THE AFRICAN ODYSSEY
SWAMI’S VISIT TO EAST AFRICA
From day one, devotees have always been pleading with Bhagavan to visit their homes, towns, cities, and countries. Swami has yielded many times to requests of the first three types, but, with one notable exception, has diplomatically avoided visits to other countries. One may wonder why, especially since the whole world, nay the whole universe is His.
Swami has explained this puzzle. It is not that he is per se against overseas visits. However, in recent times, it has become a fashion for many of the so-called spiritual leaders and self-styled gurus to constantly jet across continents in the name of spreading some message or the other. Obviously, Swami does not wish to be looked upon as yet another member of this jet-set.
However, way back in 1968, Swami did go abroad, and that was to East Africa.
When overseas devotees quote this example and pray that the lotus feet must sanctify their soil also, Swami just smiles and says that he did not go to Africa but to the house of a particular devotee. It so happened that the devotee was in Africa, that is all!
When preparations for the African safari were being made, divine mother Easwaramma became rather anxious.
Not much was known about Africa in those days, and she was deeply concerned because she had heard that Africa was full of wild animals and savages.
When someone gently pointed out that this was not really true, and that even if true, nothing would happen to Swami because he was God, Easwaramma shot back, “I know swami is God, you know he is God, but do those wild animals and savages know he is God?”
As in the case of Yasoda, so too it was with Easwaramma. Baba was her son first and then only God!
Let us now turn to Kasturi, for a wonderful account of this extra-ordinary exception, namely the only overseas trip to-date, of Bhagavan :
This was Baba’s first voyage beyond the confines of India……he was going to the infant republics of a continent that was just emerging into the dawn. He was to confer courage and consolation, to knit hearts and quicken the circulation of love!
The citizens of Bombay at a mammoth public meeting convened at Dharmakshetra bade him farewell on the 29th of June. Later, at the airport on 30th June, crowds spilled over the terrace, pushed through to the tarmac area in thousands and used every atom of enthusiasm to cheer Him as the plane took off!
Flying at 590 miles per hour at altitudes of over 35,000 feet, Baba was busy in the Boeing, granting the passengers, (many of whom had boarded the flight on purpose) signs of his grace, such as autographing a book or a photograph, materialising vibhuti, or furnishing illuminating answers to solve personal problems of every kind.
Bob Raymer of Los Angeles, a member of the party, saw Baba keep both his feet pressed on the slanting back of the empty seat just ahead of him; and he did not miss the chance; he clicked twice and got two pictures of the lotus feet that millions adore.
At this Baba pulled out one of the cards from pocket behind his seat and wrote an affectionate admonition, sending it to “Bob, Boeing 707!” Bob responded with an apology cum adoration, through another picture card:
The sky is blue,
The ocean too;
Our wish has come true,
And we are flying with you!”
In fact, the sky was not always blue. It was mostly murky, what with the huge concourse of slow-moving monsoon clouds on their way to India. The sea mirrored the sky; there was an occasional zig-zag of silver ripple on its surface. One felt as if the plane hung in mid-air, while sea and land were pulled away from underneath by an unseen hand.
Soon, gleaming streaks of rocks and boulders and blotches of greenery were visible as far as the eye could see. Mount Kenya was announced! We saw only its jagged crown of blue, over the sea of milk.
In a moment, the sea was over us! Below us, scintillating in, and reflecting the sun was a quilt of red and brown roofs, Nairobi! The clock showed four minutes to twelve, while our watches insisted it was already 2.24 p.m.
Baba at the doorway was greeted, “Nandalala, Yadu Nandalala!” spontaneously from the yearning hearts of thousands perched on all available vantage points. While we of the party waded past the counters and through the corridors, filling forms, and having certificates stamped and signed, climbing over the routine hurdles, Baba was whisked away in a floral automobile by Dr.C.G.Patel into the gathering from which the bhajan had emanated.
“It was a feast for the eye and the ear- the scene where they showered flowers, and waved lights, when they sang melodiously and from the depths of their hearts,” Baba said. “I was reminded of the days when Jayadeva and Gauranga sang the glory,” he wrote.
We had to proceed to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda – the state known as the pearl of Africa. The road was 407 miles long. The cars sped on, encouraged by the fine unbending road through miles of delightful scenery.
The motto of the state of Kenya through which we passed until night enveloped us, is “Marambee”, meaning, let us pull together. This spirit was evidenced all along the route in wheat fields, cattle farms, plantations, and in groups of village folk on the wayside, brimming with vitality. They were merrily dancing along with leafy boughs in their grasp, which they shook vigorously at the sky.
The tedium of dreary hours of travel was made less monotonous by the beautiful avenues of trees through which we passed. Their restful green, together with the coolness of air as we climbed higher and higher, was comforting. The rains that come upon this land all months of the year have mothered a succession of gurgling streams and fresh-water lakes.
We had a glimpse of the rift valley about which I had read while teaching anthropology in my college in Mysore. Two thousand feet below us it gaped, with sheer escarpment for its banks! We saw the soda lake, Nakaru, and the town bearing its name. A sizeable gathering of eager Africans and Indians awaited Baba there; they were rewarded with darshan. Baba moved among them blessed them, and created vibhuti for a few that needed it.
From Malaba, on the border of Uganda, an impressive pilot car preceded the car of Baba, as a sign and symbol of his being welcomed by the rulers of that state. The cars drove on to Jinja, where the Nile emerges out of the womb of Lake Victoria, and, channelled through turbines, flows on north to fulfil its vow of a 3500-mile pilgrimage to the Mediterranean sea.
Kampala was reached at 1.30 a.m., hardly the hour for a hearty welcome by a cheering throng. But baba is in a category all by himself. Wildly waving banners of silken welcome stretched across the streets; every few yards a floral arch (someone in our party counted exactly 108) beamed with lights as baba passed through.
Outside Dr. Patel’s bungalow, 2000 people continued the bhajan, singing with unabated ardour in the hope that Baba would give them the coveted darshan. and Baba did not disappoint them. Alighting, He walked slowly amidst them, feasting the eye and delighting the heart. Their restraint and reverence were exemplary.
Never had Kampala yearned so excruciatingly for daybreak as on that night! For the city knew that Baba had arrived and would be granting darshan when the sun rose. Baba came out early next morning; he stood facing the unprecedented massive gathering. He moved, lithe and lovely, along the passage between the barricaded blocks of people, showering upon everyone his supreme compassion. ….. he went up to the lines of standing Africans on the margins of the assembly; He held many by the hand and brought them himself into the shade among the others so that they may sit in comfort, listening to the community singing of bhajans.
“I have no need to see places. I am everywhere, always!” Baba told us. “You may drive around. I have my work, for which I have come.” but dr. Patel persuaded him to visit the Hindu temple, the Bahai house of worship, and the television tower hill. While driving down, he summoned the six-foot police constable acting as motor-cycle escort, and created for him a charming locket with the picture of Christ, to be worn around the neck. He knew the man was Christian.
During the bhajans, he selected the sick and the disabled, the deaf and the dumb, the blind and the maimed, and, taking them into the bungalow, he spoke to each one with love and tenderness. He spoke in Swahili, in English or Hindi, and gave each a token of grace – vibhuti, talismans, lockets with his own portrait or the picture of Christ or some sacred design. Everyone who came out of the room had a smile on the face, a twinkle in the eye, a ray of sunshine in the heart, and firmness in the step.
A person who was stone-deaf when he went in, came out wonder-struck at the amazing world of sound. A polio-affected boy came prancing outside; a patient who was wheeled into the ‘room of hope’ walked out, his hands on the shoulders of his companions, while a volunteer pushed the empty wheel chair out of the gate.
Third day of July was a memorable one. First, the flight to Ngorongoro crater. It is the largest concentration of wild life in Africa. Reaching the entebbe international air port by car, Baba, with some members of the party boarded a twin-engined aircraft at 9 a.m., while three of us having full faith in him, brushed aside the fears aroused by overzealous friends who warned that a single-engine plane was not the craft that one would choose to fly over a jungle teeming with wild life!
We followed Baba in a frail super-wagon, piloted by a veteran Britisher who oozed confidence all the time. For an hour and a half we flew over an immense inland sea of fresh water – Lake Victoria – which the Nile attempts in vain to drain.
We could see hundreds of gazelles, zebras, and wild beasts while our vehicle flew slowly over the Serengeti national park. The crater is a huge circular plain, over 127 square miles of grassland, bush and forest, sheltering large masses of wild life. A few farms stocked with fat cattle were to be found in this fantastic milieu.
As we drove from the airstrip to the crater lodge, a family of wild elephants received us with the gentle flapping of broad ears and an array of ivory tusks gleaming in the pre-noon sun.
Landrovers took us into thick shoals of wild buffaloes, zebras, and gnus. Soon we entered the haunt of the Simba (lion). From the safety of the cars we admired a heavy-weight male yawning on a mound, and very nearly ran over a pair of fat females having their siesta amid the grass! We came upon more such families, and soon they endeared themselves to us. Baba had come to bless them, we felt.
Rising up almost from nowhere, a stately dowager lioness walked majestically towards a group of sleek giraffes. This onset of danger was communicated to the long-necked fraternity by some birds, and they in their turn, alerted the buffalo, zebra and gnu! In a few seconds they disappeared into the distance and the distinguished lady stood sniffing the empty air!
Baba drew our attention to this demonstration of mutual service. He said that man is highlighting the advantages of competition and the struggle for survival, but the beast is teaching him co-operation and service as the ideal means for survival.
We took off from the crater at four o’clock in the afternoon, and when we neared Lake Natron, the planes flew perilously over a newly formed volcano, emitting incense to the god of fire! Our ‘mini’ wagon hovered for a while, awaiting signal from the Nairobi national park giving us a bird’s eye-view of the giraffes and the ostriches, before landing at Entebbe.
Baba’s car crawled through the crowded roads of Nairobi to the park where he was to address his first public meeting in Africa. ….Baba then returned to his residence and blessed the enormous gathering that surged around it.
Later, he sat before the television set which some members of his party were seeing for the first time. The programme being shown then led to a discourse by Baba on the evil sown by that medium. Baba said that it blunted the higher impulses and activated the lower. “The aim of the sponsors is to bring more and more people before the receivers; so standards get more and more vulgarised and this valuable instrument of education is reduced into televisham (telepoison!),” he said.
Nairobi is the only city in the world that has a suburb owned and inhabited by lions! It awakens everyday to the full and free roar of these regal cats.
On the 5th of July, early in the day, we went into the national park and went to the hippo pool. There was a busy school of these monsters, and also a few crocodiles basking quite near. This led baba to point out to us how the beast is wiser than man in the art of living. “We slaughter our own kind, for the greater glory of ourselves!” he said.
While driving back from the pool, we saw two magnificently maned lions, and three well-groomed lionesses basking indolently in the sun. They did not wince at all, when a dozen cameras clicked. Instead, they preened themselves like stars surrounded by fans! We also watched many ostriches, and giraffes hurrying in uncouth haste to some mysterious rendezvous.
After lunch, Dr. Patel took Baba and party in cars to Nanyuki, 6400 feet above sea level, a town where, if you have poetry in you, you can experience the thrill of having one foot in the southern hemisphere, and the other in the northern, for the equator passes through the place! In fact, a hotel here boasts that the line passes through its veranda.
The road to Nanyuki showed us coffee and sisal plantations; thatched huts of kikuyu peeped furtively at our cars. In secret valley, we stayed at ‘tree tops’, built on stilts, from where at night, under an artificial moon, we could see leopard mauling meat, bisons licking salt, and elephants, gazelles and other beasts showing themselves off, and generally enjoying themselves.
It was Thursday; so Baba turned us away from elephantine fantasies, and the antics of animals. He took us instead, into the jungles of our own minds and described how the wild beasts sheltering there could be trapped. …..suddenly with a gesture, he created a jewel with an imprint of his own portrait, and placed it in the hands of the person sitting by his side. “Here! Wear it!! For many years you have longed for this.” Then turning to us he said, “Oh, each of you wants something, don’t you?” and the hand waved again. There was a golden vessel in his hand now. When he unscrewed the lid, it was full to the brim – divine ambrosia! Fragrant beyond imagination – thick, sweet, liquid grace!
Next morning, on the road back to Nairobi, Baba alighted at Nanyuki and many other towns and villages, where crowds were waiting for him. He wondered, “Who has informed these people that I would be passing this way?”
About noon, Baba and the others boarded the waiting aircraft, and flying over the rift valley, the famous Kenya highlands, and the inland port of Kisumu on lake Victoria, reached Entebbe.
On the 7th, Baba addressed the first public meeting at Kampala. He told the multi-racial, multi-religious gathering, “Just as the same bloodstream circulates in all the limbs of the one body, the one divine principle activates the entire universe. …” This was a heartening message, and it was received with enthusiastic approval by Muslims, Christians, Bahais, Hindus, and Parsis alike.
On the 8th of July, Baba addressed another vast gathering at Kampala. He said, “Here in Kampala, I shall pinpoint the basic requisites for a good, contented and happy life…..love is power; love is bliss; love is light; love is God.”
These discourses bound Baba close to the hearts of the Africans. People recognised in him a friend, a guide, a leader, and a light. But word had spread that Baba was leaving for India on the 10th, since that day was Guru Poornima. So that evening when Baba moved among the thousands seated in the Pandal, rows of Africans knelt, handing notes and letters to him, some with tearful pleas. Looking through a window of Dr. Patel’s bungalow at the faces filled with adoration, I could not suppress my tears. I was overcome by a delightful sense of gratitude for the opportunity that Baba gave me to witness this spontaneous surge of devotion in a new continent. I was awakened from my reverie by alight tap on my back from Baba who enquired, “Why the tears?” The notes and letters filled with sorrow, for the Africans had learnt that Baba planned to leave for Bombay on the 10th. “Father, do not leave us so soon!” was the plaint in every prayer. India was informed by cable that the return was postponed!
The full moon day, when spiritual aspirants dedicate themselves anew at the feet of the master, was on the 10th. Baba had told Bombay that he would reach the city by plane by 9.45 p.m., leaving Kampala at 11 a.m., so that both Africa and Asia would have the thrill of his darshan on the same day! But, yielding to the yearning of the Africans, he decided to spend the whole day at Kampala, granting devotees in other continents other evidence of his omnipresence.
More than 25,000 persons gathered that morning for the bhajan. The Africans joined the chorus led by a Tanzanian, Mr. Zoodoo. For over two hours, Baba walked slowly among the lines lonely, love-seeking eager hearts, giving each person a handful of sweets and a packet of vibhuti. To the amazement of the recipients, most of them discovered inside the packet, lying ensconced in the midst of the holy ash, enamel or metal portraits of Christ, the Cross, Krishna, or Sai Baba himself.
The Uganda Argus published an article, announcing that Baba had brought the message of unity and service to the peoples of that continent. Baba’s discourses as well as activities were also televised and broadcast, so that the entire population could share the inspiration of the gospel.
On the evening of the tenth of July, Baba talked to about 200 young men and women, who served as volunteers at the bhajan gatherings and at public meetings. The constables on duty as well as the chauffeur of the pilot car were also rewarded by His grace. ……
On the 11th, besides the bhajan sessions, for which, as days passed, more and more people from far and near flowed into the capital, Baba met groups of active workers in service organisations, from the far-flung states of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Later, Baba visited Dr. Patel’s clinic and also the residences of many ardent devotees. Wherever he went, throngs of people, eager to win one more glimpse of the radiance, rushed in and stood at the gates or on the pavements for hours.
On the 12th, Baba proceeded to the Murchison falls national park, one of the most beautiful and fauna-stocked regions of East Africa. The straight road, leaping over the shoulders of a series of hills, tempted the person who was at the wheel of our car to race and overtake every car that moved in front. We were catapulting so fast, that a sudden turn of the road found the car rolling madly over and over, finally coming to rest on its jammed wheels in agonised silence.
Baba’s car had gone beyond Masindi which was some 30miles distant. He said to the people in his car, “The second car has trouble. They will resume their journey in a taxi!”
We four were thrown against the roof and the floor, receiving knocks, bumps, hits and cuts, we knew not where! The man at the wheel fell out; the friend at his left struggled to open the stuck door with his uninjured left arm. The cushion from the back seat was on my head, wedged between it and the caved-in top! I found myself sitting astride on the chest of my companion, with blood trickling on his shirt from along the gash in my forehead……the third car came up in utter bewilderment, and friends gently pulled us out. ……
We packed ourselves in this third car and reached Masindi. From there, we hired a taxi and moved on towards Baba. When we reached the park, we saw the welcome poster: “Elephants have the right of way.” It meant that we could see some herds during the day.
We found a gigantic pair of bisons eyeing us rather wickedly, munching roadside grass. Our cars were ferried across the wide green Nile, and passing between two live tembos (Swahili for elephant) with sharp white tusks about five feet long, we rushed into the Pra safari lodge. Baba came forward to pat us and pet us, while listening to our description of the accident of which he already knew. …..
Within minutes we went for a motor-boat ride up the Nile for over fifteen miles, towards the Murchison falls, and back. The boat passed through ‘schools’ of hippos lying close to each other, showing just their eyes, ear tips, and occasionally their noses, above the water! Some of them were on the land, with red, barrel-like hippolets behind them peeping through the thick papyrus weeds. There were crocodiles too, with open jaws, but the vicious tail and the voracious jaw did not frighten the hippos in the least. …..
Returning to Pra safari, and re-crossing the Nile, our cars took us through elephant-land to the Nile above the falls. Herds of thirty or forty elephants looked from a distance like flocks of sheep grazing on the downs, but when we neared them, the sight filled us with awe and amazement. A bull stood a few yards away from the car wherein Baba was, and to give him good darshan, Baba stood on the foot-board! It appeared that the elephant was highly grateful for he stood there gazing for a few minutes, filling his little eyes with loveliness; then, turning back, he quietly joined his herd……
The Murchison falls are furious and fascinating. The Nile comes foaming and rapid, down a continuous stairway until the bed contracts suddenly into a gap in the rock, barely six yards wide; through this strangling portal the tremendous river is shot in one single jet, down a depth of 160 feet, into a stream of terror and beauty. Baba was happy that we could see this sublime scene.
Bob Raymer got a series of lovely pictures of Baba before these waters. Returning to Masindi through a road rendered slushy with a thick shower of rain, we had to slacken speed to avoid skidding. Elephants crossing the highway were another cause for delay.
From Masindi we proceeded to Kkondo, 80 miles away, where a bhajan mandir, in authentic afro-architectural style built by a devotee, was to be inaugurated. It was a large estate, growing paddy, sugarcane and bananas. The mandir was full of squatting African labourers, who venerated Baba as the god-man from the east. Baba sat on a special seat arranged for him, but soon he was among the farmers, creating and distributing sweets and curatives.
He told the gathering of Africans and Indians that man alone among the beings strayed form his allotted tasks; the rest stuck to their respective dharmas, whatever the obstacle. The tiger will never stoop to eating grass; the elephant can never be tempted have a meal of fish or flesh. But man, the crown of creation, is grovelling in the mire of bestiality and, withal, proud of it!
Kampala was reached at 1 a.m. The lateness of the hour only whetted the appetite for darshan of the thousands who were waiting there all day, busy singing bhajans. Baba gave them the much-coveted gift, walking among them and standing on the decorated dais long enough to satisfy them.
The 13th of July was a day of growing gloom. ….from Mazwa, Dar-es-salam, Mombassa, and Eldoret, people came to persuade Baba to visit their places. The mayor of Kampala pleaded for a short extension of the stay.
Baba is always everywhere. He reveals his presence to all who call on him, or even to many who are unaware that God is amidst them for their sake. For Baba, there is no coming or going, no arriving or leaving. Still, the physical presence wins such indelible loyalty that one feels an orphan without it.
On the 14th, hours before dawn, half of Kampala was at Dr. Patel’s door. Streams of cars and planes brought people from Jjinja, Mbale, Kakira, Kabale, Ikaye, and Kapila, where Sathya Sai Seva Samithis and bhajan mandalis were active. “I have no desire to stun or shock people into submission or adulation; I have come to install truth and love in human hearts,” baba declared.
When Baba got into the car, even the hefty constables on duty, keeping back surging rows of citizens, wiped tears streaming from their eyes! Baba patted their backs, but that only sharpened the pang!
The road to Entebbe was choked with cars, trucks, scooters, and cycles. The East African airways plane that was to take Baba to Nairobi (where the Air India international Boeing was waiting) developed small trouble while moving on the runway; so Kampala got the bonus of two more hours with Baba on its soil! …..
Nairobi was reached at 2.30 p.m., and the thousands who acclaimed the plane were rewarded by a quick darshan, since the delay prompted the airport officers to set the Boeing on its way immediately.
We flew over Ethiopia and Somaliland, ferried across the Red Sea at a height of over two miles and a half, and landed at Aden at 5.15 p.m. Bombay was 1910 miles away and two hours and forty minutes ahead!
Though Baba did not disembark, and though the date of the flight had been postponed while at Kampala, we were surprised to find a long line of devotees and admirers (Indians and Arabs) filing into the aircraft and touching the lotus feet. Baba spoke to them with sweet affection; he created vibhuti for their sake.
At 12.45 a.m., Indian standard time, the plane, which had the unique fortune of carrying the most precious cargo that the world offers in this age, touched ground at Santa Cruz, starting off a chorus of jais from over ten thousand quickly pounding hearts.
That then is an account of Swami’s only overseas trip thus far.
Since then, Bhagavan has been invited any number of times by overseas devotees to visit and bless their countries. Usually, Swami just smiles in reply and leaves it at that.
At other times, he says, “I will come.” When devotees press and ask, “When Swami? We want to charter planes and start making preparations,” Baba says enigmatically, “Wait!”
When people press and ask, “Swami, you have told so and so you will visit his country. When exactly would you do so?” He smiles and says, “Do I have to go only by plane?”
So the million-dollar question, as they say, remains! Will he or won’t he, in physical form that is? No one knows.
Devotees know only one thing: Bhagavan is capable of extra-ordinarily surprising decisions, taken most suddenly.
Meanwhile, anxious devotees abroad wait breathlessly! Swami says, “Love my uncertainty.” That is what these devotees are all trying to do, but a tough job it is!