I'm sitting in a small,
dirt-floor restaurant in Bombay just finishing a meal of yellow dhal, chapatti,
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
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.
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,
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
–Shantideva, A Guide to the
Bodhisattva Way of Life
We live in a
slave culture. Our present economy is based on the domestication and
exploitation of animals and nature. We perceive all animals, as well as land
to be owned. Our money comes to us as stolen wealth from the lives of the
animals we buy and sell and from the natural resources we are exhausting.
Without so much as a thank you we have come to feel entitled to use the earth
and all living beings as if they had no purpose other than to be used by us.
We are quickly removing all traces of wildness from the planet as we gun down
mustangs from helicopters and dam "wild" rivers. If our culture had a mission
statement, it might very well read, "The Earth Belongs to Us."
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.
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,
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
yogi wants to be free. Moksha means
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
the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali provides
practical tips-things you can do in order insure your own freedom, health,
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.
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:
janma-kathamta-sambodhah (YS II.39).
The Sanskrit word for this practice is aparigraha
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
would like to conclude with an excerpt from an essay by Andrei Codrescu
lamenting the opening of a new Burger King restaurant:
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
Photo by indi.ca, courtesy of Creative Commons license.