Being from Andhra I had always heard of Sathya Sai Baba from Puttaparthy right from my childhood. One of our close family friends Dr. Sunderam and his wife Dr. Satyabhama were both ardent devotees of Sai Baba and even as far back as in the early eighties I remember they used to frequent Puttaparthy and do some free Sunday clinics in Chennai. I saw many pictures, heard many stories of the God man and his miracles. As a young kid of twelve of thirteen I had no opinion - good or bad - but I certainly knew of him and his influence on my doctor uncle and aunty.
It was sometime in the eighties that there were many scandals associated with the Baba and the ashram. First there was a big expose in one leading newspaper how Baba's miracles were actually just some regular tricks. I saw the pictures and the report and nothing was conclusive about them. Then there were allegations against him by some foreign national who said that the Baba tried to molest him. The biggest scandal of course was that of a murder attempt in Puttaparthy itself in which a few of his devotees were killed. The story was that they tried to kill Baba. Everything went hush hush after that.
The Baba continued to draw devotees despite all this. I now knew more and more people who were devotees of the Baba. Many politicians, film stars, industrialists, cricketers (Gavaskar was one I remember, in those days) were his devotees. His social service projects started getting bigger and bigger until there came a time when he started to do more than what the governments could do for the people. He got the drought prone region of Puttaparthy irrigated in a project that cost something like Rs. 200 crores which the trust footed. I vaguely remember reading that the Tamil Nadu government also sought his help in doing a project like that. A government asking an individual to fund a public project?
Sometime in 2000 or so I went to Puttaparthi because my mother wanted to see the Baba - an old vow she had made. She was not too well by then but she was determined and I knew that Puttaparthi was quite manageable. So with the assistance of my friend Ganesh who was an ardent Baba devotee, me, Shobha and Mom went to Puttaparthi by train. The first thing that struck me was how prosperous that little town was, how many people came to see him. I was amazed at the order that was maintained by volunteers who came from all over India. His sayings, small and interesting quotes with a fine word play, all of them with immense common sense were painted all over. The hospital, the airport, the buildings, the grounds - the architecture itself was like some magical heavenly land. A whole brood of foreigners, VIPs came in and breathed life. Several industries thrived on his and his fame. And what struck me most was the quality of his devotees - the super educated, many of them highly respected doctors, powerful politicians, artists were all doing seva, taking time off from their busy schedules. Puttaparthi ran like clockwork with the aid of mere white clothed, unarmed devotees.
Prashanti Nilayam was an experience because it was so peaceful to just. sit in that hall. At his darshan time the crowds grew hysterical. He looked composed, a trademark gesture of his as if to ask 'So what is happening?', spoke to a few. Everything was deliberate, careful and precise. And then it stuck me that this one God man was holding the faith of millions like this, sitting in his faraway hometown of Puttaparthi. He was holding the faith of several millions across the world. "Baba looked at me", "Baba gave me vibhuthi", "Baba's vibhuthi will cause wonders". There were several tales of how he appeared in people's dreams and gave them precise messages. Several more tales written in books. Tales of how wonderfully incisive his speeches were. How technologically sound he was when he gave the architectural plans for the buildings or how he spoke with ease about complex medical conditions that amazed many doctors.
'I am God,' he declared famously early on. 'And you are also God. Only you don't know it yet.' Baba's quotes are wonderfully simple and only convey the message of universal love, harmony and peace. One look at what he did for people and you know this is not a normal phenomenon. One look at the millions who come to him for guidance and you know that he is certainly not a mere magician as people alleged. One experience of the peace in the ashram is enough to discern that this is not normal either. For us, bred on cynicism and scepticism, who cannot make even our own closest friends and family to come to us unconditionally (or even conditionally), to volunteer one good work for a cause that is not ours, to spend a rupee for public good, to back others, or even ourselves with our faith in the good of humanity - this is a question to ponder about. How and what power did this man have who stayed in that village all his life, build an empire of hope, of selflessness, of excellence and of love, sitting there? And all he did was to preach love all his life.
Puttaparthi again in 2009. It was as peaceful as ever. However the Baba looked very frail, burdened possibly by this immense task of holding up the consciousness of the millions who continuously looked to him for support, answers and even miracles. And it seemed that they never felt let down as they asked the impossible of him. Isn't it amazing to be in a position like that and still fulfill, reassure each frantic call, request. I cannot imagine what would happen to all those who looked to him like a father, a guru, a God. But he has left behind enough for them to carry on for themselves, and even his life and teachings.
If each one of his devotees practices what the Baba preached day in and day out, of living a life of love towards one and all, this world will transform into something else, a paradise we constantly ignore. As for the rest, the non-devotees, doing one thing he taught, and using it well in our lives itself could make one small difference in our life and then the world. One need not believe in Sathya Sai Baba to do good, one just needs to stop being so cynical about anything that is good! .