Twenty years after filming for US television the 50th birthday celebrations of Sri Sathya Sai Baba which took place at his ashram in Southern India, I was living in a tiny village tucked away among the South Downs, in the county of West Sussex, UK. One day, idling some time away in the small town of Petersfield, about ten miles from where I lived, I came across one of those holistic shops where they sell all sorts of ‘spiritual’ things – incense, books on the Tarot, CD’s of New Age music and a variety of what might be called ‘spiritual’ artefacts, including books by anybody from Aleistair Crowley to the Maharishi Mahesh.
The window display contained a number of books of this sort, among them two concerning Sai Baba. I can’t recall their titles, but I’d seen and read parts of both books while I was in India, and indeed during that time I’d actually met and talked with a number of the contributors to those books. There seemed, on the face of it, little reason for me to go into the shop and investigate further.
Curiously however, I did. I thumbed through both books. And there they were – those familiar anecdotes related by those same contributors. So quite why I then walked to the checkout with one of the books, paid for it and took it home with me, I really wasn’t sure. I remember taking it into my study, putting it down on the table, looking at it and wondering, “Why?” But a tiny grain of caution, born of my experiences in India of the odd things that had a habit of happening within the orbit of Baba, made me wary of seeing my purchase as being simply random. I went to bed that night thinking that something may well be in the air.
It was. The following morning I got a phone call. An actor friend of mine – a very well known TV and theatre personality whom I’ll refer to as John – rang me up from the Midland city where he was appearing in a stage play. One of the cast members, a young actress I’ll name Gill, had been telling him about the serious psychological problems she’d been experiencing up until quite recently. They had been causing her considerable distress and therapy had been of little help.
She had begun to despair of finding a way out her problems when someone chanced to mention a ‘holy man’ in southern India – a man named Sai Baba. He, it was said, had a reputation for being able to help the troubled and the oppressed – among whose numbers she surely counted herself. She had researched him, liked what she discovered, joined a local South London Sai Baba group and had become immersed in his teachings to the point where, by the time of her conversation with John, she accounted herself a devotee. This man, she told him, had changed her life. John himself told me he wasn’t quite sure how the guy had managed that at a distance of six thousand miles but he was in no doubt that something in her had changed fundamentally and for the better.
Gill, not unnaturally, was fascinated not just by Baba’s teachings but by the man himself. She was desperately keen to go out to India and actually get a glimpse of him. When John told her that a friend of his had actually made a film of Sai Baba at his ashram in Puttaparthi, she couldn’t wait to meet up with me.
Some days later, the three of us met in a pub in West London. I related some of the events I have covered in the earlier parts of this blog. Gill sat and listened as though mesmerized. And what, I then asked her, was it about Baba which, without any direct contact, had brought about a change where therapy and all the advice from friends and relatives had failed?
Her answer contained stuff with which I was by now very familiar – nothing concrete, nothing that could be effectively expressed in terms that would make much sense in a discussion around a dinner table. It was a feeling, gained by being around and with people who had met him and who had been devotees, some of them for a very long time and who seemed perhaps to pass on from him some aura of goodness, tolerance and love; a feeling gained by reading about him and hearing just some of his reported sayings – ‘There is only one religion – the religion of love’: ‘My miracles are the mosquito on the back of the elephant; I give you what you want so that you may come to want what I have come to give’. And the one which she felt spoke directly to her, ‘Shed just one tear and I will wipe away a hundred from your eyes’: – and so on and so on. From all this she had built up a very powerful sense of a presence not limited perhaps by space or time which carried about it – I’m reluctant to reduce Baba to ‘him’ or ‘her’ – a massive, all-enveloping charge of something totally positive, limitlessly good and completely reassuring; a knowledge that – to employ the words of a famous medieval English mystic – ‘all will be well’. And that is irresistible.
We spent perhaps a couple of hours further discussing Baba, his effect on people, the so-called ‘miracles’ and all the rumours – good and bad – that abound. We broke up and I returned to West Sussex. So, I thought, as I got back to my study and looked again at the cover of that book – that’s what it was about, was it?
But there was more. Early the next morning I had an urgent phone call from Gill herself. On the Sunday of the weekend coming up, there was to be a big Sai Baba gathering of the Woolwich (in South London) Sai Baba group. At these events which took place annually at Woolwich Town Hall, it was the custom to have four speakers – one of whom would always be a Westerner. This year’s Westerner, it turned out, had very suddenly and unexpectedly had to pull out. They were a Westerner short – and would I be willing to take his place?
I put together a twenty-minute talk. On the day, a huge and wonderfully multi-racial audience had assembled, filling the Woolwich Town Hall auditorium both upstairs and down. Speaking about something of which I felt myself not much more than a fascinated observer, I confess to being pretty nervous. But it went down extremely well. So much so that I was invited to give a similar talk to another group in North London a few weeks later.
And then, subsequently, there were more. I was asked to give the same talk in four further locations around the UK, the last and furthest from London being Bradford in West Yorkshire, home to one of the country’s largest Indian communities. But then, after Bradford, quite suddenly, it all stopped. There were no more nor has there ever been. It was as though there had been a very specific task to perform. Once performed, I the performer was dismissed.
It was impossible not to be tempted to relate in some indefinable way my buying of a book with whose contents I was already familiar and the way things had eventually turned out. Had there been just an isolated instance of this sort of thing in my experience of Sai Baba, one might have said it was just a very strange, drawn-out string of coincidences. But it wasn’t isolated – there had been many other similar instances. (See my other posts on the subject of Sai Baba) This was merely the latest, and presumably, now he is no longer with us, the last. Though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. I had been witness many times while he was here to a level of power and influence over people and physical reality which, as far as I could possibly judge, went way beyond that of any normal human being. That alone makes me very wary about assuming that that power and influence ceased upon his death.
A lot of people have asked me who or what I thought Sai Baba was. The only honest answer is that I have no answer. I saw what I saw, I felt what I felt. I’ve seen others go through the same experience and the same subsequent intellectual and emotional turmoil. And that is as much and as little as I can say. Where would I – where would any of us – find the resources appropriate to making an assessment of a being so way beyond our understanding? It would be a bit like using the beam of a torch in order to try and locate the torch.