When the Guru Is Gone – Sathya Sai Baba

Offering of Flowers To Sathya Sai Baba

What happens, then, when the guru dies or goes away? How do disciples cope with the absence of the one whose living and loving presence has opened for them the door to their own heart, the one through whom all reality has been filtered, and their own self understood? The disciples of Jesus, Palestinian Jews living at the beginning of the Common Era, and the disciples of the Indian Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, both Indians and Americans in 1970’s India, were both forced to negotiate the absence of the guru. These two groups of devotees,  separated by almost 2,000 years in time and more than 2,500 miles, in land mass, inhabited very different cultures. They told stories about their gurus that help us understand the evolving meaning of the body of the guru—both in its presence and its absence. It is an interesting tale of sameness.

In looking at what devotees have chosen to recall we come to see what the disciple community finds destabilizing in the guru’s physical absence as well as how that absence can be overcome; how the pain of loss of the “non-dual reciprocity” of guru and disciple is eventually transcended through a new understanding of the body of the guru. A process that many people face today while  recovering from the loss of Sathya Sai Baba, who many worshipped and adored.

In the Absence of the Body: Discipleship When the Guru Has Gone


An ancient axiom holds that when the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.  Much less is said about what happens when the guru disappears—and for this, disciples are rarely ready.  It is often a more traumatic event than the death of a parent or spouse or child, because the relationship between disciple and guru is of a different nature than relationships with parents, lovers, friends, or one’s own children.  While all these relationships can involve deep and selfless love, the love of the guru (in both the genitive and objective sense) becomes the lens through which the disciple understands the self, the other, and the world. And at least initially, the locus of this love is the bodily presence of the guru.

The guru not only shows the way, but is that very way.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is how Jesus’ disciples remembered him.

Abhishiktānanda, a modern Roman Catholic monk initiated into Indian advaita by his guru, Gnānānanda, writes that “Guru and disciple form a dyad, a pair, whose two components call for each other and belong together.  No more than the two poles (of a magnet) can they exist without being related to each other.  On the way towards unity they are a dyad.  In the ultimate realization they are a non-dual reciprocity.”


How and Why We Remember

Gospel scholars talk about the “messianic secret” that describes how Jesus in the Gospels tells his disciples not to talk about his deeds of power or identity as the Christ, but to keep these things silent. Scholars often interpret this “secret” as a literary device (especially in Mark) employed to explain why, if Jesus was working all the wonders reported in the narrative, all of Israel did not come to believe in him, or at least know of him in his lifetime.3

In collecting the early stories of Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass encountered a modern corollary of the messianic secret. He writes that it took a number of years for Neem Karoli Baba’s Indian disciples to openly share their stories of Maharajji (as Neem Karoli Baba was known) due to his own directive that he should not be spoken about to others. There are stories of Maharajji ordering the burning of a collection of stories about him and of his tearing up a manuscript of an article on him. Neem Karoli, much like Jesus, ordered those who witnessed miracles effected by or through him never to speak of them. In the case of Neem Karoli Baba, this reticence is certainly not a literary device. Can it be that for Jesus, too, the “messianic secret” was real—and not a device of the Gospel authors?

We have similar instances of both teachers rebuking those who would compliment or draw attention to them. When his contemporary, Deoria Baba, said that Neem Karoli was an incarnation of love, Maharaji responded, “Why, that wicked man! What does he know? Who does he think he is?” Jesus, when called “good teacher” by an inquiring outsider, answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Both of them were opposed having their deeds recorded, and yet their disciples felt the need to do so when they were gone.

Both maharaj and Jesus often complained that their disciples did not truly understand their message, or even who they were. Yet, in spite of the guru’s admonitions, the community of disciples feels responsible for interpreting him to one another after his disappearance, and for preserving/creating a body of material through which the guru will become known by others. The gathering together of such stories offers those who experienced them a way to process the events of the past and gives new generations the possibility of experiencing an awakening similar to that of those who lived in the presence of the guru. In theological language this is called anamnesis, a remembering that makes real in the present the being or event that is being recalled. Anamnesis is one attempt at making the disappeared body of the guru present again.

Now we have the same with Sathya Sai Baba, while alive he complained that his followers failed to understand him. He called himself an enigma, one who could not be known. His passing six years ago, came as a surprise to his community and left them in shock. How did they deal with his passing? On the surface, not very well. While some carried on just as before, holding on to their past habits and routines they had build up during their time with the guru, others floundered. Many left to find another guru or to find solace in a former student and imposter.  Although, I feel that a certain Anamnesis has taken place and the steadfast following will overcome the humbug following, in making  the guru’s Temple and Ashram, the guru himself.


Excerpted from Parabola: Where Spiritual Traditions Meet, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2012).

 By James H. Reho 


The key is in understanding that the physical body is only an instrument of the divine. It is not forever. What was it that Sathya Sai Baba said so well ? “You are not the body.” “Drop all attachments to the body and its desires.”  I feel that includes all physical attachment to Sai Baba’s form also. ~  More importantly He said and I quote:  “At first, name and form are essential, that is the reason why Avatars come, so that God can be loved, adored, worshiped, listened to and followed, and finally realized as nameless and formless.” And to end on a happy note, a beautiful video of darshan with Swami to the huanting music of Secret Garden.  

Sri Hanumate Namah, The One That Serves – Children Of Light

Neem Karoli Baba’s famous devottee, Ram Dass wrote the folowing:  “I met this  little Indian guy and there was no doubt in my mind [that he “knew”]. It was just like meeting a rock. It was just solid, all the way through. Everywhere I pressed, there he was!”


This article was written by Swami Chidananda  


One particularly unusual thing about Babaji was the manner of his coming and going. He would suddenly walk into your presence unannounced. While leaving, he would take leave and go out and walk along the road and tell people not to follow him. The moment he went out of sight, it was impossible to trace him out even if one ran after him or went in a motor vehicle. It may even be just a hundred yards away where he turns around the bend of a road and was hidden from sight. This was enough. The next moment he was totally untraceable anywhere within a radius of a mile. It is believed that he had done Upasana (worship) of Sri Hanuman and attributed many of his miraculous deeds to �Siddhi� (psychic power) through his Upasana.

This may be quite true because it is a well-known fact that Babaji has prompted and supervised the construction of several beautiful and very impressive Hanuman Mandirs. These temples enshrining Sri Hanuman are powerful attractions to innumerable devotees. One such most attractive and impressive Hanuman Mandir is in Lucknow. Sri Hanumanji shrined in Baba Neem Karoli�s Ashram at Kainchi is also a centre of worship. In Brindavan also there is a beautiful Hanumanji temple.

Some devotees even say that Babaji had conquered space and that he could be anywhere and in any place he wished within the twinkling of an eye. Also, he was characterised by a total non-attachment to anything on earth. Even as freely blowing wind is unattached to anything he was also unaffected by his environment, even as the pure blowing breeze. However, despite his non-attachment and unaffected attitude he was yet very compassionate to those in trouble or distress. He would not refuse an earnest request. He was all loving kindness to people in trouble and helped them out of their trouble by the influence he had in high circles.

Babaji was very austere in his personal life and moved about with only a blanket around his body. He had great goodwill towards all spiritual institutions. I also feel that he had hidden inner spiritual contact and connection with a number of other spiritual teachers and saints who were his contemporaries. His work was not completely an individual and isolated one. It formed part of a wider work in which many other saints were actively engaged in and were in spiritual co-ordination. Despite his taciturn nature and outer reserve, Babaji was capable of great deal of affection expressed even by a mere gesture or gaze. He gave courage to many a fainting heart and brought solace to countless souls. He endeared himself as a family member in the homes of many of his sincere devotees and true disciples. Thus his passing was felt as a keen personal loss by thousands of his followers.

Babaji�s coming into public notice dates back several decades ago in the pre-independence era during the British regime. There is a story in this connection which is a very close parallel to a similar story connected with another great Siddha Purusha of Southern India, viz., Sri Nityananda Avadhuta hailing from Kerala who later on settled down at Vajreshvari near Bombay. These two incidents are almost identical in their details.

Babaji was once wandering somewhere in Eastern U.P. At one place he passed by a railway station. The train happened to be at halt. He had a fancy to travel some distance by train. He got into a nearby coach and sat in an upper class compartment. After a while the train started and continued its journey. Some time later, a Travelling Ticket Examiner saw this somewhat uncouth, rustic-like person occupying the upper class seat and approached him and asked for his ticket. Babaji just looked up at him once and paid no further attention to his query. He continued to remain silent in contemplation. The Ticket Examiner was annoyed. He demanded to see the ticket. It was those days when most of the railway staff was either British or at least Anglo-Indian. Babaji shook his head and spread out his empty hands. The Ticket Examiner understood the situation and decided to take action. Soon after, the train stopped for a brief halt at a small way-side station in the country-side. Babaji was ordered to get down. He promptly obeyed, left his seat, got down out of the carriage and walking a few steps along the dusty platform went and stayed under the shade of a tree. He seemed absolutely unconcerned of whatever had happened. He paid no attention to what was going on around him. In a couple of minutes the bell rang, the railway guard blew his whistle and waved the green flag. The engine driver sounded the whistle and started the engine. Nothing happened. The engine did not move and the train continued to stand where it was. After a few minutes the guard got down and walked up to the engine driver to enquire what the trouble was. No trouble could be detected. Everything seemed to be all right. The engine driver checked everything and tried again. No result. More time passed. The Station Master became anxious. Another train which was due to come by was held up at some station up the line. Telegraphic messages started coming. 15 minutes, 20 minutes and then half an hour passed. Anxiety built up. Then a subordinate member of the staff very timidly approached the Station Master and pointing to Babaji sitting under the tree insisted that the whole situation was due to having shown disrespect to the holy man. He suggested that the only way out of the impasse was to approach him and beg his forgiveness and request him to continue his journey without any hindrance. This was conveyed to the guard and the engine driver. At first they vehemently refused to do any such thing but as more time passed, better reason prevailed. They respectfully approached Babaji, saluted him, asked to be excused for their rudeness, requested him to bless the train and invited him to continue his journey. Babaji looked up and glanced at them for a moment and said “All right, Chalo. Hum chalenge, Hum chalenge” (“All right, Go. I shall come along, I shall come along”) and got up and re-entered the train. Immediately the engine gave a jerk and the train started to move as though nothing had happened. A little crowd, which had gathered there, in the meanwhile, loudly acclaimed Babaji with awe in their voice. From then onwards no Railway Officer ever interfered with Babaji�s free movement in any train he fancied.

I shall conclude by narrating how Babaji twice visited Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh after the passing of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. Quite unexpectedly Babaji turned up, all of a sudden, one day, and walked into the Ashram. Sri Swami Nirmalanandaji, a Gurubhai of mine who had some very unusual experience with Babaji previously, ran up to me and announced his arrival. By the time I stepped out, Babaji was already in my outer verandah upstairs. I bowed down on his feet, took him inside and had him seated upon an Asana. Babaji very kindly made enquiries about the Ashram, of its inmates and our activities. I answered all his questions and he seemed very satisfied and said “Bahut Achha, Bahut Achha.” (“Very good, Very good.”) I told him that I wished to offer something for him to partake and asked what he would like. He agreed to drink some milk. Hot cow�s milk and sugar were brought. He very graciously partook it and in the meantime other residents of the Ashram came up and made their Pranams and took their seat. I introduced them to him. He beamed with pleasure and signified his blessings to all. He expressed his appreciation for the hospital work. Then he continued to stay for some time with us all and then saying that he must be going, he got up and walked away from the room followed by us. When he reached the foot of the steps and came upon the road, he raised his hand in blessing as well as in a gesture motioning us to stop and not to follow him. Then he started walking down the road and was soon out of sight.

A few years later Babaji similarly turned up a second time, just like that, as suddenly out of the blue as it were. This time he did not come upstairs but sat in one of the rooms downstairs and gave Darshan to a number of Ashram Sadhakas and devotees. He gave personal interviews also, to a few seekers. Then he left after a couple of hours and that was the last time he was at the Ashram.