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Hindu religious group reaches out to American homeless

 The Contributor (USA) 11 April 2019

In Nashville, USA, a city sometimes referred to as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” there is a group whose religious perspective differs from many of their neighbors. The grassroots religious organisation Sai Baba regularly prepares meals in the early morning for over one hundred homeless women and children. (1956 Words) - By Megan Pacella


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 Radha Babu, president of the Nashville Sai Baba group shares a thoughtful moment while other Sai Baba group volunteers prepare to serve the meal. Photo: Tasha French

For more photos click here.

On a Saturday morning, when most people take the chance to sleep late, Atul Ohri and his wife, Gayatri Ohri, rolled out of bed while it was still dark, and started cooking 160 Boca Burgers to serve for lunch at a local Christian-based shelter for homeless women and their children. Across town, their friend, Meena Menon, put together a gigantic salad and at a third house, Vishaka Singapuri assembled trays of homemade banana pudding-a labor of love that ensured more than 150 women would be able to eat a balanced and delicious lunch. While unexpected circumstances can cause some to miss scheduled service activities, members of the Nashville Sai Baba Organization always manage to make it work.

The Ohris and their friends belong to a religious group that follows the teachings of the highly revered spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba. If you ask members of the Sai group about their generosity and compassion, they will all likely tell you the same thing they learned from their guru: They do good works because God allows them to-and the reward for such service is great.

The Sai group has been serving lunch at the non-profit organization regularly for the past three years. While the pressures of consistently feeding 150 people could weigh on anyone, members of the Sai Baba group usually remain unfazed.

"You know, if we take our egos into it, it gets difficult. When you believe in a higher power, everything falls into place and challenges are not looked upon as [difficulties]. Instead, we say, 'We need to grow a little more; we need to have more commitment.' It provides you with a greater opportunity to grow," says Radha Babu, president of the Nashville Sai chapter.

Armed with that mentality, Nashville's Sai group takes on a number of service projects, spending their own money and expending their energy to serve the city of Nashville. Besides serving bi-monthly meals at this particular organization, the Sai group uses the third Saturday of each month to spend time reading to and playing games with residents at a nursing home. During the holiday season, they assemble care packages that contain gloves, wool socks and hand-knit scarves for homeless and impoverished Nashvillians. The group also helps Bhutanese refugees settle in Nashville. They teach English classes, and help connect refugees to driver's licenses and other basic services.

"If you are a Christian, be a good Christian. If you are Hindu, be a good Hindu. There's no need to change your religion. Whatever you are, be good"

With only about 100 regular members participating in the Sai Group, it takes a strong community to pull off so many service projects. The teachings of Sathya Sai Baba place a strong emphasis on loving service, so many members of the group are eager to step up.

"The main emphasis in this organization is not how much of a difference you make in the lives of those you are serving, but how much of a difference that makes in your own life," Radha Babu explains. "The transformation it brings about is what we emphasize. It almost sounds like [we serve for] a selfish reason-but it's not. It's for a spiritual reason. You get as much as you give, because it is a privilege: Service is a gift given to you by God, because you are in a position to help."


Teachings of Sathya Sai Baba


While many of Nashville's Sai members practice Hinduism, Sathya Sai Baba's teachings urge followers to practice their own religions-only with a renewed focus on truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence.

"Sai says God is one; it's just the different forms that you see," Atul Ohri explains. "Whether you say Buddha, Jesus or Allah, it's the same God. Christians believe in one single entity. There are about 36 million entities that Hindus believe in. In my home I have photographs of several different forms of Hindu gods … but God is still one."

"Sai Baba also teaches that you should be whatever religion you are," Gayatri Ohri adds. "If you are a Christian, be a good Christian. If you are Hindu, be a good Hindu. There's no need to change your religion. Whatever you are, be good. Be strong in that faith. If you are not strong enough in that faith, you cannot grow spiritually."

Born as Sathyarayana Raju in a small village in southern India, Sathya Sai Baba has reportedly always felt a strong pull toward spiritual growth. As a child, he was given the nicknames Guru and Brahmajnani (meaning knower of Brahman or Godhead) because of his spiritual and contemplative nature. In 1940, at age 14, Sathya publicly declared himself to be an avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba, a wise teacher who came before him.

According to Atul Ohri, when Sathyarayana first claimed to be an avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba, many people doubted his authenticity.

" People thought, 'Oh, he's just a boy,' but then a lot of people realized the truth through miracles," Atul says. "Some people call it magic, but several people found it an eternal blessing to get involved in Sai Baba."

Since publicly declaring his mission as the reincarnate Sai Baba, Sathya has devoted his time to exhibiting what he calls the five ideals: truth, right conduct, peace, love and non-violence. Sai Baba's main purpose is to re-establish righteousness in the world and to repair the broken road that leads to an ancient God.

He repeatedly asserts that the essence of all scriptures is to "help ever, hurt never," and one of his most popular mantras can be find on the sign of every Hard Rock Café franchise: Love all, serve all. One of the restaurant's founders is also a Sai devotee.

"I have come to tell you of this universal, unitary faith, this spiritual principle, this path of love, this duty of love, this obligation to love," Sai Baba wrote. "Believe that all hearts are motivated by the one and only God; that all faiths glorify the one and only God … His adoration is best done by means of love. Cultivate that attitude of oneness between men of all creeds and all countries. That is the message of love I bring. That is the message I wish you to take to heart."

Setting an example for Sai followers worldwide, Sathya Sai Baba has devoted much of his life to service. He fostered a system of integral education in India, which includes primary schools, secondary schools, and an accredited university with three campuses. The system is designed to foster self-discipline and pro-social conduct, and admission to school is free to all students.

"It was important for our guru to establish his own [education system] because they can enforce their own philosophy and rules," says Radha Babu, who was educated at one of Sai Baba's colleges. "To Sai Baba, character education is as important as academic education."

Sathya Sai Baba has also built a 300-bed hospital near the universities, where residents can receive highly specialized operations, including open-heart surgeries and kidney transplants that might not be available otherwise. Healthcare is free for patients, motivated by Sathya's desire to serve humanity. He also initiated a project that provides adequate water supply to 1.5 million people in the State of Andhra Pradesh (India) who were living in drought conditions. Sathya Sai Baba believes that it is the duty of society to ensure that all the people have access to the basic necessities of life.


Service in Action


After cooking for hours, the Ohris met their friends at the non-profit organization, armed with Boca Burgers and plenty of people to help serve. As the women and their families lined up to eat, one could hear many people commenting on the homemade banana pudding.

"We look forward to this lunch every time," said a woman who, along with her two children, receives assistance from the non-profit. "We don't get something like homemade banana pudding very often. It means so much when we do."

Vishaka, also known as 'the banana pudding lady,' starts making three trays of pudding from scratch on Friday nights before serving lunch. Most of the time, she doesn't help serve the meal.

"The women enjoy it … they tell me, 'I love your pudding,' so I don't come. Sometimes I start to have an ego, and we don't want that. That's not why we are here," she explains.

Observing the Sai group in action, it's clear that they strive to serve with a strong sense of humility.

About a year ago, a few women from the Sai group noticed that one of the homeless women they served every other Saturday was pregnant. When asking about her due date, they discovered that she was in need of several important items. When the non-profit organization held a baby shower, the Sai Baba group added a gift card to the gift table.

"We all contributed money and bought a gift card for her," Gayatri says. "She wanted some money to buy some things for her baby-a stroller, other small items-she was so happy, so thrilled after that gift."

"It's hard to put it into words, but it's a feeling we get," Atul tries to explain. "Why is there a difference between them and us? Why should there be any difference at all?"

The gap between the rich and the poor is a disparity that the Sai group often tries to close.

"We don't seek services that belong to this particular religion or race; we just start with the basic things-and food is a basic necessity," Radha Babu says. "And then you come into direct contact with the people you are serving, and you realize that there is not much difference between the one you are serving and yourself."

The Sai group meets in different members' homes on Sundays, and sometimes borrows space at the Sri Ganesh Temple to hold worship services and fellowship meals. Without a building in which they can meet, nor any paid ministers or secretaries, the members of the Nashville Sai Baba group rely on each other's generosity to continue their service.

Each week before serving lunch, they email amongst one another to determine who can serve and who can provide food. Somehow, Atul Ohri says, it always pans out.

"Everyone contributes a little bit. People send an email saying, 'This is what we want to [contribute].' If someone has not signed up for something by Friday evening, we go buy that item," Atul Ohri explains.

"We don't have a secretary. We don't have a bank account, because it is against the rules," he adds. "That makes things complicated. This is expensive, but we don't collect money. It just comes from people."

Equipped with a generous attitude, the Sai group continues to serve lunch twice a month, and they are always seeking other service opportunities. In their belief system, religion without action is only a sentiment.

"My intention is not to tell people that we are doing this service. My intention is to get the spirit of it out, because it doesn't belong to any one group or religion," Radha Babu says. "It is a universal spirit. Any wise man or wise woman who has experienced life and understood life on a higher level will say, 'Love is the highway to God, regardless of its forms and creeds and dogmas.' Every religion teaches you, a sense of religion is love. Love definitely is the highway to heaven."


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