The official tourist literature and maps for the southern Indian city of Bangalore include a picture of Sai Baba, with road directions to his ashram. His summer residence is just outside the city, while his principal base is some four hours to the north.
Photographs of the man smile out from walls throughout the south of India, giving his blessing to homes and shops, workshops and restaurants, offices and banks. More than a million people are pulled in from all over India and across the world to celebrate his birthday each November, and there are never fewer than thousands of devotees around him at any one time.
He is one of the most distinctive people on earth. His costume is a long dress of bright orange, with sleeves to his wrists and a hem that brushes the ground as he walks. It is fitted close to his slight body and is especially startling in contrast to the white clothes worn by his devotees. His hair fluffs out from his head to make a broad black halo, so while his body is clothed in the color of sunset his head is large and round like the dark side of the moon.
In Tiruvannamalai my mind said no. Some force beyond my mind said yes. I was being pulled toward Sai Baba, being drawn in. My upbringing and my training told me, "Martin, this is ridiculous, this is conditioning. You have to break free of all preconceptions if you are going to make any real progress along the spiritual path. You are moving now under the impulse of some deep, primal need. Leave your rational mind on hold. It won't go away. Surrender to this freer process."
"This is the way it works," fellow pilgrims on the bus to Sai Baba tell me. "This is his power. When it is your time to come here, nothing can stop you." It hurts me now to sit and write such rubbish.
What do I want from Sai Baba? What would I want from Jesus if I met him? It is not love. It is not a miracle. It is not an implosion of light or life everlasting. It is not a fast route to God. I think, when I am honest, that it is one thing above all others. Recognition. I want Sai Baba to recognize me as special, someone outside the realm of normal human existence. Then I won't have to worry about wanting to belong to humanity any more.
So long as my life is out of control, I have proof that I am not in control of it. If I am not in control, then God must be. If I set myself apart from the crowd I am so much easier to recognize. That the divine has set me on so curious a path as this old bus rattling through the Indian countryside is an obvious sign of recognition.
It is easier to sustain this insanity when the journey keeps ending at a holy place. Life is more obviously a pilgrimage when lived in such a way. An Indian man on the bus keeps close to me as we register at Sai Baba's ashram. As a foreigner he feels I will be granted accommodation in one of the apartments, and hopes that he can follow in my wake.
I am assigned to one of the sheds.
Disappointed, the Indian goes his own way. Sai Baba has failed the first test. He has failed to recognize me. I walk off to find my shed, waiting to see if this is just a twist in a drama with a happy ending.