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HOW ‘THE SAFFRON’ SHAPED ME…

By Ms. Sutopa Sen


Ms. Sutopa Sen is a former student of the Sri Sathya Sai University, who completed her Bachelors and Masters in English from the Anantapur Campus in 1992. Currently residing in the UK, she works for the City of London Corporation and is an active member of the East London Sai Centre.

It was the month of August; Swami was in residence and the ashram was a hive of frenzied activity. Back in the hostel at Anantapur just a few days earlier, the Warden’s announcement at evening prayer about the intended trip to Prashanti Nilayam had been received with the usual excitement. It had been only four weeks since the last visit but it felt more like four, long months…

Morning darshan was now over, but Swami was still out on the verandah talking to the Primary School children and joking with lecturers. Suddenly He motioned to our Warden and gave her some brief instructions. Before we knew it, we were being asked to sit in lines, facing each other – as we always did when Swami was about to distribute some gift. On several occasions previously, we had received blouse pieces cut from Swami’s robe, but we were yet to be the blessed recipients of a full robe.

In the past, Swami had responded to our pleas sweetly explaining that if He gave us His robe we would probably put it on an altar and worship it, so a robe piece was much better. We had grown accustomed to this kind of “divine reasoning” which was usually met with shrieks of delight. I suppose we should have known then that He was only waiting for the right time.

What Does Orange Mean?’

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Sai Sutopa Sen

A few moments later, boys emerged from Swami’s room with armfuls of coloured robes. Within minutes, He was moving gracefully among us dropping various colours of silken cloth into our eager hands – pink, gold, white, bright yellow, deep red – we had never seen Swami wear these colours! As He approached my line, my heart was beating fast. Which colour would I receive?

Within seconds, He was in front of me - His form enveloping my face in a haze of orange – and eyes full of intense love met mine for a lingering second, before He dropped a folded robe into my lap and moved on. It was several minutes before I finally looked down at the robe. Instead of fresh silk, I saw the familiar saffron terrycloth that was Swami’s “everyday” wear and on closer inspection, I noticed it was well worn and laundered; there were even 2 stitches missing from the neckline! I soon realised that most of the girls had received crisp, new silken robes in beautiful, unusual shades. My heart was singing with joy at the thought that my gift had actually been worn by the Lord.

Once Swami had disappeared inside the Mandir, the excited chatter soon began; what colour have you got? Did Swami look at you? Did He smile? Did He speak to you? A few had taken it upon themselves to elaborate, announcing… ‘Pink stands for Love, White symbolizes Purity, Red is for Auspiciousness…’ “What is Orange for?” I interrupted. No one heard me. “What does Orange signify?” I persevered. The girl next to me pulled herself away from her conversation and turned towards me, a sudden smile spreading across her face. “Saffron is for Sacrifice” she whispered, squeezing my arm.

Out Into a Lonely World

Seven years flew past and I eventually completed my education at Anantapur and returned to England to re-join my family, and resume my former life there. I naively assumed that on completing my education, my life as a student would be over. In actual fact, though the theory lessons were over, the practicals were just beginning! The road was hard, long and lonely and I felt ill equipped due to my lack of experience in all things worldly. I often tried to recall the words that had been spoken by Swami to my mother at the time of my admission to Anantapur… “I’m going to look after your daughter, don’t worry!”

After such divine reassurance, surrendering the outcome of my life to the Divine Will should have been simple. Sadly, not so. Looking back, I recall how every event, every occurrence, every happening in my life was still being filtered by my ego, my intelligence, my personality, my understanding, my interpretation and my expectations! In short, the result of countless lifetimes had created this “I” which was ruling my reactions to everything, and Swami’s words of re-assurance were cast into the shadow as attempts to surrender to Him were short-lived.

Sai Sutopa Sen
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Ms. Sutopa Sen speaking in the Divine Presence
in Prasanthi Nilayam
 

To make things worse, Swami seemingly pulled back into the darkness during this time and stopped appearing in my dreams as well. I searched for Him frantically – to no avail. My loneliness was complete. Satsang, particularly bhajan singing and reading Sathya Sai literature seemed to be the lifeline for me during this period of my life. I would regularly be invited to speak at various Sai centres across the UK about my experiences as a Sai student and these visits never failed to instruct and uplift me.

The culmination of this activity was being asked to speak in front of Swami as a Messenger of Sathya Sai on the Annual day in December 1996. For over a week leading up to the event I intensely prayed to Swami to advise me on what to speak about. Sure enough, one by one, the thoughts started to pop into my head! But simultaneously, I was tested on numerous occasions about the subject matter of my talk – and throughout all of this, the little voice inside my head kept repeating – “Swami, whatever you wish….”

The great day finally arrived and Swami had instructed that the programme should be held in the Mandir, not in the Poornachandra Auditorium. Despite this unexpected development, I still felt strangely calm as the entire proceedings seemed to unfold like a drama in which I was merely playing a small part.

Just His Instrument

Minutes before my speech was due to begin, I looked at Swami and said in my heart - “Swami, I am nothing, just your instrument – even if I have to trip on the stage and fall flat on my face in front of thousands of people, if it is Your Will, so be it”. In this way, I managed to control my ego and surrender my talk to Swami and surprisingly enough, it made Him very happy! During one of the rare occasions in my life, the Lord used most unexpected and generous words of praise to describe my efforts. At last, I had discovered the secret to His heart…it was to surrender one’s actions and He would take care of the rest, transformation us from zeroes to heroes. I was so grateful to our Beloved Lord for giving me the best Christmas gift I had ever had.

Into the Clouds

Swami often uses the term “passing clouds…all passing clouds” in His discourses and slowly I began to observe a recurring theme in my life; each and every time I was knocked down, I always bounced back and recovered. In December 1997, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Prashanti Nilayam around my Christmas holidays. Although still weak from a recovering chest infection, and having just completed a course of antibiotics, I eagerly travelled to India to see my Beloved Lord. Indeed, I had a wonderful trip, although unknown to me then, due to my weak immune system, I somehow contracted a terrible virus which would eventually take its toll on my health. It actually took more than a year before the virus really started to weaken me.

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Looking back, an early diagnosis by the doctor could perhaps have prevented much suffering, but as is often the way with karma – somehow, despite numerous visits to doctors, no one knew what was wrong or could help me – until the time was right. Eventually, my condition was managed with strong antibiotics, but I felt far from well. I finally forced myself back to work after a six month absence and for the next two years, I became a complete shadow of my former self, an invalid - barely venturing out the house unless absolutely necessary. I thought my life was over and focussed all my energy on just getting through each day.

Finally, one Saturday afternoon in April 2003, feeling completely desperate about my health, I fell before a huge picture of Goddess Durga in my bedroom and begged for Her mercy. The very next day, my prayer was answered. I came across the telephone number of a spiritual healer who listened sympathetically to my plight and agreed to help me. He slowly put me back on the road to recovery with various natural medicines and prayers. Within six months, I had regained most of my former strength and energy, astonishing everyone. In this way, like a phoenix from the ashes, I would emerge – after varying periods of absence – time and time again. A Divine Hand was leading me, guarding me through all the ups and downs of my karma, which although inevitable – could not destroy my spirit.

Professional Stepping Stones

In my professional life, Swami would actually lead me directly into potentially conflicting situations. In retrospect, I now understand that these “trials” served to strengthen and shape my character as well as providing me with valuable professional experience. On one occasion, I had completed an application form for a job the night before the closing date, and placed the sealed envelope by my bedside before falling asleep.

The next morning, I was woken by drops of cold water falling on my face, although looking around – there was nowhere this could have come from. Mystified, I looked at the clock - it was 5 am. I was now wide awake so I thought I would use the time wisely and check my application again. When I did, I discovered that, in haste, I had omitted a crucial part of my IT experience that was essential for the vacancy I was applying for! As I had the time, I carefully amended the information on the form to my satisfaction, and submitted it.

A week later, I was invited to the interview, which was accompanied by a very difficult test which was virtually impossible to complete within the allotted 15 minutes. Just when I thought I had lost all chance of finishing the test, my computer suddenly crashed! As a result, I was apologised to profusely and given a further 15 minutes to re-do the paper. Needless to say, my test performance exceeded that of the other candidates and I was offered the job.

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I duly accepted, but for the next five years, I found myself beset with problems on every side. I often wondered why Swami had led me into this particular job. However, I now realise that the experience I gained in those five years has proved to be most invaluable and, in fact, has recently resulted in my being offered an excellent opportunity within the City of London, my current employers. In this way, what felt like “dead end” jobs at the time have since acted as real “stepping stones” in my career. It seemed that God had already decided the set of experiences that I needed to undergo to address my numerous foibles, so resistance was futile.

I just needed to let go, trust and surrender. As Swami had told us in our outgoing interview with Him back in 1992, “whatever happens, take it for your own good…”. Learning to be patient certainly wasn’t easy, but an invitation to attend bhajan, or to speak to a Sai group, would always come out of nowhere – whenever my spirit began to tire.

As time passed, I began to observe a subtle change in myself as a result of my experiences - which can only be described as a feeling of calm detachment. I realised that the more I applied positive thinking and let go of the outcome of things going on around me, the easier life became. Swami’s words came back to me time and time again… “Swami will take care…don’t worry!” During this time Swami also started flooding back into my life in various manifestations – dreams, experiences, miracles, articles, photographs, bhajans, contact with devotees – suddenly, SAI was everywhere!

Coming Back to the Father

In March 2005, I came to Prasanthi Nilayam with sad news weighing heavily on my heart - my father had passed away the month before. I let Swami guide me by the hand through these difficult months and amazingly, everything fell into place smoothly. During this time, I also witnessed the outgoing students of Swami’s Institute pour out their heartfelt agony at the thought of physical separation from Him. I sat and cried for hours, feeling their pain and reliving every emotion from my own physical separation from Him – nearly thirteen years before.

My earthly father may have departed, but my Divine Father had stepped up with His usual precision timing. I suddenly felt that I was a student again and the darkness of those thirteen years disappeared in a flash. Like a weary traveller returning from the wars – with new inspiration, filled with stronger resolve and a sense of real purpose, I had finally returned home.

Slowly, I began to immerse myself in Swami’s discourses explaining His expectations of students. I had read most of the material before, but this time it took on a whole new meaning. The difference was, this time I felt equipped and strong enough to lend myself to the task at hand. Too many long years had been spent tussling in the darkness with myself. Swami had probably allowed me to go through these difficult experiences to “uncondition” me and remove the effects of past experiences/karmas and their associated vasanas (tendencies), destroy the ego, the sense of doership and infuse me with a feeling of selfless love.

For the first time, I understood why Swami had taken such pains to teach me the essence of sacrifice and surrender. The answer was simple – this was not just about me! I had to broaden my outlook. The maxim “to those whom much is given, much will be expected” constantly started to play in my head like a broken record and I began to pray to Swami to give me more resources, more strength, more time and more resolve to enable me to do something meaningful with my life.

Learning the ‘Saffron Lesson’

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Sai Sutopa Sen

It has taken many years to understand and appreciate the lesson given to me on that day in Prashanti Nilayam, when the Lord had lovingly placed His robe on my hands. I think of sacrifice as the quality of giving up something for nothing in return. But the irony is, the reward for this one selfless quality is that we receive everything that we can ever want – in the form of God’s Grace. In short, sacrifice endears one to God – and makes Him love us! And what more could anyone want?

I’ve often since thought about visits to Prashanti Nilayam. It seems that the more you give up, such as sacrificing your comforts, the more you receive. Why does close darshan involve 3 to 4 hours sitting on the hard floor – usually giving up both food and sleep? And in decades gone by, staying in the rural village of Puttaparthi may have been a physically challenging experience… but no-one could complain about the close and loving darshan opportunities! Today, with each passing year, Prashanti Nilayam grows - in size, in amenities and creature comforts – and while many think that the Lord will become more inaccessible physically, He is actually giving Himself away so much to the devotees.

Moreover, Swami constantly urges us to engage in seva or selfless service. Why? Can we really make such a difference? If each soul has to pay its karmic debts, how are others involved? What has it got to do with us? Why should we interfere? Each of us comes to this world alone, and will leave alone. I think the answer to all these questions is simple. The purpose of seva is not so much to alleviate the suffering of others. I believe each person’s suffering is pre-determined and can only last in accordance with their own karmic debt (under normal circumstances), so surely any alleviation or relief can only be rendered that extent?

No, I think the reason Swami urges us to carry out seva is to alleviate our own suffering. Because seva is nothing more than a sacrifice of time, energy, emotion, resources – and sacrifice eliminates negative karma. Of course, this means that sacrifice isn’t actually selfless at all. In fact, it is purely selfish! But there is only one catch – sacrifice cannot be faked. It has to be 100% genuine – otherwise it is not sacrifice. And that is the process of sadhana or spiritual discipline. We must become selfless to be selfish – and so the circle is completed.

And where do all these ponderings leave me? My debt to Swami can never be repaid – however many more births I may take. But the one thing I can do – is to attempt to put into practice the lesson He has so painstakingly taught me …and remember the quality of sacrifice as a prime, motivating force in my life.

And what of the gift I received from His hands? Needless to say, it takes pride of place on my little altar – just as the Lord once predicted it would - over twenty years ago.

 


Dear Reader, did this article inspire you in any way? Would you like to share you feelings with us? If so please contact us at [email protected] mentioning your name and country.  Thank you for your time.


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Vol 5 Issue 10 - OCTOBER 2007
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