Written by Ted Henry and Jody Cleary on . Posted in Letters from India



- LETTER #2 (December 1,  2012)
- FROM: SOULJOURNS (Ted Henry)    
- SUBJECT:  First impressions


That is how many people who are not from India, think of India. Jody and I have occasionally had others express to us, "Welcome home", after we land here. Even though we visit India primarily to re-connect to the loving directives and mission of our spiritual teacher, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, increasingly when we arrive to this fabled land we feel deep ties to its people and to its mystical ways.  We've even been told by those astute in such matters that both of us lived here in previous lifetimes. 


These are only impressions based on a wobbly initial 48 hours in Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Baba's ashram.  Wobbly, because I managed to get sick on the second day with a high temperature.

The town and the ashram are radiant, where life moves at a slower pace with fewer inhabitants and visitors. The din is less shattering, thank God, but the colors and jasmine fragrance are still vibrant.

There is a plus/minus to all of this which I hope to detail later.  I should tell you quickly that the welcome mat is out for all Westerners to visit the ashram.  One of my first stops was to pay a visit with Mr. Unni, the dear mature soul who has headed up accommodations office here for decades.  His office was always a beehive of activity with many travelers trying to curry favor for a good room in a good building with working fans and a functional bathroom, maybe even one with hot water.  On this day he sat alone in his office, willing to share time with me, something he could rarely afford to do before.  The last time I checked with him (it's my reporter's instinct) during January, 2009 there were 85,000 people in the ashram from 125 countries, and today, only 7000.  He tells me the attendance from people in India remains high, but for foreigners the turn out remains slight since Baba's passing a year and a half ago.

"Please encourage all Westerners to come to Baba's home.  He is here", he said to me a couple of times.  I promised I would do so.

Later in the day while walking past the mandir (Sai Baba's main open air temple that holds 20,000+ people) I felt a discernible let down. Those present for the early chanting were quite few. The mandir is where Baba would give darshan, where he would show his loving presence, twice a day to the multitudes.  Since Baba left his body the schedule here has changed and now begins with vedic chants at 4:30, followed by bhajans (devotional singing) at 5:15, followed by darshan at 6 pm.  These days during darshan people are permitted to come up to his tomb and pay their respects. 

I was walking past the mandir doing some initial chores on move-in day.  As I looked to my right into the giant hall, this is what a saw, seven Sevadals (ushers) at the front on the men's side and behind them I counted five devotees in the first line.  There was no second line.  Throughout the rest of the hall there were maybe 40 to 60 men scattered here and there with lots of empty space around them.  Only a long time visitor would know how unusual, and sad this was.

Later, I ran in to a good friend, Nooshin Mehrabani, a long time devotee from Iran who has lived here full time for a number of years now.  She told me not to worry, that the crowds come later these days and that most people show up when the bhajans begin. She also stressed that Prasanthi Nilayam is a different place, with a different purpose.  It used to be that you would come to the ashram to be in the living presence of the highest Avatar, a descendant of the Divine, but now it's purpose is to serve primarily as a pilgrimage destination. Some of you may recall Nooshin's name since I posted two video interviews with her on Souljourns (youtube.com/souljourns andvimeo.com/souljourns.)  She was a long time television journalist in Iran before moving to Canada and the United States. Nooshin had countless interviews with Baba serving as interpreter for visiting Iranian devotees.

More on darshan and the experience of being with Sai Baba in the space many felt most at home with him in the next newsletter when this important subject can be given more time.  Being here, inside the mandir at his darshan is THE reason we are here.


Maybe it's a function of age.  Coming to India from America is never a simple task.  It used to take us 36 hours to travel door to door from Cleveland to Sai Baba's ashram in the remote dry mountainous region of South India.  On this, our 15th trip we've had better connections and managed to shave a few hours off the journey, but the multiple flights, arduous connection in Frankfurt and 11 1/2 hour jet lag (we now live in the Florida Panhandle, Central time zone) all conspire to assault our increasingly fragile bodies.  Even though I'm a willing trooper, by the time I get here I'm practically a basket case.

For the first time ever, we chose to include a rest stop and to stay two nights in a hotel about a 10 minute drive from Bangalore's enormous new airport before continuing to the ashram.  It was a great decision.  Anyone wishing to visit Sai Baba's ashram from afar might want to consider the, Hotel Presidency.  It's a new and very comfortable business class hotel (Google: Hotel Presidency, Bangalore Airport) that charges $58 a night for a double including a complete Indian breakfast.  

Actually everything here is new since this region, about an hour's drive from Bangalore was all farm land until the new airport opened just three years ago. India continues to rocket forward in its economic development and Bangalore, one of its most important hi tech centers is very much a part of it.  Think of a city with more than six million people where a gazillion first time car owners are clogging the city's streets and infrastructure and you'll soon see why building the region's new airport an hour away from the city center is a great idea.  The remote airport location is forcing the city to expand greatly to the north, with the hope of one day easing the congestion here.

Just before reaching the south of India, Ravi, a young man from Atlanta came up to me on our flight and asked if we were the ones who uploaded Souljourns video interviews to the internet.  I asked him how he figured that out and he said he had just read the recent Souljourns Facebook posting asking for advice about how to establish a high speed internet connection in Sai Baba's ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam.  Ravi offered several good ideas and we'll see how they work out.

One last tidbit from the flight here.  Somewhere near Afghanistan I looked at my watch to determine how much time remained until we would reach India, but I found that time had stood still.  My watch broke, or the battery died.  Whichever the case, it seemed a tingling reminder of the timelessness of this storied country and of the main occupant of the ashram home whom many claim to be the most visited Swami in history, Sai Baba.  And even though it's been a year and a half since Sai Baba left his physical form, thousands continue to come here, a sign of their respect for the living oneness, Sai Baba's principle spiritual lesson that only God exists, that all of us is part of the Divine Oneness, that all else is maya, illusory.


- Margo Hoagland, Warden of the American of Puttaparthi area, a long time devotee who lives here.  She is one of the first people I met here on our first trip to Parthi.

- Nooshin Mehrabani, whom I referred to above and who promised to sit for her third Souljourns interview while we're here.  She tells me that so very much has changed on her spiritual path, and all of it for the better.

- Gyani Baile.  Anyone familiar with Souljourns interviews knows his name.  The Dow Corning retiree from Midland, Michigan has become a very good friend.  He arrived here a few weeks before us following a series of tests, trials and travel tribulation.  Through it all, he was unflappable.  Jody was once asked to write an introduction for Gyani on the occasion of a talk he gave in Houston, Texas.  In her write up Jody referred to Gyani as a man who is unfettered by anxiety.  Now that he has found self-realization, nothing, not even being in an airplane with a tire that's smoking while the plane was taking off, seems ever rev his pulse.  Gyani will be accompanying us to Hyderabad and maybe a few others places to assist us in getting a few other interviews.  And one thing more about Gyani.  He's a man with many of his own spiritual stories and lessons to tell and I have invited him to share his offerings in our, "Letters From India".  Look for them soon.


- Rupees go for 48 to a dollar these days.
- Breakfast at the South Indian canteen still costs 4 rupees, lunch 10 rupees, that's about 8 and 20 cents each.
- Rooms have gone up.  Where we're staying, a small living room/bedroom, bath and kitchen now goes for $2.00 a night, up from $1.75 which was the price for years.
- Getting here from the Bangalore airport is now faster than ever, less than two hours, but the new highway is a toll road, costing 125 rupees per car.
- And as always, there is no fee to get in to the ashram, no solicitations of any kind for funds is permitted and once you are here your time is entirely up to you.


Old timers often heard Sai Baba say there is no free will.  His actual words went something like this, "You have as much free will as an ass tethered to a hitching post".   I continue to go round and round with this subject, concluding finally that only in maya, illusion, only in the collective dream of our human existence does free will seem to exist.  On this topic Jody read to me aloud on our first day in India something from the new book, "Proof of Heaven", by Eban Alexander, MD. It made me laugh instantly: "We must believe in free will.  We have no choice", by  Isaac B. Singer.


Nothing has changed here in Sai Baba's Abode of Highest Peace whatsoever, but in a way everything has changed.  Jody and I come here without a clue of expectation.  One of Sai Baba's greatest teachings is about non attachment, and more specifically about non attachment to outcome.  What do we expect to discover on this trip, and how might it be different from all the others?  I can't begin to say.  As Nooshin told me today, you come here to discover Divine Essence, you come here to discover God, and in the breath we change in conversation, and in the words, gestures and even in the smiles that emanate from the eyes, we find God.

                                           UNTIL NEXT TIME, SAI RAM
                                                LOVE ALL ~ SERVE ALL

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