Of faith & followers

The passing of Satya Sai Baba has plunged his multitude of devotees into grief and despair. Although many close friends and hundreds of people I know were fanatical devotees, I myself have never been to Puttaparthi, nor have I ever seen the Baba in person. However, there was never a moment in time when the image

and the works of Sai Baba of Puttaparthi did not impact to a very large extent upon the Indian, especially the South Indian, psyche. There are millions who worshipped him and called him an avatar of God on earth, there are millions who went to him and to Puttaparthi for solace and millions more who functioned everyday on the basis of the principles of life he had laid down for them.
From his devotees I have heard endless stories of his grace and all-seeing vision, of his wisdom and mercy and his spirituality. Every cynical question was always met with a perfect serene explanation and one that was utterly unimpeachable. The refrain always was, “If you believe, you will understand; if you do not believe, you will not see the light”. I have also envied the simple acceptance of Baba’s devotees of the most traumatic events in their life. Their belief was so strong and unshakeable that they said that they had prayed to Baba and there must be a reason why their problems were overwhelming and that Baba would take care of it for them.
I finally came to the conclusion that unshakeable faith in a spiritual leader is a truly magnificent thing. It stops you from despair and agony and gives you hope. It gives you confidence that things will improve; it prevents you from going under. In these times of urban and rural stress, faith in a spiritual leader is a tremendous bulwark against collapsing under the weight of the stress and strain of modern life.
Increasingly, we see that life and death are all about the state of our mind. Life and how we deal with its challenges depend almost entirely on our state of mind, for it is that which determines how we bear challenges at home and at work. Above all, there is now indisputable evidence that the future of modern medicine lies in the mind. We have always known that the will of the patient to live or die has always been a factor in successful medical treatment, but today leading specialists feel that the real future of medicine lies in the mind of the patient and the doctor. On a far more basic level, the simplistic illustration of the converse is one of a person who has cancer. Most oncologists feel today that stress and worry are the leading causes of cancer, just as stress is the most important cause of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and a host of other ailments. In other countries, therapists and psychoanalysts make fortunes by counselling patients for various conditions, particularly stress. Here in India, we have our spiritual leaders who inspire unquestioning faith and trust in millions of devotees.
The faith that is inspired by a spiritual leader like Sai Baba is mind boggling and its impact is well nigh unmeasurable. I have met hundreds of “ordinary” devotees of Sai Baba who had never actually spoken to him directly but flocked to Puttaparthi for darshan from afar and to hear his discourses. They were not VIP devotees and made no claim for special status. They thronged there motivated by simple faith and a desire for service. Many kept talking about the various miracles wrought by Baba, but far more than those stories, I have always been fascinated by Baba’s devotees.
Retired persons, high-ranking corporates, NRIs with fabulous jobs, housewives… hugely diverse and highly-educated, well-placed and achievement- oriented people put all their faith in Baba. I know of one particular programme for which hundreds used to apply and wait anxiously to see if they were selected. This was a programme through which devotees from each state in India volunteered three to four weeks of their time to do service in Puttaparthi. They would reach Puttaparthi and would be allotted their duties, which they carried out with great devotion for the allotted four weeks.
I know of one NRI from Chennai, a highly-qualified engineer, who volunteered in this fashion. He was selected and was allotted the job of receptionist/watchman at the Puttaparthi hostel. He had to sit at the front desk to register guests and sign them out. He did his job with fervour and came back satisfied. He had so lost himself in his role that when some of his acquaintances from Delhi came in to stay at the hostel they actually did not recognise him! The daily darshan of Baba was the only thing on his mind. The next time this person was selected, he served as an orderly in the Puttaparthi hospital and his job was to help the ayah in ushering patients into the examination room and helping the nurse with the mechanical work, like holding basins or helping patients into examination gowns. Once again, he returned home, utterly energised and enriched by his experience. For me, the most impressive and amazing aspect of Sai Baba’s legacy is that he inspired many different types of people to come out of the narrow confines of their own lives and render service to society.
Puttaparthi itself, as well as the villages around it, have benefited enormously from the social work of the Sai Baba Trust, which has delivered life-giving water to thousands of drought-hit villages. There are hospitals, colleges, and schools that provide quality education to thousands of underprivileged children as a result of the efforts of Baba’s work. There must be a million other things about Baba — a million amazing and miraculous teachings and good works — which I don’t know about and cannot describe, because I was never a devotee but just an interested bystander. Nevertheless, it is impossible for anyone to miss the enormous impact Baba and his life and teachings have had upon so many in our country.
Today there are thousands of Sai groups all over the world. They are a whole community by themselves and they not only gain tremendous peace and enrichment from the Sai Baba movement, but also strive to contribute their bit to make the world a better place to live in. By any standard of reckoning, no spiritual leader can leave behind a better legacy.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.

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