On a bright sunny January morning, as people in India celebrated the festival of Sankranthi, I returned to Prasanthi Nilayam, the home of my family's revered Guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba. It was my first visit there in nearly five years, and more importantly, it was my first visit there since his passing, in April 2011.
It was therefore the first time that I had to face up to the ideal so many spiritual paths teach us: that it is not the form that matters, but what it contains.
Sitting once again in the vast expansive halls of Prashanthi Nilayam where we once used to wait, seemingly endlessly, for a few minutes of darshan, I felt strangely empty of expectation. There was no anticipation, or the sometimes charged tension, one felt in the long and silent wait for Baba's arrival into the hall. The protocols though -- and of course, the people -- were very much the same as before. There were lots of people, as always, and they sat in more rows than one could hope to count without getting up. Short programs featuring students from Baba's schools and colleges were conducted. The ever-popular bhajans were sung, and the sacred arathi offered. At the end, though, everyone lined up for what is now called Samadhi-darshan, a few seconds of silent prayer at the edge of the marble monument which marks as close as we will ever get again to our beloved Swami, as we called him. As we left, we were given a rose-petal as a sign of blessing. I noted the presence of small baskets on the floor, where devotees could leave letters addressed to him, as they did when he was alive.
Nothing has changed in Prashanthi Nilayam. The ceremonies, the celebrations, the students' earnest and sometimes enchanting plays and performances, the bhajans that made this movement so simple and easy to belong to, and most of all the people, the vast and reasonably well self-regulated throngs of devotees, seekers, and the curious who came, they were all there. It seemed to me that at any moment, the black and orange spot of flame that Baba looked like amidst the great crowds would appear from somewhere. I recall the effect his entrance used to have on the massive crowds, how bodies stiffened and turned as one to face him, even if he was so distant as to appear like a tiny speck of color. Despite that wistful feeling, the only difference now, it seemed to me, was that instead of craning for a sight of a flash of orange in the sea of heads that surrounded us, now we sought only for a line of sight toward the white marble surface of his Samadhi, not unlike the way we try to steal a sight of the deity in the great (and crowded) ancient temples of India like Tirupati. The feeling, and the belief, obviously has not changed, for me, and for the thousands of people who still come.
And yet, everything has changed too. How could it not?
I belonged to a generation, and a moment in time, when the Sai movement, its members and its service activities, were beginning to expand momentously. In my early visits to Puttaparthi in the 1980s, I could still see a bit of the ease and familiarity earlier devotees used to say they had with Baba. The crowds were smaller, and the time one had with him, a little bit longer, and the space more intimate. By the 1990s, the place was a giant spectacle, with thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of people visiting the ashram almost every day. The once tiny, desolate and poor village of Puttaparthi now even had an airport. The giant hospital, university and various other philanthropic projects undertaken by Baba dominated the landscape, and the attention of the devotee-volunteers. Heads of state came to visit, frequently, and share in some of the spirit of service and accomplishment that the movement saw at this time, such as the massive projects that delivered drinking water to hundreds of poor villages in the region.
And yet, at the center of all this was the diminutive figure of Baba, a small, maternal, kind and often witty person who many of us simply could not perceive as anything other than an avatar, a human incarnation of divinity itself. At first, that feeling was a strange and unexpected change for me. Until I met Baba, I only thought of God in the abstract, or as mystically embodied in stone and metal in our temples. For nearly 25 years after that, I thought of God in very human terms, as a person, a very specific person, who I thought was so much like my own father and mother in many ways, in his ideals, practice and even his persona. Now, all that seems like it was a wonderful time, but it has passed. Baba is and will continue to be venerated, among the faithful, no different from the other forms and names by which the divine is venerated. In the future, some of us will think of him as we think of Krishna and Rama now. We will, inevitably, move into a realm where our gods will not talk back to us or encourage us or lovingly reprimand us, as the case may once have been. We will make our gods our gods, and forget, inevitably, that they were gurus too, that they so taught us, and not by words alone.
In my brief stay at the ashram this week, I could see that there were many new, younger devotees and visitors present as well. By the afternoon, the sprawling grounds of the ashram started to look the way it used to in the past, with hundreds of families camping out under trees and bits of shade here and there. I remember those days, when tens and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of people descended on Puttaparthi for a mere sight of the man they believed was God incarnate. Even in the anonymity of the mass, there was so much of a connection between the people and their guru, because he was there, and he connected as a human being, an elder and benefactor, with more people and families, and more profoundly and meaningfully, than we can even fathom. His teachings, and the simple bhakti practices he advocated such as service and singing, were perhaps secondary to the mad adoration and faith that marked their relationship with him. Now, only his teachings, and the world he built, remain.
As I left Prashanthi Nilayam at night, and a smiling moon rose over the horizon, I thought briefly about what that world will mean in the future, and mean something it surely will, because the people are there, and they are coming. The question though is what exactly people are coming for. One can be certain that for many, the journey will be about the expectation of a miracle; an illness cured, an examination passed, a promotion secured, the mundane things God gets called on for every moment and every day. Like Shirdi, Puttaparthi will remain a place where faith lives and resonates for the faithful. But there is also the other miracle that took place in this speck of a hamlet in a dry and desolate corner of south India no one would have heard of but for one simple peasant son. That miracle, I think, is still unfolding. We may see its visible manifestations in the form of gigantic hospitals that offer free treatment to all and water pipelines and tankers that quench the thirst of thousands of villagers in India's most arid regions, but there is more to come too. All those who knew Baba, and who are coming to know him now, after his passing, will find that the real arena for the miraculous is not in some mystical plane, but really in our own lives. I think we will find, somehow, still, that kindness and love are the only way to live. There may be alternatives to our religions, our paths and chosen deities. But there is no alternative to love. Sometimes, I feel that because I believe Baba's presence is always here and shows me that. At other times, I feel nothing more than this world and the people in it that make the world for me, and still, all this shows me that too.
Baba did not quite say it in those words, but George Harrison did. Prashanthi Nilayam, the Abode of Peace, seems to me is now Within You and Without You.