Sai Baba Sri Sathya Sai Baba

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Sri Sathya Sai Baba Service Activities

  Love in action - Grama Seva 2004

It all started suddenly and most unexpectedly. Swami came as usual in his golf cart to the verandah on the afternoon of 15th October, 2004. He stopped His cart on the outer verandah and was engrossed in the Veda chanting. Suddenly He gestured to Prof. Anil Kumar, who went up respectfully and listened to what He had to say. One could see that Prof. Anil Kumar's natural enthusiasm was growing and he seemed to be fairly bubbling with exuberance as he went up to the mike to make the important announcement that Swami has blessed that the Grama Seva start in 2 days time.

Prof. Anil Kumar announcing the Grama Seva Plans on Oct 15

Things began moving rapidly. Soon people realized that much had already been accomplished. God always works silently and most efficiently. Everything was already in place for the Grama Seva to begin and no one was even aware of it. A sufficient quantity of laddus had already been prepared for the initial distribution. All the ingredients for the Prasadam preparation and the clothes for distribution had already been procured and the infrastructure was well in place even before the announcement was made!

The faculty and staff of the Institute quickly organised themselves for the Seva. Steering and planning committees were formed. The boys and the staff from the Puttaparthi and Brindavan College campuses as well as the Puttaparthi High School students were divided into 6 groups with an A and a B section in each group. Thus the A section of all the 6 groups would go for Grama Seva one day, while the B section would go the following day. This not only provided a day of rest, but also the boys staying back ensured that the Mandir activities, like Veda chanting for the Dasara festival, leading the Bhajan singing in Sai Kulwant Hall, and the afternoon programmes went on simultaneously and were not affected at all!

Each group going for the Grama Seva had 4 trucks for transportation along with a tractor for the heavier loads. All the 24 vehicles and 6 tractors were connected through a mobile communication facility with each other and a 'home base' that provided updates as well as kept track of the progress of each group. This helped them anticipate and respond well to emergency situations like shortage of clothes or Prasadam and respond to vehicle breakdowns. Each vehicle also had a uniformed policeman to provide security to the convoy, and to have a salutary effect by his presence and prevent any untoward incidents. In addition there were 2 SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) used by two of the project coordinators, assisted by a couple of students, who visited multiple sites between them to co-ordinate the distribution better. This system of 32 vehicles was the lifeline that helped the Grama Seva move forward smoothly and efficiently.

The convoy of vehicles loaded and ready to roll

A daily schedule was drawn up outlining the villages to be visited for the day and allocating each of the 6 groups with the villages to be visited by them based on the population and the number of houses in each village. An estimate of the food to be loaded in each vehicle was thus arrived at from these figures as well as the food for the students doing the distribution. This was rolled up for all the vehicles to arrive at a "master production plan" for the number of packets of Prasadam to be distributed each day. Excess food was also loaded for contingencies and also to distribute to the poor people along the way. A sari and a dhoti for each household in each village to be visited for the day, also had to be planned for and loaded properly in each truck.

The Prasadam that was distributed to each person was a food packet of pulihora or tamarind rice and a laddu, a sweet in the shape of a small ball. The girls of the Anantapur campus had perhaps the more difficult task. They did most of the 'behind the scenes' work like the rice packing and the laddu preparation. The girls came up with a schedule so that they could start by early evening working through the night in shifts, so that the food packets were ready for loading into the trucks in the wee morning hours making the vehicle ready for an 8:30 a.m. departure. They not only toiled through the night but also attended both the morning and afternoon Darshan and Bhajans in Sai Kulwant Hall. Theirs was truly a spectacular effort and we salute all of them.

In a day about 12 to 15 villages were covered by the 6 groups and the students knocked at the doors of 5,000 homes to share Swami's Prasadam and love with the residents. Thus over 20,000 packets of Prasadam were distributed each day. This snippet of statistic is provided just to give an insight to the magnitude of the project, but statistics don't tell the full story. The Grama Seva is essentially a love story; a story of the compassion of our dear Lord for the inhabitants of the villages, who depend only on Him.

Trying on the Tee-shirt under His loving gaze
Trying on the Tee-shirt under His loving gaze

On the morning of the 16th October there was another announcement. Swami said that tee shirts and caps would be distributed to all the students and staff members so that they could wear it and go for distribution the next day, chanting the Sai Gayathri. The packets of tee shirts were brought out and stacked in a pile in front of the verandah and a shirt was first shown to Swami. The white coloured tee shirt had the Institute emblem embossed on the front left side and the words LOVE ALL SERVE ALL on the back of the shirt, in red. After looking at the shirt Swami called a student and asked him to try the shirt on. The student immediately put the tee shirt on, over his regular white shirt. It was a tight fit. Swami asked that a larger size shirt be brought, personally inspected it to make sure it was now the right size and then gave it to the student and asked him to put it on. When the shirt fit correctly, Swami broke into a broad smile of motherly affection and love. He sat on the verandah for a long time that day listening to the Veda chanting and looking lovingly at all the boys who were eager to begin His work the next day.

 This is where we are going today
This is where we are going today

Generally the daily schedule used to follow a more or less set pattern. After giving Darshan in the morning Swami would come to the verandah and would generally ask a staff member where they were going for the day. The staff members would be well prepared to brief Swami with maps and a list of villages that they intended to visit that day. It was a real sight to see Swami pouring over the maps along with the staff members and asking relevant questions to make sure that nothing had been missed out. Swami would then give His Divine Blessing for the day's distribution. At that point, two students would bring the food out in buckets to be blessed by Bhagavan and the sanctified food (Prasadam) was now ready for distribution!

Soon the boys scheduled to go that day, either section A or B, would leave Sai Kulwant Hall and rush to put on their shoes and collect their hats etc. and hurry to their designated trucks. The boys remaining in the Mandir would continue with the Veda chanting so that the Mandir activities were not interrupted.

Blessing the food for the days distribution

The trucks numbered 1 to 24, the 6 tractors (numbered T1 through T6) and the two special vans, were lined up in a numerical sequence along the main road of the Ashram starting from the Gopuram gate and extending up to and beyond Shanti Bhavan. These trucks had already been loaded by the recently graduated alumni in the wee hours of the morning and were all ready to go. A quick inventory was taken to ensure that the truck had been stocked correctly, a quick headcount and everything was ready to roll.

When everything was accounted for, the coordinator gave the signal and the convoy started to go out slowly. As each truck reached Sai Kulwant Hall a resounding chant of 'Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Babaji Ki Jai' rang out, and the long convoy slowly wound out of the Ashram like a long snake. They did not go far though. Only up to the Institute Hostel, where they made a 'pit' stop. This is where they collect goodies for the students (usually biscuits, chips or potato patties and a fruit) so thoughtfully provided by Mother Sai, and cans of drinking water. A can of majiga, or spicy buttermilk, one for each truck, is also loaded, and thus equipped, the convoy moves out bringing Swami's love to the countryside!

Nagarsankirtan in Puttaparthi on Day 1
Nagarsankirtan in Puttaparthi on Day

The first two days of the Grama Seva was concentrated around Puttaparthi and the adjoining villages. October 17th, the day one of the distribution is centered on Puttaparthi, up to and including the Chitravathi Road. The boys walk up in Nagarsankeertan up to the village, starting around 10:00 a.m., followed by the trucks with the food, after the end of the morning's programme of the first day of the Saptaha Yagna in Sai Kulwant Hall. Puttaparthi is home for most of the boys so they experience no real problems and the distribution moves fast.

The next day the action moved to the adjoining villages like Brahmanapalli, Kovillaguttapalli, Gokulam and so on. In the morning, around 8 a.m., the coordinators asked permission to leave so that they could start and finish the distribution early. Swami remarks that all the villages are close by so where is the need to hurry? Only then we realise that it being a Monday, Rahukalam was from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. We had forgotten, but He had not! At 9:20 a.m. Swami's blessing is obtained and the boys hurry out eager to get started and come back in time for Swami's Dasara Discourse in the afternoon.

At each of these villages the roads have been washed clean and welcome banners strung up. The washed roads are decorated with floral patterns and all the boys are welcomed as if they were welcoming Swami Himself! The boys are touched. The planning and coordination has been fine-tuned after 4 years of Grama Seva so everything proceeds like clockwork without any hiccups. Some of the villages have a sizeable Muslim population. So more often than not the response to our "Sai Ram" is a "Salaam Alaikum". The Muslims also eagerly accept Swami's Prasadam coming as it does during the month of Ramazan, the most holy month for the Muslims. Truly, Swami's love knows no boundaries. After 2-3 hours almost everyone is finished, tired from the unaccustomed labour in the Sun, but elated also at having done His work satisfactorily.

From now onwards the distribution has to move further afield. The trucks have now to take the road less travelled, most of the time over dirt tracks, to reach remote villages and distribute under trying conditions. I decide to hitch-hike a ride on one of the trucks and accompany the boys so I could take some photographs and experience the Seva first hand. Please join me on my journey??

October 19th, I join Group 3 which is distributing to Venkatagaripalli village. It is a big village with a sizeable population, so half the group (i.e. 2 out of the 4 trucks) is assigned to this one single village. My truck is mostly full of Brindavan boys with some Brindavan teachers. We leave a little after 9 a.m., as the village is quite near. We soon take a turn off the main road, on the diversion to the village. The villagers walking along the dirt track all say "Sai Ram" to us as we lurch along. The boys all call back "Sai Ram" in unison. Soon the truck in front of us comes to a stop rather suddenly and we wonder if we have reached the village. We peer out but no huts are seen. A teacher gets down hurriedly from the lead truck and is seen negotiating with a village woman. He buys a basketful of freshly plucked guavas. He must have been a good negotiator for he gets it relatively cheap at Rs 100.00. All the boys are happy at the prospect of eating some garden-fresh guavas.

Being welcomed with bhajans at Venkatagaripalli village
Being welcomed with bhajans at Venkatagaripalli village

In a few moments we reach the village to a heartwarming sight. The village is well decorated with buntings and pictures of Bhagavan. The streets have been nicely cleaned. And all the villagers are waiting to welcome us at the village entrance and start singing Sai Bhajans as soon as our buses are sighted. The boys all hop off the bus and join the singing. A couple of teachers in the meantime go ahead to scout the village and plan the distribution strategy. After we sing Bhajans for a few minutes, the villagers do Arathi to Bhagavan's picture in the front of the bus. And now we are ready to start the distribution.

The village "main road" is rather long and houses and huts are laid out on both sides. The road is quite narrow and the trucks would not be able to negotiate it easily. So the thoughtful villagers provide us with a bullock cart to help us transport the Prasadam packets from the trucks at the village entrance up to the current distribution point. One of the more enterprising boys hops onto the cart and takes charge of the bullock cart loading operation.

The boys break up into sub-groups. About 8-10 boys are assigned to a teacher and the distribution area is well coordinated between the sub-groups so that there is no duplication or overlap. The 8-10 boys in each group all have different tasks. 2 boys carry the crate containing rice Prasadam packets. One or two boys carry the plastic bags of laddus. One boy carries the bundle of dhotis and another boy carries the bundle of saris. The remaining boys and the teachers act as Swami's messengers to hand over His Prasadam to the villagers.

The modus operandi of the distribution is quite simple. We knock at a house and politely say, "Sai Ram" with folded hands. Then we tell the villagers that Swami from Puttaparthi has sent some Prasadam for them. We ask them for the number of inmates in each house and hand over the requisite food packets and laddus to them. Some of them accept it in their hands. Some nip back in to get a plate and some ladies accept the food in the folds of their sari in the rural fashion. Quite a few of them touch the food to their eyes in a gesture of respect to show their thanks at Swami's immense grace. The teacher or designated elder then hands over the sari and dhoti to the elder in the house. A small picture of Swami is also given to each household.

A bullock cart pressed into service in Venkatagaripalli village
A bullock cart pressed into service in Venkatagaripalli village

When the crates of food or stack of clothes is getting low, the boys act as runners and rush up to the bullock cart which is somewhere along the main road (so as to be equally accessible to all groups) to get replenishments. It is demanding work and the boys are soon sweating from the morning sun, but the distribution is proceeding fairly fast. They get a break when the bullock cart has to go back to the truck to get additional supplies.

Whenever we come to a fork in the road, the lead group decides to take a path and posts a lookout to inform the groups following them as to which areas they are going to cover. A teacher brings up the rear (behind all the groups) to ensure that no house has been left out.

I am busy taking pictures of the village scene and the distribution but soon have a sizeable crowd of small kids following me. I now feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, with the kids going wherever I lead. I find out from them that their village school has closed for the day as we were coming down to distribute Prasadam, so the whole village wears a festive look. The kids all clamor for a photograph, so I oblige them. I then ask them to go and wait in their respective houses to receive the Prasadam when we come to their doorstep.

For most of the students this is their first visit to a village. Some of them are surprised at the number of people living in such small houses and under such spartan conditions. But all of them appreciate the villagers' warmth, their spontaneous simplicity and devotion to Bhagavan.

The village itself is very clean and as is true of all villages in India, is full of domesticated animals that roam freely everywhere. Goats, sheep, pigs, cows, hens, stray dogs that growl menacingly and even monkeys, all are well represented. A goat that has just had a couple day old kids catch the students' fancy and they cuddle the small little goat kids that can barely stand on their four legs.

In about a couple of hours all the groups that have spread out to distribute the food are almost done and we wend our way back to the main entrance of the village and wait for everyone to join us. After everyone is gathered, the villagers want to do Arathi and thus show their thanks to Swami. We again gather around the truck which has a picture of Swami attached to the windshield and the village elders do Arathi. Slowly we say our good-byes to the villagers and the two trucks move out. About a kilometre from the village we stop in the shade of a large tree as we are famished and we tuck into the refreshments and the buttermilk that has been provided. And of course, the fresh guavas.

On October 20th, I join Group 1, and am assigned to Vehicle number 3 that is headed to Satarlapalli village, a village at a distance of just over 45 kms as the crow flies. But the road winds over really difficult terrain so it is estimated that it could take 2-3 hours to reach.

In the morning the coordinators again ask permission to leave early. Swami says "Yes" and so we leave around 8:45 a.m. Group 1 consists of Vehicles 1 through 4 and the assigned tractor (T1). Right outside the Ashram, near the Kalyana Mantapam, Vehicle 1 develops a puncture. It takes a while to get the puncture fixed, as there was a power failure so we could not get the tire inflated. Finally around 10:00 a.m. we are ready to roll. We finally realised that we need to act according to His will and not hurry up so we could be back in time to listen to the afternoon Discourse.

After about 20 kms, while we are in the rural countryside, we had to wait again as Vehicle 2 had an accelerator cable ruptured right in the middle of nowhere. It takes about a half hour but some of the boys manage to repair it with some makeshift wires that are available. The driver of the truck is amazed at their versatility.

I am in a truck with High school boys and a couple of their teachers. The young boys are beginning to feel tired as it is not exactly pleasant travelling in a pickup truck along bumpy roads. At this one of the teachers suggest we play a game. My ears immediately perk up. Memories of many journeys done in my youth come to mind where we played idle games just to "pass the time". I wonder what kind of games will be played by the boys from the High School, where God-centered education and character building is given so much premium. I was not to be disappointed. The teacher announces that it is going to be a memory game. He said that I will say, "I love Swami". The next boy will add to this, "I love Swami and Jesus". And so on it goes, with each boy adding His favourite name of God or a Holy teacher. The trick is to remember the right sequence of names - if you get the sequence wrong then you are out of the game. What a revelation!! A game consisting of names of the Gods just to pass the time. Soon everyone is engrossed, and it becomes quite complex after 8-10 names are added. And of course, lots of fun. Attention is thus easily diverted from the aching body and before we know it we are at the crossroads that would takes us the last kilometre in to Satarlapalli village.

Stopping for refreshments near Satarlapalli village
Stopping for refreshments near Satarlapalli village

We wait at the crossroad till all the trucks catch up. It is already 11:30 in the morning so we decide to partake of some of the goodies that Swami has sent. That and the glass of buttermilk refresh everyone and all are now keen to start. While truck 3 goes to Satarlapalli village, the other trucks move on to their assigned villages 3-4 kms further down the road.

We take a diversion and one kilometre of bone-jarring ride on a goat track brings us to this remote, isolated village. We pull up and soon the entire village gathers around the truck. The boys quickly form a line while the group co-ordinator talks to the village head. We go in a Nagarsankeertan from the truck up to the Rama temple in the centre of the village. It has been our experience that no matter how poor and destitute the village is, it still has a neatly maintained temple in the village square. That is why Swami always says that the true Bharatiya culture is to be found only in India's villages.

All the village kids join us in the Nagarsankeertan and clap wildly to the Bhajans in unrestrained excitement that is the province of the young and truly innocent. The Nagarsankeertan winds its way up to the temple along a very narrow cobbled pathway, avoiding cow and goat droppings and other such items strewn all over the road. At the Rama temple we stop and continue singing Bhajans till it seems all the inhabitants of the village join us. The leader of our group then announces that we have come from Puttaparthi to distribute Swami's Prasadam and request everyone to wait in their respective homes and that we will come and deliver at their doorstep.

Soon we get organized into 4 small groups and the area of distribution for each group is quickly earmarked after studying the layout of the village. Very soon the distribution is in full swing and the 4 small groups spread quickly in all the 4 directions. I have a difficult time tracking down the next group after finishing taking pictures of one group as they have moved so quickly.

As in the other village I am again surrounded by the kids. These kids are very friendly and take me to the back of the village and proudly show me their village well which is full of water. This is welcome as all the wells in the village which we visited the day before were dry. I take some pictures and the kids are very happy and delighted, just like a tour guide showing off the Taj Mahal to some gawking tourists.

Distributing sarees in Satarlapalli village to people from nearby hamlets
Distributing sarees in Satarlapalli village to people from nearby hamlets

Again another two hours of non-stop distribution and we are done. But we find a number of ladies and gents waiting and clamouring for the Prasadam and clothes right beside our truck. Enquiries reveal that they are residents of hamlets that are close to the villag e. As these people are really poor, we seat them all next to the truck, the 30 odd ladies in front and the 10 or so gents behind. We take a quick inventory and feel that the Prasadam and the clothes would suffice but just barely. We give one sari to each lady and a dhoti to a gentleman, apart from a packet of food and a laddu each. By Swami's grace, the number of saris is just exactly enough to give to all the women and not one extra sari is left over! Everyone is wreathed in smiles and very happy to have received these tangible gifts of Bhagavan's love.

 In Kodapaganipalli village
In Kodapaganipalli village

We all board the truck and it is time to leave. A pained and embarrassed silence follows, similar to what we experience before the imminent departure of our loved ones at the railway station or an airport. The innocent villagers do not know how to express their thanks to Swami and stand quietly shuffling their legs. The young kids stare at us with their large eyes that say it all. Suddenly on an impulse, I lean out of the truck and extend my hand to the nearest kid and say "Sai Ram". He immediately takes it and pumps it up and down vigorously yelling "Sai Ram, Sai Ram" at the top of his voice. All the kids now join in and want to shake hands. A little physical touch that enables them to give us a proper send-off. Even the adults hanging shyly in the back, now come forward and jostle each other in their eagerness to shake hands. By now all the students are also hanging out of the truck shaking hands with the villagers. Slowly the truck starts and we leave the village with about 40 kids running behind us shouting "Sai Ram" and waving their hands wildly.

Accepting prasdam with reverence in Yerrapalli village
Accepting prasdam with reverence in Yerrapalli village

We take the dirt road back and go ahead to join the other trucks in the group that are 3-4 kms down the road. They are still not done with their distribution and we wait for about a half-hour for them to finish. We compare notes and find that they had got all the little children into the village school and had taught them the Sai Gayathri.

Distributing in a remote house in Cherlopalli village
Distributing in a remote house in Cherlopalli village

Soon it is time to go home. We decide to continue ahead and loop back to Puttaparthi from a small town called Pedapalli, rather than retrace our steps back the same way we had come. The road is bumpy but motorable the drivers assure us. We pass through some 3 kms of forest land that is very tranquil and soon reach the town and are back home at around 3:45 p.m. A quick shower and it is immediately to the Mandir and I am gratified to find that Swami's Divine Discourse had not started yet.

Distributing in Kotalapalli village
Distributing in Kotalapalli village

And the list goes on. Everyday we visit different villages to different experiences and memories that would last a lifetime. Villages like Cherlopalli, Chendrayanipalli, Kottalapalli, Buchaiahgaripalli and Venugopalapuram.

Arathi at Cherlopalli village
Arathi at Cherlopalli village

So many memories flood the mind and will remain in the heart for a lifetime. For example, when we were the last bus finishing the distribution in Cherlopalli village and running about 15 minutes behind the others, the villagers ask us to visit their village temple for Arathi. We decide to oblige and trudge back up wearily about half a kilometer to the top of the hill and what did we find - a bigger-than-life size picture of Bhagavan in a temple devoted solely to Swami. Or on the way to Yerrapalli village, when we stop for snacks under a railway bridge and all the students climb up the embankment up to the railway line so I could take their picture. Or the total innocence of the very isolated village of Venugopalapuram where we taught the little school children the Sai Gayathri; or the exquisite scenic beauty of Reddivaripalli, that was situated miles in the interior and surrounded by hills with a deep red soil and thick green vegetation that gave it a surreal look. Above all, the most lasting memory would be of the love and reverence that all the villagers showed us, with no exceptions, as Swami's emissaries.

Climbing up the embankment on the way to Yerrapalli  village
Climbing up the embankment on the way to Yerrapalli village

On the way back to Parthi, the excess food packets left over were usually distributed to the people working the fields on both sides of the road. The sight of the villagers running up to the road, sometimes as much as half a kilometer, as soon as our truck with its yellow Grama Seva banner is spotted is a sight that has to be experienced. We always stopped for them and gave them a Prasadam packet and laddus and receive their blessings and good wishes in turn.

Distributing the excess prasadam in Kotacheruvu
Distributing the excess prasadam in Kotacheruvu

And soon we are done, many days ahead of schedule. Immaculate planning and the availability of 32 vehicles enable us to finish the distribution in the targeted mandals (sub-districts) of Puttaparthi, Bukkapatnam and Kottacheruvu - about 142 villages in all.

The boys are tired but very, very satisfied. It has been a soul elevating experience for them. Swami always says that service begets humbleness in a man. And humbleness is perhaps the most important prerequisite on our spiritual path back to God.

And the villagers! Would just a meal and clothing make a real difference in their lives? No, but the very thought that the God in Puttaparthi is looking after them and thinking about them gives them so much hope, nourishment, and love and meaning that the entire exercise has become one of the most rewarding lifetime experiences for all. And it is all just because of His love!!

Jai Sai Ram.

Source: Radio Sai E-Magazine, December 2004


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