Friday, 31 July 2015

God loves music - The Nada Brahmam story

When stars descend...

The Radiosai studio at Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparthi was abuzz with excitement and activity though it was Sunday, a weekly holiday. The Prasanthi Bhajan Group had gathered there for a special audio recording. The brightest stars from the galaxy of singers at Puttaparthi had descended to the studio for this venture. Each stalwart singer present had his own beautiful story of singing for Swami and the collective experience of the group is worth several books! Take for instance the story of Ravikumar and his Sai Bin Raha Na Jaaye or the love-filled tale of the Meera-boy Koustubh Pare; or there is the test of love of Sai Krishna or the sweet stories of Ashwath Narayan. This is just a sample!

The new and young members of the group were excited to just see these ‘stars’ in action. They knew that rubbing shoulders with these senior members would only enhance their own musical skills and experience. But it was not just the ‘music people’ who had gathered. Music lovers who had been given the chance to be present for the recording had turned up too. It is not daily that one gets to witness a recording of this kind.

But wait! What was it that was being recorded? The straight answer would be - Nada Brahmam.
All had assembled at the Radiosai audio studio for the recording of Nada Brahmam.

What is Nada Brahmam?

Radiosai had been spreading Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s love in the digital dimension for almost a decade now. In an effort to bring high-quality, audio-visual media into the home of the devotees, it started its products wing - Sai Blossom. One of the first audio products by Sai Blossom had been ‘Prasanthi Mandir Bhajans’, a recording of bhajans being sung in the direct presence of the Avatar of the Age. Though the audio CD had been received very well, the problems of making use of live-recorded bhajans began to show through. The audio levels of various instruments would not be evenly balanced across bhajans which would be recorded across several months. There were also some mistakes made by the singers or instrumentalists which could not be corrected.

That was when Radiosai decided to come up with special, high quality, studio-recorded bhajans in a new series. In the quest for the best possible quality, track recording was introduced. Each singer would be made to sing separately and each instrumentalist would play his piece on a metronome. Days would pass in taking different inputs from the chorus singers, the instrumentalists and the lead singers. Any mistake could be corrected. Thus was born the technically-perfect and musically-rich series called  ‘Bhavanjali’ (an offering of feelings). But even that was found lacking!

The ‘live-feel’ was missing. It was felt that though the melody and rhythm was perfect in Bhavanjali, the ‘feeling’ that is aroused in the heart of the singer and the instrumentalists during an actual bhajan session was missing because of the track-recording employed. What was needed was the perfection of studio recording, coupled with the feeling of an actual bhajan session. It was Prof.G.Venkatraman, the director at Radiosai, who came up with the brilliant idea of a new series - Nada Brahmam.

“Record in the studio but ensure that the bhajan session is conducted as a bhajan session and not like a movie-song recording”, he said.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The handkerchief-mischief of my sweet Swami - 3 episodes of insight with Sri Sathya Sai Baba

If we take any aspect of Swami’s (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s) physical life, we see that it has changes according to the time, place, person and situation. The way He grants darshan, for instance, changed from walking among a few dozen people in a small hall to walking in a disciplined gathering of thousands (with music backing) to personal appearances at the homes of the devotees themselves currently! And in between this spectrum of three distinct points that I have mentioned are many other intermediate stages. Each of these stages have their own speciality.

During the late 90’s and early years of the new millennium, Swami used to bless the students with one special kind of chance - the handkerchief chance. Before I proceed to narrate three interesting stories, let me explain this 'kerchief chance'.

Unlike the years before and after, 1997-2001 saw Swami walk alone during darshan without anyone following Him. So, He would collect and carry all the letters which devotees offered on His own. Thus, when He materialized vibhuti (holy ash) for any devotee, any student in possession of a handkerchief could run up to Him and offer the same for Him to wipe His hands. And I was one among the many students who decided to build a relationship with Him through this ‘kerchief chance’! In fact, my first, memorable interaction with Him was also through this kerchief chance.

Now, we are ready to enjoy three little episodes that hold a significant message for all of us.

Whenever Swami materializes vibhuti, it is a source of joy not only for the recipient but to everyone, all around!
Mischief should only bring joy and no pain - Episode 1

It was one hot afternoon in the holy hamlet and all of us students were assembled in the Sai Kulwant hall by 3:15 pm for darshan. I got a chance to be seated in the first line and since I had a handkerchief in my pocket, I feverishly hoped that Swami would create Vibhuti for some devotee who was seated near me. I could see another boy who was also cuddling a handkerchief in his pocket. If Swami created vibhuti at little distance away from me, then the ‘kerchief chance’ would fall in that other boy’s ‘territory’! And so, I was hoping that it would happen close to me!

I scanned out the faces of devotees with the hope of being able to locate one who might be in ‘distress’ and thus deserve the materialized vibhuti. Today I realize that all these efforts are so foolish but those were my ways then. And almost every other kerchief-chance-seeking-lad had similar ways. 

Darshan began. The gentle music floated through the air and the Lord floated into the hall. He seemed to glide so beautifully. One would find it hard to believe that He was actually walking - the full-sized robe made it seem like He was skimming over the land surface. When He was just a few feet away from me, He materialized vibhuti for a devotee. It was in my ‘territory’! I was overjoyed! I rushed to Him with the kerchief. 

He took the kerchief from me and wiped His hands. Then, instead of throwing back the kerchief to me, He threw it down. It fell down straight on His lotus feet. I thought that I would wait till He moved ahead and then pick up the kerchief before returning to my place. And then, the unexpected happened!
As Swami walked ahead, I saw that there was no kerchief on the ground! I wondered as to what had happened? Had some devotee taken the kerchief as a token of Swami’s blessings and grace? It was very much possible - in the bygone days, people used to collect the sand on which He walked as a treasure! I began to scout the devotees quickly to see who had taken away ‘my’ blessed kerchief. Even as I searched desperately for about 9-10 seconds, I saw smiles blossom on the faces of many devotees.

I looked up and saw Swami at a distance. He was about 10 feet from me. He turned around, smiled and gently shook His foot. As He walked on then, I saw the kerchief neatly deposited on the floor. The mischievous Swami had held the kerchief with His foot and had carried it away! Now, a smile blossomed on my face too. I walked the ten feet, picked up the kerchief and returned to my place.

The beauty of His mischief is that it never hurts anyone - it makes everyone around happy. How wonderful if all our mischief too can be that positive and beautiful?

The gift of the holy ash is to remind us the transience of everything worldly. From dust we have come; to dust we shall return.
Love God's uncertainty, even when things seem to go wrong - Episode 2

On another occasion, the ‘kerchief-chance’ competition really had heated up. It was a session when two of us with handkerchiefs were sitting side-by-side. Just like any devotee who wished to give a letter could get a letter, any student who wished could get a kerchief. There were no restrictions. (In fact, many devotees too would get handkerchiefs with the hope that they would be able to beat the student and offer the same to Swami!) Thus, I knew, if Swami created vibhuti I would have to be really quick to outrun my ‘competitor’.

That is the beauty of being with Swami. Competition gets created for who can get first to the Lord - a far better alternative to the rat races that exist for money, position and fame. 

Swami came for darshan. As He came near where we were seated, He began to talk quite a lot with a devotee. Now, this meant that there was a high chance of that devotee getting vibhuti. My muscles tensed and I saw my ‘competitor’ tense his muscles too. He was sitting by my side and I could feel his muscles tensing! 
“I have to be real quick if I have to get this chance”, I thought.

And then, Swami slightly moved and began to encircle His palm. Ah! That is a sign that He is materializing vibhuti. Even before He could create the same, I got up and rushed to Him with the handkerchief. I had beaten my competitor who was still sitting. With jubilation at this victory and the anticipation of the ‘kerchief-chance’ with Swami, I went to Him.

What an anti-climax it was!

Swami did indeed wave His palm. But instead of the fragrant, grey ash, out came an emerald-studded ring. Even as He placed th ring on the devotee’s finger, He seemed to look at me questioningly. It was as if He was asking me,
“Why did you come running here?”

While a ring instead of vibhuti may make the recipient smile, it made me, the 'giver of the kerchief' feel embarrassed! 
Since Swami is a strict disciplinarian, I got so scared. I returned back to my place at double the speed at which I went to Swami. Everyone there were smiling and laughing. It was with great relief that I saw my fear turn into a joke and I too joined in the laughter.

“Love my uncertainty”, Swami says. 
We love it only when we get unexpected bounties, but can we love it even when things seem to go wrong?

God has a plan for us and that is all we need to know - Episode 3

This time, Swami created vibhuti for a student. Three of us students rushed to Him with a handkerchief. Each one of us had started off at the same time and though each one saw the others, nobody wanted to give up. And so, all three of us kneeled before Him with our respective handkerchiefs. Now, it looked real funny! And we were wondering as to what He would do.

I secretly hoped that He would simply wipe His hands on all the three handkerchiefs being offered. In that way, everyone would be happy. But what Swami told was totally the opposite. He told all of us to put the kerchiefs back in our pockets! When I was hoping He would bless all the three of us, He seemed to have decided to bless none of us!

Even as we put the kerchiefs into our pockets, came the unexpected master-stroke. It was one such occasion where Swami's uncertainty brought joy with certainty! 

Swami told each one of us to stretch out our hands and gave us also the same vibhuti which He had materialized! We were pleasantly shocked. Presently, a fourth student came to Swami with a handkerchief and Swami wiped His hands on that! The fourth guy was also thrilled at this unexpected bounty. 

God’s plans for us are always way better than our plans for ourselves. If only we can hold on for that extra bit longer, we will enjoy His love and grace in a greater measure!

If you enjoyed reading this, you will also enjoy the following articles of a similar nature:

1. Vibhuti manifestations: Sathya Sai keeps up His word and His pranks too

2. God's sense of humour - incidents with Sri Sathya Sai.

3. Sai Humour: Speech bloopers in the Divine Presence of Baba

For all readers:
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Monday, 20 July 2015

Desirelessness is the only way to be one with God

A desire nearing fulfillment?

It was the June of 2010 and we had just moved into our new home at Puttaparthi. A fortnight before, I had left for Mumbai seeking Swami’s permission to get my parents to settle in Puttaparthi post my father’s retirement from work. The relocation and resettlement had happened quite quickly, considering the fact that my father retired on the 31st of May. That is a story in itself and I will resist the temptation of going into it right away. But I must mention that it had all begun on the return flight from Pune to Puttaparthi after the visit to Hadshi, when Swami had asked me (about my parents) in the aisle,
"When are they coming here?"
“Swami, after father's retirement in May, they will come and settle down here itself.”
Swami nodded saying, “Santosham”. I continued, “One more thing, Swami. Mother keeps crying out ‘Swami’, ‘Swami’, ... Please grant her namaskar once when she comes to Puttaparthi. Once You speak to her, she will be so happy.”
He nodded in agreement. But then He responded with a question of His own,
"She keeps telling ‘Swami’, ‘Swami’... What about you?"
I was dumbstruck. I mumbled and fumbled a bit and said,
"Swami, You know what I feel. You are most important for me."

{For those who are interested, the entire 5-day trip to Hadshi and Mumbai has been captured in a serial blog of 11 parts. The link to the first part is given below. Each part has the link to the subsequent parts.

My parents were now settled along with me at Parthi. My desire was that Swami should grant us a family interview. I felt that would be the ultimate fulfilment for me because, in my opinion, Swami had granted me every ‘chance’ except that of a family interview. Though I never asked Him directly for the same, I always made it a point to ‘remind’ Him that my parents had arrived and settled at Puttaparthi. Nearly nine months of ‘labour’ after the first time Swami enquired about my parents arriving to Parthi, I felt that the date for my ‘deliver’ance was due! It happened on the 16th day of June, 2010.

The Governor’s visit

It was the day when the Governor of the state of Andhra Pradesh, ESL Narsimhan, had visited Puttaparthi. Before the evening darshan session, he visited the Super Specialties hospital. I thought it would be of archival interest to take pictures of the Governor’s visit to the hospital. However, it was easier thought than done. The Governor’s security team did not allow me to go through with the plan and, after taking a few pictures, I was stuck outside the hospital. Nothing I said helped my cause.
“I am a mandir photographer...” I said.
“Show us the badge which says so?”
How was I to make the security personnel understand that Swami’s smile of approval was my badge and that there is nobody who is formally appointed as a ‘mandir photographer’? I just shook my head in disbelief and walked away.

The Governor with the Director of the SSSIHMS, Dr.Safaya, in the main dome of the hospital in June 2010.
“Well, I never am keen on running behind anyone other than Swami”, I told myself, “and I have no regrets about not being allowed to photograph the governor. The focus for me (and my camera) is actually Swami!”
Within the hour, I was back in my room in Prasanthi Nilayam. It was before the evening darshan that I received a request - could a picture be taken of the Governor seeking Swami’s blessings? I smiled to myself and went to the Sai Kulwant hall with the camera. The Lord is the fruit and the world, its shadow. Chasing the shadow never yields fruit, but getting hold of the fruit also brings along the gift of the shadow!

Friday, 17 July 2015

When God grants - Three stories on God's giving

There is a reason why the greatest truths in life are communicated via stories. Stories are lapped up easily. They remain in one's subconscious even if one is unable to appreciate the lessons or insights they offer. And they come to mind at the perfect time, when one is in need of exactly those insights! So, when it comes to the question of how to make God grant us the wishes we seek, I am reminded of three stories. Actually, two of them are anecdotes and one is a story, all of them related to my Lord, Master and best friend, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba

1. Whatever you seek of God is lesser than what He wishes to confer
When I was in my fifth standard, I got so enamoured by Swami’s darshan that I decided something very different. I told my father, 
“For this birthday, I do not want any birthday party. Just like you do, I want to shoot pictures of Swami with a camera.”
My dad smiled. He had noticed my desire for photography even as he took Swami’s pictures in Whitefield. He had, in fact, already procured a camera! He gifted me the 35mm, fixed focus, Yashica camera and said,
“Why wait till your birthday? You can take photos when we go next for darshan in Brindavan!”
I was so thrilled and thus began my beautiful journey with the camera.

Fast forward about 7 years. I joined Swami’s school and realized that I would get an opportunity to get physically close to Swami like never before. I was thrilled at the prospects that held for my photography. But I only had a 35mm, fixed-focus camera. I wished that I had a better one and since my birthday fell right in the beginning of the academic year, I thought it was time to seek another gift from my father.

“Dad! Here is what I want for my birthday...”
“My son. I have a plan...”
“No!”, I cut him short, “please buy me a camera with a zoom so that I can take better pictures of Swami. Please!”

I got a new camera in a month. It had a small built-in zoom that ‘brought Swami closer’ to me. Still, it was not close enough. Once the film rolls were developed and the photos were out, my mother put a dampener on me, 
“None of your photos are as good as the photos your dad has taken!”
I felt hurt and insulted. I retorted,
“That is because I don’t have a camera like him!”

 Hot tears were almost making their way down my cheeks.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

With great love comes great tests - lifetime experience of Sai Krishna_Part 2

The beginning of the slide

Sai Krishna spent the days after Guru Poornima in blissful contemplation of the beautiful opportunities Swami had given him. The joy he derived from thinking about those moments over and over again never seemed to decrease. On the contrary, each time he relived the moments, the joy only seemed to increase! That was the critical difference between worldly joys and divine joys, he noted. While worldly joys reduce with the passage of time, divine joy seems to increase and mature with time!

By now, the Ramakatha had got deeply embedded in Sai Krishna’s consciousness. He could sing those songs, fully immersed in them and without bothering to look at the lyrics. Each time he sang those songs, he realized the magical poetry the lyrics contained. The repeated singing had made him transcend the level of the lyrics and rhythm into the level of feeling and experience. Lost in this bliss, everything else that was part of his daily schedule felt so mundane and unimportant. But was his bliss permanent? Had Sai Krishna developed equanimity which is the surest sign of a true devotee? Only time would tell.

{This is the second part of a compelling story. If you have come here directly, it is advised that you return after reading the first part at:

With great love comes great tests - lifetime experience of Sai Krishna_Part 1 }

It was the 7th of August in 2005 and it seemed like any other day in Prasanthi Nilayam. It was a Sunday and that meant two opportunities for darshan. Swami arrived in the hybrid Porte car for darshan and, after completing a round of the Sai Kulwanth hall, drove on to the stage. From there, He looked at Sai Krishna who was seated in the first row. (Such was the regularity with which Swami interacted with Sai Krishna and Om Prasad that they would have reserved seating in the front lines. It was a win-win situation where Swami seemed to get ‘magnetically pulled’ to these boys and in that process, the other students too could enjoy darshan, sparshan and sambhashan of the Lord.)

Swami beckoned to him and Sai Krishna rushed on to the stage, to his Lord. Swami lowered the window of the car and asked,
“Where is the other? Your brother...”
Sai Krishna turned back and realized that Om Prasad had still not arrived to the mandir.
“Swami, he must be on his way...”
Swami nodded and sent him back.

Sai Krishna and Om Prasad rush to Swami when He beckons to them from the stage in Sai Kulwant hall
on the 7th of August 2005.

News travelled at the speed of light among the students. Even before Sai Krishna returned to his place, a few lads had sped out of the hall in search of Om Prasad. The Lord was waiting for him. Sure enough, in a few minutes, Om Prasad was in the mandir. As soon as he came, he was made to wriggle through the seated students to the second row. Swami saw that both the  boys were there and He called them on stage. He told them to sing some songs.

Sai Krishna was thrilled - another opportunity! The mikes were in place and the musical accompaniment was also ready in a few moments. The duo began to sing Telugu songs which Swami had enjoyed a lot on previous occasions. The tune and rhythm were perfect. The feelings in Sai Krishna’s heart were also at their pinnacle. However, there was a difference in the Divine Script today. In between a song, Swami just moved away from the stage, into the interview room!

This had never happened so far with Sai Krishna. He had not seen Swami get up and go midway when he had been singing. It was apparent that Swami was upset over something because, after a few minutes, a messenger came out of the interview room and told the two lads to stop singing. After that, the evening progressed as usual with bhajans at the stipulated time. Sai Krishna did not understand what happened that evening. But it changed everything in a moment. It reduced Sai Krishna from a ‘crown prince’ to a banished outlaw!

A fall that hit very hard

Everything came to a standstill from that day. Swami began to ignore Sai Krishna completely and he was at a loss to understand why. He continued to sincerely do all that he had been doing so far. His top priority was still Swami and he religiously practiced all songs regularly. Yet, Swami did not even acknowledge his existence, forget asking him to sing! Till that moment, Sai Krishna had almost felt that Swami belonged only to them. Now, he felt that everyone else except him belonged to Swami.

Monday, 6 July 2015

With great love comes great tests - lifetime experience of Sai Krishna_Part 1

The beginnings of a divine romance

The summer vacation had just been declared for all the students of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in 2005. Unlike any other place on earth where such a declaration is met with great cheering, Prasanthi Nilayam seemed to be witnessing an atmosphere of mixed emotions. Well, that was the case at least for a few students like S.V.B.S.Sai Krishna.

On one hand, the summer vacation promised a lot - a relief from the rigorous rigmarole of reading writing and arithmetic, a break from books and a distraction from discipline - that anyone would look forward to enjoy once in a while. Thus, it was no surprise that more than three fourths of the hostel had been emptied of the students who resided there. On the other hand, the summer vacation meant a physical separation from Swami (as the devotees endearingly call Bhagawan Baba). This was unthinkable for some of the students and, again, it was no surprise that the remaining quarter of the hostel had ‘sacrificed’ their vacation to be with Swami. (The single-quotation mark on the word ‘sacrifice’ is because of the prevailing myth that one has to sacrifice something to get God!) Sai Krishna was one amongst that quarter in the hostel.

Two weeks into the vacation, news arrived which further divided the hostel into four more quarters. This was the announcement that Swami would be leaving for Kodaikanal on the 19th of April. It was a known fact that He would definitely pick some students to accompany Him for nearly a month’s stay at the hill station. Who would be on ‘The List’ which would dynamically vary every day? Sai Krishna, like all the other students who had stayed back for the vacation, wanted to be a part of that list. He knew that if he didn’t manage that, he would have to physically miss his Swami for at least a month. He did not want to ‘suffer’ that fate.

The 17th of April saw Sai Krishna achieve boundless joy as he was informed by a teacher that his name figured on the List! It was a dream come true for him and he immediately called his parents to inform them of his great good fortune. Thus, on the 19th of April, Sai Krishna also took to the skies along with his Swami, headed southwards towards the state of Tamil Nadu. 

The bhajan-singing duo with Swami in Kodaikanal. To Swami's left is Sai Krishna and to His right is Om Prasad. 
There is an advantage of being a bhajan-singer in Swami’s entourage. It is like being a part of a select group within a select group. Sai Krishna was a singer and he got many opportunities to sing bhajans and songs in Swami’s presence. That Kodai trip in 2005 turned out to be a turning point in Sai Krishna’s bhajan-singing ‘career’ and relationship with Swami. He realized that there was nothing about him that Swami does not know and yet He loved him without any bias. This could not be anything short of pure, selfless, divine love! Swami gave him so many opportunities to sing. In fact, teaming up with Om Prasad, Sai Krishna became part of what could then have been considered as “Swami’s favourite pair”. Among the many songs they sang, Swami seemed to have a particular liking for the ‘Ramakatha’, the story of Lord Rama in song form. There is the Telugu version of Ramakatha as sung by the twin sons of Rama, Lava and Kusa. Om Prasad and Sai Krishna seemed to have become the twin sons for Sai Rama!

May 7th saw the Kodai trip conclude but it was just the beginning of the divine love-shower that Sai Krishna was about the receive from the Avatar of the age.

In the spotlight...  

Love is possibly the least understood, most misunderstood and possibly most overused of all terms. It is often confused with infatuation, attachment, lust, and liking. Let us ask ourselves of things/people we love. Ten years later, when we ask the same question of ourselves, will the answers remain same? To understand that, let us look back at things and people we felt we were in love with ten years ago. Today, do those things or people hold the same grasp over our hearts? This is the reason for cases of broken hearts,  unrequited love and pain. When the difference between infatuation/attachment and love becomes clear, we understand better what we should seek in life. We also come to know that it can only be sought from the Divine. Why this sudden emphasis on what love is? Sai Krishna’s story will explain this as it unfolds. 

Having experienced Divine Love in Kodaikanal, Sai Krishna decided that he wanted nothing else as desperately as he wanted to bask in the sunshine of Swami’s Love and Grace. On His part, Swami also continued to shower Sai Krishna with many opportunities. The biggest among them came two months after the return from Kodaikanal. On the 11th of July 2005, Swami made a surprise visit to the Institute auditorium. All the students and teachers flocked to the auditorium to enjoy this unexpected bounty. Swami seemed to be searching for someone. When He saw Sai Krishna, He beckoned to him.

“Sing the Ramakatha”, He commanded.
It had been a ‘normal’ day of classes so far and Sai Krishna was not ready. He had been blessed with the opportunity to sing for Swami in the mandir just the previous day. So, he did not expect to be singing again so soon!  He also did not have the lyrics sheet of the Ramakatha with him. The Ramakatha is fairly complicated and consists of five different songs. Sai Krishna did not know the lyrics by heart so far.
“Swami, my book is in the hostel. Can I please go and fetch that?”
“Where is your brother?”
Swami was obviously asking about Om Prasad.
“Swami, he is not feeling well. So he is resting in the hostel.”
“Okay. Go, get the book and return soon.”