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IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
16 January 2004

Sketches of a Devotee's Pre-Krsna Conscious Life in India

Back in the late 1980's I tape-recorded a series of interesting stories told me by an Indian devotee, whom I shall not name to protect his privacy. These stories relate his life as a young man from a South Indian smarta brahmin family, and trace how he gradually turned away from material life to Krsna consciousness. What you will read below begins in Tirupathi, Andhra Pradesh, after he had donned the attire of a sadhu and vowed to renounce the world before the Deity of Sri Venkateshvara.

I walked the rest of the distance to Tirupathi town and stopped at the Govindaraja Swami Perumal, another beautiful Vaisnava temple.

The taxi stopped at the bottom of the hill next to a huge statue of Hanuman. Everyone got out, they to eat at a roadside kitchen and I to begin my wanderings as a mendicant. I walked the rest of the distance to Tirupathi town and stopped at the Govindaraja Swami Perumal, another beautiful Vaisnava temple. I stood before the Deity with my palms pressed together before my chest. "Now I am finished with material life", I vowed. "Now my spiritual life must begin. "

As I left Govindaraja, it crossed my mind that I knew precious little about spiritual life except that as a swami, I should beg for my needs. I had so much to learn, and needed someone to learn it from.

Nearby I noticed a police station. I walked in, found a well- built, mustachioed inspector at his desk and sat down in front of him. He looked up and, seeing my sadhu dress, asked respectfully, "How can I help you?" I noticed a portrait of Sai Baba on the wall of his office and took this as an opportunity. "I want to go to Baba's ashram. How can I get there from here?" I saw many more Sai Baba photos under the inspector's glass desktop cover.

I stood before the Deity with my palms pressed together before my chest. "Now I am finished with material life", I vowed. "Now my spiritual life must begin. "

He brightened visibly when I mentioned Sai Baba and enthusiastically replied, "Go by bus from here to Anantapur, then change buses there for Bukkapatnam, where you catch the bus for Put- taparthi. Baba's Prashanti Nilayam is in Puttaparthi. "

I thanked him. After a hesitant pause I took the first step in my new life as a mendicant by asking, "Would you kindly help me in meeting the expense for this journey?"

He beamed even more. "Oh, I am very happy to send someone to Sai Baba, the avatar of the modern age. But I have nothing here. Just go down the road until you see a shop called Srinivas Wines. My wife works there--you tell her I sent you for bus fare to Prashanti Nilayam and she will be most happy to give it to you. "

Following his directions, I soon came to a shop called 'Srinivas Wines' that shelved a great assortment of bottled liquor. The walls behind the shelves were mirrored to make the stock look twice as voluminous. In the back, under a framed and garlanded color poster of Lord Srinivasa, sat a fat lady in a sari. I stepped inside and greeted her with "Sai Ram", the motto used by the Baba's followers. She returned the "Sai Ram" and politely gave me a seat. I told her why I'd come and she was very moved. Opening a drawer, she took out a wad of notes and placed it in my hand.

"May I send somebody to get the ticket for you and bring you to the bus?" she asked humbly, eager to do more service. "No need," I replied dismissively, getting into the feel of a swami's detached aplomb. "Your husband's directions will be sufficient. " As I stood up to leave, I momentarily saw my face reflected among the wine bottles. My Vishnu tilaka had rubbed off, and with my big turban and confident air, I looked like the famous Swami Vivekananda.

The way to Prashanti Nilayam proved to be rough. I got on the Anantapur bus at 5:30 PM and it drove the whole night before arriving at the last stop, several hours behind schedule. From there I caught a southbound bus to Bukkapatnam, bouncing for 50 kilometers more on a hard narrow seat. The ride from Bukkapatnam to Puttaparthi was mercifully short.

The sun-drenched country town of Puttaparthi enjoyed a measure of notoriety even before the advent of its resident mystagogue Sai Baba. In olden times it was a place of cobra worship. On the top of a hill called Uravakonda sits a huge boulder in the shape of a hooded serpent; legend has it that whoever is bitten by a snake from this place will never recover.

The sun-drenched country town of Puttaparthi enjoyed a measure of notoriety even before the advent of its resident mystagogue Sai Baba. In olden times it was a place of cobra worship. On the top of a hill called Uravakonda sits a huge boulder in the shape of a hooded serpent; legend has it that whoever is bitten by a snake from this  place will never recover.

I arrived at Satya Sai Baba's Prashanti Nilayam ('Abode of Perfect Peace') to cries of "Please have mercy, give, give" from a large group of ragged beggars sitting outside the front gate. Past them, flocks of well-heeled people crowded into the compound; that meant Sai Baba was here now. I viewed this scene with decidedly mixed feelings.

"He is supposed to be God", I considered, "and his followers say he has the power to remove misfortune, disease and poverty--so why are these beggars loitering here just outside his own house? And if his disciples are really so blessed, why don't they do something more for these poor people than just throw coins?"

With these misgivings, I entered the spacious and rather beautiful ashram compound. In the middle stood Sai Baba's residence, a large apricot-colored building called the Mandir; before it, on a stretch of sandy soil called the 'darshan area', perhaps a thousand people sat on their haunches in rows, waiting for Sai Baba to appear on the upper-floor balcony. Beyond the crowd was a round, roofed stage, the Shanti Vedika. Nearby that, I saw many pilgrims camped in large open sheds.

Other buildings, arrayed around the compound wall, faced the Mandir, among them a small hospital. I'd heard that just by eating the holy ash (vibhuti) that Sai Baba mysteriously produces from his hand, the diseases of the faithful were cured. Reading the sign listing the visiting hours of the doctors, I wondered why, if he had the power to cure with ash, he needed a hospital staffed with Western-trained physicians.

A big, bearded and bright-turbaned Sikh came walking past the darshan area. I fell in step with him and asked where he was going. He was on the way to the canteen to get something to eat. We got to talking; he asked me about myself, and I told him I'd left everything for spiritual life. "I am searching for God," I said with a mild smile, "so I came to see if God is really here. "

He flashed a mischievous grin. "Well, I don't believe in any of these so-called avatars, but I happened to be on business nearby and somebody told me Sai Baba is God, so I just dropped in here to see what this God is up to. " He chuckled. Then he looked at me quizzically and asked, "You have no money?"

"No", I replied.

Stopping, he held up a forefinger and declared sonorously, "Don't worry, God is here, and he will NOT feed you. " We both burst out laughing.

Still laughing, I said, "Well, God may not feed me, but you're here, so why don't you buy me breakfast?"

"Oh, no problem", he exclaimed heartily. Slapping me on the back, he lead me into the canteen. "What's your name?"

"Swami Atmananda. "

"Oh, you're a swami?"

"Yes, I just became swami yesterday. " We had another big laugh.

The canteen served the usual South Indian fare of idli, dosha and sambar. I was ravenous, and the Sikh was obliging. "Eat up," he urged, ordering more doshas for me, "because God won't feed you, and I'm leaving in half an hour. Whatever you want, you take. Don't worry. " I packed it in, and he paid for it happily.

Coming out of the canteen, he pointed me to the inquiry office, telling me if I had any questions, I could get them answered there. We bade each other fond farewells. Then I entered the office and browsed through some of the books on display there. From a volume of his lectures on the Ramayana, I gleaned that Sai Baba's teachings consisted of standard Advaitist platitudes and little else. Advaita philosophy, the de rigueuer of all popular Hindu gurus, was something I'd studied extensively but grown bored with. I was not impressed.

Putting the book back, I asked a man in the office if there was a room I might have. This gentleman, Mr. N. Kasturi, turned out to be the chief assistant to Sai Baba in Prashanti Nilayam. He answered my question by quoting the prices of guest facilities.

"But I have no money. I want to stay here for two weeks. Can't you give me a place to live?"

"I am so sorry," Kasturi answered with resigned finality, "but we don't have such arrangements. If you wish to stay for free, you may kindly move into the pilgrims' sheds. "

I changed the subject. "I'd like to see Sai Baba. Is there a way to do that?"

"Oh," he smiled benevolently, "seeing God is not so easy. Just have a look here. . . " he motioned towards the darshan area where the crowd sat expectantly in the sun. "Today they've been waiting for two hours. Some have been here for months, not leaving. No one knows when he will come down to see them. It is all divine. "

Leaving Mr. Kasturi, I entered the darshan area and sat down in in one of the rows. On my right was a Chettiar (a member of the Tamil merchant community). He started telling me about a daughter of his who could not speak; he'd left home and business "to get the God to give her a voice. I've been here seven days-- no darshan! My time has not come. I don't know what I will do now. " His lips quivered and he abruptly turned away, his eyes brimming with tears.

I'd come to Shanti Nilayam out of curiosity, not faith, and did not relish the prospect of sitting the whole day uselessly in the sun like this man had been doing for a week. I stood up and left the compound through the gate. After aimlessly walking around Puttaparthi for a while, I found myself on a sandy road facing some newly whitewashed buildings. One was a cloth shop that had a 'Lodging' sign above a side entrance. Inside were four rooms for rent. Not seeing anyone, I sat down on the steps outside.

Mulling over how gullible these Baba followers seemed to be, I wagered to myself that the only power one needed to control such people was quick-wittedness. Just then a man came out of one of the rooms as if to leave. To test my theory, I greeted him with "Sai Ram. " He echoed my greeting.

I asked him, "What are you doing here and what prayer do you have?"

At once startled and fascinated by my cryptic question, he knelt down next to me and asked excitedly, "Where is Swami from?"

Deliberately inscrutable, I replied: "Swami is from wherever he is. Just tell me--what is your prayer?"

He was flustered. "Oh, but Swami knows my prayer. "

I gazed at him stonily. "That may be, but still we should say our prayers openly. "

He was trembling when he answered. "I am doing a big business, and I am not sure what is the outcome, so I need blessings. "

I paused, mysteriously surveying the sky as if consulting the gods. Then riveting him again with my eyes, I asked, "What time do you go for darshan?"

"Oh, I was thinking of going now, but I've heard there are so many people. I have tried six times to see Baba. I'm not complaining, you understand, it must be my sinful karma, but my time has not come. "

I said with finality, "I want to go with you for darshan. Now tell me--where are you staying?"

"I am staying here. The owner of this shop is my relative. "

"I want to stay with you. I have no place. "

"Oh, certainly! I should be very happy to have a swami stay with me. Swamis don't often come here, because they don't understand that Baba is God. Only very rarely is it revealed to them that the God they are seeking is Sai Baba. So you please come with me. "

He took me into his room and asked about my bags. I answered distainfully, "The whole world is my bag. " I refreshed myself and took a light nap. Then we both went to the darshan area.

We sat down in the first row. I could not help but think how foolish all this was: "If these people think that they can't see Sai Baba because their time hasn't come, then who is more powerful, time or him?"

Suddenly Sai Baba appeared on the balcony, holding up his right palm in the abhaya-mudra blessing. I observed him intently. After seeing how easy it was to influence his disciples, I wanted learn more. Somewhere in the back of my mind a plan was brewing.

He was a very small man. His trademark frizzy hairdo formed a black halo around his face. Wearing a longsleeved iridescent orange silk gown that reached to the floor, he flitted downstairs like a wraith. He moved ever nearer to me along the first row, taking letters from people and holding them in his left hand. I watched his walk, his gestures, his facial expressions. Finally he went past on to the end.

I noted that as he went down the row he motioned a few people to stand. Mr. Kasturi quickly gathered them in a group.

Without going on to the seven rows behind, Sai Baba came back the same way. He stopped in front of my new roommate and looked at him closely. My friend stared back goggle-eyed, his Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. Abruptly Sai Baba turned away from him and looked at me, motioning with his finger that I should stand. I really didn't know what was going on, because this was my first time here.

My friend was bursting with excitement: "Oh, you have been called! Baba has granted your interview! Please, can you mention my case to him? Ask a blessing for me!" As I got up, he touched my feet. Kasturi directed me to join the other chosen ones.

Meanwhile Sai Baba passed swiftly through the other rows, almost as if he was floating. After finishing, he came back our way and nodded to Kasturi, saying in Telegu, "Send them up. " Then he went upstairs.

With Kasturi at the lead of our group, we ascended the stairs right behind Sai Baba. As he reached the top, Sai Baba dropped the letters into a waiting trash bin. Then he turned left and went inside his quarters. Kasturi showed us into the interview room on the right. There were six of us. We sat down on sofas to wait.

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