Charismatic gurus operate as spiritual lightening rods for extreme controversy & devotion. Inevitably cynics will try to defrock such leaders as unscrupulous charlatans while disciples will stridently declare them as illuminated avatars destined to lead all humanity into the New Age. No guru stood longer in this seemingly crazy making swirl of highly charged intense points of view than Sathya Sai Baba. At age 13 when he announced that he was in the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, one of India’s most beloved saints, this youngster was propping himself up onto the fast track to public scrutiny. Even at this age he got noticed for conjuring objects out of thin air & renouncing all worldly relationships. In short order devotees were flocking to him.
In 1999 while traveling through Aurangabad I mentioned that the next stop on my pilgrimage was to sit in darshan with Sai Baba. My host who served as the local police chief asked questioningly, “Shirdi Sai Baba?” to which I innocently said, “No, Sathya Sai Baba.” He replied, “Shirdi!” I could see a tension rising in this man’s reddening face. Again I chimed, “No, Sathya Sai Baba.” Now the police chief raised his voice louder and shouted, “SHIRDI!” What was I supposed to do here? Aurangabad was a pretty out of the way place with no English speakers at the bus stand. So my girlfriend & I needed directions from this man to get on the correct bus. The fact that Shirdi Sai Baba had died 80 years ago seemed to be no impediment to this man. He took a deep breath and explained that Sathya Sai Baba was a complete fraud. In no uncertain terms he warned us that our souls would be in great peril if we exposed ourselves to this black magician. What would you have done in our shoes?
Anne & I got on the bus & made the 3,000 kilometer journey to the Whitefield ashram outside Bangalore. The first time anyone walks through the ashram gates for darshan with a famed Indian guru is going to be startling. Thousands of devotees were crammed into scores of queues lined up side by side in long rows. Men waiting to enter the right of the temple. Women on the left side. I randomly picked a queue in which to stand. Eventually the person at the front of each queue reached into a bag & pulled out a numbered token which determined the order in which devotees filed into the white marble floor mandap. Once given permission to proceed, no one needed to be nudged. In fact, every devotee was sprinting like mad man out of a loony bin. They were hurrying to sit down in the one perfect spot that Sai Baba was likely to pass by. Fortunately I had been clued in enough to park my Mexican blanket down on the edge of a block. The huge room was laid out in many blocks of men and women packed into as close to each other as possible. It was on these edges that devotees had some chance of getting close to Sai Baba and maybe touching him. Or maybe talking to him. Or maybe handing a letter to him. Or, even better, being selected to receive a private darshan with him. To these ashramites this last boon was akin to winning the Power Ball lottery. Nothing was more highly sought after than a private darshan with the guru.
That first morning when Sai Baba entered the mandap, the place was remarkable silent. Everyone was craning their necks to follow his every movement. When he walked, his head did not rise and fall with his steps. Nor was there a gait to his stride. It was as though he was floating across the marble floor at a constant steady velocity until he decided to stop.
Without question I felt a tremendous lifeforce energy (Shakti) radiating from this man. Sometimes devotees feel this energy more when gazing at their guru. For me it was stronger with my eyes closed. Of course I did not consider myself a disciple of this man. And I was not looking for a guru. I’d already had a guru or two who had cracked open my heart. First, Maharesh Mahesh Yogi, as the guru behind TM (Transcendal Meditation) which I had started practicing when I was 15 & continued to practice daily into my college years. And second, Yogi Amrit Desai, as the guru of Kripalu Center back when it was a vibrant ashram with a Shiva-Shakti lineage. My purpose in going to India was to journey like a pilgrim to different high energy places & people to awaken my soul.
When he passed by me, I was surprised by how short the man was. Even with his famous afro, which made him look like a cartoon figure who’d stuck his finger in an electric socket, Sai Baba still looked tiny. Even fragile. He was surrounded by a formidable team of bodyguards. Later I was told it was when Sai Baba walked between the blocks of female devotees that these bodyguards were most prepared for action. Apparently in the past, stampedes of excited women devotees had threatened to trample their guru.
During the few days I spent at the ashram, I thoroughly relished each meditation I shared with Sai Baba. Each time I was fortunate enough to get an edge seat. And each time he walked past me. Once he took a letter I’d written requesting that he release all my samskaras (past life impediments) & bestow his blessing upon me. What always shocked me was how quickly devotees bolted out of the mandap as soon as Sai Baba left. I always lingered long after so I could put my forehead on the marble floor where Sai Baba had walked. Getting as close to the front of the lunch or dinner queue didn’t excite me. Or rushing to shop. I wanted to soak up Sai Baba’s energy for as long as possible.
While I never got that highly sought after private darshan, I can close my eyes today & invoke his presence. When the great gurus die, it is cause of celebration. Not a time of mourning. The great ones become more accessible when let go of their bodies. Try it. Close eyes & ask Sai Baba to fill you with his love. His most famous quote aptly sums up the message of this guru. “Love All, Serve All. Help Ever, Hurt Never.”
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