21 Sep It’ll All Be Ok Part 1 by Yogi Sri
It'll All Be Ok
by Yogi Sri, written shortly after visiting Ganeshpuri in 2019 with The Ashram Mount Eliza
We are off to visit two temples just outside of Ganeshpuri, 60 kilometres north of Mumbai. Since there are more than 50 of us, a range of vehicles including a flotilla of tuk tuks, the small, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, are commandeered from the local taxi rank. Vani, our friend Madhuri and I are assigned to travel together in one.
I take an immediate liking to our driver, a big guy with a deep, raspy voice and a confident swagger. He wears a 70s style printed polyester shirt and seems to know everyone, singing out greetings and beeping his horn to whomever we pass on the road. He drives efficiently, you could even say gracefully, always taking the smartest route. His large body does not seem out of place in such a small vehicle.
As we get out at our first stop, the Sai Baba temple, someone yells: “Stay in the same group that you came with and remember the number of your tuk tuk because you have to come back to it.”
I look up. I have never noticed before that these things have numbers. Above the windscreen, ours is inscribed: “1 2 3 4”.
Is that really our number? It seems too perfect. I look at the other tuk tuks. They all have different, random numbers in the same place above the windscreen.
“Excellent number,” I say. “Yes, that’s Hemanth” says Moti. “He’s the boss of the tuk tuk drivers.”
I notice a five-metre Shiva statue made of fibreglass stands at the entrance and there are petting animals for the kids. The building is brand new, sitting in the middle of nowhere and, apart from us, completely empty. Whoever built this obviously had a lot of money.
“Apparently, it’s an exact scale model of the temple in Shirdi,” (the town where Sai Baba lived) someone says as our footsteps reverberate around the enormous marble entrance hall. The comment seems accurate. Here is the small inner temple housing the murti (statue) of Sai Baba with a much larger hall attached, just like in Shirdi.
The original building is shaped as it is because it has been added to continuously for 80 years to accommodate the ever-growing hordes. Why would you set out to copy such an odd building, and why would anyone build such a thing here in Ganeshpuri, world famous for its own great saint, Bhagavan Nityananda?
In the 1880s, Sai Baba himself wandered into the sleepy hamlet of Shirdi, 200km north of Mumbai, and never left. Dressed in the ragged clothes of a Muslim holy man or fakir, he declined to reveal any aspect about his prior life. His birthplace, family, guru, religion and even original name remain a mystery to this day. “Sai” means “holy man” in Urdu and “Baba” the same in Hindi, the languages of Islam and Hinduism.
Sai Baba lived in the run-down local mosque and begged for food every day. He would then distribute the food to other beggars and even to the attendant street dogs before eating himself. People in the area became aware of a special feeling that arose when they were around him. When he spoke, they found he could expound upon the holy scriptures of all religions with an unusual power and clarity. Miracles were attributed to him and his fame spread throughout the region, the state and eventually the whole nation.
On his death, his followers built a samadhi shrine. (In India, the saints are said to take maha samadhi – that is, to go into the “great meditation” rather than die. Hence the name given to the shrines where they are buried.) A beautiful white marble statue was placed on top of his grave.
I visited the town of Shirdi with a small group including Swamiji and Devi Ma for the first time in 2004. At that time I had not heard of Sai Baba and had no idea what to expect. It must have been a quiet day because I can remember walking for what seemed like ages through rows of empty queue lines. When we finally entered the inner sanctum of the samadhi shrine, there was a movement in my heart as if someone had started playing a celestial church organ. Tears welled and I felt as though I was being physically lifted. We queued and were blessed by the brahmin priests on duty in front of Sai Baba’s statue.
A few hours later, we were eating lunch at the hotel when I became aware of some kind of “presence”. It was to my left, at head height and around the size of a basketball. I couldn’t see this presence but sensed it in a way I had not known was possible until that moment.
Throughout that trip to India I had been in a particularly depressed and anxious state. Directly after the tour to India I was to visit my teenage daughter, living in Italy with her mother, and the prospect was bringing up intense grief about my separation from her.
The “presence” that day at the hotel seemed to be trying to communicate with me. If I were to put it into words, it was saying something like: “Pssst!” Trying to get my attention.
I turned to face it and the lunch chatter faded. I felt as if I was in a little bubble that held just me and the presence. I was overcome with a feeling of love and peace. Obviously, and incredibly, this seemed in some way to be Sai Baba himself. His soul, or energy had come to visit me. I caught a sense of his personality: amused, friendly and loving, a little cheeky, even rascally. The kind of person who would love a joke, with whom you could have a great time.
The energy was communicating something. In a virtual sense, it was nudging me in the ribs and with great love and enthusiasm saying: “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. It’ll all be OK”.
Like a friend, good-naturedly trying to buck me up.
I’m not a “psychic” person, yet I understood immediately that this energy was Sai Baba and I understood its communication clearly. I remember thinking: “F*** me, whatever Sai Baba was, he’s one million per cent the real deal”.
Clearly, other people also have experiences from visiting Shirdi because despite the fact that he left behind no “gospel” or set of teachings, Sai Baba’s fame has continued to grow exponentially. When I visited again in 2016, the town was unrecognisable. In just 12 years it had turned into something that reminded me of Las Vegas, with a strip of multi-storey luxury hotels running down the main drag and endless tour buses disgorging pilgrims from all over India. We queued for three hours to visit the samadhi shrine. I wondered if all this activity might have vitiated the energy but once again, I felt him, or at least felt an echo of the previous experience.
Over the years, Sai Baba temples have proliferated all over the world, and now here we are, visiting one in our own spiritual backyard, Ganeshpuri.
“What do you think?” I ask Prasad, one of the priests from the Ganeshpuri temple who had accompanied us. He turned his mouth down in displeasure.
“You know, on our first night in Ganeshpuri, Vani had a vision,” I say. “She saw the face of Bhagavan’s statue change into Sai Baba’s face and then back and forth. So Sai and Bhagavan are really the same, no?”
Prasad’s eyes widen with interest at the story, then his face darkens again. “Maybe, but this is the land of Bhagavan Nityananda,” he says.
It is hard to disagree. There is something presumptuous about this place, provocative even. We all walk into the “samadhi” shrine. The original space in Shirdi is Moghul style, made of old bluestone blocks. Here there are pre-formed concrete slabs and modern bricks spray painted gold. A large printed banner of a colourised black and white photo hangs on the wall depicting Sai Baba warmly greeting a middle-aged Indian couple. There are only five authenticated photographs of Sai Baba in existence and this does not look like one of them.
I nudge Vani: “Do you think that poster is Mr-and-Mrs-Big-Cheese-whoever-built-this-place?” She nods: “Photoshop job for sure”.
Sitting in front of the statue, we decide to perform a bhajan or chant. A harmonium and drum are produced and we start to sing:
“Om Sai Namo Namah, Shree Sai Namo Namah”.
The temple brahmin and functionaries are agog. Into their completely empty building, 50 westerners have appeared out of nowhere. On top of that, they are sweetly chanting hymns to Sai Baba. Onlookers appear, filming this marvel on their phones.
“We’re like performing apes” I think, and look around for Swamiji, assuming he will be hating this. But he is grinning from ear to ear. In his typical way, he is relishing everything about the experience.
As we sing, I have to admit I can feel the shakti or spiritual energy. Afterwards, we queue to be blessed by the brahmin priest. In spite of my ingrained scepticism, I am enjoying myself. As we exit, I realise that I feel high.
(to be continued)