They say a picture is worth a thousands words. In Vrindavan it's worth more than that. And faces are worth even more. The faces of Brijbasis, those souls who by coincidence, choice or sukriti, reside in Vrindavan, offers blessings to visitors. They are not sages and saints, the vast majority of dham residents, but i would rather look at the face of the lowest Brijbasi than the most glamorous actors of Hollywood or Bollywood. Eye candy can tease the mind but it gives no nourishment for the soul. It actually distracts the soul, while Brijbasis do not always look nice, but their faces somehow nourish my soul.
For me, the faces of Brijbasis offer a sense of wonder, piety, intuition, spiritual fortune and dignity in distress. I don't see (and cannot judge) who is a sadhu or not. I discount most of the westerners like myself who are more or less spiritual "tourists" in Vrindavan. Sometimes i appreciate the western devotees in Vrindavan and sometimes i find them disturbing, out of sync with its reality. The Delhi wallas who come and go are more upsetting, creating traffic jams with their middle class cars, trying to enjoy a pious outing, like customers at a spiritual disneyland. But the Brijbasis who are born there or who have adopted Vrindavan as their home, offer me something i have not found elsewhere: a sense of home comfort-- despite the fact that i will always remain a foreigner to them and Vrindavan will always remain an exotic, exalted and challenging place for me.
I wander around Vrindavan with an improvised purpose. Sometimes to have darshan of the beautiful, powerful and historic deities who are enshrined all over town, sometimes to shop for particular needs, sometimes to meet with an old friend. Often, these purposes merge as i meet someone or run into a transcendental event quite by chance on my way somewhere. One day i was looking for silver and gold items. I wanted to purchase gifts for a few relatives and friends. I always go to a very reliable silver walla who has a small shop on Atkambar Road, which intersects the road to Loi Bazaar near Banki Behari temple. The shopkeeper's name is Ram Niwas. His late father, who started the shop, was named Gopal Das. Thus the shop's name: Gopal Das Ram Niwas. It's one of my favorite places to shop in Vrindavan and Ram Niwas is as nice a Brijbasi as i know. Many evenings i have seen him attending arotik at Radha Raman Mandir, about one kilometer from his shop. He is always polite, warm and gracious, and in his shop, he is never pushy, condescending or tricky. He is someone i like to meet with every visit, even if i don't have anything to purchase.
I am in his shop looking at gold and silver items. He sits cross legged behind a glass counter on a raised platform covered with white sheets. I sit on bench overlooking the counter. Although there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of gold and silver jewelry in the shop, there are no alarms and no guards in the small store. (Can you imagine that in the West?) Hopefully it can remain that way. Today i notice a huge commotion on the narrow Atkambar Road in front of the shop. I ask Ram Niwas what is happening. He explains that there is a feast today for Hanuman, who has the smallest of temples-- a deity of the great monkey devotee is inlaid on a wall, covered by an iron grating-- just opposite the silver shop. It is Govardhan puja today, and the priests of the wall temple have arranged an opulent feast for Hanumanji, who once offered his respects and blessings to Govardhan Hill. Hanuman is covered, except for his eyes, in silver foil. Tables are set up right in front of him on the street filled with hundreds of different varieties of savories and sweets. Passerbys carry on as an arotik starts, gongs and bells ring out, foot traffic becomes jammed (rickshaws are temporarily banned from this section of the road), as i sit just 10 feet away, looking at silver items inside the shop.
Now i understand how Ram Niwas got his name. His father, a devotee of Krishna, named him in honor of Lord Ram and Hanuman, whose auspicious presence is just opposite their shop. Business and worship are not necessarily in conflict in Vrindavan. Days later, when i return to the shop to pay my bill, Ram Niwas offers me this as a farewell: "I hope you return to Vrindavan soon." Coming from his lips, i don't take it as business but as a blessing.
I walk down to Loi Bazaar from the silver shop, a short 8 minute walk. I am having a set of japa beads restrung at one of the bead shops. In the West, no one knows how to string tulasi beads, and my japa beads have been broken for 6 months. My friend and godbrother, Ananda Swarup from Amsterdam, who preached in India during Prabhupada's Iskcon days, advised me to ask for "parachute thread" to restring my beads. I tell the bead walla, another familiar face whose hair has turned white over the years, to use parachute thread, and he immediately understands my request. I repeat it once or twice, until i hear him say "parachute thread" just to make sure he really hears me and will do it correctly. The regular thread breaks easily but parachute thread is nylon and lasts a long time. The bead walla tells me the cost will be 40 rupees (less than $1) and my mala will be ready tomorrow. I happily agree. A nice japa mala is worth more than its weight in gold, if one actually chants Hari Nama on it. When i come to collect the beads the next day, the mala is perfect. He has also replaced four beads that were cracked (meaning they could fall off anytime) and has carefully counted the mala to make sure it has 108 beads. He charges an extra 10 rupees for the four new beads, a discount from the current price, he says. Even tulasi beads have become expensive by Indian standards. Inflation must be in double digits in India now.
When i ask the bead merchant if he will guarantee the restrung beads, he gives me an answer i don't expect. "Only God can guarantee," he says. "But they should be good for 3-4 years." An interesting mix of philosophy and Indian business tactics that makes me laugh out loud.