With news of Sai Baba’s death earlier this week I asked my Dad for his recollections of the man. My parents encountered Sai Baba in India in December 1973. In the photographs my father with his glasses, bushy hair, and seventies fashion sense looked like Woody Allen. Perhaps because of this when I asked him to remind me of their trip to India it in turn reminded me of a lost seventies Woody Allen flick, though one scripted by Carlos Castaneda.
“I was into yoga at the time. My teacher, Susan, said when we go to India we should make sure to go to Bangladore to see Sai Baba. I asked, ‘Do we need to make an appointment?’ She said, ‘If he’s going to see you, he already knows it and he will make it happen.’
“So we get to India and all the train station workers and airport workers are on strike. Because we’re tourists India had a policy that they’d get you on a plane if possible. We get to the airport and the only place we can go to is Bangladore. That was a coincidence, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.
“We get to Bangladore and there are all sorts of people with stories of Sai Baba. There’s this Greek girl who was wearing an enormous diamond ring. She said the first time she met Sai Baba he tapped her hand and a ring appeared on it that if you looked at it you would see Sai Baba’s image. The next time he saw her he said, ‘You didn’t like my gift?’ She didn’t answer so she wouldn’t offend him. She said Sai Baba tapped the ring and it became the diamond I saw.
“Then there was the engineer. He was a man of science. He went with a group of guys up on a hill on a picnic with Sai Baba. Sai Baba told them to bring up a bunch of urns and he’d take care of the food. They brought a bunch of empty containers up there and when they opened it they were full of rice and vegetables.
“But I was still skeptical when we went to see him. We went out to his compound. The men had to be on one side of a big tree, the women on the other. There were a thousand monkeys in the tree making all kinds of noise and then all of a sudden they stopped. A second later Sai Baba came out to see us. He walked around and I heard when he spoke to an Indian guy he was speaking his language, when he spoke to a Chinaman, he was talking in Chinese. Then when he was talking to me it wasn’t just in English, it was English with a Chicago accent. The engineer later told me that he knows whatever language you speak, maybe it’s telepathic. He spoke to me for a second, but I didn’t think of anything to say back.
“I wanted to go back the next day. People at the hotel told me I missed my chance. They’d gone out there for years to see him and he never spoke to them, but your Mother and I went out there the next day. We waited and again all the monkeys stopped making noise at the same time and a minute later Sai Baba came out. I watched from a distance as vibhuti (his healing powder) came straight out of his hands. He didn’t have any sleeves, maybe he had a prosthetic arm, but I can’t think of any other trick he could have used to make the powder come out like that.
“He went up to me again and just started talking to me like an ordinary guy. I was more intimidated by my rabbi than I was of him. I told him I had a friend who was real sick and another friend with a daughter who was going blind. Sai Baba told me to open my hands and all this vibhuti came out of his hands into mine. Someone gave me an envelope for the stuff and one of his assistants gave me some more vibhuti for myself. I kept thinking they’d hit me up for a donation, but they never did.
“We went back to the hotel and I told everyone the story. One of the guys was pissed about how little I asked for. I thought you could only ask of things for other people. He said, ‘No, you schmuck, you could have asked him about your business or how you should live your life.’
“The next day your Mother and I wanted to get to the town of Madras. There was still a train and plane strike, so we ordered a car. We got a call from the owner of the car company. He asked if I was the American who had an audience with Sai Baba. I told your Mother, ‘Oh no, here they come looking for their hand-outs.’ But the driver said he’d been going for years to see Sai Baba and never spoke to him. He said I was blessed and just wanted to be around me. He drove us 150 miles and refused to accept a penny.
“We got back to Chicago and I put the powder on my friend’s daughter and she kept her vision. Her eyes became good enough to drive. Then I gave some to Jim Palmer. He was supposed to be dead in 30 days and he didn’t want to put the vibhuti on. I asked him what did he have to lose. He put it on and he lived for five more years. He didn’t deserve it.”