Volume 13 - Issue 06
June 2015
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Posted on:June 07, 2015

Transforming a Teenager

Part -1


How Swami dispelled the delusion of doubts and sowed the seeds of faith
in the heart of His student, B. Venugopal

By B. Venugopal


An alumnus of Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Mr. B. Venugopal did his Masters in Business Administration in Prasanthi Nilayam in 2002-04. Before joining the institute, he had done his Bachelors in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Osmania University, Hyderabad. As an active member of the Hyderabad Sai Youth group Venugopal was deeply engaged in Bhagawan’s mission even before he became a student of His college. In fact as a Sai youth he was blessed with plenty of opportunities to not only bask in His divine physical presence but also receive invaluable advice and guidance from Swami on several aspects of life and living, service and sadhana.

After completion of his education in Baba's university once he returned to Hyderabad and started his professional career, simultaneously he promptly went back to being a member of Hyderabad Sai Youth group. In fact today as a senior he mentors and guides the new comers into this ever-expanding and ever-vibrant Sai youth group.

Venugopal started his professional career in JP Morgan and later worked in Bank of America and Deloitte. Currently he is Assistant Vice President, Change Delivery, in HSBC, Hyderabad.

Presented below is the edited transcript of a 'Fleeting Moments Lasting Memories' conversation with Radio Sai's Bishu Prusty in June 2014.

 

Sai Ram! I thank you for the opportunity and I look forward to share some wonderful moments that I had with Swami.

When it comes to our relationship with Bhagawan, there is no concept of we coming to Swami or Swami entering our lives, it is only about being aware of Swami’s presence in our lives because He has always been there.

My Family's Baby Steps to Baba

My parents shifted to Mumbai when I was in grade II. They were always interested in giving us spiritual education – something that will teach us values, religious verses and such. There were a few places that offered such education then – The Chinmaya Mission Balvihar and Sri Sathya Sai Bal Vikas. My mother had heard of Swami before and had also attended a few discourses before her marriage. This happened in the 1960s. Once she had heard a discourse that Bhagawan had delivered in a Mumbai Rotary Club. As she had some introduction to Swami, she decided to put me and my brother in the Sathya Sai Bal Vikas. Subsequently my parents started attending the Samithi Bhajans there. Incidentally my father is an enthusiastic singer. However my brother and I were attracted to Bal Vikas because of our interest in the stories of Mahabharatha and the Ramayana. And I must say that those classes were conducted very well.

But when it came to my faith in Swami, my father was of the opinion that Swami is a ‘great scholar’. He had heard that Swami could speak many languages and was very knowledgeable who could discourse on any topic.

My father used to work for HMT (Hindustan Machine Tools) and as part of his job, often he used to travel. Whenever he went out my mother used to slip in a book into his suitcase so that he would read a bit on Swami. That is how later he did read a few books on Swami too.

My mother had a natural affinity towards spirituality. She says that she just 'wanted' to believe in Swami. Men, she said, are more rational. They want to look for logic for everything, they don’t go much by feelings. As far as my father was concerned he always considered Swami as a scholar, and he was comfortable folding hands before Him because of His knowledge.

The First Trip to Prasanthi Nilayam

The Prabhakarans from Kerala were living in the same unit as us in Mumbai and they had planned to go to Prasanthi Nilayam. He asked my father if our family would like to join. My father accepted the invitation and so we planned a 4–5 day visit. In those days, we had to take two trains to reach Dharmavaram and another from there to reach Puttaparthi.

So we all travelled all the way from Mumbai to Prasanthi Nilayam only to find that Swami was not here! He was apparently in Brindavan (Bangalore). Since we were new to the ways of Swami, we didn’t know that He occasionally spends time in Bangalore. My father asked the sevadal at the gate as to when Swami would return. He said that it may take a month and advised us to go there for darshan.

The Prasanthi of 80s

My father was extremely disappointed. He said, “What is this? We come all the way from Bombay…’ That’s human tendency. We think we make too much effort. Today such thought seems so naïve. He was upset of the situation and with Swami.

This visit was during the mid ‘80s. We had learnt that a great man called Professor Kasturi lived in Puttaparthi and that at that time he was bed ridden. He used to live in a room opposite to the present South Indian Canteen. My father had read his books.

For me, being a mischievous kid, I liked being in Prasanthi Nilayam then because of the open spaces, trees and sand. I loved to run around the trees and have fun in the sand.

So we all went to see Prof. Kasturi. My father met him and said, “Sir, we have all come from Bombay (now Mumbai) but Bhagawan is not here, and we are really disappointed.” Professor Kasturi smilingly asked us to pray and said, “Pray! If you pray, who knows, Swami might come and give you darshan!” Everyone laughed. It was a comment made in jest, or so it seemed.

How Swami Made My Father Quit Smoking

We came out of the Ashram. Way back then, my father was a chain smoker who would take in about 15 packs a day! In those days, there used to be a paan (betel leaf) shop outside Ganesh Gate. Mr. Prabhakaran had the habit of chewing paan. He jokingly told my father, “Sharmaji, Baba aane tak aap cigarette peethe rahiye aur mein paan khathe rahonga (Mr. Sharma, you keep smoking and I’ll chew betel leaves till Swami comes!). My father retorted, “Let Baba come now! I will leave this cigarette forever!” He then took a drag from the cigarette and lo! In 2–3 minutes Swami’s red car drives up!

Yes! He stopped outside the Gopuram Gate, rolled down the windows, looked at us smilingly and raised His hands in Abhayahastha (in blessing). The cigarette just fell from my father’s fingers. That was the last time he ever touched the packs again. In fact that encounter was so powerful, he says that from that moment onwards he never ever felt like somebody who had smoked before in his life.

After that enigmatic darshan to us, Swami went to the Poornachandra auditorium. We tried to follow Him wherever He went; there were few people in Ashram then, probably because no one was expecting Swami to be back in Puttaparthi so soon.

The fortunate and blessed parents of Venugopal

That afternoon Swami gave darshan. I had bought a few Vibhuti packets for His blessing. You know during darshan, they don’t let kids sit in the front (because of the disturbance they might cause). But, how could they stop a naughty kid like me? I was sitting in the third row while my father was in the first row. Swami came and stood in front of him so my father took Padanamaskar. Meanwhile, I jumped two rows, went before Swami and told Him, “Vibhuti”. Swami, so lovingly, stretched His hands and blessed me on the head. In fact He said something too but I was paying more attention to taking Padanamaskar and getting blessings than hearing Him.

Immediately after granting darshan, Swami returned to Bangalore, that day itself.

Why did He come to Prasanthi Nilayam so suddenly? Many people gave their interpretations. Swami’s actions are like Lord Rama shooting a single arrow through the seven Sal trees. One act of Swami has multiple imports. But for my father, that day Swami became an ‘Avatar’ come to transform everyone, and He had already begun to transform him. That was the dramatic entry of Swami into our family.

Chanting the Lalitha Sahasranamam with Bhagawan

My mother used to suffer from frequent stomach aches. Apparently there had been a problem in her uterus ever since I was born. The doctor suggested that they surgically rectify the problem and so she was admitted in the Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai. The surgery was performed successfully.

The night before the operation, her sister-in-law, who was staying overnight as an attendant, was on an easy chair reading Lalitha Sahasranamam (1000 names of Mother Divine). As she was chanting the holy names loudly, she heard another voice doing the same. She asked my mother if she also was chanting the mantras. My mother replied, “I am desperately trying to sleep. I am in no mood to chant anything. Please don’t disturb me.” And she went back to sleep. The lady continued to chant and again she heard the voice. So she looked around and now she found Swami sitting next to my mother and blessing her!

Actually she narrated this to me directly many years later when I became a regular in Puttaparthi. Incidentally, this was the first time she saw Swami directly. Earlier she had only seen His pictures.

How I Questioned Everything Related to Him

When children grow up they start to think rationally. I too entered that phase when you question everything. But people also want to accept the extraordinary. You would have noticed that during bhajans, especially in a devotee’s house, when a flower falls from the floral decoration done to the altar, many take it as a sign that Swami has acknowledged something or that Swami was indicating His presence.

When people at my home explained this as a great miracle, I would try to counter it saying it was just a matter of gravity. However, if the flower went up, that would be a miracle. Even my father would try to convince me saying that he had quit smoking because of Swami. I would even reply to him saying that it was due to his will power.

It was a difficult phase for me. A phase of denial and being so called 'rational'. During the early 1990s, Swami had come to Hyderabad to attend an inauguration programme. The local newspaper had carried a news article that was against Swami. Trying to prove my case of denial, I carried the article to my father. I still remember my father’s stern words in response: “He is God for me. If you want to believe stay in this house, if you don’t want to believe, get out!”

Venugopal with Swami during his student days in Baba's university

His faith was from a personal experience, that is why he was so convinced. No amount of logic could shake that. That is the reason why I keep saying to most youth I interact with that once you get an experience no amount of logic will ever convince you against it.

Given my father's severe warning, I decided to let things rest. I thought it is better not to disturb family harmony.

It was not as if I was a non-believer of God. I did have a lot of interest in Divinity; I indeed used to read a lot of spiritual literature and the stories of saints. Moreover I was a Bal Vikas student who had learnt many shlokas (verses). My doubts were only concerning Swami.

In fact over a period, I developed affinity towards Lord Krishna. He actually became my favourite deity. To me He was the supreme form of God. This is also the reason why the whole Sathya Sai phenomenon didn’t seem to affect me much at that time.

Vibhuti and Nectar Materialisation… and Tickets to Parthi

There used to be a devotee in whose house bhajans were conducted every Thursday. My parents used to attend these bhajan sessions regularly. Apparently a lot of Vibhuti and nectar used to materialise from Swami’s photographs. My parents were very moved by these occurrences and wanted me to witness them as well. I refused giving false reasons – these ‘devotees’ must probably be waking up very early, wiping the photos with a wet cloth and then throwing Vibhuti on them such that it sticks on the glass and frame. As the Vibhuti begins to dry, bits of it obviously fall off from the frame. This was the kind of logical reasoning I gave them.

Being in the XII grade then and not sure of what engineering course to pursue, either in town or elsewhere, I finally complied with going for that bhajan session. 'What’s wrong in singing a bhajan?' I thought. “I’ll sing a Krishna Bhajan without adding ‘Sai’ to it,” I said to myself.

During the bhajans in that house I witnessed nectar oozing from the centre of a picture. I think it was a Shirdi Sai photo. This totally baffled me. There was no scientific explanation to this. I was convinced that what was happening was a miracle of God but not of Sathya Sai Baba.

Venugopal (kneeling in front of Swami with folded palms and with a hearty smile) with brothers of Hyderabad Sai Youth Group

At the end of the bhajan session, the host announced the Parthi Yatra (Parthi pilgrimage) for the grade X students of Sathya Sai Vidya Vihar School. He also added that 4-5 seats were available in the bus and interested youngsters were welcome to join. Two days later my father tells me that he has booked a ticket for me. Indignantly, I asked him how could he book tickets without even asking me. “I don’t want to even see Sai Baba,” I said. But He was adamant. So I finally gave in. 'Why waste the money he has spent on the tickets?' I said to myself.

“Have you come to see Swami or Chitravathi?”

So I finally made up my mind to go and at least see the place. It was more of a picnic for me. I remember I sat in the last row during darshan. However because I knew a lot of bhajans we had a good time singing bhajans on the way. Being in the midst of so many people who revered Swami as God, I thought I should at least not be disrespectful to Him and have some reverence in my mind.

At Prasanthi Nilayam, the boys and girls were made to sit separately during darshan. Even though I was not a student of Vidya Vihar, I was seated with the group. Swami came out for darshan and spoke to the teacher who was sitting in the front of the group. I heard Him say that He’ll give Padanamaskar. He then went in to give interviews to devotees. Each section of every class had a teacher and there were 2-3 sections in every grade. Some of the teachers wanted to take the students out to visit River Chitravathi. But the teacher to whom Swami spoke wanted everybody to wait for Swami to finish the interviews.

Eventually two teachers who felt their class should visit the river got up with their respective batch of students and left. I was in a dilemma, but finally I too decided to go and see the river.

As we approached the Ganesha Gate, an old man stopped me and said that I should wear slippers as the sands of Chitravathi would be hot. He also advised that as I had come to see Swami and not the river, I should ideally be at the darshan. “You never know when Swami may come out! Just go and sit,” he told me firmly and walked away. What he said made sense. 'Why hurt my feet walking on the bare sands?' I said to myself. So I returned to Sai Kulwant Hall and sat behind the now depleted group of students. I had just settled down and the interview door opened, and now Swami came straight to the teacher.

“Where are the other students?” He asked.

“They have gone to see Chitravathi, Swami,” the teacher replied.

Then Swami said exactly the same thing that the old man at the Ganesha Gate had said. “Have you come to see Swami or have you come to see Chitravathi?” And as soon as Swami made that comment He looked at me and smiled. I was actually sitting five rows behind.

Swami then materialised a large amount of Vibhuti. No one can actually hold that much Vibhuti in the palm of their hand. Swami gave it to the teacher and asked him to share it with the other lesser fortunate students and teachers. He also promised that He’ll give us Padanamaskar in the evening. We all took a small share of that Vibhuti.

The Life-altering Moment of My Existence

In the evening we assembled before the Krishna idol that is in front of the garage. As Swami completed His darshan round, He went in for interview. We sat in perfect rows with walking space in between so that Swami could walk through us.

It so happened that I was sitting in front of the Lord Krishna idol, and as I had said before, Krishna was my favourite form of God. I was looking at the idol and was having a mental conversation with Him. “Okay. I accept that Swami is not an ordinary person going by what I had experienced in the morning. But is He You?” I asked Krishna. “Should I accept this form or that?” This was a big question for me as it was going to be a paradigm shift for me to accept Sathya Sai.

I then posed a challenge. Everybody touches Swami; that is natural and common. But when Swami comes now He should first touch me on His own, then I will believe that He is indeed Krishna. In retrospect, I feel I should have asked for something greater.

All of us were given papers to write letters to Swami. I too wrote something because I had started feeling some reverence towards Him. I asked Him to take care of my parents and thanked Him for everything, and in the end I also asked Him to give me an opportunity to serve the society – not Him in particular – and not as a sevadal too. This is because I had an argument with a sevadal before entering Kulwant Hall.

I held the letter behind my back and we were all seated back to back. Behind me were two other boys probably from the school. I heard the boys discussing, “Yeh Baba sachi jaadu karta hain kya? (Does this Baba really do magic?). I heard the boy reply, “Haan meine suna hain baal sa nikhal ke dehta hai (I have heard that He takes things out of His hair.) “Okay. You ask Baba to give you Vibhuti and let’s see from where He creates it.”

This was the conversation happening behind me. I was actually feeling miserable as their conversation was putting me in the right sense of mind. It was making me feel even more uncomfortable.

Soon Swami came out and walked towards us. But what surprised me the most was that He came down the portico, turned towards us and till He reached me, He was looking straight only at me and smiling! That was the type of smile you’ll get from an old friend whom you haven’t seen for a long time. It was the smile of surprise and expectation.

Swami reached our lines and was granting Padanamaskar and taking letters, but His sight was fixed on me. And all this while something was happening inside me. I felt as though I had known Him for ages. After going around, He came to the row I was sitting. I had actually completely forgotten all the conditions. He just captivated me completely. He took my letter and I had Padanamaskar. Until then He was constantly looking at me. The moment I finished taking padanamaskar, His gaze fell on another person. I was completely bowled over. I was already convinced that He was God.

Swami then came to the row behind me – to where the two boys were sitting. One of them got up and asked, “Swami, please give me Vibhuti.” He in turn asked the boy, “Are you a student?”

The boy replied, “Yes!”

Swami said, “No, you are not a student.”

This was the first time I heard Swami clearly and so closely.

Swami again asked, “Are you a student?”

“Yes,” He said.

“Vibhuti chahiye? (You want Vibhuti?)” Swami asked and then pulled up His sleeve and created Vibhuti and gave it to both of them. Everybody extended their hands. I too did. Swami then looked at me and said, “Come closer.” I did that and He now directly applied it in between my eyebrows and then patted me on the cheek.

Then He asked me, “Are you happy now?” I didn’t know what to say. And then He just said, “Hyderabad”.

This experience was absolutely special and unique. Even though I have had His blessings many times later I have never felt like how I felt that day. Something happened deep within me. I was actually shivering and weeping for the next 45 minutes. It was just tears flowing down continuously. And I had completely forgotten the condition that I had laid down to Swami.

Later everybody came up and started congratulating me saying, “You are so fortunate that Swami blessed you.” All the compliments were actually bouncing off my ears. I was lost. It was only when we packed our luggage and boarded the bus that it hit me – Bhagawan had indeed touched me! Just as I had asked Him to! So that I would believe Him.

Joining the Hyderabad Sai Youth Group

 
  The Hyderabad Sai Youth serving in the villages

I felt that after I return, I should attend Thursday bhajans at the place my parents usually go and offer my salutations to Bhagawan.

When I reached the house the host’s son informed me about a Youth group in Hyderabad. He said that we could go to the villages and do service. “It’ll be nice if you can join,” he remarked. “We will be going for a Grama Seva in a couple of weeks, so why don’t you join us? We are not actually sevadal.”

The last statement struck me. I had specifically written that I want to serve, but not as a sevadal. Now He was showing me the way.

This was way back in 1997. This was a new beginning. A new phase in my life where I started believing that living is for serving – doing good work for the society. The Hyderabad Youth group is very dedicated and committed to carrying on the torch of service lit by Swami. Their motivation to serve is infectious. I wanted to be a part of this team. That is how my association with the Hyderabad Sai Youth group began.

Sai Gets Installed in My Heart

The effort of ten life times can be efficiently reduced to just 10 seconds with the help of a Guru. That one touch of Swami probably didn’t raise my Kundalini, but the effect was surely powerful. That’s why I was shaken and kept crying in Kulwant Hall.

Darshan is a cleansing experience. It has a unique impact on every individual. During darshan Swami may not have spoken to anybody, but at the end of the session each one becomes a different person. One does not know the nature of change.

I was spoken about as the ‘boy who was blessed by Swami’. I was on cloud nine. But then, the mind does not remain there. Doubts don’t go easily. I started thinking… Swami usually touches a lot of people as He blesses them. Him touching me could also be coincidental.

After this, I had a series of dreams in which I saw Lord Krishna. I had never dreamt of Krishna before that. In one dream He was climbing down the stairs and by the time He had reached the floor He had turned to Swami.

There was another – a very strange one. Swami was delivering a discourse and I was sitting behind Him. Swami was saying that “When Mother Yashoda asked Lord Krishna to open His mouth she saw all the 14 Lokas (worlds) there.” And at that time Swami turned around, looked at me and said, “That Krishna is in My mouth. Look here.” And He opened His mouth and I saw Lord Krishna in Swami’s mouth.

I woke up with a start. The dream just shook me. I went to the altar and cried before the picture of Swami and said, “Swami, I will never doubt You again. Please forgive me.” With that the Krishna series of dreams ended. I was now completely convinced of Bhagawan’s divinity.

(To be continued)

 

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