So what do you say to Sai Baba?

(This is Part 2, follows on from ‘Filming Sai Baba’ on May 31st)

So there we were, the four of us, in a cold little room, six thousand miles from home, sitting at a trestle table with the man – ‘being’? – whom millions around the world think of as God, or the son of God, God on earth, whatever. He sits there in his elegant saffron robe with a broad smile on his face, looks round at us one by one and says, “Well – would you like some talk?”

What do you say in reply? We were all so stunned by something about this person who had just joined us that we simply stared back at him like dumb-struck children. Even Naseem by my side whose family had been devotees of Sai Baba for so many years, was quite overawed by so suddenly finding herself at such close proximity to him. He looked around at us. Then straight at me, right across the table from him. And I had the sensation that he was inside my head and taking a look around. That he could see just what was going on in it. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. Then he pointed to my forehead and said, in that rather strangely high-pitched voice, “Head like a merry-go-round. Many, many problems.”

He was spot on. I was in a dark time of my life. Problems which originated from some of the unpleasant things that had gone on in my childhood (and I came to realize those origins only many years later) were, at that time, beginning to make themselves felt and to obstruct my life in a quite serious way. He then spoke more generally to the others, and then specifically to Naseem about the practicalities of the filming – dates, length of shooting time etc. Then finally, he turned his attention back to me. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Would you like some ash?”

I swallowed hard. Ash? What’s ‘ash’ in this context? What on earth does he mean? My head continued to spin. Had he meant ‘hash’ – at the time a common word for cannabis? Or what? I nodded. Why not? It seemed the easiest thing to do. And I could see no reason not to. At which point he said to me, “Then hold out your hand.” I did just as I was told.

Now – it’s important to understand this exactly as it happened. He and I are sitting directly opposite each other, separated only by the width of a trestle table – about a metre – or three feet. I put out my hand. I hold it over the table just about halfway between the pair of us. He then raises his right hand, holds it a few centimetres above my open palm, extends his fingers downwards and rubs them together while at the same time performing a gentle circular motion with them.

Now remember that he is wearing nothing (in outer clothes anyway) but a saffron robe; that the sleeves of that robe, though fairly loose at the cuff, extend only about two thirds the way down his arm. Which means that some ten centimetres of his forearm from the wrist upwards, are totally uncovered and visible.

As he does this circular, rubbing motion with his fingers, there falls from the ends of his fingers what looked like grey powder. It fell into the palm of my outstretched hand and formed a little pile about a centimetre in height. I was speechless. The eyes of the others were standing out on stalks. Normal mental processes had come to a stop. This had happened. There was no normal, rational response to this. I think we all felt we were in some sort of time and reality warp where, understanding nothing of what was going on, it’s best you make no attempt to try.

I looked up at Sai Baba. What now did he want me to do? This was his show, not mine. “Now,” he said, putting his own hand to his mouth, “you eat it.” There was no question. I put the ash in my mouth. It tasted very Indian – joss-stick like. And swallowed it. At which point, he made it clear his time with us was over. He got up from the table, pushed his chair back, and left the room.

I’m not, even now, going to attempt to make any sense of that. I saw and felt what I saw and felt. So did the others in that room. Naseem of course, though stunned by what she’d seen, was not entirely surprised. The four of us were then led away to our accommodation, free to try, on the way, to rationalize the incident as either a performance by a master conjuror, or the work of some sort of being who had some supra-natural control over physical reality. And the power of that interview had been such that the latter was not idly dismissed.

Two anecdotes. First – for that film I interviewed one of India’s most eminent nuclear physicists who had been a devotee of Sai Baba for a number of years. I asked him how it was that he, a man whom one would have thought utterly committed to a material view of the world, could be a follower of such a man. He thought for some seconds, struggling with something inside, then said to me, picking his words with care, that it had taken him five years of intense and troubling introspection before he had been forced to accept what he saw in Sai Baba.

The second anecdote – another devotee of Baba was a very wealthy dentist who lived in Mumbai. He told me one day what had brought him to Baba. While in Mumbai he had heard of this so-called ‘holy man’ in the south – and holy men are sometimes derided in India and often rightly so – who was reputed to be able to make ash appear from the ends of his fingers. This dentist was, in addition, a gifted amateur magician and a member of the British Magic Circle. He had, on at least one occasion, performed on UK television. He was highly intrigued that anybody could appear to make ash fall from his finger-tips, especially with the audience sometimes so close up. So he packed his bags and took a trip to the ashram in Puttaparthi to watch Sai Baba and figure out how he did this trick. He never figured it out in all the years he had been going there. He had, he said, in the end to accept that this being could produce ash at will from the ends of his fingers.

I have to say again that I am not attempting to prove anything here. To some it will probably seem fascinating and to others, ridiculous hokem designed to con the gullible. This sort of thing is not, in any case, subject to proof. If you see it, you see it. And if you see it, you are then forced somehow to come to terms with it in whatever way you find most appropriate to your own self. There will be more of it as I continue with this blog. But I want to make clear one thing. For many, many of the hundreds of thousands of the people who go to see Sai Baba – or did, for he is recently dead – this production of ash – and other objects – apparently from thin air is what impresses them more than anything. They run back to their home countries to amaze their friends with what they’ve seen. Sai Baba himself however, dismissed these ‘miracles’ as they were popularly called, as ‘the mosquito on the back of the elephant’. And further, he said, ‘I give you what you want so that you will come to want what I have come to give’. Think about it.

We spent four days researching at the ashram. After that, we were back to Bangalore and on a plane to Delhi. From there we would travel north to the former British hill-station of Dehra Dun. Part of this film was on Hinduism generally and there  were other things that had to be researched. We would be back with Sai Baba, this time to film him, in about two months.

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About besonian

Writer, photographer, film director
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