Sathya Sai Baba in his mid-50s, during the time I stayed with him, 30 years ago
The white objects are letters he's holding in his hand. Many simply prayed to him for help but those who liked to put their requests and thanks to him in letters would offer them to him as he passed near them in the darshan line. He didn't accept all letters, which often prompted the authors to re-think and reformulate their request or decide that his answer to a request was "No" or "Wait."
The letter ritual also served a practical purpose. Silence was to be observed while Sai Baba gave darshan unless he inititated a conversation, which wasn't an easy rule to enforce if people sitting on the darshan line had a very urgent request. So instead of calling out to Baba, they could hold up a letter.
Regarding his hair style -- while it's unremarkable to moderns it scandalized Indian society in the 1940s and continued to do so for many years. By leaving his hair au natural, i.e., by refusing to slick it down with pomade or oil to hide that it was the hair of someone with African heritage, he was flying in the face of color prejudice on the Indian subcontinent, which first the Mogul rulers then the British Raj had exploited.
While the society that Sai Baba was born into in 1926 could accept Yogis, saints and 'miracle workers' who had swarthy skin, white or a tasteful shade of blue was (and still is) the color used to depict the skin of a god and human avatars of Vishnu, the god representing preservation, and the gods are never represented with frizzy hair. So Indians rolled their eyes in mortification and exasperation when the swarthy-skinned, frizzy-haired Sathya Sai Baba announced that he was the latest avatar of Lord Vishnu and the embodiment of the god of destruction, Lord Shiva, and in fact the embodiment of the lord of the entire freakin' universe.
If only the lord of the universe would use hair pomade, was the thought of many early Indian devotees of Sai Baba.
Yet Sai Baba's decision to leave his hair in its natural state shouldn't be seen as the vanguard of the 'Black is Beautiful' movement; it was to announce that he intended to restore what was beautiful about the ancient past -- a past in which sages didn't pay attention to the state of their hair.
A good metaphor to describe India when Sathya Sai Baba arose is the story of how residents of a village called Harappa used perfectly uniform bricks they found lying around in some old ruins to build with. The same bricks were found and used as ballast in 1856 by the British engineers John and William Brunton, who were tasked with laying the East Indian Railway Company line connecting the cities of Karachi and Lahore.
Those bricks and those old ruins turned out to be part of the incredible Indus Valley Civilization. Serious excavations didn't start until the 1920s but as more of the civilization was dug up linguists, historians, archeologists, anthropologists, religious activists and everyone else with a nag in the race squabbled about the enthnicity, language, religion and genesis of the civilization. (The squabbles continue to this day.)
The use of building materials from an ancient civilization to shore modern structures was the story of India's life, where the artifacts and rituals of ancient times were manifested in the present but with their true meanings long forgotten.
The task is always to rescue the best of the past and leave behind the rest. Yet this restoration project takes precise knowledge of the ancient truths and the ability to demonstrate to human nature that amidst the riot of wise men and religious sects, all purporting to possess the truth of truths, the restorer has the requisite knowledge. Human nature, which delights in deflating a know-it-all, is not as easy a sell as many would believe.
Once, a ranking monk in a Vajrayana Buddhist lineage mocked Sathya Sai Baba's materialization of objects. The monk told me that any garden-variety Yogi could perform the same feats. Then, waving his hand in imitation of the circular motion that Sai Baba often made to presage a materialization he told me, "I can do the same things if I practice."
Let him try to practice this:
Pandemonium in the Abode of Perfect Peace
When all the chits had been drawn a volunteer nodded at me after I showed that I held the chit with Number 1. I stood and the rest in my row followed as another volunteer ushered me onto the temple grounds to the Block A area I described in the first part of this essay. Block A was formed at a right angle to the temple. As I was the first person in line there would be no one sitting on my right. I sat down cross-legged on the sand. Lynn, who'd been the second person in line after me, took her seat to the left of me. Then we waited for the rest of the darshan lines to enter the grounds and settle themselves.
"He's looking at you," whispered Lynn.
That he was. After walking out of the temple Sathya Sai Baba had spent an unusually short time speaking with visitors seated on the temple's verandah, then he'd turned and looked straight at me. Then, instead of heading for the men's side of the darshan lines as was his usual routine, he'd stepped off the verandah on the women's side. Then with an exaggerated slow walk he'd headed in my direction, his jaws working.
Lynn hissed, "What's he chewing? Betel nut?"
Sai Baba's cheeks distended as he worked his tongue around what was clearly a big wad of something in his mouth, while all the time he slowly sauntered toward where I was sitting.
Lynn giggled, "Oh no!"
"Yes he would."
"You still have time to leave," she whispered.
"I'm not going to let him run me off the darshan line; besides, he'll just clip me in the back with it if I turn and run."
"What are you going to do then?"
"When he throws it I'll fall to my right," I whispered. That meant the woman behind me would get the spitball between the eyes but that would be Sai Baba's problem.
Sai Baba's saunter had slowed to a snail's pace as he busied himself with the wad in his mouth, which seemed as big as a golf ball. I began to lose my nerve.
"I can't watch this anymore or else I'm going to run," I whispered to Lynn. "Do me a favor. I'm going to close my eyes. When he starts to throw the spitball say, 'Duck!' and I'll fall out of range."
"Make sure you watch him like a hawk because he'll be quick with the throw."
With the plan in effect there was nothing to do but wait.
"It looks like he's finished mashing it up."
I hadn't asked for the blow-by-blow but I didn't want to distract the lookout by saying anything.
"He's raising his arm. Now he's putting his hand to his mouth -- DUCK!"
I flung the upper part of my body onto the sand to my right but I wasn't quite quick enough. I still had my eyes shut but I could feel the spitball, which felt much smaller than a golfball, bounce off my shoulder and land in my lap.
At that second a bird flew directly above and dropped what must have been a terminal load of diarrhea on my head.
As the runny poop oozed onto my face I tried, all at the same time, to shriek for help, shriek at Sai Baba and shriek at Lynn to get the spitball off me.
I was dimly aware that pandemonium had broken out in Block A as everyone tried to discover what was happening in the front row of the darshan line.
"This isn't a movie! I am going to be blinded by bird shit -- get that spitball off me," I yelped with my eyes still squeezed shut.
The darshan line sprang into executive action. Lynn grabbed the spitball and I felt myself being lifted by several hands then led off the temple grounds amidst much sympathetic clucking. I was led to a fountain, where Indian ladies took turns sacrificing clean handkerchiefs to the chore of cleaning the shit off my face while I vented my rage.
"The lord of the universe is a two-year old," I sputtered. "This explains everything."
"What's going on?"
Victoria's voice. Lynn started to explain then the laughter she'd been struggling to swallow burst into gaffaws.
"It's not one bit funny. Throwing a spitball at an innocent woman on his own temple grounds," I snapped.
Through laughter that sounded oddly close to sobs she cried, "Here is the spitball Sai Baba threw at you. Look at it! Look!"
When I wouldn't open my eyes she grabbed my hand and thrust something into it while crying out, "Look! It's candy! A sweet for the sweet!"
I opened my eyes a slit. There was a piece of candy in a prettily-decorated cellophane wrapper.
"Was there any spit on it?"
"There was no spit on it! He must have palmed it or materialized it at the last second," she cried. "There was no spitball! He faked you out," and with that she doubled with laughter. The laughter was tinged with an emotion I couldn't place.
Lynn and Victoria walked me to my room then I agreed to meet them at Raju's after I'd cleaned myself up.
From one nonexistent spitball many lessons
As I washed my hair, bathed and changed into clean clothes I pondered the incident on the darshan line and reviewed the events leading up to it.
Victoria had arrived late for darshan, as usual, and as usual stood behind the low wall that separated Block A on the temple grounds from the rest of the ashram. But by then people in the back rows of Block A had jumped up to see what was happening at the front, blocking her view.
So by doing things her way and flouting the rules for darshan attendance she'd missed out on an incident which involved her to some extent. Moreover, she'd missed seeing Sathya Sai Baba in a very rare mood. During his youth he'd been a prankster but while he'd retained his sense of humor he'd showed it less and less on the darshan lines in recent years.
More importantly, she had missed the satisfaction of seeing that Sai Baba had agreed with her point that my joking had gone too far. Just as I'd told her that I'd only been joking about throwing a spitball at Sai Baba, so he'd demonstrated during the morning darshan that he was only joking about throwing a spitball at me. Yet he'd given a graphic demonstration that such misplaced and malicious joking could have untoward results.
Victoria also learned from hearing about the incident that her view of Sathya Sai Baba needed revising. She'd spoken of his physical form as a mere place-marker for the divine and dismissed as boring his daily interactions with people. Because of those views she'd spent her time in India listening to second- and third-hand accounts of him, gleaning information about life in his ashram from insider gossip, and reading books about him.
So while Vicky knew a thousand stories about Sathya Sai Baba virtually none of her knowledge came from her own experiences with him. This meant she had gained little direct knowledge of the spiritual truths Sai Baba taught; she'd relied instead on the writings of mystics and philosophers to guide her.
And by refusing to interact with Sai Baba on a personal level, Vicky had robbed herself of the opportunity to establish trust in his judgment The ability to trust another comes from repeated interactions with the person. But her intellect had quashed her intuition and sapped her of direct experience, thus rendering her ability to trust Sathya Sai Baba into a very small and frail boat to carry her through the storms of life. Now her time with Sai Baba was coming to an end; family matters would soon return her to England.
Lynn for her part had learned from the morning's darshan that she'd assigned Sathya Sai Baba a role in her life that was not necessarily correct. Believing her Karma to be very bad, she'd decided -- on the basis of zero empirical evidence -- that the way Sai Baba would help her work through the pile of shit that her presumed bad deeds in past lives had created for her was to mete out punishment while she stayed with him.
My assumption that Sai Baba would punish me for being disrespectful had prompted me to take a defensive action with the result that I got pooped on. So, Lynn saw with her own eyes what could happen when one expected the worst from Sai Baba and acted in accordance with the expectation.
And her view of Sai Baba as an impersonal engine of justice overlooked the person she was in her present incarnation. She was clearly someone with enough conscience to fear the doing of evil and to so regret any presumed evil done in past lives that she meekly submitted to what she believed was her bad Karma manifesting in demonic attacks on her while she slept.
As with Victoria, Lynn's view of Sathya Sai Baba had very effectively limited his approach to her by creating a kind of false idol of Sai Baba and putting faith in it. On the darshan line that morning Lynn saw that the real Sai Baba was marvelously astute at distinguishing between a deed done with the intent to harm and a thoughtless deed. And that he was very creative at devising a punishment that precisely addressed a misdeed while recognizing the person's good qualities and true intentions. Thus, the candy. "Sweets for the sweet."
There was another lesson for Lynn in the incident although it was not immediately evident to me. The ax had fallen very close to her, so to speak. Lynn wouldn't have thought to disrespect Sai Baba by joking about throwing a spitball at him, yet she'd laughed at my joke and gone along with it because of her friendly feelings toward me. The friendliness had ended up making her a party to the incident.
Later I learned that Lynn had a tendency to ignore her better judgment in order to 'get along' with someone she was friendly with. This revelation was the best answer to her worry that Sai Baba would wreak punishment on her for evil deeds in her past lives. He could punish her so thoroughly it would wipe out all her bad Karma. But unless she made efforts to change, the tendencies that had led to the bad Karma would land her right back in the soup.
This was a point Sathya Sai Baba stressed in his teachings and gave as answer to people who pleaded that he intercede more in 'worldly' affairs to stop evil in its tracks. He said that the appearance of previous avatars had been accompanied by epic wars in which good and evil battled it out with much bloodshed. He said that this time around there was so much evil afoot that all were touched by it, so that the epic war was now within each person, with the heart serving as the battlefield if the individual struggled to improve his character.
He promised that just as the avatar Lord Krishna had served as the humble charioteer to General Arjuna in the epic war recounted in the Mahabharata, so he would use his vast powers to aid and protect anyone who made sincere efforts to reform his character.
I found several lessons for myself in the spitball incident. The one that rose to the top, but only in retrospect, was that I placed more stock in my intelligence and experience than anything else. This could be a very grave problem when I didn't leave room for considering factors I hadn't been able to predict.
I'd never heard of anyone on the darshan line getting pooped on by a bird. Those were very respectful birds, so to speak. And the bird that shit on me actually hadn't pooped on anyone in the darshan line; it was just that I'd thrown part of my body outside the line. Therefore, an event I couldn't predict had skewed my plan to dodge what I assumed was a spitball.
Given the precision of the bird's strike and the amount of poop and the context in which the strike occurred, this was not a random event; it was Sai Baba's leela. The leela was a dramatic illustration that I'd thought of everything by way of evasive action except what I would have deemed an extremely unlikely event if I'd thought about it. Yet the likelihood of the event was so remote I hadn't thought about it.
For reasons I didn't understand at the time, Sathya Sai Baba was determined to get that particular lesson across to me, and he repeated it in variations throughout my time with him. Twenty years after the spitball incident, at a moment that was beyond the eleventh hour -- at one minute to midnight, so to speak -- I suddenly grasped the full import of the spitball incident and the lesson about the peril of discounting the unlikely in certain situations. Thus, a great tragedy that would have involved many people was averted.
The Macrocosm in the Microcosm
There were generic lessons embedded in the spitball incident as well. And it served as a demonstration that Sathya Sai Baba could compress the macrocosm of his teachings into the microcosm of a mundane event, and that he could do this without recourse to dogma. This allowed very different psychological types and intellects to benefit from the same teaching.
This was the way the wise ones taught in the old days, the really old days, before literacy. And even after writing came into existence they still didn't rely on the spoken word, which can so easily be misinterpreted by the hearer. They communicated teachings in the language of the heart, at a deeply intuitive level. No 'initiations' were required for such teachings, no transmission of special energy, etc. No faith in the guru was required; no dogma was necessary. All it took was the student's determination to pay close attention to the teacher and the ability to muster patience -- two qualities in shorter and shorter supply as the eras have unfolded.
This is not to say that Sathya Sai Baba didn't teach in words and writing. He spoke oceans of words over the course of his lifetime and wrote countless letters to devotees. But he taught me in the ancient tradition and anyone else who mustered the patience to learn in that way. In my case his teaching style was a great gift because eventually I met the person who would be my main guru is this lifetime and he spoke far fewer words to me than Sai Baba did.
In fact, that teacher made a Zen master look like a chatterbox. If you didn't get it the first time that was too bad. And there were no recordings, no video, nothing to download from the internet, no books, no chat rooms where you could ask others what they thought a teaching meant. So if not for the concentrative power and patience I gained by learning from Sai Baba I wouldn't have been able to benefit from the guru's teachings.
(The guru looked as Lynn had described him, for those who read the second installment of this essay.)
And as with Sai Baba, when my time with that teacher was up, it was up. In the old school, there was no hanging around the guru for decades, asking for ever more teachings while not bothering to absorb even Lesson One.
Sathya Sai Baba had many functions in addition to teaching, yet time and again I heard people on the darshan line ask him for a teaching. Darshan was one big school, and class was always in session from the moment Baba stepped out of the temple.
There is No Contraption
The next morning Victoria joined Lynn and me on the darshan lottery line.
I couldn't resist saying, "Welcome to the party."
From that morning on, Vicky sat in the darshan line along with the rest of the proles. It was a good thing she did. Sai Baba's rare mood continued for a few weeks, and during that time the men's side of the darshan line looked on in envy as the women's side rocked with laughter.
In those days at least, in that part of India, rural Indians didn't think much of laughing aloud; I think they tended to associate it with mental instability. But Sai Baba's evoking of uproarious laughter from the Westerners on the darshan line served to clue the Indians that the nutty Westerners were in his life to stay. So they might as well learn to laugh and bear with us.
I'll bring the tale of Sathya Sai Baba and the Spitball to close by telling two stories that involve Americans and one involving an Indian.
The first is an exchange between Baba and an American name Jack Hislop. He was a staunch devotee of Sai Baba's for many years and wrote at least one book about him with Sai Baba's blessing. He had many interviews with Sai Baba and was instrumental in establishing formal Sai Baba centers in the USA over Baba's initial objections.
One day Sai Baba said, "Hislop! Do you believe Swami is God?"
Jack replied, "Of course, Swami, you're God!"
Sai Baba shot back, "Then how is that when you're in America you think Swami is in India?"
The other tale concerns a husband and wife team of psychologists. When they learned about Sai Baba they watched all the films they could find about him with an eye to figuring out how Sai Baba was producing objects such as rings and necklaces, seemingly from thin air. The more they studied footage of him producing objects the more certain they became that he was performing sleight of hand.
Finally they decided to pose as his devotees and visit his ashram so they could attempt to learn exactly how he produced the objects and then expose him as a fraud.
Once they arrived at the ashram they made a huge fuss over Baba with the aim of gaining his trust. The more they did this, the more Sai Baba materialized objects around them. The more they saw the materializations the more certain they became that he was pulling off the trick with the help of a contraption he'd strapped to his right arm underneath his robe. Soon they could actually see the outlines of the contraption.
So to their delight Sai Baba soon called them for an interview. They whispered that they should make sure to get a seat on the floor of the interview room as close as possible to him. Then, when he materialized something one would grab his arm and yank up his sleeve and the other would grab the contraption.
Everything went exactly as they planned. They yanked up the sleeve, spied the contraption, then yanked it from his arm. So they didn't mind when Indian volunteers ordered them to leave the ashram; they left clutching the contraption.
Countless times I and countless other people watched Sathya Sai Baba bring forth objects while his sleeves were rolled up. Countless others and I saw him materialize objects at some distance to himself. But the husband and wife had gotten exactly what they'd wanted from Sai Baba: a worthless contraption. They left happy with that.
An old Indian man who tottered onto the Prasanthi Nilayam temple grounds one day had wanted much more from his visit to Sai Baba. He'd taken his seat on the men's side of the darshan line (this was before the lottery system was established) and sat in silence as Baba walked along the line. Baba didn't notice him.
After darshan ended the old man continued to sit. A volunteer approached and said he had to leave the darshan area so the sand on the temple grounds could be swept. The old man didn't move or reply.
Suddenly Sai Baba, who'd been on the temple verandah in deep conversation with some of his administrators, turned and saw the man.
Baba let out an exclamation then ran toward the man crying, "Your son is healed!"
The old man didn't reply but Sai Baba was so deeply moved that tears began flowing from his eyes and the purest white vibhuti ("holy ash") began flowing from his palms. The more Sai Baba cried the more the vibhuti flowed. The people who witnessed this were transfixed with wonder. They'd never seen so much vibhuti flow from Baba, not even during festivals, and they'd never seen Sai Baba cry.
The vibhuti flowed and flowed onto the old man and the piles of the white ash rose and rose, until the onlookers feared the old man would be buried under a small mountain of ash. Finally some of them gently told Sai Baba he had to stop crying. Making a supreme effort he got hold of himself and the vibhuti flow stopped.
Then he told volunteers to bring water and food for the man and give him a room at the ashram where he could sleep that night, and to give him money for his return journey to his home.
When the old man had been restored enough to speak, he told his story to the volunteers. His only son had been suffering from an incurable disease and was dying. Someone who stopped by to offer sympathy mentioned that he'd heard there was a wonder worker named Sathya Sai Baba in the south of India, in Andhra Pradesh state, who was rumored to be God incarnate.
The old man was very poor. He had no money for a bus ticket so he walked to Sai Baba's ashram in Puttaparthi, not stopping for food or drink or for rest for three days and nights, and all the while praying to God to keep him alive so he could ask the wonder-worker to heal his son. But when he got to the ashram he found himself too weak to do anything but sit down outside the temple.
When the old man returned to his home he found his son hale and hearty and completely cured.
Few of us can muster the faith of the old man who so greatly moved Sai Baba but I don't recall him ever asking anyone for that much faith. What I recall most is that Sathya Sai Baba staged a whale of a show to demonstrate that nothing we do, not the smallest act, not even a joke about throwing a spitball, takes place in an impersonal scheme.
He produced the play with the help of many Indian devotees of his who served as volunteers at his ashrams. The volunteers put up with a great deal from foreigners they knew didn't understand India's history and religious traditions. My hat's off to those volunteers.
Well I hope Noam Chomsky reads this essay someday, seeing how I wrote it for him. In any event I hope he doesn't die before realizing that there is no contraption; there is no machine, no box, no container, no limitations. There is no dividing up humanity according to the oppressors and the oppressed. There is just a dynamo humming underneath our daily awareness, always there, always there. It's a big help to ourselves and others if we learn to tune our inner ear to hear it.