My Journey into the Mystery of India by Fredrica R. Halligan

What is it about dusty feet and sandals that correlates, in my mind at least, with spiritual profundity? Back in the 1960s hearing the music of "Jesus Christ Superstar," I felt suddenly connected with the humanity of Christ. It was the image of his dusty feet in sandals, walking in the desert, that made the reality of the Divine intimately present for me. Dusty feet in sandals is a good image of my recent trip to the subcontinent as well, made in fulfillment of a longing I have had, for close to 40 years, to experience spiritual India. Finally the opportunity arose for a 30-day retreat, and I spent the time in an ashram called Prashanti Nilayam, "The Abode of Highest Peace," in Puttaparthi, a little town in southern India.

After landing in Delhi in the middle of the night, I asked a man in a khaki uniform how to find a taxi to the domestic airport, for the next leg of my journey to Bangalore. Uniformed men seemed to be everywhere. Later I learned that security was particularly tight in Delhi that day (December 14) because there had just been a terrorist attempt to blow up the Indian Parliament building. The attackers and a dozen or so policemen had been killed. Newspaper pictures of grieving relatives aroused in me, coming from the United States, a strong sense of solidarity, as the attack on the World Trade Center had taken place just three months before. It is clear that global unity must include a sense of participation with all humanity-in terror and tragedy as well as in peace and cooperation.

On a pilgrimage every small coincidence is grist for the mill and insight comes by reflecting on the smallest sychronicities. For me, the movie shown on the flight from Delhi to Bangalore was a teaching story; it was a modern rendition of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." As a child growing up in relative poverty, I had been able to identify easily with Tiny Tim; during this trip, as an American in India, I could identify with Ebenezer Scrooge. I could now see clearly how the materialistic worldview in which I have been immersed creates the economic imbalance that is so unjust to the masses of people who live in the third world.

It was close to 9:00 a.m. when our plane landed in Bangalore. As the taxi that I had reserved never arrived, I had to cope with the barrage of all-too-willing helpers, and finally selected a driver named Ram. (Most Indians seemed to be named after one or another of the gods and goddesses.) Seated in the small white sedan, I surrendered to an incomparable visual treat, as southern India unfolded itself before my eyes. It was rush hour in Bangalore and there were, in addition to small cars and colorful rickshaws, motorcycles everywhere. They were invariably driven by men, but some carried women in beautiful saris riding side-saddle on the back. The ladies looked relaxed despite their obvious vulnerability. These were people going off to work, many presumably in the high-tech industries where much of the computer software for the world is produced.

As we reached the open countryside, I saw goats and skinny dogs scavenging for food; tiny thatch roofed shacks and even smaller shrines; hand painted floral decorations on everything; hot, dry landscape; small children playing in the dust, happy as children worldwide can naturally be; older children herding sheep or walking their bicycles to carry large plastic water jugs from well to home; men using bicycles to carry big bundles of sticks; women carrying huge bundles on their heads; chickens and roosters running free; sacred cows munching undisturbed.

Some of the little white Hindu shrines were just large enough to hold a statue and a small platform for flower offerings. More imposing was the one Muslim mosque I saw, complete with an array of Moorish arches and irrigated gardens. The Catholic presence was sparse-just one large church- but obvious in the orderly groups of school children in uniform. Just before arriving at Puttaparthi, I saw a huge white statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, gracing the side of the road. A large shrine to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, stood near the pedestrian gate to the ashram.

Prashanti Nilayam is the ashram of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who is believed by his millions of devotees to be an incarnation of the Divine. I had heard and read many stories about him (see Seeds of Unfolding, Vol XVI, No. 3), but had no idea what to expect of an ashram. This one held over 20,000 worshippers and could sleep thousands in its simple dormitory rooms and large sleeping sheds. I was assigned to a room for eight, where I was the only American. At various times over the course of the month, I roomed with women from Poland, Yugoslavia, Great Britain, South Africa, Malaysia, Russia and Canada. If we could not find an interpreter, we used sign language to express ourselves. Five hundred of us could be accommodated at one time in each of three canteens, men on one side and women on the other. The meals were vegetarian, low cost and nutritious. In this setting I happily adjusted and began my retreat.

The retreat was somewhat like the retreats I have known back in the United States, but on a grand scale. There was silence, time for meditation, teachings, cold showers and manual work. We learned to listen to the Seva Dals, who told us what to do and where to go, what we could not do, wear or carry. Seva, work for the benefit of others, is encouraged by the official ashram teachings, but is strictly voluntary. Once I had overcome jet lag, I began by drying dishes: hundreds of divided steel plates. That was my favorite manual work because it was an opportunity to work side-by-side with an international contingent of women who were all working freely in service of one another and for the welfare of the entire ashram. Sometimes we sang together as we worked. One woman told me that last Christmas they had served over a thousand dinners and she had been the only dish washer! I enjoyed all the multi-national gatherings. I even joined the Christmas choir-600 men and women from around the world, singing carols in English and songs of praise that were often in Sanskrit. This too was considered seva or service.

Life in the ashram was very structured, but there were no mandated activities. On some mornings I joined the devotees, who began the day at 3:30 am. We woke up, showered and waited in line for omkar. While waiting we could hear the separate bands of women and men who began devotional singing at the Ganesha shrine and then processed around the ashram, singing bhajans (songs of praise) in Hindi or Sanskrit to the lively accompaniment of tambourines and clapping hands. The power of the mystical moment was first felt in these predawn, chanting processions. The vibrations of the music provided a ready induction to a gently altered state of consciousness. At 4:30 am, the lines began to enter the mandir, the most sacred inner space of the temple. Somewhere, a bell was rung. The lights went out. Guttural and deep, 21 "Oms" were chanted, to the accompaniment of a little drumbeat.

Following omkar, breakfast was served, and after breakfast the schedule called us to enter the huge darshan hall, where thousands of people gathered to see Sai Baba twice each day. At 9:00 am, lilting music began and people craned their necks to get their first glimpse of him. He opened the door of his residence and entered the darshan hall, a little man, dark-skinned and elderly, with a great "poof" of Afro-style hair and wearing a simple orange robe that reached to his bare feet. He walked slowly, a little stooped. He exuded peacefulness and love. He stopped to take letters from the people near the aisle, and sometimes exchanged a few words with his devotees seated there. Unpredictably, he might joke, occasionally reprimand, invite a devotee or a group in for a private interview or materialize vibhuti (sacred ash) or some piece of jewelry as a special gift and blessing.

There is no scientific explanation for the materializations and other miracles attributed to Sai Baba. I, like other scientists, went in wondering, "What is this all about?" and came away convinced that Sai Baba is no phony. I personally saw vibhuti pouring from his hand, and I experienced the intense bliss that arises when he flashes his smile and raises his hand in blessing. His love is palpable and potent. The love his people have for him is equally intense. One bit of scientific evidence there is: Kirlian photography has revealed his aura to be enormous, predominantly silver and gold, the spiritual colors. The energy that pervades his being seems to be what draws so many people to him and makes them feel blessed by just being in his presence.

While waiting in line or sitting in the darshan hall, the natural activity for one on retreat is meditation. I chose to do a mantra meditation, aiming to come as close as possible to the Biblical injunction to "pray unceasingly." The mantra I chose, called by Sai Baba the "king of the mantras," was the Sanskrit phrase "Vaasudevassarvam," meaning "All this is God!" All circumstances -whether joyful or challenging -are experienced in a new light when "All this is God" accompanies our life's journeys.

Sai Baba teaches that the Atman or sacred life within each of us is the same as the Transcendent Deity. In essence all is One-union with the Divine is a natural fact of life. We, as limited human beings, are simply not aware of the sacred nature of our innermost being. He speaks to the longing in all human hearts for an available, yet universal God. In his presence, these concepts become more real. For me, experiential awareness gradually began to dawn. It seems that the energy of Spirit ennobles and enriches the life of the pilgrim to Prashanti Nilayam.

The energy of Sai Baba did not overwhelm me at first, as I had thought it might. I came back from my first darshan thinking: "Is this all there is?" But by the end of one week, I was writing in my journal: "This morning after darshan I noticed significant energy in my back, starting at the adrenals and stretching up, more and higher on the right than on the left. What I most appreciate is the early morning time alone. Today I reflected on how my life may be changing and how to incorporate Sai Baba with what I already know." By the end of a month I knew that the subtle energies and feelings of bliss that I had been accumulating would be with me forever. Life for me can never again be quite the same as it was "before India."

On Christmas day Sai Baba gave a discourse. His energy was heightened a thousand-fold and he seemed to shed 20 years. He sang a bhajan first and then spoke of Jesus. To celebrate the birth of Jesus one should practice his teachings, Sai Baba taught. He spoke too of the Buddha and the importance of universal compassion. After his discourse, there was prasad (gifts of sweets for the multitude), then bhajans, even more lively than the usual afternoon devotional singing. We went away elated-a huge crowd of people fully energized by his powerful spirit.

Many more personal experiences touched me during my month-long retreat in India. I came away healthier and stronger than I had been, and brought back an expanded worldview for which I am most grateful. My spiritual life had deepened and I felt a stronger commitment to ongoing service and care for others. While I found it difficult to return to our materialistic culture, I must admit the greatest luxury I appreciated when I arrived at the hotel in Delhi was a hot bath to soak clean my dusty feet.