If there was one guru I didn’t want to see in India, it was Satya Sai Baba. Between his dubious miracles, his afro haircut and the way he put on such a show, something about him really turned me off, even before I started hearing the rumours about him. So I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Neem Naroli Baba told me to “go see Sai Baba in Bangalore.”
In this case, it was a “direct order.” Maharaji was leaving his Vrindavan ashram. As was often the case, he wasn’t telling us where he was going and we were expected to leave the ashram. I got the rare opportunity to briefly ask him a question before he left, so I asked him where I should go in his absence. I was reluctant, though, so I decided to take a roundabout way of getting there.
First I went to Mumbai (then still called Bombay by most), where I called in on a soothsayer a lot of people swore by. He proceeded to tell me I would lead a relatively unremarkable life. I would never be rich, but I would have enough. I was going to have an indeterminate number of children and my later life would be more challenging and successful than my middle years. In retrospect, I can see that he was dead right, especially about the children, which he couldn’t see clearly. Well, I have two biological children and now have four young children who call me ‘Papa’ and who depend upon me.
From Mumbai, I took the ferry to Goa. I’m told Goa is much the same today as it was back then only bigger and more upmarket. Back in 1972 (or was it still ’71?), all that existed in the way of backpacker accommodations was little shacks on the beach and I’m sure there were no big hotels or resorts. The weather was glorious and after such a long stretch of time away from the beach and the hippy lifestyle, I decided to take a break from “the spiritual life” and try hedonism for a few days. Without going into graphic detail, let’s just say I pulled out all the stops, largely because of a beautiful French girl wearing nothing but a lime green loincloth (mine was day glow orange) I met on the beach on my first day. That interlude lasted all of an hour, because she and her boyfriend were leaving, but it set the stage for the remainder of my sojourn in Goa.
After a few days naked in the Goa sun, I developed a bad case of sunstroke. To top it off, I had diarrhoea, probably from the suss food I was eating and water I was drinking. Wasted and miserable, I decided to move on to Bangalore, as instructed by Maharaji. I still wasn’t excited about seeing Sai Baba, but it seemed prudent to take a break from the Goa lifestyle.
The truth is, I don’t remember anything about my trip to Bangalore except the moments before and after the occurrence I’ll describe shortly. I don’t remember how I got there, where I stayed, what or where I ate or how long I stayed. It’s all wiped from my memory banks. I do remember running across an old friend from Maui, because it was he who told me how my girlfriend had died two years previously. I knew she was dead because my former employer had sent me a telegram, but it was Bob (who had changed his name to ‘Baba’ and pronounced himself a guru) who told me she had driven off a cliff on the road to Hana. Strangely enough, I don’t remember meeting another friend and “saving his life” when I found him suffering from a bad case of hepatitis: his son told me about that some 20 years later when he stayed at my house in Australia. This is my one vivid memory from my trip to Bangalore:
It had to have been on the first or second day of my stay in Bangalore because I remember being barely able to drag myself to the scheduled Satya Sai Baba darshan. I wasn’t in the least bit keen to do it, but that’s what Maharaji had told me to do, so that’s what I was going to do. Somehow, I got a “front row seat.” From memory, there was a wide central pathway (I even remember a red carpet?!?) on either side of which long rows of devotees awaited Sai Baba’s appearance. While they waited in breathless anticipation of his arrival, I slumped miserably in the half lotus position, which was comfortable for me then, waiting for it to all be over.
When Sai Baba made his appearance, it was exactly as I imagined it would be. He sauntered down the aisle, stopping now and then to bless a random devotee or make a little vibhuti. As he got closer to me, I became increasingly determined not to touch his feet if he came up to me or show him any other kind of respect. By then I had heard about his alleged sexual exploits. In fact, I think it was “Baba” (Bob) who warned me about him, but I could be wrong. As the story goes, he was a hermaphrodite who liked to have sex with boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 21 – or something like that.
Anyway, I was thinking about these things as he approached. Together with my sunstroke and diarrhoea, I was in no mood for niceties when Sai Baba sauntered up to me. I didn’t even bother to sit up straight, much less touch his feet. In fact, I positively glowered at him. What did he do in response? He smiled, said, “Acha! Very Good!” and tapped me gently on the top of the head.
I remember a rush of energy rising up my spine. I’d felt it many times before in meditation, but never that intensely or instantly. It actually spontaneously straightened my back and lifted my head. Whether what happened next was samadhi or not, I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you anything. It wasn’t samadhi as I had (possibly – it depends on one’s definition of the word, I suppose) previously experienced it. There were no waves of bliss. It was more like a waking deep sleep – no mental activity at all, but no loss of consciousness. When I “awoke” from it, I had no sense of time having passed, yet the courtyard was nearly deserted, so Sai Baba’s darshan must have ended some time before.
It took me a few minutes to regain my bearing and stand up, but when I did, I realised that my sunstroke was gone. I felt strong and healthy again and my mind was crystal clear. This didn’t come as a revelation or relief to me, though: it was just what had happened. Surprisingly, it didn’t change my attitude towards Sai Baba, either, other than to make me less judgemental about him. I felt no compulsion to have another darshan and I never did. Instead, I must have made arrangements to travel back to Brindavan, because I remember passing through Rajasthan on my way north.
Interestingly, this marks, more or less, one year since Satya Sai Baba’s death. Even that is a matter of controversy. Some say the actual day of his death was earlier than Easter Sunday, 2011, but those in charge kept it a secret in order to give the day greater significance. To be fair to Sai Baba, here is something he had to say about the current state of the world that rings true to me:
The passage of time has clouded the splendour of the message, the fascination exercised by the material and the worldly has drawn them away from the path, and the expansion of science and technology has made them conceited and wrong-headed. So, people now relish the very things prohibited and promote the very things condemned by religion. All religions teach that one should revere the parents and evince gratitude to them; but, ridiculing them and neglecting them have become fashionable now. All religions lay down that the aged are to be honoured, since they are the repositories of experience and their guidance is indispensable; but, now elders and the aged are treated as nuisances and handicapped. All religions insist on truth; but now, the man who sticks to truth is laughed at as if he were a fool. Cruelty and violence, condemned by all religions, have raised themselves to the status of weapons of progress and means for desirable ends. However, the basic truths of religion are not affected or tarnished by the evil that men practise or the competitive propaganda they indulge in.