Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Any desire other than God is a distraction at best - Govinda's life story with Sri Sathya Sai

Destiny is another name for God’s arrangements

Govinda had a broad smile on his face as he filled the application form to enroll into the National Defence Academy. Joining the Indian army had been his only dream during the school days and he was just a step away from achieving it. The 12th grade National Board Exams had concluded and Govinda was very confident of repeating his 10th grade Board Exam performance where he had topped his school. But there was only one problem. His father, a temple priest by profession and his mother, a simple housewife, wanted him to study more and gain degrees in accordance to the traditions of the Brahmin caste they belonged to. It was obvious that they had not understood the Bharatiya tradition of caste based on aptitude and not birth. Govinda’s aptitude had always been for physical rigour, discipline and courage. Though he was born to Brahmin parents and carried the surname, Upadhyaya, the ancient Indian tradition would have placed him in the Kshatriya caste with a different surname perhaps!

He had somehow prevailed on his parents and was hurriedly filling the forms before they could change their minds. That is when his friendly neighbour, Gupta uncle walked into the house holding some other forms.
“Govind beta, take this. You should join this college. I have all the necessary forms here.”
Govinda saw the name of the college - Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.
“Thanks uncle but no thanks! I am joining the army...”
“This is like the army and better than it also. You just apply. The entrance exams are in the first week of May in Prasanthi Nilayam.”
“Where is that?”
“Puttaparthi... Andhra Pradesh. That is Sathya Sai’s ashram.”

All these were new words for Govinda. He had not heard the term ‘Sai Baba’ in his life so far. He knew of some Babas near his hometown, Dehradun, and assumed that this Sai Baba also must be a wandering renunciate like them.
“But I have my NDA exams in the first week of May.”
“Just do as I am telling you. This will be the best decision of your life.” Gupta uncle was persistent.
“This is what you should do - study. Please do this instead of becoming a Kshatriya”, the parents pleaded.

Out of respect for the very loving Gupta uncle and to please his parents Govinda agreed to fill the forms. To his surprise, his favourite Mathematics teacher also egged him to apply in the Baba’s college in spite of having no information about him.

For the first time in his life, Govinda decided to step out of his home state of Uttar Pradesh and travel more than 2000 kilometres to the state of Andhra Pradesh. Before he left, Gupta uncle gave him a filled rucksack which contained several pairs of white dresses along with other essentials that he would need for a year! He also gave him Rs. 15,000 before bidding him all the best. His parents gave him an additional Rs. 5,000.  Thus it was that in the first week of May of the millennium-changing year 2000, Govinda found himself in Puttaparthi, to write the entrance examinations for the BSc degree.

A ‘hot’ welcome

Puttaparthi was an immediate put-off for Govinda. It was simply too hot for him in sharp contrast to the cool Dehradun climate. Added to that, it was a ghost-town (as Swami was in Brindavan, Bangalore, in the month of May 2000). He was accommodated along with three others from the states of Himachal Pradesh and Bihar. These three would always have Sai Baba’s name on their lips and would keep studying for the exams. Govinda thought they were crazy. He had decided not to study one bit so that he would flunk the exams and go back home. Little did he know the power of the destiny-strings with which the Lord beckons to a devotee!

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

God's PUSH is always for the greater good of the individual

How many times do we go through something in life, wondering why that is happening to us. We are convinced that life would be much better if things proceed in the manner of our thinking. Hours, days, weeks, months or (sometimes) even years may pass. One day, suddenly, looking back on those very same episodes in life, we are grateful for them because they have made us what we are today.

In matters concerning Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, my God, Master and best friend, I always felt that I wasted those ten-odd years of my life during which I did not know Him. I used to wonder how much better life would be if only I had come to Him earlier. Today, in retrospect, I am simply happy because I am convinced of God’s perfect timing which I have experienced and understood multiple times. Of course, there are still those instances where I do not understand why something is happening. I try to tell myself in complete faith that things are happening in the best manner possible - only that I am not yet aware of the significance and beauty of the Lord’s action. That is the secret of surrender.

Let Go... Let God
A big opportunity and an even bigger challenge

In 1994, I had wanted to study in Swami’s school but was not getting admission at Puttaparthi. I was told that I could apply in the Puttaparthi school only for grade 11. Desperate to be in His school at any cost, I had got myself admitted at the Sri Sathya Sai Vidyapeeth in Calicut, Kerala. I was in 8th grade in 1995 when I was presented with an irresistible offer after I won the Hindi elocution competition.
“Would you like to deliver a speech in Hindi for the festival of Onam in Sai Kulwant hall, Prasanthi Nilayam, in Bhagawan’s divine presence?”
I was thrilled. I would have been ready to memorise and deliver a speech in French also if it was in Swami’s immediate presence! I nodded and jumped at the opportunity.

The opportunity was also a big challenge. My Hindi was (and is) at best average. The elocution competition victory was simply an ode to my memorizing skills and definitely not a confirmation of my mastery over India’s national language! So, I decided to use the same technique as the elocution competition for this speech also - I decided to learn it by-heart!

I had two months to prepare and I requested my Hindi teacher to write down the entire speech for me. Then began the act of ‘mugging’, the colloquial term at school for committing something to memory!  Weeks of labour and hundreds of rehearsals later, I had become adept in my speech. In fact, if someone woke me up in my sleep and uttered “Aum Sri Sai Ram” - the first line of my speech - I could simply rattle out in the next 7.5 minutes my entire speech with the voice modulation and body language! I was quite well prepared for Onam in the Divine presence.

In order to justify some of the feelings I went through later, I must give a brief background of the atmosphere in my school which was also called Sri Sailam.

A picture that fills me with nostalgia today - the bust of Swami welcoming everyone into Sri Sailam.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Dating and Marriage - insights from a divine drama staged by Sri Sathya Sai Baba

By the love and grace of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, many opportunities have come my way to address the youth from many countries. It is a great privilege to be able to share thoughts, ideas and ideals with this reservoir of great potential - the reservoir that will be sustaining the society and world in the future days to come. My observation has been that though the themes of the different conferences, meets, study circles and satsanghs may vary greatly, the questions and problems that the youth face fall broadly into just 3 themes. These are:
  1. Relationships
  2. Money and career
  3. Practical Spirituality

Here, in this piece, the idea is to deal with ONLY the first theme - relationships (and that too dating and marriage).
When it comes to relationships (in the youth), the focus is invariably on friendships, dating and marriage. The other relations either are not given that much attention or they come into picture only because they too have a role to play in the “friendship, dating and marriage” theme.

"I shall direct My own drama to leave behind a message for posterity", that is what the Divine Thought seems to be
as He gazes into the future with a smile... 

Imagine my joy when, while flipping through the pages of my personal diary, I came across an unexpected episode that happened on the 2nd of March, 2010, in the direct physical presence of Swami, which provides many insights on this very sensitive theme of dating and marriage! I felt a thrill in my heart because I realized this was Swami’s way of helping me and, in turn, all those that have questions and doubts in this regard. So, with deep gratitude and prayers, I shall take this nostalgic ride down memory lane, to the day when Swami amazed the whole of Sai Kulwant hall with His seemingly childlike actions. Though it is very tempting to fast forward and rush to the Divine delight that drenched the devotees, it is only fair that everyone be allowed to participate in the day as it unfolded. And so, we begin from the beginning.

In the beginning, there was nothing...

That is how the history of the universe begins; that is how the Parthi Yatra (Parthi Pilgrimage) began for the devotees from the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand began. They had come prepared with multiple cultural programmes to be put up the Divine Presence on the occasion of the festival of Holi. Holi was on March 1st but to the great disappointment of the pilgrims, even as the clock showed 06:30 pm and the bhajans were on in full swing, there was no sign of Swami coming. It was a sort of anti-climax because on the previous 5 days, Swami had granted darshan in the mornings as well as evenings. The day ended without even a single darshan. Holi didn’t turn out to be so holy after all!

The Lord has His reasons and those are beyond the comprehension of us mortals. On the morning of the 2nd of March, Swami told the pilgrims that He would see their programme in the evening. The devotees from Bihar and Jharkhand began preparations in right earnest and with sincere prayers. Many cancelled their return tickets to stay an extra day in Prasanthi. Soon, the backdrop was in place and the children were ready in costumes. As was the practice, Veda chanting began at 4:30 pm and concluded at 5:00 pm. But well, as said earlier, in the beginning there was nothing! Nothing in terms of signs of Swami's arrival.

Then there was the Word! The word was with God; the word was God! It was at 6:30pm that there was word of Swami's arrival. And then He came!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Yearning to serve is the only prerequisite to serve - the Nepal Youth Conference 2017

When God arranges...

I walked into the magnificent Bengaluru airport gearing up for my late-evening flight to Kathmandu. This was going to be my first ever visit to neighbouring Nepal and I was both nervous and excited. I was travelling to participate in the National Youth Conference of the Sri Sathya Sai Organization there (14th and 15th of April, 2017) and I had been told that more than a thousand youngsters in the age group 16-35 would be participating. The energy and power that the youth carry is tremendous and as Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For me, it was a slightly modified statement,
“With the opportunity to address and harness great power comes great responsibility.”
The ‘responsibility’ part made me nervous; the ‘opportunity’ part excited me.

The wonderful venue for the National Youth Conference 2017 at Nepal. (Courtesy the head of the Armed Police in
Nepal who admires Swami with all his heart!)
Taking a seat in the lounge, I made a quick, momentary prayer to God.
“Swami, it has to be all You at the conference. You alone inspire, You alone transform. May I be a good instrument.”
I had barely completed my thought when Swami responded in a startling manner. I began to hear the bhajan, “Omkara Roopini Janani Maa” in my most favourite voice - that of Ravi Bhaiya. I was thrilled and I turned around to see where it was emanating from. It was the ringtone of an elderly lady.

As she completed her call, I moved towards her and said,
“Sairam aunty. Are you coming from Puttaparthi?”
“Oh Yes... Wait a minute? Aren’t you Aravind? I have read your books. I know your mother...”
“Yes aunty. I am Aravind and I too have come from Puttaparthi. Am travelling to Kathmandu for a conference.”
“I am also travelling to Kathmandu! I am Heera Basnet and I am a permanent volunteer at Prasanthi Nilayam...”

Needless to say, a sweet Satsangh ensued and I felt the reassuring warmth of Swami’s love. The nervousness was gone, replaced by confidence in His Divine Plan. It was only excitement now.

The flight was delayed by an hour. When it finally arrived, I realized that my seat, 34B, was in the last row and would lack the pushback ability of other seats. I didn’t want to curse my luck for I felt there was a reason why Swami had put me there. But then, things started to get a little bad. The guy on my right asked for alcoholic beverages and then for non-vegetarian food. I always like to believe Swami travels with me everywhere I go and I was finding it hard to see Swami in this person.
“NO! I cannot touch non-veg food. I have specifically asked for vegetarian while booking my tickets”, boomed a voice from my left.
Hearing him argue in Nepali with the air-hostess, I realized that there was no more vegetarian meals on board! It was exhausted and would we prefer fish or chicken? Now I cursed my fate and asked for some bread and butter. Mutual frustration kindled a conversation between me and the guy to my left. Imagine my surprise when I found out that he was the former youth-coordinator, Bishnu KC, for the SSIO in Nepal!
The Conference commenced with a march by more than thousand youngsters through the busy roads of Halchowk. 

Another beautiful satsangh followed as I learned about Swami’s love for Nepal and the Nepali youth’s love for Him from Bishnu. I understood why Swami had arranged the seating in that manner for me. It was valuable prep for me before the conference.

The first miracle and a few more...

It was past 10:30 pm as Bishnu guided me out of the crowded Tribhuvan International Airport. I was welcomed by a radiant young man, Bhaskar Bhattrai, who took me to my room in his car. The streets of Kathmandu were vibrant with activity of the Rajasic and Tamasic types. Bars were in full swing and disco music was being served liberally.
“Tomorrow is the Nepali New Year day, the day of Baisakhi”, said Bhaskar, “and so, don’t be surprised to see youngsters pull all-nighters like this in the extended weekend.”

The next morning, we reached the venue at the Armed Police Headquarters in Halchowk, Swayambhu. The decorated venue amazed me.
“This place looks wonderfully done. This is how it would be if Swami was visiting!”
“Sairam brother”, said a smiling, red-eyed youngster, “it has been our privilege to work for Swami through the night to get this hall ready for Him.”
What this youngster, Sarad, told me thrilled me with delight. I silently told Swami in my heart,
“Swami, thank you for giving me the opportunity to witness a miracle. When all over Kathmandu, the youth are pulling all-nighters for wine, women and sensual indulgence, here are a thousand youth preparing through the night for You. This is a miracle Swami! Your miracle of pure love!”

Friday, 31 March 2017

The value of Darshan - a lesson learned at Tirupati

East is east, west is west and the twain shall never meet

Ever since I found my God and Master in Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, I have never felt the need or desire to go on any kind of pilgrimage or visit any temple. It is not that I haven’t been to any temple or houses of worship. But, I have never visited them with the intention to ‘propitiate’ any God or deity. For instance, I have visited the Badrinath temple because my Swami has been there. I have been to the temple at Kedarnath because I love being in the Himalayas. I have gone multiple times to Lepakshi (45 kms from Puttaparthi) because of my love for architecture and history. Having gone to these places, I reverentially bow down to the deity knowing that my salutations are reaching Swami. However, I have never been to any temple with the aim of ‘bowing down to the deity’.

Lord Venkateshwara of Tirumala (Tirupati).

Thus it was that I never visited the world famous shrine at Tirumala (Tirupati) though it is less than 225 kms away from Puttaparthi. I did not find any reason to do so (nature, history, architecture etc) and I wasn’t prepared to go there only to ‘offer obeisance’ to Lord Balaji (Lord Venkateshwara). That apart, I also had several reservations against the Tirupati shrine based on what I had heard from people.
  1. Stand in line for hours to go and see God.
  2. Pay money to buy a ‘darshan ticket’ and have a quicker darshan route.
  3. Get pushed away right in front of the sanctum by temple authorities trying to speed up the lines.
  4. Pay to buy Prasadam.
The fact that Tirupati is the richest temple in the world based on donations it receives added to my hesitation to go there. (Somehow there is a bias that lots of money breeds evil. As our great epic Mahabharata shows, money and power are not the root causes for evil; the greed for money and power are. And there is a big difference in owning money/power and being greedy for money/power.)

That apart, whenever I thought of Tirupati, I was reminded of the incident wherein Sri N Kasturi (Swami’s biographer) wanted to visit Tirupati because it was his family deity. Swami had asked him then,
“Why Kasturi? Don’t you have the faith that the prayers you have placed at my feet have also reached the feet of Lord Venkateshwara?”

So, whenever my wife Pooja broached the subject of going to Tirupati, I would hardly evince any interest. After my daughter Bhakti was born, Pooja wanted to make a visit to Tirupati and I had simply asked,
“Why? Isn’t seeking Swami’s blessings in Prasanthi Nilayam enough?”
She had her reasons and I had mine but the twain would never meet.

The passport to Tirupati

We decided to apply for a passport for Bhakti. Having filled everything online, we found out that the nearest PSK (Passport Seva Kendra) for Puttaparthi was (yeah, you guessed it right), Tirupati!

“We will have to go to Tirupati for Bhakti’s passport. We should have darshan”, Pooja said.
I agreed. I felt that it would be arrogance on my part and an insult to Lord Venkateshwara if I went to Tirupati and didn’t have darshan in the temple at Tirumala.
“But we will stay there only for a day. Let us not forget that we are going for Bhakti’s passport.”
I wanted my Swami to know that I was fiercely loyal. I was going to Tirupati only because of the passport. The darshan was just incidental.
Pooja told me that she would be booking the ‘300 Rs ticket’ because it would be very difficult to have darshan along with Bhakti in the general queue.She did not want me to argue about it and I wisely kept quiet. I told Swami in my heart,
“Swami, I am not booking any tickets. My wife is doing of her own volition. I am loyal to you alone!”

The passport appointment was made, darshan tickets booked and hotel rooms reserved. We drove to Tirupati on Sunday, 12th March 2017.

Welcome delight

Beauty and divinity radiate from Lord Venkateshwara. This picture was taken in
the Shanti Vedika, Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium during the
Sahasra Poorna Chandra Darshanam (completion of  seeing thousand full moons
in one's life) of Bhagawan Baba. 
It was around 5:30 pm when we reached a place called Sreenivasa Mangapuram, 12 kms away from Tirupati. We drove into the temple compound, parked the car and went in for darshan. Just before we entered the temple, we witnessed a little procession of the Utsava Moorthis, the processional idols. Seeing the Arati, we walked into the main shrine. There were about 40-50 people standing in a queue and so, within 15 minutes, we were face to face with an exquisitely beautiful idol of Lord Balaji. I was overwhelmed with the beauty and divinity that seemed to radiate all around. I had Bhakti in my arms but I could feel Bhakti in my heart too!

It was only later that I got to know, Srinivasa Mangapuram is no ordinary temple. The deity here  is replica of Tirumala deity, larger in fact. It is one of the 5 most important temples of Tirupati. It was a stroke of great good luck that we did not face any crowds. I was grateful to Swami for the beautiful experience. It had softened me a bit.

We checked into a comfortable hotel room for the night. It was going to be a big day tomorrow with visits scheduled to the passport office and to the Tirumala shrine.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The pilgrimage to Prasanthi Nilayam - a very special private discourse

The 3 stages of a pilgrimage

A journey or search with a spiritual significance and meaning is a pilgrimage. Frankly speaking, I cannot think of any other reason why anyone would want to visit Prasanthi Nilayam on a regular basis. If one comes as a tourist to enjoy a vacation, one is bound to get bored very soon. If one comes as a seeker of worldly comfort, one is bound to get disappointed. If one comes out of curiosity, he/she will leave once that curiosity is satiated. But if one has the slightest inclination to seek the spiritual, Prasanthi will attract him/her over and over again. For, after all, isn't the ultimate goal of a spiritual journey Prasanthi (Supreme Peace)?

That is why it is important that whenever we visit Puttaparthi, we treat it as a pilgrimage. Any pilgrimage has three stages.

Welcome to Prasanthi Nilayam... and there is Sri Sathya Sai's name greeting you even as you arrive!
The first stage is when you learn about the place, delve into its history (which is nothing short of delving into His Story) and develop reverence for it. There is faith that the journey to be undertaken is the most special one.
The second stage is the actual stay at the place with the conviction that each and every thing happening to oneself is part of a Masterplan that will help you in the spiritual journey.
The final stage is to return to one's home, carrying the place of pilgrimage in one's heart. Then, one shares about the journey to others in the spirit of selflessness. This sharing serves as the first stage for other wannabe pilgrims.

It is indeed a piece of good fortune that when it comes to Prasanthi Nilayam, we have the presiding deity speak on how one should prepare for it and benefit from it. This is a very special discourse that I located by the sheer grace of our beloved Swami. Though it was addressed to the overseas devotees, it applies to anybody coming to Prasanthi Nilayam even from within the country. Needless to say, it applies the most to people like me, who have made Prasanthi Nilayam their home. It is with great joy and love that I am sharing this discourse. It was first published in the Sathya Sai Newsletter, the 1984 Fall edition, on page 28. It is reproduced sincerely below.

Close your eyes, visualize your Swami sitting with you and speaking to you in all love. Then proceed with reading.

The unexpected call

On the evening of August 20, 1984, word was circulated within the ashram at Prasanthi Nilayam that Baba wished for all the foreigners to assemble in the mandir (temple) the next morning. So, shortly after eight on the morning of the 21st of August, virtually all of the foreigners crowded into the mandir bhajan hall. The doors and windows were ordered shut by Swami, and two translators were summoned. Mr. V K Narasimhan translated from Telugu to English, and Mr. Craxi translated from English to Italian. The transcript of that discourse follows below.


What is the use of being a human without knowing what humanness is?

Having taken this precious birth as a human being, we must realize what that humanness means. Man means the mind. Mind means desires. The result of desires may be good or bad. You experience the consequence of those good or evil things in your daily life. Therefore, the first thing you have to do is to realize that you are human. Having been born as human beings, we must make an effort to live up to our human values. In matters relating to food, sleep, and enjoyment, the behavior of man has much in common with animals. We take food. We sleep. We enjoy the pleasures of the senses. Similarly, birds, animals, and other creatures also experience this. What is the distinction between human life and the life of other animals? What is the purpose of life?

Many people do not think about this. Having been born as human beings, we must live as human beings. There are four things in which we must behave like human beings.
  1. Discipline
  2. Manners
  3. Behavior
  4. Dress
Today we are living very much the life of animals. We think that man's job is to enjoy the senses. This is not true humanness. Compassion, love, adjustment, conduct, manners, understanding —these are the qualities that human beings should develop.

On multiple spouses...

In these days man is regarding life as consisting of sensual pleasure and, therefore, is wasting his time. You must realize that this is really animal behavior. You must develop character. Nowadays, man does not devote much attention to character. Without character man is like an animal. Animals have many husbands and wives. If man also, or woman, has many husbands or many wives, he or she is worse than the animals. So, you must develop the point of view of one husband and one wife.

What is the purpose of coming to Prasanthi Nilayam?

All of you are coming here spending a lot of money. Why are you coming? Are you regarding this as a picnic, or a holiday? Or are you regarding it as a tourist attraction? No! No! You have come to broaden your hearts. You must confirm the principle of Love. It is not a love based on selfishness. This is a love which is combined with Divinity. We must make a firm resolve to pursue the spiritual path. You must journey from the starting point of "my" and "mine" to "we" and ours." You must come to understand why you have come. You come after spending a lot of money, yet you are wasting your time strolling about and engaging in unnecessary and useless talk.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

When man's adversity becomes God's opportunity - Devesh Srivastava's tryst with death

Devesh Srivastava got into the front seat of the luxury car with a great deal of satisfaction. The task he had wanted to accomplish had been completed better than he had imagined. Savouring the sweet taste of success, he had decided to leave with his two friends, Manas and Vivek (*names changed to protect privacy). Manas was at the wheel while Vivek stretched himself in the backseat.

Devesh was on the verge of taking charge of his father’s company, N S Corporation, a talc mining firm which started with less than 25 employees in 1953. In the 40 years of it’s existence, the company had grown into the largest producer of talc ore in the present-day Uttarakhand state of India. Devesh’s plan was to make it the leading producer and exporter of high quality talc in the country with distributors in all states. Having been educated in the highly reputed Delhi Public School (R.K.Puram) and the St. Xaviers College (Calcutta), he knew that he had it in him to achieve his dream.

A glimpse of the kind of roads one encounters in these regions.
It was November 1994 and the chill descended very soon at Almora. Devesh gratefully turned on the heater in the car to complement the warmth of satisfaction he felt within himself. It would take more than 3 hours to cover the 90-odd kilometers between Almora and Haldwani (where the NS Corporation’s administrative office was located). That was because the roads in these mountainous regions were all narrow and curvy. Even an average speed of 30 km/h could be considered as good progress!

“Watch the road Manas! In your hurry to take us to the next town, don’t take us to the next world!” Vivek quipped.
“Back-seat driving as always Vivek! Just relax. I have got it all covered.” Manas replied.
“These curves and bends are treacherous”, said Devesh, “and I don’t mind if we go a bit slow...”
“Says a man who is ever so quick to reach his goals”, Manas laughed aloud, “I am just doing on the road what you are doing in life!”

A steep curve to the left was coming up ahead and Devesh felt that Manas had not slowed the car enough to navigate it safely. Manas seemed to sense his unease and indicated to him to relax. With the panache of a Formula-1 driver, Manas went to the extreme right of the road to give himself greater room at the curve. He knew that there was a deep ravine on the other side. But this would only be a momentary manoeuvre.

Like life, these roads also take many unpredictable curves!

The horror of his mistake hit him only when he was actually making the curve. What he thought was a C-curve had turned out to be a U-bend! Instead of a 90-degree turn, he had to make a 180-degree turn but he was going too fast. The car would inevitably plunge into the gorge!