Notes on a New Age Childhood -The Toast

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Felix Kent’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When I was applying to colleges a lifetime ago, my atheist father suggested I write my application essays about Sai Baba. He said there were lots of smart kids more or less like me applying to college — this part of my life set me apart. It was good advice, perhaps. I didn’t follow it.

Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, was a small man with a large puff of very curly black hair. Baba wore, almost always, an orange-red robe. Sometimes a white one. He lived in Puttaparthi, India, near where he was born, but there were Sathya Sai Baba Centers in 114 countries. Baba’s obituary in the Telegraph put the number of people who believed him to be an incarnation of God at around 3 million. My mother is one of those people, and from ages 11 to 15 so was I.

This is how my mother came to Sai Baba: one day, she picked me up from my babysitter’s. There was, in her telling, an entirely new feeling in the small apartment, a feeling of peace and cleanliness and expansion. “What happened?” my mother asked. My babysitter told her about Sathya Sai Baba. And told her again, and asked my mother to come to the Baba Center, and told her again, and asked her again. My mother loved my babysitter, knew her to be smart and serious and trustworthy, and so after six months my mother finally gave in and went. When she walked in, they were singing a song to Ganesh, and, she says, she immediately felt a terrifying conviction that she’d met something real.

My mother had grown up Episcopalian in Seattle. She took God seriously when she was a child and continued to do so when she was an adult. Eventually she decided the Episcopal Church was not sufficient for her; my parents did not go to church and my father was a non-believer. Still, my mother had me baptized as a baby — off the books and on the sly — with the conspiratorial agreement of the priest. My grandfather and grandmother, my aunt and uncle, flew down for the ceremony. I wore a christening dress borrowed from my aunt’s childhood, a beautiful embroidered white thing.

This was before my mother knew that Sai Baba existed; I expect she would have had me baptized even if she had already encountered him. If you are a Christian, be the best Christian you can be, Sai Baba taught his followers. If you are a Jew, be the best Jew.

My mother’s parents went to church every Sunday. I went with them once when I was fourteen. My grandmother made sure that I did not take communion, that I knew I was ineligible for it. My maternal grandparents were, from my experience of them, strange people, but their external face to the world was extremely normal for their time and place. I think about them a lot — about how and whether there is some kind of line between them and me; about what this tie looks like, if it exists.

I have always thought at least some of why my mother embraced Baba was because it would piss off so many people she knew. I have said this to her; it makes her laugh. She goes to an Episcopal Church now, but she still believes in Baba. She thinks that what she believes in is real, and so she does not worry very much about her motives for believing it.

When I first thought about writing this essay, I imagined it in the second person. You can’t do that, I thought, that would be a gimmick. Later, also, it would be a lie. Like many who were raised with strong beliefs, my thoughts about my childhood religion both beat at the heart of my life now and are also completely disconnected from it. I am the one who doesn’t know what to do with those beliefs now. Not you.

Over the phone, I tell my mother I am trying to write about Baba. She says, “Honestly, if I hadn’t actually experienced the things that I experienced, if somebody else was telling me about them, I would think they needed to have their meds adjusted.”

When I was growing up, people who had been to Puttaparthi would talk at the Baba Center. They would talk about how Swami made them a necklace, granted them an audience, gave them a watch (Baba was known for the production of Rolexes). Singled them out during darshan. Knew things about them that nobody else did. My mother says she personally experienced a series of miracles. The ones she talks about the most trend slightly comic: a locket that covered itself in sacred ash which she took for mold and scraped off, crossly. Feeding milk to a Ganesh statue that had gotten attention for its willingness to “drink” the milk, watching the milk disappear into Ganesh’s elephant snout, thinking, oh, capillary action! Watching the milk flood back out, a rebuke to her skepticism.

My mother is smart and steady. She tries very hard to do the right thing by her lights. Her lights are not always my lights, but often they are, and I love her as much as I will ever love anybody in this world. She believes these “miracles” happened, and I do not, and it is hard for me to face that.

When my parents were still together, I did not believe in Sai Baba. The Sai organization would hand out sandwiches to homeless people downtown, and on Sunday mornings my mother would get up early to make peanut-butter sandwiches in our kitchen as part of this effort. My father and I would watch her make the sandwiches, and I would make fun of Sai Baba and the new age practitioners dragged in his wake. One homeopathic doctor my mother knew was named “Feline Butcher.” She was German; her first name was pronounced with a soft e. “Fee-line Butcher,” I would chant. “Cat Killer.” My father would laugh. My mother would smile, make peanut-butter sandwiches.

And then my father left, and I too became a devotee of Sai Baba. I have no memory of the transition from mockery to belief. One minute I am cracking wise on the kitchen linoleum and the next I am cross-legged in the shrine, waiting for Bal Vikas to start, reading a comic book about the goddess Parvati, believing that one day soon, God will talk to me.

Then I drifted away again. It is hard to pinpoint the end of my faith, even though I kept a diary. On December 31, 1991, when I was fourteen, I wrote: “[A]t 12:00 I will sneak outside and sing a Ghayatri . . . I feel very close to Swami tonight. It is silly of me to say that I’m alone because he is with me.” I wrote in purple pen; I misspelled Gayatri. On March 31, 1993, on an airplane: “This is going to sound really stupid but I’m not sure what I believe any more.” The same day, a few pages later: “I did a meditation thing and I feel better. How can I doubt Swami when all my structures involve him, and when they work?” But then, on January 6, 1994: “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore, actually it’s more that I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t concern me, my living of my life has nothing to do with the after-life.”

This last formulation is alarmingly close to the one I still use today. I say, often, that I do not think the existence or non-existence of God is any of my business. This is not quite true, but it has the merit of not forcing me to reconcile all the conflicting pieces in my head. It approaches true, in an asymptotic way.

Today I am comfortable saying that I do not believe in God. Easy to say, also true. But I find it difficult to say that even if God exists, Sai Baba is not God. It still trips me up on an emotional level; it feels like disloyalty.

Trying to describe what it was like to be a devotee, I veer from set-dressing details (the candles, the roses, the songs, the pictures) to a simple, almost abstract, world view: one part of your inner self is pure and trustworthy; is God. We aimed at that inner divinity when we closed our eyes; we searched for it in our daily encounters.

In a yoga class, maybe you have experienced the moment when the teacher pulls some part of you, only slightly; says to you, “Do you feel that? Does it feel better?” and waits for your yes. I felt that Baba pulled, but he pulled from the inside and, at least as I understood the purpose of the pulling, it was to detach me from those parts not part of that inner divinity, that inner wholeness.

My mother’s meditation teacher, Phyllis, taught my mother to visualize herself leaning on a tree in the middle of the woods. When my mother tried to teach this to me, the tree in my mind came crashing down. Every time.

Wholeness is not one of my strengths. I am an anxious person, always second-guessing, always building myself back together at the end of the day out of the shards that are left. When I had faith, I felt like I failed Baba by not being more whole, and later I felt that Baba failed me by making me think that wholeness was even possible. This is not, of course, everyone’s experience. When I sent my mother a draft of this essay, she wrote back, “My experience is of having raw and abraded places cherished and healed, when I remember to ask. But that there is nothing in there that does not have wholeness at its center. No part of it that should be rejected — instead, understood, listened to, comforted, healed.”

Wherever you come down on wholeness, maybe there is something radical about teaching your teenage daughter that what’s inside of her is divine.

But there are also consequences to believing that what’s inside you is divine. At thirteen, I told my stepmother that I was nervous and reserved around her because she represented a temptation to worldliness and therefore also damnation. I don’t remember the Sai organization talking about damnation at all, but my inner self felt compelled to say this, so I did. Not surprisingly, my stepmother held this against me.

The language of Baba was the language to hand; it shaped what I had to say and how I said it. But as a child I was often thoughtless and self-absorbed, and Baba did not cure me of those things. Unfair to blame a God I don’t believe in for failing to wash me of sin. But I think I did.

Most of Baba’s devotees in the Center I went to were Indian — the blonde astrologer who led my Bal Vikas group and the divorced father with Michael Bolton hair and an especially sincere way of chanting were among the exceptions. And so for a few years after I stopped going to the Center, I thought that my relationship with Baba gave me a special relationship to India, to Indian-ness. I was very wrong about this; it took me decades to realize how wrong.

Instead, my time at the Center erased the real place in favor of a small man in an orange robe with a pouf of hair and a Rolls-Royce, the noise of the harmonium, and Nilam’s voice, high and urgent, the rest of us following behind. There I sat and sang out of tune and brooded about the placement of men and women on separate sides of the aisle. I am left-handed, and sometimes when the vibhuti was being passed around I would reach for it with my left hand and I would be reprimanded. I didn’t like that, and I complained to my mother about it. There is an inglorious tradition of white people appropriating and inserting themselves into movements and traditions, ignoring the history and patterns of interaction and oppression, complaining — as if against a blank page– about the ways these movements fail to account for their personal needs. I was part of that tradition.

Now I can’t even remember the language used, the words. I had an outfit, of what I think we called in the Center “Punjabis,” what Google tells me is probably a Punjabi salwar suit — a loose navy top going down to my thighs with embroidery about the neck, on top of billowing cream-colored trousers, also embroidered at the hem. Now, I don’t think white kids should dress up in the clothes of countries they don’t understand, of cultures they don’t belong to, however sincere their beliefs. If my relationship to Baba was real, how could it also be a costume? That tells you something about how I put on and took off Baba.

I am ashamed of all of these things, and one of the many ways I deal with that shame, with my own failures, is through anger at Baba. There are things to be angry at about. Some are straightforward. There are accusations that Baba molested boys. I did not know about this until I was out of the organization, until Baba was something I avoided talking about with my mother because I love her and the things I would say about my childhood religion would come out cruel. The two of us have never discussed the molestation allegations. I tend to believe them, albeit without any inside knowledge, and I don’t think I could talk to her about them without fury or brutality.

There are other accusations — that the “miracles” were sleight of hand, conjuring tricks. Far less reprehensible, but cutting close to the heart of the claim that Baba was God.

That preternatural new age calm that so many non-Indian devotees I have met affect seems to me a way out of seeing the real scars and hurts and unfairnesses the world inflicts on its inhabitants, some more than others, based on patterns inscribed long ago. Long after I stopped believing in Baba, I went to lunch with some devotees that I used to know. One was a chiropractor that my mother used to take me to sometimes; I had liked him. Now, as he beamed and talked about his practice and held hands with his wife, I felt a wave of rage towards him, towards his certainty that he sat squarely in the center of a universe that loved him.

But I still, reflexively, turn to the voice inside me, that inner divinity, to make decisions. When my father recently sent me an email that misspelled Baba as “Babba,” I was genuinely shocked, and then my shock made me laugh. When people tell me their dreams, my mind — by reflex — unravels them into threads learned long ago. Sometimes, on the street at night, I am filled like a lantern with faith in a world that is by definition sacred, whatever its failures. And yet I do not believe.

At the lunch with the chiropractor, while I was sitting and raging quietly to myself, a little bird flew into the restaurant, went blundering around, lost and confused. The chiropractor cupped his hands, and caught the bird in them. In one fluid movement he took the bird outside, and it flew away. It was a sign and portent, something out of a particularly stupid movie. My rage with him did not abate even a little bit.

It is a strange thing to believe that a particular person is God, and then, later, not believe it.

Baba predicted his date of death and his date of rebirth. He got the date of his death wrong. Some devotees claim he was on a different calendar. When he died, although I had not believed he was a god for years and years and years, I felt as though I had lost something. It seemed like it should matter more than it did.

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