Attending a Discourse by Sai Baba
My account of attending a Sai Baba discourse
in Sai Kulwant Hall, Shivarathri, 1998
What you see depends on where you stand — or sit in this case. And for how long, on a marble floor, cross-legged with fifteen thousand other persons sitting similarly, except for the aged and infirm, who get to sit on the seats surrounding the walls.
I have read descriptions of extreme physical endurance before, and generally given them the swift flick from my mind. So how do I describe the experience of sitting for four hours in this position that the body protests, the back and knees actually plead for an escape. I dare not stand up or I will have a bevy of genteel and not so genteel service orderlies chanting Sai Ram, sit down at me.
But this is not the purpose of my writing. Sai Baba, the softly spoken, blissful, effervescent, concerned, detached, compassionate, serious, miracle-wielding presence hushes the crowds with his arrival. All sit up and crane their necks for a better view as he seemingly glides into the covered grounds of this auditorium, slowly lifting his hand palm up, as if he is raising the energy of all the persons in the auditorium. Baba arrives at 4.30pm. I have been sitting, waiting, since 2.30pm. Some have been there since 1pm, queuing up for the prized front rows.
Sai Baba walks around the seated ladies (approximately 8,000). He arrives at his chair and a group of young students rise and sing some ancient scriptural verses to commence the talks. Baba remains in his chair and allows the choir to approach, kneel and kiss his feet. This is an eagerly sought after boon, which is said to confer spiritual graces and blessings.
After a brief welcome and introduction, the speakers each take their turn. The first is the editor of the International Sai Baba Newsletter, who speaks in a paused, slow and reflective style. He draws thunderous applause. The next speaker is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who speaks enthusiastically, and is interrupted by applause several times. The last speaker presents Sai Baba with a gift, the first copy of his new book, which Baba autographs. All speakers kneel and kiss Baba's feet before speaking.
At last, Sai Baba stands and after the appropriate placement of microphones, and begins to speak, giving what is called a divine discourse. The occasion for this is the major Indian religious festival, Maha Shivarathri. Sai Baba speaks in his mother tongue, Telegu, and pauses every few words for the translator. Sai Baba commences with the word 'Premaswarupa', which means Embodiments of Divine Love. Sai Baba addresses each and every person there with this salutation, to remind them of their true reality and their true destiny - to become embodiments of divine love.
Then Sai Baba begins to sing. At 72 years of age, he has an enchantingly mellifluous voice that rings clearly throughout the auditorium. He then speaks with determination: sometimes soft, sometimes crashingly loud, often with a flow of words that is interrupted with moments of soft song; pausing for the Translator, and employing a captivating use of his hands to emphasize his statements.
I observed two young men having an animated conversation for nearly two hours, whilst sitting and waiting for Sai Baba to arrive. During the divine discourse, I observed these two talking animatedly again. This is significant. Spiritual progress requires discipline, effort, and, according to Sai Baba, a capacity for silence, so to hear the voice of God within. Sai Baba says that God cannot coerce or compel anyone to any act. On Christmas day in 1974, Sai Baba said among other things, that whilst God could change earth into sky and sky into earth, it is impossible to turn our hearts toward God. We have to do that ourselves.
What you see depends on where you stand, or sit, as I began. Yes, during Sai Baba's talk I did squirm around a bit, and paid a lot of attention to the lower regions of my body as parts began to alternatively go numb and scream for some form of release from this posture. I begin to understand Sai Baba saying effort, patience, self-discipline and forbearance are required.
This is verily a gathering of all nations. I have a young Vietnamese man sitting beside me; there is a group from England sitting yonder, all looking rather red-faced, having come from their winter into India's winter, which is rather warmer. There are groups from Argentina, Russia, Australia, Poland, Japan, Sweden, Paraguay, Uruguay, USA , Italy and Germany. Groups are distinguished by scarves, usually in their national colors, with the emblem of Sai Baba, or the salutation of Sai Baba, Sai Ram.
There are visitors from all parts of India, many having traveled for 3 days in buses, to be here for this festival. All these people have been drawn here by this small orange clad figure with the crown of hair who is a teacher of righteousness. Sai Baba says he has taken human form to restore righteousness on earth. He does this through his own personal example (Sai Baba owns nothing he can call his own, does not accept money or any other gifts and needs nothing from no-one), and through the example and leadership displayed by his students of his schools and University, as well as the example set by his followers, who are called devotees.
Sai Baba speaks for a little more than an hour. He speaks of the Indian scriptures (the Vedas) declaring that God is immanent in the smallest of the small, and in the biggest of the big. Sai Baba speaks about atoms, and what scientists call electron and proton, the ancient sages and seers of India knew as Shiva and Shakti. The sages and seers also knew of neutrons, which they called Sat, the light coming out of the darkness.
Whilst talking about space and time, Sai Baba describes the creation of life in the womb: the first 7 days are cellular without form; on the 15th day it will be an embryo; on the 30th day it becomes strong and crystallised. On the 60th day the head emerges. And life, (the soul) enters on the 210th day. Full form is achieved on the 240th day; and delivery occurs on the 270th day.
Sai Baba returns to speak of the nature of reality. He speaks of creation and reality as being in God, and not the reverse. This is an alien concept to the western mind, which is used to seeing God as something or someone distant who might be called out to in times of trouble or distress, or who is far away in churches, synagogues, and monasteries. Sai Baba says the all material things, objects and individuals are present in God, at the one time. So God is present in both microcosm and macrocosm.
Sai Baba also speaks of the significance of humanness and this auspicious night, which has spiritual benefits if it is spent singing sacred songs and or reading sacred texts.
The Shivarathri festival comprises of a number of activities — one is worship of and ritual offerings to the Shiva Lingham, an oblong stone, usually black, representing the formless God, and a night of chanting the name of God in song. After Sai Baba's talk, many remain and join in the night long singing of songs to Lord Shiva, as well as other spiritual songs.
The spiritual significance of this night is explained thus: Indian cosmology divides the phases of the moon into sixteen; the mind, in spiritual texts, also has sixteen compartments. The mind and its reactions, attachments, is the cause of all our ills; on this night, fifteen of the sixteen ills in the mind have gone. This means it is very close to the Divine. At midnight on this night, the human heart is closest that it will ever get to God. At midnight, Lord Shiva will descend to earth and removes all the sins and purifies the hearts of those who have been singing the glories of the Lord during the night.
Sai Baba begins the night of singing, leading the first three songs. Students from Sai Baba's colleges and University lead the singing throughout the night. During the night, Sai Baba returns and sits, spreading grace and blessing during the all-night singing. Later He leaves, to return in the morning and deliver another discourse.
The Indian day begins at 6 AM. The students, who have been singing all night, gather energy as the morning approaches. Sai Baba arrives about 5.30 am. The singers, whilst tired, suddenly find new vigor and energy. Sai Baba appears to glide ever so slowly through the throng of women. He approaches the temple in the auditorium and walks around the seated men. (Men and women are seated separately during spiritual activities to keep the energies balanced). Sai Baba inspects the preparations for the meal he will provide for all 15,000 visitors. He then walks amongst the men, sometimes pausing and speaking, and sometimes, with a characteristic wave of the hand, produces some vibuthi (sacred healing ash) from his hand, and distributes it.
Once again, Sai Baba commences his talk with some verses he sings which ring throughout the enchanted silence of the auditorium. Then he begins to speak on Truth, which he says, remains the same throughout the three periods of time, past, present and future. Sai Baba says that truth is God and whoever follows the truth suffers no dearth. Sai Baba also says that practice and sincerity are the other essentials of life.
After commenting on the singing throughout the night, Sai Baba speaks about spirituality and life in the ordinary everyday humdrum existence. Job, business and education all have a spiritual aspect. Spiritual and worldly activities should remain united. Then there will be peace in worldly actions. Then we are told a story of an ancient sage who asks one of the Indian Gods 'Where does God live?' The God replies that Heaven; the highest heavens and other sacred places beyond human realms are only branch offices. God's main address is in mans' heart.
Speaking again of spirituality and worldly pursuits, Sai Baba says that money is necessary for your life. There is nothing wrong in working for money. But you should not have too much desire for money, or peace will depart from you and desire, an ever-raging fire that cannot be satisfied, will take over and make man miserable.
Sai Baba is omniscient. Whenever the translator slips or is lost for a word, Baba turns and supplies the word as the slip is occurring. At the end of his talk, Sai Baba sings a short song which all join in. Then he turns and calls up the students, who distribute plates of sewn palm leaf, onto which a meal of rice and pongal (a sweet rice) are ladled out. We sit and eat this food, which is called prasad, food that has been blessed. The Shivarathri festival is over and the daily life of the ashram resumes.