Monday, April 25

There is no contraption: The Tale of Sathya Sai Baba and the Spitball

Around 2 AM on Saturday I read a summary of a speech that Noam Chomsky had given in Amsterdam in March. I don't agree with Chomsky's politics or his unrelievedly negative view of American defense/foreign policy but I have a soft spot in my heart for him because of what he did decades ago to the Behaviorists and in particular the followers of B. F. Skinner. 

You would need to have lived through that era in the United States to know how close the Behaviorists came, with the cooperation of U.S. public school educators, at turning American public school students into Stepford Children. The Behaviorists, building on the research of Pavlov, had found what totalitarians had always sought: they'd discovered how to condition their human test subjects into adopting just about any kind of behavior they wanted to produce. Then they'd peddled their findings to the U.S. government and school systems.

By the time Noam Chomsky finished taking apart the theories of the Behaviorists, the field they'd come to dominate, psychology, had turned on them, and the U.S. government and school administrators had backed away from them.   

So I was alarmed while reading his Amsterdam speech to discover that Chomsky, the very antithesis of machine-like behavior, had in his old age constructed a kind of mental contraption in which the vast varieties of human experience were reduced to the Oppressed and the Oppressors.

Under ordinary conditions my reaction would have been to dash off a cutting essay for this blog but because of the inestimable service Chomsky rendered American schoolchildren I couldn't bring myself to do that. Yet I didn't want to let my observation go without remark. Chomsky is one of the most influential intellectuals in the world, and if he'd drifted into echoing the mechanistic Behaviorist outlook was something that needed to be pointed out in the public sphere.

So I put on my thinking cap. Suddenly I recalled a prank Sathya Sai Baba had played on me many years before. The recollection had come from the outfield but it would be a way to illustrate my point about Chomsky. After I'd slept on it I decided to ditch the idea. I had enough on my plate without receiving emails from devotees of Sathya Sai Baba informing me I was being disrespectful to him, Hindus who told me I was insulting their religion and clowns telling me Sai Baba was a fraud and a pederast. Noam Chomsky would just have to wait until I came up with a less incendiary way of driving home my points.

Around 2 AM Sunday I checked Google News one last time before calling it a day. One particular headline caught my eye. It referred to Sathya Sai Baba in the past tense.

"Must be a typo," I muttered.

That's how I learned Sai Baba had been gravely ill for weeks and had died that morning.

Now it was decision time. I didn't deserve to give him a proper eulogy and it would be up to others to attempt to detail the millions of humanitarian projects done over almost a century in his name or inspired by his example and teachings.

Nor could I be the one to explain what British-ruled India was like in the year of his birth or tell about Sathya Sai Baba's single-handed resurrection of religious traditions that centuries of British and Mogul influence had wiped out. His contributions in those areas would be for Indian historians to document.

What I could do was what I'd thought of doing: tell a story from my experiences with Sathya Sai Baba to illustrate that this realm is not bound by the laws of political discourse and that the human spirit is not circumscribed by victimhood.

To tell the story, however, I would need to turn back the clock to about 30 years ago, to a time when Puttaparthi was still a sleepy little village; a time when there was no airport, train station and "super-speciality" hospital serving Prasanthi Nilayam ashram; to a time before the grounds in front of the mandir (temple) at Prasanthi Nilayam had been expanded to the size of two football fields and paved over with marble and roofed.

This wasn't the earliest era at the ashram, when guest accommodations were just large sheds and Sai Baba freely walked the grounds and casually chatted with visitors. But it was a time when the formal, twice-daily darshan (in this context "seeing the ultimate truth, especially in the form of a holy person or divine figure") on the temple grounds was a simple affair. The crowds during the non-holiday times were still small enough that Sai Baba could easily interact with people sitting crosslegged on the ground in the darshan rows arrayed on the temple grounds.

It was also a time when a lottery system was instituted to determine who got to sit where on the darshan rows. When I first arrived the old seating system was still in effect, the old system being sharp elbows and scrimmaging.

The new system was part of the reality of the ever-growing numbers of people who were visiting the ashram. But it came about after Sai Baba, who lived at that time on the top floor of the temple, asked, "What is that thundering herd of elephants outside my window every morning?"  

Thus, the lottery system, to the great relief of the foreign devotees -- and in particular the Germans, who could not bring themselves to battle for seating position outside a temple, and so never got anywhere near the front of the darshan line until the lottery system.

The Indian villagers for their part were philosophical about the new system; after hogging the front line ever since darshan on the mandir grounds was first instituted, they were willing to put the matter of seating in God's hands.

I never took a camera to the ashram but I've found a photograph on the internet that to my memory seems pretty much the way the temple and darshan area looked like while I was at Prasanthi Nilayam. The photo helps set the stage for my story so I include it here. Because the temple grounds and the process of darshan played a significant role in the tale of Sai Baba and the spitball I'll go into some detail to describe both.

The circular construct in front of the temple is ornamental grillwork enclosing vegetation and Sai Baba's Sarva Dharma (all faiths) symbol. The circle also separated the seating sides on the temple grounds for males and females.  The gold-painted statue is of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, remover of obstacles.  

The area to the right of the circle in the photo was reserved for women; a part of the men's area on the left, which isn't shown, had some shade. The women's side had no shade, no matter what time of day.

It's not clear in the photograph but there was a veranda running the length of the front of the temple. It was there that schoolchildren and sometimes visiting VIPs were seated. People chosen by Sai Baba from the darshan line for an interview inside the temple were also directed to sit on the veranda until darshan ended.

The brownish stuff on the ground is packed sand that was swept by volunteers before people entered the temple grounds for darshan. Although Sai Baba left Prasanthi Nilayam during the hottest months, often by the time darshan got underway the sun had risen high enough that the unshaded area on the women's side was not unlike sitting in a toaster oven.

The blazing sun was hard on elderly women in frail health. This prompted me to write a letter of complaint to ashram administration, which eventually resulted in small roofed seating structures being built along the wall that marked off the darshan area on the women's side from the rest of the ashram. 

No umbrellas were allowed during darshan. But people were allowed to bring cushions and folded blankets with them for darshan, which gave a little relief to one's bottom from the scorching sand. The comforts were abused by some Westerners, who brought cushions as wide as boats in the attempt to eke out space on either side of their place on the darshan row; this so they didn't have to sit what was for a Westerner uncomfortably close to others.

The counter-tactic was Indian volunteers who walked along the darshan rows, glowering at the worst offenders, making scooching movements with their hands and hissing, "Move over to make more space for others."

If the space hogs didn't like being squished they always had the option of decamping to the back rows, and the real wimps could sit on chairs to the side of the darshan line.

However, all this adjusting and measuring of millimeters around one's personal space could include minor squabbles when people tried to advance their position by sticking their knees into the backs of the people in front of them or leaning on the back of the person in front.  This unsporting behavior on temple grounds sometimes resulted in Sai Baba not coming out for darshan.

Then everyone got to go through the entire routine at the next scheduled time for darshan, and the next, until enough people drew a connection between their rowdiness and Sai Baba's refusal to leave the temple.

I add that the veterans eschewed cushions, preferring to endure scorched bottoms for the chance to quickly advance if someone nearby gave up a choice position on the darshan line.

Just another day at the office at Prasanthi Nilayam, "the abode of perfect peace."

There was a low curving wall marking off the temple grounds where darshan took place. People left their footwear along the outside of the wall before proceeding to the grounds; this practice of shoe removal was only done for darshan periods.  

A large sandy area just outside the temple grounds is where the lottery lines formed for the women's side. (I can't recall where the men's side formed their rows.) When there were so many people in the ashram that the lottery area couldn't accommodate them, which happened during festivals, the darshan on the mandir grounds was suspended. Then the large Poornachandra auditorium was opened for darshan; seating there was on a first-come, first-served basis with hordes of volunteers present to maintain order.

The lottery system was simple: as people entered the area after breakfast or the afternoon snack they sat behind the person who'd entered before them. When one line stretched back so far, a volunteer directed the next person entering the area to start a new line.

When all the lines had been established the person sitting at the head of each line drew a chit from a bag held out by a volunteer. The number on the chit showed the order in which the line would proceed onto the temple grounds.

The formation of the darshan rows was split into two -- one formation of rows facing the temple and the other facing the opposite end of the mandir grounds. This arrangement provided the opportunity for two front rows. Thus, it could be hard to tell during the lottery drawing which number on the chit meant a front row seat.

Only those in Line 1, the first to enter the mandir grounds, were guaranteed a front row seat. This line made up the first row in the formation that faced the opposite end of the grounds. I'll call this formation Block A. Much else depended on the number of people in the ashram on that day and how long the lottery lines were. When the crowd was small, sometimes people on the Number 2 line hit it lucky and got to sit in the first row in Block A if there was still enough space in the front row to accommodate a few more people.

When the first formation filled up, the line with the next number got to form a first row in the formation facing the temple -- Block B. And so it went until the Block B formation filled up. Then everyone settled down to wait for Sai Baha to emerge from the temple.

His darshan walkabout varied, but in general he stopped first to speak with the people seated on the verandah. Then he proceeded to the men's side of the temple grounds, stopping sometimes to chat with a man, taking letters offered to him, blessing books or other objects held out to him, allowing some in the front row to touch his feet, and sometimes materializing vibhuti (sanctified ash) or objects such as rings and religious medallions, and choosing people for an interview.

The routine was repeated on the women's side. There were complaints from the women about being second, although sometimes Sai Baba reversed the process and visited the women's side first. But the women's side could take twice as long to visit as the men's side because the babies (both male and female) were with their mothers on the women's side.

Women would hold up their babies for a blessing, no matter how far back they sat on the darshan lines. Maneuvering the babies and their mothers to the front or side of a row where Sai Baba was standing could take time. And often he'd materialize talismans for the babies and mark their foreheads with vibhuti and talk at length with the mothers about the babies. Then he would talk with the mothers about their home situation in general, make vibhuti for them, and so on.

By visiting the women's side last Sai Baba could take more time with the women without keeping the men waiting -- a point the complainers didn't tend to consider.

That's all the technical details I can recall of the darshan process on the mandir grounds and I think that's enough detail for the purposes of my story. I'll add two points, the significance of which will become clear when the story gets underway:

> The person at the head of lottery line who drew the Number 1 chit would enter Block A first and would have no one seated on her right.

> The low curving brick wall was repeated on the Block A side; again, it separated a side of the temple grounds from the rest of the ashram. It was behind this wall that a woman I'll call Vicky was standing during a part of the story. So while she could see Sai Baba when he approached Block A, she couldn't see what was happening amongst the women in the first row of the block who were facing Sai Baba. Nor could she readily hear what was being said on the front row of Block A.

The details I've provided about the mandir darshan suggest that Prasanthi Nilayam wasn't so much a melting pot as a clash of cultures that was kept to a dull roar by Sai Baba's oversight and a small army of dedicated Indian volunteers. Prasanthi Nilayam 30 years ago was a microcosm of every problem arising from 'East meets West,' and every problem arising from the clashes between modern and traditional societies.

Indeed, one way to describe Prasanthi Nilayam in those days is to say it was in the vanguard of the globalized society.

But as more foreigners from myriad societies took their place among Sai Baba's devotees, the Indians had to learn to "move over and make more space." This caused great resentment, particularly among the villagers, who didn't see why the foreigners couldn't get their own Avatar of the Lord and leave theirs alone.

And the emerging urbanized Indian middle class of Sai Baba devotees, traditionally more tolerant of foreigners, also had to struggle with resentment, as its members saw Sai Baba becoming less and less available for interviews. They struggled, too, with worries that Prasanthi Nilayam and Hinduism itself would be overtaken by Westernization.

For their part the Western devotees, whose ideas of the divine and monotheism were vastly different from the Hindu ones, were put off by the way so many Indians treated Sathya Sai Baba as a household Hindu god.

Such Westerners didn't understand that Sai Baba was acting not so much in the manner of a Hindu god as in the manner of the ideal kings in the ancient world, who were bound by duty to grant a reasonable request put to them by any subject who approached them for help. Those kings did double duty as judges, as a reading of the Old Testament makes clear.

One of Sai Baba's most important functions among the Indians was to resolve disputes. Again, this was a chief function of kings in ancient times.  While both foreigners and Indians asked Sai Baba for healing from physical ailments, one line separating the Westerners from the Indians was that Westerners tended to approach Sai Baba in a quest for 'answers' -- whether answers to personal problems or spiritual questions -- whereas many Indians wanted his help in settling disputes.

There were striking exceptions; e.g., Westerners who'd made Sanskrit a lifetime study or were scholars of Indian history, but most of the Westerners who visited the ashram simply didn't have the knowledge to put the historical and religious significance of the traditions around Sathya Sai Baba in proper context.

That was okay with Sai Baba, who placed his teaching emphasis on character development and universal values. But the Westerners' dearth of knowledge about the ancient traditions that Sai Baba represented meant they tended to supply the context for him rom their own experience. For many of the American Westerners this worked out to a concept of Sai Baba that was a concatenation of New Age philosophies, pop American psychology and Judeo-Christian theology. This version of Sai Baba made no sense to the rural Hindus and even to many urbane Hindus, which also contributed to an undercurrent of tension at the ashram.

These gulfs in understanding say nothing about the resentments among followers of different Hindu sects who venerated Sai Baba but stayed with their own sect and its dogmas.

Add to this caste prejudices that lurked in even the most prosaic situations at the ashram, which Western foreigners in particular rarely noticed. Even the darshan lottery system had upset the caste ecosystem. No longer could a group of Indians shut out members of a lower caste from 'their' part of the darshan line.

Yet all the above doesn't begin to describe what the ashram was like. One part Canterbury Tales, one part Tales of the Arabian Nights; the human drama at its most sublime and wretched, its most silly and mundane, all worked into a tapestry of the mystery of the divine and its involvement with human affairs.

It's against this backdrop that my tale of Sai Baba and the spitball unfolds. Here I'll break off and take up the story in the next post.


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