04/25/2011 11:07 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2011

Sathya Sai Baba: A Love this World Can Hardly Reciprocate

Baba loved us. Like a father, a mother, a guru, a friend. Like Krishna or Shiva, as we imagined them to be from our stories. Like a simple and affectionate village elder from Rayalseema. Like a celebrity whose grace and poise could electrify a hundred thousand spectators at once. Like a leader who spoke the highest philosophies about society and the individual in the clearest of modern and folk idioms. Like no one else but the one his devotees would call Swami.

For nearly 25 years, Swami was the God, Guru and Elder-figure of my family. Like most devotees, we knew this day would come. We just hoped it would not come anytime soon, as we would of anyone we love. And now that it has, it is not so much his divinity or spirituality that I think about, but just him and just his presence in our lives all these years as if he were a part of our family. Because that is how we knew Swami. He was not a distant figure. He made the effort to know us, to talk to us, reassure us, chide us gently when he had to, deal with the mundane worries we sometimes thrust on him, sometimes take the rap for the faults of his devotees, but he was always there. And even if in recent years the face to face meetings with him became fewer, a few softly spoken words from him, and sometimes even a glance, were enough to assure us that he was looking out for us. Whether this was seen as coming from a god who commanded nature and miracles, a holy man brimming with spiritual example, or a selfless and wise elder who cared for each family's concerns, one cannot say precisely. But one can say quite surely that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people on this earth today who feel Swami's absence like I do -- not just in a religious sense, but in the deeply intimate sense of a familiar family figure who is no longer with us. He was not just a picture, and he was not just a god. He was Swami.

Yet, for many other people, Swami is only "Sai Baba," a name that they will read about in the news. There has already been a great deal written about Baba's life and legacy in the news media in the last three weeks. Some accounts have been professional and fair, reporting on his devotees and on his enormous acts of service to people through free schools, hospitals and water supply projects. Other reports speculate on the future of his organization and its assets, smelling money and drama more than the incense and camphor. Yet others seem like nothing more than opportunistic displays of superior wit through snide remarks on his mortality and on the least consequential parts of his life, real or hallucinated. But for all who believe a man who is revered by so many is worthy of a more sober assessment beyond the impossibly divisive one of religious faith, I have to say only one thing matters. It is what you saw happening in Swami's presence if you made the effort to go there.

It is what you saw after the endless waits in the great halls of Prashanthi Nilayam before his darshan. It is what you heard when a thousand voices gasped as one at the moment of his entrance. It is what you sensed about the lightness in his feet and precision in his hands from a distance. It is what you felt when he came closer from amidst the rows of hundreds of bodies and you saw the look on his face, the love in his eyes. It is what happened when you felt the compassion in his distinct voice, and laughed at the wit and grace in his words. But all this is still only a measure of what happened to us in his presence, an expression of my devotion, perhaps.

What of him? What did it take out of one human body to do so much for so many? Just think of what it takes to make one stranger feel happy, reassured, illuminated, on the strength of the integrity of your goodwill alone. Swami did that a million times, talking, taking letters, making traditional gestures of blessing and assurance, making a contact with his devotees in a way that shows in virtually any photo where you can see how his devotees look when they look at him. And no matter how much all those in this world who have known him and adored him serve each other and love each other in his name, the love that this gentle man gave to the world will not be equaled easily.