Gopa Kumar Das, a monk living at the Hare Krishna temple in Rondebosch, went from being homeless to being richer than most people on earth.
Gopa doesn’t drive a BMW or have billions of rands in the bank. But he is happy. “I don’t remember how to be sad,” he tells me. Of course, I find it hard to believe, as sadness is a part of life, but Gopa assures me that good news and bad news is the same to him. Gopa used to be a painter, and he came to Cape Town to market his paintings. “I did well,” he recalls. “My agent stole everything I had and I ended up on the streets.” I assumed that an event like that would be enough to turn anyone into a hardened, resentful and angry human being. But Gopa surprised me when he told me “I really appreciate that he [the agent] did it. I wouldn’t have realized there was suffering if he didn’t do it.”
Gopa went a year without showering, and sometimes he went up to three days without any food. It seems like a cruel world, but Gopa recalls a story of great warmth and compassion: “There was one guy from Nigeria. Whenever he had money, he would buy me food. He was struggling as well.” Sometimes they slept together on the benches in Gardens. Gopa says they are still “close”. His reminiscence shows one that kindness is one stranger away and one act away from turning a stranger into a lifelong friend.
“I knew I wasn’t a victim to anything.”
Gopa’s faith in God never wavered; not even during times when his hunger was gnawing or when his thirst was like sandpaper against his throat. His faith in God remained unwavering because he never blamed God for his circumstances. “When I was in the streets I somehow knew I did something that put me in that position. Everything is a reaction to something. There’s a reason for everything.”
If you live from day to day with the only goal to put food in your belly, isn’t spirituality the furthest thing from your mind? When Gopa lived on the streets, people passed him by daily. He recalls that he listened to them as they passed by, and he heard them complaining about their lives. “The people who had homes were suffering more than I was,” he realized. Gopa prayed every day to God to give him a roof over his head, but his realization that everyone was suffering made him wonder, “Is anything going to change if I have a roof over my head?” and “Why are we here?”. At this point, Gopa became more interested in spirituality than gaining material things.
Gopa was still homeless when he became acquainted with the temple. He started washing pots for the temple every now and then. Management offered to pay him for his services, but he refused. Serving made him feel better. “The temple president told me the temple is for people like me who want to give devotional service” he recalls. “I had no idea it was a possibility for me to stay at the temple.”
Today, Gopa has been living at the temple for six years. His daily routine has changed from walking around searching for food to devoting every hour of every day to the Lord. He meditates every day for a minimum of two hours, he learns scriptures for a few hours every day and he distributes books in the streets and spreads the word of God to those who are willing to listen.
Medhavi Das is a spiritual master who was kind enough to spare some time to speak to me about the history of the temple. Two devotees – His Grace Vardhanya Das and His Grace Bhimal Prasad Das – and their wives came to Cape Town in 1986. The building in Rondebosch was purchased in January 1988 by Vardhanya Das. It was an old apartment building, and “it had seen better years,” says Medhavi. Medhavi and his wife managed the temple from September 1988. The temple has about 30 rooms. The temple does not only offer housing to monks. On the contrary, even students can live there. One must abide by the temple rules, though. “No meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling,” says Medhavi. Persons who are accepted to live in the temple are expected to attend some of the morning program that starts at 4:30 in the morning.
A usual day in the temple starts at 4:30 in the morning. The program is called Mangal Arotike. This is followed by Tulasi Puja which lasts for 15 minutes. Then there is a period of Japa meditation where devotees sing the Hare Krishna mantra and that is followed by a greeting of the deities on the altar. During the day, monks perform services in service of Krishna. Students, on the other hand, focus on their studies whilst they are encouraged to attend a few morning programs each week.
The transition from living on the streets to being a monk in the temple is a big one. Not only has Gopa’s lifestyle changed, but his mindset as well. “By being a monk, you’re free. It’s about working with what’s eternal. So-called normal people look for temporary things.” Gopa’s devotion to the eternal has made it easier for him to detach himself from material things. But he says when you meditate, the goal is not to become detached. The goal is to realize yourself. In the process, you become detached. He says it’s easier to become detached from material things when you understand that you are not your body. He uses a simple example to illustrate that we are not the body. He says when we talk about our bodies, we say “my body” not “me body”. Our bodies are thus something we possess, not something we are.
I asked Gopa to describe himself in three words, but instead, he reverted the question back to me, “How would you describe me?” Without hesitation, I said, “devotional, a servant and willing.”
Some people are so poor, all they have is money. Of his austere life, Gopa says, “This is the best life ever.” Owning little is great, but wanting even less is greater.