One year after Sri Sathya Sai Baba's passing on April 24, 2011, I have yet to find the right words for what he meant to my family and to me. It is not a cliché but a professional admission, since I rarely feel such an inadequacy. My belief in Baba was unexpected, though no student of devotion sees grace as anything but bestowed.
My parents were not Sai Baba followers at first. In fact, there were no pictures of even Shirdi Sai Baba in our house when I was a child. The puja room was quietly reserved for a well-ordered, ritually cleansed orthodox sort of pantheon. When the encounter with Sathya Sai came, I was 17 years old. My parents had met him and decided he was God incarnate. They also decided I better come and get his blessings since I wasn't doing too well in my studies. I went to Puttaparthi somewhat reluctantly, since the very idea of God, Guru, Bhajans, Vibhuthi, being "goody-goody," as we used to say, all of that seemed the opposite of where I wanted to go. I cannot say I was reluctant on philosophical principle though. I was perhaps tempted by the possibility that what my parents were saying could be true, that Baba could bless me with magical powers to do well on my exams.
I had never seen a place like Prashanthi Nilayam before. Even before the sun rose over the ashram, so much seemed to be happening, and so calmly, elegantly, at that. It felt literally like it was an embodiment of peace. I don't know if it was the place, or the people who made it that way. There were thousands of people there, all kinds, Indians and foreigners, young and old, affluent and not. There were young men from the school there, like me, who spoke good English, planning on becoming engineers and scientists, and they all seemed to be perfectly happy with their bhajans and vibhuthi and "Sai Rams." There were also foreigners, and they seemed to be finding meaning in our culture, just like I had imagined The Beatles might have done decades earlier. There was a university, a planetarium, international dialing. There was also a Ganesha temple, and some Vedic chanting, but beyond that it was not my grandmothers' religion anymore. Baba's world suddenly seemed to me like the future and not the decrepit past I had so feared.
But all of this was only secondary to meeting the man who became my God. Like my father and mother, I too could not think of him after that encounter as anything but an avatar, God incarnate. But the interesting thing was that unlike the gods I had believed in before who were all in the temple or in my head, here was someone who was playing that role in real life. He played that role well, for in the months and years that followed, Swami became more than a symbolic deity or figurehead for our prayers. He became our go-to God, someone my parents called on at every major occasion for guidance, blessings and sometimes just like that. The only way to describe the role he played is a Telugu expression, a pedda dhikku, the elder-refuge. At times, it seemed like our concerns were mostly mundane but he was patient. He gave my parents practical advice but to him it was not an end in itself, just a way to ensure the conditions we needed to focus on spiritual growth. He never wavered from spiritual leadership, and needless to say, he never sought anything from us in return.
In later years, Baba became less frequently involved with our family concerns, but the belief remained that he was our God, Guru and Guide. He spoke to my parents on occasion, and offered them just the right words of encouragement and direction. In a way, that distance helped me see him differently. I began to read his teachings. They seemed to represent a way of seeing the world that we hardly found anywhere else in the modern, media-saturated world. He was talking about things we had only heard about in our moral science books in school, and unlike those, he seemed to make these ideas relevant and important. He offered ways of interpreting even familiar myths and legends that seemed to enforce a deeply universal, humanitarian, and no-nonsense meaning of god and life. He made me think of religion as a form of culture, a way we make sense of everything, rather than a mere technique for getting what we want from some higher power. He made me think of religion as not some inviolable code written down in the past, but as a resource, a deep well of insight stored in our poems, stories, myths and art, rediscovered and reinterpreted from one generation to another. He made me think that at its heart all religion is about selfless love, and he showed me that it is humanly possible.