Musician Joan Osborne’s queries, posed in the song “One of Us,” were meant to be rhetorical. But millions of people all over the world are convinced they have answers.
Last summer, I accompanied my grandmother to the Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of the Highest Peace) ashram, located in Puttaparthi, India, and visited “God.” God age 76. God with an Afro. God in the form of Sathya Sai Baba, a South Indian spiritual leader revered by millions of people worldwide as the divine incarnate. Shakuntala Balu, for example, author of Living Divinity, attests that Sai Baba is one of three avatars/incarnations of God.
God or no, Sai Baba is definitely a humanitarian, responsible for the creation of the planetarium, two hospitals, an airport, music school, college, apartment buildings, and playgrounds in Puttaparthi. So I went as a favor to my grandmother, a dedicated Sai Baba bhakt (devotee), prepared to pay my respects to a great philanthropist, but unconvinced that I would see anything remarkable in Puttaparthi. And I returned home, unsure of what I’d seen.
Most of our time at Prasanthi Nilayam was spent navigating the crowds, eating pure vegetarian food in the mess halls and waiting in line for hours to see Sai Baba. He appeared to the masses at the ashram during darshan, a ceremony in which he walked through an open-air, ornate assembly hall filled with men and women (segregated) of every namable nationality fanning themselves and sighing rapturously at his arrival. Baba, in a flowing saffron robe and not without his famous cloud of hair, waved slowly and took a seat on a throne of sorts in front of the hall. He said nothing. He simply sat, a little hunched, as a few of his closest aides gave speeches. And then he turned, and waved again, and entered a “back room,” where the privileged few were given private audiences.
I felt nothing but hot and bothered. And there in the crowd of the faithful, of men and women not unlike myself, I began to wonder if perhaps I lacked that which would allow me to believe. Perhaps I was alone in my jaded skepticism. Because the crowds of devotees at Prasanthi Nilayam were not singularly blind, or singularly wise. They were part of a much larger group of individuals today who hail preeminent religious leaders and humanitarians as “Gods-in-the-flesh.”
Sai Baba, I was to learn, was but one of many.
I heard of Mata Amritanandamayi, Ammachi—as followers have fondly dubbed her—when a friend of the family was diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer. He made trips all over the country to see the “Mother of Immortal Bliss,” taking part in a number of darshans and receiving many of Amma’s famous, therapeutic hugs. For in addition to being the founder of numerous humanitarian charities, Mata Amritanandamayi is the “Hugging Saint.” She heals souls with her loving embrace, which has been given “tirelessly to thousands everyday for the last 30 years.”
Now it’s one thing to hug, and to heal and to be a humanitarian, as Ammachi certainly is. The United Nations and many in the news media have recognized her as a spiritual leader and “untiring servant of all people.” She has also, however, been recognized by many of her followers as Divine. As is stated on her Web page (in the 21st century, all living saints are online), Ammachi “became totally immersed in the intense inner bliss of God-Consciousness” and “coalesced with the Divine Mother.”
There’s something about that word “Divine.” That’s where I falter in my reading.
The multifarious attitudes toward and perspectives on Ammachi are not dissimilar from those toward and on another modern spiritual leader. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who established the Art of Living Foundation and pioneered the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique, has been recognized by academicians and medical professionals and middle class homemakers alike. He served on the advisory board of Yale University’s School of Divinity, chaired an International Conference of Religions, spoke at the United Nations’ 50th Anniversary celebration, and has among the students of his Art of Living courses employees of the World Health Organization. He spoke to a sold-out audience at the Santa Clara Convention Center this past Mother’s Day.
But there is that “other” aspect to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s image and reputation and allure that I cannot reconcile. That question of divinity. A 2000 article from Texan publication The Indigo Sun describes Shankar as not only “a spiritual master of extraordinary simplicity, wisdom and unconditional love,” but “resplendent with radiance … recognized by the enlightened saints of the time as crowned with the divine.”
I realize there’s nothing outwardly offensive about the phrase “crowned with the divine.” Most religions—not only Hinduism—but also Christianity and Islam and Judaism, teach that God is present in every human being. That there is the mark of the creator on each and every creation. It isn’t unreasonable then to recognize Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, or Mata Amritanandamayi or Sai Baba as creations perhaps a little more enlightened than the rest. To paraphrase another group of modern day divinity, N’sync, “God might have spent a little more time” on these humanitarians.
But that isn’t what gets me. I respect and am ready to extol the virtues of those who have dedicated their lives to sharing love, and hugs and, yes, therapeutic breathing techniques. I applaud their collective efforts to better our communities. But I, in all my youthful indignant naïveté and conceit, am not ready to accept the devotees. I don’t understand that part of a human being that allows him or her to prostrate himself or herself before another man or woman. Is the ability to worship one’s equal a sign of humility to be admired, or a sign of weakness, to be deplored?
Am I comfortable watching my aging grandmother bake in the sun, and sweat among the crowds, for a chance to fall at the feet of a man 10 years her senior? Is it right that a dying man invest his last energies in the pursuit of a miracle cure, a living saint, hoping that perhaps she can cure him of his disease? And could a revolutionary breathing technique really bring human beings closer to the “Almighty?”
Joan Osborne posed the questions. Some factions of the world may have the answers.
I just don’t know if I can buy it.