An Early Western Visitor Speaks: – Early Devotees

From ‘Man Of Miracles’ – Howard Murphet

“Now he told me something about the ashram. Its name is Prasanti Nilayam, meaning the “Abode of Great Peace”. About seven hundred people live here permanently, while hundreds are coming and going all the time. The residents occupy the inward-facing terraced houses around the perimeter. The visitors occupy whatever space is available at the time perhaps a room in one of the large buildings, perhaps a spot of floor in one of the open sheds, perhaps a corner on the Post Office verandah, or at times of great festival crowds, the bare brown earth beneath a tree. People like myself, who have been softened by the creature comforts of western civilisation, Baba usually puts in the furnished guesthouse.

In the early morning I had heard strange but soothing sounds of Sanskrit chanting. Now I learned that it came from the school where boys and youths are studying the Vedas. They are not only learning to read the Sanskrit of these works but also to recite it by heart. They are being taught by pundits to chant the texts with the correct intonation and emphasis, as was done in India’s ancient days. The reason for this is that the uplifting spiritual benefits of the Vedas come from the mantric effect of the sound as much as from the meaning of the words. That is what the ancient writers tell us, and having been subjected to some of the chanting myself I don’t find it hard to believe them. There are very few schools like this one in India today; perhaps because it normally takes about seven years to learn one Veda, as Mr. Kasturi informed me, and there are four of them. Over twenty years to master the lot, and no commercial rewards to speak of at the end of it all! But Sai Baba seems determined, against the surging tide of materialism in modern India, to revive her ancient spiritual culture.

The ashram also has its own canteen where I had been invited to have my meals, but I was told that as I was Baba’s guest I must not pay. The accommodation was also free and I had been given a set of free books! It seemed I was not allowed to pay for anything. But perhaps I could make a donation at the end of my stay, as one does at most ashrams in India. This point I queried with Mr. Kasturi.

“No,” he said emphatically, “Baba will not accept donations. He never takes money from anyone.”

“He seems to have some wealthy followers,” I replied, “Perhaps they give financial help to the ashram.”

“No,” Mr. Kasturi smiled. “But don’t take my word for it; ask them yourself. Many will he arriving in the next few days for Sivaratri.”

“What’s that?” I queried.

He explained that it was the great annual festival to the god Siva, that many thousands came to Prasanti Nilayam for it, and that during the festival Baba always performed two great miracles in public.

I decided then and there to wait for the festival Of Sivaratri (Siva’s night) and see the miracles. In the meantime I would read Sai Baba’s story as written by N. Kasturi, talk to his followers, and get close to the great man himself whenever I possibly could. Kasturi gave me hope that I might be called for an interview fairly soon, although Baba was very busy.

During the next few days, in fact, I was fortunate in being invited to several group interviews. For these a dozen people gather in one of the interview rooms at either end of the bhajan hall, or “prayer hall” as it is sometimes called. Sai Baba sits either on the one chair, or else on the floor – depending, it seems, on his whim – and the people sit cross-legged on the floor, fanning out in a rough circle about him. On each occasion I managed to get as close as possible to him and sat to his right within a couple of feet of the hand that performs the magic.

These group interviews usually begin with some talk on spiritual subjects. Baba invites someone to ask a question; then in the answer he expounds on such matters as the meaning and purpose of life, Man’s true nature, and the way he should strive to live in order to reach the goal. The teachings are always clear, vivid, and intensely practical.

Towards the end of each meeting, if some people have personal problems, he may take them into another room one by one or in family groups. But never a meeting went by without Baba producing at least one item besides the vibhuti he always produces, with his theurgic hand-wave. Pendants, chains, rings, necklaces and other objects I have watched him pluck from the air in this way and then give to some delighted individual.

He apparently knew my suspicions of him were not yet dispelled, because he still pulled his loose cuffless sleeve up before taking an object from nowhere. But on one occasion he did not need to raise the sleeve above suspicion. It was a very hot day and he was wearing a robe with short sleeves that came only to the elbow. Now, as if he would exorcise, once and for all, the sceptical spirit within me, he let his right hand lie open, palm upward, on the arm of the chair within a few inches of my eyes. If I had been a palmist, I might have read the lines and mounds on the small palm and slim graceful fingers. I could certainly be quite sure that no items, however small, were concealed there.

Then he lifted his hand from where it lay, and began to circle it in the air about eighteen inches from my face. One moment the hand was empty, the next it was holding something big that protruded brightly on either side of his fist. He shook this out to reveal a long necklace of coloured stones. It was what the Indians call a jappamala which, like the Christian rosary, is used for prayers. Its regulation size is one hundred and eight stones or beads. There, was nowhere in three-dimensional space that a conjurer could have hidden such a bulky object and produced it under these circumstances. Baba gave it to a grey-haired lady on his immediate left. When he placed it around her neck, she was so overcome that her eyes filled with tears and she went down on her knees to touch his feet.

Every day now saw the crowd swelling. The buildings were all full and people were beginning to spread their beds under the trees. In this gathering tide of dark-faced, white-robed Indians I was the only western male. Bob Raymer having returned to his home in California. Among the ladies there were only two pale faces left, ochre-robed Nirmalananda and Gabriela Steyer.

Yet I did not feel like a foreigner: I felt that I was among brothers, and was completely happy. One could hardly be otherwise with brotherly love shining in every face and inspiring every word and action. Any stranger was your acquaintance in minutes and your close friend within an hour, anxious to help you in every way and eager to tell you about the wonderful things that Sai Baba had done for him or some members of his family. “


Howard Murphet was one of the first Westerners to be made welcome at Sai Baba’s Ashram.  I am not sure what year he found Sai Baba but one would think it was in the 1960’s….


To avoid confusion: Sai Baba had a Trust Fund created to accept  anonymous donations which enabled the ashram to develop and eventually all other buildings.