Sai Baba darsan at Prashanthi Nilayam
Posted by robertpriddy on October 19, 2012
A French lady whose name is protected, had a web log in 2009 where she described some prominent persons and wrote a number of insightful articles about Sai Baba and his ashrams. She soon deleted the blog due to harassment after we warned her about the unscrupulous activities of some of our detractors. Since she was living at – or frequently visiting – the ashram, she deemed it better to desist. The two blogs posted together below give a good picture of conditions at that particular time or phase of ashram life.
One statement by ‘Prashanthi’ (her blog posting name) gives the general orientation she held at that time:-
“Sathya Sai Baba “shows every sign of being a Tantric guru. Yet we are not sure he is perfected in the morality dept. He remains an enigma. His claim to be the Avatar of the age is rarely mentioned anymore, not even in his Ashram. Can a powerful guru lose his way? Or is it due to the organisation that he, himself created, that has grown into such a monster, that he no longer can control? Or has he just grown old and tired and has given up? I don’t think we will ever learn the truth. For the time being Sathya Sai Baba is still giving daily darshans. But for how much longer we do not know. Personally I don’t think he will be giving public darshans for long.”
Posted by prashanthi on April 22, 2009
The internet today has a number of websites and blogs pertaining to the life of Sathya Sai Baba and his followers. Most of these sites are written by men who concentrate upon the negative side from a male perspective. There is little on the internet that gives much insight into women who follow Sai Baba. We have so few stories, that one would think the ashram was entirely a male province.
In this blog, I am hoping to correct this view. I am not writing to denounce Sathya Sai Baba but to present an honest view of the ashram as it is today.
Let me describe the ashram and Puttaparthi as it now in 2009. The one time small village of Puttaparthi has grown into a huge town, crowded with mostly Muslim and Tibetan souvenir shops, there are also many cafes, Internet cafes, healers of various and dubious practices, travel agents, a supermarket, various electrical dealers, tailors and hotels. The streets are dirty and awash with vendors selling fruits, flowers, and cheap souvenirs. Beggars seated in rows take up most of the sides walks. On the odd occasion you might see the bullock carts and the donkeys that were so much part of Puttaparthi years ago.
Wherever you walk in Puttaparthi you will never be alone, but faced with a deluge of people, rickshaws, cars, trucks, tractors, buses, motor bikes all heading in your direction. There is constant noise from honking horns from the rick shaw drivers, along side that of cars, loud speakers blaring Indian music. Pollution and dust from road traffic enters your eyes and nose until they sting. Many visitors have taken to wearing face-masks to protect themselves.
To enter the ashram, you’ll need to go to the Ganesha gate situated in the main street, where seva dal are waiting to body search you if deemed necessary or to search bags. This is where the real ordeal begins. Many of the walkways are now roped off and cannot be used. Visitors are directed by seva dal, who stand guard at every turn in the ashram. The feeling of being watched is sometimes uncomfortable. At the front of the entrance to the ashram stands the Ganesha Shrine, now always crowded with Indian tourists.
The temple at the front of the ashram is heavily guarded by seva dal. All the charm of by gone years has disappeared completely. At Darshan times, bhajan music blares out at ear splitting volumes, making it impossible to linger. The ear splitting speakers are placed all through the ashram, which gives the place a feeling of a fairground rather than an ashram. There is nowhere to go to escape the noise. Towards the back of the ashram there are the apts., roundhouses, office buildings, bookshop and a vegetable shop, ice cream stands, also other stalls selling tea and coffee. There is also a large supermarket. The Western Canteen and a North Indian Canteen are in this general area too. In front of the Western Canteen, there are a number of very ornate temples dedicated to Indian Gods. Perhaps the most peaceful venue in the ashram are the gardens, that begin, by chance maybe, at the ladies toilets and mandir through the buildings to the supermarket. The gardens are beautiful. Perhaps the best thing about the entire ashram. There one can sit with some sense of tranquility.
A Very Ropey Ashram.
In recent years, string and rope have been used by the milage to keep people as far away from the darshan area as possible. It is used down the men’s side of the huge, and gaudy Sai Kulwant hall, to stop anyone from standing too near the Sai Kulwant wall. Not only is there rope, seva dal volunteers and police to stop you, they have introduced yellow painted parking-type lines on the ground, to prevent visitors from putting one toe over the edge. The edge meaning about 2 feet away from the wall. If by chance you do, beware, the seva dal will be on you in a flash. Huge crowds of mostly Indian visitors stand outside the Sai Kulwant hall, waiting for Sai Baba to appear. Once he does, they move forward in a crush-like frenzy to get a glimpse of him through the wrought iron railings running the length of the Sai Kulwant hall wall. Visitors and regulars alike, also gather at the back of the temple to have a glimpse of Sai Baba through the ornate brick-work facade. That too is roped off and heavily guarded by seva dal to make sure the ladies do not get too close.
Token Lines on The Ladies side.
Since last year, token lines have changed considerably. There use to be two rows of ladies to one token line number now there are three.
For people that don’t know. There has always been a token line system operating in the Ashram. Number one token means you are lucky and have been chosen by Sai Baba to be seated in the front. There are often up to 15 lines nowadays.
The rule in the ashram is for ladies and men to line up around 3 p.m. – 3.30 p.m. each afternoon for the purpose of taking a token number. There is usually a half hour wait before the Seva Dal will open the Sai Kulwant Hall gates on the ladies’ side, to ready themselves for the task of frisking and searching the ladies for anything that might be of danger. At risk items include: pens, books, sharp objects, cameras, mobile phones, plastic bags and a host of other things too long to mention here. Then the ‘ropes’ are put in place for the ladies to walk through on their way to being frisked. Now there are 3 lines of ladies to each token number, therefore 3 lines of rope is used. It is a humiliating experience, having first to take a token number, then to be lined up like a herd of cattle to be frisked and searched by seva dal volunteers. I have often lost money from my purse while passing through the frisking and searching process. Ladies are required to open their small purses so they can be searched, which often means their money falls out in the crush to get through the ordeal to a good seat. Also cushions and floor seats are searched, often more than once. There must be at least 10 young seva dal girls working on the frisking as well as the senior Security women.
Number one token line, is of course, special. These ladies will be seated towards the front where Sai Baba will eventually appear in his wheelchair, often after 5 p.m and sometimes as late as 6 p.m. These ladies will see him, while many in less fortunate token line rows, will not. In front of the token line ladies, the staff seat the chit ladies.
These are Indians, dressed in posh saris, trying to look important. They have their ways and mean of obtaining chits from the ashram managers to allow them to be placed in the front. There are usually about 100 or more each day. These ladies are seated much later than the token line ladies. They, being ever so important, do not like the long wait in the darshan area. Not even for the Guru they claim to adore. These ladies sit clutching their letters and bits and pieces in readiness for Sai Baba to bless. And yes he usually does. Maybe not each and every front line lady will be lucky. However a fair amount of these ladies will receive attention from Sai Baba. Token line people will not be so lucky. They will be too far back to reach forward with their letters. During the past two years token line ladies are usually not lucky enough to have letters taken. Perhaps once in a while, during bhajans in the Mandir, Sai Baba will be wheeled down the centre aisle, where he will reach out for letters.
Since the introduction of Indian village groups to the ashram some 5-6 years ago, the idea of a peaceful sitting darshan is more or less out of the question. When Sai Baba appears, the villagers are instantly up on their knees or standing with their hands held high in the air, to enable them to see and be seen by the guru. There is no thought or care for anyone behind. This is tolerated by the ashram, with only token lip-service instructions for them to behave in a more civilized way. A few lowly seva dal may be seated among the ladies but can do little once they all decide to stand up. Many Westerners seated among these villagers are left with the dilemma of either sitting respectfully or standing up themselves. Whatever they do there is little chance of a peaceful darshan. It is akin to a football match in optimum frenzy. As a friend said to me last year, “who would want to sit in there now! - the jungle is here”. She is right. In addition to their behaviour I might mention, many of these villagers carry T.B. and other diseases. They cough, hack and spit where they sit. It can be very unpleasant. It is also unhealthy. Colds and virus are spread throughout the ashram at an alarming speed.
Once the ladies are herded into the dashan area and squeezed tightly together, in often boiling temperatures, there is often a wait of up to two hours before Sai Baba appears. It is hard to go for a drink or to the toilet because there’s a good chance you might not be able to find your seat again. If you can, there is the problem of stepping over hundreds of people to get there.
Many Westerners go late and sit at the very back rather than sit in the crush. This is happening more often, as year by year many of the better seats are restricted to favourites. Moreover there seems to be a sort of apartheid in the Ashram, where areas of the darshan seating is reserved for Indians only. If Westerners even cross the line by a few inches they will be jumped on by the Seva Dal.
I don’t know what happened to the Sai messages of years ago. Love all and Serve all now it is blatantly disregarded.
Sathya Sai Baba’s Darshan on the ladies’ side.
Darshan time is usually around 5.30 p.m. each afternoon. There is seldom a morning darshan anymore due to Sai Baba withdrawing from the public. Once Sai Baba leaves the top floor of his fortress type abode for the ground floor, the staff inside the darshan hall are alerted. The staff quickly close the gates to prevent further people from entering. The staff take their seats and the VIPs are ushered in to their chairs. The VIP ladies rarely bother to show up until they are notified of Sai Baba’s arrival. The “general public”, ordinary visitors sitting behind the VIP ladies, have their view blocked by the tardy seated ladies who have no consideration whatsoever for those seated on the floor.
There is a quotation from Sai Baba’s that is often displayed in the darshan area. It is Love Ever – Hurt Never. Recently it was displayed right over the entrance gate. Yet this message is totally disregarded. I have no idea why the VIP ladies have to sit on chairs. Although age and lack of exercise might suggest they are not flexible enough to sit on a cushion . What is also evident about them is their inability to share. Their all important status of VIP means to see and be seen by Sai Baba.
Once Sai Baba is on the first floor, a bell will ring in the darshan hall to announce his arrival. The arrival will most likely not be immediate. There is usually a 15 minute wait for the staff to close the gates and to seat themselves in readiness for his arrival.
The VIP ladies, who do not like to wait in the hall, will arrive at this time to sit in their alloted chairs near to the gate where he will enter.
Baba usually arrives during bhajan time. He arrives at the gate entrance where he will linger to take VIPs’ letters or talk to a few for several minutes. In the VIPs’ there will be seated retired staff, visiting Organisational leaders, and Indian Govt. officials. They sit on the right hand side of the hall. On the left are others’ of VIP status. They include wives, children, extended family of important staff. Also among these ladies are the self-appointed ladies, who by some means or another have managed to obtain a good seating position. There are a few ladies there especially chosen by Sai Baba. Why so, no one knows.
Moving along the darshan path, we have the canteen staff seating, then the chit ladies with the ‘general public’ seated behind them. Sai Baba is wheeled along the path, heavily guarded by 5-6 security officers, they too restrict the view of Baba who is seated low in his wheelchair. Sometimes Sai Baba stops and takes letters from the chit ladies or blesses them. He then passes on to the men’s side where it is much easier to see him. The men have an altogether better and more fair seating arrangement. Darshan is usually between 8 to 10 minutes.
The students are next in line for Baba’s attention. They are lined up in front of the veranda, where they are able to give him their letters and talk to him with ease. He is wheeled through the students and then up onto the veranda where he usually stops to talk and to bless to the men seated there. If there is no interview then Baba will often sit outside in his chair for the rest of the bhajans.
On concert days Baba will sit outside for the duration. Nowadays there are so many concerts, skits, plays and dramas, one gets the feeling that the ashram has become a type of Wembley Stadium, Indian style.
The Ladies’ Dilemma.
Having given here a glimpse of darshan, one has to wonder why so many ladies look lost and sad. They are mostly Western ladies seated in the ‘general public.’ Many of the ladies sitting for darshan will leave disappointed. They sit for hours. Those towards the back probably would not have seen him at all, due to the jack-in-the-boxes placed near the front.
Sitting for hours alone is stressful. The added stress of not being able to see at all is demoralizing. Many of these ladies have come from all over the world. They are not treated as guests but as a nuisance. In recent years the number of Western ladies has decreased considerably. Still, the remaining few are treated with disdain. There is no point complaining about the seating because the truth is they don’t want Westerners there anymore. Apparently Sai Baba was told off during an interview with a govn.minister for allowing too many foreigners to buy flats in Puttaparthi. He was told not to allow anymore to be sold to them.
There is still a hard-core following of Westerners living outside the ashram. They are, by and large, just tolerated. Many no longer attend darshan. They prefer to stand outside where they can glimpse him through the brick facade. There is also a growing number of men and women who do not attend darshan at all. Some claim they have no need to as they get “it” inside. Others have just given up altogether.
In recent years, Puttaparthi has become a social center or meeting place for old-time devotees. These ladies having given years of their time to Sai Baba, now have little else to do with their lives. Many of these ladies are aging. It is not uncommon to find them sitting in cafes during darshan or meeting at the swimming pool outside of the town. They have managed to build a life in Puttaparthi without attending darshan. One would think if Sai Baba were the Avatar of the Age, he would have encouraged his followers to a higher level of consciousness, not leaving them dangling and lost as they seem to be. What to make of this sad situation, I don’t know. I can only think he has taken ’some’ of them as far as he can, and now it is up to them to do the rest. Sai Baba remains an enigma still. There is simply no point trying to understand him. In fact most people visiting Sai Baba have not changed for the better. Many have reverted to their former habits and old lifestyles. Perhaps many of us, I include myself here, were drawn to him for the wrong reasons in the beginning. To follow the life-style of a true seeker is very difficult indeed. It requires absolute discipline.
There is too a new type of follower. These are mainly young people hitch-hiking through Asia. They often chose Puttaparthi as a meeting point because it is still cheap. Some of these youngsters are seekers, although unlike the older version, they do not attend darshan often. They are more interested in a social life than a guru. Parties and sex are not uncommon in Puttaparthi. It is all part of the scene.
Of growing importance among followers is Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tamil Nadu. Many are making their way there to seek solace.
To sooth hurt feelings and deflated egos.
“People sitting always towards the back are told that they do not need darshan as they are doing well as they are. No need for extra attention.”
“Those closest to Sai Baba have been chosen because they need extra attention and light from him. These ‘devotees’ sit on the veranda or in the VIP section.”
I have heard that the veranda is commonly referred to as “the Alligator farm”, due to the jealously and rivalry between the men who sit there.