auditioned and gave the headmaster a little sample, but at any rate, in desperation, the headmaster took the greatest gamble of his career, and allowed Swami to impersonate this famous dancer and the unique feats she had developed over a life-time of strenuous practice.
In great secrecy Swami assembled an orchestra, rehearsed them and prepared everything for the grand performance that was a few days away. Swami described the scene that evening when in an overflow hall he came up on the stage with long black hair, dressed in beautiful silks and adorned with so many jingling and jangling jewels that he appeared like a thousand blazing lights whirling and twirling, while the music rose to a great crescendo. Soon the whole audience in great excitement was on its feet in an enthusiastic ovation, and remained on its feet and never lost its fervor throughout the long astounding performance. He performed dance after dance to the delight of this extremely receptive and sympathetic crowd. Everyone was jubilant. Towards the end the audience was getting more and more excited. Calls came out from the audience and then it turned into a clamor and then it was a roar. Everyone was eager with anticipation for Rushyendramani to perform her famous feat.
So Swami signalled to the headmaster and he intructed a number of teachers to come out. One had a plate in his hand, another had a tall empty wine bottle, another had a can of oil which he then poured into the empty bottle, another had a wick which he floated on top of the bottle and set on fire. And then the plate was put on Rushyendramani's head and her crowning performance began. Swami whirled and whirled until he was just a blur of light, cymbals clanking, lights glistening, music rising to a grand crescendo and then instead of dropping a handkerchief as had been Rushyendramani's custom, Swami took a pin out of the top of his hair, held it in his hands so everyone could see it while continuing his vigorous dance. And then he dropped it on the floor, and with great skill, and to the bated breath of all the onlookers, picked up this hairpin with his eyebrow. With a great big smile, Rushyendramani then started a twirl on one foot that spun her faster and faster until she finished the dance with a jump into the air continuing to spin, and then landed in a graceful courtsie, bowing repeatedly to a wildly overjoyed audience and a clamorous ovation. Rushyendramani really lived up to her reputation that evening.
The audience was ecstatic, everyone remained on their feet, and it seemed the clapping and hooting would never stop. The Collector was so moved he wanted to pin a medal on Rushyendramani. He came up onto the stage with considerable flourish and waited for Rushyendramani to waltz up to him and allow him to pin the medal. But since Swami was playing the part of a woman he didn't consider it right to allow himself to be touched by a man. Although Rushyendramani's reputation might have been quite different, Swami was resolved to protect the ancient mores of the Indian culture. So he shied away from the Collector and wouldn't let him come near. The Collector was quite insistent that he pin the medal, but Swami as Rushyendramani, to the delight of the whole audience watching this scene spellbound, said, "You must not touch me. It is against our customs. Kindly place it in my hand."
Then the Collector said, "Please! Just consider me as your brother," and Swami answered, "then please treat me as you would your sister." Like this it went on for about ten minutes, the Collector arguing and Rushyendramani answering, then Swami would run off stage and after a little while come back again. Standing in the wings behind the stage were both the headmaster and Swami's father. They were very much afraid of the Collector and they were urging Swami to allow the Collector to pin the medal. But Swami would not relent. Finally, the Collector gave up and with great disappointment, he put the medal in Rushyendramani's, that is, Swami's hand. There was a great ovation and in their enthusiasm the people rained hundreds of coins and flowers and whatever they had of some worth with them, onto the stage.
The next day, Ramasubbama, presiding over the function during which prizes were to be distributed, was filled with praise for Rushyendramani, since so much money had been collected for the new school buildings as a result of her superb performance. Ramasubbama wanted to thank her personally and present her with a beautiful silk sari, and so she called out into the audience asking Rushyendramani to come up onto the stage and kindly receive the award. All the people were looking around here and there, straining themselves to see from what side Rushyendramani would be coming. Everyone was anxious to see her again on the stage. At this point, Swami, wearing a half-knicker and his little khaki shirt, made his way up to the stage. A policeman seeing the little boy going up towards the stage pushed him aside, saying, "Get out of the way. Rushyendramani is coming."
But then the headmaster got up and revealed his great secret, by pointing to Swami and saying that this boy who was here in the school was the fantastic Rushyendramani of yesterday that everyone enjoyed so much the night before. And then he told the story of how Swami secretly had impersonated Rushyendramani in order to save the honor of the school. There was tremendous cheering. The audience was besides itself with joy. They could not believe that such a little boy could have achieved such a thing. Ramasubbama lifted Swami up and kissed him, saying, "Such are the wonderful boys in our country. I am so proud to be a citizen of a country whose culture can produce a young boy of such talent and noble qualities, and who has done so much for his school." For years after that, wherever she went she would talk about this incident, and she continued to love Swami very much.
All this had a great impact on the school. Everyone was wonderstruck and talking about this Raju. Swami was the hero of the moment, and the situation in the school was completely changed. He was given the assignment of reciting the prayers every morning, and he would sing Tagore's beautiful song of peace and tolerance, the Jana Gana Mana, which would become the national anthem years later. It celebrated the One who was the master of the hearts of all people and whose message was the one message of love taught in all the religions East and West, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Moslem, Christian, Parsi, Sikh... because all are one. Then the students would do their pranams and go to their classes. Like this it went on for a number of months, with Swami leading the worship every day.
But then, one Wednesday, at the morning prayer meeting, Swami said, "Do not have any illusion. I have nothing at all to do with you. We have no relationship." He put down his school books and left the school. That was the great moment when the Avatar cast off his veil and publicly revealed his identity. This was the pronouncement whose reverberations would soon be heard around the world. He told how the whole school followed him but he would have nothing to do with any of them. One little boy who was sharing his desk, seeing that his Raju had repulsed him and left, cried out, "If I can't have my Raju then there is no point in living!" And he jumped into the well and drowned. The other boy who had shared his desk, just cried out, "Raju, Raju, Raju!" and became demented and never regained his sanity. Swami told how when he left that town to return to Puttaparthi three busloads of boys tried to follow him but they only got as far as Bukkaputnam, 9 km away, and had to turn back. For three days there were no classes as the school was in an uproar. Then when they started again, some teacher tried to lead the prayers, but everyone could only remember Raju and they wouldn't sing, and the prayer session was dropped. The sudden way in which Swami departed had left such an impact, the whole school remained in upheaval.
It was also an electric moment in the hall at Ooty when Bhagavan came to this part of the talk. The light, joyous feeling we had been experiencing earlier, now changed dramatically. Swami, who had been so close and so familiar and so good-humored, now became serious and distant. For a moment it looked like he was going to walk out of the room right here, as well. We had all been sitting very close around him. Now he made some signs for us to move back and make a passage. The sudden transformation was completely unexpected, and everybody seemed to skip a breath, wondering what was coming next.
Then Baba waved his hand and materialized a dazzling hemispheric object, so big it covered most of his hand. In shape it looked something like an incredibly precious paper-weight. Within its perfectly clear hemispherical cover, which was glistening like highly polished glass or crystal, there could be seen a shiny black base appearing to be made of onyx, on which was inscribed a silver map of India. Etched in gold on the map were all the states of India, each with its capital city marked by a jewel. Surrounding the map were 18 luminous jewels, somehow illuminated from within, all glistening in the dark. Swami told us that etched on the map, appearing in the background, were 100 Sanskrit slokas describing the whole glorious history of this Avatar, from the time he had taken birth in his body 50 years earlier, to the time when he would cast it off 46 years later. It was the first time he had ever announced when he was going to leave his body.
He said, "All the great works that will be accomplished by this Avatar and all the leaders who have already been chosen from among my students are recorded here in these slokas, including all the chief ministers and governors of each state, and their ministers coming from among my students." Of course, there was a big hubub in the room. Everyone wanted to see this object more closely and read the writing on it. Baba took it around for all to see and touch. He was obviously totally delighted with it, almost proud of it, you might say. Spiritually it was a very powerful object and esthetically it was unbelievably beautiful. The miniature engraved writing could faintly be seen, but the print was too small for anyone to decipher. So Swami was asked if he would read what it said, and he answered. "I will not tell the future. Be patient. Everything will be revealed to you in due time."
The boys were not satisfied and they kept pleading with Baba to tell them what it said. So, Swami asked some of the Sanskrit boys to come up and try to read it. But try as they might the writing was too small. One of the boys asked Swami to materialize a magnifying class. Swami just laughed it off. Another boy took the long-focal length lens out of a camera that one of the boys had passed up from the audience. But that didn’t work either. Then Swami took the object back and said, "Why do you hanker after this thing when you have its creator? Why do you grab for what’s contained in the hand when the hand itself is already yours." At this he took that object and threw it far across the room into the corner of a table, where it landed with a thud among a pile of garlands.
Then, looking quite serious, to signal that the fun part of the session was now very much over, he said, "Remember, you have me and I have you. You are all sacred souls and you all have your roles to play in the mission for which this Avatar has come. Know that there is no force on Earth or in all the Cosmos which can delay this mission by even one instant. What I have willed will take place. In the years to come I will appear in many manifestations of my form. Wherever you are, there I will be." And without any further ceremony, or making any individual contacts, he directly walked out of the hall and left in the car. It was all so sudden, so unexpected, so emotional, so deep, and so other-worldly, we were all a bit stunned. We knew we had been graced by an extraordinary view of the Divine. For a time nobody stirred or got up, not knowing whether Swami would suddenly return again. The first individuals rising to their feet were a couple of senior boys who went over to where the table with the pile of garlands was, and where Swami had thrown that powerful object which he had manifested earlier. They looked everywhere on and around the table and in every inch of space nearby, but the sacred object was not to be found. Then the buses showed up and soon everybody disbanded. The Summer Course was now really over. But not for me...
A Personal Sequel to this Story, Demonstrating Baba’s Omniscience
I caught a ride on one of the buses taking the boys to their Brindavan College Hostel near Bangalore. They dropped me off when they passed through Bangalore and I went to my room in the Ananada Bhavan Hotel. On the bus, word had been passed around by the drivers that Bhagavan was going directly to Prashanti Nilayam ashram in Puttaparthi instead of returning to Brindavan Ashram outside of Bangalore, where he was expected by many foreign visitors, who had been waiting for him there. I passed the word among the devotees at the hotel, and got my luggage out of storage to take with me in a taxi leaving the next morning. While engaged in my room there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find an attractive young, sari-clad American woman standing there, who introduced herself as Ganga, and said she had been waiting for darshan in Bangalore during the whole month that the Summer Course was happening in Ooty. She said that she had heard that Swami had that very day in Ooty told his early life story and pleaded with me to share some of what I heard. I told her that Baba’s talk had been very secretive and I had no permission to share it. She pleaded and pleaded and insisted persistently that she would not go away, but would be happy to just hear one little story Baba had told. Well, I couldn’t resist satisfying this lovely devotee’s hunger to get a little hit of darshan, in this way. I surely wasn’t going to tell her anything at the door, so I told her to come in and sit on the bed while I repeated the delightful story of young Raju/Baba’s/Rushyendramani appearance, which I had heard so wonderfully told by Baba just a few hours earlier.
Well, here was a situation of a beautiful young woman sitting on the bed of an unmarried man, a stranger, who, was about to entertain her by recounting a story he had heard directly from the Avatar, in a closed session in which he was lucky to be present as a guest, but where he had no authority to disclose any of the goings-on…. It was simply not something that the Divinity could let pass by. So, just as I had started telling the Rushyendramani story to Ganga, there was a large bang coming from my suitcase, that was parked on the floor in the middle of the room. This was followed by some gooie viscous clear liquid oozing out onto the floor, making a big sticky puddle mess. I knew immediately what had happened and I said to Ganga, “I’m sorry but I think you had better leave.” As it turned out, I didn’t need to have said anything. Astounded by what was happening, she was already on her feet and heading out the door. She clearly got the message when the loud bang was heard in the room, that that was enough darshan for her, for one evening.
Well then, what was really going on here? You see, in the month before the Ooty Summer Course, my friend Don Heath from the San Francisco Sai Center had come to Swami, leading a small group intent on visiting various pilgrimage sites in India. In his professional life, Don was a male nurse at the San Francisco General Hospital, and had been a long time Sai devotee. On this trip he brought with him a couple of “certifiably unbreakable” glass bottles from the hospital, and he gave me one. While his group was resting at a hotel in Bangalore, Don suggested that we two spend the day going to a neighboring city, Mysore, where in its rural outskirts there was a small temple inhabited by a Sai Baba devotee named Hallagappa, and his family. Through Baba’s Grace, Hallagappa had some small stones with Baba images on them, that miraculously materialized a continuous drip of fresh amritam, (a term which means no-death). Amritam is a miraculous divine nectar, which, even more than the sacred ash vibhuti, is a manifested substance believed to have very powerful spiritual healing and mind-transforming, divine awakening, Self-realization powers. Don suggested we could go there with our bottles and bring back a sacred treasure of amritam for devotees back home, who would greatly value having even a few drops of the precious divine nectar.
And so we went, had a lovely visit with Hallagappa, who has a remarkable Sai history (which I will have to tell elsewhere). We filled our ‘unbreakable’ bottles with amritam, and returned to Bangalore the same day. Before going off to Ooty for the Summer Course I had put my bottle deep within a large mosquito net and a bunch of clothes that I was storing inside my suitcase. After discovering the bottle neatly broken into 3 pieces, and the amritam all over everything in my suitcase and cloying itself into an advancing puddle on the floor, I went downstairs to the reception desk to get a mop and bucket to try to clean up the mess. (The maids and housekeeping staff had already left for the day.) By the time I got back to my room there was an army of ants, about 50 abreast, streaming in through the open window and heading for the suitcase and the nectar. They were so one-pointed in their columnar march across the room, I assumed they were seeing this as their one chance for achieving moksha.
Before he went off on his trip, Don had put his bottle within a locked cabinet he owned at his hotel. We both returned the same day to Bangalore from our trips. When Don came to his hotel that day and unlocked the cabinet he found his bottle also shattered into three pieces, with the sweet nectar splashed all over his stored things, and sticking onto everything in his cabinet. And of course, a mountain of ants had shown up there also, and were having a field day. Don called me that night, and we got to commiserate with each other over our lost amritam and the resulting mess we both had to deal with.
A few hours later, before dawn, we decided to share a cab and head off to Prashanti Nilayam, still shaken by the amritam experience. We got to the ashram in time for Baba’s darshan.When Swami came to the men’s side He went directly towards us and lovingly chided us, “You Westerners! You keep running after miracles! But you don’t realize that the greatest miracle of all is man! Man is Maya removed, Atma realized, Nirvana attained. Be that, and be happy!” Then He said, “Take Namaskar”, and we eagerly did.
I now realize that in his every gracious act, Baba shows us the obstacles that get in the way of what we really want. If we want liberation then our desire for things and even for spiritual accomplishments and personal identity and specialness must totally leave us. To attain Moksha, the Vedanta speaks of frying every seed of mortal life, so that none will again sprout. When Baba materializes such wonderful, spiritually-potent objects as the ‘paper-weight’ and the amritam, then through our personal reaction to that we expose our most subtle latent desires. When we see these clearly, we can let them go. We already are and have always been the immortal One whom we have been looking for so long. But we have not directly realized That. Then our sadhana calls for sharp vigilance, tuned to that Goal, letting nothing distract us. We give ego no foothold. And until the Game is finally finished and we merge, we keep one-pointedly focusing on God using the CIA, our constant integrated awareness. In that, Swami has shown that he’s always on the job, keeping us from straying. But are we listening? Are we trusting enough to let him run the show, directing our thoughts and actions from deep within?
- Al Drucker