For the rich, shopping is a pastime; for the not so rich, it is a necessity; and for the depressed, it can be therapy. But for everyone, shopping is also an interaction and an exchange. Both interaction and exchange are opportunities for spiritual growth, which is the highest purpose of human life.
Spiritually, every interaction should begin with the recognition of the Divine inherent in the other person, so that this awareness continues throughout the interaction and influences its quality. If this seems something unrealistic, what then is the ‘Namaste’ with which the interaction begins? ‘Namaste’ means bowing to the divinity of the person in front of us; the fact that two pairs of hands participate in the ‘Namaste’ with its meaning seldom passing through their heads is something different. The implication of the meaning behind the ritual is that it places the shopkeeper and the customer on an equal footing. Since both are manifestations of the same Divine, at a deeper level they are both equal. But on the surface, they are unequal, at least temporarily. Although the customer has the money that the shopkeeper needs, and the shopkeeper has the goods that the customer wants, customer is considered king because he has the liberty to buy the goods from anywhere, whereas each shopkeeper needs to succeed in selling to at least somebody to make a living. The customer sometimes does behave like the king (or queen). For example, a shopkeeper might bring a hundred saris down from the shelves and spread them out to make them look more attractive. And, finally, the lady may just get up and leave the shop because she did not like any of them: a good opportunity for the shopkeeper to practice equanimity (samattva). But the customer has wasted the opportunity of being in a position to think of somebody else. Thinking of somebody else with compassion is the path to spiritual progress. If she had thought of the shopkeeper with compassion, she would have given him a better idea of the type of sari she is looking for, and discouraged him from bringing the saris down and spreading them out by pointing out a few that she would like to have a better look at. ‘Thinking of somebody else’ applies also to the shopkeeper. If he tries to guide the customer properly towards what will meet the needs of the customer instead of trying to foist on the customer the costliest stuff that he has in stock, he will be using the opportunity properly to fulfill the purpose of his life. Instead, sometimes he can sense that a woman has developed a fancy for a particular sari, and he knows that she also knows that she won’t get exactly the same sari elsewhere. He then tries to exploit her weakness to extract the highest possible price, and may even repent why he did not quote a still higher price to start with.
Shopping, besides being an interaction, is also an exchange. In the process of shopping, money and material change hands. The material is a fixed entity, but the amount of money that may pass from the customer to the shopkeeper is negotiable. That is what leads to bargaining. Bargaining is a tug of war between the customer and the shopkeeper on behalf of their pockets; it is essentially ‘my pocket’ versus ‘your pocket’. If you and me are the same, as is spiritually true, what difference does it make if a few rupees stay in your pocket or mine? But sometime it is heart-wrenching to see the customer’s miserliness and tenacity pitted against the shopkeeper’s desperation and dependence. I have seen educated well-to-do women using power and persuasion to force a petty peddler operating from a pavement part with a piece of art for a pittance, exploiting the poor man’s need for a few pennies. She finally gets it at a price that leaves hardly any profit for the peddler, although she knows that the object is worth a lot more and she can afford to pay what it is worth. Then she may come and display it in the living room, and at the slightest provocation boast that she bought it at an emporium for an amount which is ten times the amount that she has actually paid.
Just contrast the following three scenarios, although in each the end result is that a deal has been concluded: the customer has bought and the trader has sold something, and they are both reflecting over the interaction.
Customer: I have been clever enough to get it dirt cheap.
Shopkeeper: A few more such customers, and I would starve. They can splurge on useless luxuries, but turn so mean while bargaining with a poor man.
Customer: I did not really need the object. But I am happy I could support the shopkeeper. Hope enough reaches also the artisan who spent days making it.
Shopkeeper: Good decent customer. What a contrast with those who waste so much time for a few pennies and leave me with a headache.
Customer: I had the money, and he needed it. By accepting from me what I had, the shopkeeper helped me fulfill the purpose of my life.
Shopkeeper: The customer gave me so much joy. She not only helped me make a living, she made my day worth living.
Shopping is only an example of the several interactions we have, in which the two interacting individuals are temporarily on an unequal footing. It could be the interaction with a taxi driver, with a porter at the railway station, or with the boy who issues parking tickets. Let us remember that first, the inequality is temporary. Not only are we equal at a spiritual level, at the visible worldly level also, eventually life levels everybody. Secondly, with a minor twist of destiny, we could have been in each other’s place. Let us not get so carried away by short-lived superficial inequality that we lose the opportunity that the interaction provides for giving a little joy to somebody, inevitably getting back in the process immense joy ourselves, and also fulfilling the purpose of our own life.
For some, shopping is an art; for others, it’s a sport. It can be a vice and it can be a cause. Some love it. Some hate it. Rarely is someone indifferent.
— PAMELA KLAFFKE