The Day I Met Indian Guru Sai Baba

The passing of Sathya Sai Baba has been the occasion for millions of his followers to mourn the loss of a revered Indian guru. But life at his ashram was not all love and peace for western visitors...
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Rockin' Ron is up at 4am sitting in a lotus position on the cement floor next to his cot in the westerners' dormitory shed. The rest of us are slowly emerging from the usual disturbed sleep on thin mattresses, spread blankets, or the fold-out beds for hire from the nearby village. Most of us emaciated from stomach bugs, anxiety and restricted diet.

He's trying to calm the imaginings of his fraught mind. The swirling thoughts, the sex fantasies. Trying to reach that inner peace. But a new guy, arrived the day before, is pursuing it another way. By chanting mantras. Out loud. Rockin' Ron has shushed him a couple of times but the mantras continue. The guy is either in a trance or doesn't want to be sidetracked. Rockin' Ron tells him to shut up. The mantras continue. Then the trouble starts. In seconds he's off his meditation mat and across the floor, grabbing the guy's throat, scrunching the white pyjama top he wears and lifting him to his feet. “Look mate,” he tells him in broad Bermondsey. “I'm fackin' trying to get enlightenment here and you're disturbing my silence.”

The Darshan lines form around 5.30am. A dozen or so. It's how you get into the temple grounds. You have to get in there in the morning because that's when Sathya Sai Baba comes out of his room and walks in front of the crowd. Back in the early 90s there'd be a couple of thousand people. The purpose of the lines was to ascertain who sat in what row. You gathered on the dust outside the temple wall and an official walked along the front with a cotton bag containing numbered discs and let the first guy in the line dip in and choose blind.

“Look mate,” he tells him in broad Bermondsey. “I'm fackin' trying to get enlightenment here and you're disturbing my silence.”

Whatever line you were in you wanted a low number. That way you got let in first and sat in the front row inside the grounds. You got a close up Darshan – a sight of the guru, a chance to contemplate his form. And if a guy was going to be picked out for a personal hearing, it was normally from a front row. So Aussie Dan wants that front row. And he's got a feeling he's in a low number line. But he went for a piss and a young Indian boy has arrived late and stolen his place. Aussie Dan has asked him politely to move. And when the boy doesn't shift he demands he get the fuck off his patch of dust. Then he's dragging him up by his pyjamas as assorted officials and fellow pilgrims pile in to prevent a fight.

For me, the main problem was sex. I'd read that controlling the energy regularly expended on orgasm was an important factor in turning libidinous upsurge into balanced flow. And that the best way to reduce subsequent tension from craving (exaggerated massively by a sudden denial of long-developed habits) was physical effort. So I got a job in the westerners' kitchens. Which meant getting up early and missing out the lines. They only let you out late to watch from the back of the crowd. But I learned to meditate properly, studied the Vedas and prepared for enlightenment by chopping carrots. I was in my early forties and had been a long time waiting for this moment.

I first heard of spiritual enlightenment in Ladbroke Grove in the late 60s. I was new to the scene and learning the counter-cultural options. A mod who'd run out of decent supplies of amphetamine and needed the new drugs. Apart from the general anti-establishment attitude and a belief in communal self-help, there was this other, higher belief in the benefits of an expanded consciousness. Pursued through taking the right drugs but even better, through the natural high of meditation and yoga. The Beatles had been to India and Pete Townshend followed an Eastern mystic called Meher Baba. The band Quintessence had supported Pink Floyd at a gig I'd been to. They sat on carpets and one of them played a sitar. They sang about love. Everyone sang about love. It was all we needed. But I was working class and needed an income too and apart from selling dope there wasn't a lot of money around for guys like me.

So I chose another path to the ego-less utopia. Fought the revolution from the production line as a shop steward. Believed in the armed uprising. Believed it would bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the withering away of the state and the eventual creation of the new human, who worked according to ability and took according to need. But most of my workmates voted for Thatcher in 1979. Most of them shat on me when I led a strike against pay cuts and redundancies. So I quit and went to live in Ibiza. Sold dope to tourists and  shacked up by the beach with a girlfriend who got payed to dance in a transvestite club.

It was the look – that afro, the orange threads, the way he moved his hands. I checked out everything about him. People talked about miracles and magic tricks, and how they'd been changed by meeting him.

Ibiza in the early 80s still had a hippy vibe (they'd colonised the place in the 60s and 70s) and record companies sent their artists there for short breaks. New pop stars like George Michael were regulars and the old rockers like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page would show up and play gigs for a laugh. If you lived there and were known you got in everywhere free. It was like a utopia for me. Of course the old counter-culture beliefs were still around. When one guy showed me a secret Buddha shrine on the cliff above the shoreline opposite Mount Vedra, I knew this was really what I wanted. I remember Amnesia. We used to go there as the sun came up and watch an entirely new scene being born, with its new drug (Ecstasy), new music (House) and new belief in universal love. But I'd taken enough drugs for a lifetime. I got out of there as the massed ranks of rave arrived in the mid 80s.

Back in Britain I blew a pile of money I'd made on the island on a huge house I bought just before the boom went bust in 1988. Penniless and exhausted I went in search of my path. Tried the Sufis, Buddhists, Transcendental Meditators  and more. But only when I saw a video of Sai Baba at some guy's satsang did I feel a tug in my heart. It was the look – that afro, the orange threads, the way he moved his hands. I checked out everything about him. People talked about miracles and magic tricks, and how they'd been changed by meeting him. They also talked about scandal and fraud, but it was the writing that blew me away: “The whole cosmos has emerged from the Parabrahman. From the material we should proceed to the spiritual – the Universal Consciousness.” I did a degree in literature for something to do – they still paid full grants then and your rent and gave you the summer off – and took the first opportunity to visit India.

Every day they used to drive Sai Baba out of the ashram in a red Merc. It went passed the kitchens. One day it stopped outside and he came in to bless a new bread making machine someone had donated. I could see the crowds surrounding him through a window down the corridor in the small ante room we used. There were five of us at work, preparing some cabbage. One of them was a devout Catholic who wore a huge crucifix and spoke no English. He worshipped Sai as if he were Jesus come again. We carried on with our work.

Then he came down and into our room. A tiny figure. About 5ft 4ins at most. The hair massive and sparkly in the white glow from the overhead strip light. The orange robe dazzling. He looked at us each in turn and asked where we came from. The guy to my right said Sweden, I told him England and the guy with the crucifix flopped down onto his knees and made the sign of the cross. Baba looked at the rest of us. “Where does he come from?” Italy we said. “Ah, Italy.” He nodded and smiled a smile that said don't be alarmed but also don't think you're in any way about to be elevated out of your obviously lowly existence just yet. Then he raised a hand to bless us, turned and was gone. It was the only time in twenty years I ever had any contact with him.

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