Living in the presence of Swami

Columbia doctor sets an example by following Swami’s teachings
Sunday, February 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:22 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dr. Ravi Kamath calls a pair of sandals his prized possession. This from a man who drives a Jaguar, owns a two-story home and has a parking spot marked “Trauma Surgeon Parking Only.”

The sandals, called paduka, were worn by the Swami Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a holy man in India who Kamath and other followers consider an avatar, an incarnation of God. They call him Sai Baba or simply Swami.

“Swami has said when my sandals come into your home, I come into your home,” Kamath says in a scratchy, high tone. “That’s why I speak with conviction when I say he is with us.”

Swami bestows his paduka on few of his followers. But Kamath is an extraordinary devotee. A 50-year-old bachelor who considers everyone family, Kamath is a trauma surgeon at the Level I Trauma Center at University Hospital. The center treats the most dire emergency patients from across mid-Missouri.

Kamath sees serving people as service to God. “To see the God within” others is one of his life’s philosophies.

Kamath’s devotion is manifested in the Sri Sathya Sai Center of Columbia — a place of worship, solace and study he has built in his basement. Each Thursday, Sai Baba’s local followers gather to pray, sing and study the discourses of their Swami, who has preached a message of inclusiveness and love since the 1940s.

Now, half a world away from Swami’s home in India, the faithful burn incense in front of his picture. On the altar, an image of Swami sits at the center of four images representing Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.

“There are many forms, but there is one Truth. That is God,” Kamath says. As he sings the bhajans, or songs of praise, Kamath’s voice is a reed instrument climbing and falling from note to note. Three women sit on the left side of the room, and two older men sit cross-legged on the right side near Kamath. They sing with the occasional snap of a tambourine or clapping hands as, outside, cars drive by on wet pavement making a “hush” sound.

Manjula Nathan is one of about 40 devotees who make Kamath’s home their own spiritual abode. An assistant professor in agronomy at MU, Nathan has been a follower of Sai Baba since she arrived in Columbia nine years ago. But she says, “I have surrendered much more to Swami since I started serving at our Sathya Sai Center from year 2000. He (Kamath) sets an example by leading a life following Swami’s teachings doing selfless service to humanity with unflinching faith and full devotion.”

There is a keypad lock on the basement door. Anyone can access the center whenever they feel the need.

“There is selfless love flowing from Ravi to all people,” says Nathan.

Kamath lives simply. He is a vegetarian. There is minimal furniture in this home, and no expensive art hangs on the walls. Instead, there are pictures of Swami, whose round face opens to a peaceful grin. Swami’s picture is a presence in Kamath’s house, his wallet, his car and in his office at the hospital.

On a gray October morning, crowds of gold-clad spectators flow toward Faurot Field before MU’s homecoming. Kamath enters the emergency room nearby about 8:30 a.m. wearing an olive Burberry coat over blue scrubs. He has been on call since 7 a.m., and he will remain a page away from action until 7 a.m. tomorrow morning.

As he walks through the ER, someone wishes the doctor a happy homecoming.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Kamath replies with a grin. After he rounds the corner, he says, “Happy Homecoming,” to the first passer-by, who answers with a nod and a grunt. Kamath turns, flashes a cheesy grin and laughs silently at his own joke.

Kamath continues to his office where a U-shaped wood desk and cabinets are piled with paperwork. A black-and-white picture of Swami — this time with a stethoscope around his neck — hangs on the wall opposite Kamath’s desk.

About 9:30 a.m., Kamath consults with Dr. Ziad Awad, a surgical resident who has a patient with an obstructed bowel. The two have talked on the phone about the case previously. Kamath goes with Awad to the patient’s room and politely, yet briskly, asks about her pain and her medical history. The patient is in considerable pain. The two doctors go to a computer terminal and look at images of the patient’s internal organs on a large screen. They decide she needs an operation to clear the blockage.

At about 12:30, Kamath heads to the operating room to join the team of nurses and doctors already scrubbed in for the patient’s surgery. They pass through a heavy door into the neon-lit rectangular operating room. Everyone but the patient wears a surgical mask and blue scrubs.

Forty-five minutes into the procedure, the patient’s bowels are in clear view outside the skin. Doctors Kamath and Awad debate the significance of black markings on the patient’s small intestines. A first-year resident has joined the team, and three beepers blare every 10 or 15 minutes.

Conversation at the operating table turns to removing all the waste behind the blockage — “milking the bowel” as Dr. Kamath puts it. He offers to show Awad the proper technique.

Awad says he knows how to use the technique.

Later, Kamath steps aside. With Awad out of earshot he says, “I’m just giving him a hard time. He’s doing the right thing.”

At 3:30, the surgery is completed successfully.

Three years ago, Kamath had a sincere desire to move back to India to work in Swami’s hospital system where other physician-devotees provide free care. Kamath wants nothing more than to serve Swami in these hospitals. But, he realized, it’s not time yet.

During the visit, Kamath made his way to the front of a crowd in Sai Baba’s hometown, Puttaparthi, and handed a letter to Swami. In it he asked, “If I’m not ready to come stay with you, will you come stay with me in Columbia?”

There is one bedroom in the doctor’s house left permanently vacant. The room is fully decorated, and the bed is neatly made with red velvet covers. A pillow with the Om symbol embroidered in gold sits atop the covers.

This room is for Swami. Even though he will not likely make the trip to Columbia, Kamath feels him here in spirit. With Swami as a permanent house guest, Kamath feels he is where he belongs. For now. Swami willing, Kamath will be with him one day in person soon.

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