Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A silent service revolution sweeping Odisha

The Conference in Odisha began after pinning the
"Chief Guest" brooch to a picture of Bhagawan
Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I found it very subtle and beautiful. 
The call and a calling

I received a call from an unknown number in the middle of December 2014. The voice identified himself as Mr.Jagannath Rao, the State President of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization in Odisha.
“Mr. Aravind, we are having a State Conference from the 16th to 18th January. Could you be our guest for the Conference?”
“It would be my pleasure sir”, I replied, “let me know the topics and the itinerary for the same.”
A minute later, the call had concluded and soon, I received the suggested themes for the talks:
  1. Service: A journey from Unity to Divinity
  2. Sai’s footprints in the sands of time (which we must emulate and follow).

My mind raced back to the day in January 2009 when Swami, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, had blessed me with my first opportunity to visit Odisha. I had visited Odisha then as a journalist to cover the magnificent housing project, which Swami had announced out of the blue during the Dusshera celebrations in Prasanthi Nilayam. {That is a fantastic story in itself and has been captured in Episode 3 of another article.} During that visit, I got many glimpses of the immense love that Swami was showering on the flood-affected people of Odisha. For, what did Swami have to gain, by serving people who were thousands of kilometers away and would not be be able to return His favour in any manner? I understood better what Swami means by saying that there is no reason or season for love. I updated myself with everything about that housing project, because I felt that it would be best to remind the people of Odisha about the immense blessings that had received from the Lord. This was the theme which I weaved both my talks around - how one could serve Divinity by serving one’s family, society and nature in a united manner.

Prepared and excited about the visit, I boarded my flight to Bhubhaneshwar from Bengaluru on the 16th of January, 2015. It was nearly 4 pm when I had refreshed myself at Bhubhaneshwar and was ready to set out to the Nehru stadium in Bhadrak, the venue of the State Conference which was about 130 kilometers away. Along with me in the vehicle were also Sri Nimish Pandya, the National Vice-President of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization and Smt. Kamala Pandya, his wife. We enjoyed a nice satsangh along the 3-hour journey which seemed to get over in no time. Having checked our baggage into our rooms, we arrived at the venue.

The first sight itself took my breath away!

An experience of God

At the entrance was a beautiful replica of the grand Gopuram in Puttaparthi! It was made mostly from cloth and it stood tall like a beacon for those seeking Swami’s love. It was by the side of this Gopuram that our car halted. Eager to photograph this structure, I jumped out of the car, totally unprepared for what lay in store for us. A band struck up a merry tune and almost a hundred children began to chant, “Welcome... Welcome...” A fast-paced song was being sung in the background and a lady began to wave a lamp in welcome. But there was something else that swept me off my feet - literally!  

A magnificent Gopuram welcomed all participants to the Nehru Stadium in Bhadrak. 

The decorated dais which bore the flag-pole.
Dozens of people began to fall at my feet. I saw that they were falling at the feet of Nimish uncle and Kamala aunty too and they too, like me, were having a hard time fending off these people.

“Please... no... no...Noooo....”
“Prostrate only to Swami... it is enough...”
“Sairam... Sairam... what is this you are all doing...You are overdoing it...”
We tried our best but could not stop everyone. We rushed towards the entrance and headed towards the dais because it looked like the only way to save ourselves from these feet-seeking enthusiasts. Just entering the hall, my jaws dropped again. As if the Gopuram was not enough, the main mandir of Prasanthi Nilayam too had been replicated in thermocole and cloth to serve as the dais.
“Swami, I think I can feel a bit how You felt when You came for darshan daily”, I told Swami within myself.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

God is always the first priority in life_ the life story of Bal Vikas student Raja

A story of devotion at first sight

Raja was born as Arun Patra in Koraput, Odisha to middle-class parents. He had several siblings who had graced the world before him and so, he felt that he was part of a joint family though technically it was a nuclear one. Mischief seemed to be deeply ingrained in his genes and the mother found it very hard to contain it. At her wit’s end, not knowing how to discipline her Raja, she enrolled him into a bi-weekly class which aimed to inculcate discipline, duty and devotion in children. She did not have the slightest idea about the origin and inspiration behind the ‘Bal Vikas’ classes but was happy that there was some creative outlet for the tremendous physical and mental energies that her child possessed. No doubt, her life changed after that. However, even in her wildest imagination she had not dreamed about the way it would change her Raja’s life.

Raja's life changed forever because of the Bal Vikas classes. It got him close to the goal of his life, his love and his Lord,
Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
The Bal Vikas classes struck a magical chord in young Raja’s heart. The ten-year old was fascinated by the stories that his Guru Matha (teacher-mother) at Bal Vikas told them. His heart seemed to be soothed by the Sanskrit chants that resonated in these classes while his mind was filled with deep questions about the meaning of life. These were questions that even his mother would have never imagined, let alone Raja; but then, his mother was not a student at Bal Vikas! More than anything, Raja developed a keen interest in the fuzzy-haired, oranged-clad ‘Baba’ who was his Guru Matha’s god. Though she always encouraged the children to pray to the God that they had been told to pray to at home, she was devoted to Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

“Mother, why does she worship a living person as God?” Raja asked one day.
His parents were devoted to another Guru and the mother felt that the time was ripe to pull little Raja also into line.
“God is the only one who always lives and never dies. We also worship our Guru as God...”
“Is there a difference between Gurus?”
“Er... I don’t know... but our Guru is a great one. You should meet him...”
“That is what Guru Matha says about Baba. In fact all the children are going to Puttaparthi in South India for a holiday with her to Baba... Can I also go?”
The mother was silent now.
“Please mother. All my friends are going. I also want to go.”

Thus it was in 1983 that Raja made his first trip to Prasanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi. He had his first darshan of Bhagawan Baba. By the end of the trip, Baba had become Swami for him. He was delighted and was certain that he would be setting foot on Prasanthi soil many more times in his life. His parents back in Odisha, however, were dismayed. They felt that their Raja had strayed from the path.

God gives what we want so that we want what He has come to give

The parents were determined to pluck Raja out of the clutches of “some Baba” and they took him out of Bal Vikas. But they were unable to take the Bal Vikas out of him! Raja kept in touch with all his Bal Vikas mates and he found himself falling deeply in love with Swami. By the time he reached the age of 18 when he could legally decide for himself, he had enlisted himself as a youth member in the Seva Dal (Volunteer) brigade of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation.

With all sincerity and devoted hardwork, Raja became popular with many of the people administering the ashram. He spent a couple of years working directly under the Karma Yogi Colonel Jogarao. In 1994, he was one among a trio to get posted at Bhagawan’s new residence in the Poornachandra Auditorium. Though he was very happy at this opportunity, it was not meant to be! Sri Chiranjeevi Rao, another able administrator, asked him to be at his beck and call. Sri Chiranjeevi Rao was always at the beck and call of Swami and he wanted someone sincere and well-acquainted with people in the ashram to assist him. Sri Rao was known to be a very strict person and everybody feared working with him. But not Raja! He was ready to do anything for Swami. So, he gave up his posting at Bhagawan’s residence to assist Sri Chiranjeevi Rao.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Being God's driver - The life and story of Padmanabhan with Sri Sathya Sai_ Part 3

Padmanabhan driving a unique vehicle during
darshan. This epitomises his life with Swami.
Though he was His driver, it was always
Swami in the front seat and him in the
Wedded for life

Swami had brought up the topic of Padmanabhan’s wedding in June 1994. October had already arrived but Swami had not yet given a date for the wedding. The months of grappling with uncertainty had given way to a kind of resigned serenity in Padmanabhan. He had stopped fretting and was accepting Swami’s ‘vagaries’ as they came about. That is when he made an interesting discovery. When he was amenable to Swami’s ‘vagaries’, those very same vagaries seemed to fade away!

In fact, Swami had told him with complete confirmation to hold the wedding in Kerala. Now, as his mother and brother pestered him for a date, he told them that he would inform them as soon as Swami gave one to him. Just a few days before the wedding, Swami gave him a date - the 24th of October. Padmanabhan accepted it with humility and conveyed it home. A new debate cropped up,
“Wouldn’t it be better to have the wedding on 23rd October?”
“Swami said that it should be 24th October”, Padmanabhan replied.
“23rd is advantageous on two counts. It is an auspicious day based on the Panchangam. It is also a Sunday which makes it easier for all friends and relatives to attend the wedding...”
Padmanabhan, who was totally in sync with Swami’s words, replied,
“If it is inauspicious, I am the one affected right. I have no problem with it. And if people are unable to come, I still don’t bother. What matters is that we follow what Swami says.”

His was the final word and the wedding was fixed for 24th October. Padmanabhan informed Swami that he would be leaving for Kerala as per His command. Swami called him in and blessed him. He gave him enough money to cover most of the expenses of the wedding. He also blessed him with the jewellery and Mangalsutra which he would have to gift his wife. Padmanabhan was in tears. Swami had told him that he would take care of everything, of course. But here, He was taking care of him more than a parent; more than a close friend; more than what he would himself do for him! With gratitude oozing from the heart, Padmanabhan left for Kerala.

{This is the final concluding part of a 3-part story. To enjoy it to the maximum, it is recommended that you read this after the first two parts. 

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

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

A gentle rainfall in India is considered auspicious. What happened in Kerala on 23rd October was something drastic. Possibly it was an ‘over-auspicious’ day and the fury with which the rains lashed out was unbelievable. Everyone was thankful that the wedding had not been fixed for that day because it would have meant a severe ‘washing away’ of many well-laid plans. In

Friday, 9 January 2015

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

Everything happens with a reason

It took about 4 hours for Padmanabhan to drive from Bangalore to Puttaparthi through the narrow winding roads which meandered through many villages along the way. Who would have thought that a tar road would be connecting Bangalore with a tiny hamlet in Andhra Pradesh?
“Today, the Asian Highway 43, the National Highway 7 and a State Highway form the series of roads connecting these two places. I never thought it would become like this then!” says Padmanabhan with a smile of amazement.

The client had a day’s work to accomplish in Puttaparthi and Padmanabhan spent the night in the car itself. The next morning, even as he was going for his ablutions, the client rushed to him,
“We need to get back to Whitefield as soon as possible. I wish to be there in time for darshan!”
In a hurry, Padmanabhan got the car started and began th journey back towards Whitefield. It was literally ‘godspeed’ for them because they were speeding to be in time to see God!

{This is the second part of Padmanabhan's story. In case you have arrived directly here, it is recommended that you read the first part first! That is at the link below:

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

The car neared the Brindavan ashram and all the signs outside indicated that Bhagawan Baba had come out to grant darshan.
“Yes! Stop right here”, said the client as he got off from the car and rushed in to have darshan. Padmanabhan too was desirous of having darshan but he had not bathed and washed for nearly 24 hours. He thought for a moment and decided that the ablutions could wait. He parked the car nearby and rushed under the welcoming shade of the Sai Ram shed. Even as he sat in the last line, possibly the tenth one, in the gents’ section, Swami had neared the gents’ side of the tree having completed the ladies’ side. He seemed to hurry towards where Padmanabhan was seated and began to look at him from a distance of more than 20 feet. Padmanabhan could feel a tingling sensation inside him. He just sat down when Swami raised His finger and told him,

Padmanabhan feels that his spiritual growth has been complete in Swami's presence, though not in the way he thought.
Every delay and even denial from Swami only got him closer to Swami and helped him evolve spiritually. 
23rd March 1992 is a day embedded in Padmanabhan’s memory for ever because it is possibly the only day he had gone for darshan without any of his ablutions in day-old clothes and Swami picked him straight for an interview! The joy was heightened because this gift was totally unexpected. Expectation is such a terrible thing - it makes you morose if not fulfilled and feels normal if fulfilled. On the other hand, living each moment with no expectation is divine - it never makes you morose but adds extra joy when you are gifted something! Padmanabhan walked towards the interview room with a spring in his step.

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.)