Monday, 5 January 2015

Being God's driver - The life and story of Padmanabhan with Sri Sathya Sai_ Part 1

It is no mean achievement to be the Sarathi to the Sanathana Sarathi!
Duty is God; Work is Worship

A man walking briskly with purposeful steps, dressed in a white shirt and a white pant, is not such a rare sight in Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparthi. Most of the men here are dressed in whites and all the people here have come here on a purpose! (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, our dear Swami, emphasizes that unless it is willed by Him, one cannot come to Prasanthi Nilayam.)

Imagine you walk up to one such man dressed in whites and greet him,
And he replies with,
“Sairam, yes.?”
“Could you help me find the Sathya Sai Bhakta Nivas accommodation hall?”
“Sure! I am headed to work and the hall comes along the way. I can guide you there. Do you need help to carry your bags?”
“I am fine with the bags. Thank you for showing me to the hall.”
And you both walk along.
“Actually, there are two battery-operated vehicle service, named ‘Sai Sevak’, to transport devotees with luggage from the gate to the accommodation hall...”
“Oh I see,” you are surprised, “that is a nice development.
You reach your destination and the man begins to retrace his steps.
“Excuse me, can I know where you work?”
Pointing to a big shed nearby, he says,
“Over there - at the Tractor Shed.”
“Tractor shed? You...”
“I am a driver.”

The general response to such a revelation is not something out-of-the-world. I mean, the response will lack the ‘oohs’ and  ‘aahs’ that a revelation of him being an active scientist in the country’s missile program would evoke. It will also lack the admiration and possible envy that a revelation of him being the CEO of some firm would elicit. A driver is not someone you admire, envy or look up to in awe! But imagine that you ask him,
“Who are you? And what car do you drive?”
His answer will blow your mind away.

“I am Padmanabhan. I drove Swami’s cars for 18 years. I now maintain all of them!”

Now imagine your response! Most probably, your hands would fold in salutation and you would exclaim,
“Sai Ram!! The Lord’s driver!! OMG! How lucky I am to meet you...”

That exclamation is what happens when one does one’s work for God! It is the difference between spirituality as we understand it and actual spirituality which is doing one’s duty and daily work as a service to God. And the life of Sri.P.V.Padmanabhan has been one long saga of transforming work into worship. The story of how he came to Swami, how he became Swami’s chauffeur and how he learned what is truly meant by Spirituality, is indeed a nectarous one, another leaf in the gigantic banyan tree of the Sai Bhagawatham.

Introduction to Sri Sathya Sai

Padmanabhan obtained a Diploma in Automobile Engineering which, in combination with some support from his uncle, got him a job as vehicle mechanic in the Indian Air Force base at Assam (there were more than 300 jeeps and other vehicles to maintain). The teenager worked hard and in all sincerity, expanding his skill-set and knowledge base. His hard work paid off when, as a 20-year old, he got a contract job in Baghdad. For more than two years from 1981 to 1983, Padmanabhan maintained his clients’ cars as a well-paid auto mechanic. Reports of his good work reached the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and he won a contract there to manage and maintain several cars. Thus, the 3 years from 1983 to 1986 were spent in the strictly Islamic country.

“Hey! Just a minute. What was the need to mention ‘strictly Islamic country’? Please keep religion out of your narratives.”
Someone might be tempted to tell me thus.
Well, the reason I mention that term is because it was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that Padmanabhan came to know of Swami! Imagine that - getting to know of God in human form in a country where it is a sin (punishable by incarceration and possibly even death) to indulge in any kind of idolatry! It happened via his friend Venugopal with whom Padmanabhan spent many hours chatting as he was also a Malyali like him. (Padmanabhan hails from Kuttiyady in Calicut.)

Venugopal was a devotee of Bhagawan Baba and he narrated several stories of His love and grace to Padmanabhan. He used to work for the neighbouring ‘Prince Carriers’. It was the play of fate that both Padmanabhan and Venugopal had their respective contracts expiring at the same time and both did not get a renewal. Thus, with his knowledge of ‘foreign cars’ and a good friend, Padmanabhan returned to his homeland in Kerala in early 1987. Venugopal had two brothers who started a small printing and publishing business. They pulled Venugopal into it who, in turn, pulled Padmanabhan into it. Thus, the four of them settled in Ernakulam.

Meanwhile, Padmanabhan felt an increasing spiritual thirst and began to drink into the divine nectar that Venugopal provided via stories of Swami. Such was the inspiration that Padmanabhan donned the Seva Dal scarf and volunteered for Prasanthi service in mid-1987.
“I had an incredible experience along the journey to Puttaparthi. As we crossed the arch welcoming us into the Sathya Sai taluk (at Pedaballi, 22 kms from Puttaparthi), I felt a surge of joy. It was an anticipation that my life was changing. Each kilometer along the journey added to that feeling. Then, we came to Puttaparthi. There were only half the number of buildings then. But even those filled my heart with such joy and energy. In an instant I decided that this place should be the the headquarters for my life!”

Today, when the Seva Dal volunteers arrive from Kerala, they come in a few thousands. In 1987, the Seva Dal force from Kerala which had Padmanabhan as a member numbered just 35! For a week, Padmanabhan enthusiastically did a wide array of service jobs at the ashram. At the end of the week, he received a magnificent reward - a padanamaskar and group photograph with Swami. That instant he decided that he would live his life for Swami and spirituality. He purchased the first volume of Sathya Sai Speaks and returned home, to Ernakulam.

The group photograph that Swami gifted the Seva Dal from Kerala. Padmanabhan is marked with "1" while his friend,
Venugopal is marked with "2"
(in yellow).
Without even having seen Swami, Padmanabhan had decided to make Puttaparthi his headquarters! Having seen Him, he made his heart into Swami’s living-quarters!

Career Opportunity

Padmanabhan began to pore through the book. He had never before read any book like that. He found great solace and serenity reading through each of Bhagawan’s discourses. He found his heart pining more and more to go back to Swami.
“Was it the first volume of Sathya Sai Speaks or of Sathyam Shivam Sundaram?” I asked him unable to believe that someone would pour over His discourses.
“Sathya Sai Speaks, the discourses. Don’t you find them mesmerising sir?” was his response.
I just smiled and nodded. What else could I do.
“I found all the answers that I was seeking in that very book.”
In no time the book was completed and Padmanabhan found himself craving desperately for the second volume of Sathya Sai Speaks. He found it in a friend’s house and borrowed it to satiate his new-found thirst.

While things were progressing rapidly on the ‘spiritual front’, they were not so rosy on the ‘business front’. The publishing business went into a severe loss and soon had to be shut down. To eke a living, Padmanabhan and Venugopal started a transport company. Taking a loan, Padmanabhan also purchased a truck as a courier vehicle. It was no surprise that the venture was called Prasanthi Transport Company. The transport company gained good traction and life went on well with an annual visit to Prasanthi Nilayam in the middle of the year for service.

June 1991 marked a turning point for Padmanabhan.

He got an offer from KeraFed to work as a mechanic-cum-driver for their trucks transporting coconuts. He thought of getting the offer blessed by Swami during the service trip in July. He could then sell away his truck and shut down Prasanthi Transport Company which gave him the same income for much harder work. Even as he contemplated this, the announcements for volunteers was made in his samithi. The Seva Dal movement had grown steadily and increasing number of volunteers were arriving at Prasanthi Nilayam for seva. An additional announcement was also made,
“Swami wishes to appoint a few drivers to serve the ashram on a regular basis. Those that are interested may apply.”

In the early 1990s, Puttaparthi was not connected by National and State Highways as it is now. There were a few buses that plied between Bangalore and Puttaparthi but they were not luxury buses. As a result, most of the foreigners chose to come to Parthi or go back to Bangalore by taxis. The taxi owners in Puttaparthi allowed their greed to get the better of them with this opportunity. They would often charge customers as much as Rs.1,200 for a trip. (In 2014, the taxi fare for a drop-off at the Bangalore International airport was Rs.1,800! Clearly, the taxi owners were over-charging in 1991.) Thus, Swami decided to initiate what was called as the ‘Prasanthi Travels’.

Prasanthi Travels had half a dozen cars and three vans in its garages. These would be rented out to customers for rates as low as Rs.600 per trip. The vans were 18-seaters and a seat could be procured for Rs.150.  It was a big boon for all the devotees and it forced the outside taxi owners to also reduce their prices to more sensible ones. Swami wanted to recruit drivers for Prasanthi Travels and Padmanabhan set his heart on securing a slot there. He applied for it instantly, without even knowing what the pay would be like. Though he had a secure and well-paying job-offer, he hoped that he would find his career in Puttaparthi rather than in Trivandrum.

Prasanthi Travels

The Prasanthi service was from the 1st of July till the 8th. On completion of the service, as Padmanabhan sat in the darshan lines, Swami walked up to him and asked,
“Where did you come from?”
“Swami, from Calicut, Kerala...”
“Go..” said Swami, pointing towards the interview room.
Thrilled at this sudden blessing, Padmanabhan made his way towards the interview room. It was a large motley group that had been called for interviews that day. After a short discourse in the outer interview room, Swami went into the inner interview room. Padmanabhan saw that there were two other candidates who had applied for the post of drivers who had been called in for the interview. They were the first ones to be called by Swami into the inner interview room.

Padmanabhan was nervous now. Why hadn’t he been called in? They came out with joy on their faces saying that they had got their jobs. Swami had begun calling others inside and Padmanabhan continued to wait. The wait turned out to be a long one and everyone but him came out after a personal audience with Swami. Then, Swami Himself walked out and pointing to him, said,
“Come in.”
Ah! He had not been forgotten.

“What happened inside was simply mind-blowing. Before I could say anything, Swami began talking to me. He told me two very personal things...”
“And what were they?” I asked.
“Hahahaha... They are very personal... That means I cannot tell them - even now. I had not told anyone nor have I told anyone about that. But when Swami revealed those two things, I was struck dumb. I sat there at His feet, speechless.”

It was Swami Himself who lightened the situation by cracking a few jokes and telling Padmanabhan that he had nothing more to worry about.
“I will take care of you. Tomorrow is a Tuesday. Join for duty on Thursday.”

Thus it was that Padmanabhan became a driver and mechanic for Swami’s Prasanthi Travels on the holy Thursday, the 11th of July, 1991. He had to report to ‘Jaykumar sir’ who was the Chief Engineer for the ashram and ‘Narayan sir’ who was the ashram Secretary. His duties involved maintaining the Ambassador cars and the Nissan vans, driving them as and when necessary to Bangalore and back.
Padmanabhan with Swami at Kodaikanal looks so different from what he looked like in his
first picture with Swami. That was a group photo of the Seva Dal from Kerala and
he had a thick moustache and beard then!

A promise forgotten?

Come March 1992, Swami moved to the Brindavan ashram at Whitefield, Bangalore. Prasanthi Travels also shifted office to Whitefield and Padmanabhan found himself driving short distances now. He could get time to actually sit and enjoy darshans.

Life is so strange. Padmanabhan had felt an irresistible pull towards Swami and thus towards spirituality. He had forsaken a better career option for the sake of his spiritual progress. However, though he stayed at Prasanthi Nilayam and was just a few minutes away from the darshan grounds, he was unable to have regular darshans! He did not get much time to participate in bhajans or do meditation.
“If spirituality is measured by how much time we spend in meditation, prayer, bhajans, darshan, suprabhatam, nagar sankeertan and the like, let me confess that I hardly had time to engage in spiritual activities. I would find myself driving or repairing most of the time.”

Though paradoxical, it is indeed an interesting observation that, many times when we go to God seeking ‘worldly’ successes and joys, He puts us through a rigorous ‘spiritual’ routine. On the other hand, if we go to Him for purely ‘spiritual’ reasons, He puts us in the heart of the ‘world’, filling our schedules with ‘mundane and worldly’ duties! What we think as spirituality and what Spirituality actually is are two vastly different things. That is what many who have come to Swami have discovered including Prof.H.J Bhagia, who got that realization via the Ultimate experience of Advaitha.

Padmanabhan began to enjoy this new-found blessing of daily darshan. And with that enjoyment arose a desire.
“Swami, I want to experience another miracle... I want to worship you as my God and love you as my beloved. But then, my mind keeps throwing up questions now and then. Give me another experience and an interview...” He fervently prayed for an interview because he felt that once Swami returned to Puttaparthi, he might not have this much leisure to pursue his ‘spiritual’ life.
There was another reason for such a prayer - a lurking fear! The two other drivers whom Swami had appointed along with Padmanabhan were no longer associated with Prasanthi Travels. In fact, even the drivers who had come after them had quit for one reason or the other. Within a few months itself, Padmanabhan had realized that though it was not easy to come to God, it was even tougher to continue to stay with Him. God is absolute purity and it requires one to be absolutely hollow and ego-free to stay with Him. Else, one will just live with Him like frogs live around a lotus, without actually tasting and enjoying the sweet nectar at its heart! (By the way, LOTUS here stands for the Lord Of The Universe Sai - our dear Swami.)

Padmanabhan wanted to experience Swami again before, God forbidding, he would have to leave.

It was the 21st of March, 1992. Padmanabhan sat praying in all intensity under the Sai Ram shed where Swami would give darshan.  As Swami arrived for darshan, he felt that He was looking at him from a distance greater than 20 feet away. Padmanabhan pulled out the pocket-sized photograph and began to pray even more fervently. Swami came straight to him and said,
Naale Koopudre (I shall call you tomorrow).”

The darshan in the good old days of the Sairam Shed around the tree and Krishna idol at Brindavan, Bangalore.
Padmanabhan was excited beyond measure. Even before he could state his heart’s desire, Swami had answered him. He headed straight to the Prasanthi Travels office after darshan and sought permission to be off his duties the next day as he would be getting an interview. He also told his fellow driver, Shiv Shankar, to take an off. It was his intention to share his good fortune.

The next day turned out to be major disappointment. Just as Swami had looked only at him for more than 20 feet the previous day, Swami looked at everyone but Padmanabhan and Shiv Shankar this day. The darshan and bhajan sessions concluded and Swami retired for the morning after the interviews. Padmanabhan was heart-broken. Unknown to him, Swami was planting seeds in his heart that one could not ‘get’ Swami by ‘running away’ from one's duties!
As if emphasizing this message, when Padmanabhan got back to his office, there was an urgent booking to be fulfilled.
“Padmanabhan, this gentleman has been assigned some work by Swami and he has to rush to Puttaparthi right away. Will you take him, now that your interview did not materialize?”

With a hung head, Padmanabhan agreed. He immediately set out to Puttaparthi with the gentleman.

How did Padmanabhan actually end up being Swami’s driver? That is a very long and amazing journey in itself and we will traverse some more distance of that story in the second part of this story at the link below:

Being God's driver - The life and story of Padmanabhan with Sri Sathya Sai_ Part 2

For all readers:

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  1. amazing experience

  2. Wonderful. I have been pestering Sri Padmanabhan, Rajendran, Ramalingam and Rangaswamy to write their journeys with Swamy. They simply laughed it off. Now that you have started Padmanabhan's account, I will be anxious to go to the other beautiful stories as well

  3. Sairam Aravind, thanks for another irresistible article from your pen, waiting for the continuation of the narrative. Best wishes and Love.

  4. Sai Ram, Thrilling Experience, As if I Am A Part Of The Journey. Waiting For The Journey To Continue.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Sai Ram Aravind. Thanks for the story of the Sarathi of our Sanathana Sarathi. Very eagely wait for Friday to read the next part.

  7. Sairam bro, awesome sharing bro, cant wait till 9th... sairam

  8. Nice Bhagavatham. We all "Bhaga Avuthamu" by going through the life of Sri. Padmanaban. We are eagerly waiting for part 2 to continue...

  9. Lovely Aravind....One of the most awaited Articles though each one is a Gem by itself....looking fwd to the next part...<3

  10. So captivating and gripping narration.


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