Much to my surprise, Sai Baba’s ashram, a few miles from Bangalore, was surrounded by guards and a high wall topped with shards of broken glass. It was difficult to understand why a world-famous guru who taught that we must “love all, serve all,” and was a beloved teacher and moral leader and healer who had established free hospitals and schools for the poor, would have need for such all-encompassing security. Later it was explained that as Sai Baba gained followers and power, he also gained enemies. In fact, in the 1990s, assassins gained access to his quarters in an attempt to kill the famous guru. The assassins and several of Sai Baba’s guards were killed.
But on this day, such violence was a long way in the future. Once within the walls, past the guards, the path opened onto one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. It was like walking into a great cathedral or the Muir Woods, or one of those rare places on earth where heaven seems very near. It was early Sunday morning. Hundreds of Sai Baba’s devotees had gathered in the gardens and beneath the flowering trees in anticipation of the Swami’s daily walk among his followers. They were singing hauntingly melodic songs that grew more rhythmic as the time of Sai Baba’s appearance grew near. You could feel the tension building, an electric anticipation among the devotees, many of whom had traveled from distant countries to be in the presence of their guru.
Then Sai Baba emerged from his rooms and the singing swelled to a joyous chorus, everyone laughing and smiling, clapping their hands to the rhythm of the music and reaching to touch his silken saffron robes. Sai Baba moved among his people with the grace of a dancer. His hands moved like birds, first to his signature, wild bushy hair, then to his bright red lips, then to his side, then to gestures into the air as if to praise the beauty of the day. I was surprised to find, as he passed by, that I had to fight the urge to reach out and touch his robe.
Later in the day, our film crew was invited to a private audience with several of his major devotees and supporters. We were sitting in a circle discussing the filming when Sai Baba entered. He didn’t speak, but the power of his presence was undeniable. He walked around the circle, smiling, and as he passed each of us, he paused, and held out his hand, palm up, palm empty. Then he gestured and his hand was filled with a grey powder. One of his devotees explained that it was sacred ash. When we asked where it came from, he explained that Sai Baba had created it with his will. I had heard that the swami had the ability to levitate and translocate and make things appear and disappear. I didn’t believe it, but here he was demonstrating a bit of this power right before my eyes. Certainly it was a parlor trick, the ash hidden somewhere within his flowing saffron robe. But if so, I thought, it was pretty good sleight of hand. As he moved around the circle passing out his “sacred” ash to members of the crew, we asked what we should do with this strange gift. We were told to taste it. I touched the ash with my tongue and was disappointed that it had no taste at all.
Soon I was aware that Sai Baba was staring at me. His expression pleasant, perhaps curious. Then he turned and gestured toward an inner chamber. One of his devotees said that Sai Baba wanted me to follow him.
He was waiting in a small room. The only light reached down from a single high window that filled the space with more shadow than light. Somewhere in those shadows, an incense burner filled the room with a sweet, not unpleasant aroma. We did not sit-down. Sai Baba stood uncomfortably close. In English, he asked me why I had come. “What do you want to ask Baba?” he asked.
I was embarrassed because I didn’t know what to ask. Of course, like everyone else I did have questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God and other mysteries. But these are things you don’t talk about to someone you have just met, even if he is a Holy Man. On the other hand, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to talk with this swami who was reputed to be a true saint. But I wanted him to present his credentials, something other than his parlor tricks that don’t put the Western mind at ease. I wasn’t prepared to bare my soul.
Sai Baba waited patiently.
Then I thought of the perfect question. “Can you help me to meditate?” I had never been able to free my mind of the countless distractions that prevented an understanding of nature, even the existence, of God. “Can you teach me control my mind?”
“Don’t worry about your mind. Baba knows. You must believe.”
“But that’s just it,” I said. “I don’t know if I do believe. I have doubts.”
“Don’t worry about your doubts. Baba blesses you. Baba will help you.” Swami grasped me in his arms, and he rubbed his great wild bush of hair in my face. After a moment, he held me at arm’s length and asked, “How do you feel?”
Even now, as I write this I can feel the peace and joy I felt at that moment in that room so long ago. Then, once again, Sai Baba held he close and brushed his hair in my face and after a moment, he again asked, “How do you feel?”
I felt horrible. I felt disoriented, nauseated and so weak I would have fallen if Sai Baba wasn’t holding me.
Again, he held me close and brushed his hair in my face. And again he held me at arm’s length and asked, “How do you feel?”
Instantly I was restored to the bliss I felt a moment before. And so it went for a while, Sai Baba lifting me up and pulling me down in a bewildering wheel of emotions. Then I remember being out on a bench in his garden feeling a dimension of peace I had never felt before yet wondering what the hell had just happened. Over the years, I have never stopped wondering. Was I drugged by something in his hair? Or something in that taste of his sacred ash? Was it the incense in the small room? Was I hypnotized? Or was he a true saint, as his followers insisted, “one of those few men who appear on Earth at various times in history, to help us find the divine within ourselves?”
As I sat in the garden alone and confused. I thought about the beauty around me and Sai Baba’s message, “Love all, serve all.” He taught, “Where there is faith, there is love. Where there is love, there is peace. Where there is peace, there is bliss” He gives millions of people hope and inner-peace, establishes hospitals throughout India where patients are provided free medical care. He is a dynamic moral leader. His followers included and still include a range of very impressive people from around the world. Then I thought of the guard and the wall topped with broken glass surrounding the ashram. It seemed a strange contradiction.
Many years later I received a call from the cameraman who was with me that day. A sceptic who always thought Sai Baba was a fake. He told me that when the guru had given him the sacred ash, he had put it in an envelope, sealed it and wrapped it with tape. His idea was to have it analyzed. But he put it away and had forgotten all about it. Then, years later, he came upon it and opened the envelope. It was empty. There was no trace of the ash. “Where do you think it went?” he asked. He reminded me that they had said Sai Baba created the ash with his will. Then, somewhat embarrassed, he asked, “If he had the power to create it, do you think he had the power to make it disappear?”
I know an empty envelope is a very small thing. But I also know something happened that long ago day that left me forever changed. And rarely do I go to bed at night without an image of a smiling Sai Baba with his storm of unruly hair watching over me from the dark.
If you enjoyed this story, maybe you’d like my new novel. “The Lost Caravan.” You can find it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and on my website Marshall Riggan Storyteller.