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
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
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,
(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
, 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.
, 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
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
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
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
(gifts of sweets for the multitude), then
, 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.