Monday, January 10, 2011

Day 8 - Puttaparthi

Rhoda and I spent the morning walking around the area, in part for exercise and in part to see the sights. I can report that yesterday I was the only woman in town wearing jeans, the first day I didn't wear Indian clothing. Puttaparthi has about 8,000 regular residents, about 900 of whom live in the ashram, and a varying floating population. During the recent 10 day celebration of the swami's 85th birthday, there were a total of 1.8 million people here, perhaps 250,000 at one time. Many would have stayed in the concrete warehouses I described yesterday, some of which were built for the occasion.

We visited the old museum of religions that is outside the ashram, as distinguished from the new museum built for Swami's 75th Birthday, which I have not yet seen. The old museum is well done without being glitzy. It is three stories and takes about 45 minutes to walk through. There are dioramas depicting significant aspects of various religions that illiterate people can understand. The individual religious groups come and arrange their own exhibits, which they presumably pay for themselves. There are exhibits about Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Jains, ancient Greece, Confucians, Christians, of course Hindus, etc., even a little exhibit about Maoris. The message is that devotees of the swami come from all religions and countries and continue to practice their own faiths while following his precepts of doing good and loving. There are models of several temples, including of one of the beautiful wooden Buddhist temples that Stephen and I saw on a previous trip in one of the UNESCO heritage squares in Kathmandu. The main road leading into Puttaparthi is lined with buildings the Sai Baba's trusts have built: a large hospital in the shape (from above) of Om, a music school for traditional music, a separate school for other music, a sports complex including a stadium, a large school for boys, a large school for girls, a graduate school & business college (where John has taught), and a structure for the swami's pet baby elephant. The road is lined with his sayings, in several languages (think Burma Shave). There are no statues of the Sai Baba, but photos are, as I've noted, EVERYWHERE. We walked back to town on a side road that was only recently paved. It runs through a wetlands, or at least land that is now full of little ponds because of the plentiful monsoon this year. This is where the laundry is done. Think industrial level hand washing, drying and ironing. Every morning the laundry is collected from the town. Men carry out huge loads on their heads or on vehicles of some sort. It is washed in concrete vats. It is not clear whether they use soap, and instead of agitation they repeatedly bang the fabric against rocks or the sides of the vats, very hard work. The lines of drying items stretch for perhaps 1/4 mile, row after row. Somehow they are all returned to their rightful owners the next morning, dry and ironed if appropriate. There is of course a separate caste that performs this miracle. I have also heard of the tiffin collectors in Mumbai. Each morning the wife puts her husband's lunch into a stack of metal dishes, which are picked up. Somehow they are delivered hot to the right husbands at work around lunchtime. Another caste performs this miracle. These sorts of labor intensive arrangements, plus having 85 percent of the population involved in agriculture, is how India keeps most of its citizens employed. We visited some American friends of Rhoda and John, Debra and William, who have lived on the ashram full time for 11 years. The have a bit larger room than Rhoda and John are in, but it is still only one room, bath and kitchen. They love living here and don't want to be anywhere else. They are both human resources management consultants, and they are developing a business plan for an on-line values-based product to assess and encourage innovation among all employees of a company, regardless of level. The idea is that everyone can be innovative, they just may approach it in different ways, and if the company understands and properly leverages these talents it can be more innovative generally. They are super enthusiastic about this project, and have already written 300 pages in their business plan. Twice a week they offer western devotees to seminars to discuss the swami's precepts for living. The main event of the day was attending darshan in the evening. I have referred to this before but now I can provide some detail. I went with Rhoda. It is held in a large covered space almost the size of a football field, with crystal chandeliers, a coffered ceiling lined in gold, a marble floor and open sides attached to a spacious performance area up front. Darshan occurs twice a day. Anyone may come, but you are searched thoroughly and can't bring in much other than tissue and money. You leave your shoes outside. Each time about 15,000 people attend. They sit on the floor in designated places. You have to bring a mat or pillow to sit on. There are places designated for VIPs, doctors (up front, which is where we sat), professors, relatives of the swami (he has no offspring or wife, but does have other relatives), etc. There are many westerners in attendance, perhaps 10 percent. A lot of them are older and have clearly "gone native." People are packed in and it is very uncomfortable, at least for me and Rhoda. Men sit on one side and women on the other. There are many security personnel. For the first half hour or so of the ceremony singers perform ancient vedic chants, i.e., pre-Hindu. The sound system is excellent, but I can't tell you if there is instrumental accompaniment because we arrived after that. People come and go. Then they do a couple of hours of bhajans, which are spiritual chants of the call and response type. They are highly rhythmic, and are accompanied by percussion, some sort of baffled keyboard, a flute, and drums. At some point the swami is supposed to be wheeled in and take his seat on a throne in the front with two gold (I'm told real gold) lions by his side. Unfortunately, we left before he came last night. Sometimes he doesn't come, and when he does you never know when. I had been looking forward to this ceremony because I thought I would be able to practice yogic breathing and enter some sort of trance state. However, I only felt uncomfortable.

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