"If there is righteousness in the heart,
There will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character,
There will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home,
There will be order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation,
There will be peace in the world."
- Sathya Sai Baba -
The photograph in the New
York Times showed a partial
eclipse of the sun, the sun
a circle of light like a
halo around the black globe
of the moon. I was instantly
reminded of dawn darshan at
Whitefield where some of us
have been blessed by the
sight of such a halo around
the dark circle of Baba's
The first time I journeyed to India in 1976, Baba was at Whitefield when I arrived. I had been a devotee for three years, but only that spring had I felt the overpowering pull which has since drawn me back time after time.
How many years it had taken me to complete that journey! I was first drawn to Eastern philosophy in the 50's when I read the Bhagavad Gita. Although I immersed myself in spiritual books, I had no teacher, no one at all to share this pursuit. I went as far as I could on my own and then seemed to lose interest. Marriage, children and work absorbed my attention yet something was missing. The underlying purpose of my life remained hidden from me until, in 1973, my son lent me a book about Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
I had come full circle. The avatar I had read about in the Bhagavad
Gita was here in this world. NOW. And now, I had made the journey and was about to see him for the first time. How to describe that first encounter? To be really seeing him, whose face and form had become so central to my life from films and photos, whose words I knew by heart from books? To see him walking through the gate approaching us was almost incredible. No matter that I had travelled thousands of miles for just this sight. Trembling, I waited with the others, heart pounding as he drew near.
"Don't expect any attention," I had been warned. "He will probably ignore you at first."
I didn't need warning. I had come to see for myself, I thought, nothing more. But no matter what we think, Baba calls whom he wills, for his own reasons, and nothing anyone tells you can prepare you for the actuality.
I had a handful of letters from home timidly extended as he stopped to talk to a woman nearby. To see him so close! To hear that sweet voice! My heart so swelled with love, I thought it would burst out of my body. It was an intense pressure unlike anything I have experienced before or since. As Swami walked past me, apparently unseeing, he suddenly turned back as if he had just noticed the letters in my hand. Looking at me with the sweetest of smiles, he leaned over and took them from me. At that moment, as he took the letters from my hand, the intense burning pressure in my chest was instantly relieved. Along with the letters, he had accepted the burden of my love.
Most people seeing Baba for the first time are, as I was, overwhelmed by the love that flows from him. No words can describe it. Again, even when anticipated, his miracles leave us stunned. But the first miracle I experienced that day was my own capacity for love; the second, even more incredible, was Swami's acceptance of it. Human love, which I have not been denied, was no preparation. Baba says that he is like a live coal come to ignite the embers of our hearts. Wednesday, August 4, 1976, was the day it happened to me.
The following day was Thursday, a bhajan day at Whitefield. We woke at 5:00 AM and dressed hastily. Arriving as the bhajan singers were returning from their circuit of the village streets, we followed them into the compound where Baba's two-storey house used to be. There we stood waiting in the pre-dawn hush for his appearance on the roof. The singing continued; and suddenly, Baba was there, smiling down on us, keeping time to the music with one finger for a while and then just standing there, his hands clasped in front of him. "Can you see the halo around his head?" whispered the person standing next to me. I could not. The singers started to sing arati as a chosen devotee waved the flaming camphor. Baba stood there until the end and slowly, slowly descended some unseen staircase until he was out of sight. Everyone left in silence, and more eyes were filled with tears than otherwise, for it is at the hour that his divinity is most palpable.
Sunday was another bhajan day, another morning to receive the benison of dawn darshan. I stood in the front row this time, so close I could look into Swami's eyes, but I was focusing all my attention on trying to see that halo. Could that be it? I wondered, seeing what appeared like a narrow band of lighter sky around his head. It must be just imagination, I decided, when suddenly that narrow band sprang outward, expanding to a wide band of lighter sky around his head, twice the circumference of his hair. My mouth dropped open in astonishment. Then I found myself grinning with delight, Swami smiling broadly as, with one finger, he kept time to the bhajan.
By his grace, I have almost always seen that halo, that subtle aura of light when he has come out at dawn. Sometimes, it has been wide, sometimes narrow. The last few times, as if in play, he showed it to me next to his head instead of around it! Some years ago, when Swami gave a talk during Summer Course, the large double microphone totally obscured my view of his face. My frustration was complete until the end, when he started to sing and I was dazzled by a white, blinding light surrounding both Swami and his translator. It lasted until Baba left the stage. Most of the time, however, the halo appears to me circling his head as a brighter sky against the gray dawn, just as it did that first morning.
One of the lessons we learn from visiting Baba's ashram is that of accepting constant change. Buildings seemed to spring up almost overnight. Rules and time schedules change and then change back. His comings and goings are the topic of constant speculation. What he "usually" does may not apply. "You must learn to love my uncertainty," he has said, and he gives us plenty of opportunities. But Swami himself is always the same, the one constant in the midst of constant flux. Only our love for him grows, our hunger for the sight of him never satiated. "Past is past," he says, "future is unknown, present is temporary. Only God is permanent." Nowhere is this more apparent than when we are in his presence.
Less than a year after my first trip to India, I was back in Whitefield, this time for the 1977 Summer Course in Indian Culture and Spirituality. This 30-day program was held throughout the '70s for students from all over India and observers from all over the world.
Although friends had told me that it would be a simple matter to get an observer's pass, this turned out not to be true in my case. For nine days, I went in vain from one official to another. I was told that all the observers' passes had been distributed and that only Baba himself could give one at this late date. Every morning, my friends (with badges pinned in place) went to the college auditorium to hear lectures and receive Baba's darshan. Every evening they went and heard Baba speak about that year's topic, The Ramayana, I went also, but saw and heard from outside the door with the village women who congregated there.
However, on the tenth morning, I was given not an observer's pass, which would have entitled me to sit in the back behind the students, but a guest pass which enabled me to sit in the front row next to Baba's sisters. There I had the most glorious darshan I have ever experienced. Morning and evening, Baba would walk right by me, and throughout the evening program, I would sit literally at his feet with no one between.
One morning, as he came to the ladies' side of the auditorium, he stopped to talk to the woman next to me, an elderly American who was apparently a long-time devotee. As he leaned over to speak to her, she touched his arm and almost absently held the cloth of his sleeve between her fingers. It was the sweetest, most intimate gesture I had ever seen and for a moment jealousy cut through my heart like a knife. Yet, a moment later, tears of another kind flowed from me. As Baba walked away to give darshan on the men's side, a most unexpected prayer poured fervently, silently from my heart.
"Oh Swami, no, not even that would be close enough. No physical closeness of any kind could satisfy this hunger I have to be near you!"
Mentally, I gave up every personal attention, every sweet gift I had ever heard of his giving - words, smiles, interviews, materialized gifts, signs of affection - anything I could think of. "Oh Baba," I prayed, "take them all. I must have that ultimate closeness, that merging with you. Only then will this hunger be satisfied. I would rather try and fail at this goal than succeed at a lesser one! And Swami, I am likely to weep and complain at the hardness of this bargain in years to come. If I do, please ignore it."
By now, Baba had finished giving darshan and was seated in his place on the men's side, far across from where I sat. As my prayer came to its conclusion, he suddently got up and walked purposefully all the way across to where I was sitting, looked into my eyes, nodded, and walked directly back to his chair. What that nod of his head meant to me was, "Yes, I accept the prayer." In one moment of overwhelming yearning, the whole focus of my life changed. That yearning, that merging with God, became my only goal and so it has remained.
During my recent trip to Prashanti Nilayam, more than ten years after that momentous Summer Course, I felt Baba's love as never before, an unprecedented loving warmth directed intensely towards me during darshan, during bhajans, and in the prayer came flooding back to me. That warmth, that love, that closeness, envelops me as I write this, even now.
My love for Baba continues to grow beyond imagining. The sweetness of seeing his form is an endless joy of which I never tire. Yet no physical closeness is close enough. The nearness is as elusive as the halo around his head. I had always conceived of Baba's halo as some kind of aura or reflection of his form.
But could it be that that barely perceived light is the reality, and his beloved form the illusion that obscures our vision even as he draws us to the goal?