In part two of The Divine Teaser I would like to share with you a little story that relates to my second visit to Prasanthi Nilayam, in February 2010. As in part one, this event happened on my last day and it is also a prime example of Sai humour.
I went with a companion on my second visit, my then girlfriend, Ciara. We decided to stay the first night in a good hotel and then see about accommodation on the ashram or find a simple apartment. A significant thing also was that when we planned our trip we did not realise that it would coincide with Maha Shivaratri; one of the busiest festival times of the year. The ashram had been unbelievably busy during my first visit, which coincided with Diwali and Gujarati New Year, but this time the volume of people was just unreal. Because Ciara had a stomach condition, that meant she was in a great deal of pain for most of our stay, we ended up just staying in a very basic apartment for the duration. Once the festival was under way we didn’t have much choice anyway because it would have been nigh-on impossible to find an alternative, what with the sheer numbers of people in the village. I’d known before we set off that this trip was about her and not me. I knew in my heart that Swami was calling Ciara; I also knew that he was aware of her stomach pains and that the harsh conditions of the ashram would have been too much for her to cope with.
Our apartment was down a side street but opposite a shop that sold T-shirts. The motifs on the T-shirts were machined on the premises and the noise from the sewing machine was deafening. As a result we did not sleep that well during the whole of our stay, but we kind of got used to it as the days passed.
Because of the volume of people in Puttaparthi (and on the ashram itself), I didn’t even bother to go through the business of laying my cushion down early in the hope of getting a place in the first line; I was just content to sit anywhere in Sai Kulwant Hall, and quite often I just sat at the back. However, by the time we reached the last day of our stay Shivaratri was over, the crowds subsided and I decided that I was going to have one last go at getting as close as I could to Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I knew that it would not only be my last darshan of the trip, but my last darshan ever, because Swami had already let me know that I would not be returning to Puttaparthi. Baba has a way of letting you know things on an inner level, in the same way that he calls the millions and millions of devotees to the ashram; it’s just something that you know; words and physical presence are not necessary.
So, come mid-morning I lay my cushion down in the line to reserve my place and then went off about my business. Early-ish afternoon I returned and took my place with my cushion along with the other hopefuls, and waited for the comedy capers to begin. For the benefit of anyone reading this who has never been to Prasanthi Nilayam for the darshan of Sri Sathya Sai Baba I shall briefly explain the process of “the lines”. Once morning darshan has finished you are allowed to go and place your cushion down in a designated area in order to reserve your place in the queue for evening darshan. Once your cushion has been placed you can disappear until mid afternoon (but in the meantime hope that nobody steals your cushion and/or your place in the queue). Once the first line of cushions stretches back up the hill until it can’t go any further, another queue is formed next to it. At around 2:00 to 2:30 p.m. the queues are moved down alongside Sai Kulwant Hall. This is where the fun begins because you get people who have not been queueing trying to sneak in and this can develop into pushing and shoving. The two lines are then formed into four lines alongside the hall. At some point the four people at the head of each line are invited to draw a token out of a bag, and whichever line draws token number one gets to go into the hall first, thus getting the chance to sit right at the front and get close to Baba. Running is supposed to be strictly forbidden in such a sacred place, but as soon as people get inside they go tearing down to the front as though their lives depend on it.
I couldn’t believe my luck when the line I was in drew token number one. Now before I go any further I will just say this. Anyone who has had experience of Swami will know that he quite often plays Divine games (leelas), not only that, he sometimes gives us our own personal leela. So, there I was in the line that drew token number one; things just couldn’t get any better, I was going to see my loving Lord’s Divine form one more time before leaving. I got into the hall and sure enough people started running towards the front. I tried my hardest to be disciplined but the trouble is, because of the runners, even though you may be in line one, if everyone runs past you and takes up all the spaces on the front row, then you wont get your prime spot. So, seeing what was happening I convinced myself that Swami wouldn’t mind and I broke out into a trot. However, because of other people’s selfishness I did not get my place in the front row. But I still got a great position in row two directly opposite where Baba comes out. There was two people sitting in front of me but I was sitting directly in the middle of their two sets of shoulders so I had a really good view; I was very excited and thanked Swami for getting me this spot. As I have mentioned in previous posts it had got to the stage where Baba very rarely came out for morning darshan anymore, but you could bet your shirt on him coming out for evening darshan.
So I sat in my prime position, the Vedas were chanted and the bhajans were sung. The time was getting on, so “anytime now” I thought to myself; I would see that orange robe in the distance and my heart would explode with love and my eyes would fill with tears of joy. Then I would watch in anticipation as Baba came closer and closer to where I was sitting and I would get a really good glimpse of him. “You never know”, I thought, “I might even get that all elusive eye contact.” The bhajans went on and on, “yes, anytime now”, I thought again; and on and on they went. Then I noticed something that I must admit, I found rather amusing. There was an older Indian man sitting near me who kept looking around as though he was trying to attract the attention of anyone who would entertain him. As he looked around with a very indignant look on his face he kept pointing at his watch, as if to say “what time does he call this”. Then he would point and gesticulate with his hands as if miming “just who does he think he is, keeping us waiting like this”. Then to my amazement ararthi* was called and the man got up and walked off in a huff. The realization then dawned on me that Baba was having a bit of amusement in the way that only Baba can.
Every now and then Swami used to remind us that we were becoming far too attached to his physical form, and this was one such occasion. I also felt that this was his way of telling me that I shouldn’t take things for granted. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that my dear Swami never came out, knowing that I wouldn’t see his physical form again, but I also saw the funny side and had a good old chuckle to myself. In truth the whole thing was just one of Swami’s leelas. There I was running (I’m ashamed to admit it) in Sai Kulwant Hall because I was scared of losing my place in the front row, but the reality is that we only ever sit where Swami puts us. We all think that we are in control but all the time the Divine puppet master is having his play. I have no room for complaint anyway because dear Baba had already blessed us beyond our wildest dreams before this incident occurred, and that will be the subject of a future blog post.
As long as I remain on this Earth I will never forget the sight of that man pointing at his watch and complaining that Sri Sathya Sai Baba was keeping us waiting; absolutely priceless.
*Arathi, aarthi or aarti (from the Sanskrit term Aaraatrik) is the ritual performed at the end of every darshan, in which the flame from wicks soaked in camphor is offered to the Divine. Aartis also refers to the song which is sung as darshan comes to a close.