INDIANAPOLIS - Indian spiritual leader and humanitarian Her Holiness Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi visited Indianapolis from Jan. 17-21 and made several public appearances, culminating with a presentation on Jan. 21 at a commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King.
This writer attended two of these events, hearing her speak Jan. 18 at a program of mediation at Indianapolis's Unity Church and again on Jan. 20, when she spoke before the congregation at the service of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church.
At both events, she was introduced by Ebeneezer's pastor, Rev. Tom Brown, an African American versed in both Eastern and Western religious traditions, who linked both these traditions of spirituality together as complements.
Sai Maa is one of the few women to be honored as a spiritual leader and teacher by a leading Hindu organization in India. Born in Mauritania, she is of Indian descent. She has also been embraced by other religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, and even by Jewish Rabbis.
She founded and heads Humanity in Unity, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization based in Boulder, which carries out several humanitarian projects, chiefly in India and other countries of Asia, but also elsewhere, including the United States.
Humanity In Unity describes its vision as "to unite and consciously awaken people to be divine love in action. Sai Maa and her master teachers offer transformational programs that empower participants to embody Gandhi's message that 'we must be the change we wish to see in the world.' The organization also provides humanitarian service to disenfranchised populations, including food projects and support for people with HIV/AIDS, who are terminally ill, impoverished, and for abused or imprisoned women."
No stranger to Indianapolis, Sai Maa has taken her teachings to the Indiana Women's Prison and to local food pantries, where she calls on all to recognize the Divine within each of us, and to honor that Divine not just through individual improvement and self-perfection, but to carry that Divine into the world through positive action that helps all.
Most recently, Humanity in Unity has joined with Vitamin Angels, Save the Children and the Us Foundation to administer anti-parasitic (de-worming) medicine and Vitamin A over a one-year period to 100,000 children, as well as to pregnant mothers, in the Nandi Hills region of India.
"Sai Maa's teachings are not about religion," said Leslie Flowers, the media contact for her visit. "Her religion is humanity."
Sai Maa herself describes her spiritual teaching as meaning, "There is only one family of human beings, no matter their race, religion or philosophy. The core of our work is to serve all with love, compassion and respect, no matter what. To give the love that heals, no matter what."
Indeed, as Sai Maa emphasized in both her talks, the primacy for her is love, emphasizing the goodness, the Divine, inherent in all of us, and that this love expresses itself in service for our fellow man and woman.
The first presentation was her Friday evening introductory meditation at the Unity Church, a non-denominational church open to all religions. Close to 200 people gathered in Unity's auditorium, where programmed Indian and New Age music with Indian percussion played beforehand. Outside was the registration table, and in the next room was the bookstore for Sai Maa's books, CDs and other assorted items, including herbal oils to aid in meditation. Among the items for sale was even a CD of Jewish spiritual music.
Many of her devotees, both local and out-of-state, were present (they made up about half of the audience), the majority of them dressed all in white, a color Sai Maa recommends for letting in the Divine Light. They were friendly, helpful and quite willing to be informative without proselytizing.
An attempt had been actively made to entice the media to attend the Friday night meditation by offering registered press free attendance at what was otherwise a $33 cost for attending. Of course, even non-profits have to earn money for expenses, but none of the event costs -- $244 for attending the Friday introductory and the all-day Saturday meditation instruction, $144 for a private session either Friday or Saturday, and the selling prices for merchandise -- were particularly exorbitant, except for some of the herbal oils, which at over $30 for a small bottle, did seem pricey. An all-day legal training seminar will cost $390, and a weekend initiation/education activity for one group costs $650.
But even at these prices, attendance was still something more affordable to middle-class whites than to the poor or persons of color -- and indeed, Friday's audience was mostly white and appeared to be of middle-class income. (But just the opposite was the case at Sai Maa's talk open free to the public Sunday at Indianapolis's Ebeneezer Baptist Church; and in both places Sai Maa was received enthusiastically.)
The evening service began close to schedule, with introductory remarks given by Humanity in Unity's Executive Director Raghavanand (Roger Gabriel). Some, but not all, of Sai Maa's devotees take Indian names, for the religious orientation is Hindu, with an ashram in Crestone, Colo.
After Raghavanand's brief remarks came music by Shirdibhai, a professional musician and one of Sai Maa's Master Teachers, who also teach her methods of meditation and practice. There are more than 30 Master Teachers around the globe, two of them based in Indianapolis, which also has its own Sai Maa center. As part of its local mission this center wants to work with the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center, according to the IPJC's President Rev. Jim Wolfe, who also attended both the Friday and the Sunday events.
Shirdibhai, accompanying himself on guitar, sang of "There is a loving place...O Mother, take us there, take us home," a mellifluous song of love and longing that nicely set the mood. Sai Maa herself was introduced by the Rev. Tom Brown, the son of Indianapolis's civil rights godfather Rev. Andrew Brown.
The younger Brown related his coming to understand the Eastern religious tradition with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, who would frequently come to stay at his father's house to get away and rest. He finds affinity with Sai Maa in both love and nonviolence and understands Eastern religion as complementary, not antithetical, to his mission as a Baptist pastor.
From this tradition he criticizes Western materialism, which he characterized that evening as, "If it ain't about money, it don't mean nothing." He contrasted Sai Maa's "power to love" with our society's "power to take, control and manipulate." He has been friends with Sai Maa for many years and had specifically invited her to come to Indianapolis this year to participate in the commemoration of Martin Luther King's life scheduled for that Monday.
Sai Maa then entered the hall, walking from the back of the auditorium to the stage at the front, and joked briefly with Brown. She was dressed in a floor-length white gown and sat in a chair on the stage, speaking through a microphone attached to her head. She received and embraced several young children, both African American and white, then began her talk by repeating several times to the audience, "I love you."
She went on to talk of our time as a "time of healing," of "love with no conditions," and that the time of "focus on 'me, me, me' is over." Her message for the next hour-and-a-half was for all of us to find our positive energy within and let the Divine Light within us come out. Within each of us was love to cultivate, but to cultivate it, we must fully accept ourselves, even though within ourselves we find negative. We are to accept our feelings of guilt and shortcoming and not to judge them or resist them.
"You are created absolutely perfect," she said, and that perfection within us we can cultivate by being open to ourselves and accepting ourselves -- a message in contrast to what so many of us were taught in Western religion, notably Christianity. For the real God is loving, not punishing, she said. "God cannot punish. There is no God which punishes."
By finding and accepting ourselves, we than reach out with the love within us to love and serve others, to serve humanity. Our self-cultivation cultivates others. This is the gist of her message delivered that night, which may seem like pop psychology, but which she presented not as a simplistic nostrum, but as an inner truth that so self-evident it is usually overlooked.
But her presentation was not simply her lecturing in quiet, dulcet tones to a passive audience. She deliberately called on members of the audience to interact with her, questioning them on how they felt and what was on their minds, and this did not seem staged.
She wanted the audience to participate with her, not just mentally but physically as well, and there were a lot of bodily interactions, as she got audience members to clap, raise their arms, embrace their neighbors, even stand up and gyrate to fast-tempo Indian percussion, turning the auditorium for 15 minutes into a mini-dance floor as audience members wildly and freely shook their hips.
"Be grateful to the body," she said, and indeed, her message an invocation of psychologist Ken Dychtwald's "bodymind" in its melding of the intellect into the sensuality of the body, the embracing by the body of the mind that is also part of it, without either Christian or Cartesian duality. She ended her presentation that evening by speaking on the process of meditation, and the various chakras, or wheels, within the body that were its foci, specific points of energy.
She ended her talk with a call to meditate, to "surrender to the light," and said that ours was a time for global enlightenment and forgiveness. She then called upon the audience to chant with her in finishing her presentation, calling on the audience to choose the chant, whatever they wished, but suggesting "Alleluia," "Kyrie Eleison" or a Sanskrit mantra.
A Sanskrit mantra was decided upon, "Om Shivay Hari Om Shivay," the words flashed upon the screen behind her, as had been the diagrams of the chakras. Then she left the stage by the opposite aisle from which she'd entered, nodding to the audience members as she passed them, her palms joined together and tipped toward the individuals as she passed them, an Eastern sign of respect.
On Sunday, Jan. 20, Sai Maa gave the sermon at the regular service of Rev. Tom Brown's Ebeneezer Baptist Church, on Indianapolis's West Side. The rather small church was packed, again with about 200 people, for about half of those present had come specifically to hear Sai Maa speak. They sat mingled in friendly ambience with the regular, overwhelmingly African American congregation dressed in their Sunday finery.
The special guests were asked to stand up and be introduced by Rev. Brown, who noted that Sai Maa was "no stranger to the Ebeneezer community." But despite these two continuities with Friday's presentation, this was a much different cultural setting from that in the Unity Church -- for this was an otherwise typical Black Baptist Sunday service, rousing and enthusiastic, not in the way of Friday's meditative lecture, but in the specific way of African-American culture on its home turf.
And yet nothing jarred. Shirdibhai was present again with his music, only this time it was in several songs throughout the service, where New Age freely and felicitously mixed with Black Gospel, his vocals and accompanying guitar enhanced with the addition of drums, organ, piano, and gospel choir, and Rev. Brown's praise of Sai Maa's message intermingled with praise of Martin Luther King's.
Rev. Brown then introduced the award-winning Kenyate Dancers, a mixed-race quintet, which did a modern interpretative dance to Aretha Franklin's recording of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Then Shirdibhai joined the band and the Ebeneezer Choir in an uptempo gospel song that he prefaced with "This is a poem of the mind. We create what we put our attention on. We are in charge of our mind." He sang passionately, "As a man thinketh, that's what his life becomes."
The visiting guest preacher, a former Ebeneezer parishioner, gathered the children around him in a circle by the pulpit and gave his special sermon, admonishing the adults, "Most of the time children don't come into the world mad. You teach it to them."
Then Shirdibhai and the choir sang a vigorous Christian rock emphasizing the lyrics, "I want to be like you," and the song he'd done Friday, which he introduced as celebrating the Divinity of the Mother as well as the Father.
Rev. Tom Brown, appearing on this occasion, naturally, in his gray-and-black minister's robes, then introduced Sai Maa, and instructed the audience in the ways of Eastern religion and terms of respect, noting, as he had Friday, that "guru" simply means teacher, "Her Holiness" is a term of respect, and that the palms joined together has the fingers representing the five senses and means, "Welcome, peace, the five senses, and humility."
Sai Maa entered similarly as she had at Unity Church, walking from the back to the front. She was dressed in a floor-length yellow gown and wore a white hat with a round cap and moderately wide brim. Most of the women who were members of Ebeneezer's congregation wore hats, still common among older women in many churches, and traditional in Christian churches.
Sai Maa is not old, appearing to be at most in her early 40s, but the hat seemed indicative that she honored also this Christian sign of respect.
Sai Maa spoke standing, with the microphone around her neck. She spoke softly, as she had at Unity, but with the different acoustics present Sunday often making her hard to hear in the back. But that never interfered with her keeping the congregation's attention for the half-hour that she spoke.
She spoke as she had Friday, emphasizing love and the ability of the individual to make a difference, but she geared her talk for the different audience she was addressing. She talked of engaging and loving oneself, and of the fallacy of seeking love outside oneself. She talked of violence and killing, of how one could make a difference, and stressed education, but in a cajoling rather than admonitory way, as if to offer encouragement, especially to the women, to carry on, and how there could be community in the family.
Stressing the nobility of women is an integral part of Sam Maa's spiritual message. She intermixed Hindu with Christian themes, and, specifically addressing her particular audience of African American Christians, related the Divinity within oneself as being the Christ within oneself.
As at Unity, she engaged actively with her listeners. A visiting choir from Birmingham, Ala., sponsored by the Civil Rights Institute, was present at the service, being there to perform in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday.
She asked a young man from the Institute to explain the meaning of nonviolence. The man was at first unsure as to what to say, but with Sai Maa's gentle prodding, he finally responded that nonviolence meant understanding the violence all around. The way to understand it in order to handle it, he went on, was to pull people in, to talk to them, to converse -- because of the violence in everyday life, the violence that surrounds all.
Sai Maa gently assented in what the young man said, and talked of violence begetting violence, and how to overcome it by knowing what you as a person want. "There's nothing wrong with you," she asserted. "Heal yourself, and turn your personality into awareness. Do good to yourself. My work is to tell you that you are a magnificent being covered with stuff." This especially drew cries of agreement from the congregation.
She then related how she was a vegetarian and asked if the people were aware of the noxious hormones in their meat? But she got a really rousing assent peppered with vigorous "Amen!" and clapping when she complained of all the sugar in our diets and spoke out in demand, "We need to cut off the sweets and soft drinks in our schools!" She called on her listeners to change what they eat. "You do not have to carry yourself within you continuously."
She called on her listeners to be examples to their children and support their children in becoming examples to others, which, again, drew vigorous assents. A teacher rose to note that those children who got support at home, often from the presence of aunts or grandmothers in the household, did much better than those who didn't get support, and that grandmothers often made up for what the parents lacked.
Sai Maa ended by returning to her theme of growing in one's light. Rev. Brown then talked of Ebeneezer's purchase of a wildlife refuge that was acquired to provide solace for healing and said he would be calling on Humanity in Unity to join him and the church in partnership to keep it going. He noted that Ebeneezer offered Christian-themed meditation classes twice a month, took up the collection, and as two elders stood in front by plush chairs, asked for those ready to receive Christ to come forward, which some did.
Those that did were often already known to the congregation and to Pastor Brown. Shirdibhai and the choir ended the service with "Amazing Grace" sung both slow and fast tempo, followed by the hymn, "Hallelujah."
I found both presentations engrossing and provocative of new thought within me on the meaning of spirituality. For I had become for some reason quite interested in both attending and writing on her visit when notice was first posted online by the Alternative to see which writers were interested in covering the events.
Perhaps it was the nagging disquiet in my own life at the time. But I came to Sai Maa's presentations a Marxist atheist and left them still a Marxist atheist, albeit one with a somewhat different slant on spirituality than I'd had before, a greater positive sense of religion being also "The heart of a heartless world" as well as "the opium of the people," words Karl Marx himself had penned both in the same essay; for he meant not just to dismiss religion as superstition, but also to delineate the positive sense of community he found that religion possessed for those hurting and oppressed in class society.
I suppose I was most struck by the difference in Sai Maa's compassionate approach from the rigid, loveless authoritarianism inherent in the Catholicism of my youth, as well as its distance, because of its emphasis on service to humanity, from the Robert Schuller ersatz of "God wants you to do well in the stock market!" Yes, religion can be only one- or two-dimensional, but so can hectoring people about the Revolution, so can focus on changing the world around us without also transforming ourselves positively as we go about it.
I recall a brief conversation I had after Sai Maa's talk Friday with pre-med student William Starsiak, who'd come up from Bloomington. He was a devotee of her teachings who wished professionally to combine psychotherapy with osteopathic body manipulations and talked earnestly of how "I feel so good when I see people healing and empowering themselves."
Others among her devotees that night also told me how the approach to Hinduism of Sai Maa's teachings differed from the merely self-contemplative approach of other versions, and that they felt compelled to live out their lives in service by bringing the Divine Light in themselves to others through humanitarian action. All in all, a most engrossing experience for this writer and socialist activist.
George Fish can be reached at .