Sathya Sai Baba is a spiritual leader in India, who has been credited with performing many healings, materializations and other psychic/spiritual manifestations. In November, I traveled with my mother to his ashram in Puttaparthi, India. My main interest was in healing and I hoped to get some suggestions or insights into improving my own ability.
The extreme contrasts are the first things to focus attention. Puttaparthi is a small rural village, but a sizable market street has formed near the ashram. The street buildings are brick, clay, plywood and corrugated aluminum, thoroughly mixed as in most poor areas of India. Amongst them are modern, concrete school buildings as well as the ashram itself (also mostly concrete). Contributions to the ashram have been used to build and maintain a very extensive school system to improve the education available in the region.
Just entering the ashram reveals a major shift from clutter and debris to simplicity and cleanliness. The market street which has grown up outside has haphazard houses, busy vendors, beggars, buffalo droppings, fruit & vegetable peelings and assorted noisy vehicles. Inside, the construction is simple and well laid out, although with ornate facades. The ground is regularly raked and smoothed. Upkeep is continuous and effective. Taxis to pick up or deliver people leave off the horn use which is a part of the steering process outside.
Within a day, the peace also makes a lasting impression. We arrived two days after Indira Gandhi was assassinated, having seen businesses close in fear, having discussed the event with everyone we met. At the ashram, one lecturer emphasized the need to eliminate fear and violence from our life patterns and several people discussed possible consequences. However, the worry and tension and continuous discussion of the events outside were simply not present.
The facilities at the ashram are gradually tending toward comfort. I suspect the tradition that a dedicated soul should ignore discomfort as well as luxuries is giving ground to the realization that not everyone who seeks wisdom is that dedicated. Thin pads on concrete floors were still the norm for sleeping, but cushions were available at a general store. A bakery has added a fair selection of breads to the single canteen meal early devotees had. Apple juice and popcorn were commonly available. Westerners get relatively private rooms with western style toilets. Such adequate comfort without too much luxury probably causes less distraction from a meditative state than would moderate discomfort, even if the latter might be good training at a later stage.
Overall, the word for the ashram is peaceful. Even the dogs rarely bark.
For Sai Baba himself, the most descriptive word is, I think, compassionate. He has a following of thousands, well over one thousand present at the ashram most of the time (making personal interviews rare and short) and gives an impression of caring about each and every one.
In Hindu belief, and to his devotees, he is an avatar of God.* As such, there is a twice daily darshan, or viewing of God. With the regular attendance of over a thousand, darshan consists of the devotees sitting in a courtyard while Sai Baba walks along the front row. Because of the numbers, the rows may be from 6 to 10 (or more) deep, with only the first 2 or 3 rows in position to hold up requests for prayers, or sacred ash to be blessed. Always, five or six people will lunge up from back rows with such materials, jostling or even stepping on front rows. Normally, Sai Baba or an assistant will wave them back or ignore them until they sit, but occasionally, he has pity even (or especially) on them and accepts the request or gives a blessing. And to anyone simply watching as he looks out over the crowd, it is evident that he cares deeply.
One group followed a Hindu practice of writing the name of God (in this case, Sai Baba's) multiple times. They came as a procession to present the full books to him and he has promised to go to their home town to receive the next set so that those who could not afford to come to the ashram could see him, too.
He is castigated by other swamis for continuing to perform miracles (the desire to do so is supposed to be eliminated with true advancement) but he still performs minor materializations for his devotees. It was during a darshan that I was able to see such materializations as he still does. One or two times per darshan, he would create vibuti, or sacred ash, to give to some follower or to several at once. He would hold his hand straight sideways to his right with palm down, make three or four small horizontal circles, then bring fingertips and thumb down and together and be sprinkling ash! After each presentation, he would clean his hand on a cloth from an assistant—and the fingertips only would be white, not the palm or the fingers higher up. One day he tossed several small objects to some women, but from the men's side of the courtyard I could not see whether they were the flowers he used to produce or if they were something he was given and passing out again.
Whether it was darshan, viewing of God, or proximity to one highly developed person or being with a group of people seeking enlightenment, there was a definite effect from being at the ashram. My personal quest was for some actual improvement of or advice for improving my ability to heal. At first evaluation, it seemed unanswered.
A personal interview with Sai Baba was not feasible in a one week stay. In a talk with one of his chief aides, we were told that he did not teach healing. The impression I got (nothing stated) was that aspiring to powers like Sai Baba's was not a sensible thing, he was here to be experienced for the good of our souls (the Indian tradition). During the healing treatments I gave at the ashram, I felt no difference from previous ones. This was no surprise. I have never sensed what was wrong with a person or how much I might actually have helped- things which are possible for some noted healers. So, presumably, no change.
However, what did get triggered for me was a start at seeing auras. On the second day, during darshan, I kept seeing a wash of glowing blue light when Sai Baba moved his head. I tried various ways of looking, most of which caused eye strain and ordinary double images. Over the week's time however, a relaxed unfocusing produced an actual aura effect more and more often, although never at will. By the last day, I was able to see an aura around Sai Baba's head about half the time he was on the temple porch and get occasional glows around three or four of the students on the porch.
Sai Baba's aura was, to me, about two inches wide and a bright blue. When I was able to see others' auras, they were about 1/2 inch wide and from the same shade paling down to nearly clear, with one person having an orange tinge. I could see auras only around the head except for one full body aura. I could not see any under full sunlight or artificial light, only with reflected natural light. Also, I have not been able to see any since returning to Los Angeles, so it is certain that the ashram and the spiritual atmosphere there were major contributors to the effect.
Since the universe (or God) works in mysterious ways mostly because we don't recognize a direct answer if the form is unexpected, I suspect that aura viewing is the talent I need to improve my healing ability. My understanding of fully developed aura reading is that it permits diagnosis of health problems or noting of their removal. If so, it may be that lack which now slows my development in healing. I will have to keep practicing to regain and develop the talent, then wait and see if the change I sought really did begin.
Besides darshan, there was a daily class for foreigners. The lessons were varied—from the Gita, from the teachings of Sai Baba, or incidents from his life. The curious problem with the classes was the presentation of numerous excellent stories and parables illustrating moral points quite clearly, counterpointed by standard Indian Karma lectures. That is, superb lessons in ways to improve oneself, versus an overall statement that individuals cannot do so, but must rely on prayer and grace. A wide gap still exists between East and West.
The days were generally structured around darshan, classes and bhajans (hymns or chants) but ample time remained for reading or individual meditation or conversation.
My general feeling is that Sai Baba is a good, dedicated man, of great psychic/spiritual power, who is doing a lot for at least his area of India, if not for all of it as some of his followers believe. The ashram at Puttaparthi is an excellent place for growth. Some philosophical conflicts exist for most Westerners, but none are forced upon anyone. Attendance at activities is by individual choice. For anyone with a clear idea of where they are going and a need for a strong spiritual atmosphere, it is ideal.
* Sai Baba has declared himself as an Avatar, but he also emphasizes that God can be worshiped under all names and all forms. He tells people of all religions to go on practicing their traditional faith.