A Modern Saint Inspired by Sri Bhagavan
The Life and Satsangs of Sri Sarath Babuji
When the charismatic south Indian saint and Satguru, Sri Sainathuni Sarath Babuji, known affectionately as ‘Guruji', took mahasamadhi at the young age of 56 in November, 2010, he was renowned for his peerless devotion to Sai Baba of Shirdi, whom he regarded as his beloved Satgurudeva. His devotion to Sai Baba was so brilliant and complete in its expression and fulfillment that he became, by the force majeure of his own realisation, himself a Satguru to thousands of Indian devotees both in India and abroad, and to a small group of Westerners, of whom I was fortunate enough to be one. His life was an unparalleled example in modern India of the total optimisation of human spiritual potential that is possible when pure, one-pointed devotion is directed to one's ideal of fulfillment and realised to perfection, which, in Guruji's case, found its concrete embodiment in the life and teaching of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). What was not generally so well known was Guruji's deep and abiding love for Sri Bhagavan, whose biography was given him by his guru: Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja (1938-1989), himself a renowned Sai Baba devotee.
At the time, Guruji lived in Kota, Andhra Pradesh, near Nellore, where his father was headmaster of a local school. From his childhood, Guruji was spiritually precocious, possessing almost supernatural gifts of mind, heart, and will. Already dissatisfied with l!fe, restless, questioning everything, he had read widely in the scriptures and philosophical schools of Hinduism and the sutra literature of Buddhism, and had studied in Sanskrit the intricacies of Advaita Vedanta. But he wanted proof that the fruit which the scriptures promised (mokshaphala) could actually be attained in human life: he wanted a concrete example of Self- realisation. Guruji was that rarest grade of aspirant, ready to give his life for the Truth, which the sastras liken to gunpowder - one whose longing for freedom (mumukshutva) is so intense, it explodes into flame at fire's slightest touch. For Guruji, that match took the form of Narasimha Swami’s biography of Ramana. At once, reading the story of Bhagavan's life, Guruji’s own search became more real and tangible. As he later recalled, “Up to then, I was not reading the lives of saints at all, I was only reading dry philosophy and the scriptures, Vedas, Vedanta, only these things. Then, when I came into contact with my guru and these discussions began whether liberation was possible, he said, 'Yes, it is humanly possible,' and gave me Self-Realization. I read that book. Bhagavan gave me a glimpse that it can be humanly possible. To me, Ramana is someone who transcended everything, who found a solution from within."
For Guruji, this event marked the beginning of intense sadhana. From his youth he had felt a mystical attraction to Baba; now focused and inspired by the example of Bhagavan, over the next three years he visited Tiruvannamalai whenever his meagre funds would permit, often staying for long periods. He never slept indoors or ate at stalls, but stayed on the mountain or slept by the roadside or in mandapams on girivalam road. He survived on the sambar-rice given in Narayana seva at Ramana Ashram to mendicants as Bhagavan’s prasad, or, when in solitude, on a diet of puffed rice. He kept to himself, avoiding human contact, speaking only when necessary. Rigorous tapas came to him naturally, and attracted the attention of old devotees like Sri Krishna Bhikshu, who befriended him and had him visit now and then. Guruji sometimes also passed a night in discussion with Chalam (1894-1979), the famous Telugu author and compiler of Bhagavan Smirtulu ('Bhagavan Remembered’), whose honesty and outspokenness Guruji admired. During this time his inner experiences were deepening, and his spiritual powers maturing, until various siddhis began to manifest spontaneously. Seeing them as a distraction from the single-minded pursuit of his goal, he prayed, successfully, for their removal.
This period of sadhana culminated in a visit to the famous immobile saint (ajagarabhavin), Sri Poondi Swami, in nearby Kalasapakkam, for a month in 1974, just before his 20th birthday. On the last day of his stay, in the presence of the great avadhuta, Guruji had a profound, transformative experience. He later described it by saying Poondi Swami's mind was so pure, that in it he directly experienced the sight and presence of Sai Baba (sakshatkar). This realisation fulfilled him, and inaugurated the next stage of his life, which lasted to the end of it - the total dedication of his love and service to Baba. Much later, when asked to summarize the relationship among the three greatest saints in his life, Guruji said: "Ramana showed me the vessel [of my being], Poondi Swami emptied it, and Sai Baba filled it.”
After this, the young saint moved to Tirupati, one of Vaishnavism’s holiest shrines, whose sacred temple to Sri Venkateswara had exerted an attraction for him since childhood. Here, instead of leaving the world, Guruji rejoined it: he began working to earn a living and took up post-graduate studies in sociology, receiving a Master's degree in 1976 from Venkateswara University. He also spent long periods of solitude in the sacred hills surrounding the temple, allowing his experience of realisation to stabilise, while remaining in contact with his guru, Sri Bharadwaja.
Out of his deep love for his master, Guruji remained formally his disciple, and served him with unflagging devotion. During this time, he performed every service asked of him and obeyed every instruction, even acceding to his master's wish that he marry, although Guruji's own wish was to remain unattached. Instead, he embraced householder life with complete dedication, uniting all aspects of it around his devotion to Baba, and weaving them seamlessly into one integrated whole. This holistic, guru-centric approach, which integrated his worldly and spiritual life into a harmonious synergy energized by devotion to his Satgurudeva - Sri Sai Baba - became the hallmark of his life and teaching.
Guruji had a concern for the welfare of young people, so his love of service expressed itself naturally in education. After his marriage, he established an English-medium school in Ongole which encouraged a spirit of discovery along with academic excellence; today it is one of the finest in Andhra Pradesh. He also carried out original research on the life of Sai Baba, translating rare texts and memoirs, and recovering rare photographs, in the process becoming one of India's foremost authorities on Baba's life and work.
After his master's mahasamadhi in 1989, he moved to Shirdi, to be nearer Sai Baba's samadhi. He supported himself and his small family (wife and daughter) by an honorarium from the school he founded in Ongole. Gradually, the magnetism of his realised presence drew people to him, and in response to their needs and questions he would share his love of Baba and give help in solving their problems. His presence was so therapeutic and his help so effective that devotees began calling him 'Guruji', though he himself never claimed or used that form of address. As the fruits of his attainment became more apparent, the demand to see him became so great that to meet this need a satsang hall was constructed nearby where more devotees could come for his darshan. Guruji never allowed advertising or spoke in public, and was averse to publicity of any kind. Even so, his fame grew exponentially, and by the late 1990's, many thousands were coming from all over India to attend his darshans in Shirdi, or wherever he occasionally travelled. In 1998, over two days of continuous darshan in Hyderabad, at the consecration (vigraha-pratistha) of a Baba-murti, I watched, in wonder and disbelief, as more than 10,000 people in an unbroken queue filed past his feet.
In his darshans, he simply sat silent with eyes closed while Baba’s nama was sung, under a huge portrait of Baba, as thousands gazed at him spellbound, entranced by his supernatural, spiritual power. He never spoke and both opened and closed darshan by doing formal namaskar to the portrait of Baba. It was one of the great sights of modern India, and a beautiful example of perfect devotion to Baba, authenticated by the truth and purity of his own life. 1993, his first foreign devotees came to him, followed by other sincere Western seekers; gradually they formed the nucleus of his Western sangha. When he saw their genuine need and longing for contact, Guruji responded by giving satsangs in English to answer their questions about spiritual life. Eventually, over 140 of his English satsangs were recorded and transcribed, the last given a week before his passing.
When Guruji took mahasamadhi in November, 2010, his Western devotees sought a way to pay him tribute and assuage the grief of devotees around the world who mourned his untimely loss. It was decided to bring out selections from his English satsangs in a monthly email called Rose Petals, arranged thematically by topic. The transcribed satsangs were coded into extracts by theme, then collated and edited according to the topic chosen for each month, beginning in January, 2011, six weeks after his mahasamadhi ceremonies in Shirdi. In January, 2012, while continuing monthly emails of Rose Petals, it was decided to publish the previous year's issues in book form, as Rose Petals 2011; an excerpt follows this introduction.
Guruji's satsangs show an uncanny ability to clarify spiritual problems and psychological issues in practical terms that are relevant to the needs of earnest seekers, whatever path they may walk. His comprehensive approach to spiritual life is experientially-based and individually-oriented, rather than prescriptive, theoretical, sectarian or doctrinal. Takei:i together, his enlightened insights constitute a significant contribution to our understanding of optimum human fulfillment and the process of unfoldment leading to the Self-realised state.
Guruji's satsangs cover a wide range of subjects of interest to seekers since time immemorial: the nature of the guru and the gurusishya relationship, the role of grace versus effort, love and devotion, meditation, the ego's patterns and conditionings, and how to integrate teachings into one's daily life, amongst a host of other topics of concern to seekers the world over. More information about Guruji's views on these subjects may be found in Rose Petals 2011, but one aspect of them deserves mention here: his comments on Sri Ramana Maharshi. Guruji spoke often of Sri Bhagavan, and his deep · respect and abiding love for him were very clear. Of his many observations about him, two may be noteworthy here. The first is that, unlike many Westerners, what interested Guruji most about Bhagavan was not his teachings, but his life. He said, "It was Ramana's life, not his teachings, that first attracted me to him. And even now, it is not his teachings, it is his life: that is real. People can talk Vedanta, high Vedanta, but to live like that ... to me, all his teaching is valueless before his life. Ramana is more important to me than all his teachings, because his life itself is the embodiment of the teaching."
There were two reasons for this. The first is, Guruji said, that "words alone have never changed anyone." When I asked, “What, then, about the evidence of the Upanishads that enlightenment resulted from a mahavakya whispered in the disciple's ear by a Satguru like Sankara?" Guruji replied, "A mahavakya is aguruvakya; it is an experience, not a vak (word). It was the maha of the guru that transformed, not the vakya; by words alone no one has ever been changed. That is why they're called mahavakyas." Questioned further, Guruji said maha was the transformative grace of the Satguru's sannidhi (presence), and that this was the primary, operative factor; words were but the vehicle for this. It is apposite here to recall Bhagavan's own words in this connection: ''A jnani has no sankalpas but his sannidhi is the most powerful force ... [it] can do wonders: save souls, give peace of mind, even give liberation to ripe souls .... The jnani does save the devotees, but not by sankalpa, which is non-existent in him, only through his presiding presence, his sannidhi."
Guruji could never agree or sympathise with the Western view that saw Bhagavan exclusively as a jnani, and thought this unbalanced view led to a distortion of the role teachings occupied in spiritual life. Divorced from the enlightened presence of a Master who embodied them, they were dry and sterile to deliver unaided the realisation they promised. It was Bhagavan's sannidhi that authenticated and embodied his teaching and gave it its transformative power. Without this, it was impotent to effect the lasting qualitative change required, though no doubt the teachings have an intrinsically curative benefit, even on a purely verbal level, and Bhagavan's moving assurance of their liberating power, given in the latest (1 Ie rev.) edition of his Collected Works, pp. 299-300, must be kept in mind, although even here it is said to be given "in the form of Bhagavan's grace." In any case, most of Bhagavan’s teaching took place in silence; Dakshinamurti, not Sankara, is its most appropriate symbol.
The second reason Bhagavan's li(e was important for Guruji was due to bhakti's central place in it, so much so, that for Guruji, Ramana was primarily a bhakta, again in sharp contrast to the prevailing Western view. Guruji justified this position by pointing out that most of the works Bhagavan produced on his teaching were done in response to devotees' requests; the only two works he wrote unasked, spontaneously of his own accord, were the Arunachala Padikam and Arunachala Ashtakam - both love poems of a very high order, dripping with love for the Absolute (Nirguna Brahman) in the form of his Satguru, Arunachala. Many Westerners found it hard to accept that Ramana could take an inert mountain as his guru, but this· love was that rarest, most sublime form of divine love that arises in great saints after Self-realisation and attainment of jnana, termed accordingly,jnanottara bhakti (lit. 'higher-than-jnana' bhakti). Paradoxically, as entailed by Advaita, at this ultimate level love and its object are one, and knowledge merges into unitive experience where both seer and seen are sublated; in this sense jnana could well be defined as 'experiential knowledge of absolute truth'; it is alaukika, a supernormal, transcendental experience.
This highest love, though very rare, is sanctioned in the scriptures (it is referred to in the Gita, at XII.3-4), and mentioned by Bhagavan himself in Day By Day Ujith Bhagavan by Devaraja Mudaliar, sub die 10-4-46 morning, where it is described as being inseparable from Bhakti-uttara jnana, its transcendental, experiential coefficient. From Guruji's viewpoint, it could be said that this ineffable, supreme love defined Bhagavan - its divine rasa was the bliss of his being, the light of peace in his eyes, the compassionate grace in his smile.
Fittingly, this most sublime and rarefied form of spiritual love was symbolised for Bhagavan by its polar opposite in material creation: the holiest of mountains, Arunachala (we may recall that in Sanskrit the term 'guru' means 'heavy'). Arunachala was his 'father', his beloved guru, who called him to his feet as a boy, whom he worshipped by his pradakshinas, poetry, and took darshan of every day of his life, whose precincts he never left, even for a day, and whose verses of praise he had chanted as he lay dying, while gazing at the mountain until his last breath.
Here, in Bhagavan's words:
'Arunachala, Thou form of Grace itself!
Once having claimed me, loveless though I be,
how canst Thou let me now be lost,
and fail to fill me so with love that I must pine for Thee,
unceasingly and melt within like wax over the fire?
Oh nectar springing up in the heart of devotees!
Haven of my refuge!
Let Thy pleasure be mine, for that way
lies my joy, Lord of my life!”
All this is overlooked by the Western view that sees only the jnani, whereas for Guruji, the beauty, love, and poetry in Bhagavan’s life was the juice, the divine rasa, that sanctioned the authority of his teachings and gave them their redemptive power. Without this empowering love in some form, trying to become free through the teachings alone, Guruji said, was like cutting off the branch you are sitting on: it is of no use. Probably everyone on the path has felt the futility of unaided effort at some time or another, and the ensuing frustration as the ego tries vainly to dislodge itself Guruji's satsang is an inspiring reminder that there is another way to view this old problem, and that a change of perspective may be all that's required for insight to a new solution.
Guruji's view of Bhagavan is an illuminating corrective that restores a beauty and fullness to his life that enhances even more our appreciation of his unsurpassed realisation. It is therefore especially appropriate that the following selection from Guruji's satsangappears, for the first time outside its original publication, in the distinguished journal dedicated to preserving the memory of Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great saint whom he loved and whose incomparable realisation and pristine life of devotion and service to humanity inspired Guruji’s own attainment and his unique expression of the same, supreme state.
- Ram Brown Crowell
Editor's Introductory Note
Sri Sarath Babuji (1954-2010) was a precociously-gifted South Indian saint who was mystically connected to Sai Baba of Shirdi and inspired in his sadhana by the example of Sri Bhagavan's life and attainment. Known affectionately as "Guruji", he attained realisation (saksatkar) at the age of20 in the presence of the peerless avadhutand ajagarabhavin, Poondi Swami of Kalasapakkam (d.1979), Thereafter he lived a life of faulcl~ss devotion to his great Sadguru, Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918). Sri Babuji's path can be seen as the nirguna bhakti of Medieval Sants like Nanak and Kabir, and of more contemporary saints like Sri Ananada Mayi Ma and his own Sadguru, Sai Baba. It is distinguished from classical (saguna) bhakti by the equal emphasis it places on the formless aspect of the Beloved in all modes of devotion and theological expression.
As in Sufism, Medieval Nathism and the Sant tradition culminating in Kabir, nirguna bhakti is an interior path of the heart that transcends historical distinctions of religion and outward forms of sectarian worship to focus on devotion to the Beloved One dwelling formlessly within. The longing to cultivate an intimate, loving relationship with the Beloved as the object of fulfilment results in a deepening devotional intimacy and experiential knowledge of the Beloved’s formless nature where salvation resides. This process is catalyzed by the loving grace and glance of the Sadguru, whose presence functions as the Beloved mystically manifest in embodiment.
On the path of nirguna bhakti the highest attainment is advaitabhava, the experience of absolute Oneness. This is an ineffably blissful state in which the adept experiences the Beloved's divine nature permeating all things, even as Lord Krishna declared in the Gita, that he is sarvabhutasayasthitah, 'residing in the hearts of all creatures’ (Gita 10.20) - a verse Sai Baba quoted from his own experience. Thus, when Guruji speaks oflonging for Baba, the longing he refers to is not only for the historical Sai Baba and his miraculous manifest lila, but, even more, for the experience of Baba's formless nature as absolute love in its dynamic, boundless dimension, where his eternal lila of dispensing grace and blessings continues uninterrupted by his earthly passing.
This is how Baba can declare that his tomb will speak - his formless nature as saccidananda is undying and available even now, every moment, if we want and long for it enough. This is the longing that leads to the sense of belonging, that Guruji speaks of, that eventually frees us from separative, egoic existence by experiencing our identity with the Beloved's formless nature. The transformation of our self-experience from separation to union is realized through the alchemizing grace of the Sadguru's love. It may be added that this is the same longing that took Sri Bhagavan to Arunachala in search of the Father and inspired his love poems for the sacred mountain, alluded to by Guruji. In them, not only is Arunachala's geographical presence hymned, but also its formless nature as a reservoir of divine grace (arul) and redemptive love (anbu) that responds actively to devotees' prayers and longing.
The selections below are taken from satsangs given privately in English to small groups of devotees in India from 1993 to 2010. They were recorded as Sri Babuji spoke, then transcribed and edited. Since Guruji had no systematized set of teachings as such and replied only to individual questions, the extracts given here have been collated from various satsangs around the theme of devotional longing, a topic which recurred time and again. For more information on Sri Babuji’s life and teachings please visit the websites given in the source note below.
Readers interested in nirguna bhakti are advised to consult Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective by Krishna Sharma (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987) and, especially, The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Edited by Karine Schomer and WH. McLeod (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987). Both works are seminal and considered authoritative.
– Ram Brown Crowell, editor, Rose Petals