Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Part 3 - Practice makes one perfect and attracts God's grace - Ashwath Narayan's experience with Sathya Sai

Familiarity should breed regularity

Along with daily bhajans, Ashwath was now required to regularly sing songs and Alaap bhajans (Bhajans that have a slow, solo vocal as an introduction). There were two Alaap bhajans in particular that Swami would command Ashwath to sing on several occasions, out of the blue. One was a bhajan that Swami referred to as Shlokam. It was a Rama bhajan that had an alaap, “Sri Raghavam Dasharatha Atmajam”. The other was a Sarva-Dharma bhajan which begins with the Alaap:

Allah Hu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Awwal Allah Noor Upaya Qudrat Keh Sub Banday
Aik Noor Keh Sub Jag Upajiya Kaun Bhale Ko Mandhe

Looking back, Ashwath feels that there is a special reason why Swami made him sing that Alaap repeatedly. The meaning of that Alaap is so beautiful. If one is blessed with the awareness, conviction and experience of that meaning, one would have discovered the panacea for all problems. The meaning goes as follows:

God is Great. God created light of which all the beings were born,
And from this ONE light, the universe; so who is good and who is bad?

Familiarity often breeds neglect if not contempt. It requires extensive Sadhana and intensive efforts to value something even when it is available in abundance. This holds good for everything - food, water, health, relationships and even Swami’s proximity and grace. There was an episode which made Ashwath resolve that he would never take Swami for granted.

Probably one of the greatest honors for Ashwath was getting the opportunity to give music to and sing a song whose lyrics were written by Swami Himself to explain the Sri Sathya Sai Avatar.

{If you have arrived to this part directly, it is recommended that you read the first two parts before this finale. It will make for more enjoyable and suspenseful reading.

Swami seemed unhappy with the singers who accompanied him to Chennai for the Athi Rudra Maha Yagnam in January 2007, Ashwath included. That unhappiness seemed to continue even after His return to Puttaparthi. One of those days, Swami entered the bhajan hall and spoke to the singers of the bhajan group. Apparently some devotee had passed comments on the quality of singing and Swami was not feeling good about it. He told it to the boys. Ashwath saw how much Swami cared about their reputations. Swami was emphasizing both - being good and appearing good. They prayed,
“Swami, if your grace is there, we will not get into such situations.”
“There is Grace. There is Grace in abundance. Out of all the people seated here, so few are in the bhajan hall. Out of them, only few of you are selected. You do not understand the value of grace... You are all fit to only eat grass...”
There was pain in Swami’s voice and that pain touched the innermost recesses of Ashwath’s heart. He understood the truth that Swami’s grace, like torrential rain, pours without limit. But the size of the vessel determines the amount of water it can hold. How much grace one receives depends on how much of one’s heart one offers to Swami!

That only strengthened Ashwath’s resolve to perfect himself for his Swami. It meant greater hours of practice so that he could be in a constant state of readiness to be used as His instrument. From now on, Ashwath had decided, familiarity with Swami would breed regularity of practice.

Bhagawan’s mp3 player

Ashwath Narayan kept improving as a singer and, more importantly, as a devotee of the Lord. That is what Swami’s ultimate objective is. Harnessing and improving of our skills, talents and abilities are mere by-products. When they assist in taking us closer to God, God will assist in improving them!

Ashwath became a ‘regular’ not only for the bhajan sessions in the Divine Presence but also in the Divine entourage when Swami visited different places. Thus, in the decade that followed, he was blessed to accompany Swami to Kodaikanal, Hadshi, Mumbai, Delhi and Simla. It will be beyond the scope of this series to delve into the many incidents and experiences that happened in these places. {Complete serials on the Hadshi-Mumbai visit and the Delhi-Simla visit are available as multiple-parts articles though.}

"You two look like brothers". That's what the other members of the entourage said and made us take a picture
together in the cockpit before the flight to Delhi with Bhagawan. (Many times, people have come and congratulated
me for excellent singing and I have gently told them that "I am not Ashwath but his brother." :)
The only reason a person is chosen to accompany Swami during any visit is because that opportunity is essential for the spiritual evolution of that soul. However, there is always a ‘worldly reason’. For each visit, Ashwath was chosen as a singer who could lead bhajans and present musical programmes if necessary. (As stated earlier, it is actually for the spiritual benefit that the soul needs. Else, there were dozens of other singers and musicians who could have filled in Ashwath’s place.)

Even during these visits, Ashwath would not forget what had given him all these opportunities - practice. He would do his daily quota of practice sincerely and rigorously. In fact, seeing him, other singers also would get inspired to do regular practice with him! Such was his practice that he would be among the rare few who could sing multiple songs without having to refer to the lyrics sheet even once!

In the summer of 2007 while sitting in the Bhajan hall at Prasanthi Nilayam, Swami asked Ashwath whether he had any new songs to sing.
“Swami, I had prepared several songs for the Athi Rudra Maha Yajnam at Chennai which I did not sing there. If you wish, I will sing any of them...”
“Okay... Sing...”
Ashwath began to sing the Tamil song composed by the sage Agasthya, Sree Chakra Raja Simhasaneshwari. There was no microphone but his powerful voice could be heard all through the Bhajan hall.
“Can you sing a Telugu sing?” Swami asked as Ashwath concluded.
“Yes Swami...”
Immediately he started the song O Rama Nee Nama Yentho Ruchi Ra. Five minutes later, the song concluded and Swami seemed very appreciative.
“Who composed this song?”
“Swami, Bhadrachala Ramadas...”
“Have you seen him?”
“No Swami...”
“Okay... now sing a Kannada song...”
Ashwath cleared his throat and began Baro Krishnayya, a song that invites Lord Krishna over to one's home. Another magical five minutes elapsed. Everyone in the Bhajan hall seemed to be enjoying this session.

“Who is singing this song?”
“Swami, Kanakadasa sang this song...”
“Hmmm. You are calling me home... What will you give me when I come home?”
Ashwath smiled in response. He kept looking at Swami.
Helappa (Tell me fellow - in Kannada)”, Swami pressed.
“Swami, I will give you devotion...”
“No. Give me whatever you have at home. I am satisfied.”
That was a sweet and important revelation. God never demands for anything. Whatever is offered with love, He is happy to recieve.
“Now, sing a Malayalam song”, Swami said.
Without pausing for a moment, Ashwath sang the Malayalam song, Kari Mugil Vernande. It was simply amazing. He had flawlessly sung in all the South Indian languages without referring to the lyrics.

“Who has composed this song?” Swami asked.
“I don’t know Swami. This is a traditional song which describes Lord Krishna. While lighting oil lamps in the evening, elderly ladies sing this song.”
Swami seemed happy with his singing and answers. He blessed him with padanamaskar and told him to return to his place.

It was after this day that several members of the bhajan group began to refer to Ashwath as Swami’s live mp3 player who could sing in more than seven languages. (Ashwath also sings Marathi, Hindi, Bengali and English songs.)

Even after his Swami's physical departure, Ashwath continues to sing for Him. His prayer is that all his life he gets this opportunity to sing for his Swami... in His presence...This is a classical Hindustani song

The Director and His drama

Ashwath got a chance to play the role of saint Ramadas during the Convocation Drama in 2007. Acting in the Convocation Drama is a special chance because Swami interacts a lot with the students during the course of the several rehearsals. The script was being written for the drama and the scenes were being practiced. Swami was in the thick of action. While the Ramadas scene was in progress, it came to that point wherein Ramadas criticizes Lord Rama.

Ramadas is a staunch devotee of Rama and also the administrator for several villages of the kingdom. He spends the tax money in constructing a temple for the Lord. The Muslim ruler arrests him for misappropriation of government funds. In what is considered as Ninda Stuti (praise via criticism), Ramadas cries out to Lord Rama in beautiful poetry. He gives an account of all the expenditures made - “a gold necklace for mother Sita, a gem-studded belt for Lakshmana, golden chariots for Rama” - and then says,
“Even your father did not spend this for you. But having done so, I am imprisoned today. Come to my rescue.”

When Ashwath began to sing this song, Swami turned to him and asked,
Ay! Nuvvu Nannu Thittathava?” (So, you will scold me now?) Ashwath’s heart melted! He said,
“No Swami! I will never criticize you!”
Though it meant the loss of a wonderful song that he could sing, Ashwath ensured that the song was dropped from the script. Singing, for him, was always to please Swami rather than to make a show of his capabilities and skills.

Swami also took active interest in the other songs that His ‘Ramadas’ was singing. There was this song - Yentho Ruchi Ra - whose meaning goes as follows:
“Oh Rama! How sweet and tasty is your name! Let it forever reside on my tongue."
Swami told Ashwath to replace the world “Phalam” (fruit) in the song with the word “Kalakandam” (sugar candy). The meaning of the line changed from comparing Rama’s name to the sweetness of fruits to comparing it to the sweetness of sugar itself!

Bhadrachala Ramadas (Ashwath Narayan) in chains sings the glory of his (Sai) Rama as the prison guard
dances in glee and Rama looks on in satisfaction.
Though Ashwath’s role in the drama was restricted to just one scene, he was the recipient of a lot of Swami’s attention and grace. For Swami, it was as if Ramadas himself had come alive. And this became evident later.
Around the same period that the Malladi brothers got an opportunity to sing in the presence of Baba. As part of their presentation, they sang the very same composition - Yentho Ruchi Ra. As they completed the song, Swami called Ashwath and asked in all seriousness,
“Did they (the Malladi brothers) sing your composition correctly?”

Ashwath was stumped! Swami was talking to him and treating him as if he was Ramadas himself.  As Ashwath confessed later on,
“I was so inspired to be like the saint all my life. If just acting like him endeared me to Swami so much, imagine how it would be if I became like him in reality!”

Kalpana Swaras

There is a concept in Carnatic Classical music called Kalpana Swara. Swara means a musical note. A Raaga is a set of swaras with rules for building a melody. Kalpana Swara means ‘imagined notes’. While singing, maestros are able to spontaneously construct new phrases within the Raaga. This sort of improvisation requires dedicated practice. In fact, after years of practice, a singer is able to perform Kalpana Swara in one particular Raaga. To do the same in multiple Raagas one needs years of dedicated practice.

Swami wanted Ashwath and his singing partner, P Sreenivas (a teacher in the Sri Sathya Sai Mirpuri College of Music), to add Kalpana Swaras into the songs they were singing! Ashwath hadn’t imagined the level of expectation Swami had from him. But Swami clearly knew the level of practice Ashwath was capable of! It is a tribute to Swami’s grace and Ashwath’s efforts that the duo began to regularly add Kalpana Swaras to the songs they were singing.

“I could never have thought of even attempting Kalpana Swaras. But when Swami expects something from you, He also blesses you with the ability to do it. It is sheerly His grace that we have been able to attempt these”, says Ashwath in all humility. While humility is a virtue, it might eclipse some facts for those that are unaware.

Swami began to use Ashwath as an example of a perfect singer - a singer who is perfect not because of his ability or skill but because of his sole desire to please the Lord. On many occasions, when some ‘famous’ and established singers seemed to flaunt their abilities, Swami would gently signal to Ashwath after their performance. Sitting amidst the students, Ashwath would begin singing extempore. In ten minutes, he would garner an applause louder than the performing artiste of the day. Most importantly, he would win Swami’s heart. While a few unfortunate artistes would leave in a huff considering this as an insult to them, most of the others would realize the true purpose of singing - to please the Lord who is in the heart.

Singing must be for only that cause and not for applause.

Graduation on Convocation Day

During the 85th Birthday Celebrations of the Sri Sathya Sai Avatar, nobody ever guessed that it would be the last one ever in the physical presence of Swami. Aptly, Swami had shelved all other programmes and had asked only for a students’ music programme for the Birthday. The amazing story of that evening’s programme, Prema Pravaham, is a separate story in itself. But this much can be said that the whole music group, Ashwath included, was slogging very hard for that programme.

Ashwath Narayan and his singing partner, P Sreenivas, were summoned by Swami at 7:30pm on the 22nd of November,
the eve of the 85th Birthday of Bhagawan Baba.
The 22nd of November in 2010 (as in all other years) was the day of the Convocation. The chief guest that day was the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh. The evening had been left free so that Swami would take rest, because the next day was the ‘Big Day’ for which all had gathered. But Swami has his own plans and His plan is the Masterplan which overrules all other plans!

It was at 7 p.m. that Swami came for darshan rounds. The Sai Kulwant Hall was packed to its limit. He took a complete round and then moved into the Bhajan Hall. He called for all the students who would be participating in the concert named “Prema Pravaham” on the Birthday evening. Swami gifted each of them with a dress that they would wear the next day. Each of these dresses had been ‘tailor made’ for the students after taking careful measurements! It was such a special gift on the eve of the birthday.

Swami was reading letters on the dais and the bhajans were on. He also blessed the prasadam for distribution. It was then that the chapter two of his master plan unfolded. Calling Ashwath and Sreenivas, Swami asked them to change into the new clothes that He had given them. He also called the mridangam player and told him to fetch his instrument. The lad ran towards the Institute where his instrument lay. Ashwath and Sreenivas realized that Swami wanted them to sing. The harmonium player was also called on the stage. After about 10 minutes, when all were ready and assembled on the stage, Swami asked the singers to begin.
Though there was no programme scheduled, it appeared as though Swami wanted to begin celebrating the Birthday
by listening to His children sing...
Though the lads had just 10 minutes to prepare, the years of hard practice and Swami's grace came to the fore. It turned out to be such a soul stirring serenade that nobody in the audience was able to believe that this was an extemporaneous performance! They sang the krithis of saint Tyagaraja and other popular devotional songs. The way they rendered them would have opened up the mouth of any expert in awe and respect. The years of practice and constant prayer to Swami was easily seen as the best ever concert of the Birthday season so far unfolded before everyone. Swami continued to read letters but soon, He kept them aside and was lost in the mastery and devotion that these students exuded.

It was 45 minutes of sheer devotional and musical ecstasy! On more than one occasion, Swami was moved into tears almost and it was evident that everyone was enjoying this performance. At the end of the concert, Swami materialized a gold chain with a golden Ganesha pendant for Sreenivas. For Ashwath, Swami just seemed to shed tears of happiness and pride.

Anyone who had followed the divine story of Ashwath’s dedication to Swami and Swami’s grace on him would sit back, wipe a tear from the eye and say,
“Yes! This is the Convocation Day and Ashwath graduated in the night...”

In December, Ashwath was one of the musicians who received a shield from Swami. The final few concerts that Swami
listened to before the Mahasamadhi were mostly those rendered by Ashwath.

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  1. This is Sai Bhagavatam, nothing less. Please continue this amruta shower.

    Jai Sai Ram!

    Sundara Krishnaswami

  2. Amazing brother... the dedication, devotion, conviction, commitment with the single goal to make Swami happy serves as a reminder to me... yet another excellent narration brother Aravind... god bless you dear... Jai Sai Ram....

  3. Enjoyed this article during my vacation in Barcelona, Spain. Both audios soul touching. Bro Arvind your words are lovely.

  4. It is said that the Children and the God are generally close to people who celebrate them and adore them in their heart. In this instance, SWAMY , the dual God cum Child prove the adage. If the rendering of the song brings tears to Swamy , do we need to say more ?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Sairam Aravind awe inspiring narrative of Devotion Dedication and Discipline of dear Aswath, thanks a lot. Let this flow of SWAMI Katha Amruta flow through your pen as HIS wish. Jai Sai Ram.

  7. This is a very inspiring story! Every song sung in the presence of the Lord is like a flower offered in prayer. So utmost care must be taken to ensure the flower is good enough to be offered. Ashwath's dedication, humility and sustained practice is something we all can learn from. Whatever it is that we do, we must strive to be the best we can be and never take anything for granted or let ego develop. Ashwath's rendering of Siva Sankari is fabulous - you can feel that he has poured his heart and soul into the song, reaching heights the likes of which are rarely experienced.

  8. Very inspiring one.consistency is what I learnt.But brother Arvind,why did Ashwath consider Ramadasu as a saint,if I am not wrong he was believed to be married and had a son.

  9. Endearing saga ! Inspiring saga ! Touching saga ! An apt example of application of the 5Ds by the devotee. It is indeed one of the chapters of Sri Sai Bhaagavatam !


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