Volume 18 - Issue 03
March 2020
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Posted on: Mar 14, 2020


Why the Prasanthi Setup is Perfect for Our Spiritual Growth

I have been away from India living overseas for over 40 years. In the last number of years, I have been visiting Puttaparthi every year during Guru Poornima. Usually, my stay in the ashram has not been for more than 9 or 10 days. This year (2019), I decided to spend 3 months here, which happens to be the longest I have ever been at Prasanthi (and India). The experience of sitting in the Kulwant Hall for Veda and Bhajans twice every day has been not only blissful but also quite insightful.

I realised how perfectly Swami has set up the ashram to minimise distractions and put God first, at least for those few hours in the day. Prasanthi is set up to teach us we are not the body or the mind, something Swami has repeatedly told us, but difficult for us to grasp. It is set up to teach us not to take too seriously, our irritations, judgments and conditioning of the mind with all its likes and dislikes.

The Dress Code

First of all, we are all required to be well covered in terms of our dressing, regardless of the heat. We are to ensure that the clothing is not revealing and is modest, and thus we don’t cause even fleeting thoughts about our looks to others around, and that our attention too is not drawn to the physical and having our mind whir without us being aware.

The sevadals are there to consistently and strictly enforce the dress code for both men and women. They are very good at that and never miss anyone. If the saree is not draped properly, they will gently tell you. If the salwar has no sleeves, they will send you back. Even if you carefully cover with the dupatta (a long shawl) and think they may not notice, they never fail to spot a sleeveless salwar! This, I know from personal experience!

This also means that from the time I arrive at Puttaparthi, I can look forward to constant sweating. Sitting on the hard floor for several hours every day can be trying. The walk from the ashram room to the Sai Kulwant Hall can be a long one depending upon where one’s room is, especially in the heat. Where I normally stay is on the 4h floor, with no elevator facilities. A good exercise under normal conditions, but in intense humidity and heat, it is another thing. I consider this immense sweating a cleansing for the body and the mind and welcome it. In fact, one of Ayurvedic panchakarma treatments is Swedana - sweating. (Most of us have to go to the gym to work up a sweat, in our normal lives).

As I carry my small purse and the most essential hand fan and walk all the way, I have already worked up a sweat even when walking quite slowly and especially right after a cool shower just a few minutes before. Some people carry cushions to sit on, yet I refrain from that as it means I need to carry one more thing all the way. Less luggage makes travel a ‘pleasure’, Swami says. In this case, less cumbersome!

From Patient Tolerance to Loving Acceptance

I love chanting the Vedas, as well as singing bhajans, so I go there in time for Vedas when very few people are in the hall. As I sit on the hard-cool floor, I ignore the aches, pains and discomfort. Soon I immerse myself in chanting and singing and the pain is not felt. This is how Swami trains us to not pay too much attention to every whim and whine of the body and mind.

As if to test me one day, Swami sent a lady who squeezed herself in between me and the next person, though clearly there was not much room. Not only that, there was plenty of room in the back to sit comfortably. But she decided to sit by me! So people shifted and sat closer and this person ended up making herself comfortable, sitting with one knee on mine, adding to my discomfort with radiating heat, not to talk of getting too close into my personal space. I looked at Swami and asked him what was that about. He responded saying, that was to teach me forbearance and endurance. ‘Ok Bhagawan’, I said and turned to the lady sitting so close to me and smiled in acceptance.

In India, there is no such thing as personal space. Beggars on the street while begging will touch you and ask for alms. They will follow you and keep nagging you. This is something I have disliked so much that I never ventured out of the ashram before this year. This year, I learnt, not simply tolerance, but acceptance. I gently and firmly said no and did not shrink away from their touching and following. When they sensed that they don’t bother me, they left me alone. These are little incidents with large lessons to overcome Raga and Dwesha (likes and dislikes of the ego). That is Prasanthi, and Swami’s way of teaching us endurance, tolerance, and acceptance, and that discomfort is only for the body and the mind. We are not the body or mind. When the mind can overcome its preconditioned expectations, then Sai smiles. When we give joy to Sai, He will not let us fail (these are His words and His promise).

Yet, I am reflecting on what drives me to get up and go for darshan morning and evening without fail. I don’t always stand in line to get close to the Sannidhi for pranams. I feel His presence wherever I sit in the Sai Kulwant Hall. He is on that chair and His energy does surround us - as He says, “I am in you, with you, around you, below you, above you”. There is a powerful energy that I feel when I tune in, coming from the floor wherever I am sitting as if embracing me. That is the power of His presence and benevolence.

Praying as One Big Family

There are hundreds of us and thousands on weekends and special days when all the students join in. The hall reverberates with everyone singing and clapping. I love to listen to the young voices of the students. Their high-pitched Veda chanting is so inspiring. As I join in, I realise that this is the whole purpose of why we all have been created. Swami has told us, “I separated Myself from Myself to love Myself”. When we all sit in the Sai Kulwant Hall or in Sai Centers and sing to Him, that is what we are doing - loving Him. He is our only thought. This is true Satsang.

I am reminded of a Bhagavad Gita verse, where Lord Krishna explains that a yogi sees action in inaction and inaction in action. (Ch 4.18 karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśhyed akarmaṇi cha karma yaḥ, sa buddhimān manuṣhyeṣhu sa yuktaḥ kṛitsna-karma-kṛit). Sitting in prayers communing with God may seem like ‘inaction’ for most people. But to a yogi that is real action and all that work we do daily for the upkeep of the body/mind is inaction. Prasanthi is built for real action as defined in this verse.

There is an immense exchange of love between all of us and Swami building tremendous energy and spreading far and wide, and staying with us as we carry the energy into our lives. The true importance of Satsang and its power cannot be underestimated. All His children joining together with their diverse voices and varied pitches singing with one voice gives such a joy to Swami. His videos are proof of that. We are here to give Him joy and love Him through our singing the names of God.

I heard an incident on Radio Sai about a student. The mother of the student complained to Swami that her son is not studying well and not getting good marks. Swami told her not to worry, this student has given much joy to Him when he performed a role to perfection in a play. Anyone who has given joy to Swami, He said, will not go down in life. This student is now doing very well working in a multinational firm in a good position. If this is all it takes to give joy to Swami then, we can all do so by singing to Him with a heart full of love for Him. This is the purpose of bhajans - to give our love to Swami and fulfil His purpose of why He created us - to Love Himself. Loving Him leads to loving ourselves more, I found.

The Dress Code and Gender Segregation are crucial for Spiritual Growth

Expanding on the subject of dress code at Prasanthi, I can imagine, it may be uncomfortable for some visitors. Swami established for all those who come to His centers around the world and at Prasanthi, a dress code that is designed to promote spiritual growth. How exactly it does that very few of us can explain in a convincing way. Coming from a western country, it is a challenge to strictly enforce the dress code consistently. There are those who argue, justify and rationalise that it is for India and not for them. All arguments arise from our mind due to our own personal desires and external influences which have conditioned our mind. We may be completely convinced that Swami is God and love Him dearly, yet, we find it difficult to follow implicitly whatever He has said without question. The power of our personal desires and mental conditioning by the environment is so strong!

As Sai Centers around the world get more and more people dropping in, which Swami Himself has said will happen, we the old-time devotees and office bearers need to have a convincing way of explaining the reasons behind the dress code, men and women sitting separately, especially to young adults and newcomers. At a time when Swami’s physical form is not here for us to approach and ask Him directly, we have to rely on the hundreds and thousands of discourses, experiences of students and devotees and Sai books. Yet, they only give you information. To be able to convincingly explain the reason for the dress code and gender separation to others, one must believe and follow oneself, in order to gain insight as to the reasons. This requires implicit obedience to His words. We all know that nothing Swami has said is without reason, even though we may not understand it with our minds.

Sitting in the Sai Kulwant Hall for hours everyday, and walking around the ashram, I realised there was not even once a passing thought about someone’s figure, shape or looks that crossed my mind. This frequently happens to us outside, at work or the mall or elsewhere, most times subliminally. We may not be aware. The mind automatically notices the clothes, the colours, the looks, the fashion and absorbs and analyses what it sees, inadvertently. They say, first impressions are made in 8 seconds! We are not even aware of what the senses are absorbing.

Here at Prasanthi, women dress beautifully with lovely fragrant jasmine flowers in their hair, but most importantly, they are fully covered, which is the case with men too. So one’s focus automatically goes to the face. Face shows the effulgence of the Atma within. I realised that strict gender separation and dress code sets the appropriate environment for spiritual growth by not distracting the mind away from the Lord. The Prasanthi environment helps the mind easily dwell on the meaning of each bhajan and immerse ourselves in loving Swami - the very purpose of satsang.


A Discipline Dear to Him Must Be Dear to Us

I recall an experience that helped reinforce in my mind the importance of gender separation at satsangs. It was during one of the Guru Poornima celebrations at Prasanthi. I went early to mandir for the Omkar and Suprabatham. Being Guru Poornima, the Sai Kulwant Hall was opened for us early so we can have Swami’s darshan. After the program, I was one of the first ones to get out. Sevadals let me out of the gate, but stopped me from crossing over to get my chappals and leave. They were all in a panic and closed the gate so as to not let more ladies out. Just a few of us were outside. I realized they did not let us go because the men were coming that way doing Nagarsankirtan. I could hear and see them coming at distance. Though somewhat far away, the sevadals would not let me cross over to get my chappals and leave. Not only that, they also told me and others to turn around so we cannot see the men as they pass by. I did as told and faced the gate with my back turned to the men. I wondered why and what harm can there be! I kept pondering on this incident and asked Swami to give me insight.

I suddenly knew that it was because of the energy of my ‘drishti’ (sight) and of the other women’s can distract the men from their focus on Swami and corrupt the nagarsankirtan, even though fleetingly. Nagarsankirtan is meant for purifying the environment and our hearts. Such is the power of the look - the drishti. We have all experienced when someone is watching us from a distance. We suddenly turn and catch that person looking. The senses and mind are very subtle and we are not always aware of such fleeting things that can impact and destroy the environment - internal and external.

I have heard personal accounts from students on how Swami has raised them to develop this mindset from a young age. The boys are expected not to look at girls even when passing on the street. They are supposed to keep their heads down and walk. One student was chided by Swami for waving at his mother on the ladies side of the kulwant hall. Swami explained to this new student that the onlookers will not know that he is waving to his mother, as he is waving in the direction of the ladies. It can set off a string of thoughts in the hundreds who have assembled there, taking their focus away from the purpose of why they are gathered there. Appearances and perceptions are also important for Swami.

He set up the girls college in a completely different town called Anantapur, which is two hours away from Puttaparthi. Sometimes, when Swami went to Anantapur, his male students from Puttaparthi who happened to be with Him would be instructed to keep their gazes down. The boys followed these instructions implicitly, due to their love for Swami.

Let us Make Every Sai Center a Prasanthi

In my current level of understanding, these, I believe are the reasons why Swami has set up Prasanthi and His centers around the world with gender separation and specific dress codes as strict disciplines. He has even said to Dr Hislop in the book, ‘Conversations with Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’, that if people don’t like the restrictions and guidelines, they can go elsewhere; this organisation is not for them. Knowing this is Swami’s stance, we have to do our very best to not only obey, but also convey to others.

I have heard people argue that these are just guidelines and not rules. Swami said that He gives us guidelines because, if He gave us an order (as, in a rule) and we disobey that command, we can incur untold sins for many lifetimes for disobeying God. So, He gives us guidelines, following which allows us to grow in awareness over time. He is ever standing by to help us expand our understanding. He has said that He continuously monitors each of our spiritual progress. How loving and understanding of our failings our compassionate Swami is!

In Prasanthi, most rules are strictly enforced and there is no choice but to follow them. There are separate entrances and seating for men and women, and you are allowed to enter the Sai Kulwant Hall only if you are dressed appropriately. But in centers around the world, in our ignorance, taking the easy way out and resorting to convenient thinking, we may be belittling these guidelines (rules) provided by God Himself. If we did, we would not be giving Swami joy.

He has told us that His organisation will be around for thousands of years and more and more people will come to the centers attracted by the universality of His message. As custodians of His teachings, it is our responsibility to ensure that these guidelines (rules) given by Him are not diluted and corrupted, and preserved for the future generations. We can only do so through our personal example, full understanding of the rules, implicit obedience and complete conviction. We must ensure that by our words, actions and behaviour, we do not inadvertently end up aggravating the sense inclinations of others in our centers. This is why Swami has set up Prasanthi and His organisation this way. Of course, some people may leave as they don’t like the restrictions. We must remember that Swami has always insisted on quality, not quantity.

I pray to our Lord that He gives us all the understanding, the conviction, the faith and the insight to make our Sai centers around the world conducive to the spiritual growth of every person who enters the centers. I pray that all leaders and devotees in the centers are able to lovingly communicate the reasons for the restrictions in a convincing way to others. Thus let us bring joy to Swami.

(The author Ms. Nalina Kumar became attracted to Swami 30 years ago when she heard about His teachings on Unity of Faiths and existence of only One God. Since then, she has become involved in the Sai Center, performing various roles such as SSE Guru, SSE Coordinator and Secretary for the Edmonton, Canada Sai Center. She is also a faculty member of the Canadian Institute of Sathya Sai Education. Professionally, she is a Risk Manager for a Financial Services firm. Presently she serves as the President, Sathya Sai Baba Center of Edmonton, Canada.)

Thank you and loving Sai Ram,
Team Radio Sai

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