I ate only white food on Tuesdays
At 16, the writer left home to join the Sathya Sai Baba ashram in Puttaparthi. This is the story of life in an Indian cult
“Turn around, quickly,” a teacher whispered, flailing her arms at us. We were seated on the floor of the hostel at the Brindavan campus for men in Whitefield, Bengaluru. It was May 1993, and the summer course in Indian culture and spirituality, which ran for a month, was to begin. I was a fresher. We were clad in saris, pallus pulled over our shoulders.
In a reptilian motion, the line of girls flipped around.
“What’s happening?” I whispered to someone next to me who had her head between her knees.
“The boys are passing,” she said.
I started laughing. I got glares.
After the male shuffling on the road behind us had faded, we were allowed to walk to the concourse. The lesson repeated several times during my three years at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prashanti Nilayam, at Puttaparthi, where I studied for my BA degree. Avoid boys, yes, but even more, be keenly conscious that we were “Swami’s students”. It was an honour bestowed on few. I spent much of my time contemplating my toes.
I also spent it keeping maun-vrat for 21 days, eating only white food on Tuesdays, and meditating under trees in self-imposed purification rituals. It was a world without newspapers or television. I left the campus only to go home during term vacations. When I didn’t go home one Diwali, my parents panicked and called Swami, as we students called Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Word was sent. I made a grudging phone call.
Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi sat amongst us, nuclear scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam addressed us, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia performed and the chief minister of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, told us we were lucky. We knew. Amongst them all were we, the students, with the inner-circle “form boys” at the top of the hierarchy, always at Swami’s feet.
How had I, someone who had gone to a British school in Nigeria, and an Irish convent in Kodaikanal, a voracious reader in a liberal home, changed so much in three years? When I was in class VI, my mother began to attend bhajans at the Sai centre in Lagos. When we settled in Kodaikanal, Sai Baba was building an ashram there. I would visit the site after school, lifting ghamelas of bricks as part of the human chain that put its sweat and faith into the building. In class XII, a friend won a scholarship to study theology in Germany and would send me postcards from her cloister. I too wanted to experience something as drastically removed from my milieu. I applied to the university at Puttaparthi and booked my ticket with my elocution prize money. My mother began to cry. She threw away all the dresses she had been saving up for me, and bought me saris instead.
I leapt wholeheartedly into ashram life. We woke at 4am for suprabhatam, bathed in cold water, had no fans, slept on the floor, and divided labour like a commune. We sang bhajans. I gave speeches about spirituality. But I also stood in line serving food to thousands who had walked miles for one free meal and a sari in the name of Sai Baba. We cleaned latrines in villages and dug canals for water. We rolled laddoos all night. I met a foreigner with a tonsured head who ate a bowl of green chillies every day as tapasya (penance). But, mostly, we sat in lines and adored Swami in the way Indians are able to adore divinity in anyone who claims to have it. He pulled vibhuti (ash), medallions, watches, rings from his hands. He joked with us, accepted our letters to him, and cared when we ran a fever. He did good things. The differently-abled sat at the back. In the public quadrant, everyone sought relief from life.
Prashanti Nilayam was a temple to some. To us, it was just home.
This was the great hall of all being well—outside it, nothing ever was. Many came because the college only charged a food fee of Rs6,000. There was sufficient to eat. It was safe. Parents saw it as a simple exchange: spirituality for a safe education. What was the harm in that?
Last week, I looked at visuals of the rioting mob in Panchkula, in Haryana, on television and wondered how many of my friends would have been similarly broken if news like that had hit home. It had once.
In June 1993, when I was at the institute, there had been a midnight attack on Swami. When we sat for darshan in the morning, we didn’t know the details.
Four intruders were said to have barged into the ashram, killing two attendants of Swami before being killed by the police. Swami was unharmed, and despite an initial police report, the case was eventually dropped. One of the assailants was a student, which made the betrayal worse. The attack was seen within the ashram as an act of ingratitude. It was a “test” of our loyalty. Our faith could not be shaken.
In his Guru Purnima discourse, Swami attributed the attack to “jealousy”. We never spoke of it again. It was only years later that I had distance enough to say, even to myself, that he ought to have held himself up to the same standards he taught us—probity and integrity. Seeing the investigation to its logical, legal conclusion would have been the right thing to do. Several commentators have since remarked that the silence of ashram insiders at the time was frustrating. It left a crime with no clear conclusion. No one was accountable to the law for the six people who died that day. It also allowed rumours of abuse to circulate.
Disciples of gurus seem unable to confront allegations with the equanimity reserved for less mundane challenges. In 2013, while reporting on the Asaram rape allegations, I was locked into a room at the Indore ashram by irate devotees. Rioting followers of convicted rapist Gurmeet Singh have killed 38 people in Panchkula. Though allegations had never come to trial at the Sathya Sai ashram, we responded with “a dignified silence”, i.e., without addressing the charges. Within ashrams, devotion seems to absolve devotees from loyalty to the law. Any institution that puts God above the Constitution is a bubble that must be popped.
By the time my final year arrived, my experiential itch had scratched itself. Deciding where to go wasn’t an option for many. Several were married before they left college. One friend from Sikkim, who had been there since kindergarten, didn’t know how to cross the road. Another wanted to know if she would get pregnant if she looked at a man. A friend confessed to being lesbian but was married off anyway. Several married into the families of other devotees.
I emerged so incapable of integrating into the world that though I had aced the common admission test (CAT) in 1996, I failed to pursue my options. My brother, fed up when he saw me unable to answer the phone (we were not allowed to answer phone calls at the hostel, a messenger intercepted them, and incoming letters were screened), dropped me one day at what is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. He told me to find my way to St Xavier’s college, pay the fees for the journalism course and find my way home. I cried all the way. Of course, journalism changed me.
Still, I remain grateful for Puttaparthi. It lent me an exposure to scriptural texts. I had varied company: Farmers’ daughters whose weddings had been called off because their parents couldn’t pay the agreed dowry after the Odisha cyclone in 1999 damaged their crops. The niece of the Italian prime minister. It exposed me to classical music. Meditating for hours lent me fortitude. The last time I saw Swami was in 2000. I returned for the Mahasamadhi in 2011 and sat with my fellow students near the casket. Across the hall from me sat an uncontrollably sobbing Sachin Tendulkar.
Why are people drawn to gurus? Hunger, grief, despair propel them. It can be lack of affordable medical care or educational options. Frustration with blockades of caste and class. People come fearing for the physical safety of sons (from ragging) and daughters (from sexual harassment). People come because Indians are capable of finding divinity in everything, even a stone, or a tree. Because in this raging storm of a country, a space to be silent is a luxury. But most of all, people come because they want something to believe in. Swami used to tell us, “I give them what they want (miracles) so they will stay for what I want to give them (spirituality).” Our multiple gods exist because we want to believe.
Editor's Picks »
- With fall of the last dove, MPC minutes portend more than one RBI rate hike
- RITES IPO ticks the valuations box, but not the growth one
- Is Reliance Jio really India’s most profitable telecom firm?
- How US-China trade war will affect India
- Dear ICICI Bank board, giving a red card to Chanda Kochhar is not enough