by Lyn Kriegler
You are affected by whatever you touch. For instance, if you touch fire, it scalds. Fire can burn even iron, it is so potent. But when the fire is extinguished, the residue is mere charcoal. When you touch the charcoal, your hand becomes black. Thus in either case, the contact is not beneficial. But what happens when you come in contact with the Divine Fire? All your bad thoughts and actions are reduced to ashes. This is the sanctity attached to padanamaskar.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
On my first visit to Prashanti Nilayam in 1989, I could best describe myself as jaded and cynical: an over-educated Western woman who had many reservations about spirituality. When I saw so many people, both Indians and Westerners, reverently touching the feet of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, my initial reaction was: I’m not touching anybody’s feet. That’s all right for Indians, but I don’t need to do that. Not me. I had no inkling of the greater hurdles that lay ahead of me.
Based on information gathered from the few books I had read, I assumed that if Sathya Sai was who He said He was, my troubles would soon be over. He could wipe away all my mistakes, all my shortcomings, all my bad thoughts, deeds and habits with a look, a touch of His hand, a ring, a pinch of sacred ash (vibhuti), a well-chosen word. Or an interview. I did not need to touch His feet, I reasoned. Reasoning, I later understood — much, much later — is the very thing that keeps us from progressing in spirituality. The mind always tries to find a reason. I had not the slightest idea of the true purpose of life, or how to achieve it. Baba has often commented that not many understand the spiritual dimension.
Difficulties and worries are not due to outside causes. They are due to a mind not surrendered to God. Man’s highest aim appears to be to obtain food, clothing, shelter, and progeny. All these are no doubt necessary to some extent. But these are related to mere living and have no relation to the supreme goal of life. The life span allotted to each person is melting away like a piece of ice. But unfortunately, people are leaving their bodies before they realize the purpose of life.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
Nothing in my life had fully prepared me for the fact that surrender of my ‘bad’ qualities, all my shortcomings, misconceptions, misunderstandings at His feet was the shortest, swiftest route to real progress. I dimly recalled that Jesus had washed the feet of His disciples; and that Mary Magdalene had washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her long tresses and anointed them with precious, costly perfumes. Jesus had presciently commented at the time that she was preparing Him for his burial. This story had always brought tears to my eyes, but I did not connect this ritual or the emotion it aroused in me to Sathya Sai Baba when I first saw people touching His feet.
Based on these hazy memories of Bible stories, I assumed that the reverential custom of touching feet was an Indian cultural practice which had little relevance to Westerners. Certainly in those early days in Prashanti Nilayam I felt no personal need or inclination to perform such an action. Maybe it’s just a Hindu devotional custom, I thought, and these Westerners are trying to show they fit in, so they are doing it too. I’m not doing it. I surprised myself with the vehemence of my negative reactions, and my own hard-headedness. Kissing or touching someone’s feet was, in my mind, something akin to the ultimate in self-humiliation, in self-abnegation.
With this terrible misunderstanding firmly entrenched in my mental makeup and ego, it would be many years before the yearning to touch His feet completely overwhelmed me, and even longer before it become something all-powerful: the central image of my vision, the focus of my meditation and the very bulkhead and touchstone of all security in life and death itself. Not until many years of study and personal upheaval had passed did events suddenly begin shifting into high gear.
Baba has, many times, described the unseen power of direct physical contact with the body of the Avatar.
From a mundane point of view, the body (of the Lord) appears as a physical form. But from the spiritual point of view, there is an aura around the body. It has effulgence from which arises spiritual energy. The energy produces vibrations. That is why it is declared: ‘Sight of the Lord destroys all sins’, ‘dialogue with the Lord destroys all sorrows’, ‘the touch of the Lord frees one from the consequences of one’s actions.’
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
On my first visit to Prashanti Nilayam in 1989, I did not want to make physical contact with Swami. My only desire was that He make eye contact and look into my eyes. Also, I wanted to look into His eyes. That much was certain within me, no more. Even from childhood, I had always placed importance on making direct eye contact with people and animals. I connect it with my personal benchmark of truthfulness.
Before travelling to India to see Him in person, the thought of Him speaking to me or calling me for an interview made me feel slightly nervous and tongue-tied. Thoughts of inadequacy haunted me when I considered speaking with Swami; I felt shy and unimportant. Up until then I had lived a typical Western consumer’s life. I had done exactly as I pleased; I wasted a lot of money on frivolous shopping, I ‘needed’ holidays and personal indulgences. Bouts of depression, “bad” luck and hard times demanded rewards and treats to make me feel better about myself.
I had lately turned forty, and I privately thought I was still a “bad” person. If Swami was who He said He was, He would know all about the less savory aspects of my character. For some crazy reason I was sure that if He called me for an interview, He would confront me — in front of a group of strangers, no doubt — with all my secrets. I was quite sure that would be a great embarrassment for me and others in our group. I did not realize then that embarrassment, nervousness, thoughts of inadequacy and shyness are aspects of ego. Ego is not arrogance or showing off, I later understood. It is not knowing who you truly are. It is thinking that all you are is this body, this mind. When ego is in the ascendant, knowledge of one’s true being is not.
The idea behind one bowing one’s head at the feet of Bhagavan is that thereby sacred thoughts enter the person’s mind. This means that when one comes in contact with Bhagavan’s feet, the sacred impulses from them flow to the person. When the person’s head touches the Lord’s feet, the Lord’s divine energy flows towards him. This implies that you should keep contact only with pure objects and keep away from impure objects. ~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
We were advised that during darshan, one of the rules was not to touch Baba’s feet unless He stopped in front of you and presented His feet or said, “Do padanamaskar.” You were also told not to touch Him anywhere else, certainly not to try to hug Him or kiss Him. This was a stringent rule also laid out in the official visitor’s guide to the ashram. Although I saw many people leaping, pushing and jostling to touch His feet anyway, I resolved early on that come what may, I would not break that rule.
A few days afterwards, my husband Tom, who was part of a New Zealand crew working on the Christmas play, was backstage in the Poornachandra Auditorium building props and scenery. Suddenly Swami strolled backstage. All the men immediately lined up before Him in a single row with palms reverentially folded. Swami went quickly along the line, touching each man’s hand; then stopped and placed His foot forward toward the volunteers, indicating that each man should take padanamaskar. He placed Himself in front of my husband several times on that trip, allowing him to touch His feet. Once or twice during darshan, Swami would turn His back to Tom and gently rest His heels on my husband’s toes, rocking slowly back and forth. On several more occasions He paused in front of another group member, allowing the folds of His robe to brush across Tom’s toes and indeed his lap. Tom described the effect as:
“…it is akin to electrifying, but in a divine sense, not shockingly electrifying in a physical sense. The sensation was divinely electrifying. There is a big difference. This was not simply an ‘electric shock’, rather an almost nourishing uplift calling me higher, as if He was saying, ‘take your mind off that and place it before God’.”
My husband was elated by these events and thereafter took every opportunity to touch Swami’s feet. Tom seemed to be getting an awful lot of “good chances,” I thought. I had a number of opportunities myself when Swami stood right in front of me, but I still would not do it unless He invited me. And He did not do this.
During this trip, Baba did come and stand immediately in front of me, accepting a tray of sweets I held up for Him. That was permissible back then, when the crowds were so much smaller. This practice gave so much happiness to all those around, especially the children. He picked up handfuls of fruit drops, chocolates and caramels from the tray, tossing them over me and those sitting nearby. He was gazing down into my eyes the whole time, with a gentle smile on His face. I was very happy, meeting His gaze fully, determined not to be the first one to look away. I was enchanted, delighted, intrigued, mystified. I could not see Swami’s pupils at all. There were deep golden and brown depths in His eyes, they sparkled and shimmered, seemingly infinite, not of this world. I found myself inexplicably reminded of the cosmos, of the universe, of stars and deep water.
When a person sees, touches or hears the Lord, it is like the linking of negative and positive wires, which generates divine energy. This connection should be heart to heart. Only then the divine energy should flow from the Lord to the person. Then the Lord and the person become one. Scientifically, also there is meaning in ‘Paadasparsa”—touching the feet. The blood circulates from the feet to the head. When one touches the toe of the Lord’s foot, he experiences a current. That is Divine energy. The touch of the Lord frees one from the consequences of one’s actions.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
The consequences of one’s actions is karma. One benefit of padanamaskar is that this most sacred contact with a Divine Body can wash away these consequences. So, one aspect of padanamaskar is grace.
For all the confusion and conflict prevailing in the world today, it is the feeling and thoughts of people that are responsible. The effects of past deeds can be mitigated by earning God’s grace. Everyone has to face the consequences of his actions, though he or she may not know how, when or where these consequences may occur. When you misuse anything, you have to bear the resulting misery.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
On subsequent trips, I had several more wordless encounters with Bhagavan, in which He stood in front of me and gazed into my eyes. Everyone around me was taking padanamaskar, but it never occurred to me to do so. On our fifth trip in 1995, we were given a room in one of the roundhouses. Above one of the beds in the room was a large color poster of Baba’s feet garlanded with lotus flowers, which are a symbol of spiritual purity. His feet were resting on a ceremonial pair of silver sandals (padukas), which seemed to me to resemble a very ornate pair of flip-flops. I decided I would like to sleep in that bed, and spent many evenings gazing up at this poster before falling asleep.
I also dreamed of His feet several times. I began to wonder what the significance of the image on the poster was, but did not mention my curiosity to anyone.
What is the significance of worshipping the Lord’s feet? There is the yearning for touching the Lord. How is this to be done? The easiest way is to touch the feet of the Lord. A spiritual significance is attached to the touching of the Lord’s feet, which sanctify the earth by walking on it. When one touches the Lord’s feet, he can experience a current present in the toe. That is a divine energy.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
I began to feel a reverence, a sense of wonder and an increasing desire to know more. One morning I was headed for the ashram shops, when a friend of mine came up to me. She was a nurse serving in Swami’s hospital, and she was carrying a little blue book with a picture of a kingfisher on the cover. “I thought you would like this book,” she remarked, and put it into my hands. The title was The Inner Significance of the Divine Lotus Feet. I was surprised and pleased and spent the next couple of days reading the book from cover to cover. How did my friend know to give me the book without my having mentioned wanting to know about the meaning of the feet? Was it just a fortuitous coincidence? The mind again, trying to reason out another mystery.
Suddenly I began to realize that I was on the threshold of a great spiritual truth, well known in India, but one which a Western education had never prepared me for. I was beginning to turn my vision inward, briefly looking away from the shopping lists, the clothes, the accessories, the non-stop desire for great food and drink, entertainment, beauty treatments; the need for more and more friendships and for the objects that I thought meant life.
Bliss cannot be found in worldly objects. The source of enduring bliss is within you. There is no meaning in searching for it elsewhere. Turn your external vision inwards. Close your eyes and try to see within. In this process, bliss will emerge from within you. Regarding touching Swami’s feet: God is positive. Man is negative. If contact is made, the divine current flows from positive to negative. For this reason the Indian tradition of touching a Divine person. But without some form of discipline and limitation, people would be touching the face and the body. Hence, the custom of touching the Lotus feet.
~ Sri Sathya Sai Baba
Slowly I began to see Swami as a Divine Battery. Being in His physical presence was having an electrifying effect on both my husband and me; creative energies and a sense of physical wellbeing were somehow becoming powerfully recharged. I would describe it as a powerful, tingling feeling, rather as if all the cells within the body are being ‘occupied’ by a pleasant wash of warm, fragrant oil -- not at all unpleasant and often lasting for days on end. I also experienced a feeling of something opening in my chest, like a flower, but powerfully, as if it was linked to a current. Sometimes His physical presence seemed to send out waves of energy that were so strong, I felt myself being pushed sideways or even backwards, and afterwards every cell in my body was tingling and vibrating with surcharged energy. It was very different from any feelings of emotional excitement or elation.
I began to yearn to touch His feet. This marked a plateau, a sea change within my deepest self. I was no longer concerned with outward appearances, of what I thought “looked” right; what I should or should not be seen doing. All thoughts of “I don’t need to do that” had been replaced with a deep-seated hunger: I want to touch Your feet. Then Swami called us for an interview.
A Fijian man in our group had brought along a pair of the silver padukas. I was seated at Baba’s feet, and I was entranced to look down at them as He spoke to various members in the group. They looked so perfect: ageless, unlined, radiant; as if they were carved from smooth golden wood. When He took several New Zealand doctors, including a neurologist and an oncologist from Auckland Hospital into the private interview room, the Fijian gentleman hastily placed the padukas on Swami’s foot cushion. The cushion, a bit lopsided, was homemade; lovingly hand stitched by someone. I found it quite touching, this little cushion: a pink-petalled lotus, made of a soft, shiny material, like satin.
When Swami returned, He immediately went to His chair, sat down, and put His feet onto the silver sandals. The scene unfolding right before my eyes was exactly the same as the photo of His feet that was above my bed back in my room—the photo I had been gazing at with accelerating wonder each night and morning. I heard a thump to my left. The Fijian man had gently fainted in an ecstasy of bliss. He later told me that after the interview, the padukas began constantly emitting a beautiful smell of jasmine flowers. (They are now on his altar back in Suva, and still send out fragrant wafts to this day.)
I felt an incredible sense of awakening within. At the end of the interview, Swami rose to go. It had not even entered my mind to touch His feet without His permission. A member of our group asked Him, “Swami, may we all have padanamaskar?” Swami smiled broadly, tugged His gown gently away from His feet, and replied “Help yourself!” All of a sudden I was practically diving for His feet. I held them gently; I pressed my forehead to them. They were so soft, so sweet. I never wanted to leave that quiet little room.
Time had finally stood still. I had finally come home, to my real home. I surrendered my ego, my bad habits, my silly thoughts, my disappointments, my successes and my failures — to Him alone. These feet were the lifeboat that would shelter me across the sea of birth and death to my onward destination for all time, for all eternity, forever and ever amen. “This is your real home”, Swami told us all, “and you are always welcome.”
From then on, I felt I was being melted down. His fire had burned my iron—my cast iron ego, my hard-headedness, my stubbornness, my pride, my animal tendencies, my repeated refusal to see any further than my own limited sphere of knowledge. Now, whenever difficulties come, when I cannot see a solution or solve a problem in spite of my best efforts, when illness, despair or frustration arises, I lay it all at His feet.
I visualize His feet often, especially at night, or first thing in the morning. I see the feet in the strength of tree trunks; as pillars of a temple; as mountains; as the feet of all those around me. I have come to realize that I must do my duty in every way, but always dedicate it to His feet. It is the effort that wins His grace, that grace of eternal Fire, burning my iron to ash.