Volume 15 - Issue 08
August 2017
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Posted on: Aug 01, 2017


- Dr U Suma Rao

Born in West Bengal, Dr. U. Suma completed her schooling in Mumbai. From 1985 to 1991, Suma attended the Anantapur campus of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning (SSSIHL), earning herself dual bachelor degrees in commerce and education. Acknowledging her high academic achievement, leadership qualities and impressive repertoire of extracurricular activities, Bhagawan conferred upon her the all-rounder gold medal on November 22, 1990.

Suma's resolve to be ever in the service of Bhagawan inspired her to empower herself with further qualifications. She went on to complete her M.Com. and M.Ed. from Tamil Nadu's Annamalai University. Following her post-graduation in 1998, she returned to the Anantapur College as a faculty member in the Department of Commerce. In November 2014, Suma completed her doctoral thesis on the topic, ‘Top Women Executives in India: An Exploratory and Descriptive Study (Exploring Structure and Agency in the Areas of Work-Life Balance and Gender Bias)’.

Dr. Suma is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Management & Commerce at the Anantapur campus of the SSSIHL. Reproduced below is an article based on the conversation she had with Radio Sai’s Karuna Munshi that was recorded on 10 May, 2012.

Listen to Dr U Suma Rao's Interview with Ms Karuna Munshi

The Journey Begins With Longing Hearts and Deep Yearning

We were a family of four, happily residing in Mumbai in the 1980s when suddenly out of the blue we relocated to Puttaparthi. I say ‘out of the blue’ because my dad was working for a prestigious institution NITIE (National Institute of Industrial Engineering) and my sister and I were still schooling in Mumbai. We have often been asked what triggered such a sudden and drastic move. I think the thought had taken seed long ago and steadily gained shape over the years. But we had to wait for His call.

I was barely four years old when we came to know of Swami. At that point my father was working in the industry. It was obvious he yearned to move to Parthi because each time he visited Swami, he would ask Him if and when he could move. Eventually, he got to know of openings when the SSSIHL was about to commence its MBA program. It occurred to him that if he shifted his career from industry to teaching, he might get an opportunity someday to receive a faculty role in Swami's institution. With this in mind, he joined the NITIE in Mumbai to do his doctorate. However, even after he completed his Ph.D., no vacancy came up that he could opt for. Again he shifted back to the industry and soon enough word came, asking him to join as the Dean of the MBA Department in the Prasanthi Nilayam campus of the SSSIHL with immediate effect. This appointment surprised him as much as it did all of us in the family. Upon enquiry, we learnt that the SSSIHL was looking for someone to take over as Dean and most of the professors who were consulted recommended my father as he was an ardent Sathya Sai devotee who was also well-accomplished.

But even before all this transpired, my mother with her incisive foresight and her deep need to be near Swami had already decided to enrol us, her two daughters into Bhagawan's institutions. In that sense, the two of us preceded our parents to the ashram! I joined the intermediate program at Anantapur and my sister got into the school. Nearly one and half years later my parents moved in as well, and ever since we have all been happy and blessed residents of Puttaparthi.

Moving From India’s Financial Capital to the World’s Spiritual Capital

The difference between our spartan lifestyle here compared to the dynamics of Mumbai was quite stark in the initial days. But the glitches were all non-issues that we easily took in our stride. For us, it was an honour to be close to Swami. I think what really helped my sister and me was my mother's early teaching that we need to channel our lives in a meaningful direction and engage ourselves in a cause or purpose that we can give our wholehearted attention to. Realistically speaking, back then my mother was much more connected and drawn to Swami than my father who, I would think, regarded Swami's institution as an avenue that he could worthily contribute to. He was always inclined that way, a man of service. He would say that life can be fulfilling only when you give of yourself for a sincere cause. It was this conviction that inspired him to pursue his desire of joining Swami's institution, for which he turned down several lucrative career opportunities including an offer to work abroad.

Honestly, I think dealing with the naysayers was a bigger challenge! A lot of people around us cautioned us that we were making a wrong move and that the children were so young. They asked why my dad wished to switch careers when he was at his prime! My parents wisely chose to ignore all these comments and remained steadfast in their decision.

From Fear of God to Love of God

Personally, for me, becoming a Sai student was itself a metamorphosis of sorts. As I said earlier, I have known Bhagawan since the age of four. However, He was mostly this huge photograph on the wall. I attended Bal Vikas and was exposed to the Sathya Sai community. So as a child, I believed that Swami was somebody you had to behave yourself with and if you did not then He would get upset. That's the kind of tuning I had got into -fear of sin more than love of God. It was only when I joined the Sathya Sai College did I discover that this God wasn't merely a photograph on the wall or a distant being. I realised He was someone very, very close to you, in physical proximity. The process of discovering this truth was interesting as well.

I remember in my early days of joining the Anantapur College, I was quite the disillusioned student. I would tell myself that I was just a roll number and refused to believe that Swami knew me. After all, I was just one of the many persons in Anantapur. I would often think that I'd just graduate from the college without Swami ever knowing of my presence here. I remember one day such thoughts were clouding my head as I sat on the college steps watching the sunset. Again, the question arose, “Does He really know me?” That very evening Swami called my father for an interview in Prasanthi Nilayam and said, “You have a daughter who is in Anantapur and she sits on the steps of the college and draws pictures.” That's precisely what I used to do! Swami went on to say, “Tell her that Anantapur is full of My presence and if her heart is open she will know it.” That was quite a jolt!

However, despite that affirmation from the Lord Himself, the element of doubt didn't completely vanish within me simply because it wasn't so easy to keep my heart open! However, subsequently I had a series of experiences that confirmed His all-pervasive presence in my life. To cite an example, I used to receive some sort of a ‘report card’ from Swami for any assignment that I completed. This was in my subconscious state of course. To explain this further, I once had a dream in which Swami put up the window of the car when He saw me because He was upset. I was most annoyed with the dream and kept rationalising that it was just a dream and I might have just imagined it all up. But the dream recurred at the end of each semester where He would appear to give me an update of my performance that term. I was taken aback when one day, while walking into the interview room, He looked at me and said, “This semester much better.” Those words were enough to convince me that those dreams were not merely dreams but indeed a tab that He was keeping on my performance. Then He looked at me and said, “This semester this is good about you and this is not where you did well.”

My emotions went on an overdrive. While on one hand it was scary that Swami was keeping such a close watch on me, on the other hand I was ecstatic too. Since then, there were several instances that convinced me that Swami knew about me and my work.

Cow Ate My Homework

Sometime in my second year of B.Com, I went into this syndrome that I think is experienced by every student. I had conjured up a vision of what Swami expected of me as a student and how I should work to meet those standards set by Him. While performing this self-evaluation, I was soon consumed by negative thoughts such as “I will never make it, I will never be what He wants me to be” and predictably went into a depressive mode.

Like many other students I had this habit of writing down my thought processes on one side of my book even as I would write notes on the other. Once we went for a yogasana class and I left my book on the cement block. We were busy following the teacher's instructions when a cow strayed in. Anantapur is largely barren and the cows there are so hungry that they eat paper too! My book had yawned open and was sending out an open invitation to the cow. The cow made a beeline for it and started chomping on the pages. When I noticed that my book was serving as the cow's fodder for the day, I made a dash for it because I had recorded so much of my thoughts in that book and did not want to lose any of it to a cow. I don't know where I summoned courage from because generally I'm scared of cows but that day I was ready for a wrestling match! I held the book and started pulling it with all my might. I managed to salvage half the book but was utterly taken aback to see that the cow had eaten every page of the depressive stuff I had written but, all those containing my notes were intact!

Some days later, during our visit to Prasanthi Nilayam, Swami suddenly said He would grant us Padanamaskar. We neatly arranged ourselves in rows and in my mind I kept thinking, “If I had that book right now I would have given it to Him. The cow ate it and I don't have it. Let me try to recollect something so that I can write it down and tell Him.” And I got busy with the task.

What then transpired was least expected. I suddenly raised my head to see Him standing in front of me looking down at what I was doing. A few seconds of silence followed and then I don't know what possessed me but I burst out, “Swami, the cow ate it all.” When I think about it all now, it seems hilarious but at that time I was a ball of nerves. When I said that, Swami walked a few paces away and then turned back. He looked at me and said, “I saw.” His voice was stern as if admonishing me. Although I was disturbed by His tone, I realised that every day of ours and every moment of ours is on record. Swami watches over us all the time; it is not something that is imaginary; it is real.

A Vital Realignment of Perspective

I remember later when we had come to Parthi to watch a play, He called me and asked, “Did you take Padanamaskar?” I had not but I said, “Yes Swami.” He said, “Ey!” and called me near. When I reached Him I just broke down and He kept putting His hand on my head. Then He said, “Kya hai? Kya chahiye? (What is it? What do you want?)”

So I told Him, “Swami, I need purity of heart.” Then He looked at me and said, “You should have self-confidence. Thoughts come and go, thoughts are due to ahara and vihara (food and environment where you stay and interact), things come and go but you remain. Believe that more. That is you. Don't condemn yourself.” He was referring to all the negativity I had written. He was obviously referring to all the teenage angst I had poured into my notebook that the cow had consumed for lunch. He did not want me to belittle myself. He wants us to align ourselves with our highest and not with our lowest self. ‘Don't condemn yourself’ was what He conveyed.

He said, “When you look at yourself, you must consider yourself a pure being and look at other things as passing instead of associating yourself with your negative part and saying that the positive is something that you don't see always.” I think that slight shift in perspective was an important lesson I gained. In retrospect, Swami removed my self-preoccupation during that total period of six years. Most people have goals; they use God as a means to achieve them. For those who believe in God, Swami shifts these goals so subtly that you don't even realise when that happens. He becomes the goal and life becomes a means to Him. Once that shift takes place, there is a fundamental change in how we look at things. Swami did that realignment for me, shifting focus, ever so gently during my student days.

Channelising My Art And Creativity

For instance, when I joined the Anantapur College, thoughts about what I would do later with my life often crossed my mind. I used to think, “Let me finish this degree and I will opt for a career in art. The commerce background will be just right for advertising or graphic art that I plan to take up.” I was inclined to think in this direction because I was keen to pursue a career in art. One day, during an interview with Swami I told Him about my interest to do art. He said, “Why? Art college jana hai? Drug addict banna hai? (You want to go to Arts College and become a drug addict?)” I thought to myself, “Of course not. I don't want to be a drug addict.” He clearly disapproved of the art career and it was a blow to me at that point as I had set my heart on it.

I was extremely disappointed. I thought, “Why is He not allowing me to do what I am good at?” But now when I look back, I realise that I have painted and drawn much more than I would have in any other circumstance. Except that I am not a commercial artist. I get to work with children who are good in art and we find our artistic satisfaction in drawing throughout the year. In Anantapur, we do all the creative stuff. We work for the sports meet where we make huge 40-feet paintings and installations. I have continuously painted and Swami has personally guided me in my art as my sole inspiration.

Some artworks Dr Suma was inspired to create

There was one occasion when we had a canvas that my sister had painted. This was of a lake with trees around it and their reflection on the lake. When she gave it to Him during an interview, He said, “This is not the way to see a painting. Hold it at a distance.” So I took the painting and walked to the end of the interview room and held it up for Him. He looked at it and said, “It is very realistic. Look at the shadow of the trees on the water. It is beautiful.” Then He looked at my sister and said, “You are good at mixing colours” and He looked at me and said, “You are good at drawing.” That was exactly our portfolio! Then He said, “There are stages in drawing. In the beginning, you must use an object as a reference to draw. Then you must look at real life and draw. Suppose you are drawing a portrait, first reproduce it from a photograph, then you must draw that image from real life and then you must progress to draw it from your memory. By then, the image has become a part of you and it comes from within.” This was such a spiritual interpretation.

When We Choose God, The Rest Follows

Then Swami looked at me and said, “You must draw Me every day.” Of course, I couldn't keep up with that tall order. His message was loud and clear that when the object becomes you, only then can you reflect the essence of that unison on paper. In other words, the subject and the object need to unite. Quintessential yoga! For that matter, even art is yoga. So, any activity taken up with that high level of excellence and sense of oneness becomes worship. For Swami, everything was like that!

I realised then that if you choose God, everything is added unto you. It is truly like that. That one choice of opting to make Him the focal point of your life can enrich everything else around you because He is the soul present in everything. This lesson was the biggest takeaway and blessing that I gained from my years in the Anantapur College.


That said, when I made the choice that I was going to channel all my academic activities towards enabling myself to serve Swami, I faced mixed reactions from peers, extended family and even immediate family on what I was doing with my life when a brilliant career awaited me elsewhere! I understood where they were coming from. After all, I was not only making drastic choices about wanting to stay back and serve Swami but I was also allowing myself to wait in limbo until He gave me the direction.

And He did make me wait - for eight years - before He said, “Yes, join college.” That's the time when I was doing degree after degree (M.Com. and M.Ed.) as my parents insisted that I continue studying while I waited for Swami's guidance. I could have gone on to do other things but something within me made me wait for His word. I wanted to do what He said and I wanted it to come from Him.

Decision Making for Self, Not God

Around that time, I decided to stay single. There was a lot of pressure from family. But I thought about it and assessed for myself what I really wanted. I believe that when we make choices we are not making them for God but really for ourselves. I now thank that period as it enabled me to say, “I am not doing this for Swami but I am doing this for myself because I want it.” My introspection gave me clarity and firmed up my decision.

The lead-up to me taking up a faculty position at Anantapur College was equally interesting. A few days before I was informed about it by Swami, I had a dream about Him giving me a message. He said, “It is not enough to love God. You must obey Him. So when I give an instruction it has to be obeyed. That is love.” I knew something was coming up that I needed to obey.

About four or five days later, Swami called me to the veranda and asked, “Will you join Anantapur?” I immediately said yes. Then He asked, “Which subject? What do you want to teach?” I think He gave me a choice because I was qualified to teach both Education and Commerce. I said, “Whatever You say, Swami.” Swami kept saying, “No, you choose. What would you prefer? What do you like?” I kept saying no, because I realised that if He made the choice the responsibility was His. We mistakenly think this or that is what we are comfortable with but I don't think comfort is in God's design at all; challenge is what He sets you up for. Again, if we engage in real nishkama karma (desireless action) then we invariably do the right kind of activity. But when we like or dislike something too intensely, it does not allow us to do it well. That was one of the few wise moments in my life.

Although Swami made it seem as if I had a choice, He went on to say, “If you ask Me, I want you to teach Commerce.” The decision was made. Commerce wouldn't really have been my choice. I prefer Education or Literature. But I think because I don't have that extreme attachment that can sometimes interfere in the way one performs the job, I have an advantage. I am able to practice a degree of detachment that makes me do my work better, or so I hope.

The Power of Choicelessness

This decision to be choice-less or of leaving things to Him, the opportunity to take this decision comes a hundred times in our life with Him. And the strange part of this journey with Him is that those confirmations need not always come from Him when we seek them the most. They could come much, much later.

This was brought home to me some years after, in 2005, when Swami suddenly called us for an interview. I had already become a teacher by then. He looked at me and smiled and I knew He was happy. I had this desire always when I would look at the boys and think, “Why doesn't Swami say He is happy with His girls? Why always boys?” That question used to trouble me. Suddenly that day in the interview He looked at me and said, “These girls are My children. They have given their life to Me.” And then listing my qualifications He reeled off some six college degrees that I had never heard of. He said, “She has finished all this but did she go out? No! She came back.”

Swami surprises you in the way He praises His children! I was thinking, “Oh Swami! I asked for Your attention but I really didn't want it this way.” But even those small things which you think of, if you ever compare or do these things He will answer them and make it clear to you that it is a one-to-one relationship with God and nothing to do with anything else.

Obedience To His Word - The Boon To Ask For

In that interview, He looked at me and said, “Ask what you want. Ask.” You can imagine my joy, like I had just won a million dollars. My mind was racing about what I should ask. I said, “Swami, can You please give me bhakti?” He didn't look happy with that answer and said, “Why do you want bhakti?” I said, “Swami, all of life we get choices between You and the other things and each time we have to choose You. This means we need a certain degree of focus on You or devotion to You.”

I said, “Give me bhakti so that I make the right choices all through.” He looked at me and said, “No, it is the wrong thing to ask. You need bhakti to make choices. But you have now made your choice in life and so you don't need to ask for bhakti.” I said, “What should I ask for?” He said, “Ask for obedience.” So I asked, “Swami, please give me obedience.” Although I admit I didn't entirely understand His perspective, I got an inkling that choosing your path is the first aspect and delivering on that choice in abiding by it is the next aspect - obedience to His word. That was how I interpreted His words.

Teachers Must Lead By Example

I constantly look at how best I can epitomise this in my life, now that my role has evolved from being a student to that of a teacher. It's simply not enough to say something to students; that does not cut ice with them. You need to practise what you say and lead by example. It is only then that they really accept your teaching and you make an impression on them. I increasingly see that if I am true to my God, my goal and my life, it automatically has that beneficial impact and I do what I'm supposed to do, better.

If I look back, all the years that I spent with Him were preparing me or pushing me towards one goal - obedience to His word. It has been an ongoing process - all through my days as a student and now as a teacher. This just needed to be brought into perspective. Obedience is such an important part of learning and I am in some sense right in the middle of it all. I am in a learning environment where I am a teacher but at some level still a student. We are always students with Swami.

Swami says that a teacher is like a tank and the quality of water in the tank will determine the quality of water that will run through the taps, i.e., the students. In a sense, we are all students in life. We are learning and correcting ourselves all the time. What matters is that if you are true, people see that in you. You don't have to be perfect but you certainly need to be true. This was one important lesson that Swami taught me when He directly told me to ask for obedience.

Bhagawan felicitating Prof US Rao and Mrs Rao (parents of the author). Prof US Rao was the former Principal of the Prasanthi Nilayam Campus, SSSIHL

I am sometimes asked if I have had second thoughts after coming on to the path. Although I couldn't have asked for a more comfortable job, there have been certainly been instances when I have felt low and wondered, “What did I get myself into? Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?” But the doubt is more on the lines of, “Is this what I am really good at? Am I really contributing here?”

God’s Foresight And Our Hindsight Are Always 20/20

If I look back at my life with Swami, I clearly see the decisions He made for me and He has always been right. But I realised only in retrospect how much He helped me when I did not understand myself too well. And now, I am certain and firmly believe this is the path for me. There is no doubt on that score. That said, the doubt about whether I am doing my job well enough, if I am being honest to my path and performing on par with His standards and expectations of me always lingers in my mind.

Interestingly, another experience that convinced me about my choice was when I met several senior executives as part of my doctoral research on gender issues in management. I met top tier managers, vice-presidents, CEOs and managing directors. Each time I would walk into their offices, I would tell myself that I would be perhaps working in an office like them had I not been where I am. I would wonder about their kind of life although I was aware that you cannot draw conclusions with just a visit or two. However, these interactions gave me one more chance to examine whether I still had any doubts on the path I had chosen and whether I felt I was losing out on other good opportunities. This self-questioning process confirmed that my decision was indeed the right one. I also felt that when you focus on yourself and your growth, you actually contribute better to society. It is very easy when you have God with you because He sort of prods you on this inner journey. He is like your conscience cum best friend.

Carrying Sai Values to Corporate India


On another note, during my interactions with all the senior management, I was conscious of the fact that whatever work we do from Swami's institution must conform to best practices and be of top quality as it reflects the veracity of the institution. So I took a lot of trouble to make sure that I was following the protocol wherever it was necessary. Every time I met people, some of them knew of Swami and some did not but the overall response was extremely favourable. I think it is also a bit intriguing for them when they see us attired in sarees; we remain distinctive in that sense. They don't really expect you to come in a saree.

Most often after I finished my interview and put my recorder off, I would have a cross-interview. They would ask me questions about my life, where I come from and what my philosophy is. They would sometimes invite me to lunch to continue with the talk. So in a sense, my persona and work ethics did generate a lot of positive interest. The people who knew about Swami expressed the desire to come and visit the place. Some of them even asked me if they could take classes, speak or interact with our students or visit the institution. They could not believe that education was free of cost and that too top-class. They base their impression from the way we speak or sound. If we are fluent in our articulation and sincere in our beliefs, it reflects on the institution.

I also believe that women bond better and more easily and so it was easy to interact with them all. I was cross-questioning them on their personal life and other things. All this sort of opened the channel for them to ask me questions as well, about why I was there and what my goals were. The one question that I would be often asked was, “How do you manage to retain so many young girls and sustain their interest? We have a lot of problem in having a dress code in the corporate sector itself. How do you manage that? Do they willingly listen? How do you expect so many children to follow what you believe in, without resistance?” I tried explaining that once the children are focused on what we are all about, managing them becomes easy. But they couldn't get that completely.

Coping With the Passage of the Maha Samadhi

I am often asked how I coped in the aftermath of the Maha Samadhi in 2011 and whether that changed anything for me. To answer that question, I will have to go back in time. When I was school-going about 13 or 14 years of age, I had what you would call ‘a spiritual experience’. I do not know how to classify it. It was an ordinary day and I was working at my table in my room. I felt the need to go to a particular place. I used to go for long walks and there was this place where I would see the sun dip down on the valley. When I went and sat there, I had a moment of suspension for a long time. I felt a great amount of love in my heart and I could feel the whole universe breathing around me as if the grass and the trees could speak or breathe. It was a strange experience and felt like a few seconds but when I looked at my watch it was more than half an hour. I came back. I couldn't classify this experience. I didn't speak to anybody about it.

At the time that I joined the Anantapur College, I was reading Sri Aurobindo's works and came across a section on the opening of the heart chakra where he describes a similar experience. I realised it may have been a spiritual experience. But I know, unconsciously or consciously, that this single experience defined to me what happiness is or what joy is or what life should be in some manner that I could not achieve. Sometimes I wonder whether that experience drove all my choices too.

So when I think of Swami, I believe the essence of that experience is Him. Yes, His Form helped me in so many ways. Do I miss it? Yes, I miss it dreadfully. At times, I cannot even imagine how we are able to carry on, from one day to another. But I do know that His Form was the core reality, it wasn't imaginary and some of us have experienced it in a very concrete manner. Perhaps this is why we don't feel a sense of hopelessness even if we have a lot of grief. The grief that we feel is also not the conventional form of grief. It is something apart; it does not consume you completely.

In other words, we all miss that Form but we know it is still somewhere a part of us. Even though we don't vocalise it or may not always act as if it is there, somewhere deep in our hearts we know the Form exists and therefore even grief dissolves after a point and ceases to exist. This realisation that the Form is still with us in one way or another is what gives us strength to carry on and it becomes our source of strength. The more we focus on the loss, the more it undermines everything that He did for us.

In my final comment, what I have noticed over time is that students who come to us definitely gain higher consciousness over time. We don't have Swami's Form with us and it is always a worry whether we can ever inspire students the way He did. None of us can replace God in that sense but I feel heartened when I find the number of students who thirst for His word and yearn to hear about His glory is ever increasing. It is an honour to teach them because it keeps us in the consciousness. Without His Form, it has just become even more important a responsibility to keep that word of God alive not just for ourselves, but for those that are around us and look up to us for direction. Eventually this is what He always wanted - for us to focus on the import of His words and discourses.

Thank you and loving Sai Ram,

- Team Radio Sai

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