Sai Baba, Avatar
by Mary Lynn Adzema
"Whenever spirituality is in decay and ignorance flourishes, O Arjuna,
then I reincarnate myself. For the deliverance of the good, for the destruction
of the evil-doers, for the establishment of righteousness, I take birth
from age to age. He who realizes the divine truth concerning my birth and
life is not born again, and when he leaves his body, he becomes one with
These immortal words of the Bhagavad Gita resound in my heart as
I write them. For myself, and for millions of others on Earth, they have
a special meaning because of our experiences of a holy being alive in India
today, Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
Sathya Sai Baba’s physical domain appears to be an ashram known as
Prasanthi Nilayam, literally, "the Abode of Highest Peace," situated in
the small hamlet of Puttaparthi some one hundred miles north of the thriving
city of Bangalore in south India. Those of us who have been drawn into
Sai Baba’s orbit have come to realize over the years through many, many
experiences—not only in his physical presence but also those occurring
in our lives wherever we may be thousands of miles away from his physical
presence—that he is an Avatar, an incarnation of God.
A heretical concept, perhaps, to many Americans brought up in the
Judeo-Christian tradition; but then again, maybe not—for we live on a shrinking
planet. Thanks to the force of telecommunications and an emerging new paradigm,
the old walls and divisions erected by humans against their sisters and
brothers in other religions and other cultures are slowly but irrevocably
crumbling. And so perhaps we can look at the word Avatar for a moment in
its Indian context. For on this ancient subcontinent of India, the cradle
of so many of the world’s great religions, spirituality has been a science
for thousands of years; and the concept of Avatar as the descent of the
Divine in human form is understood. Thus reverence has been paid for many
centuries to such holy beings as Krishna, Rama, Guru Nanak, the Buddha,
Kabir, Jesus Christ—and many others. A more recent manifestation was Ramakrishna
Paramahamsa—a Godman who lived shortly before the turn of the century—whose
brilliant emissary, Vivekananda, spoke at the Parliament of Religions in
Chicago in 1900, introducing many Americans for the first time to the richness
and universality of Vedanta.
And so, given the criteria—omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence,
all-lovingness, the power to transform people’s hearts, and so on—it is
understood that, now, today, in India, there walks an Avatar, Sri Sathya
Sai Baba. I begin by sharing some of the historical background, resonant
with poetry and synchronicity, that surrounds the birth of this great being.
The state of Andhra Pradesh in India where Puttaparthi, the birthplace
of Sathya Sai Baba, can be found is a land steeped in the sacred, sanctified
over centuries by the lives of many saints and sages. The one Sai Baba
himself has mentioned as part of the divine causal chain leading to his
birth is Venkhatavaduta—a reclusive saint of the area, who had prayed years
earlier that God himself might be born in the region to reestablish dharma
But why the little village of Puttaparthi? (Which means, by the way,
"ant hills"). In ancient times Puttaparthi had been known as Gollapalli,
the place of cowherds, and it was the playground of Krishna. That is, until
one day, an unfortunate cowherd killed a snake who had been taking the
milk from his favorite cow. But the cowherd had not realized that the snake
was actually Krishna Himself, playing in the form of a snake! So from that
time on the place was cursed. A once lush area was reduced to a desert-like
condition, covered with ant hills (hence the name Puttaparthi). At the
time of Baba’s birth the villagers had been making efforts to restore the
sanctity of their place; two temples had been built and dedicated to Krishna.
How appropriate that Sai Baba should be born in a place where converge,
in a sense, the streams of two spiritual dynasties: the solar, originating
with the incarnation of Rama as the embodiment of righteousness and truth;
and the lunar, or Yadava clan, originating with Krishna and embodying brilliance
or genius. Sai Baba chose to be born into this solar dynasty into a clan
with the name Ratnakara Raju. Raju means sovereign and ratnakara means
ocean of jewels or gems.
In ancient days when Gollapalli had been a fortified city, his forebears
had been members of the kshatriya or warrior caste. Over the centuries
some, including his clan, the Ratnakara Raju clan, had left the warrior
trade and had become poet-preachers. Thus Sai Baba’s own grandfather, the
saintly Kondamaraju, had been such; he had learned the entire Indian epic,
the Ramayana, by heart and would recite it for the edification of the villagers.
Sai Baba would be the fourth child, and second son, born to Pedda
Kondamma Raju and Easwaramma; and he would be named Satyanarayana—meaning
"Truth: the refuge of man"—in honor of this aspect of Vishnu to which his
mother and grandmother had paid homage in months of faithful ritual worship
prior to his birth. Thus would be fulfilled a prophesy made centuries and
centuries earlier when the great sage, Markandeya, told the Pandava Brothers
during their forest exile about a talk he had had with Lord Vishnu, (one
of the Hindu Trinity, and that aspect of Godhead which takes form as Avatar
on earth to preserve the balance of dharma, or righteousness, from age
to age). This great sage had relayed Lord Vishnu’s prophesy that the Light
would come to Earth when the evils of the Kali Yuga had reached a point
requiring the direct intervention of God. Thus he had said: "In the Kali
age of sin I will assume an Avatar form that is dark in color. I will be
born in a family in south India. This Avatar will possess great energy,
great intelligence, and great powers. Material objects needed for this
Avatar’s mission will be at his disposal as soon as he will think of them.
He will be victorious with the strength of virtue. He will restore order
and peace in the world."
This prophecy was echoed in the ancient classic, the Vishnu Purana,
which further added: "His parents will be devotees of Vishnu and will reside
in a village worshipping the cowherd form of Sri Krishna." And so Sathya
Sai Baba was born, amidst miraculous signs and happenings, on 23 November
1926. The great sage of Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo, on that day became
aware of what he termed "the descent of the Supramental Power on Earth,
the descent of him whose birth would give the evolution of humanity a needed
impetus toward the light." On the 24th, to celebrate this event which he
had intuited, he went into solitude.
On the last day of a recent visit to Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s Ashram
in Puttaparthi, four of us climbed the hill to the "wish-fulfilling tree,"
where Sai Baba as a boy of seven had delighted in manifesting any fruit
his companions wished. From that same tree had come pears, persimmons,
oranges, and all manner of sweets and fruits that his boyhood friends had
desired. As we climbed to the top of that hill, we could gaze out over
the entire area. Once a humble and all but unknown village, now in all
directions there stretched the material manifestation of this Avatar’s
purpose: the many buildings to house visiting devotees; the Poornachandra
Auditorium which holds eleven-thousand devotees; the Stadium where various
school and sporting events take place; the Institute of Higher Learning;
the primary and secondary schools; the Planetarium; the eight-million dollar
super high-tech hospital where the entire range of medical care from sophisticated
surgeries on down is offered, free; the airstrip to accommodate VIPs arriving
by plane (Government officials and dignitaries from not only India but
from many nations now flock to seek the blessings and advice of the Avatar);
and on and on. Now, next to the humble village a small city exists, a living
monument, and a continuous beehive of spiritual fervor and activity—the
concrete manifestation of Sai Baba’s mission of educating humanity.
There is too little space in the context of this article to do justice
to the depth and breadth of Sai Baba’s mission. Briefly, it is threefold.
His organization, the Seva Dal (seva means service), is one wing—which
performs deeds of mercy, succor, and service throughout India. One task
it has undertaken is the uplift and rejuvenation, both spiritual and material,
of some six-thousand villages in rural India. These tasks range from installing
water pipes for irrigation purposes to establishing schools and promoting
spiritual uplift through bhajans (devotional songs).
Over and over again in his discourses to his followers and visitors
to the ashram, Sai Baba emphasizes the importance of service, in this Kali
yuga or age of darkness in which we find ourselves, more than meditation,
chanting the name of God, and a variety of spiritual practices (all of
which he does also encourage, but to a lesser degree, as means of self
purification). For service is love in action, Sai Baba has said. He has
remarked that it is "the highest form of spiritual discipline; there is
no discipline equal to service to smother the ego and fill the heart with
genuine joy. When you serve man, you serve God." Again and again when devotees
ask in the course of an interview with him: "Baba, what shall I do?" He
responds simply: "Love all. Serve all."
The second wing in Sai Baba’s threefold mission is education. He
has created and fostered " Education in Human Values"—a program for inculcating
the values of Peace, Love, Truth, Nonviolence, and Right Action; a program
which has now been adopted by the government of India and is being incorporated
in the curriculum of every elementary school in the nation. Sai Baba’s
EHV program, as it is called, is also taking root in other lands—in Europe,
Australia, and here in the United States—as his followers seek to remedy
the materialism and overly scientistic nature of education today.
Another way to express the curriculum of human values which Sai Baba
as cosmic educator par excellence has come to impart to humanity is, as
he says: "Love, plus Truth, plus Peace, plus Right Action, plus Nonviolence
equals God." And, like Jesus Christ before him, Baba emphasizes love as
the royal road to God. He has said: "Love as thought is truth; as action,
it is right action; as emotion, it is peace; as understanding it is nonviolence."
Finally, the third part of Sai Baba’s mission has taken form in the
more than ten-thousand Sai Baba Centers worldwide—the vehicle which the
Avatar has created for the uplift of his followers, providing the means
for them to come together for mutual reinforcement on the path through
devotional singing, meditation, and involvement in community service projects.
The Sai centers also serve as places where information about Sai Baba and
his teachings is shared with the public at large. In keeping with Sai Baba’s
message of universality, the members of these centers come from diverse
religious backgrounds. He himself has said that he has not come to found
a new religion, but rather to strengthen devotees on whatever path they
have chosen. Hence one of his most well-known statements: "Let the different
faiths exist, let them flourish and let the glory of God be sung in all
the languages and in a variety of tunes. That should be the Ideal. Respect
the differences between faiths and recognize them as valid as long as they
do not extinguish the flame of unity."
On a personal note, let me share some experiences of Sai Baba’s all-knowingness,
his unfathomable love, and his sense of humor, too, which lift the curtain
for a moment on this sublime mystery we call the Avatar.
For example, around the time we were planning our visit to Sai Baba’s
ashram, which took place in late October several years ago, my son, David
(who happens to love Halloween), had said to me: "Mom, you’re going to
miss out on Halloween!" Even though he was twenty-five at the time, David,
as an artist, has always had the playful and childlike quality that so
many artists have; and so his remark was not surprising to me. But apparently
Sai Baba was listening to our conversation.
This became clear after the astounding experience of our first interview
with Baba on this trip; an interview in which many of us were brought to
tears of joy by his love and all-knowingness, and in which he materialized
not only the usual lockets and earrings and vibhutti (sacred healing ash)
but during which he connected with each of us in a uniquely personal way.
After this incredible experience, on our way back to Bangalore in the taxi,
I turned to my friends, Claire and Ursula, and said: "Good heavens, do
you realize what day it is? It’s Halloween!" We were all somewhat giddy
with the experience of the interview—still in orbit you might say—and so
it wasn’t surprising when Claire remarked: "Yes, and there was Baba dressed
up as a pumpkin!" (Baba wears an orange robe, the traditional color of
renunciation in India.) And I added, "Yes, and he had his bag of treats"
(the bag of vibhutti packets Baba always has available to give to devotees
at the end of an interview). And so it went, with much joy and laughter
all the way into Bangalore.
On a more serious note, when one journeys to India to see the Form,
it is a powerful experience. Sai Baba is always ready to serve as a mirror,
if you will, to reflect back to us our own divinity. And in recent years,
he has been emphasizing more and more a central theme of his message, which
is: You are all God, but you have simply forgotten. You seem to prefer
the "game of hide and seek" in a body. Unwilling to give up your illusion
And so, in addition to the power and glory of the physical form,
there is this formless, reflective aspect. I will give an example. On a
particular day, which was, in fact, several days before we would have our
interview with Swami, I was meditating in the darshan area. We were seated
in lines as is the custom, waiting for the first person in our line to
draw a number which would determine our order of seating in the bhajan
hall. (Nowadays so many thousands frequent the ashram, that this policy
of forming lines and drawing numbers has been instituted to avoid the chaos
and scramble which would otherwise ensue.) In my meditation a glorious
aura of peace and light had permeated my mind. I was thinking, "Baba, it
doesn’t really matter if we get a ‘lucky’ number and sit up front in the
bhajan hall—we are all brothers and sisters here; we are one." And I was
deeply sincere while thinking this; it was an incredibly blissful experience
Well, just a few minutes later, our line leader drew number one!
And this gave me the precious opportunity to give Baba the letters I had
brought from home from other devotees, including my son, who was suffering
from emotional problems at the time. My son’s letter was on the top of
the pile which Baba carried back with him to his chair. He then waved his
hand lovingly for the bhajans to begin. The very first bhajan to be sung
(out of a repertoire of literally hundreds that are sung at the ashram)
was none other than my son’s special favorite—one we had so often sung
together at home. Tears of joy and gratitude filled my eyes and coursed
down my cheeks. I’m sure anyone watching would have wondered what brought
about this display of fervor. But in my heart was this unique and powerful
proof of Baba’s love and omniscience. He and I, my son, all of us—are one
. . . there is nothing to fear. . . Unity is indeed Divinity.
Sai Baba has said: "Do not limit me to this physical form; I am beyond
fathom. If you experience my love, you will come away with some understanding
of my being." And so I would urge all of you who are reading these words
to investigate for yourself this phenomenon—this holy being who walks the
earth today, giving and giving twenty-four hours a day, teaching humankind
once again the ancient truths.
Perhaps I can conclude by sharing the highlights of a discourse Sai
Baba gave while we were visiting his ashram on this recent trip. He told
us—both visitors to the ashram and his beloved students attending the Sri
Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning: "Man needs devotion to God. Bhakti
or devotion is the most important element in man’s life. God permeates
the entire Universe and every living thing in it."
He went on to say that the Bhagavad Gita is the very core of the
Upanishads, which in turn represent the heart of the Vedas. The Gita sets
forth three paths: action, devotion, and wisdom. They are separate at first,
but they are related. And as the aspirant progresses, they become one.
Baba told us that our means for proceeding on the path are, the hand, kept
ever occupied in selfless service; the tongue, which must avoid gossip
and backbiting and occupy itself in saying the name of God and singing
devotional songs; and the mind. Each of these instruments must be kept
pure and observe a certain degree of self-control in order to serve God.
Baba continued by saying that faith is the foundation of spiritual
life. With faith, love follows; with love, truth (or wisdom) dawns. And
this in turn is the basis for bliss, followed by union with God. Humans
are everywhere searching for bliss, says Baba; but it can only be found
within, by living the life of devotion to God.
In addition to purity and self control, Sai Baba exhorted his students
and us "good people" listening to him to render selfless service to the
old and the helpless, the sick and the needy (interestingly enough, earlier
that day while an Indian wedding at which Sai Baba was officiating was
taking place, he held a feeding of the poor). Baba next advised all to
take up the practice of repeating the Lord’s name (any form of the Lord
that is pleasing to us). We must say the name with full concentration and
devotion; for God only responds to love. Indeed all the points he mentioned
revolve around and depend upon the vital element of love.
Sai Baba concluded his talk to us by emphasizing the importance of
unity—unity of thought, word, and action; and he explained how this principle
of unity is the mark of the true aspirant. At one point he held up his
hand, using it as an example: "Each finger is different, and yet all work
together." He mentioned the five kosas or sheaths which comprise a person:
starting with the physical body, sustained by food; the vital energy body;
the mind; the higher intelligence; and the bliss sheath, which is the final
veil between a person and the highest state of consciousness or Godhead.
Then again he made a call for unity based on an appreciation of differences
among people—their capacities and their roles in life—while emphasizing
how they work together for the common good.
As I listened to his words, I was experiencing that divine synchronicity
which occurs so often in Sai Baba’s relationships with his devotees. Once
again, Baba was being my cosmic mirror. For in explaining the principle
of Divinity which sustains the balance in our many-layered energy system,
he was reiterating a theme we had spent several months discussing in our
Santa Barbara Sai Center study-circle meetings.
I will conclude with a metaphor that Sai Baba shared with us near
the close of our second interview with him on Deepavali Day, November 9th.
This interview at Prasanthi Nilayam had a special significance for us.
In Hinduism, Deepavali Day commemorates the triumph of good over evil in
humans; the light of the Atma (the God within) vanquishing the darkness
of ignorance. During his discussion with all of us he had used many metaphors,
but he closed with one I now realize was especially appropriate for that
festival day. You may remember how the Buddha said: "Be a lamp unto yourselves,
and earnestly seek your salvation." Baba told us: "Be like the lamp. The
current is Truth; the wire, bringing Truth into manifestation, is Dharma
(right action); the bulb is Peace; and the light is Love."
Some recommended books about
Sri Sathya Sai Baba:
Note: Click on book title
or its cover icon for more info on book, including how to purchase.
The works above are recommended and readily available books about Sathya
Sai Baba. However, there are literally hundreds of books by or about
this Godman. For those wishing a deeper look into this phenomenon,
the resource below has the most extensive selection of Sai Baba works available
in the U.S., including collections of his discourses and teachings.
The Sathya Sai Book Center of America
305 West First Street
Tustin, California 92680
Phone: (714) 669-0522 or Fax: (714) 669-9138.
Note: A version of this article
was originally published in The Rose Garden 2(1), July-September
MARY LYNN ADZEMA is a long-time devotee
of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. She has an M.A. in Consciousness Psychology, an
A.B.D. in Philosophy, and over thirty-years involvement in yogic and Eastern
spiritual practices. She wrote a chapter for and co-edited a book about
the experiences of Sai Baba devotees titled Transformation of the Heart.
She has taught psychology at the
university level and has published on the topics of psychology and spirituality. Mary Lynn
has received training with Stanislav Grof in holotropic breathwork and with
various people in primal therapy. Having served with the International Primal
Association on it Board of Directors and as Assistant
Editor of the publications, Primal Renaissance: The Journal of Primal
Psychology, a professional journal of psychology, and Primal
Spirit: The Deeper Wave of the New Age, a magazine; she now serves as
Assistant Editor of those some publications in their reincarnation on this
website, and as consulting editor for Primal Spirit
website in its umbrella-role for those publications plus all its other
facets. Most importantly, she serves as Assistant Director of the newly
opened Primal Spirit Center for Human
Evolution, offering primal breathwork, primal therapy, a community of
healing -- to name its major intentions. Mary Lynn's extended bio can be
found at Mary Lynn Adzema's Writings. She can
be contacted at P.O. Box 1348, Guerneville, CA 95446-1348; phone:
(707) 869-9008; e-mail: email@example.com.