Volume 11 - Issue 11
November 2013
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Posted on: Nov 06, 2013


The myth about sacrificing for God

- How Ashwin received more when he gave more to his Lord, Sri Sathya Sai

Ashwin Venkatesvaran was in no mood to celebrate his birthday this year. It was not as if he was enthusiastic and excited about any of his birthdays before but this year, it had almost slipped his mind that it was his ‘special day’. Of course, his parents had called and wished him as had his brother. Even they could make out that Ashwin’s brilliant mind was severely pre-occupied with something else. And that ‘something else’ was the 18th National Annual Conference of the Indian Academy of Echocardiography, the Echo India 2013.


There will definitely be a few readers who, like the author, will scratch their heads trying to understand what echocardiography is. Basically, it is a non-invasive method of studying the heart wherein an ultrasound scan is used to create images of this special organ. In other words, a doctor is able to ‘see’ a patient’s heart using sound (and sophisticated technology of course), without actually having to cut him/her open. Today, this non-invasive cardiology technique had invaded every corner of Ashwin’s heart; in fact, it seemed to pervade and preside over every cell in his body!

On the second day of the conference that fell on the 7 September 2013, he had to present an academic paper in front of a distinguished audience of more than 700 registered participants. These participants were all either top-notch cardiologists from the country or the cream of the upcoming cardiologists of India. Ashwin was confident about the originality and impact of his work but his challenge lay in conveying the same within the allotted time of ten minutes. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer to his Master, dear Friend, Parent and Guide - all rolled into one - Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

And in those few moments of prayer, scenes from his life flashed before his mind’s eye. The mind is considered by many as the fastest thing in the universe and Ashwin’s mind sure did an amazing job of flooding him with memories.

To be or not to be - a doctor?

Ashwin receiving a Gold Medal from Bhagawan for distinction in B.Sc. Biosciences, which he took up at Swami's command  

It was way back in the early 1990s, as he studied in the Sri Sathya Sai Higher Secondary School, that the thought of becoming a doctor was planted in Ashwin’s head. He did exceptionally well in his studies and was considered as a natural academic. That is why, everyone felt, that on many occasions Swami had prodded him to become a doctor. However, the only problem with becoming a doctor was that he would have to leave the physical presence of his Swami, and almost every devotee will know how hard that is. In a dilemma on whether to follow his heart or what everyone considered as ‘logical next step’, Ashwin sought Swami’s advice on the matter after completing his high-schooling. Swami told him to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Bio-Sciences. Relieved and happy that he would be with his Swami, Ashwin suitably modified his career plans and prepared for the B.Sc. entrance exam at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

As soon as he completed his B.Sc. Swami advised him to complete his Master's degree too in Bio-Sciences. Since Ashwin had always felt that his calling was to be an academic, he pursued  academics throughout his Master's degree with all enthusiasm and energy. That would help him become a doctor of the doctorate kind at least. He felt that was probably what Swami had meant when umpteen number of times He had hinted at him becoming a doctor. With this new sense of purpose, Ashwin set forth in the doctorate direction.

Then came another unexpected twist in his career story. As he completed his Master's degree, he once again sought Swami’s advice on the future plan of action. He was in a flux because while he definitely wanted to respond to the inner calling, he also wanted to be near his Swami. His father, in the meanwhile, had filled out applications in his name to some of the best Universities in the world. Ashwin thought then that Swami would probably advise him to pursue a Ph.D at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning. But Swami had other plans. A new super specialty hospital was coming up at Bengaluru (now Bengaluru) and the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee was to inaugurate it soon. Swami wanted Ashwin to be part of that hospital.

Ashwin did not want that. This was so different from what he had envisioned for himself based on what he felt was his calling.

“Swami, I do not want to work in the hospital. Please...”, he was candid and straight in his prayer to Swami.

“No! I want you to be part of the hospital. You will be serving the poor and helpless. You must join the hospital.”

Swami did not stop at that. He made plans to send Ashwin to the USA because echocardiography, in India, was taught only to those that held a medical degree. That was not the case in the US and so, for the next couple of years, Ashwin found himself in the US, picking up the art and techniques of echocardiography. Completing his course and training, he was soon at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences (SSSIHMS), Bengaluru, in its department of Cardiology.

Sacrifices Galore?

Swami was very proud of him and He often called him to address gatherings in public sessions as well as in the more private Trayee sessions, where only the staff and students would gather. Ashwin was happy that Swami was happy but one thought always rankled him - that he was not in tune with his inner calling.

It seemed as if his life had been one continuous sacrifice after another albeit for a very noble and divine cause. He had given up his academic plans and his father’s ambitions in order to make Swami happy and be with Him. And now, it seemed that he was ‘stuck’ with echocardiography though it made Swami immensely proud and happy. His question was - wasn’t it the same Swami who was prodding him from within too? Then why the divide in the instructions he was receiving from within and from without? He had no idea. Comforting himself that at least he was with Swami, he continued his work with dedication at the hospital.

The joy of being an instrument of His Love is unsurpassable - Ashwin performing an echocardiogram

And then, in 2011, his beloved Master, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, left the physical and took Mahasamadhi. That was when Ashwin got plagued with thoughts and questions. Not questions of whether to stay or leave but the question, who will now encourage him to pursue the calling to be an academic? His job at the SSSIHMS was Swami’s gift to him, and his duty and expression of love would be to do it to the best of his abilities. But if that meant his academic goals had to wait, ‘so be it’, he decided! He was ready to do it for Swami.

And that was when Ashwin learnt something really beautiful about sacrificing for the Lord.

Time for the Presentation

Quickly completing his prayer, Ashwin got ready to leave for the conference hall of The Sheraton, Brigade Gateway, Bengaluru. He was keen to make a good impact in the conference which would be featuring  lectures, symposia, case studies, orations and workshops on conventional echo and advanced echo. He joined the four others who would also be making their presentations, attempting a shot at the ‘Young Investigator Award’ which Ashwin also hoped to pocket. But the only problem was that he was pitted against four practicing cardiologists while he was not even a doctor!

It had indeed been a stunning surprise for him when he got to know that his research paper was among the top five out of the 350 submissions to the National conference. But then, with Swami as his sole inspiration and hard work as his dear companion, Ashwin had already attained several firsts. Within a few years of working at the SSSIHMS, he had enrolled for a Ph.D in the prestigious Karolinska Institutet at Sweden. He had put his academic rigour to test and given his best. Soon, he had been invited to present a couple of papers at the EUROECHO Imaging Congress 2012, held from 5th to 8th December in Athens. He felt a surge of gratitude towards Swami in his heart when he discovered that the SSSIHMS (Bengaluru) was one among the two hospitals from India which had been invited there!

The EuroEcho at Athens provided a wonderful exposure to Ashwin, and through him, to the SSSIHMS (Bengaluru) which came to be regarded as a centre of excellence too, apart from being a charitable hospital. SSSIHMS now gained respect from outside the ‘Sai-circles’ too and Ashwin felt humbled at how Swami had achieved it through a person who was not even a doctor.

  With Swami in the interview room before leaving for the US to train in the ECHO

It was with this humility and gratitude that he walked to the lectern to deliver his 10 minute talk. He was the final candidate to speak and the previous four, coming from prestigious institutions like the Christian Medical College (Vellore) and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, had completed pretty decent presentations. However, all of them had exceeded their allotted 10 minutes in their eagerness to express their work. Ashwin made a mental note to be careful about the time when his turn came.

The Presentation

Before he could realise it, the presentation was complete. He had spoken in a soft voice at a gentle pace and still, had over a minute of his stipulated time left. There was a good applause as he completed the presentation and Ashwin now faced the five judges who would grill him with questions. Two of them stated,

“No questions at all.”

The other three asked questions which Ashwin answered with great ease and confidence. That was when a hand in the crowd went up. A senior member of the audience had a question for Ashwin.

Even as the hand went up, there seemed to be gasps of awe in the audience and on the judges’ faces. Ashwin noted that and was sure that this gentleman was someone of eminence. A question was asked which Ashwin answered to the great satisfaction of the gentleman. With an appreciative nod the gentleman sat down and now, the whole audience burst into a louder applause. It was only later that Ashwin came to know that the gentleman who had questioned him was the eminent Dr. Natesa Pandian from the Boston Clinic.

As Ashwin made his way back to his seat, one of the judges got up to make an announcement. He said that usually the pronouncement of the winner of the Young Investigator Award was reserved for the final day of the Conference. However, this time, the decision of the judges had been unanimous and so, they would be awarding the same right away.

Imagine Ashwin’s pleasant shock when the announcement rang out loud and clear,

“The Young Investigator award goes to Dr. Ashwin Venkatesvaran.”

He immediately walked to the stage and with a gentle smile reminded the judge,

“Sir, I am not a doctor! I am Mr. Ashwin Venkatesvaran...”

Ashwin Venkatesvaran being awarded the 'Young Investigator's Research Award' at EchoIndia 2013

“Oh my God! I thought it was a typo here... Ladies and Gentlemen, the award goes to Mr. Ashwin Venkatesvaran.”

The applauding audience were almost spellbound as everyone, without exception, rose to their feet to give Ashwin a standing ovation. In the 18-year history of the conference, nobody outside of the medical circles had ever won this prestigious award! And the audience never imagined that someone brilliant enough to do the same would also be humble to accept that he was not a doctor.

“I hope to complete my doctorate and be a kind of doctor soon...” completed a smiling Ashwin as the applause grew louder.

The “Sacrifice” That Never Was

A host of great things followed. Many cardiologists and doctors now approached Ashwin to study under him! He won the second prize in the international research award contest held during the 2nd World Summit of Echocardiography in October 2013. And for his brilliant work, Ashwin also won an invite to the EUROECHO 2013 and this time, SSSIHMS was the only Indian hospital to have been invited! All these only humbled him and made him proud at the same time. He was humbled to see how his Master’s hand was at work and was proud to see the flag of the SSSIHMS flying high.

“I always felt that my inner calling was towards academics. And somehow, every step I took in life seemed to be taking me away from that. But I thought it was alright because I considered it as a sacrifice for Swami. I felt that the Divine knew what is best for me. But today, I realise that it is the calling that matters for it is indeed the voice of God. And whenever one feels that one is sacrificing for God, that is a mistake. God always encourages, enhances and enriches. It is up to us to put in efforts and not lose faith. Swami has taught me that I should never feel that I am not good enough. Whatever I felt that I sacrificed for Him, I have got back in multiple measures.”

Thus it was that Ashwin, whom everyone always thought would be a doctor seemed to change his ambition when he chose to become an academic. And then, he again changed that to fulfill Swami’s wishes. Finally, he ended up as a researcher par excellence, under whom even doctors wanted to train! He realized that sacrificing for God is indeed a myth. God always gives and that too, in a measure that is beyond one’s wildest imaginations.

By Aravind Balasubramanya
(Team Radio Sai)

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