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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

Mumbai comes under Sai Baba's spell

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God arrived five minutes late for his darshan in Bombay. He emerged from the right side of the podium some seconds past 1805 hours, from among a battery of cameramen and their incessantly flashing lights. A medium-sized figure topped by a fleshy, clean-shaven face and a halo of fuzz, clad in his regular flame-coloured robe, which, from afar, was remarkably reminiscent of a housecoat, he proceeded to arthritically climb the few steps on to it.

The venue was the Cooperage football ground at Colaba, south Bombay, where a mass of devotees, with bated breath, craned necks, folded hands and awed gasps, among them at least one disbeliever, I, sat in reverential silence. Some of us have been here for only the past hour, but there were others, like the few pious old ladies whom I could see out of the corner of my eye, who have been rooted to the spot since 1400 hours.

Meanwhile, God -- if millions, including the Indian prime minister, believe the man before us, Satya Sai Baba, aka the Saint of Puthaparthi, is the embodiment of the Almighty, who am I to question them? -- was traversing the length of the podium. Many before me have reported that he glides rather than walks, but to me his movements resembled standard human locomotion. He advanced in a stiff-legged gait, more like an aged godman than an immortal one. But that is not surprising -- after all, he is 72, and some of it is bound to show, if not in his hair which is still jet black, at least in his movement.

As God walked, he kept moving his palms outwards, in a gesture that looked a lot like he was offering something. From where I sat, his face, most often, looked curiously impassive, as if the adulating thousands before him had not the slightest effect on him. Occasionally, he acknowledged the salutations of the crowd with a grand wave of hand -- a faintly arrogant gesture, more suited to a statesman than a spiritual leader.

"O beloved Bhagwan," thundered an official of the Sai Baba Seva Organisation (the organisers of the event) over the loudspeakers. God, as well as the chief invitees of the evening -- constitutional expert Nani Palkhivala, Indian Merchants Chamber president Y P Trivedi, former Bombay sheriff Nana Chudasama -- were by now seated. "And the millions who have gathered here... May we offer a million pranams at your lotus feet. And a million swagats to the city of Bombay..."

God listened on indulgently. His face was still inscrutable, the hands making signs in the air. And the official went on to tell the masses that Baba was the 'all-powerful', 'the embodiment of love', that He had to walk 12 miles to school, how Puthaparthi today has become the epicentre of the spiritual world, how He created a super-speciality hospital there...

God, meanwhile, sat completely unaffected. The paeans pouring, inexhaustibly, from his devotee's lips seemed not to move him one bit. But the crowd drank it in, showing its appreciation during the significant pauses with some dispersed claps. For some devotees -- like the bespectacled 35-plus gentleman to my left -- the sight of God in their midst was too much. They closed their eyes, raised folded hands above their heads and -- swooned.

The Seva official wound up his introduction by asking Palkhivala to present a floral tribute, which he did with alacrity. The official then called on Trivedi to speak a few words.

"Reverend Satya Sai Baba," he began, reverently, and went on to express his deepest admiration for Baba and his strong belief that only He could save the world from the terrible things that were happening to it. He wound up with a Sanskrit aphorism, whereupon the next speaker, Dr Vyas, natty -- and perhaps hot too -- in his suit, took the podium.

"Friends, Mumbaiites, Countrymen... and Ladies," he roared. The last salutation, however, didn't quite go down well with even this respectable audience. They tittered but the Rotarian went on, undaunted. "As I see the sea of humanity..."

The next speaker was Chudasama. A good speaker, he, with a sense of humour and no rhetoric. "His Holiness Shri Satya Sai Baba, all the dignitaries, and the well-behaved crowd," he began, "All of us have come here with the same purpose... He has come to Mumbai after four years... I remember the first time he came here..."

Chudasama reminisced a little, said Baba had come to Bombay at the right time, when the city was in the throes of trouble and how He was the only hope. Chudasama cracked a few jokes at the expense of the politicians ("Parting with money may be difficult for politicians. But I should say, with Baba's blessings, they may get re-elected" etc). He suggested that the industrialists should adopt one village apiece in Maharashtra and provide it clean drinking water. He wound up with another jab at the Indian politicians:

"May Baba put some wisdom into them (the politicians). Because they are the ones who have ruined our country. Since this is a live telecast, I hope the message gets across..."

It was now God's turn to speak. As an eager devotee fixed the mike, he stood up, gazed at the upturned faces and started in Telugu:

" Prema swarupalu..."

His voice was definitely not mesmeric. But what he lacked was amply made up by his translator.

"Embodiments of love..." the translator thundered in a sepulchral voice, and the crowd let out a collective tremulous sigh. God had, by now, broken out into a Telugu verse. The most devout of the devotees seemed to know the lines and sang along with him. Finishing the verse, he addressed the crowd again:

[Translation] "Embodiments of love...The human life, the human birth is essential..."

The discourse went on for 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes, wherein he quoted from the Bhagwad Gita and reiterated his teaching: "Love all, serve all."

"God is with you, in you, around you, below you, above you!"

"God is not separate from you. You are god!"

"I am god!"

"I and you are god!"

"Love is god. Believe in Love!"

Roared God's translator: "Man is living the life of an animal today because he has emotions like anger, lust and avarice. When you are overcome with anger tell yourself 'I am not dog, I am man, I am not dog, I am man, I am not dog, I am man...' and the anger will go away..."

"Embodiments of love... construction of temples are not signs of spirituality. Do your duty. Practise what you preach..."

Though devoid of any magnetic quality, God had an earthy sense of humour that made his discourse interesting. As exemplified when he spoke about depression amongst men:

"The cause for depression is desires, desires, desires, desires," he said (he has a habit of repeating certain words, running the last ones into each other), "Shut your mind to desires and depression will vanish." A pause here and the punchline:

"Less luggage makes travel a pleasure!"

Half an hour into the discourse, however, several devotees could be seen heading for the exit (Was God's hold waning?). But determined volunteers set themselves upon the weak-willed, forcing them to sit down again. Finally, God was ready to end the discourse. He sang a bhajan in praise of Lord Rama, had the crowd join in with vim. And then he was gone in a matter of minutes. Behind the podium and out into his vehicle he went, without even drawing vibhuti out from thin air...

On the way out, I cornered a couple who clearly were believers. They were settled in Spain, they told me, and this was their first encounter with God. Why, yes, they definitely felt blessed after the meeting... They were more relaxed... And, of course, they would definitely try and meet him again.

"An evening well-spent," noted another, "I am not a worshipper but a believer. What He is preaching is pure gospel. If all of us followed it, there would be no trouble in the world..."

Meanwhile, the crowd was pouring out. It was an interesting mix -- a beautiful girl in resplendent green wobbling on a pair of stilettos, big men, beefy women, two sari-clad foreigners looking more Indian than Indians, an old man in a wheelchair, a short girl in an oversized shirt, two fat women, a middle-aged woman clutching her pubescent son... They all poured out with expressions of beatific satisfaction.

Was I the only one who wasn't affected by Baba's darshan? Despite my cynicism, my disbelief, I had prepared myself to be convinced by him. After all, I reasoned to myself, if he could pull crowds like this, there must be something in him. Something magnetic...

"You know what," my colleague told me as we made our way down the jam-packed road, "He is the vocal edition of all those self-help books you get!"

I couldn't help agreeing.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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