Saturday, 28 February 2015

Always have a direct connection to God - Nikhil Koushik learns his lessons from Baba _Part 1

Nikhil's grandmother and grandfather with
Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. 
Nikhil Kaushik descended from a very illustrious family. He grew as a branch on a family tree that had been nurtured and fertilised by classical Carnatic music. From a tender age of four, even as he began learning the English alphabet, he learned the notes of classical music. Since he had been endowed with a pretty good voice, Nikhil had no doubts that he was born to be a singer.

Apart from music, Nikhil Kaushik had been blessed with another, more valuable heritage. And that was the devotion towards Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba which his family had adopted for three generations before him. Both these inheritances - music and love for Swami - gelled well with each other and Nikhil found himself progressing as a singer in the Bal Vikas classes which he attended. He was a singer in every Samithi, Sai Center and programme that he was part of. He even sang in the presence of his Swami at Prasanthi Nilayam during the All-India BalVikas Conference in 2005.

It is therefore understandable that when he got admission in MBA at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in June 2005, he had no doubts that he would be singing as Swami’s student too! One of the first things he did on joining the hostel was to approach a teacher to inform that he would like to sing bhajans for Swami as soon as He arrived from Brindavan, Bengaluru. That was when he received the first of many shocks.

A frank and ruthless assessment

Nikhil found out that there was a procedure to be followed before he could be permitted to wear the badge of ‘Mandir singer’ and sing bhajans in the presence of Bhagawan Baba. It was a 3-step process.
  1. All the aspirants had to sing a couple of bhajans before the bhajan-group in-charges(teachers and senior singers) who would assess whether the singer was good enough to begin right away or needed practice.
  2. Once the in-charges were convinced, the singer would have to personally seek permission from Swami to sing in His presence.
  3. When he actually sang in Swami’s presence, the singer should not receive any negative feedback or signs from Swami.
Only when the three steps had been crossed, could a singer join the ranks of the Mandir singers.

Nikhil sang a very complex bhajan for the test. His idea was to bowl over the in-charges with his singing prowess. The feedback that he received at the end of the session shocked him to say the least.
“Your singing is pronouncedly Carnatic while you are attempting a Hindustani-style bhajan. Also, your pronunciation of Hindi and Sanskrit is very accented. The way you are ending each line of the bhajan is quite loud and abrupt. Practice hard for a few weeks and we shall see then... Next...”

Practice for a few more WEEKS!! Nikhil had tried to get the main in-charge bowled over but he had himself got stumped! He wondered whether the feedback given to him had been about someone else’s singing. He had been present when the others had sung and he felt that he was easily better than any other aspirant there. He had not come as an aspirant because he had no doubts about singing on the very day Swami arrived to Puttaparthi. But things were so different now. He who had never experienced failure before, had been subjected to a crushing judgement like this. For a neutral witness, it was evident that his ego was hurt but Nikhil saw it in a different light. He felt that it was a denial of something that was his, as a matter of right!

A peek into Nikhil’s glorious family tree will easily explain why Nikhil felt that it was his right to sing in Swami’s presence as His student.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The three lessons to keep in mind about singing bhajans

Setting for an important message

Madh Bhaktaha Yatra Gayanthi, Tatra Tishtami Narada.
(“Wherever my devotees sing, I present myself there Narada”)

The Lord presents Himself wherever His glory is sung. 
This is the beautiful assurance that God in the form of Lord Vishnu conveyed to the devotee in the form of sage Narada when asked,
“Lord, what is your permanent address?”
My sweet Lord, Bhagawan Sri  Sathya Sai Baba, has taken that statement several notches higher in intensity by stating,
Madh Bhaktaha Yatra Gayanthi, Tatra Sthapayami.
(“Wherever my devotees sing, I install myself there!”)

There is definitely many things magical about singing for the Lord, the most prominent one being that the Lord Himself (Herself/Itself) seems to look forward for the same! And it is in this context that I vividly recall a conversation with Swami that happened on the day of the Ganesha immersion festival in Prasanthi Nilayam in 2009. It was just a brief interaction and an apparently casual conversation. But as with all interactions with the Lord, it has so much to offer to us especially with regards to singing for the Lord. Just keeping it in our heart and contemplating on it over and over again will reveal fresh and multiple insights.

The students’ hostels at Prasanthi Nilayam had got transformed into hives of buzzing activity as all of them were busy putting finishing touches to their respective chariots and palanquins. They had been working for the past couple of days on creating these vehicles which would be used to carry the Ganesha idols for immersion at the end of the Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations.

A sample of 4 among the two dozen or so chariots and palanquins that lined up in the Sai Kulwant hall that day. 
It was sheer joy for me to go around on my new TVS bike taking photos of all these chariots and palanquins. Having covered the procession as it made its way towards the mandir, I rushed to Sai Kulwant hall just before Swami arrived for darshan. It was about 5pm.  He was received at Yajur Mandir by a procession of little Ganeshas from the Primary school and the Vedam group with the Poornakumbham. Swami entered the Sai Kulwant Hall and moved past the magnificent array of chariots. He blessed them and the 'makers' too with His benediction and smiles. Many brought forward plates with prasadam and fruits which Swami blessed. It took about 20 minutes for Swami to move past all the chariots and arrive on stage.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The blessings of pain - Amey's experience with Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba

The need to ‘love God’

It was during a session at the 39th Annual State Conference of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization in Odisha that a young man got up and asked a question,
“How can we love and worship God when we are ourselves in such pain and need? Isn’t it true that we can focus properly on spirituality only if our needs are met and pains assuaged?”

Even as this question was asked, I began to ponder about it. It is so natural that this question arises. In fact, Swami Vivekananda is quoted to have said,
“Don’t teach spirituality to a hungry man.”
Roti, Kapada and Makaan (food, clothing and shelter) are recognised as the basic needs without which, one cannot think of one’s mental and emotional needs also. That is what the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also states powerfully - that human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs. It is only when the needs that constitute the lower levels are satisfied that a person thinks about fulfilling higher level needs. This theory is represented by a pyramid as shown below.

Maslow's hierarchical pyramid of needs.
Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival which include food, water, clothing and shelter. Safety and Security needs include personal security, financial security, health security and a safety net against accidents. Love and Belonging needs are covered in belonging to some societal group, a family; having friendships and intimacy.  Esteem needs present the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others. It is only when all these four are met and achieved that a person contemplates self-actualization, which is defined as achieving one’s full potential. Different individuals perceive this fifth need differently and it can get expressed as professional excellence, being a perfect parent, artistic magnificence and so on.

With that in mind, we get back to the question,
““How can we love and worship God when we are ourselves in such pain and need? Isn’t it true that we can focus properly on spirituality only if our needs are met and pains assuaged?”

If we delve a little deeper, we realize that loving God, as a need, works in a way more mysterious and subtle that all the five needs mentioned by Maslow. And to make that clear, it would be apt to narrate a life-experience of Amey Deshpande. Amey is not a person needing introduction to a regular reader here. He is a dear Sai-brother of mine, who has been involved in several of my experiences with Swami (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba) including the one in which Swami accepted me as His best friend. I have earlier penned down how he took a step towards Swami and was blessed with a beautiful assurance. I have also written about his most painful experience when he got thrown out of Swami’s school - a case of things having to go horribly wrong before being set aright. In the same vein, here is another educative experience of his.

An ‘ill-fated’ Sunday-morning bhajan session

After losing his seat in Swami’s school in 8th grade, Amey had tried hard to get back into the school in 11th grade. Since that had not happened, he had tried getting admitted into the BCom course at the University. That too had not happened. So, he enrolled in the Sheshadripuram College at Bengaluru (Bangalore then) and graduating in honours with a BCom degree, Amey got employed at Hewlett-Packard. He also became a Seva Dal volunteer at Brindavan, Whitefield. He has been blessed with a wonderful voice and it is not surprising that he soon became a lead bhajan-singer there. Every Thursday and Sunday, when the Bangalore Seva Dal got the opportunity to lead bhajans, Amey was in the forefront.