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.  

The flag representing all the major religions of the world -
 Hindusim, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism
 - being unfurled by Sri Nimish Pandya. 
Amazing children of Odisha

1. Did you know that Odisha has silently established 18 Sai Schools in the State without any fanfare, publicity or advertisement? Some of these are based on CBSE with English as the medium of instruction; others have Oriya as medium of instruction.

2. Did you know that, every year, more than 10,000 children are benefited through education via the Sai Schools in Odisha? Most of these children grow into Sai-Youth and Seva Dal, also bringing their families into the umbrella of Sai. Those children that are unable to get into the schools have the option of enrolling into Bal Vikas to get enriched in human values

3. Did you know that each of these schools undergo a 5-yearly accreditation to ensure academic standards?

An innovative session had been planned for the evening. The Bal Vikas program often suffers from lack of women teachers or Guru Mathas (preceptor-mothers) as they are called. It is not that sufficient teachers are not present. However, they are geographically scattered and the children find it hard to travel long distances for a second time in the day (the first time being the journey they undertake to go to school). To solve this problem, virtual Bal Vikas classrooms via Skype/Google Talk had been planned and the inaugural session had Mrs. Kamala Pandya conducting a class for children who had assembled in Paradip, 130 kilometers away! The class was as lively and absorbing as one in which the teacher is physically present at the same geographic location!

The National Vice President of the SSSO in India, Sri Nimish Pandya and his wife, Smt. Kamala Pandya conduct a Bal Vikas class for children in Paradip. 
The next came a cultural programme by the children - a couple of skits and a couple of dances. The dances were beautiful and full of verve. The girls who performed had this uncanny ability of blending grace with majesty and energy. It was thrilling to witness the dances up close. But what was a pleasant shock for me were the skits. The acting abilities of the children, possibly just nine or ten years of age, were phenomenal to say the least. The skits were in Oriya and the children were fluently and flawlessly delivering dialogues - live! The background music was also live and it was being rendered by three visually impaired children! (Please forgive the profusion of exclamation marks here!) I understood most of the drama though I know almost nothing of Oriya and that is full marks for the exceptional acting. The story was simple:
A grandson tells his parents that he is on a lookout for a good old-age home to admit them, in keeping with the ‘tradition’ because they put his grandmother in one such home. The parents realise their folly and repent for such an act.

An energetic dance performed by the Bal Vikas girls against the beautiful backdrop of the Prasanthi Nilayam mandir. 

The girl acting as the grandmother moved everyone with
 her brilliant performance. 
I could see tears flowing down the cheeks of the actors as they performed and there was not a drop of glycerin in the vicinity!

“How do you manage to cry when you are acting?” I asked them later.

“How can one not get tears, when one’s parents are being treated so badly?” they counter-questioned.

“May these beautiful thoughts feelings be enshrined in your hearts always,” I prayed for them.

Respect for elders

I soon realized that this respect of the children towards their parents was part of the culture of people in Odisha. An important slot in the conference had been allotted to honouring and paying gratitude to many elders who had dedicated their youthful (and old-age) energies for Swami via the Organization. It was a sight to see people in the late eighties and early nineties walk up to the dais to receive a commendation of service, a shawl of respect and a round of applause.

All the elders who were honoured had tears of joy and gratitude towards the SSSO as expressed in their brief talks later. 

The members of the SSSO join an aggrieved family
in the funeral rites. 
An even more beautiful thing was, to hear these elders express themselves. One said that he was just a normal person, but it was Swami’s love and the Organization’s ability that had made him seem like a superman! Another said that even after his death, if possible, he would like to be part of Swami’s organization! Their loyalty was intense and their pride, fierce. In fact, when a Seva Dal volunteer came to help one of these elders, he freed his hand from the Seva Dal saying,
“I don’t need help. I am a Seva Dal myself. I am here only to serve.”

I have no idea whether a person would be able to serve the Organization after death. But I got to know another amazing seva that the Odisha organization performs - the funeral service. Every person is given an honorable final send-off by the volunteers in the Organization. The love with which they perform the service (as I learned from first-person accounts) brought tears to my eyes and I thought,
“Irrespective of how I live, this is how I wish to die...”

The Seva Dal volunteers carry a body to the funeral ground, lending their shoulders for the surviving family members
 to cry on. 
Omnipresence via the Organization

1. Did you know that Odisha is one of the few states in India where the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation has presence in each and every of its 30 districts?

2. Did you know that though Odisha has 30 political districts, it has 35 Sai-Districts and therefore, 35 district presidents in the SSSO? This is because some of the districts like Bhadrak, Balasore etc. are so huge that they have been divided into two as Bhadrak-1 and Bhadrak-2 .

3. Did you know that Odisha has nearly 200 samithis which have nearly 700 bhajan mandalis in them? No wonder, the Seva Dal from Odisha make multiple trips to Prasanthi Nilayam for seva. For instance, this 39th State Conference at Bhadrak was attended by nearly 3000 people in which the Seva Dal force was nearly 1000. 

I came to know of a very unique initiative the brings Swami into each and every home. During one of their earlier Puttaparthi-pilgrimage, the devotees of Odisha had prayed to Bhagawan to light a lamp, promising to carry back the flame to their home-state. That flame is nurtured even to this day and, once a year, the flame is taken out in a Rath Yatra (chariot procession) through all the different districts of the state. As the flame passes through the villages, people come out in joy and light a lamp in their home from the blessed flame. The Jyoti Yatra, as it is called, goes on for several weeks every year.

Kailash Chandra Behera, the recipient of amazing
 grace and love.
Amazing was the story of  Kailash Chandra Behara, a 52 year old man from Jajpur district who is currently settled in Laxmipur district of Odisha. On the 18th of October, 2014, the Jyoti made its way into his home. He was happy to welcome Swami in this form, of light, into his home. That very day, he was struck by paralysis. This unexpected turn of events shocked everyone. The members of the SSSO did not know what to say or do.
“How can we explain Swami’s entrance into a home and the head of the family being struck by paralysis?” asked one of the youth leaders.

Kailash’s faith was unimaginable.
“I am grateful to Swami for this blessing,” he said, much to the great surprise of everyone, “something worse was going to happen but Swami has reduced it to this paralysis. That is the grace of Swami’s Jyoti.”

On the 2nd November, the Jyoti Yatra was leaving for the neighbouring Damanjodi Samithi in Koraput District. That was the day when Kailash Behera made a desperate plea to the district president,
“Please get Swami to my home again. I want to have His darshan once more. I wish to light another lamp at my home from the Jyoti.”
As a special case, the procession turned around and headed back towards Kailash’s home. It was 2:45 pm when they reached there. In what could be considered as a medical-miracle, Kailash joined both his hands in prostration! He lit the lamp himself and in a matter of moments, he had come out of his paralysis.
“See! I told you that my Swami burned away all my karmas in this Jyoti!” he exulted.

The Akhanda Jyoti Yatra wending its way through one of the villages in Odisha. Everyone receives
the light like their own God. 
I saluted mentally to this beautiful ‘light form’ of my dear Swami which was omnipresent - in every home of every village in Odisha.

I also was educated about another procession called the Prema Plaban Yatra (the irresistible flow of Love). For this, a small replica of the golden chariot at Puttaparthi has been made and Swami is taken in procession through all villages and towns. I was personally blessed to witness one such Yatra in connection with the State Conference at Bhadrak.

A woman donates blood under the Sai Sanjeevani banner.

An Empire of Love and Service

The 'golden' chariot is built as a replica of the one at Prasanthi Nilayam.
The entire traffic at Bhadrak came to a reverential standstill and waited 
patiently till the procession had passed. 
1. Did you know that Odisha has the highest number of villages under the‪ SSSVIP‬ scheme? There are 82 villages taken up under this scheme which is double of many State averages.

2. Did you know that the ‪SSSO‬ in Odisha has been recognised by the Government as the second largest annual blood donor in the state for 3 consecutive years? The project has been aptly named Prema Sajeevani (Sanjeevani is a life-giving herb while Prema stands for love).

3. Did you know that Odisha is the only state where the SSSO has conducted an elaborate rural sports with participants from thousands of villages? The 6-month exercise culminated in a State-level Sports meet attended by hundreds of athletes (almost 900) and thousands of spectators.

What struck me hard throughout the conference was the amount and intensity of love that is poured into every activity, service and event. Why else would one want to conduct a statewide Sports Meet?
“In a family, apart from helping each other and serving each other, we also play with each other right? It might seem like an unnecessary expenditure but the bonding it has brought about across the state is simply unexplainable!” confessed Sri Jagannatha Rao, the State President.

The torch for the State-wide Rural Sports is held aloft by the
State President, Sri Jagannatha Rao.
The impact of the Sports Meet on everyone involved has been tremendous. Particularly touching is the impact it has had on the Chief Guests for the event. The SSSO had invited Bhaskar Chandra Das, Susheela Mishra and Gopal Mahapatra to preside over the Meet. These are names that brought glory to the State and the country in Volleyball, Athletics and Wrestling respectively. Well past 60 years of age now, these wonderful sportspeople were languishing in poverty, neglected and forgotten. They had eyes brimming with tears with the recognition and assistance of the SSSO. 

Though they have not seen Swami physically, they said,
“Even if the Government and our own families forget us, God always remembers what we have done!”

An event in progress during the preliminary stages of the Sports Meet. 
I am sure that such scenes would be an inspiration for young champions like Sidhant Mohapatra, who also was present along with several young sports people at the event!

The youthful energies on display during the Sports Meet come to great use for service too. the SSSO in Odisha has a special Disaster Management team to deal with floods and cyclones that ravage Odisha regularly. The members of this team may not be endowed financially, but they are very rich at heart. The minute they hear about a disaster, they let go of everything they are doing and rush to the spot to render service. They do not wait to collect and accumulate aid.
“ We have seen that when such disasters happen, aid invariably arrives. However, there is an acute shortage of people who are ready to disburse the aid. We are often the first ones to the disaster spot and innumerable are the instances when people call out to us, the way they call out to God. The idea is to be with them and give solace to the affected people immediately.”

The energetic, enthusiastic and service-minded youth don't mind jumping into deep waters to help their fellow-beings. 

The doctors who serve the needy via the SSSO
were also profusely thanked and honoured
with this certificate of deep appreciation. 

While disaster-management is the most challenging effort that the service team carries out, it is not the only thing it does. Sanitation, cleanliness, Narayan Seva, supplying free drinking water etc. are regulars. In fact, for the SSSO in Odisha, Sunday is not only a holiday but a ‘holy’day too because it had been unanimously chosen as the weekly Seva Day! Getting to know the various activities being carried out in Odisha, I realized that one needn’t have lots of resources to do Seva, lots of heart was more than enough because seva is an attitude.

Though done selflessly, such actions are noticed by society and even lauded. In Bhadrak, for instance, I came to know that the venue of the conference, the Nehru stadium, had been offered at the insistence of the Collector, Sri Akshay Kumar Pani. The IAS officer was not the only one who had been bowled over by SAI. In 2012, all the Municipal Councillors of Bhadrak had resolved to name the main road adjacent to the Sai Mandir in Bhadrak after the luminary who had inspired such nobility in people. Thus it was that the Collector humbly came forward and inaugurated the Sathya Sai Marg (Sathya Sai Road). All the people in Bhadrak seem to know Swami. When I visited the mandir, I realized that it was serving as an accommodation place for the devotees participating in the conference. But, every now and then, some person would walk in to offer his/her prayers. It was a temple housing the universal Lord!

The District Collector, Sri Akshay Kumar Pani prayerfully inaugurates the Sathya Sai Marg in Bhadrak.
Look at the center of the picture, at the beginning of the road divider where the black marble announces the name of the road as "Sathya Sai Marg" in Bhadrak. 

‘Sai’lent work behind the scenes

1. Did you know that the Books and Publications wing of the SSSO in Odisha has more than 450 publications to its credit? The whole of the Vahini series and Sathya Sai Speaks series is available for devotees in Oriya.

2. Did you know that there is a weekly TV programme, Parthi Sudha, which is aired across the state via cable TV? It has been a tremendous success and all the videos are created by combining all the various videos available. The State President himself is involved in scripting and producing these programme. His deep understanding of Swami’s teachings and wonderful scripting abilities are easily seen in every episode.

3. Did you know that in the state of Odisha alone there are more than 2000 people who can confidently chant the entire Rudram? About a dozen seminars and symposia have been conducted in different educational institutions in the state after receiving invites from them for the same.

People of all ages, religions, strata of society and professions turn up to learn the Vedas.  
I hurriedly changed the content of my talks to be delivered in the conference. To go ahead with what I had prepared, would be like a monotonous repetition in words of what the SSSO in Odisha had already put into action! I did not know where to begin. I found myself getting teary-eyed every now and then. For instance, when little children chanted the Vedas with all energy and vigour, I clutched at my heart and prayed,
“Swami, I know you are here and are seeing us. I wish I too could see you because I know that right now, there is a big smile on your face.”

In many places, Swami shows His presence via profuse
vibhuti manifestations from photographs and idols.
On later enquiry, I found out that a group of dedicated youth have been working to spread the wisdom and peace of the Vedas since 2010 when Swami blessed the initiative shown to Him by Sri Narayan Sar on the 5th of September during the Parthi Yatra. Was it a coincidence that it happened to be the “Teacher’s Day” in India that day? I don’t think so. Today, the whole state reverberates with these divine chants and ‘even Muslims and Christians want to learn the Vedas, because they say that the chants make them feel charged yet peaceful’!

I would be missing out something very important if I don’t mention the amazing work done by the ‘Sai Symphony’ group. This is the musical heart of the SSSO in Odisha. Throughout the conference, the group provided music not only for the dances and performances but also in the background. For instance, when the doctors were being felicitated for the yeoman service they were doing, the group struck up soulful chords and sang relevant bhajans like Deena Dukhiyon Se Prem Karo. When the elders were being honoured and celebrated, the song Ananda Baraso (shower joy) filled the air. Later on, even during my speech, the group provided sound effects which made my jokes more funny and the message more poignant. In fact, when I was speaking of Swami’s love for society, the group started the tune of the Conference theme - Loka Hitam Mama Karaneeyam (My actions are all for the welfare of the World). I just couldn’t speak. I was crying and did not know how to stop. I was amazed at the dedication of this group.

A "Sai Symphony" training camp and meet being conducted in all enthusiasm and sincerity. 

The group is not easy to get into and it is a matter of pride for a musician in Odisha to be part of the Sai Symphony team. The team does an evaluation of all the bhajan mandalis in the districts of the state and each district receives an accreditation! I realized that a few students of the Sri Sathya Sai Mirpuri College of Music were the heart of this group which was the silent background for the whole conference.

Where do I begin

To tell a story of how great a love can be... a sweet love-story that is older than the seas... the simple truth about the love He brings to me... Where do I start?

The lyrics of that famous song seem so apt for me now. While my first trip to Odisha in 2009 had taught me how much Swami loves the people of Odisha, this second trip had taught me how much Odisha loves Swami.

A miracle! Likhita Japa where one writes the name of God is a common sadhana practised in Odisha. When a devotee was unable to complete a day's quota of his writing, he felt bad. That changed when he  saw the quota had been miraculously completed! 

“Tell Swami to come to our state sir...” was the request they made to me.
“I have come to your Odisha and discovered more about my Swami”, I said in a choking voice.
“There was a time when all plans were made and Swami had promised our first state president, Sri Brahmananda Panda, that He would come. Sadly that never happened...”
“Dear ones, I know why Swami did not come to Odisha physically”, I said, “because if He had done so, He would have never returned to Puttaparthi. He would have lost Himself in the pure love that exists here...”

The SSSO also helps the poor Brahmin boys in the villages by
 performing their initiation to the Gayatri Mantra
via the thread ceremony.
I had not planned those words. They just flowed out effortlessly and spontaneously. As the two days passed and it was time for me to leave, I did not have the heart to go. I wanted to bask in Swami’s love in Odisha. But I had a flight to catch. As I was getting into the car, a little boy came running and held my hand,
Bhaiya (elder brother), please don’t leave us and go. Stay on...”
I was crying... AGAIN!
“I will surely come here again and again little one”, I said as I hugged him with all my heart.
I walked up to the State President and made a request,
“Sir, please... please promise me that you will call me again to your state... You have been blessed to lead such a beautiful state.”
He too seemed emotional.
“I want you to come again and again here. I am extending an invitation already...”

I knew that was what he would tell every guest because that is the beautiful culture and love that has been fostered in Odisha.


1. Sathya Sai Mobile Hospital - a 'moving' miracle of love

2. Building homes the Sathya Sai way: An unbelievable service of love in Trinidad & Tobago

For all readers:

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  1. Thank you brother for sharing this news.... it is so wonderful. Please swami make every place to be Odisha, full of love, energy and bliss. Sairam.

  2. Sairam Brother...I have never read before such a beautiful Divine Travelogue.. I can understand that a lot hard work has been put in by yourself in creating all the graphical and profound statistics.. Feeling great respect to all my dear Odisha Brothers and Sisters. Swami's presence is always registered there.... Also yourself have given them the best compliment in your grand speech by saying" Dear ones, I know why Swami did not come to Odisha physically”, “because if He had done so, He would have never returned to Puttaparthi. He would have lost Himself in the pure love that exists here...” One more humble request to know whether any Audio recording of your speech at Odisha is available in mixcloud or another source, since I have great admiration for that. As always keep doing the good work.. JAI SAIRAM....

  3. Sairam,
    Just tears of 'joy' and nothing else.Thank you so much.

  4. Sai Ram. Thanks for introducing us to Orissa Sai Seva. Many of the Sai sevas and activities are touching - specially the FUNERAL SEVA. Nice to see the dedication and commitment of Orissa devotees to Sai activities. Other States should learn from them. Sailove to all

  5. Wonderful...I felt I was in Odissa.

  6. Thank you brother for sharing Odisha Sai Seva.

  7. Thank you words can express my heartfelt thanks for sharing all this much to learn from these beautiful and simple devotees of swami.

  8. Beautiful quote " Seva is an attitude " & all of us need to wear it. Thank you Aravind for a beautiful coverage of love in action & attitude.

  9. Sairam. Thankin you first of all For having send this article to me.wonderful people with wonderful Bhakthi to SAIMAA. I don't want to rub my tears throughout reading..That is only my presentation to the Odisa Sai children.

  10. Sairam... really am finding difficult for words to describe what I am feeling right now... Praying that Swami gives them even more love and blessings to continue the great seva and one opportunity to witness this magical sai state....

  11. Sairam
    I am from Odisha.
    Now I understood why swami didn't come to Odisha physically. 😊


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