Some years ago, after a few Westerners had encountered Sri Sathya Sai Baba, news of Sai started to spread here and there in America. One by one, a few centers were organized. These centers came into being with a very limited background of the Sai teachings and with no guidance whatsoever. It was only natural and to be expected, that procedures and practices developed in these centers which were typical of the American society, customary in America and fully acceptable to the public. Only very recently were we told, much to our surprise, that practices normal to us were contrary to Sai principles.
In 1975, during the Birthday Festival at Prasanthi Nilayam, a decision was taken to organize a unified family of Sathya Sai Baba Centers of America. Standards for conduct of American Centers were given to the newly formed Sri Sathya Sai Central Committee of America, by Bhagavan, and a description of these new standards was mailed out to organizations and individuals in the early part of 1976. In September of the same year, I started to tour the Centers, very uncertain and with considerable anxiety as to what I might find.
On tour, to my very great amazement and to my delight, I found that the Americans had quickly grasped the significance of the new standards for Centers and Members and that, already, almost without exception, the new standards had been put into force. As I talked with devotees in the various cities, they would say, again and again, that they were happy to learn about the practices that were pleasing to Bhagawan, because their first desire was to behave in a way that would please him.
The customary practices so promptly abandoned by Centers and Members represented major changes. For example: One couple had a school for meditation and spiritual living that produced substantial income. But, the income was put aside without hesitation and the instruction was thereafter free! A lady President of a Center in another City had a facility that was leased and furnished at personal expense. However, the livelihood of herself and two children depended on her Yoga Classes. When she learned of the new standards, she very sweetly gave up the cherished and honoured office of the Center President and merged the Center with a neighbouring one, to make a unified Sai Organization for the metropolitan area. For many centers there was a sharp drop in new membership applications and loss of income from book and picture sales, because of the cessation of newspaper and other advertising. For many Centers also, there was a heavy loss in attendance from people who had been coming to meetings to enjoy the interesting discussions of visiting Yogis and Gurus.
To my mind the radical and costly changes in practice, so willingly made as soon as Bhagawan's standards were known, represents genuine devotion in practice not a devotional idea, but, real devotion to Bhagavan in every day practical life. Moreover, most of these people have never been to India and have not had Sai Darshan.
This was my first experience of Sai devotion throughout America, and to say that I was `surprised' would be to put it mildly. From where is this deep and vital devotion to Bhagawan arising? He has not been to America and most of His devotees have not been to India! Why do so many of these people, at once and of their own volition, give up personal advantage, once they see the light of Sai Standards and why do others not do so? These and other questions puzzle my mind; there are factors at work here that are too mysterious and too deep for my limited comprehension. One man, recently returned from his first visit to Baba, put it very well. It was his wife who wanted to go. He was willing to take her, but was always making joking remarks to her about her Swami. Now he has stopped joking and he said, "I really don't understand it all, but, I can tell you one thing, Sathya Sai Baba is not like you and me!"
I can put forward a couple of possibilities, but, they may be wide of the mark and no doubt fall short of identifying the basic factors involved, but, at least they have a base of observed facts.
I said that Bhagavan had not been to America. Everyone is sure this is true, but, I wonder if this is the actual fact. Here are some examples of what I mean, things that have happened recently, not alone, by themselves, but always in the circumstance of Sai groups, or a Sai devotee. At a Center in Chula Vista, Bhajans were being sung by assembled devotees. As in most American Centers. there was a chair for Baba by the altar with His picture against the back. The cushion of the chair was, as always, immaculately smooth, with not even the shadow of a wrinkle in the cloth. Yet, when Bhajans were over, every one present (including myself) could clearly observe the cushion of the chair with a very plain depression where some one had been seated. Was Baba with us seated in His chair?
At a Center in Santa Ana, the last song was the Vibhuti bhajan. Then, as usual, there was about `ten minutes of meditative silence'. During this silence, a chorus of extremely sweet musical voices could be heard singing the Vibhuti bhajan! I opened my eyes and carefully examined my mind, but, the sweet voices continued without stop, until it was time for the meditation to end and for me to give a brief talk. I could see from the faces of the devotees that, very likely, I was not the only one to hear the sweet voices singing. Wherever Bhagawan may be, Bhajans are sung by His devotees. Did the sweet voices singing the Vibhuti bhajan denote Swami's presence there with us?
There is a lady devotee who cares for her aged mother in a Californian town. She brought a present of mother's favorite perfume. Coming into the bedroom a little later, she asked mother, "Where is the perfume?" The mother replied, "I hid it, because that woman (pointing to a picture of Bhagawan) came and took it and was sprinkling it."
Can we be so sure that Bhagawan is in India and has not visited America? His Divine presence evokes a deep faith in Indians. Can it be that Bhagawan's presence is also here in America and it is that, which is evoking a deep faith in Americans?
Another example of faith arising: A dozen families live on our Hill, in Mexico, which slopes away to the Pacific Ocean about 300 feet below. Most of the people are retired Americans. There are one or two Mexican families. The hill itself is not of solid rock but is a sedimentary ocean floor uplift, and thus, a mass of sand, boulders, clay, seashells etc. A recent vertical cut for a new highway weakened the hill and, in September 1976, it started to move towards the ocean. Before long, two full houses had fallen and other houses broke in half. Authorities ordered all remaining houses evacuated, because government geologists said that all the houses would be destroyed by the earth movement. At the time of this critical juncture, I was scheduled to depart on the tour of Sathya Sai Baba Centers and would have to leave my wife to face the trouble by herself. Something had to be done and what else could it be, but prayer to Bhagawan?
In our prayer, we asked that Bhagawan save, not only our house, but, the houses of our neighbours as well. When I returned home from tour, I was somewhat nervous since there are no telephones and I had been unable to get any news. I knew we had prayed to Baba but, nevertheless, it is a measure of my weakness that I was anxious for news.
To my relief, all the remaining houses were as before! The geologists were measuring the hill each day and were quite unable to understand why part of the hill was continuing to move, but, where the houses were, the hill was stationary and had not moved even a fraction of an inch. Of course, they did not know about the prayer, nor did they know that we had affixed a beautiful picture of Bhagawan to a window, directly facing the dangerous ocean!
While I was away, the neighbours had found out and they too refused to move from their houses. They knew nothing of Baba except for a few words from us from time to time, but, they knew that we had prayed to Baba for their homes. That was enough. Now, they are asking, "Is Baba coming this month"? The neighbours had Darshan of Baba because of their homes on the hill. They were totally unknowing of Baba, yet faith has arisen in their hearts and minds, now that they see with their own eyes that their houses have not moved.
Americans are, in fact, having the Darshan of Sai in a most subtle mode. Any one may say that Sai devotion is surely there in America.