I was born and raised in a Hindu family. I have to admit that as a child, I was never very excited about family trips to the temple, especially when places of worship seemed to be spaces for people to catch up on personal affairs, leading to rather noisy environments. Temples should be places of peace, providing opportunities for deep contemplation. I even stopped going to temples during my teen years, much to the chagrin especially of my father! This scepticism extended even to the celebration of festivals like Vishu (Hindu New Year) and Onam (Kerala harvest festival). For me they were merely occasions to wake up early and eat vegetarian food. Things took a turn however after I got to know and love Swami during my university days. It was the Divine Supreme Lord Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba who made me see, among numerous other things, the true significance of prayers and festivals, right down to the importance of going to temples. He revealed the divine power of temples, why one is blessed to visit them and how to find peace within oneself. I have not looked back since.
Swami entered my life in a subtle but powerful way during a period of great emotional stress, showing His omniscience and omnipotence through conversations with close friends, dreams and amazing experiences that are seared in my heart forever. These experiences led me to declare that He is indeed God! And whatever God reveals to me must be true and pure. Swami soon became my mentor, guide and guru, and brought me to His divine library of teachings, devotees’ experiences and gems of wisdom. While relishing these stories and teachings, I realised that one thing that began changing in me was my outlook towards celebrating festivals. I shall share in particular about the upcoming harvest festival celebrated by Malayalees all over the world, called Onam.
In Swami’s words: “This day is the sacred day when the Lord as Vamana Avatar conferred liberation on Emperor Bali. Bali was a great person, but he had one weakness. He suffered from a slight sense of ego. … Vamana incarnated to eradicate the undesirable quality of ego in Emperor Bali. Bali was known for his love of his subjects. Poverty was unknown in his realm. He looked after the welfare of his people with an equal eye. He felt proud about his kingdom and his people. Vamana wanted to remove even this pride and redeem Bali”. (Divine Discourse: 14 September 1997)
“When the Lord, as Vamana, was approaching Emperor Bali's sacrificial ceremony (yaga), the Emperor received him reverentially and asked him what he wanted. He said, "I want three feet of ground, measured by my feet." Bali said, "Why come all the way to ask for just three feet of ground?" Vamana declared, "That is all I want." (Divine Discourse: 27 August 1996)
As the story goes, Vamana assumed His Supreme Form and “measured the earth with one stride and the sky with the second.” King Bali then offered himself, by offering his head to Vamana for the third foot. Swami says “That foot released Bali from the recurrent cycle of birth and death” as “The Lord had incarnated to bless Bali, not to destroy him.” The story remains as incredible to me today as it did decades ago. With each new reading of it though, more and more lessons surfaced which influenced my understanding of its significance.
Born a Malayalee, raised as a Singaporean, one could probably understand why I had a certain detachment to a harvest festival (the likes of which are not common in Singapore). In my younger days, Onam was celebrated with early morning ablutions, oil baths, new clothes and vegetarian food as a family. Subsequently work pressures crept in, family members had individual routines, and dinner together was a blessing. At some point, my sister chose her own spiritual path that brought her fulfilment, so she opted out of this annual affair. The sum of this was, I began to perceive the day as somewhat of a mundane ritual, unlike what my relatives in Kerala do. Their celebrations include forming the Onappookkalam (designing beautiful colourful flowers in different patterns), wearing the Onakkody (new clothes to go to the temple and for visiting), the family get-togethers, and the Onasadya (famous mouth-watering Malayalee meal served on a banana leaf comprising 16, 25 or 30 varieties of vegetarian food-- rice, curries, side dishes, pickles, yogurt and so on!) How unexciting my Onam was compared to theirs.
So what changed my outlook on this? Over the years as I read more and more of Swami’s books and absorbed His teachings, I decided that I needed to put into practice some of them. And what better place to start than with one’s own family. One of the most important lessons is that we should not judge others: I realised that my unhappiness with my sister’s "straying" was due to my own anger at her absence in the family. That was my ego and arrogance at deciding what she should be doing, for whom and when. But the truth was, she was always there for my family in so many ways and I shouldn’t be measuring her love by my yardsticks. In fact over the past few years, we have been gathering to have Onasadya as a family-- complete with laughter, good food and great company -- for in the end family love and family ties are stronger than any perceived differences between us. Another lesson that was seared into my heart was showing love for our parents – Swami says Matha Pitha Guru Deivam and stresses the importance of honouring and adoring our parents. I put aside my own reservations about festivals, realising that for my parents, Onam was supremely important. If nothing else, it brought together our family members and close friends. Their needs were greater than mine were, especially when they grew older and treasured every moment together with their children. This is especially poignant for me this year, having lost my father just recently. The third lesson was about King Bali himself: his giving nature and spirit of sacrifice, which made him so loved by his people. I wanted to be like him. Although an asura by birth (grandson of the Vishnu worshipping Prahlada) he is not known for his asuric qualities at all! Like him, I want to be able to give to people from the heart. I have a long way to go with this aspiration, but thanks to Swami, this is possible as I am surrounded daily by so many sweet messengers of His love and teachings at the Sai Centre, at work and all around me.
While personally I have not had the opportunity to be in Puttaparthi to witness the beautiful Onam celebrations, I have felt proud when Swami spoke of Kerala as "God’s own country," as we must be proud of and grateful for our roots. Swami said that the lesson from Onam is: “A lifetime spent without devotion to the Almighty Lord is a pitiful waste.” This undeniable truth is what should keep us going, the maxim that guides not just our lifetime, but our daily lives. Swami said that Onam “marks the beginning of a new life. That is why it is celebrated by wearing new clothes and resolving to lead a new life.” If we treat every day as a new life, how would we live it? I think all of us would want to please Swami in as many ways as possible every day, in every lifetime, until our last breath. Jai Sai Ram.
Sis Usha Pillai