The Rhythm of His Feet

When he was eight, Sathya was declared ready to proceed to the Higher Elementary School at Bukkapatnam, two and a half miles from Puttaparthi. He had to trudge the distance in hot sun or rain over stony mounds or slushy fields, wading through neck-deep water, as the season dictated. His bag of books would be securely held above his head. He had to start early in the morning after a meal of delicacies such as cold rice and curds or cooked rice and chutney. He trekked regularly to Bukkapatnam with companions, carrying his afternoon meal in a bag.

Sri B. Subbannachar writes in a book published in 1944, "He was my student in the eighth grade. He was a simple, unostentatious, honest, and well-behaved boy." Unostentatious! With what great self-control must Sai Baba have suppressed His manifold divine powers in order that the world might become ready for the Announcement!

Sri V.C. Kondappa, another teacher, who later revered the student as divine, writes in the same book, "He was very obedient and never spoke more than necessary. Coming early  to school, he would gather the children and install an image or picture in the schoolroom. With the flowers he brought with him, he conducted worship, waved burning camphor, and distributed Grace in one form or another. The boys, gathered around him for the things he 'took' out of his empty bag! When asked about it, he said that a certain 'Angel' obeyed his will and gave him whatever he wanted!"

One of his teachers was personally to experience the force of that "Angel" on one occasion. Sai Baba was generally listless in class, engaged most of the time in what he later described as composing chants and copying them for distribution among his classmates. One day the teacher discovered that Sathya was not taking down the notes he dictated. "He is setting a bad example for the whole class," thought the teacher, and shouted, "All those who are not taking notes, stand up!" Sathya was the solitary culprit and was asked why he was not taking notes. He answered in an innocent and straightforward tone, "Sir why should I take notes? I have understood what you dictated. Ask me any question on it and I shall answer correctly." But the teacher's pride was injured, and the boy must suffer. He ordered Sathya to stand upon the bench and remain standing until the last bell of the day. Sathya obeyed. All the boys hung their heads in sorrow. None of them could feel happy that day sitting down while his Guru was poised uncomfortably upon a bench.

When the hour-bell rang, the teacher for the next class came in. It was Janab Mahbub Khan, who loved and respected little Sathya beyond words. He taught English, and his approach and method were so earnest and appealing that every boy learned every lesson thoroughly. He was an elderly bachelor, and he treated Sathya with a unique affection. (Sai Baba even today extols Mahbub Khan as a highly evolved soul.)

Mahbub Khan would offer sweets and savories to Sathya, enticing him to eat by means of a hundred different artifices. He told Sathya that his house was specially cleansed for the preparation of the food, because he knew Sathya would not eat food having the remotest contact with non-vegetarian dishes. He would say that he had not eaten, as he wanted Sathya to partake of the food first. He would sit quietly for long periods, stroking Sathya's hair and whispering, "Oh, you are a wonderful boy! You will help thousands; you are a great power." 

When Mahbub Khan entered the classroom, he was shocked to find Satyanarayana standing on the bench and the teacher still sitting on the chair. He asked the teacher why he was not vacating the chair for the next class. The teacher whispered that he could not get up because when he tried to get up, the chair, too, rose up with him! The whisper was caught by the boys who quietly laughed at the teacher's plight and said it must be due to Sathya's "Angel." Mahbub Khan also suspected this was so, and suggested that the teacher ask Sathya to come down. The teacher acquiesced. Immediately the chair fell away, and with great relief he moved about unencumbered!

Years later, while relating this story, Baba said that He willed it to be so, not out of anger - for He had no anger in Him - but purely to demonstrate Himself and gradually prepare men's minds for the Announcement of His Mission and Identity.

True to the nickname Brahmajnani, or Knower of God, which he had earned by his true and pure nature, Sathya showed by precept and example that the little joys of this limited world were quite inferior to the Supreme Bliss attained through prayer, concentration, renunciation and contentment. He delighted only in stories of saints endowed with these qualities.

As Kondama Raju's sons and one of his daughters shared the same home, Sathya grew up in the midst of about twenty children. It was necessary that a child be clean and honest in order to win Sathya's approval and get the peppermints he "took" out of empty bags. Sathya was always the example they sought. Kondama Raju once said that, when the tailor called to make the children's shirts out of various types of dyed cloth which had been brought from a Bukkapatnam market, Sathya would say, "Let each one be given the cloth he selects; what remains is good enough for me."

In later years at the Prasanthi Nilayam, where Sai Baba lives when at Puttaparthi, He said, "I have no lands to call My own and on which to grow My food; every bit is registered already in the name of someone else. Just as landless people wait for the village tank to get dry so that they may scratch the bed with a plough and quickly grow something for themselves, I too grow My food, namely, joy in the dried tank-beds of afflicted hearts."

Kondama Raju did not realize at the time the significance of Sathya's attitude of renunciation; he just felt proud of the boy!

Even as a child, Sathya was against all sports and games which caused cruelty or pain. He would not allow his companions to witness the annual bullock cart race held on the sands of the river bed during one of the village festivals. He objected to the twisting of the tails of the bullocks and the flaying of their backs with sticks for the vicarious glory of the owner.

Years later Sai Baba summoned back to the Prasanthi Nilayam, a party of devotees who had left by bullock cart. They were proceeding across the river to their cars which were parked at a village on the other side of the bank. Sai Baba waved His Blessings when they got into the cart; it crept out of the main gate into the road beyond. Suddenly he sent someone running to bring the devotees back to Him. He commanded them, "Listen! When you reach the sands, you must all get down and walk across. The bullocks should not be forced to drag all your weight through the sands; do you understand?"

Bear-baiting, cock fighting, and other similar village entertainments Sathya condemned, and his group of boys did not attend such activities.

Whenever a touring "talkie picture show" pitched its tent in those days at Bukkapatnam or Kothacheruvu, it caused a stir for miles around. Village folks sacrificed their small earnings to meet the expense of seeing as many films as they could. Pedda Venkapa Raju often tried to take Sathya, together with the other children, but Sathya protested and refused. He spoke of the degraded standards of the films, how they vulgarized the Gods, and made a muddle of music. He said they only exhibited the seamy side of family life and praised cruelty, cunning, and crime.

Even to this day, Sai Baba is a relentless critic of the arts, especially of literature and films which willfully drag ideals down in order to make money.

When he was ten years of age, Sathya formed in Puttaparthi a Pandhari Bhajan Group, or a group of carollers, for the presentation of songs of love and devotion to God. The group was modeled after similar groups which existed in the neighbouring villages. It consisted of about eighteen boys, uniformly dressed in ochre robes. Each held a flag and wore jingle-bells as anklets. They danced to the tones of folk songs and ballads depicting the yearning of pilgrims for Darshan or the blessing by sight of the Panduranga Shrine. Sathya taught the children in poetry and song the ordeals of the long pilgrimage, the pilgrim's anxiety to reach the shrine quickly, and their joy at the sight of the pinnacle of the temple.

He composed some songs from the legendary Life of Krishna known in India as the Bhagavata Purana. In these songs the milkmaids complain to Yasoda, Krishna's foster mother, of the unceasing pranks of Krishna. Yasoda chides the boy for his thievery and mischief, but Krishna pleads innocence. With actresses and actors of Sathya's group performing the parts of Yasoda and Krishna in the center of the circle, and with others playing the role of the milkmaids dancing on the circumference, the scene was a great attraction in the village. Sathya played the role of either the mother or the child. His dance, dialogue, and music added to the charm of the devotional songs.

He also included with the traditional themes, songs concerning a pilgrimage to a new Deity and new shrine of which no one had yet heard. No one had the faintest idea who the new Deity was. The shrine, Shirdi and the Deity, Sai Baba? Sai Baba of Shirdi? Who could it be? How did this little boy know of that Mohammedan ascetic of Shirdi? The elders wondered as the children danced in the streets.

The Bhajan Group collected a subscription of an anna per month from each house for oil, parched rice, joss-sticks, camphor, and other sundries needed for worship. The oil was used for the lamp which they carried with them when they walked around the village. The parched rice was given to everyone as Grace. On festival occasions they collected larger amounts, perhaps two annas, and proudly bought a petromax light which they brought all the way from Bukkapatnam. The children of the Raju family and others provided the musical accompaniments.

Sathya was the central figure of the group as organizer, treasurer, teacher, composer, and leading singer. He portrayed every role so wonderfully that the villagers could envision before their eyes Mathura and Brindavan where the Lord lived as Krishna, and boy Krishna as a cowherd with His flute enchanting the milkmaids, the cows, calves, the trees, and the river Yamuna.

Once, while a song describing the prowess and achievements of Narasimha, the "Man-Lion Avatara of Vishnu," was being enacted and the line, "From out the pillar of steel the giant Lion jumped," was sung, Sathya suddenly leaped like the Lion-Man manifestation of the Lord personified. His face was transformed into such ferocity, indignation, and benediction that the entire village was frightened. No one, not even experts in wrestling holds, could control the boy. At last, after a number of people had offered worship and waved camphor and broken coconuts before the manifested Lord, Sathya became normal and resumed the song. [Text Bhajan: Sri Nrsimhadeva Pranama]  

This incident spread the fame of the Pandhari Bhajan Group. Word was spread that God actually manifested Himself when this group sang and danced - as the people of Puttaparthi witnessed! When cholera swept like a poisonous simoom over the area and killed entire families in the surrounding villages, Puttaparthi did not feel the blast of death. Wise men told one another that the divine atmosphere generated by the Bhajan Group was responsible. Thereafter the group was invited to many villages to sing in order to protect these places from the anger of the Gods. Very often carts were sent as transportation for the group, but sometimes the little saviors, carrying their food with them, had to walk ten or twelve miles, resting during the hottest part of the day in some grove along the way. The people in these villages also heard the strange names of Shirdi and Sai Baba and wondered what and who they were. Because they did not understand, they plunged into their routine tasks again.

There were dramas and open-air operas where Puranic (Indian legend) themes were represented by dialogue, dance, and costume, and where Rakshasas (demons), Asuras (ungodly ones) , and the powers of evil were defeated by the forces of Good. These dramas were written, rehearsed, and produced in various households in which Sathya visited.

Sathya's father also became a celebrity on the popular stage, mainly for his role of Banasura, a famous Titan of mythology, then even more for his inimitable depiction of Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five sons of Pandu, the holy follower of divine law and the never wavering adherent of the Lord.

A number of plays were produced at this period in order to collect funds for famine relief. "Banasuram," "Ushaparinayam," "Draupadi Manasamrakshanam," and "Kamsa Vadha" were the plays most preferred. These plays were concerning mythology, the protection of the honor of Draupadi, and about Kamsa, the tyrant king and persecutor whom Krishna finally killed. Young Sathya selected several roles, especially those of Krishna and Mohini. The audiences applauded his acting, singing, and above all, his dancing. There was a rhythm in his feet, a sense of time and tune, and a litheness and loveliness they had seldom seen. To them it seemed that he never touched the earth and that he belonged to an ethereal sphere.

Within a short period he was enacting more and more roles. In the popular story of Kanakatara, he played the role of the mythological Tara so effectively one night that his mother, who was present in the audience in the tent, rushed onto the stage to prevent what she believed to be the "execution" of Tara. She forgot that it was all make-believe!

Sathya sometimes assumed more than one role in the same play to satisfy the audience. In the drama Krishna Lila, the sport of Krishna, he was Devaki, the mother, the boy Krishna, and also the danseuse regaling King Kamsa with her dances in Durbar Hall! At other times he played the role of Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava Brothers.

Soon a professional dramatic troupe visited the area and presented a number of musical plays which attracted large audiences. They put up their stage at Bukkapatnam and later moved to Puttaparthi, Kothacheruvu, Elumalapalli, and other large villages. Their performances became the talk of the entire district. Their group included a girl dancer whose stage name was Rishyendramani, who performed a series of gymnastic dances with music. Her highlight was a dance in which she kept time to the music while balancing a bottle on her head. She would bend low, sit down, lay herself on the floor, raise her back up, and clasp with her teeth a kerchief placed on a match box on the floor. With the kerchief between her teeth, she would then sit up, rise, and stand-still balancing the bottle on her head! A challenging assignment! By a great deal of practice she had trained herself for this difficult feat. No wonder she won the acclaim of her audiences.

Sathya went with others to witness the plays of these professionals and saw this act. After he came home, he tried to do it himself. To the surprise of all, he could do it easily! When the elders asked to be shown this new item in Sathya's repertoire, he withdrew within himself and hesitated. But the news spread, and some enterprising young men persuaded him to agree to perform this feat at Kothacheruvu during the village carnival. They had the timerity to announce that the famous Rishyendramani herself would appear, for they felt very confident that Sathya could succeed in the impersonation and would not disappoint them. Sathya's sisters dressed him as Rishyendraman, complete with hair-do and personal decoration, and took him to Kothacheruvu. When Sathya's father heard about it, he feared the consequences of this foolhardy adventure into which Sathya had been inveigled.

The day of the performance arrived. The curtain rose, "Rishyendramani" tripped her way into the Durbar Hall of Kamsa. The audience was too wild with excitement to notice any difference. The famous dance number began. Sathya had improved upon it and substituted a needle for the kerchief. The needle had to be lifted by the eyelids! The "Rishyendramani" of that day accomplished it, but not without dire consequences!

The carnival president insisted on pinning a medal on the dancer's person. Sathya's mother and others who were at first thrilled with the tributes of praise, the invitations to repeat the feat at other places, and the silver cups and gold medals being pressed into Sathya's hands, became afraid of the "evil eyes" which the boy provoked. Their tears proved true. His eyes developed a dreadful affliction. They swelled, became red, and exuded tears profusely. His temperature rose.

One night his mother heard heavy footsteps, as of one wearing wooden sandals, entering the house and proceeding straight to Sathya. It was all very mysterious. She got up, went to her boy's room, and placed her hand on his brow to check his temperature. She found the fever gone! She brought a light and looked into his eyes. They had improved beyond all expectations! Sathya was quite well the next day.


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Written by N. Kasturi M.A., B.L.