Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sai Baba's ashram

More than a century ago, a 16-year-old mystic began performing miracles in Shirdi, a town in east-central India. He split his time equally between the Muslim mosque and the Hindu temple, spreading a message of unity and tolerance. His message and his miracles won him thousands of followers, who worshipped him as a living god. He called himself Sai Baba, and he died in 1918.

Eight years later, in 1926, Sai Baba: the Sequel was born.

A 14-year-old boy from Puttaparthi, a small town in the West Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, began performing miracles. Among his most attention-grabbing feats is the ability to produce ashes from thin air. His followers hang photos of him in homes as far away as Brighton, Colo., and ashes emerge from the portrait. Countless examples of these miracles have won him millions upon millions devotees, who worship him as the reincarnation of Sai Baba.

Although Sai Baba has a strong interfaith following – including Muslims -- he has joined the pantheon of Hindu deities. His face is depicted on cell phone ads, painted on the sides of cargo trucks, hanging from grocery store walls. Anywhere you might view a painting of Ganesh or Shiva or Krishna painted, you’re likely to see Sai Baba, as well.

His face is unforgettable – he wears a bright orange robe, and his Afro puffs out like Jimi Hendrix.

His ashram in Puttaparthi is where we have spent the last four days. Around 50,000 Sai Baba followers visit this ashram each day, rendering it the size of a small town. Another 40,000 daily visit the original Sai Baba’s ashram in Shirdi.

All day long, the Puttaparthi ashram buzzes with the activity of a college campus. Devotees sleep in the campus dorms and eat at the campus dining hall. Some attend lectures; others hang out on the quad. It even has its own planetarium. I’m not joking.

Large signs everyone instruct people to observe “Silence!” while walking through the ashram’s many-acre campus. The dining hall tables all hold placards instructing people to observe the same silence. God can only speak to a silent heart, the signs read.

It’s fitting, then, that the day we arrived at the ashram, my friend became sick and lost her voice. She tried whispering for a day; the next morning she fell silent. Now she signals that she has recovered, but is vowing to keep her silence until we leave.

Those who do speak say mostly one phrase – “Sai Ram,” a blessing of the Hindu god Ram. People say “Sai Ram” to mean everything. “Sai Ram” means hello. It means pardon me, I’m trying to get past you. It means please put your plate in the correct bin. It means you can exit from the south gate, not the west gate.

The ashram campus is also gender-segregated. Men and women eat at single-sex dining halls. They stand in separate lines. They pray in separate areas. There is an on-site shopping complex, which women can browse in the morning and men visit in the evening.

Men and women also sit in separate sections of the main auditorium, where Sai Baba appears each afternoon.

Being at an ashram waiting for the guru to come on stage is like being at the biggest summer rock concert of the season. The line starts forming two hours before the show. Signs posted by the entrance specify the items you can’t carry into the concert hall –cassettes, books, umbrellas, razors, food, flowers, plates, pens. You shuffle through the single-sex line until security pats you down, searching for illicit contraband, and runs a bomb-detector over your outfit.

The auditorium is a large, empty open-air hall with a ceiling covered in small chandeliers. It resembles the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, except its pillars are pink, and shaped like lotus flowers, and its borders feature a band of blue- and gold-plated elephants running across the ceiling.

The crowd sits quietly in the auditorium and waits. They know the star of the show is always fashionably late. Servers parade through carrying trays of drinks (water). Identifiable by the bright bandanas tied around their neck, they resemble Boy Scouts wearing saris.

Then an audible surge of anticipation sweeps through the crowd. No one can see or hear anything, but everyone knows the star is about to come on stage. The crowd – all sitting cross-legged on the marble floor – scoots forward. People begin whispering loudly and craning their necks.

The band strikes up an “Om.” The crowd chants the mantra in a low rumble. The chandeliers overhead all light up in sync.

And then – he appears. The legend himself. He is 83 now, and rests on a cushion on a plush red throne, his regal wheelchair. He is flanked by a support crew of five or six men wearing white – his holy rendition of call girls by his side.

The crowd is breathless. Everyone raises their hands in prayer. People try to sit on their knees to get a closer look. Security scouts dart around, madly gesturing everyone to resume their Indian-style sitting posture.

Sai Baba is past the point where he has to say anything. His uttering a single word would reverberate like a rock legend striking a single chord.

But now he is in his twilight years, in a wheelchair, and the guru’s appearance is brief. Two or three lucky people in the front row get a chance to bow at his wheelchair before he disappears backstage. He is wheeled out again onto the stage, where his devotees can see his face, but he cannot speak. No one seems to mind, though. They are awed to be in his presence. “Sai Baba: Live!” For them, it is like looking at the face of Jesus -- another miracle-maker with a message of love.

Then Sai Baba is wheeled offstage, and the crowd spends an hour singing devotional hymns with the cover band. No problem, though. They’ll be back tomorrow, to catch another glimpse of Sai Baba, the guru with the orange jumpsuit and the Jimi Hendrix hair.