By Vivek Shraya
Sri Sathya Sai Baba was an Indian multi-faith guru who was widely adored, worshipped and criticized. He died on April 24, 2011. This was twelve years earlier than he’d predicted.
I loved Sai Baba so much that I wrote about him in my first book, God Loves Hair:
“When man is bad, God comes to Earth in a human body to bring change. This is what I learn in Sunday school. I learn that man has been bad and God, as promised, has come. God lives in India. His name is Sai Baba, which means Divine Mother and Father. I learn that Baba has come to remind everyone that they too are God, but they have just forgotten.
I understand that I am supposed to be focusing somehow on remembering my own good ways, but it is so much easier to love His. I wear His face around my neck. I plaster my bedroom in His photos, transforming it into an enchanted altar, candles included. He is my rock ‘n roll God, with an afro to match. I stare at Him for hours. Can you see me? God is my first love.
I tie a red ribbon around a tree in the field to mark it, render it holy and meditate at its foot during recess. I conjure rain to prove His love for me - Brahma let it rain, Vishnu let it rain - and it pours. In my dreams, I am in a crowd waiting for Him. He walks right to me. We sit together and He tells me things I won’t remember in the morning. But Him actually visiting me in my dream confirms our bond. God is my first best friend...”
As I grew older, I began to question what I read to be inconsistencies in Sai Baba's teachings. Karma, for instance, no longer felt like an adequate justification for the horrors of our world; it wasn’t enough to say, "Well, that person must have done something very bad in a past life,” because the God I loved was merciful—wasn’t He? My mom told me to pray for answers but no answer ever came. So I stopped asking questions. With that came the end of prayer, as well.
I watched Sai Baba’s funeral on the internet, holding the cyber-hand of a friend via IM. Earlier in the week I’d scoffed when my mom had mentioned that many Sai Baba devotees were speculating he would resurrect like Jesus. Grief makes people delusional. And yet, as pundits performed the last rites around his body, which was wrapped in orange sheets, I found myself whispering to my computer screen: "Wake up Baba! Wake up!" I realize now that we weren’t delusional. We were believers until the very end—no, beyond the end—and this was one of his greatest gifts to us: to audaciously and persistently believe in the impossible.
Surrounded by mostly atheists and agnostics, communicating the impact of losing a childhood religious leader whom I once believed was G.O.D. was unthinkable. It would likely have resulted in fielding questions I didn’t have the energy to answer. (Once, when I had shared my beliefs with a friend his response was: "Wait...your god has a penis?") Instead, all I could do was cry. I cried on the Queen streetcar, cried in my office, cried into my pillow, and cried in the shower while hugging the tiled walls. A good day became a tear-free day.
But now, two years later, those good days feel like the hardest part about mourning. Days become weeks and weeks become months that pass without a thought of him, without the feeling of deep resounding pain in my chest. What kind of fickle love is this? Sometimes I would give anything to cry again, to be inconsolable again, because it would mean I am thinking of him. Somehow, he would feel closer.
I wrote a eulogy for a personal ceremony that took place in the kitchen of my apartment on June 24, 2011:
When I was teenager I used to pray that I would pass away when you did. I imagined that the world and life wouldn’t hold the same interest for me any more without you in it. I would be 40 and you’d be 96.
Instead, you unexpectedly passed away this year, leaving holes everywhere. When I imagine a map of the world, there is a giant hole. In the bhajans that say “Prashanthi-vasa,” there is a hole. In the centre of my beloved Kulwant Hall, where we used to count the seconds to have just a glimpse of your tiny figure, where I experienced so much life and love, there is a hole that holds your body. I never imagined I would see that body, the body I loved so much, in a box. Perhaps the biggest hole is the one in my heart, as my brain tries to grapple with the truth that one of my greatest loves and best friends has gone.
Since you have passed, I have found myself reflecting on one thing in particular: how lucky we were. How lucky I was. To know you from birth. You gave me a childhood of wonder and magic. Of divinity. All of the light in the universe, all of the stories of Rama, Krishna and Jesus existed in you. How lucky I was to have you as a role model and safe space in my teenage years, as a reason to get through the week. Even though I often thought my prayers and tears were unheard, I can see the ways you kept me going, kept me alive.
What I am most grateful for is your teachings and wisdom. How lucky I was to grow up in an atmosphere that valued the practice of goodness, truth and love.
It might take a lifetime, but I know the only way to honour what you have meant to me and to exemplify how truly grateful I am is to embody your message. To be and see the light you always told us we were.
I miss you dear friend. I feel sad for a world without you in it, for generations that will know you only as an image or a story. I wish that I had been a better follower and therefore a better leader. But one thing that I know is true, more than ever before, is that you are a part of me. Forever and always.