Background Information:

These stories are biographical narrations by the author, written down around 20 years ago. This was originally meant to be published as a book, but after completing the first eight chapters, the author chose not to continue, and thus we are left with the stories in their present incomplete form. Most of these stories took place around 1970. The areas discussed in these stories have changed greatly in the last 40 years and may not match what we see today. All of these stories are factual. There is no plan to ever publish this book, so if you want to know more, or if you want to know about other events that occurred, you would have to meet the author personally.

Chapter Seven

The first welcome I got upon my arrival at Sai Baba’s ashram was from a large group of ragged beggars sitting outside the front gate. Past them, flocks of well-off people crowded into the compound; that meant Sai Baba was here now. I viewed this scene with decidedly mixed feelings.

“He is supposed to be God”, I considered, “and his followers say he has the power to remove misfortune, disease and poverty – so why are these beggars loitering here just outside his own house? And if his disciples are really so blessed, why don’t they do something more for these poor people than just give them a few coins?”

With these misgivings, I entered the spacious and rather beautiful ashram compound. In the middle stood Sai Baba’s residence, a large apricot-colored building called the Mandir; before it, on a stretch of sandy soil called the ‘darshan area’, perhaps a thousand people sat on their haunches in rows, waiting for Sai Baba to appear on the upper-floor balcony. Beyond the crowd was a round, roofed stage, the Shanti Vedika. Nearby that, pilgrims were camped in large open sheds.

Other buildings, arrayed around the compound wall, faced the Mandir. I noticed a small hospital. I’d heard that just by eating the holy ash (vibhuti) that Sai Baba mysteriously produces from his hand, the diseases of the faithful were cured. Reading the sign listing the visiting hours of the doctors, I wondered why, if he had the power to cure with ash, he needed a hospital staffed with Western-trained physicians.

A big, bearded and bright-turbaned Sikh came walking past the darshan area. I fell in step with him and asked where he was going, and he told me he was on the way to the canteen to get something to eat. We got to talking; he asked me about myself, and I told him I’d left everything for spiritual life. “I am searching for God,” I said with a mild smile, “so I came to see if God is really here.”

He flashed a mischievous grin. “Well, I don’t believe in any of these so-called avatars, but I happened to be on business nearby and somebody told me Sai Baba is God, so I just dropped in here to see what this God is up to.” He chuckled. Then he looked at me quizzically and asked, “You have no money?”

“No”, I replied.

Stopping, he held up a forefinger and declared sonorously, “Don’t worry, God is here, and he will not feed you.” We both burst out laughing.

Still laughing, I said, “Well, God may not feed me, but you are here, so why don’t you buy me breakfast?”

“Oh, no problem”, he exclaimed heartily. Slapping me on the back, he lead me into the canteen. “What’s your name?”

“Swami Atmananda.”

“Oh, you’re a swami?”

“Yes, I just became swami yesterday.” We had another big laugh.

The canteen served the usual South Indian fare of idli, dosa and sambar. I was ravenous, and the Sikh was obliging. “Eat up,” he urged, ordering more dosas for me, “because God won’t feed you, and I’m leaving in half an hour. Whatever you want, you take. Don’t worry.” I packed it in, and he paid for it happily.

Coming out of the canteen, he pointed me to the inquiry office, telling me if I had any questions, I could get them answered there. We bade each other fond farewells. Then I entered the office and browsed through some of the books on display there. From a volume of his lectures on the Ramayana, I gleaned that Sai Baba’s teachings consisted of standard Advaitist platitudes and little else. Well aware that Advaita philosophy is the de rigueur of all popular Hindu gurus, I was not impressed.

Putting the book back, I asked a man in the office if there was a room I might have. This gentleman, Mr. N. K., turned out to be the chief assistant to Sai Baba in the ashram. He answered my question by quoting the prices of guest facilities.

“But I have no money. I want to stay here for two weeks. Can’t you give me a place to live?”

“I am so sorry,” N.K. answered with resigned finality, “but we don’t have such arrangements. If you wish to stay for free, you may kindly move into the pilgrims’ sheds.”

I changed the subject. “I’d like to see Sai Baba. Is there a way to do that?”

“Oh,” he smiled benevolently, “seeing God is not so easy. Just see…” he motioned towards the darshan area where the crowd sat expectantly in the sun. “Today they’ve been waiting for two hours. Some have been here for months, not leaving. No one knows when he will come down to see them. It is all divine.”

Leaving Mr. N.K., I entered the darshan area and sat down in a vacant space in one of the rows. On my right was a Chettiar (a member of the Tamil merchant community). He started telling me about a daughter of his who could not speak; he’d left home and business “to get the God to give her a voice. I’ve been here seven days – no darshan! My time has not come. I don’t know what I will do now.” His lips quivered and he abruptly turned away, his eyes brimming with tears.

All I could think was, “What am I doing here?” I stood up and left the compound through the gate. I walked down the sandy road to some whitewashed buildings ahead of me and noticed a cloth shop that had a ‘Lodging’ sign above a side entrance. Inside were four rooms for rent. Not seeing anyone, I sat down on the steps outside.

I was considering how gullible these Sai Baba followers seemed to be when a man came out of one of the rooms as if to leave. I greeted him with “Sai Baba” and he echoed my greeting.

I asked him, “What are you doing here and what prayer do you have?”

He was a bit astonished at my cryptic question and knelt down next to me, asking excitedly, “Where is Swami from?”

I made another mysterious statement: “Swami is from wherever he is. Just tell me – what is your prayer?”

He was flustered. “Oh, but Swami knows my prayer.”

I gazed at him stonily. “That may be, but still we should say our prayers openly.”

He was trembling when he answered. “I am doing a big business, and I am not sure what is the outcome, so I need blessings.”

I paused, mysteriously surveying the sky as if consulting the gods. Then riveting him again with my eyes, I asked, “What time do you go for darshan?”

“Oh, I was thinking of going now, but I’ve heard there are so many people. I have tried six times to see Sai Baba. I’m not complaining, you understand, it must be my sinful karma, but my time has not come.”

I said with finality, “I want to go with you for darshan. Also, where are you staying?”

“I am staying here. The owner of this shop is my relative.”

“I want to stay with you. I have no place.”

“Oh, certainly! I should be very happy to have a swami stay with me. Swamis don’t often come here, because they don’t understand that Sai Baba is God. Only very rarely is it revealed to them that the God they are seeking is Sai Baba. So you please come with me.”

He took me into his room and asked about my bags. I answered disdainfully, “The whole world is my bag.” I refreshed myself and took a light nap. Then we both went to the darshan area.

We sat down in the first row. I could not help but think how foolish all this was: “If these people think that they can’t see Sai Baba because their time hasn’t come, then who is more powerful, time or him?”

Suddenly he appeared on the balcony, holding up his right palm in the abhaya-mudra blessing. I observed him intently. After seeing how easy it was to influence his disciples, I wanted learn more. Somewhere in the back of my mind a plan was brewing.

His long frizzy hair formed a black halo around his face. He wore a long-sleeved iridescent orange silk gown that reached to the floor. He flitted downstairs quickly like a wraith. I watched his walk, his gestures, his facial expressions. He moved ever nearer to me along the first row, taking letters from people and holding them in his left hand. Finally he went past on to the end.

I noted that as he went down the row he motioned a few people to stand. Mr. N.K. quickly gathered them in a group.

Without going on to the seven rows behind, Sai Baba came back the same way. He stopped in front of my new roommate and looked at him closely. My friend stared back goggle-eyed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. Abruptly Sai Baba turned away from him and looked at me, motioning with his finger that I should stand. I really didn’t know what was going on, because this was my first time here.

My friend was bursting with excitement: “Oh, you have been called! Sai Baba has granted your interview! Please, can you mention my case to him? Ask a blessing for me!” As I got up, he touched my feet. N.K. directed me to join the other chosen ones.

Meanwhile Sai Baba passed swiftly through the other rows, almost as if he was floating. After finishing, he came back our way and nodded to Kasturi, saying in Telegu, “Send them up.” Then he went upstairs.

I walked up right behind him with Kasturi. As he reached the balcony at the top of the stairs, Sai Baba threw all the letters into a big metal cannister. Then he turned left and went inside his quarters. Kasturi showed us into the interview room on the right. There were six of us. We sat down on sofas to wait.

Sai Baba entered the interview room through a door that opened from his quarters. Everybody rose with palms joined in pranam-mudra. Out of politeness, I also got up. I had a close look at his eyes; they seemed staring and unfocused.

He gave ash to a couple of people – I saw it clearly materialize from his fingers. Near me stood a girl of about ten with her father. When Sai Baba came to her he set two earrings that just appeared in his hands into the lobes of her ears. Father and daughter gasped in astonishment, for her ears had not been pierced before. Now they were, and hung with gold.

Seeing this feat, everyone cried “Sai Baba! Sai Baba!” in great wonderment. Then, without acknowledging me with so much as a glance, he turned back and exited from whence he came.

A moment later N.K. came in through the same door and announced, “The interview is over; everyone should go now. He did not speak with you, but you are very fortunate, for you saw a miracle of Sai Baba’s power.” He waved everybody to the door that opened on the balcony, and we stood to leave.

I followed the father and daughter, but N.K. stopped me with an outstretched hand. “Please continue to sit. Sai Baba wants you to wait here comfortably.” I nodded, a bit nonplussed, and retook my seat. As soon as the room was cleared, Sai Baba came in again. This time he looked different.

He didn’t have that entranced, almost dazed look I’d seen on his face before. Now he appeared completely normal and relaxed. I thought irreverently, “This is interesting: mad looks for the masses.”

He stood in front of me. This time I didn’t get up. Speaking in Sanskrit, he asked me how I was feeling and if everything was all right. I replied in Tamil, “I do not know Sanskrit; please speak to me in your native tongue.” He switched to his Telegu and asked the same question. Conversation was now possible, because Telegu and Tamil are quite similar.

I answered, “By God’s grace, everything is alright. I have a place to stay, and my plan is to visit the ashram for two weeks.” He walked around the room as if in thought and came back to me.

“You say you want to visit for two weeks?” I nodded.

“What is your mission?”

Remembering what I’d told the Sikh, I replied, “I am looking for God.”
He suddenly smiled and half-raised his arms, turning the palms of his hands in my direction in what I guessed was a benison. Bending his body slightly at the knees, hips and shoulders, he tilted his head coyly to one side and uttered in a silky voice, “If you can’t find God here, where will you find Him?”

I was not very impressed by this little show, and was beginning to feel uncomfortable. “Well, I’ll be here for some time, and I hope to meet with you more…” I mumbled. He looked at me intently and said, “Any time you want, you can see me.”

Just then a servant appeared in the doorway to his apartment and gave a signal. Sai Baba waved him off. He turned to me again and asked, “Aren’t you hungry?”

It was just about lunchtime, so I answered, “I wouldn’t mind to eat something now, but of course I have to arrange that somebody gives me biksha.”

He smiled magnanimously. “Eat with me.”

I couldn’t hide my surprise and I thanked him. He went through the door and I followed. We came into a room that looked like a place for confidential talks. We sat down on both sides of a small round table.

Through a large entranceway I could see into his bedroom. I noted some of the paraphernalia of God: a plush bed, an alarm clock and some medicine bottles on a nightstand, and, behind a half-open door, a flush toilet.

He nonchalantly sang something to himself as the servant brought the lunch on a serving tray. The meal consisted of utma (vegetables fried with farina), achar (hot pickle), fried eggplant and coffee.

The utma, to my surprise, was flavored with onions; I knew that strict sadhus shunned onions, as this food gives rise to passions. Coffee, an intoxicant, would likewise be considered a worldly indulgence. But apparently Sai Baba did not care for these rules. And neither did I, for I’d not been given sannyasa under vows to a guru.

We finished. He got up to wash and gargle, and I did the same. Then with his customary benign smile he nodded his head, indicating that I could go.

As I came down the staircase, I saw the people still sitting in rows, now gazing at me with open mouths. My friend the roommate rushed up to me with a look of awed ecstasy fixed on his face. Others were running up behind him as we met at the bottom of the stairs.

He eagerly inquired, “What happened? After the interview the others came down but Sai Baba kept you with him.”

I said with a nonchalant shrug, “Oh, I had lunch with him, that’s all.”

Suddenly it seemed two hundred people were mobbing me. I was pulled towards a fancy lodging block and ended up in a big air-conditioned apartment with a roomful of rich people sitting in front of me. They had locked the door and were guarding it because a big crowd had gathered outside.

It was practically an interrogation session: “What about the miracle with the earrings? And what did Sai Baba say to you?” But I sat silent and serene in the big plush chair they’d given me. In my mind, I was gloating at my sudden change of fortune. I wondered if I could exploit this situation further. I had to find out what being God was really like. “Just do it,” the opportunist within myself crowed. “It’s not a sin; you’re just giving them faith in something higher. This is the life you’ve been waiting for.”

Ignoring their babble, in the relaxed and self-assured manner I’d picked up from him, I began singing “Chitta Chora” (Thief of My Mind), a very well-known Sai Baba song. The entire group froze in a hush. Then one by one they started clapping and singing along enthusiastically until the whole room was in an uproar. The song completed, again I was silent. The proverbial pin would have sounded like a car crash.

Finally, I spoke, softly: “What do you want from me? I am a beggar.”

“Swami,” came the answer, “you’re one of those rare swamis who has accepted Sai Baba as God. Sai Baba has said this is very extraordinary, because he is hiding from those who are engaged in religious and spiritual life. He says that at the end of their sadhana he gives them the darshan they expect – if they worship Rama, he’ll appear to them as Rama. If they worship Shiva, he’ll come to them as Shiva. But as Sai Baba, only very fortunate people can see him.”

I closed my eyes. “But to me”, I murmered, “he is simply a guide.”

Somebody from the back exclaimed, “Ah-hah, what a vision! His guide!” I began to perceive that whatever I said here would be accepted as “nectarean truth.”

Just then a curtain that covered the opened glass door to the balcony moved in the breeze. Seeing this, two ladies in the crowd began to weep. “Sai Baba! Sai Baba is here with us right now!”, they sobbed.

Now I could really see how it worked. One didn’t have to do anything. Such foolish people would create their own “miracle”, propagate it, and make you God.

My friend was there in the crowd, close by. He urged, “Swami, please tell us your experience with Sai Baba.”

“Everybody was sent out,” I began, “but Mr. N.K. asked me to remain seated, and Sai Baba came to me. He spoke to me in Sanskrit.”

They all looked at each other with wide-open eyes. I heard murmurings of “Sanskrit! Veda! Veda coming out of his mouth.”

I continued on, even to the point of standing up to show them the pose he made when he said, “If you can’t find God here, where will you find him?” And I told them how he said anytime I wanted I could have darshan. They hung onto every word.

My friend asked, “Did you speak to him about me?” I shook my head solemnly. He whined, “But I requested you to do that.”

I answered with gravity, “Either you understand he’s God, or you understand he’s an ordinary person. If you think he’s God, then he knows. If you think he’s an ordinary person, you shouldn’t be here. Why should anyone have to recommend your case?”

Someone exclaimed, “That’s the exact thing Sai Baba says! ‘If you think I am God, then why don’t you have faith, and if you don’t think I am, then why are you here?’ Sai Baba speaks the same thing!”

Another lady called from the back, “Swami, one more song? Some nectar for our ears?” So I sang a song about Vishnu, one Sai Baba also sings but which is not his composition. As the afternoon drew on I got hungry. They brought me to the canteen and of course, paid for everything.

As it turned out, my friend had also became a celebrity with these rich people because of his relationship to me. They flocked to him to get my attention, and they flocked to me to get Sai Baba’s attention.

Despite my hidden cynicism about the ‘God’ of the ashram, I was yet quite drawn to him because he had pulled it off so well. Having renounced worldly aspirations, I’d found here a whole new temptation. Nothing arouses ambition in the heart like the fame of another, and though I was loathe to admit it to myself, I envied this ‘God’. The curious thing was that my crass imitation of Sai Baba’s behavior was thought by his followers to be devotion to him.

I was to find out that he thought that way too.

Parts in this series:

Chapter 1: Exposure to the Tantric Path
Chapter 2: Secrets of Left-hand Tantra
Chapter 3: The Gate of Dreams (Tantrics of Kerala)
Chapter 4: The Self in the Mirror
Chapter 5: Again a Mouse
Chapter 6: I become ‘Swami Atmananda’
Chapter 7: With and against Sai Baba
Chapter 8: Odd Gods of the South

Background information: These stories are biographical narrations by the author, written down around 20 years ago. This was originally meant to be published as a book, but after completing the first eight chapters, the author chose not to continue, and thus we are left with the stories in their present incomplete form. Most of these stories took place around 1970. The areas discussed in these stories have changed greatly in the last 40 years and may not match what we see today. All of these stories are factual. There is no plan to ever publish this book, so if you want to know more, or if you want to know about other events that occurred, you would have to meet the author personally.