Volume 8 - Issue 08
AUGUST 2010
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Swami, the Family Head, Deity and Teacher Supreme

A chronicle on how Swami relentlessly tends to His flock
– Conversation with Mrs. Sumana Murali

Part-1

Sumana Murali, currently residing in New Jersey, USA, was among the early batch of students who joined the SriSathyaSaiPrimary School in Prasanthi Nilayam when it was inaugurated in 1980. She was five years old when she enrolled into Grade 1. Initially very home sick, she found it hard to live away from her parents in Chennai. That was when an intervention from Her Divine Mother Sai came to her rescue.

Sumana completed her primary education up to Grade 5 in Prasanthi Nilayam and continued her middle and high school in Chennai. She returned to SriSathyaSaiUniversity’s Anantapur campus in 1991 and completed her bachelor’s degree in English. She later acquired her Master’s and M. Phil in English from Chennai. Following her marriage, Sumana moved to New Jersey where she earned an Ed. M in Early Childhood and Elementary Education.

She has worked as a pre-kindergarten teacher in New Jersey and been closely associated with the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Centre of East Brunswick where she taught Sathya Sai Education (SSE) for 12 years and served as the centre’s Education Coordinator.

Sumana comes from a family that is deeply committed to Bhagavan Baba and His teachings. She was named by Him and guided through every avenue of her life by Swami. Today, we hope to learn from her what it is to be born and raised in an environment suffused and saturated with the Sai consciousness. The following are excerpts from our conversation with her in March 2010.

 

Radio Sai (RS):   Sai Ram Sumana.
Sumana Murali (SM):  Sai Ram!

RS:  What was it like to be born and brought up in a family that was already devoted to Bhagavan?

SM:   It would be more appropriate to say that it was I who made an entry into Swami’s family; Swami did not enter the family. He chose my parents for me when He performed their wedding in 1972.

 
During the Summer Course on Indian Culture and Spirituality in 1992 Swami blessed every class with a group photo.
Sumana Murali is standing on far left.

On 8 February that year, Swami visited our house for the first time, totally unannounced. It was His house, anyway. So, He just came in and called for my mother who lived in the same neighbourhood as well as my father with my grandparents. He asked them to join Him in the pooja room and got them spiritually married that day.

He even said, “You both take a good look at each other because later on you shouldn’t say Swami got you married. See each other right now.” He then renamed my mother. Her maiden name was Bhagyalakshmi that also happened to be her mother-in-law’s name.

Bhagavan changed her name to Vijayalakshmi saying the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law shouldn’t share the same name. He then gave a mangalasutra (sacred necklace worn by a married lady) to solemnise the marriage with instructions to organise a social gathering on 23 February. According to His word, a social wedding was held that day.

Our family’s connection with Swami goes even further back in time. My grandfather came to Swami during the 1950s and my father first saw him when He was still in school. In that sense, I have been very fortunate to be in a family that has looked up to Swami not just as a guide but as head of the family. Yes, “Head of the Family” - that’s exactly how my father calls Him and makes sure no decision is taken without consulting Him.

RS: Most of your decisions or decision-making are dependent on Bhagavan’s approval?

SM: Yes. We believe we have no need for decision-making as He has already made all the decisions for us. I am the oldest of three siblings and Swami has given us our names and conducted our aksharabhyasam (initiation into learning by drawing the sacred Aumkar) and annaprasanam (ceremony to introduce solid food in the child’s diet).

This is the wedding of Sumana's uncle performed by Bhagavan in 1978. To the right of the bride are her paternal grandparents. Her grandfather was the first to come to Bhagavan's lotus feet in early 1950s. And to him Swami promised that He would take care of the entire family which He has done and continues to do magnificiently till date.
 

Even our ears were pierced by Him. He has graciously accepted us in His schools and colleges and blessed all our weddings. He chose our life partners and has brought us up to this point in our lives. He has been there with us and continues to be there for us every step of our way. He has taken care of every single thing.

RS: Were you aware of His presence even as a child?

SM: Not really. I didn’t know the value of His grace all along although I would look up at Him with love and adoration. To us, He was just another member of the family that we took for granted - not the way I do now - yearning to take my place in the darshan line and waiting for His single glance.

When I was probably a year old, Swami invited my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to Brindavan. It was their sathabhishekam (80th birthday). All four generations assembled in the old Kalyana Mantapam. I hadn’t been named until then as my parents wanted Swami to do the honours.

When Swami called us in, He took the sathabhishekam invitation and looked at it. I actually sat on his lap for over an hour and a half and played around with the oranges that were kept in front of Swami. My father had this huge camera those days; so he stood in the back of the room and was fervently clicking pictures. Swami too happily obliged with all of us in various permutations and combinations. After making sure all were happy, Swami asked for my birth star and said, “I name her Sumana not Suman. It’s a different name. Her name is Sumana.” He wrote my name on the invitation that I still preserve.

After this, He waited for the entire family to leave. Just as my father was making his way out, Swami patted him on his back and said quietly, “You forgot to remove the cover for the camera lens.” Imagine my father’s disappointment!

RS:  Has he got over it at all?

SM: My father regrets it until today. Even last night, he was telling me, “Sumana, I don’t have those pictures for you. All of them are gone and He knew it all the while. He was just humouring us.” But that’s the way Swami has always been, isn’t it?

RS: Any memories of His grace as you were growing up?

 
swami
This was taken on the occasion of the wedding of Sumana's aunt performed in Puttaparthi in 1976. She is in her mother's arms to the right of Swami as her father looks on. Swami presided over the entire function.

SM: Like I said, He would make every single decision for us. Even when it came to my grandfather’s business, my father took it up after him on Swami’s advice. He would caution about the impending bad times and remind him of the good days ahead. The house that we live in at Chennai was bought upon His directions.

I remember He gave me two lockets and said they would protect me. When I was in Grade 8, I had to get my ears pierced from Swami and was extremely scared. I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut anxious about how I would cope with the pain. When nothing happened for some time, I slowly opened my eyes to realise that it was all over. Swami had already pierced my ears and materialised earrings for me.

He asked me, “You didn’t feel anything, did you?” I said, “No, Swami.” And then counting with his fingers, He said, “Just see what all Swami has to do for you. I have to name you, send you to school, get you married, take care of your children; how much work Swami has!”

And that’s just how it has been until today. He has been there every step of the way. That’s not to say we haven’t had challenges. Probably, our family has had more than an average person’s share of worries. But Swami has been our pillar of strength, someone we can look up to and draw energy from knowing that He is there and listening to our prayers or our silent conversations with Him.

RS: So He is listening to this conversation between us now.

SM: Absolutely yes, without a doubt.

RS: With Bhagavan making all the decisions for you, was it liberating or did it ever make you feel that you didn’t have much decision-making power or choice?

SM:  I never felt stifled at any point. He has always been my Swami, a well-wisher and somebody who is constantly looking out for you just as your own parent would.

This is again from Sumana's Uncle's wedding performed by Swami in Brindavan, Bangalore in 1978. She is the little girl with folded hands.
 

Let me give you a small instance. At the time of my marriage, Swami was in Kodai Kanal. So my parents, husband and I went to Kodai to seek His blessings. When Swami came out for darshan, He blessed us with Vibuthi, gave us padanamaskar and left.

Just as we were leaving the darshan grounds, somebody came running with a bag and said, “Swami asked me to give this to you.” To our amazement, inside was a wedding saree. The person said, “There was actually a dhoti for your husband in here. But Swami said, ’When the groom is going to the US, why would he need a dhotiand offered a safari suit instead!” Swami’s statement puzzled us, including my husband, as there was no remote possibility of him leaving for the US. Needless to say, everything fell into place when we returned to Chennai.

My husband’s office called for his passport and, soon after, he left on an assignment. That’s the extent of care Swami showers on you. Even if He had given my husband a dhoti, we would have lovingly embraced it. But Swami takes care of the smallest detail. What more proof did we need that He is indeed the Lord of the Universe?

RS: He gives personal attention to each and every one, doesn’t He?

 
As soon as Swami alighted from His car at their house in Jan 2007, Swami said to Sumana's father, "Didn't I promise you 19 years ago that I will come to your home?"

SM: Yes! He makes every devotee feel loved as though saying “I am here, only for you.” And, that’s why Swami says: “In order to know Me, you have to experience Me. You cannot know Me through somebody else.”

Every single person who knows Swami would have had that personal connection. It would either be through a look, His acceptance of a letter, a message through one of His discourses or through so many other inimitable ways.

It is very personal and touches every devotee at a different level and is not the same for any two individuals.

RS:  How is it to have a family member or head of your family who is so omniscient?

SM: I must have started feeling His omniscience from the time He named me.

 
Sumana's father expresses his deep sense of gratitude as Swami graciously climbs the ramp of their house

When I look back at all the situations and incidents in my life with relation to Swami, I am convinced nothing is random or was a coincidence.

For instance, the two lockets that He gave me fell off the chain that He wanted it to be on. My father refused to repair them for me and said, “It’s between you and Swami. Whenever you get the chance, you can ask Swami to fix the lockets for you.” When I did get the opportunity, I asked Him about it and Swami replied, “You don’t need them anymore. Whenever you need Me, think of Me and I will be there.” And He pointed to His heart and said, “I am here. Just think of Me and I am there.”

So, all the tangible reference points that I once had are no longer with me now, and yet I feel His presence more than ever now despite staying out of India for more than 13 years.

RS: How did it feel to be physically close to Him?

SM: Swami’s presence in our lives, particularly mine, has been overwhelmingly huge and phenomenal. When I go out to do Swami’s work, when I am with children, whether it is for imparting SSE or in a regular classroom, I try to look at these children as Swami’s kids.

When I see one child hitting another child, I automatically tend to say, “Do not hit, speak kindly, don’t harm somebody with your actions or your words. Don’t think poorly about somebody.” I tend to say things that Swami has inculcated in us and start seeing Swami coming into the picture ever so often.

RS:  Swami’s teachings have become your nature?

 

SM:  When the five-year olds get together, they are a noisy lot. I just round them up and involve them in a silent game. They sit in a circle and I tell them, “Close your eyes and I want to see who can sit quietly with their eyes closed for the next ten seconds.” For such young children, 10 or 15 seconds can be a very long time to sit crossed-legged and remain still with eyes closed. That’s a gentle introduction into meditation for them.

Just as Swami dotes on every single child, we try to be as sincere in our attention to them. For instance, when the parent comes in, we talk to them in detail about the child instead of treating our work as a mere 9:00 - 3:00 job. When you are genuine in your attention, you also begin to see people respond sincerely.

And, then you come to realise the importance of Swami’s values – the significance of moulding these children, talking to them and connecting with them on a one to one level.

RS:   It helps you to appreciate the mission and message of Bhagavan so deeply?

SM: Absolutely. And, Swami has proven over and over that it doesn’t matter whether you are in India, the US or in Timbuktu - it really is immaterial because He is there with you everywhere.

RS:  Is there any other instance when you have strongly felt His omnipresence?

SM:  There have been several instances. In particular, when I was the SSE Coordinator, we had to manage a group of over 140 children in the US. A local school was kind enough to rent us 10 classrooms every Saturday between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. The rooms were located in a nice building with a long hallway and rooms on the sides. We had two batches each of Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. The classes were progressing well much to everyone’s satisfaction.

It was then that I had a dream about Swami. This struck me as odd as I rarely dream of Swami and I can actually count the ones I have had. But this one was very vivid.

RS:Could you share the dream with us?

SM: I dreamt that I was walking in the hallway with a notepad and a pen, which I usually do while making sure that the children are all settled in and the teachers are okay. The parents generally attend the study circle when the kids are in class. So, while going on my rounds, I look in and see Swami sitting at one of the teacher’s tables.

 

In my mind, I know that the classroom has no glass to look through from the hallway, so I am thinking how am I able to do this and actually see Swami? I open the door and go in, kneel down next to Swami and say, “Swami, I didn’t know you were here. When did you come?” And Swami smiles at me very lovingly and says, “I am always here. Only you don’t know it.” And the dream ended right there.

I woke up and asked myself what was this place I was at? What was the room I was looking at? I knew it was one of the classrooms for the SSE group but in reality, none of them were like the one I saw in the dream. Anyway, it was all forgotten soon enough and we carried on for a year until we got a message saying the building was to be demolished to construct a new one.

Soon enough, a brand new school with phenomenal state-of-the-art classrooms came up. The rents were hiked by nearly 10 times, which we just couldn’t afford. The entire centre members, office bearers, parents and children prayed intensely to Swami saying, “Swami, somehow give us this building back as we need to run the weekly classes.” Much time passed and the school didn’t relent. Finally, by Swami’s grace - sheer grace - they decided to give it to us for the same old rate, while it was hiked for anyone else who wished to rent the premises.

When I entered the building on the first day, I was stunned to see that all the classrooms had large glass panes!

RS: Yes, the new school by laws in North America require you to have glass panes.

SM:  Is that right? As I stood there looking at the glass panels, my dream suddenly came back to me. It was exactly as I had seen and I could even recollect the classroom that He was in because the orientation for all the rooms wasn’t the same. I even knew the exact position of the desk and chair. All this just screamed out loud to me that He is indeed there – all the time! That was a crystal clear example of how omnipresent He is.

RS:  Swami gave you a vision of the future before the previous building was demolished and the new one constructed!

SM:  He gave me the vision nearly a year ahead. And, once completed, it was an uphill task to gain the use of the building for the same rates. Finally, when all problems were resolved and I saw the classrooms, I just had to surrender and say, “Swami, You know what? You are here and you know everything.” It was all so fantastic.

When the reality hit home, I immediately gathered all the SSE teachers and shared with them my dream.

It was a revelation and a lesson to us. Much as you realise Swami’s magnificence, we also learnt that in everything that we do and say, if we whole-heartedly accept that He is actually there, the outcomes are a lot more different.

RS:  Could you elaborate?

SM: If we are aware and constantly remember His presence in our lives, we would dress differently, talk carefully and that’s how it should always be. There should be no change in our conduct when we are either in His physical presence or out of it.

Sumana's mother was an active Sai worker all her life and Swami's love for her
is beyond compare
 

RS:  You are in India right now for the first death anniversary of your mother. I am sure Swami has a huge role to play in helping you cope with the loss.

SM:  It was 31 December (2007) when my mother came to Swami. She had suffered from a stroke and was paralysed on one side. She even refused to take the tablets prescribed by the doctor, saying she would do so only if Swami gave her the consent.

So adamant was she to meet Swami that my father and brother had no alternative but to bring her here, despite her weak condition. On the morning of 1 January, she sat with others in the darshan line. She was undeterred by the crowds that mill around Prashanthi Nilayam on New Year’s Day. The following morning Swami sent word saying, “Ask her not to come for darshan,” and invited her instead to Yajur Mandir.

RS:  To Bhagavan’s residence?

SM: Yes, to His residence. My mother partially couldn’t see as she was paralyzed. Not knowing that Swami was right there next to her, she asked my brother, “Sai, where is Swami?” He said, “Mom, He is right next to you.” Swami brought in a couch for her to lie down on as she couldn’t sit. She lay on the couch, while Swami sat right next to her. He was so close to her that His hair almost touched her face.

He consoled her for an hour and a half. We realised that just to give my mother His attention, Swami had given darshan early that day and completed His other schedules ahead of time. While consoling her, he put a chain around her neck and said, “Go to the hospital, I will send you My car.” All this while, my sister and I were in the US totally clueless about what was going on.

RS: What did Swami counsel your mother about?

SM: He told her not to worry and that He would be with her every step of the way. He said, “Everything will be okay; the doctor will take care of everything.”

I was pregnant at the time, and when my mother said, “Swami, I need to go to the US to take care of my daughter,” He replied, “You don’t have to go. I will take care of her; I will go for you.”

He then said, “Your daughters are too far away. Don’t tell them anything now, they will be worried. Swami will tell you when to inform them.” That was the reason why we were not informed about my mother’s condition for nearly a week.

RS:  How did your father and brother react to this situation?

 
When Swami sees this picture taken during Sujana's wedding where his brother is handsomely dressed in Indian suit, Swami smiles and says that he looks almost like a bridegroom and insists that he gets married at the earliest.

SM: My brother’s marriage was fixed for February 2008. Unwilling for the wedding because of Amma’s condition, he told Swami that he would much rather prefer committing the rest of his life to taking care of Amma. Counselling him to get married, Swami said, “The girl you are marrying is very loving. She will take care of your mother.”

He also assured that our mother would be present for his wedding. To this, my brother said, “Swami, I will get married here itself in the interview room. You just bless us. That’s enough. No need for pomp and show.”

To this, Swami replied, “You are saying you don’t want a big wedding, while in the girl’s house, they have bought huge earrings, a necklace, and other things to show everybody. Go, have a proper wedding. Swami is blessing you.”

He then gave him a ring saying, “This is my wedding present for you.” Saying this, Swami advised my father to take Amma to the neurology section in the Whitefield hospital. He had called the hospital ahead to expect my mother’s arrival and even arranged for a car. My parents, however, said they would go to the hospital on their own.

RS:  Was she operated upon?

SM:  An MRI scan revealed she had Grade 3 brain tumour and the doctors didn’t think she would live for even two weeks. On Bhagavan’s instructions, a room was allotted to her and a couple of extra beds were put in there. It was as if Swami Himself was overseeing the entire arrangements.

 
When Swami entered Shravanam's studio in the first floor of the house, He first asked his mother to take namaskar and then indicated to Shravanam too to do the same

After a 7-hour surgery, the doctors took the tumour out. When my father and brother knew that Swami was all ready to come and visit her in Whitefield, they conveyed to Him that she was scheduled to be discharged on 19 January and would personally come for His darshan.

When Amma was in the presence of Swami on the 19th, the first thing she said was, “Swami, my paralyzed hand is useless. Of what use is this hand if it cannot serve You? I want to cook for You. How can I?” Extremely touched by her words, Swami said, “You will be fine” and sent her home. When we returned to Chennai, she was with us for 14 months.

Throughout those months, Swami took so much care of her that even the thought of it is overwhelming. After she passed away, we got to know that Swami had told way ahead of time to the doctors and the other staff that she would live only for 14 months. He also said that He was keeping her alive just to make the family feel better!

RS:  Much like a grace period…

SM: Yes, a grace period for our sake. The timeline of 14 months gave us time to prepare ourselves for the eventuality. We were all like well-oiled machines and had tuned into the idea of someone being sick. So mentally conditioned were we that when our father broke the news that she was not well, we flew down from the US with a return ticket.

 
Swami says to Sumana's mother, "Amma, get your son married. Then, a daughter-in-law would come and take care of you." The mother replies, "Swami, I will look after her." Swami repeats, "Amma, you must rest from now on. See, I have come to have food cooked by your hands. The daughter-in-law to come will not only take care of you but also cook and even feed you with her hands." And then Swami gave a most beautiful smile. Only later did everyone in the family realise how prophetic were Swami's words.

RS:    It was such a calm resignation?

SM:  Calm and very practical, much like spirituality in action. Swami had actually eased the pain for us. We took the time she was with us as an opportunity to serve her and tend to her needs without putting ourselves first. I think it was just her faith in Swami that kept her going. How else do you explain a person who has had three haemorrhages by the time she saw Swami at Yajur Mandir on 1 January to remain alive for the next 14 months?

RS: What was your biggest lesson from this phase in your life?

SM: I learnt that the more you persist in your prayers, the more are you assured of Swami’s response. It was clear that Swami had just responded to the faith of my mother. We were all so prepared that even on the day she passed away, Radio Sai was still running in our house playing bhajans and discourses. The whole ambience was like a temple. Although we call such events as tragedies in life, Swami terms them as ‘passing clouds’.

RS:   Were you able to let go?

SM:  This is again something else that Swami has taught us – not to hold on to something; probably the reason why He insists on spirituality and not on religion or rituals. From Him we learn that it’s not about Jesus, Buddha, or Ganesha, it’s a higher power that you submit to and with humility acknowledge that you are not the be-all and end-all of anything. When you achieve this state, letting go is not a concern.

RS:  I am sure this is providence that you are able to talk about this today.

SM:   Yes, it is a year today since she left us. I hope that in sharing my personal experience, I am able to give a lot more hope and courage to those passing through a similar phase in life.



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