I have travelled to India to visit the Ashram Prashanthi Nilayam in the village of Puttaparthi thirteen times over the past twenty- two years. This is the Ashram of Sathya Sai Baba. Each Ashram in India is unique. Some are very austere, while others accommodate the Western way of life perfectly. The one I travel to is very well known and quite large. It truly has a life of its own. I have travelled with my friend Becky the last six times. We have always been very compatible traveling companions. Our natures are similar. We travel to the Ashram because we both want the experience of deep connection with the Divine. Pilgrimages are unnecessary to experience deep devotional love. We have a taste for it, that’s all. India isn’t for everyone, Ashrams aren’t for everyone. This is my experience.
The village of Puttaparthi is not a typical village anymore because of the Ashram. Originally this village was extraordinarily tiny. As the Ashram grew, so did the village. The most unique thing about this village is the influence from Westerners, you don’t always see a German bakery and a vegetarian Italian restaurant in the typical Indian village. This small village with its beautifully devoted people has become world famous. This causes celebration and devastation.
The Ashram provides clean and practical accommodations. If you look at the accommodations from a Western viewpoint they may seem sparse or even austere. We have stayed inside the Ashram more times than not. It treats you to the practice of gratitude. The beds are a single piece of plywood that haven’t been sanded perfectly smooth. We bring a blow up mattress, sheets, towels and a pillow. It works better than you can imagine. All the comforts of home because they are from home. It isn’t a vacation at a resort in Hawaii, it’s a stay at the Ashram, in a tiny village in India. It’s the perfect experience of forgetting about the outer comforts and becoming more comfortable with your inner life.
The food is fresh and vegetarian. There are two types of Indian canteens in the Ashram, northern style and southern style, spicy or spicier, very delicious. There is also a Western style canteen, no spiciness. At the Western canteen you can have vegetarian pizza and chocolate cake (made without eggs) every Saturday night. The food is cooked mostly by the European devotees. Anyone can volunteer their time to prepare the food, cook the food and of course, do the dishes afterwards. The food is clean, healthy and very tasty. This trip, because we were staying at our friends home, we cooked our food almost every night. We cooked lentils that we bought from the store in the Ashram, and ate fresh baked bread from the Ashram bakery. Simple food, good company and quiet reflection. That’s good living.
The Mandir or temple is an open air building. It’s named Prashanthi Nilayam, the abode of peace. It’s enormous and the breeze blows softly among the devotees. Well, that is, if there is a breeze in South India. Anyway, this temple is large, colorful and very open. It doesn’t have seating. It has a few white plastic chairs, placed near the back for persons who can’t sit on the floor. The floor is black stone and tilts slightly towards the front. The men sit on one side while we occupy the other. This is done so that you don’t experience any distractions during your Sadhana (spiritual practice). The men are mostly dressed in white shirts and pants, there’s always the occasional street outfit. The women are as colorful as a flock of parrots. Indians are not afraid of color or the mixing of patterns. The result of this fearlessness is beautiful to behold.
In the front of the temple is our Teacher Sathya Sai Baba’s Mahasamadhi. He is interred in a large white marble container on a dais. It’s covered with humble flower arrangements. You can feel the prayers and devotion in the air. Even the most hard hearted person would be knocked off balance by the sublime love permeating the air. It exudes love that heals resentments, melts trespasses and stays within you long after you leave the heart of India. This temple is my refuge. When I’m at home taking a beating from the world I can feel this place beating softly, rhythmically within my heart. It makes me remember that life is sacred and peace of mind is only a breath away.
The temple is a living soul. The love in the air transforms your being as a river carves a canyon. This love cuts through the layers of your past thoughts, words and experiences, revealing them as layers in time. No judgement, just revelation. Such relief. When you are silent in this air, memories long forgotten are relived within your mind in full color. Remorse that you couldn’t feel then is experienced now. So painful, so beautiful. Being revealed like that heals wounds that have been concealed by the sands of time.
Twice a day the devotees line up to touch foreheads to the Mahasamadhi of Sai Baba and leave prayers and concerns. A hauntingly beautiful mantra is piped through the temple filling us with solemnity and reverence. We wait in line, Indian style, little to no personal space, chanting softly under our breath, some with roses that will be laid on the Mahasamadhi. When your turn comes it is brief in physical time and eternal in devotional time. It is a mystery of love that a few seconds can be so moving.
One day we decided to take a day trip around the village in a motorized rickshaw. I am quite fond of this mode of transportation. I think our country would love them also. They’re everywhere in India. Our friend Ganesh provided us with a patient and kind driver. Of course he was an expert in the art of honking his way through the village roads. Horn honking in India isn’t merely a way to express displeasure with one another’s driving, it’s also a language. The Indian drivers honk their way through traffic like flocks of geese and the traffic flows in a perfectly chaotic rhythm.
My Teacher had an elephant named Sai Gita for many years. She left this world about a year before He did. We went to where she used to live and discovered a tender sight. They had created a sweet memorial to this beautiful elephant. Because Sai Gita had given so much joy to the devotees we accept that she will now be born as a human being.
On our way back our rickshaw was surrounded by a gorgeous herd of goats and their herders. It’s a sweet feeling to be in a whirlpool of goats. Their voices are so adorable that they force laughter out of you. Such joy!
The monkeys! I have such a love of monkeys. Mind you, I don’t share my neighborhood with them either. The village neighborhood was full of monkeys. Each morning around 6:00 we would watch the monkeys drop from the trees onto the rooftops across the street. From there, they began their daily adventures of monkey business. One villager had a very long “monkey stick” on his rooftop and he would shake it at the monkeys. They would always scamper away. We never saw him cause any harm, but you could tell he meant business. One morning we were watching their antics when we observed a monkey looking at the man’s stick. He wasn’t present. The monkey paused and you could see him reliving memories of that stick being shaken at him. He pawed at it, hesitated and then swatted it! He jumped back as if the stick would reach up and get him, a quick turn and he was gone into the safety of the trees.
Village women line the street sitting side by side one another with baskets of flowers, bananas and so forth. One day, I was standing on the corner when this little bandit monkey swooped into a woman’s basket and stole a banana. He quickly hightailed it up this pole. She didn’t chase him, she just threw words at him. There he is enjoying his stolen fruit.
The traffic in the village is difficult for humans to navigate, observing this dilemma the monkeys use the electrical wires like the trapeze artists that they are. They’re doing their aerial walks, while we’re bobbing and weaving through cars, rickshaws and ox carts like fighters in a ring.
Contrary to popular belief, cows are not worshipped in India. Cows are treated with sacredness for several good reasons. Cows provide milk, curds, butter and dung for a very long time, this is especially important if you live in a rural village. Slaughtering is a one time provision. Also, the Hindus and Jains practice non violence and the slaughtering of such gentle and generous beings is out of the question.
Cows used to roam through the village eating garbage and receiving bananas from passersby. Sadly, there aren’t any roaming cows there now. With the introduction of plastic bags in their food supply, the wandering cows in the village have died. India is a combination of ancient times and very modern times. This is such a stark lesson for everyone on the planet to pay attention to the results of our actions.
On our outing we stopped by the Ashram Gokulam. This is where the dairy cows live. It didn’t have any stinky odor! So clean and very happy cows. There was a gentleman there who was hand feeding the cows with some bananas and he asked us if we wanted to feed them. I was delighted. I’ve never been around cows, much less hand fed one. Becky on the other hand, wasn’t as impressed as I was. She has ranch experience in her background. She did say that she had never fed a whole banana to one before! She also seemed impressed about the lack of smell. Cow tongues are gloriously long and they curl around that banana in no time.
That’s dung drying in the foreground! In India, men and women carry loads of hay, concrete, water and other things on their heads. It’s very impressive. Can you imagine telling your teenager to dry the dung or carry the water home on their head?
This is the Music College at the Sathya Sai University. The men’s campus is located here in the village. One evening, they gave a performance of musical perfection. Their voices were amazingly disciplined and thrilling to listen to. Their devotion for Divinity resonated throughout the temple.
The Ashram is renowned for its Universities, hospitals and water systems throughout the country of India. Sathya Sai Baba has given free education in the form of Universities and trade schools, He has also built several hospitals that give the finest medical care for free and finally he has provided water systems in the country of India that bring fresh water to villages that haven’t ever had this experience, also for free. This is love.
Over the years I have bought many books, photos and gifts from the Ashram. This year I didn’t buy or read a single book. I did buy pictures and small gifts for other people. This photo is the only one I couldn’t resist. It spoke to me. I love seeing Sai Baba communicating with this tiny bird. The irony is that when I returned to the office it had become infested with bird mites. This meant we had to vacate our office during October. Regretfully, I had to cancel the Karma workshop and the regularly scheduled classes.
My friend Don LaShure at Encinitas Psychological Services granted us refuge during this time. This was not my first rescue by Mr. LaShure. Eleven years ago I occupied a different office on Second Street and it was destroyed by fire. Don was there for me then and now. I lovingly refer to him as my knight in shining armor. I’m not sure what it is that I’m learning with these dramatic office experiences, but I am open to it.
We hope to reoccupy our offices at 545 Second Street the first week of November. Stay tuned!