Ghanshyam baba was a beggar with an odd peculiarity. He stood at the crossroad outside his hamlet every day and begged the wayfarers to listen to a little katha from him.
Anyone who has travelled the length, or breadth, or even a small stretch of India knows that beggars usually don’t give; they ask. But Ghanshyam baba begged everyone to take something from him.
“Would you like to hear something really wonderful about God, dear Madam? You’ve come to Vrndavan, after all.” or “Do you know who you really are, my dear fellow?” or the best yet, “That boy is very beautiful, sir. But do you want to know who your real son is?”
Baba was of the firm opinion that the nectarous tales of Krsna, which resounded everywhere across the land of Vrndavan, made for the best of gifts. He considered them pearls of incalculable worth. That is why, he planted them on the persons of his recipients in an almost obstinate, rude manner, even at the expense of coming across as a foolish, senile man who bumbled senselessly.
One day, a big, rich man sporting a thick moustache had shoved baba out of his way when he was being subjected, by baba, to one of his unsolicited lectures. The old ascetic had fallen to the ground with a cry, his skinny limbs being ill-suited for such a fate. Seeing this, the young girls, who’d been collecting firewood nearby, shrieked in most unnatural voices—unnatural, because one would never expect such volume to issue from such petite bodies—and ran to the spot wielding sticks in their hands and threats in their eyes. The merchant looked completely terrorized.
“My dear laalis,” baba had addressed the girls in a broken voice, the sides of his face wet with tears, “Please calm down. It is not good for you to get so angry. The man simply does not know where his best interest lies.”
Baba was often heard ascertaining in the company of his friends that the person, even if he was mean at first, would realize the value of the treasure given to him … eventually, and transform into a soul who was rich of heart soon afterwards. He declared these stories brooms; only, he pointed, the implements were not meant for cleaning ghats, temple court-yards, or dirt roads. Even if they were, the old narrators who wielded them couldn’t possibly do it, because their bodies were too frail for such manual labor. No. These brooms were used by the babajis to dust the hearts of men, which were much much filthier than any open gutter running along the streets of India.
Baba had little, if anything, to do with money. In fact, he donated whatever he got, by way of the offerings made by his audience and the villagers, to the nearby archaic temples, which were hubs, as it were, of ancient esoteric traditions, that taught the ways of entering wondrous divine realms in the human body. As a consequence, baba couldn’t really afford a blanket in the harsh winters, or a toothbrush to clean his mouth with every morning. Being an old-fashioned, rustic Indian to the core, baba made do with one of his two faded saffron dhotis and neem twigs instead. Quite understandably, entertaining guests with a cup of tea in his bamboo shack was simply out of the question.
One day, baba was waiting at the crossroad as usual, when he saw a little boy bumbling in his direction along one of the paths, wiping his glistening face again and again. Now and then the child would look at the face of a wayfarer in a certain manner, but when the pedestrian would ignore the gaze, the little boy would hang his neck down and resume wiping away a fresh batch of tears. Baba’s heart melted. He ran towards the boy, who was wearing dirty, torn clothes and who looked like he was only five, with a great upheaval in his heart.
“What is wrong, beyta?” he asked the boy in a soft, high voice. The boy’s shirt was soiled with dirt and its collar wet with tears. Baba kneeled on the ground so that he was level with the boy’s face and held his soft wrists with gentle hands.
The boy met baba’s gaze, his lips trembling. He seemed to recognize something on baba’s face. The poor child looked like he’d been roaming about the wooded areas, alone and hopeless, for a long time. All of a sudden, he began to bawl loudly.
Baba drew him in a hug. “Sshh. Sshh. It’s alright,” baba said. “Come now, let’s go to that katta.” He pointed at the seating wall fencing a huge, grotesque banyan tree.
Baba felt the boy’s small palm close tightly around his coarse fingers. When he looked down, he noticed that the child was dusky, but that didn’t explain why his clothes were in such a sorry state; he, didn’t, after all, seem to belong to the sannyasa order of life. The child wiped his face and met baba’s gaze now and then. After they reached the old banyan, baba picked him up and placed him on the seating wall, and sat beside him. Then, he drew a handful of peanuts from his cloth bag and handed them to the boy.
After a little while, when the boy seemed to have settled, baba asked in a soft voice, “What happened?”
The boy’s torn shorts were too small for him, and he didn’t seem comfortable in them at all. Baba felt a strong urge to stroke the boy’s head and kiss his small palms out of affection, just like a mother, but he controlled himself. “Go on,” he said instead.
“My … my parents …” the boy began, but he seemed to have trouble speaking.
“Yes, yes …” baba prodded.
The boy looked at baba with quivering eyes, his wet lips curved downwards, and broke down again. This time, baba, too, began to cry, even though he tried his best to control himself for the sake of the boy, so it sounded like a person hacking with cough. He was so agitated that he wrapped his arms around the child and felt a great urge to pour his life out to comfort him.
“Tch. Tch. Don’t cry. Oh, don’t cry like that, my dear boy. Sshh. Yes, yes, that’s enough. Look here. Look here,” he urged the sobbing child, who had closed his eyes tightly, and was clutching as much of baba’s waist as his little arms allowed.
Finally, he looked up, meeting Baba’s eager gaze meekly.
“You have found me, right?” baba asked. “Then, why are you afraid? Hm? Don’t worry. I will take care of you.”
At this, the boy began to bawl even louder. The two continued in this manner for a while until the child settled down for good.
Baba wiped the boy’s wet, red face with his bleached loincloth and gently dusted the dirt off his shirt. “Ok, now tell me what happened.”
The child obeyed. What had happened was Golu’s—the child revealed his name as Golu—parents had abandoned him by the road, where they all had been sleeping, in the middle of the night. Baba couldn’t be absolutely sure, but he estimated it was because they couldn’t feed him properly.
“Okay. Okay,” baba said. “Nothing that cannot be fixed. Let’s see …. I’ll take you to Madhav, a good, strong farmer who lives not very far from here. He will take you to the police chowky and wait with you until they trace your parents. Okay?”
“But what if they don’t want me back?” Golu blurted, contorting his face, as though trying very hard to control something very strong. “What if they left me on purpose?”
“Then, I’ll take you in!” Baba piped at once, breaking into a silly smile again. “Sound good?” He asked, grinning as he bent sideways to meet the boy’s downcast gaze.
As fate would have it, Golu’s parents were never found. Over the course of the next few months, baba and Golu began to live in the former’s hut happily. Baba found in him a perfect recipient for his precious katha, and Golu found in baba the perfect loving guardian, or so baba thought at least.
“Do you know, Golu,” baba said one day, “Radharani loves you very much. She is the one who sent you to me.”
“Who is Radharani, baba?” Golu asked, gazing at baba’s gaunt, handsome face.
“Oh, Golu, she’s the mother of this universe. She’s your mother too. You don’t know how much she loves you. She cries for you every day, awaiting the moment you will turn to her.”
“Really, Baba?” Golu squeaked, and then cleared his voice. “Is this the same Radharani you keep singing about through the night?”
Baba chortled. “Yes, yes, the very same.”
Golu sat up straight suddenly. “When the villagers greet you, baba, they say Radhey Radhey. Is she the same Radhey, then?”
“Yeeees,” Baba said, stretching the word as a man who is deeply satisfied often does, or even, perhaps, to emphasize just how correct Golu’s inference was.
“How do I meet her, baba?” Golu asked, his bright eyes moving left and right, as though searching baba’s black ones.
“Simple,” baba said happily. “Love her like your mother that she is. The more you think of her, and her qualities, the more you’ll fall in love with her. Isn’t that very simple, my dear child? The trees, the creepers—the monkeys you love to chase—all of them have developed love for Radharani in this way.
“Who doesn’t love Srimati Radharani in this world?” Baba thundered, all of a sudden feeling like a hero. “Even the atheist loves her, for she is but bliss. Everyone loves bliss, don’t they?”
“I don’t know, baba. What is bliss?”
Ghanshyam baba screwed up his large eyes as he gazed into the wilderness visible through the doorway of their hut, and counted his prayer beads for a few seconds.
“Do you remember the feast Madhav-kaka took you to last Sunday?” he asked finally.
“Yes!” Golu cried, jumping to his feet, as though expecting to be led to another feast of the same kind. Baba laughed deeply.
“What did you feel when you ate those soft, succulent gulab-jamuns, dripping with sweet syrup?”
Golu jumped in place, showing all his teeth, and then cupped baba’s face. Baba found it remarkable how gentle his small hands were against his rough, grey beard—that too under such excitement! “Oh, it was so good, baba!” he cried. “It was too good!”
Baba made a sonorous noise resembling human laughter, but it sounded so much more than that. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Well, if you take this feeling of eating gulab-jamuns, Golu, and multiply it a billion times, the result would be called bliss.”
“Yes,” baba said without blinking. “You just follow everything that I tell you. Okay? Have patience and faith; just patience, and faith. One day, one day, you’ll get everything that you can dream of, and more. Just you watch …” baba said, looking into the distance again.
Months passed by as Golu followed baba’s instructions with all his little heart. He would assist baba in serving the copper murties—called idols by the foreign devotees—of Radha and Krsna; he would collect flowers and bring water from the Yamuna, the black river that coursed through Vrndavan; and he would sing the names, glories, qualities and pastimes of the divine couple while meditating upon them. But even though he loved all three of them—baba, Radharani and Krsna—Golu couldn’t ignore the tugging he felt in his heart when he saw the other boys eating sweets like gulab-jamun, rabri; and savory items like khichri, every day.
One day, when baba was chanting mantras, Golu went in front of him and threw his copper water-pot on the ground in a rage.
“I want tooth-paste!” he shouted.
Baba looked at him with great love and sympathy; he’d been expecting such an outburst for a while now. But Golu looked away immediately. Baba felt his heart drop in his chest. Finally, he said in a small voice, “We don’t have money for such things, Golu.”
“Then why don’t you ask your Radharani for some?” Golu shouted at the top of his voice, his eyes wet. “I’m sick of collecting flowers and bringing water from the Yamuna every day. Did you know that Dilip beat me up because I don’t brush my teeth every day like everyone else?” he asked, his cheeks red, and his small chest rising and falling rapidly.
Baba stared at the ground beside Golu’s small, cracked heels, fumbling for words, but before he could get anything out, Golu ran out of the hut in a huff. In that moment, baba felt as though a whole chunk of his universe had collapsed and disappeared into a dark, alien abyss. He numbly placed his prayer-beads on the side, curled up on his thin mat, and began to cry. Baba cried the whole day.
There was nothing wrong with what Golu was asking for, but baba had taken a vow of nishkaam bhakti. How could he explain that to a little boy—the mechanics of utter selflessness in loving God? Baba intermittently vented his anger on the murties, especially when the turmoil within him grew unbearable. He chastised them in the most scathing words for allowing Golu to get beaten up.
Finally, after what seemed like an age, dusk arrived. Even though baba had wanted to venture out in search of Golu earlier, he hadn’t, reasoning that he would need some time to cool off; however, Golu hadn’t returned as yet. It was getting too late for a small boy. Baba got out of his hut and was about to close the door when he heard the buoyant voice that constituted one half of his entire world. “Baba!”
Baba’s heart skipped a beat. He wiped his eyes and turned around to find a delighted Golu coming towards him, carrying a bag full of something.
“Look, baba! A laali from the village gave me sweets, nuts, fruits…and even toothpaste and a toothbrush!”
“Really?” Baba asked in a surprised voice, even though he felt completely miserable inside. “Which laali, Golu?”
“A laali named Shyama. She put her hand on my head, like this, and told me to come to her if I need anything. She even showed me where she goes to fetch water every day!”
Baba froze. It was as if a bolt had struck his heart. Baba felt—no, he knew—that it was Radharani, called Shyama by her saints, who’d come personally in the form of a village girl, and given those things to Golu. But should he tell this to the little boy? May be the next morning. For the time being, however, baba simply shed tears.
Katha – A religious discourse delivered by a saint or a scholar centered upon the divine pastimes of Krsna, Rama, Durga, etc.
Laali – an endearing term—generally used by affectionate parents—to address a young girl in Braj, Mathura—the birthplace of Krsna.
Ghat – A flight of steps leading down to a river. Usually found in the holy cities of the Hindus, a ghat is not only a place for religious congregations, but also a very significant cultural symbol of vedic India.
Babaji – a renunciant or monk, generally of the Vaishnava order, who owns nothing but a loincloth and a vessel, and who spends most or all of his time practicing devotion to God.
Beyta – an endearing term used for a child.
Katta – a seating wall.
Kaka – uncle.
Murty – idols fashioned to resemble the eternal Forms of God in India. Devotees treat, and realize, these idols to be as real and conscious as a family member and act with him or her as such.
Rabri – a sweet made of condensed milk.
Nishkaam bhakti – the path of selfless devotion as preached by spiritual giants of India such as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Nimbarkacharya, etc.