You may wonder: "Why would God pay any attention to me? What could I possibly offer to Him that He would accept when the entire cosmos is already His? If even angels and gods cannot see Him, what chance is there for me?" But such self-demeaning and belittling thoughts will get you nowhere. As long as you think this way, you will be unable to earn the grace of God and be fit to serve Him. Give no place to such displays of weakness. You must install God in your heart and say to Him, "Beloved Lord! I know You occupy the entire universe, but You are also here in my heart. With all my power, I will keep You here, firmly established within me. You are, it is true, the greatest of the great; but You are also the smallest of the small. In that minute aspect You reside always in my heart." If you have this firm faith in yourself and a steadfast resolve to fix God unalterably in your heart, you will surely attain Him.
- Sathya Sai Baba
To know where we are going in this journey through life, it is sometimes helpful to know where we have been. We are all God's children, but he has placed each of us in a unique set of circumstances. The influences of family, friends and environment all leave marks, sometimes scars, on the psyche. I had the good fortune to be born into a family that valued high morals and sound ethics. Truthfulness was a code learned early in life. But the other side of my early training was lacking in some areas. My family never spoke of God or love nor was there much joy or creative expression. These came later when I discovered the world beyond my home environment.
My mother conveyed the impression that an open display of affection or the giving of praise and reassurance to children would spoil them. After all, it's a tough world and we must be able to deal with harsh realities. Perhaps it was the deep hurt she felt from her own difficult upbringing, coupled with the pain of separation from my father when I was still very young. After the separation, as an only child, I was the focal point of her attention, and I felt her deep concern for my well-being and security. She did an admirable job in a time when women, as single parents, were often shunned by society. She taught me to be neat and clean, to hold my head high and to tell the truth.
Hard work was another of her teachings for which I am grateful. Because of her German Lutheran ethic, I worked part-time from the age of 11. It was sometimes quite difficult to balance a baby-sitting or a mother's helper job with my studies and school activities. Later I took on the task of making all my own clothes, and was rather good at it.
My mother's sense of responsibility should have been somewhat relieved when she met and married a fine Greek gentleman, but the habit of worry was deeply ingrained in her personality.
My stepfather, besides easing our financial difficulties, opened the way for some cultural expressions. We traveled a little, read books together, went to museums and talked of worldly events. Still there was no spiritual interest shown by either parent. But I began to make my own religious investigations.
I had gone to various Sunday schools and churches with friends, and had always felt great joy when hymns were sung and Bible stories were told. But, much to my dismay, I found that many of the "church people" who attentively listened to Christian teachings, such as "Love thy neighbor as thyself," were practicing some form of prejudice in their daily lives.
When I was still quite young, a relative whom I trusted made an uncomplimentary comment about a group of Catholic nuns. I was shocked and hurt by this person's criticism of the good nuns who gave so much service to the world. Becoming aware of hypocrisy in those I loved was both confusing and disheartening.
As I grew older and became aware of the terrible things that happen in the world, I began to think that a good and loving God would never let crimes and atrocities happen to innocent people. My simplistic conclusion, as a disenchanted teenager, was that there must not be a God, and that religious beliefs must be a form of escapism for those who could not face reality.
The years rolled by, and near the completion of my education, I met a charming young man. On July 4, 1952, we were married in the midst of much celebrating of the national holiday. Bob was then an officer in the United States Navy. Our married life centered around parties and social gatherings, and all in all was most agreeable for both of us, yet there was something lacking, like one small missing piece of a puzzle.
With each new event I thought, this is the thing that will make life complete. Upon Bob's discharge from the Navy, he went into his family's automobile business. By then we had one beautiful daughter and two years later another baby girl, both of whom brought us great joy. Before the arrival of our son, we moved to a larger home. Bob now had his own prosperous business and our family was complete. Who could expect more? But we both felt an inner restlessness.
At that time I had a friend who always seemed to be calm and peaceful. When I asked her to divulge her secret formula for composure, she said that she practiced hatha yoga and that she would be happy to take me to meet her teacher. I took to hatha yoga with great interest and in a few years began teaching classes.
During this period, I also attended classes given by Indra Devi, who instructed us in the ancient, classic postures and later astounded us with stories of her spiritual preceptor, Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Her stories created a longing within me to to to exotic India and see this reputedly amazing being. The longing became an obsession. In the later part of 1973, I convinced my husband that we should travel with a group of Westerners to see Baba at his ashram near the small village of Puttaparthi in South India. Sai Baba had reportedly performed wonders such as Christ had done. My curiosity could not be assuaged; I had to see for myself.
My husband was going through a rather difficult period in his life and was less than enthusiastic about taking a trip to India. Nevertheless, in February of 1974, off we went, with about twenty other curious pilgrims, for an unforgettable journey.
On the first day in the ashram, one of our travel companions came by the room and told us to get ready for darshan (being in the presence of a great spiritual being). Not knowing at the time what darshan was or how to get ready for it, we had to be advised : first bathe, then dress in clean clothing, and finally, proceed to the temple area to quietly await the appearance of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. All this I did while still being the ultimate tourist, not taking any of it too seriously. Instead, I was thinking what a good story all this would be to share with friends and yoga students at home.
Much to my surprise, when Sai Baba did appear and walk before the crowd, I felt riveted to the spot and could not take my eyes from him. I had seen many pictures of Sai Baba, but was not prepared for such a deeply moving experience. His natural grace and charm were beguiling. I forgot all the discomforts of jet lag and sitting in the hot sun wrapped in a sari. Something about his demeanor made my cold heart begin to soften; I felt a surge of joy. For a long time thereafter, that joy felt like gentle ocean waves sweeping over me, then receding. I wanted to stay enveloped in that oceanic feeling, but it was too elusive. I didn't know then how fortunate we were, for Baba had told one of our group that he would see us the next day.
We all arrived promptly on the temple veranda at the designated hour and were ushered into a large room. There were no embellishments, just a simple wooden chair on a platform for Baba. The rest of us tried to be comfortable on the cement floor, and then it happened again! As Sai Baba entered the room, all thoughts of discomfort disappeared, and the waves of joy took over. How could his presence cause such a reaction? He never sat in a special chair, but seemed to prefer relaxing on the edge of the platform, standing before us or moving through the group.
Baba gave us a mini-discourse; and to this day, I don't remember a word he said, only the soft melodic tones of his voice and a feeling of happiness. At some point in the talk, he manifested a ring for a woman in our group. I was pleased because one of my secret wishes had been to see some miracles. Indeed, I saw it clearly, as it appeared right under my nose. I was collecting experiences, and that was a pretty good one. But what next?
Some days later, as we were sitting on the veranda waiting to be called into Baba's interview room, a handsome but distressed Indian family were ushered into the small inner room. The father was carrying his son, who was about 9 years old; the boy was wearing white socks which didn't really conceal his badly deformed feet. His spindly legs indicated that he had never run or played like other children. I felt a tug at my heart. I was grateful for the three healthy children we had left in the care of their grandparents in California.
After some time, the door swung open; and, wonder of wonders, the family emerged, all of them weeping tears of joy. The young boy was walking on wobbly legs like a newborn fawn, his large brown eyes sparkling. I didn't even try to control my own tears.
Baba came out and gave some final instructions to the parents; then he turned to me and asked, "Why are you crying? Don't cry; it's the first time he has walked." I replied through tears, "That's why I'm crying." He then gave me a look I have come to know so well - the most kind and compassionate smile I had ever seen - and he said in the softest of tones, "I know, I know."
I wanted that moment to last forever, but in an instant he had changed his demeanor and was showing deep concern for another of his children.
Soon it was our turn to be alone with Baba. Our first private interview was an overwhelming experience. Bob and I and Sai Baba stood close together as Baba asked questions. He addressed me first, asking simple questions like, "How many children do you have?" At that moment, I was at a loss for words. He smiled indulgently and answered the question himself, saying, "Three." In the meantime, I stood mute - unable to communicate. I must have appeared more than foolish, but Baba was kind as he understands all human conditions and frailties. During those few minutes, he outlined the character - both the strengths and weaknesses - of each of our children. The passing years have revealed him to be one hundred percent accurate.
His attention then turned to Bob, and they spoke of business matters while Sai manifested some vibhuti (holy ash) and stroked Bob's chest and heart area with the ash saying, "He is a good man, a good man." This clear sign of loving approval caused Bob to do something I had never seen him do before - he burst into tears and cried like a helpless child. Sai Baba said, "Business gives you no satisfaction, but all that will change." Bob brightened at that reassurance.
Swami, as he often refers to himself, turned again to me and said, "Be patient. You need to learn to be patient." The interview was over, and I was still mute as we left. It took a long time to come back to earth. It had been the most unusual experience of my life, but I still failed to see that Sri Sathya Sai Baba was a diving being. I could only perceive that he was special and that he invoked higher ideals and emotions in me than I had ever known before.
While on the airplane back to the United States, we started planning our next trip to India. Already, we were being drawn back as if by some magnetic force. Bob, in a lighthearted spirit, began to tease me about Swami's comments on my being impatient. Later, we both had a good laugh at my narrow viewpoint and inability to accept criticism, even though it had been given so gently by Baba. I promised myself, then and there, to work on the problem of impatience.
Upon returning home, we resumed out activities, but somehow our lives had changed. Bob and I still cared about our old friends but found it difficult - even impossible - to resume the old round of social events. Bob dove deeply into reading everything about Sathya Sai Baba. I, on the other hand, had pressured him to go with me to India but was left feeling incomplete and confused by the experience.
In 1975, we returned to India, first touring and then continuing on to attend a World Conference of Sri Sathya Sai Organizations and Baba's 50th birthday. There had been only one prior experience in my background to prepare me for life in an ashram, and this time it was more difficult because of the large crowds that had gathered for the conference and birthday celebrations.
Again we received interviews, and Bob was given a lovely ring with Baba's likeness. In fact, many people were given "calling cards," as Swami calls the small gifts like rings and lockets, which he manifests.
Seeing the faces of those who received these items from Baba's own hand generated a feeling of great joy, and I began to long for one of those talismans. In fact, I became obsessed. But the more I wished for something, the more frequent were Baba's gifts to others! In one interview, he actually gave divine tokens to ladies in front, in back and on either side of me! I must have looked green with envy, but all I got from Baba was a mischievous smile.
He often says, "I give you what you want, so that you will want what I have come to give." But what did that message have to do with my desire to have one of his small gifts? What was to be learned from this spiritual stuff anyway? Why did intense feelings seem to be tearing me apart?
The following year back home, I suffered from doubts and periods of loneliness and depression. Confusion mounted, and I wondered if I truly wanted to give up the social round, the conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence. But those shallow activities no longer offered pleasure, nor did anything else. I was on an emotional roller coaster. Baba has said, "Sometimes I must break the heart in order to enter it." Perhaps that was what was happening.
Meanwhile, my husband was drawing closer to Sai Baba. He insisted that we have devotional songs (bhajans) sung in our home and that we study Swami's teachings. In spite of mixed emotions at this time, I was looking forward to our next trip to India, for those journeys had become annual events of pain and pleasure. The attraction to Sai Baba was still impossible to explain.
The next year, we took out three children and Bob's mother to India. Baba showered grace upon all of them. I felt completely out of step; I contracted the flu and remained ill during the whole journey. At one point in Bombay, I expressed my wish to allocate some worldly possessions to our children for I felt certain I would die before returning home. I must have been having hallucinations from the fever, or wallowing in self-pity. Probably both. It was quite impossible to eat, and I became more and more weak. I scribbled a letter to Baba on hotel stationery asking for his help.
Bob hand-carried that letter to the Dharmakshetra, Baba's place of residence in Bombay, where Swami was scheduled to give a discourse. Baba walked past my husband and accepted my desperate note. All during his discourse he held that letter, making graceful hand gestures and pointing the envelope toward the thousands who had assembled to hear him. All this was not known to me until later, but I do remember feeling better during that time.
The next day, I had recovered enough to go with my family to the Dharmakshetra where Baba received us. He held my hand during most of the interview and seemed concerned about my health, telling me : "Eat." The next day, aboard our plane for the long flight back to the United States, my appetite was insatiable. But even more important, my heart had opened a little wider and my doubts were drifting away; perhaps this was my spiritual renaissance.
During our first trip to India, I had observed an unusual custom; many devotees wanting to touch or even kiss Baba's feet. My first reaction to this was negative. On the following trip, I thought it was fine for Indians to practice this custom but not a western lady. During the third trip, however, I had great longing to touch those perfectly formed, fragrant feet, and I had asked Baba several times for padnamaskar, as it is called; I was told : "Wait, wait." In the meantime, the longing grew. Only at the last moment of our last day in India did Baba allow me the privilege. He stepped forward, pointed to his feet and said, "Do." I fell to my knees, knowing in the depths of my heart that this was the most profound and sacred opportunity of my lifetime, a moment of great magnitude, the beginning of surrender.
In the following years, Bob and I journeyed to India to be near our beloved teacher once or twice annually. Occasionally, one or all of the children accompanied us. Baba always seemed to bestow his special grace on the young and they responded favorably.
At this point, it has been nearly sixteen years since I first heard of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and I am actually horrified to think what life would be without him. At best, it would be an endless stream of empty events and meaningless activities. Certainly my life was headed in that direction before I knew Swami.
Baba exhorts his followers to serve. He says, "Service to humanity is service to God." My service has taken the form of editing and publishing the Sathya Sai Newsletter. Highly qualified devotees donate many hours to create a quarterly publication devoted to the phenomenon of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba and his teachings. Working on the national "Newsletter" is a joy as well as an awesome responsibility because I am now convinced that Baba is the Lord incarnate; a complete avatar with all the powers, glory and divine love that this engenders. He is the embodiment of love, and has come to re-establish righteousness in the world. Only God can do that.
Baba is our greatest teacher, for there are lessons in what he does as well as what he does not do. For example, I used to ponder; why, if he is God, does he allow starvation and devastating disease to occur? Baba has said that he could change all that in an instant, but in a short time, the same human tragedies would return and the world would be as badly off as before. Is it possible, then, that we do these things to ourselves? Baba confirms what the Catholic Church has said for many years : there is an abundance of food in the world but that the distribution is not equitable. Surely we can't blame God for this lack of concern for our fellow human beings. We can and do blame governments for not coming to the aid of less fortunate nations. However, Baba would have us look within our own hearts and ask what we as individuals can do to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
In regard to disease, I used to wonder why Baba does not cure at least those who come to him seeking his help. Now I understand that he seldom interferes with the individual's need to undergo certain negative experiences. Even though such experiences may seem tragic to us, in another perception, they could be considered grace, or the paying of karmic debts. Sooner or later we must all pay our debts. Since God knows our past, present and future, why not surrender everything to him? Then body, mind and soul are in his keeping forever more.
The lessons have been numerous, but my own experience has confirmed that concepts must be put into practice. I was struck, for example, by the realization that I must forgive and even learn to love, the father who abandoned me so long ago. Swami declares that it is most important to love our parents, for they have given us human birth. He continues by saying, "It is only through a human birth that we can realize God." And, further, there are souls in heaven waiting for the good fortune to be born.
In years past, I had been critical of some people for their subtle prejudice. Baba tells us that we have no right to judge others; often they are reflecting our own inner thoughts and feelings. Perhaps truly learning tolerance consists of not being intolerant of the intolerance of others.
In a recent interview when asked to define ego, Baba quickly responded, "It is ignorance, ignorance."
According to Baba, marriage provides an opportunity to eliminate "this greatest human stumbling block."
I can vouch for this as I recall the many situations where Baba has had us face the realities of married life. For example, on one of our trips, Bob and I arrived at Prashanti in the midst of a heated disagreement. Later, Swami scolded both of us for arguing. On another occasion, I was rather annoyed with Bob but kept it to myself. Swami approached me during darshan and said, "Always fighting with husband."
I responded, "No Swami, not fighting." He then said, "Yes - arguing here," pointing to his head.
He has told us, "Marriage is like sandpaper rubbing away each other's egoism." And his teaching concerning the correct attitude in the relationship is quite specific : The wife serves the husband, and the husband has the task of protecting and caring for the wife. Each loves God, that spark of divinity inherent in the other.
Indeed, I have learned more about the roles of husband and wife from our beloved Baba than one could learn from any marriage manual.
I have already mentioned my desire for a token of Swami's divinity, one of his small gifts "manufactured" from thin air. After several trips to India and many interviews, it finally happened! At the time, I concluded that my motives were totally incorrect - after all, I had seen, talked with, and been given sound advice by, the Lord himself. Who could ask for more?
The very next interview, Baba asked me, "What do you want?" I said, "You, Swami, you." He smiled indulgently, like a parent who is about to reward a small child with an ice cream cone. With a wave of that beautiful hand, he presented to me a ring with the likeness of Shirdi Sai Baba (his previous incarnation) in bas-relief. I was thrilled; it was a magic moment of sheer delight.
He placed the ring on my right index finger, which I've come to feel is very significant. I must confess to being afraid at times, to say"no" because someone might not approve of me. I truly think the likeness of Shirdi Sai Baba has given courage to my convictions. Placing the ring on the right index finger was, I feel, meant to make me more assertive, for it is this finger we use to indicate or emphasize a point. Swami has never confirmed this. It is my own perception; I only know that something has helped.
These are but a few of the lessons and experiences I've had since consciously coming into Sai Baba's orbit. I say "consciously" because I now feel that he has always been guiding and protecting me. His love is so great that he even watches over those who do not accept his divinity.
My husband and I often have sensed his presence in both home and office, by the tell-tale fragrance of jasmine or vibhuti. We will be busily concentrating on a task when, suddenly, his fragrance will occur, giving rise to an inexpressible feeling of peace and joy.
Indeed he is with each of us always and in all ways. To know him, all we need do is love God and seek his love in return. What better way to spend the rest of this extraordinary journey?