Yoga and Money
I'm sitting in a small, dirt-floor restaurant in Bombay just finishing a meal of yellow dhal, chapatti, mango pickle, and a bottle of Duke club soda. I get up from the wooden bench to walk over and pay my bill. On the brightly painted, plastered, turquoise-blue wall, above the man with the cash box waiting to take my rupees, is an elaborately framed poster of a young woman. Around the picture are small flashing Christmas lights. Draped across the glass are strands of pearls. Like Botticelli's Venus, this alluringly divine being comes into view emerging from the water, her body gracefully curvaceous, her hair and clothes flowing unrestrictedly around her like intoxicated devotees imbibing nectar wafting from the scent of her skin. She stands upon the water perfectly balanced, floating in an open pink lotus flower "boat" with outstretched arms, gesturing toward me. From the palms of her delicate hands flow masses of tinkling golden coins. It all looks surreal as I stand here in this dirt-floor restaurant, flies buzzing around us all. With a huge smile and enraptured eyes, the man enthusiastically tells me, "She is my Ishtadevita-Lakshmiji -- the goddess who is making the money for us!"
This was my first introduction to the Hindu goddess of wealth. After that, throughout my travels in India, I began to notice many similar posters of Lakshmi (pronounced "lukshmee"), mostly in restaurants and shops; in fact, wherever business was being conducted you would likely find Lakshmi with her generous hands lavishly pouring money upon her devotees. I was never sure if the message of the goddess was supposed to inspire the customers to be more generous, or if the shopkeepers hoped that Lakshmi herself would be generous to them and bestow them with wealth, or if they keep her picture to remind them to be generous to their customers and others and not to steal or cheat.
The Indian sages tell us that we become whom we worship. So if to become rich is your ambition, then to be more like Lakshmi -- generous to others -- would help you realize your goal. Central to the teachings of yoga is the concept that in essence our true identity is divine. To be divine is to be whole, to be holy-not separate from reality. My teacher, Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, described yoga as that state where you are missing nothing-you know yourself as holy, as whole and complete, connected to all that is.
Whatever joy there is in this world all comes from desiring others to be happy, and whatever suffering there is in this world all comes from desiring myself to be happy at the expense of others. --Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life
We operate from a self-centered, hierarchal, dominionist worldview, which places human beings above all other life forms -- above the world of nature. With this placement we assume ownership of the earth; in fact, those of us who have enough money to buy a piece of what is real-real estate -- actually take legal ownership of a piece of the earth.. Ownership implies complete authority, allowing the owners to do whatever they want with whomever or whatever they own. In other words, we are operating from a master/slave mentality. Our whole way of life, and certainly our economy, which supports that way of life, would collapse if we didn't have slaves to lord over. Wealth yields power, and power is essential to the maintenance of an exploitable relationship with others. Power that is derived from force is insatiable as well as unstable and must be constantly maintained through aggression, and that means war.
We have been at war with nature for the past ten thousand years, ever since we began to move from living with nature to conquering and exploiting her, and this war has been escalating -- all other wars stem from this one. The first wars in our culture's history were fought over disputes about animal ownership and the land needed to confine, graze, and provide food for those animals. The word for war used by the ancient Aryans, gavya, literally means "the desire to fight for more cattle," and gavisthi means "to be desirous of a fight." Both words come from the root gav or go, which means "cow." The domestication (enslaving) of cattle led to war. It may be interesting to note that today in the Middle East we are fighting a war for oil, and the second biggest consumers of oil in the world, second only to the military, are the meat and dairy industries.
When human beings started to move away from the natural orderliness of wildness and toward the imposed order of civilization, we became herders of animals, enslaving them and exploiting them primarily for the four "m's they could provide: meat, milk, manure and of course money. Animals also provide a continued source of renewable income, because they can produce offspring -- born to be used.
To exploit is to steal. In war it is expected that the losers lose what was once considered their own: their lives, their dignity, their freedom, their home, their children, etc. The word exploitation means "to treat with little regard for the welfare, benefit or happiness of the other." To be able to successfully exploit another, it is essential that you don't see the other as part of yourself. Nature becomes your enemy in the quest for control and commodification of the things of the world.
So we have separated ourselves from the natural world by first separating ourselves from the other animals, and with this separation came a denial that we are also animals and that we are also part of the natural world. To exploit a person you must see them as a thing, devoid of the same kinds of feelings and yearnings as you know yourself to have, so we don't relate to cows and pigs as people, because then it would be difficult to enslave, slaughter, and exploit them for monetary gain. In a similar way we have had to deny that trees and other forms of life are people, because if we saw them as persons it would be more difficult to clear cut a whole forest in order to plant crops or build a shopping mall.
History shows us that the enslavement of animals served as the model for the exploitation of the natural world as well as for human slavery. Domesticated animals were the first form of money, of measurable wealth exchange, which continues today in the form of our stock market or stock exchange -- a reference to livestock market or livestock exchange. The word live has been dropped, because most of the money is made in dealing dead animals. The Latin root word for capital is capita, which means the head of a cow, goat, or sheep-the first animals to be domesticated. In ancient times, the head count of the animals that a man owned determined his wealth. The roots of modern capitalism are in those ancient enslavers, herders, and exploiters of animals. Today, no matter how far away from the open range or from farm life we may feel ourselves to be, we are still part of this system that was put into place thousands of years ago.
But around the same time a smaller number of our ancestors did not go along with this plan and felt that happiness and success could be attained not by dominating nature but by continuing to live in harmony with nature. Those people were the first yogis. Alain Daniélou writes in his book Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, "Throughout the course of history, urban and industrial societies -- those exploiters and destroyers of the natural world -- have been opposed to any ecological or mystical approach to the liberation of man and his happiness." The aim of yoga practice is liberation and happiness.
If we are to survive, then we must change our viewpoint about the natural world and not see it as just existing to provide us with money to buy stuff. If we could allow ourselves to see that the earth is our greater heart -- that we do not exist as separate from the rest of nature -- we would develop a different relationship with the world. Yoga provides the means to do just that.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras -- a two-thousand-year-old scripture -- is a manual that gives directions for how to become free, how to become an enlightened being, a being who knows how to live in the present moment, beyond the limits of space and time: a being who is eternally one with all that is -- and is also ecstatically happy about it! But in this ancient book there is also advice that can be applied to the present circumstances in the world today, including the global financial crisis.
How one relates to others is a reoccurring theme in the Yoga Sutras. When economists talk about global communities, I do not think most of them are actually talking about global communities in the same way that a yogi would. A yogi includes all members of the community -- not just the human beings but all living beings who may be living in the area. In other words, from a yogic point of view, in a truly sustainable global economy, the animals, plants, and the rest of nature are not seen as mere commodities. In fact, the yogi would extend the concept of community to include the caretakers of nature, referred to in the yogic scriptures as the devas, a word meaning "godlike." Devas are subtle spirit forms whose job it is to ensure the prosperity of the natural world.
In our "modern" times it is difficult for most human beings to believe in the existence of such beings as angels, elves, and fairies, but to the yogi who is attuned to the workings of the natural world, these beings are as real as your next-door neighbor. We are stealing from nature in a vain attempt to maintain and/or increase prosperity for ourselves. According to the yogic teachings, there is great risk in this type of one-sided, selfish relationship with nature. Verse III.11 in the Bhagavad Gita says that without giving to, honoring, and cooperating with nature, humanity will not be able to exist.
The idea of individual happiness being related to the happiness of the community is not found only in the ancient yogic texts. In fields as diverse as economics, political science, mathematics, sociology, and biology, scholars and scientists have been exploring the decision-making behavior of individuals in groups, and they have seen that in situations where one individual's behavior has an impact on others, the outcome improves when individuals cooperate. This is in stark contrast to the idea put forth by Adam Smith, father of modern economics, which simply stated that individual ambition serves the common good-or in the pursuit of happiness, every man for himself.
But the notion of cooperation is threatening to a culture that is based on defending an individual's right to be selfish. We are taught that in order to create a happy society, each individual in that society should be allowed to pursue happiness for himself or herself.
In the Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers put forth the ideology that we exist so that everyone can be allowed to be free to pursue happiness. If we look at our present society, we can easily conclude that we have not achieved happiness based on this paradigm. Instead, we have reached a tipping point where if we do not find a different way to live with each other, we may all perish.
New approaches based on cooperation among living beings which include all the rest of the natural world offer a radical message: in order to create a happy equilibrium in a society, each individual should only be allowed to pursue happiness to the extent that it does not cause unhappiness to any other member of that society, whether it be fish, bird, cow, dog, tree, river or human.
All of the suffering that we experience in life, including the suffering that comes from financial worries about not having enough, comes from being ignorant of who we really are. We act from that ignorance when we think that what we do doesn't matter to the whole. In yoga, the term for that ignorance is avidya. But who we really are is not our personality selves encapsulated in a mortal body existing separate from the rest of the natural world. People steal from others because they feel deprived. Our culture teaches us that it is not really stealing if we have the money to pay for it: if we pay for it, we have a right to have it. But who do we think we are when we think that we could really own a thing or another being or a piece of a being or a piece of land or a river?
The practices of yoga are tantric practices, which help us to uncover our true identity and reveal to us our purpose in life -- why we were born. The Sanskrit word tantra is composed of two syllables: tan, which means "to stretch," and tra, which means "to cross over." Tantra refers to various techniques or methods used to stretch or expand consciousness, enabling one to cross over avidya, to realize who we are through reuniting with life. The practices allow us to become whole-holy.
One of the primary techniques used in tantra is to relate to everything and everyone that you see as a person. This is done by putting a face on the "other." So trees, birds, cows, sheep, wind, dogs, cats, and rivers, for instance, become identifiable as persons. The whole world becomes alive, no longer composed of two separate camps: you and the human beings that you know and like, your friends and family, on the one side; and strangers, people from other countries or even planets, people of other religions or races, and those who really don't look like you and speak foreign languages that you can't understand, like animals, birds, trees, plants, fairies, elemental beings, rivers, lakes, oceans-the huge panoramic world of nature-on the other side.
A yogi wants to be free. Moksha means freedom. So from a yogic point of view, if we ourselves want to be free then it would not suit our purpose to deprive others of their freedom by enslaving and exploiting them.
In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali provides practical tips-things you can do in order insure your own freedom, health, happiness, and wealth. In regards to wealth, he suggests that if you want prosperity to appear in your life, then don't steal from others. The actual sutra is: asteya-pratishthayam sarva-ratnopasthanam (YS II.37). Asteya (pronounced "ah-stay-ya") means not to steal, and the whole sutra means, "When one stops stealing from others, prosperity appears." If we do not deny others their prosperity, prosperity will not be denied to us.
The Yoga Sutras also has something to say about greed. Success in our culture is measured in capital gain. Our importance as individuals is measured by our wealth, and wealth comes from owning things and controlling others. Greed and hoarding are not only accepted as normal, they are encouraged as an indication of prosperity. To live simply so that others may simply live is a radical concept to embrace; yet in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that the practice of greedlessness is extremely powerful -- so powerful that it can reveal to us the reason we were born, our purpose in life. The actual sutra is: aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathamta-sambodhah (YS II.39).
The Sanskrit word for this practice is aparigraha (pronounced "ah-par-ree-gra-ha"), and it means greedlessness -- not taking more than one needs -- and the whole sutra means, "When one becomes selfless and ceases to take more than one needs, one obtains knowledge of why one was born." Real needs are not wrong; wants, on the other hand, can become problematic. We are in the midst of a global crisis caused by insatiable human greed. We have consumed far more than we need. The consequences for the survival of many animal species, as well as our own, are dire. There has never been so much poverty in the world. The more we have, the more we want.
Influenced by media imagery and advertising, we have become habituated to look outside ourselves for happiness and in the process have created powerful addictions that drive our choices. Each time we allow an outside stimulus to program our actions, we allow our own inner power of intelligent discrimination to atrophy, leading to further addiction. Many of us have become so out of touch with our innermost selves that we do not know where need ends and want begins.
The directive aparigraha, in contrast, helps one to curb one's actions in accordance with what is beneficial for all. We begin to understand ourselves as beings who thrive as part of a whole organism working together, and we begin to feel our unique contribution to the wholeness of life. In our culture we have been told that we as individuals don't have to take responsibility for our actions, because our individual actions don't matter much to the whole, much less to ourselves. But they do matter; in fact, they are the most important and defining aspect of how our own destiny and future world will be shaped.
But how can we know when we are taking more than we need? How can we know when our needs have become excessive wants, and what is enough? Is greed really that evil? If you look up the word evil in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Germanic root word, ubel, which means "up" or "over," meaning to go beyond the limits of what is helpful. In other words, that which is excessive is evil. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over fifty-two billion animals are killed by human beings for food worldwide every year. There are only six and a half billion human beings on the planet. Our present exploitation of animals and the natural world is excessive, and by the dictionary definition that means it is also evil. We don't kill animals because we are hungry. We kill them to make money so that we can buy stuff -- most of which we don't even need or want. I once read that 85 percent of everything bought in an American shopping mall ends up in a landfill within two weeks after purchase.
How does the yogic practice of greedlessness result in the realization of one's purpose in life? To be greedy and to hoard comes from being afraid of not having enough in the future. We have become bound by linear time. We spend our lives in regretful or longing memories of the past and hope and fears about the future. We have learned to stockpile surplus from our ancestors, who taught us to enslave and exploit animals and nature and the commodities we force them to produce. When we let go of the habit of accumulating money and material things, we might have a chance to drop into the present. It is in the present that our true multidimensional self exists, and when we allow ourselves to be present we will find ourselves -- our destiny will be revealed. Eternity is happening now -- now, in the present moment. To drop into the present moment one must allow for a more flexible or open-ended relationship to time as well as to space. By letting go of attachments to material things, this will be more possible. It is the fear of losing and the subsequent habit of hoarding that keeps us bound to linear time and blocks us from entering into the eternal now.
We are on the brink of an apocalypse that some have prophesied will result in a radical shift in how we relate to time. The Greek word apocalypse means "to reveal; to uncover; to stand naked, exposed without artifice, clothing or possessions." This present age or time, or yuga, has been spoken of in Hindu scripture as the Kali Yuga. Kali is derived from the Sanskrit word kala, meaning "time." Some say that in the year 2012, there will be an end to time as we have been conditioned by our culture to relate to it.
Civilized men and women are afraid of the present and instead cling to the past and the future. Nature thrives in the present. Wild beings live in the present moment.
We have robbed domesticated animals of their wildness and made them slaves -- victims of our greed-based economic system -- and because we are interwoven with the web of life, we ourselves cannot escape from the repercussion of our actions upon others. We have also become domesticated and see ourselves as victims of our own system. Many of us in our culture are so dependent upon "others in high places" to take care of us that when we become afraid of not having enough, we blame our "masters" (parents, landlords, employers, corporations, government -- i.e., those with whom we do business), as if we did not know how to take care of our own needs. We too often deny that we ourselves had any hand in our misfortunes. We like to insist it was someone else who caused the trouble in our lives, so we become complainers. We have given away our power, and in exchange we have become powerless, needy and afraid of the future.
We get our food from the supermarket and our money to buy that food from a boss or corporation. We live in fear of being fired or laid off from our jobs. When we are sick we pay a doctor to write a prescription, which we take to a drug store to buy medicine. As we have domesticated animals, we have allowed ourselves to become domesticated, and with that domestication comes a disconnection from intelligence and intuition. We have compromised our natural instincts and senses and become crude, dull, and bored. We need constant entertainment to feel that our lives are worthwhile (or "worthwild" -- meaning worth the wild that we have given up).
Wild beings know how to take care of themselves. They know how to provide food and medicine for themselves and their children. They are "independently wealthy," as they are dependent inwardly for their knowledge; they look into the depths of their own souls-that unseen place where all of life is joined and time is eternal. A wild being would not cause the mass destruction of others for such silly compensation as a few dollars. The karmic costs are too great, and no amount of money could compensate for being disconnected from the living world, the source of vitality itself. Perhaps wild beings realize more than we do the multidimensional complexities of reality and how what we do to others we do to ourselves, because we are not separate from others. Wild beings live in harmony with the natural world. We could too.
We could take our place with nature and become whole. But it would mean that we would have to get a little wild and begin to see ourselves in others -- to see so deeply that otherness disappears and we come to know ourselves as holy, as part of the whole -- the whole mysterious scheme of life. What a great relief it would be to let go of so much artifice and pretension that we ourselves have allowed to be imposed upon us for so many thousands of years. No need for money. No need to buy things, because we have ceased to see the world as made of things. Instead we have opened our eyes to the wonder of life and see it peopled with a vast diversity of living beings-people like ourselves, not things to service us, or to be used, bought, and sold. Like our animal brethren, we have become independently wealthy.
I would like to conclude with an excerpt from an essay by Andrei Codrescu lamenting the opening of a new Burger King restaurant:
Someone said that the reason we treat animals so badly is because they don't have any money. We treat children badly for the same reason, but we don't eat them. Perhaps the time has come for animals to get paid for what they do. Perhaps the time has come for us to eat our children. Or maybe we should just tear down the Burger Kings.
Photo by indi.ca, courtesy of Creative Commons license.