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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Destination Puttaparthi and Sai Baba

Sometime back, I had to go to Bangalore, India, for official work. Unexpectedly, the work was completed before time and I got a few days to look around and sightsee. ‘Garden City,’ more famous today as an IT city world over, offered good spots to visit but I chose a destination four hours drive away -------- Puttaparthi. In this town is Prashanthi Nilayam or Abode of Supreme Peace ----- Abode of Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

In that sunny afternoon under a clear blue sky, raring to go, I board one of the daily tourist buses that leaves every hour to Puttaparthi. Thumped and sunken in a cosy seat, a calm voice greets me, ‘Sai Ram’ along with soothing cool air of AC. Reciprocating ‘Sai Ram’ to my co-boarder, I look in all directions and find the bus saturated with Sai devotees. We are all going to Prashanthi Nilayam. We are in the same bus.

Once on the outskirts of Bangalore, I recline to ease despite my maiden visit. A heavy south Indian lunch begins to show its dozing effect. Coupled with the smooth, straight ride as the bus moves on Bangalore- Hyderabad highway, I am at the threshold of sleep. There is a kannada movie playing on video to my uninterest. Soon it is replaced by a Sai video. Chanting of devotees of grace and glory of Sai Baba easily fits the visuals. A little later, devotional songs about Baba follows in unison. Regaining my waking state, I look out of the window and a hot sunny day beams outside.

The bus stops briefly for snacks and refreshments at about half way. Once on the road again, hymns, prayers and bhajans pour out of devotional hearts, their sights on screen face of Baba for a darshana. After turning right and leaving behind Hyderabad road, we head towards Puttaparthi. Apart from a small airport utilized for organisational works of Sai ashrama, Sai schools, colleges providing free education and a well equipped modern Sai Speciality hospital providing free treatment stand proud on the way, materialization of Baba’s ideas and ideals. He has said our service to humanity is more valuable than service to god since He doesn’t really need it.

Eventually the bus stops at a stone’s throw from main gates of Prashanthi Nilayam. I get out and immediately feel the hot weather. Bangalore was a lot cooler like Kathmandu. As I enter the ashrama of Supreme Peace, a small, beautiful Ganesha temple glitters in the softening daylight beside greenery of plants and trees with flowers and fruits in abundance along with insects, birds and small animals, not to speak of a sense of wonder on one’s part. On the right is the huge Kulwant Hall where Baba speaks and gives darshana. It is evening and swami, as he is affectionately called, would be here any minute. I hastily keep my bag in nearby cloak room and proceed toward the hall barefoot. Getting past security check, I sit on the smooth floor at a small corner of the packed hall from where I see Baba’s seat from the side, in profile, about ten meters away. When Baba would sit, I would see him in that view. Inside the hall could be seen people from all walks of life and all over the world converging to take a glimpse of swami. Nearby the seat, pundits recite veda mantras. Another group sing devotional songs in succession. We are all waiting for Baba.

I look around the durbar like hall to find its grand architecture studded with ornate pillars and ceilings, paintings, frescoes and idols of different deities. Within a few minutes, a reverberating sound of a conch shell and mantric chants fill the atmosphere indicating Baba’s arrival. Many in front rows through where Baba would pass are chanting and praying aloud. Suddenly, a small red car slowly enters the hall amidst celebrations. Baba, wearing a red robe and looking frail, appears on front seat smiling, waving and blessing. Since he is ill and old (he is 81), he no longer walks through rows of devotees. The vehicle stops close to his usual seat and attendants hold him out on a portable car-seat. Few moments elapse and a radiant Baba gazes around the audience from his seat. People are overwhelmed in tears and joy to see their beloved swami. I see him from side angle and prostrate. Next, he turns in our direction and I am able to see him in a clear, frontal view. My first impression is of a cute, little child like old man whose innocent baby face emerges like a full moon. I have darshana. An aarati song begins after a while and at the end of it, Baba proceeds to leave. We prostrate again and in the back of my mind, I am eager to have a morning darshana.

I collect my belongings from the cloak room and get a room inside Prashanthi Nilayam. Many have come to be cured of their ailments in Sai Hospitals for free. I myself meet a few from Nepal. Some have bypass surgery done successfully and others are being cured by medication.

It was Baba who transformed a once dry remote village of Puttaparthi, abundant with naked hills and inhabitating scorpions, lying on the bank of Chitravati river into a modern town equipped with basic facilities such as drinking water, sewage and irrigation. Charity works concentrate on health, food, education for the less privileged, weak and poor. Truth, love, service and peace are his messages to the world. The very name Sathya means truth, love is his essence, service is his nature and peace his abode.

Prashanti Nilayam or ashrama is spread over a large area. A few minutes hike up to one of the hills and a breathtaking view appears from vantage point. Within magnificent Puttaparthi, ashrama is a gem of a place, a jewel in the crown, like the Kohinoor in Queen’s crown. Inside, you find scores of buildings, temples, gardens and lawns reached via concrete passages and lanes where volunteers are on duty to help. There are also snacks and refreshment stores, shopping center, bookstore, audio video store and so on. In short, it is sort of a commune and Baba resides in a beautiful house close to Kulwant hall.

Cool breeze highlights the advent of a pleasant evening. One can roam around the incredible ashrama for hours or can sing evening bhajans and participate in aarati. Or you can worship god of your choice from amongst wonderful temples of Ganesha, Mahalaxmi, Gayatri, Narayana, Shiva, Durga, Hanuman and so forth. You can also attend Baba’s video screening, spiritual discourses by learned wise devotees from all over. I opt for a stroll around the ashrama.

It is a festive atmosphere. Greetings of Sai ram resonate the air. Volunteers are everywhere. In fact, they are backbone of the organization. They work in Kulwant hall, administration, cafeteria, and so on. Even institutions outside the ashrama such as schools, colleges, hospitals depend heavily on them. These are personification of Baba’s ideal of selfless service.

Later in the evening I visit library and book store. Sai is vast and so is his literature. It is translated into many languages all over the world. By eight o’clock, I have dinner and retire to my room. Water, incense and a match are there on a table to perform puja. Swami blesses from posters on walls. At one instance, he is shown together with an old, gray bearded Shirdi Sai Baba. The older Sai is regarded as Sathya Sai’s previous incarnation who brought godliness to Shirdi (Near Nasik, India), his abode and its people.

In bed, I ponder about the teaching of swami. His message is simple and clear both in form and content. According to him, every one of us though apparently limited, human is in fact unlimited, divine. Our real nature is not of a sorrowful, weak individual but of a joyful consciousness. The trinity of thought, speech and action should always be in harmony with one goal ------- Self-realisation.

With these thoughts, I go to sleep in anticipation of a morning darshana.

Early in the morning, I get ready and proceed toward the hall to participate in ‘Suprabhatam’ which is group singing at dawn in praise of Baba asking him to wake up, shower us his grace and compassion, guide us at all times, good or bad and free us from our suffering. Also, devotees in a procession sing, hail and play musical instruments inside the ashrama. This is called “Nagar Sankirtana.”

At seven, I have breakfast in the cafeteria, come back alongside a white sea of hustle bustle since devotees mostly wear white outfits and enter the hall. This time, I get to sit on front row. To my left are people with names of their respective nations written on their clothes while on my right, school children in uniform are sitting quietly with folded little hands in reverence. Beyond a demarcation, women devotees are also awaiting eagerly for a glimpse of their beloved Baba. Across from me straight, Baba’s seat is clearly visible. In minutes, his vehicle arrives and slowly moves in front of devotees at a snail’s pace. It stops once in a while and they get to prostrate, talk to Baba on the front seat and even hand in their letters to him thru the open window. Some are visibly in tears. Children chant baba! swami!! When the car comes within a few feet of my row, Baba is in my vision, in focus. I fold hands in Namaskaram ……………; is this darshana? A sense of wonder fills me.

Finally, the car comes to a halt so that Baba is helped to his seat. He sits gracefully, blessing profusely to all. Bhajans continue in full swing. Swami talks to school children who come to touch his feet in respect, in worship. He later gives audience to various people, listen to their problems. At nine thirty almost two hours after his entry, swami leaves the hall waving in his car toward residence.

In the afternoon after a light south Indian lunch, I check out. Spontaneously, I hum the last line of “Hotel California” by The Eagles ---------- you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. The unplanned visit to Puttaparthi has been a pleasant and fulfilling one, nothing short of a pilgrimage. A visit that renews, recharges and revitalizes, for days to come.

Main Gate Entrance to Kulwant Hall

Sai Baba


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