I have an image of Shirdi Sai Baba in my home that I painted myself (not pictured). It has been a comfort to me in times of need, whenever I have some small worry that bothers me. I also touch Baba’s feet as I am leaving the house in the morning. I will soon give this image to a mandir in my tradition so that other devotees can receive blessings. I may have mentioned before that I have visited Baba’s temple in Iselin, NJ, on two occasions, which is the closest one can get to actually visiting Shirdi without traveling to India.
Let me relate what happened on one of my trips to the mandir in Iselin. I was there for a conference in nearby New Brunswick. I took the train to the nearest station, stopping along the way to buy puja items, and then I walked to the temple. Commuters were gathering informally in the mandir to receive darshan on the way home from work (it was about 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. as I recall). Many of the couples had brought children with them, and I was happy to see the young ones gazing on the deity images and sitting in meditation. I was a stranger in this place, and no one paid much attention to me, except for the priest who blessed the puja items and offered them before the main murthi, which is said to be an exact replica of the one in Shirdi.
After making the offering, I prostrated three times, each time making one request of Baba. The first two were pretty mundane and even materialistic. First, I asked for safe travel, as I was far from home and low on funds. I was a bit stressed by spending time on the road and missing my family back in Georgia. Second, I asked for a new sari for my wife, as we were to attend a baby dedication in a short period of time. Third, I asked for something more spiritual in nature, that I would become a true guru (satguru or jagadguru), and that I would spread Baba’s message to the world.
I didn’t feel very much at the time other than perhaps a certain peacefulness, much like one often receives when visiting spiritual places where much faith is exhibited. I then made the rather long trek back to my hotel, which involved a good deal of walking and a train journey, followed by more walking. In total, I spent maybe twenty minutes in the mandir and probably an hour’s journey each way. It was snowy at the time: this must have been in March, and I had brought my only winter coat (which I rarely needed in Georgia). I went back to the hotel and returned to my normal routine, calling my family and then settling down for a bit of relaxation.
It was then that I felt something in my hair. I reached up and found three grains of rice in my hair, one for each time that I had prostrated in the temple! I recalled my three prayers, and I took the grains of rice as confirmation that Baba had heard me. I felt joyful right away, but I kept the whole thing quiet until now, about two years later. Of course, Baba promises that he will instantly hear the prayers of his devotees, and he is the most approachable of saints.
As for my three requests, I went through the rest of the trip without any problems. When I got to the sari shop, I didn’t have the money to buy one, as they were pretty expensive and nicely decorated (with sequins, etc.). I was able to make arrangements with the merchant that I would pay when I arrived home, and they would ship the sari to my house. This saved me the additional difficulty of having to carry the package on the plane.
So the first two requests were easily accomplished within a few days, but what about the third? I asked to become a great guru, which might be called prideful or egotistical. This is something that has been a great struggle for me for several years, in fact, my whole adult life. It’s a long story, but I was rejected from becoming a Christian minister, and this was a great disappointment and an emotional blow for me. Since my conversion to Hinduism, I have mostly been laboring anonymously, maintaining this site on my own and writing meditation books for a small readership. I have many times been tempted to just leave the spiritual life altogether.
I discussed this with my guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, via email. To put it briefly, I told him that I have a wife, a family, three kids, and a job. I have a need to make money and provide for them. Given these realities, I asked him, wouldn’t it make sense to just put this spiritual business on hold and wait until a more favorable time? Or should I persist in my stubborn attempts to become an illumined soul? Should I keep trying to be like Swamiji, Shirdi Sai, and Ramakrishna?
This is what Swamiji said to me, “Please, be that person!” He reiterated to me that “guru” means “remover of darkness.” A guru is someone who makes the burdens of other people lighter, who offers support and encouragement, and that is exactly what I have been trying to do. Swamiji actually pleaded with me to think of myself in that way. Since then, a couple more visions have given me slightly more confidence, although I suspect the guru shoes will always feel too big.
Once, when I was meditating, I saw a lotus seat carved out of wood. It was the sort of seat often used by Indian teachers. It was surrounded by a a fine rug and brocade cushions. A voice came to me that said, “The seat is empty. Take it.” I thought a good deal about leadership and how oftentimes the person who runs something is just the person who was willing to take the initiative.
On another occasion, I had been intensely meditating for some hours. I had a very brilliant vision of Narasimha deva with many heads and many arms. This is not a normal thing for me: like most people, I don’t “see” very much when I meditate. Then I looked down at my own arm, and there was tied there a piece of animal fur. If you know the Bible, you will know that this was a reference to the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-27).
Esau was the older son, the son of the promise in the lineage of Abraham and the rightful heir. But Esau was also impulsive and greedy, and he traded his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Jacob and Esau’s mother, Rebekah, favored Jacob and wanted him to receive Isaac’s blessing. Isaac was blind and could only recognize Esau by his hairy body. Rebekah has Jacob put an animal skin on his forearm and take a bowl of soup to his father (who is apparently quite hungry and impulsive like his older son). Then Isaac grants his blessing to Jacob, making him the son of the promise in the lineage of Abraham.
Just like in the Indian scriptures, when a father gives a blessing to a son, it is an irrevocable vow. And I felt that Narasimha was giving me his blessing, despite a certain amount of illegitimacy. I recognize that I do not come from an Indian family, that I should be a Protestant Christian, as is expected of someone from my background. I do not have the proper “credentials” to be a teacher in this tradition. And yet, somehow, quite oddly, I find myself here, with an animal skin tied to my arm, an unlikely part of this story of the transmission of Sanatana Dharma.
I am not a real son of India. I do not hail from a Himalayan village. In one sense, I am a fake. And yet I am also a “real” fake, in that I have been adopted into a genuine lineage going back directly to Ramakrishna, and, for that, I am quite grateful. Sometimes the person who receives the inheritance is the one who wants it badly enough, and I am grateful for the support of the Divine Mother, who is a wonderful illusionist and trickster. She is the one who has brought me into this fold and who supports me to this day.
I don’t have any magic tricks: I can’t levitate or survive for years only on sunshine. I can’t produce coins out of thin air or make fireballs shoot from my palms. But I do have Devi, and it is Her leela that matters. She alone can trick the Father into believing in me. She can take my deficits and make me into a real teacher. She works through Her saints, and they offer me protection. For some reason I have been snatched from beside the Jordan and taken over to the Ganges, and I believe that She must have her purpose for that.
Swamiji also often says that the word for “grace” in Sanskrit is krpa, which he translates as “do and get.” One who follows the dharma and teaches others to do so is protected by dharma. Whether or not I have any special powers is irrelevant, because the teachings work. The person who follows the teachings will receive the blessings. I am not special as a person: I have no merit of my own. If someone takes refuge, they take refuge not in me but in the Atman-Brahman, which is eternal. If I am the vehicle for that, then well and good. If I fail in making the teachings known, that is okay as well. It is better to die having made the attempt than to venture nothing.
My spiritual name is “Janyananda,” and it means, “he who is the bliss of all beings born.” It also refers to the ceremony that confers the sacred thread, in which one is empowered to say the Gayatri mantra. Now, how can I take such a title, which is so magnificent and beyond understanding? Only because I know that the power does not reside with myself but with the divine flame within, the same divine flame that resides within each being. As a person, I am quite ordinary, but I hold within me the key to all joy, as do you.
So we can all ask Shirdi Sai for help, and he will render that help immediately. When we go to him with faith, our prayers will be answered. I encourage you to seek him, by singing his devotional songs, by gazing upon his images, and by offering him fruits, flowers, and incense. And remember me as well, this second son who, by some cosmic quirk, became the son of the promise. I have this animal skin tied onto to my arm, in a mock image of full maturity, but one day I will grow into the promise completely. My roar will be as fearsome as Sri Narasimha Deva Himself. Jaya vijaya bhava!