LETTERS FROM INDIA - #3
DATE: 6 December, 2012, Letter #3
SUBJECT: Still getting adjusted
~ A NOTE FIRST TO THOSE WHO DON'T KNOW OF SAI BABA
Our mailing list for, "Letters from India" include mostly the addresses of those with a love for Holy Man Sri Sathya Sai Baba. For those who are less interested in knowing about our spiritual teacher but still appreciate learning about life in an ashram and wish to continue receiving this newsletter, thanks for your kind responses.
I have often debated with Jody about how best to describe Sai Baba's enormous ashram in Southern India. None of my characterizations of this place ever seemed to work. To describe it as a retreat center or as a monastery simply misses the mark. But now that Sai Baba no longer walks the grounds morning and evening, as he did for 70 years straight (mostly without ever missing a day) when he was alive, people seem to agree that this ashram has become an important pilgrimage destination.
The size of the ashram is huge and is about the size of a major university campus. There are a couple hundred buildings located both inside and adjacent to the ashram grounds.
People ask me who is the successor to Sai Baba. That's a very easy question to answer. Here in the village of Puttaparthi, at Prasanthi Nilayam, which is the name of the ashram there will never be a successor to Sai Baba. Sai Baba is buried here and to visit his grave and the lasting memorial to his home and mission will serve to continue to draw people here from around the world. Additionally, many people who lived here including those who worked with Sai Baba and those who just wanted to be close to him are still here. This is their home and they tell me they never plan to move away. (If anyone has any questions about Sai Baba, please feel free to ask.)
~ THE MAIN EVENT
There is only one main event here and in my last letter I promised I would write about it. There is no easy way to describe a visit to Baba's Mahasamadhi, his grave. On several levels the experience is entirely too personal to discuss, but a small overview of the steps involved can be described. People are allowed to walk up to Sai Baba's tomb, touch it and pray before it for a brief period twice a day. This part of the program is called darshan, being in the presence of a Holy one.
Darshan follows two programs of vedic chants and bhajans, devotional singing. The bhajans end with Aarthi, a flame ritual to the beloved teacher, guide, mother-father, Sai Baba. The spirited singing is accompanied by the ringing of a very loud bell. The flame is held by an old friend, Veda Narayanan who visited Sai devotees in Cleveland several years back. Once the singing ends people pass by Baba's Mahasamahi one by one. Many are given a handful of rose petals as they exit the giant darshan hall.
I sit there everyday picturing Baba walking through the huge crowds, smiling, taking letters, materializing sacred ash and occasionally chatting with those in attendance. After so many years of following this practice it's as if Baba will be walking down the corridors once more, if only we wait a few more minutes.
Darshan is why we are all here and it will be interesting to see how this one experience changes for me as the two months pass by.
A footnote. Sitting next to me on the stone floor was a boy of eight or nine. His posture was perfect and his voice was strong. This child sang every devotional song as if his beloved grand mother were sitting directly in front of him. And maybe 20 yards beyond the boy sat an old man with a blanket over his shoulder with prayerful hands held high. His long dark skinny fingers were silhouetted by the daylight behind him. They would move in rhythm to the singing as the gentleman would occasionally bow his head.
~ TODAY'S NEWS
- The crowds here are getting bigger as Westerners begin arriving for Christmas. Many of you know Tom, the devotee from Australia who has engineered the enormous ashram Christmas decorations project for many years. He is already on the ground supervising all that needs to be done for this years event. I think he said the Crotians will be his primary work force this year.
Over dinner last night at the Western canteen he told me this year's efforts will be a lot different from last year. Christmas 2011 was filled with sadness, he said as most of the people here were still trying to adjust to the loss of Sai Baba. Baba's energy and spiritual presence is still felt, but the pall over this place from a year ago has lifted.
Christmas decorations usually remain up around the ashram until a few days after the holiday but last year the ashram asked Tom to keep them up for several days longer. He feels they might make the same request this year.
- RAIN: The weather is making news this week. It's rained four days in a row, and it's been cool. I have no complaints, except I have no umbrella. No matter, walking through an evening shower as ashram lights reflect off the pathways is magical here. Jody and I tried to remember the last time it rained when we were visiting Prasanthi at this time of the year and we couldn't remember. This is the arid south, after all.
~ JODY'S EXPERIENCES
Jody is meeting old friends each day as well as making many new acquaintances. One day when we were standing outside of the Western canteen Jody spotted a striking tall Indian man coming along the path with long hair and beard and wearing a white lungi, a long skirt like wrap. He also had on a Neru styled jacket with a string of rudraksha beads over it and an orange scarf folded and hung around his neck.
This man caught Jody's eyes with a piercing stare from 50 feet away. As he was walking by, Jody decided to accept his pierce, and as he continued walking he continued his intense eye lock until he finally passed us by about 25 feet. Finally he stopped, turned toward Jody and after a pause he said in a booming voice with his hand help up high, "Be Happy!" Jody then smiled at him and folded her hands and as he wafted towards us very slowly he would continue booming, "Be happy, be cheerful, be confident". It was as if he floated down from a cloud.
In the end we were all smiling. Jody said it was like having beautiful a white puppy walk over to you and give you love. Jody asked for a blessing from this saintly man and he gave one to each of us.
What is your name, we asked? "No name", he said. But he did have a mobile phone number, which he gave to us before leaving.
~ THE GENERAL STORE
Jody told me of an experience we all have at one time or another at Prasanthi. It involves those people who come from foreign places to serve as the sevadals, the ushers, without whom this place would not operate.
Jody had arrived to the general store at the ashram about a half an hour before the doors were to open. She joined about 30 other women sitting on the curb waiting to do their shopping. An old gent who loved Baba was serving as the sevadal for this place on this morning and for some reason he did not care for how the woman were sitting. So, he approached them instructed them all to move about six inches to the left. And then, upon reflection, he decided they should move back to the right maybe another four inches. These are thirty women, from Russia, Germany, America and goodness knows where else, sitting fanny to fanny, moving like a strange chorus line at the command of this gent. An explosion of Russian came out of one of the shoppers. From a German lady Jody heard, "Many rules, no need."
At precisely nine thirty, the whistle blew and the doors opened to the general store. And as the women got up to enter, this man, wearing a familiar blue and white knit hat with a pom pom on top and a strap beneath his chin suddenly chirped, "Line! Line!" The women obeyed, the shopping began. Haven't we all been there?
~ ODDS AND ENDS
- A PERFECT MOMENT: Sometimes there are simple sights of nature here that just sweep you away no matter how many times you have seen them before. Last night while walking home from the village after a light drizzle the air was fresh and cool. The sun had been down for a half an hour or more as I passed through Ganesh Gate inside the ashram. There was a commotion in the sky that caused me to look up as I was walking. What I saw was a portrait in motion, right above my head dozens of super sized black birds flying in an interlocking formation just above the highest palm tree fronds. Black kites, without strings performing figure eights against a cobalt sky. Usually the birds here create their own mighty din, but here, just outside of Baba's temple there was only silence, a silent movie with a dark blue tint only for those who saw it.
- THE STRIKE IS OVER: My 102 degree fever ended after a day and a half and I believe I know what caused it. I spent hours out on the main road in from of the ashram when I first got here arranging for telephone and internet service, all the while plumes of dust were kicked up by cars, tractors, goats and people. The village street cleaners were on strike for several days I was told and the dirt left on the main road was considerable. Been there and done that many times before, but I think this particular dust assault to my respiratory system was just too much too soon.
SERENADE: Late one night walking along the A Block of old buildings, the 3 story string of apartments that face Baba's house I encountered practically no one on the sidewalk. The smaller crowds here allow you to occasionally catch a whole stretch of pathways to yourself. As I was walking I heard a lilting chant coming from an apartment not too far away. The light is spare in front of the A Block which frames all the better the tiny ghee flames placed in bowls that sit at the seat of sacred idols on the path. Just as I was approaching one of those flickering lights I could hear a woman's voice singing her evening praises coming from a darkened room. It was just a brief moment, passing by the woman's doorway, the flame, and rain, and in a language I couldn't understand the sweet sounds of sacred love.
JACK HAWLEY: Happy 80th birthday this week to long long time Sai Devotee, Jack Hawley. For more than 30 years Louise and Jack have spent half a year at Prasanthi and the other half year in California. Right now I believe their both in Hawaii having a dickens of a time tying to imagine how so many years decided to fly by so quickly. Several months ago they stopped by in the RV to visit with us in Seaside, Florida. They were well into a weeks long six or seven thousand mile trek from Palm Springs to the East coast and then to the north and south and west again. More on the success of Jack's books on the Gita at a later time.
~ GYANI BAILE'S OBSERVATIONS
(Gyani is one of our closest friends from America and when he is here he likes to report on important talks and discourses offered at the ashram. Below is his account of November 29, 2012 speech given by Anil Kumar, the man who famously stood beside Sai Baba and provided simultaneous english translations to all of Baba's talks.
Sai Ram to all of you.
- From: Mohan MK Kumar, via Facebook:
Thank you so much for all that information.....I went thru all your experiences with so much of interest, because I wanted to really know all that, it is as if I was waiting for all that about my Prasanthi (our prasanthi) and that came thru you...and thank you so much.
You have written about the evening session details. Is it possible for you to write about the most important time in Prasanthi, the mornings, the OMKAR, SUPRABATHAM, THE NAGARASANKEERTHANAM, THE EARLY POOJA AT THE GANAPATI TEMPLE, all that.
The OM chanting used to be a wonderful experience there in Prasanthi...the OM, the great mantra Swami gave to the whole humanity. The early morning vibrations is still felt of that chanting of the multitudes...and those days we devotees, the sand underneath and the stars above was really an experience, also not forgetting the Masjid call of ALLAHU AKBAR, which Swami bestowed to the muslim friends there........and to me this became the most important factor with my relationship to Swami and Prasanthi Nilayam...
It is as the Bible puts it, the COVENANT that God gave to the mankind...yes, the OMKAR...MANTRA CHANTING to be done in the early mornings, that timings....the early risers, the freshness time to be with the Lord of Lord and King of Kings, without fail...so as to feel the abode of our Great Father and Mother, our only Home. I always felt this is the covenant that He gave to us..to keep the presence going wherever we are, without fail, to feel that ONENESS and the SAMASTHA LOKA....and to pray in unity the "SUKHINO BHAVANTU".
There used to be that deep silence during the chanting of OM, transforming us to a spiritual spiritual awakenings and love......so that's the reason why I asked you, SOULJIURNS, of the morning times in Prasanthi....Thank you again...and from the depth of my heart,,SAI RAM. Years now I continued with that covenant the the LORD gave, not a day skipping the OM, 21 times...carrying my Prasanthi with me.......wherver I am....."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Thank you, Mohan, I will get myself out of bed at 4:30 one day and do just as you invite me to do. Thanks, Ted)
- FROM: JOHN AND JOY BEALS, AUSTRALIA.
Sai Ram Ted & Jody,
I was going to write a rather formal thank you but the truth is, I was on something of a 'high' after reading your letter yesterday. You set it all out beautifully! The jet lag, the drive, the accommodation office - it was a bit like arriving in Puttaparthi ourselves. The detail was very much appreciated because that is so much a part of travelling to Puttaparthi. I hope you are feeling better and that you both remain strong and healthy for the remainder of your stay. For me, a feature of going to Puttaparthi is a most debilitating flu virus.
I never get the flu in Australia but every time we travel to Puttaparthi, after about a week, I go down with a flu virus which knocks me dead. Burning up karma? Despite all the wonderful stories I don't believe it is a breeze for anybody. In the late 90's we arrived at Puttaparthi twice by air (when the airport was operating) once from Chennai and the second time from Mumbai. You may know, seeing Puttaparthi from the air, that amazing cluster of buildings rising out of a barren landscape, is like something out of a Disney movie. Also, Swami's 'tree planting' at Prasanthi Nilayam has given the ashram a never-mentioned quality which is clearly visible from the air.
Particular thanks for the information about the Hotel Presidency (they are probably wondering why their website has had so many hits in the past couple of days). Arriving at the new Bangalore airport late at night has had its own challenges but the Hotel Presidency could help a lot of western travellers (they should have given you complimentary accommodation in exchange for the free promotion). This is not exactly a 'spiritual' exchange but, for us (like you I believe) first arrival at Puttaparthi is a matter of practicalities before the real purpose of the visit can begin.
However, I will leave you with these famous words from Sri Ramana Maharshi which he is said to have spoken to his mother when she went to Arunachala to plead with him to return home: The ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdhakarma. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent. Yes, donkeys on ropes! But please don't remain silent just yet…
Love and Sai Rams to you both. Joy and I greatly, greatly look forward to Letter No.3.
~ GOODBYE - SAI RAM
Thanks for your comments to our first two letters. If you have any questions or comments about this experience called, Prasanthi Nilayam just send it along to us and I'll try to find someone more knowledgeable than myself to answer them.
That's it from here. Feel free to share with others and it's always great hearing from you.
Much love and Sai Ram,
LOVE ALL ~ SERVE ALL