Monday, 1 September 2014

He who humbles himself will be exalted - the experience of T.V.Hariharan

Life with God is an endless hope

Mr. T.V.Hariharan playing his very 'special' violin.
After the life-defining episode, he plays it only in
the privacy of his home during Vijayadashami.
It was summer in the city of Bangalore in 1979 (when it had not yet turned to Bengaluru). While the heart of the city sweated and toiled along its daily grind, it was cool and calm at its outskirts. The Whitefield ashram of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba was enjoying a cool respite from the blazing sun via the Summer Showers at Brindavan. The Summer Showers programme was also called the Summer Course wherein Baba would interact with hundreds of students from around the world, enlightening them on the proper way to lead a life that is moral, ethical, spiritual and practical. (The Summer Course which started as an annual programme in 1972  was the precursor to the more formal ‘Summer Course in Indian Culture and Spirituality’ which was restricted only to the students of the SSSIHL from 1990 onwards.) Although hundreds of students got the opportunity to participate in the Summer Course, there were hundreds of others who wished that they could participate. In the latter category was a lad in his late teens, T.V.Hariharan.

Hariharan was serving as a volunteer in the canteen which catered to the needs of all the devotees who gathered at Brindavan to seek Baba’s blessings. As the Summer Course progressed, he noticed that his craving to become a ‘Sai Student’ was getting stronger and stronger. There was something special about being a student under Swami’s direct care and Hariharan wanted to experience that firsthand.  Driven desperate by the desire, he approached the staff at the office of the college at Brindavan, seeking admission. That was when he discovered the peculiar condition which prevented him from joining the college there.

Hariharan had completed Grade XII in a school in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Educational System in India then had not yet been standardised. And so, while the state of Tamil Nadu followed a ‘11+1 years’ pattern of schooling, the state of Karnataka followed a ‘10+2 years’ pattern. That was causing the trouble and it disqualified Hariharan from getting a seat in the Bangalore college.

“But don’t they add up to the same thing, 11+1 and 10+2?” questioned Hariharan rhetorically.
He learnt the truth via this apparently trivial mathematical question that the means towards an end are equally important as the end itself. So, it seemed as if he was was not destined to become a student in Swami’s college. He resigned to his fate and decided to enjoy the last day of the Summer Course. And then, it happened. Swami, at the end of the discourse, made a revelation, (the gist is given here)
“Today, I have some good news to share. We have decided to start a new college in Puttaparthi. Those desirous of joining there may apply for the same.”

Hariharan jumped in his seat. Just when things had seemed bleak and fate appeared all-powerful, Swami had given him hope. Life with God is definitely an endless hope while life without is a hopeless end!  

A young Hariharan with his Swami.
Facing the all-important interview

The application had been submitted and the interview-call telegram had arrived. ( In a few years, I am sure that I will have to explain to some readers what telegraphy and telegram is all about!)
Hariharan travelled to Puttaparthi with his father via Penukonda. Unlike the developed town of today, Puttaparthi then did not have any amenities. Though there is an entire road (the Vidyagiri Road) of educational institutions today, there was only the Easwaramma Primary School building then (which had been erected in 1975). Hariharan and his father joined the crowd of devotees that had gathered for darshan. Swami picked them for an interview.

Usually a college interview is meant to determine the candidate’s aptitude and knowledge. This was an interview of a totally different kind. Hariharan got an estimate of Swami’s all-knowing nature. He revealed so many things to him and his father, including the fact that the father was suffering a lot from stomach ulcers. Circling His palm, Swami created vibhuti, gave it to the father and said,
“From now on, no more ulcers for you.”
He then turned to a dumbstruck Hariharan and said,
“From this September 4th, I shall take you as my student. You will always be with me.”

That was the only interview that Hariharan had to face. Even before joining Swami’s college, he had learnt that God does not call only the qualified; instead He qualifies the called!

Thus it was, that in the September of 1979, Mr.T.V.Hariharan became a student in the Sri Sathya Sai College at Prasanthi Nilayam.

Divine visits

The classes began and they were held in the Easwaramma School building. The northernmost corner of the East Prasanthi building (right beside the mandir) served as a hostel. There were just three small halls on three floors in which 102 students and their teachers were accommodated. The living space was very cramped and each student had just enough space in the hall to place a bag and his body on the floor! But nobody complained because Swami would make weekly visits to the hostel. Living in a space that is frequented by Swami, more than makes up for the little inconveniences and discomforts.

One day, during the darshan, Swami gently walked out of the northern gate of the mandir. All the 102 students knew that this was surely a ‘surprise’ visit to the hostel. They slowly got out from the eastern gate of the mandir and rushed to the hostel. They had to tidy things and arrange them before Swami got there. Swami, knowing the unpreparedness of the students, began to slow his progress towards the hostel. This He did by speaking to many people and some of the teachers along the way.

A spic and span 2nd floor of the hostel welcomed Swami. All the boys were enjoying the divine interaction. That was when Swami asked a question,
“Talent Emi Ledha Ikkada? (Is there no talent among the boys here?)”
The lecturer in Commerce, Sri.Anup Jhalani, answered pointing to Hariharan,
“Swami, one of our students plays the violin extremely well.”
“Do you play the violin?” Swami asked Hariharan.

A teenage Hariharan playing during a recital.  Today, with tears of gratitude, he realizes that unknown to him,
Swami was present with him even at such programmes. 
Hariharan nodded. In his opinion, he did not just ‘play’ the violin, he actually toyed with it. He was a prodigiously talented artiste and was well known in Madras (Chennai today) as a violin virtuoso. Though he had not publicly declared his abilities in the Puttaparthi college, the teachers were aware about them.
“And soon, the whole world would be made aware of the same if I get a chance to show my skills to Swami”, thought Hariharan.

“I shall come here this Sunday and we will have a violin recital”, Swami told him, as if reading his mind. Fixing a programme thus, Swami left for the mandir.

Violin strings and heartstrings

Hariharan eagerly looked forward for the Sunday to arrive. Everyone in the world eagerly awaits a Sunday, but for Hariharan it was much more than that. While everyone looks forward to relaxation on a Sunday, he was anxious to give his best efforts on the same day. It is not that he needed to practice hard. It was more about what he should play so as to mesmerise Swami with his fluency and his speed on the violin. Finally, the Raga chosen was Abhogi and the form of music selected was Varnam. In Carnatic music, Varnam is probably the most complex structure that includes lyrics and swaras (notes sung as they are).  Hariharan was sure that Swami would be bowled over with his mastery of how and when each note of the Raga should be stressed and at what speed.

Sunday arrived and so did Swami. On the centerstage of the makeshift dais was Hariharan and ‘his troupe’ of fellow musicians. Sai Surendranath (of the green Mercedes car fame) was accompanying him on the tabla. Well begun is half done they say. Keeping this in mind, Hariharan put his best foot forward and started playing the Varnam. It started off slowly and gradually gathered tempo. With each passing note, Hariharan’s confidence grew and so did his feeling of victory.
“Swami had asked whether there was any talent among the hostel boys. How His jaw will drop at my effortless twanging!”, he thought to himself.

After elaborately exploring the notes of the Raga, Hariharan readied himself for a grand climax at the end of which, he was sure, Swami would have to applaud his genius.

Swami had planned His own special climax which turned Hariharan’s climax into an anti-climax. Even as he raced through the notes of the Varnam, Swami began to hum and sing in an encouraging manner. Hariharan tried to make out which part of the Varnam was Swami singing. To his greatest amazement, he realized that Swami was doling out Kalpanaswaram! He was imaginatively improvising and tantalisingly toying with the Raga and his recital. As Swami sang with increasing intensity and speed, Hariharan stopped playing, flabbergasted at Swami’s ability as a musician.

But Swami was humility personified. He egged Hariharan on.
“You are playing very well. Play more.”
He also turned to the teachers by His side and said,
“He is indeed a very good violinist.”

One can fool anyone with words but not one’s own inner being. Hariharan knew that Swami was just being compassionate towards him. His musical abilities were no match for Swami’s genius. He was convinced that he was far from bowling over Swami and convincing Him that he was a violin virtuoso. Instead, Swami’s spectacular rendition, His love and His humility had bowled him several times over. Even as his violin strings came to a standstill, his heartstrings were being twanged passionately. All his interest in violin-playing was gone now. He only wanted to know more and experience more of this lovely orange-robed figure who was exuding so much love, grace and humility.

“Play some songs”, Swami told him.
He picked up the violin for Swami’s sake. If Swami wanted him to do it, he would surely do it. He now began to play the compositions of the great Thyagaraja. Mokshamu Galada, Chakkani Raja and Vatapi Ganapatim started to flow from the violin strings. But his heartstrings played a different tune,
“I want You Swami... You are more valuable than anything else in this Universe...”

Hariharan’s mind was in a flux and he seemed to be making foolish choices. But then, that is how a man following his heart over his head often appears. When he finished playing, responding to his heartstrings, Swami said,
“In the  bygone times, Thyagaraja did not ‘compose’ any song. He merely conversed with his Lord, Rama. HIs conversations with God have become compositions. Thyagaraja never fretted and fussed over Raga, Swara and Tala. That is why his music led him closer to God.”

The concert was complete. With broad smiles, Swami blessed all the participants and left. Hariharan was overwhelmed. He received accolades by the dozens but he just wanted to be left alone, by himself.

“Nothing should ever come in between Swami and me”  

Sitting by himself at the dead of night, Hariharan was lost in thoughts. The events of the evening played over and over again within him.
“Thyagaraja’s conversations with his Lord became immortal music... My music, on the other hand, made me so egoistic that I even forgot in whose presence I was! So lost was I in myself and my knowledge that I neglected my Self and wisdom. All these years of violin-playing has only gifted me a huge ego - a demon which takes one away from God. Instead of leading me towards God, my knowledge led to ego. I don’t want such knowledge. I don’t want to be taken away from my God, my Swami. I can’t lose Swami at any cost.Nothing should ever come in between Swami and me. Even if it means...”

Hariharan suddenly stopped his thoughts. He knew what had to be done. He picked up his violin and bowed to it.
“Mother Saraswati (Goddess of Learning)! Vidya Dadati Vinayam. Vinayam Dadati Patratam. (Education confers humility. Humility confers deservedness). But it is obvious that I haven’t received true Vidya. Forgive me...”

So saying, he landed a heavy blow on the violin and smashed it to smithereens. He vowed that from then on, he would never play the violin and would never forget who Swami truly is. He would treasure and cherish every word He spoke, every interaction He gifted. He hoped that his ego too was as badly smashed as his violin.

Then, he began to cry.

Swami blesses the Poorna Kumbham being held by T.V.Hariharan as part of the alumni Ganesha chariot on
the Immersion day. 

A birthday gift

That Sunday had marked a turning point in Hariharan’s life. He realized that the only thing he ever wanted to do in life was to be with Swami - nothing more, nothing less. Everything else - academics, career, wealth, fame - took a backseat as he understood that giving Swami anything other than top priority was equal to giving Him no priority at all. Days, weeks and months passed in this manner - two months to be precise. His violin was conspicuous by its absence in the hostel. Nobody asked him about it and the few that did ask him received no reply or just a short reply,
“Swami is more important man. Why bother about a violin?”

The most important date in November as per the Puttaparthi calendar is the 23rd - Bhagawan’s Birthday. Like many other years when she visited Swami for the Birthday, Bharat Ratna, M.S.Subbulakshmi came to Puttaparthi for darshan. The Indian legend always sat on the floor in complete devotion to her Swami. That year, during the darshan session a couple of days before the Birthday, Swami asked her,
“Amma. Will you sing for me during the jhoola (swing) ceremony?”
“Swami, it will be my privilege to sing for the jhoola ceremony. But, I have come alone. I do not have my violinist and percussionist...”
“You don’t worry about it. I have the best violinist in my college. I also have good percussionists. You get ready to sing.”

The legendary M.S.Subbulakshmi serving and attending on Swami during a Divine visit to her home.
Swami then headed straight to Hariharan and caught him unawares.
“Hey! Your aunt is going to sing on Birthday. You must play violin for her.”
Without waiting for Hariharan’s response, Swami walked on. Later, Hariharan came to know that the ‘aunt’ Swami referred to was none other than the legendary M.S.Subbulakshmi (the first musician who would go on to receive the Bharat Ratna and the first Indian musician who would go on to receive the Ramon Magasaysay award, often dubbed as the Asian Nobel Prize.) His jaw dropped now. He could not believe what was happening.

The precious violin that Swami gifted Hariharan. It is this violin that
he is playing in the opening picture of this story. 
Immediately came the worry. From where would he get a violin to play for the legend? He had broken his violin months before. (Unlike in the Puttaparthi of today, back then there were no emporia or shops to purchase musical instruments from.) The nearest place from where a violin could be purchased from was at least 8 hours away in Bangalore. Who would travel the distance and fetch a violin? When would he get time to practice before playing for the legend? Then came another worry - what would he tell people when they asked him what happened to his violin?
When the Lord gives a task, He also gives the strength and resources necessary to achieve it. That was what Hariharan realized as Swami gifted him with a brand new violin - no questions asked! But he was not yet satisfied. What about his vow to never touch the violin again? Swami smiled and all of Hariharan’s troubles were gone. He had given up the violin because he felt it was taking him away from his Swami. Now, it was presenting him an opportunity to do something for his Swami and had even brought a smile on His face. He accepted the violin and the opportunity to play during the jhoola function with both hands. It was a double Birthday gift from Swami - a new violin and an opportunity to accompany a legend in concert.

A beautiful capture of Swami on the jhoola during the Birthday Celebrations.
“It was an experience of a lifetime to play for M.S.Subbulakshmi. It taught me lessons beyond music - lessons of humility, devotion, surrender and faith. Imagine if playing for Subbulakshmi amma was an experience of a lifetime, what should be my feeling and attitude when I am playing for Swami... “

Living the lessons learnt

Hariharan has come a long way since that day in 1979. Today, he is Hariharan sir or Hariharan uncle to thousands of his admirers worldwide. He is a top-notch harmonium player and an accomplished bhajan composer. He started playing the harmonium on Swami’s insistence but that is a different story altogether. His compositions number hundreds and are very commonly sung in Prasanthi Nilayam. Some of his compositions include Sai Ram Sai Shyam Mere Sai Ram, Vaidehi Priya Vaikuntha Rama, Aao Pyare Nayana Hamare, Jai Ganesha Pahimam, Hey Shyama Sundara, Arunachala Shiva, Jaya Jaya Jaya He Madhusoodhana, Jai Maa Jai Maa Daya Karo Sai Maa, Sai Mera Tum Ho Sahara, Jai Ganesha (3) Deva, Sarva Dharma Swaroopa Sai, Anandamaya Bhagawan, Eswara Allah Ek Tumhi Ho, Aruna Ramana Sri Guru Deva, Madhava Mohana Shyama Gopala, Om Namah Shivaya Om Namah Shivaya.

If you understand the meaning of these compositions, one thing stands out - they all appear to be conversations with Swami. No prizes for guessing why they are so - because Hariharan fondly remembers and cherishes Swami’s words about Thyagaraja. He does not make efforts to compose. But whatever happens in life, he confides completely into Swami. The various life-situations he has faced has resulted in this wide emotional-range of bhajans.  Each of these compositions has a lovely story associated with it and that could be subject matter for an entire book in itself.

But when you tell that to Hariharan sir, he shrugs it off and confesses,
“See, when you say that I have composed so many bhajans, I feel thrilled because it shows what the Lord’s grace is capable of doing. The Lord’s grace transforms a mere conversation into a composition. And that grace is not reserved for some. It is universal. The fact that my conversations with Swami are compositions convinces me that they are indeed His gifts. Just as he gifts a musical instrument with ease, he also gifts music to an instrument with ease.”

Even as he says that, it is evident that Hariharan sir has humbled himself at Swami’s feet. That is why Swami has exalted him to the level of a composer for His bhajans.

Performing in the Divine Presence on the occasion of Swami's 57th Birthday in Poornachandra Auditorium. 
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  1. Thanks for sharing this, Aravind. Hariharan Sir is indeed humility personified. Having met him in person when he came in January to Sri Sathya Sai Nivas, the Sai mandir in Perambur, North Chennai for a program, I could easily make out why the Lord chose Him as the instrument for so many such beautiful bhajans. :) He is a wonderful person indeed. My loving Pranams to Sir.

    1. My pleasure Aarthi... For long I wanted to hear this story myself from the "horse's mouth" as they say...

      The many stories of his bhajans are also fascinating.... We are making use of them in our Thursday LIVE satsanghs on Radiosai...

  2. Sairam dear Aravind,
    Thank you for opting this wonderful article. We love Hari and his beautiful Bhajans

    1. Yessss! Each one of his bhajans is actually HIS bhajans! :)

  3. Really wonderful article anna! It's amazing reading this, because I was just blessed with the opportunity of meeting uncle just 2 weeks ago in Parthi! :)

  4. Captivating, larger-than-life, moving, inspiring, elevating rendition as always :) Thank you!

    The line that most leaped out at me was, "giving Swami anything other than top priority was equal to giving Him no priority at all." Such a profound insight...

    So many times in daily life we take Swami for granted, as "just Swami". We appreciate all the wisdom in His words, but don't apply it in the same degree. We objectify him into that beautiful orange figure that we light a lamp in front of everyday instead of the power that keeps life flowing from breath to breath, the compassionate omnipresence that protects us unawares like the eyelid protects the eye. Someone like Hariharan who realizes this and immediately sacrifices his most cherished possession that he feels stands in the way is such an inspiring example. In the Bhagavata Purana, Lord Krishna in answer to a question by Uddhava as to what qualities in his devotees is most pleasing to him, says, "Offer unto me that which is very dear to thee, that which thou holdest most covetable. Infinite are the results of such an offering!"
    Indeed it is, as this story testifies.

    1. Very true. you have quoted the apt statement from Lord Krishna. Though we are 'aware' at times of Swami's presence and reality, we have to be aware always. That is why Swami stressed on 'Constant Integrated Awareness'.

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  6. A touching read once again. One suggestion, can you share the stories behind his bhajans too. If possible do ask him to share the story behind 'Aao pyare nayana hamare' bhajan. Heard it couple of years back from him during his visit to USA. Wonderful and devotional in the true sense of the word.

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  8. SaiRam Aravind,
    Now it's getting easy to understand the word-HUMILITY.

    Thank you

  9. Wow... lots of my favorite bhajans composed by Sri. Hariharn Sir... specially "Sai Ram Sai Shyam Mere Sai Ram and Aao Pyare Nayana Hamare"... whenever I hear those bhajans I become very emotional and tears just flow...


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