Beyond Sustainable Economy: Introduction

Published: 16.06.2017

Non-possessiveness is the prop of a happy life

Enjoyment without self-indulgence

leads to the end of poverty.

In nature, the earth, the water, the sun, the air and the vegetation are available for all. Whatever these natural resources bring forth should be enough for all to fulfill their needs. Ideally there should be no possessiveness and hoarding of goods based on anyone's feeling of ownership. Goods exist for the proper use by the people and are naturally and freely available for all living beings, including people. These statements define the non-possessive attitude – aparigraha, non-grasping, non-hoarding. Every resource and comfort is there for all of us, but not 'all for us'. This very non-possessive attitude and right to have a good life equally for all (without caste and discrimination) and a positive attitude towards all living beings, so characteristic of Jain philosophy, has also been expressed in Europe more than two centuries ago as the motto "liberty, equality, fraternity" of the French revolution. These ethical principles have also been adopted in the preamble of the Constitution of India.

Already in ancient India, the idea of taking courageous binding vows 'before one's higher Self' to assist one's self-discipline to further one's own inner spiritual progress was an essential part of the life of those who had chosen the spiritual path. Such a vow disconnects the mind from craving towards evanescent material values.

Enjoyment or consumption without self-indulgence (tena tyaktena bhunjīthāḥ) leads to the proper distribution of resources in society. It leads to the end of poverty. Non-possessiveness does not mean poverty for anyone, it only means not to possess money or things that are not necessary – which on the contrary tend to become a psychological burden. In Indian cultural thought, consumption within measure, if done with an attitude of renunciation, is not regarded as possessiveness or hoarding. However, to abstain from ownership opens the gates to social justice. The absence of hoarding supports economic security while selflessness puts a stop to exploitation.

Modern materialism relates to the search of happiness through material, impermanent, temporal objects. Ad hoc materialism often embraces a destructive and temporal use of resources. As a result the ethics of life devaluates, which leads to ignoble, unworthy, unspiritual tendencies such as avarice and the misuse of power and influence. This possessiveness has historically given, and still gives, rise to tremendous political suppression, economic exploitation and social inequality.

An economy based on spirituality is related to the quest for everlasting and essential, not temporary joy. Spiritual joy is for everyone – not for some at the cost of others. The infinite variation, ever expanding richness and subtlety of spiritual joy is based on pure and true understanding of oneself (i.e. true psychology), of the world and of the universe. It is the infinitude of spiritual existence. It is so much more – in fact the opposite of – materialistic satisfaction, which always leads to suffering in its wake. The spiritual attitude is not bound and curtailed by impermanent circumstances. The spiritual attitude, as has been confirmed by every mystic of all times, tends to make up within itself a structure of non-violence, non-possessiveness and naturally promotes virtues like co-operation, co-existence, harmony and so on – in general what we can call natural virtues. In spiritual life, there is no need for oppressed moralities and rules of behavior. A spiritual, non-possessive and kind attitude towards all beings leads to the upliftment and expansion of one's consciousness – individually and as a society. As a result, materialism transforms into spirituality. It ceases to be materialistic and as such, becomes the source of every living being's development.

There is a misconception in the human society that those who accumulate wealth are prosperous and happy individuals. As a 'philosophical' dictionary meaning, prosperous means being wealthy, while in reality, wealthy is the one who has no material want or scarcity, that is, the 'wantless' one.

Despite hoarding an accumulation of material objects, a person who can inwardly not abstain from self-indulgence can not experience happiness. This is because happiness is not attained by material objects in themselves. Happiness is a psychological state. Happiness in relation to possession can only exist by overcoming craving for futile and crazy desires. A non-possessive person does not experience sorrow and misery.  He or she is always merged in the joy of inner detachment. In fact, non-possessiveness is the prop or buttress of a happy and prosperous life.

From the point of view of non-possessiveness, two approaches with regard to the earning and consumption of wealth are possible: (1) less earning and less consumption; (2) maximum earning and maximum distribution. According to the first approach, supported by nonpossessiveness, a man should earn in proportion to his want or need and in the same proportion he should spend and consume as little as possible to sustain his life so that others may not be deprived of their rightful share. The second view-point is that a man should earn more and more as per his capacity and through justified means, but he should consume only according to his need and the rest of his income should be generously distributed for the welfare of incapable and needy people. It has been rightly observed in the introduction of the Hitopadeṣa:

Ajarāmaravat prajño vidyāmarthaṁca ciṅtayet

gṛhīta iva keśeṣu mṛtyunā dharmamācaret

(Hitopadeṣa, verse 3)

that is, 'while learning and earning, a wise man, should think of himself as immortal and eternal but realizing that death may overcome him at any moment he should righteously disseminate his knowledge and distribute his wealth.'

It has also been remarked that the reward of knowledge is non-attachment: 'jñānasya phalaṁ viratiḥ' and the fruit of riches or wealth is distribution: 'vittasya phalaṁ vitaraṇam'.

The vow of non-possessiveness in traditional Indian literature

Monks are free from passions and possessions,

hence material charity did not get a place

among the vows for them.

In India, all three indigenous traditions, i.e. a) the Brahmanical, rooted in the Veda and b) the two śramaṇic traditions, viz. Buddhism and Jainism, vows have been associated with religion. However in ancient literature, despite the integrated spirit of non-possessiveness, the term non-possessiveness (aparigraha) has not been mentioned. For example, the literal use of the concept of non-possessiveness does not occur among the ten attributes of religion (dharma) as propounded by Manu (the Law-giver) in Hinduism in his Manusmṛti. These attributes are: (1) fortitude, (2) forgiveness, (3) control, (4) non-stealing, (5) purity, (6) continence, (7) charity, (8) truth, (9) learning and (10) non-anger.

The word 'non-possessiveness' does not occur even among the ten commandments of Jain Religion, which are: (1) forgiveness, (2) humility, (3) simplicity, (4) purity, (5) truth, (6) restraint, (7) penance, (8) renunciation, (9) humility and (10) chastity. Also in the religious scriptures of Buddhism, the vow of non-possessiveness has not been explicitly mentioned. 

Among the five main vows of the Vedic, Buddhist and Jain religious philosophies, four –namely, non-violence, truth, non-stealing and continence, have been accepted by all; however regarding the fifth vow, different views have been expressed. In Vedic tradition, as one of the vows for monks, charity has been accepted as the fifth vow. In Buddhism, among the accepted eight vows of conduct (the aṣṭaśila vrata), the renunciation of the use of intoxicants has been given the place of the fifth code of conduct. Among the five great vows of Jain philosophy, non-possessiveness has been instituted as the fifth great vow for monks. Because the Buddhist and Jain monk's code of conduct is based on accepting alms only and possession of nothing except basic needs, so material charity did not get a place among the vows for them.

How to determine need?

Accumulate wealth as is necessary only to

sustain the body, through sinless acts

A person should never aspire to possess things for his or her comfort and luxury at the cost of other's happiness

In the beginning of history man used to store grains and food only to fulfill one's needs. Until the beginning of the use of money, a barter system was in vogue, as it still was until recently on some Pacific Islands. There may not have been much difference between the rich and the poor. Natural environments such as forests and savannas used to fulfill the need of food, clothes and other primary necessities for the people. Physical labor was necessary to maintain life. It was perhaps a kind of communism within the context of a primitive natural life style.

With the initiation and evolution of civilization or city dwelling cultures, human desires began to increase and the tendency of snatching things for oneself (at the cost of others) became part of the society. Instead of being labor-centered, man became wealth-centered, and this laid the basis of the capitalist outlook. Besides, with the rise of the desire to own wealth, a tendency to accumulate wealth also increased. The desire to accumulate wealth gave rise to the social evils of violence, theft, cheating, cunningness, hatred, selfishness, social indifference, premeditated egotism etc. Therefore in almost all the religious philosophies of the world, number of social, economic, moral and spiritual solutions were suggested with less or more success to control wealth-accumulation, avarice and greed.

From the point of view that accumulation ought to be limited to right proportions, Manu, the original lawgiver within the Hindu tradition already thousands of years ago proposed three aphorisms related to economics:

yātrā mātra prasiddhyarthaṁ svaiḥ karmabhiragarhitaiḥ

Akleśena śarīrasya, kurvīta dhanasaṁcayam

(Manusṛti, 87)

That is, one should accumulate wealth as is necessary only to sustain the body, through justified sinless acts, and the acts should not cause any pain to anybody. The sum and substance is:

  1. Do not accumulate more than you need.
  2. Do not earn wealth by improper means.
  3. Do not cause pain and harm to any animal or human laborer while earning wealth.

Here the question arises as to how one should determine one's need. How much wealth and property – to what limit – should one allow oneself to possess? Perhaps this is a private view for each individual, but the social aspect of non-possessiveness is that the limit of possessiveness should be determined according to social needs. In these early days, sociologists were very strict adherents of ascetism. Manu has set a limit for man concerning storing roots, fruits and grains for a day or for a month or for six months or for a maximum period of one year. (Manusmṛti, 146). Yajñavalkya was very stern when he said that for monks it is better to sustain life by taking alms than to be an accumulator of grains. That is, a monk should not care for tomorrow's provision for food, he should store food items only for a day, or for three days or for six days or for twelve days according to need (Yajñavalkyasmṛti, 1.5.32).

The underlying message was to be greedless and not to be possessive.

In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 7.14.8, the maximum possession to which a man be limited is that what he requires for the fulfillment of his need. The violation of the limit was regarded as stealing – for which one should be punished.

Non-accumulation does not mean to deter production. The limit of possession is restricted to what is basic in accordance with one's external situation and mind-set. Available resources and the density and quantity of population needs to be taken into account with regard to location, time, and one's state of mind. Other factors like the availability of resources, local practices, population etc. play an important role. But a person should never aspire to possess things for his or her comfort and luxury at the cost of other's happiness by means of subjugation, exploitation, torture or by depriving others of their basic needs. The basic needs of all must be equally fulfilled. Social justice demands that as my happiness is dear to me, others also love it.

Mahatma Gandhi's 'Trusteeship' is an example of non-possessiveness. 'Trust' means not depriving others of their belongings. There are two aspects of trusteeship: (1) dispensation of possession through observance of vows (vrata niṣṭhā) and change of heart by returning ancestors' property or self-earned property to society; enhancement of possessions is no trusteeship. (2) Another aspect of trusteeship is that not only wealthy persons are trustees but a poor laborer is equally a trustee. Because where the laborer works as a service to society, his tools belong to that society, so he is their trustee.

The selfish aspect of possession is that the earner is the owner of whatever he earns; but the aspect of trusteeship and non-possessiveness is that the accumulation of wealth earned is theft. A trustee has no ownership; hence he does not commit theft. According to Mahatma Gandhi, it is not only the producer of bread who has the right to have 'bread', but also the hungry. Bread is for a basic need to calm one's natural feeling of hunger – without it one would die. Bread is a basic need and should be equally available for the earner as well as the hungry. In the name of earning through labor – if there is no ego of ownership or possession – this is a veritable trusteeship.   

Psychology: origin of desire and possessiveness

The absence of desire gives happiness

 not the fulfillment of desire.

There is an important role of psychology in the origin of desire and possessiveness in human nature. Discontent with the present as well as insecurity about the future motivate a man to accumulate things. He fulfills his wants with external objects and looks for happiness. Material things are considered lively and man imposes his happiness and sorrow onto them. On loosing some material possession he considers himself lost. American psychologist William James has observed that people often identify themselves with material possessions, this may be called the material self i.e. we often regard our physical belongings or possession as the part of our conscious self and try to establish our identity in the society by the material objects and wealth we possess. Considering that 'I am the owner of my material wealth' or 'This wealth is mine' people lead their whole life in a kind of pseudo-consciousness and engage themselves in earning, caring, and accumulating material wealth. As happiness is not the innate nature of material objects and wealth, even heaps of material gain can not make people's life happy unless they get happiness by distributing the earning by selfless motives. Detachment to materialism leads to a free, prosperous and happy human life.

Sigmund Freud, and other psychologists believed though that the accomplishment of desires gives happiness and if desires are not fulfilled, this may lead to mental disorder. Suppression of desires cause mental illnesses like depression. However, many studies and experiences prove that the so-called happiness derived from the fulfillment of a desire is actually derived from the fact that no desire exists now. The absence of desire gave happiness, not the fulfillment of desire; otherwise after fulfilling one desire, no other desire should arise. The cycle of desires and their fulfillment is endless till having desires itself comes to an end. Thus, in the context of psychological disorders excessive consumption and enjoyment are a deluding trap.

Problems of our time: the use of energy

Our planet is crushed under the load of human activity

Modern science and technology have brought us in a situation of parigraha – greed, possession, material expansion and economic growth as never before in known history. The Earth is suffering. Even our planet's and our human continued existence is at stake. The values of humility and respect for living creatures has been placed on the back wagon. It can not be expected of humanity, at least at present, to turn back to the simple life of our ancestors – we have become used to so many technical and scientific accomplishments that it is impossible to give them up without dire consequences. Neither should we. There would be no good in returning to the past centuries of low intellectual development, high mortality rate due to disease and war, dictatorships and rigid caste systems. Even if we could live like our ancestors, would we want to give up knowledge and modern science, our telescopic views on the cosmos and our macroscopic views on the nature of matter? Would we want to give up our awareness of the beauties and intricacies of the life inside a living cell, the refined and super-intelligent chemical and physical processes within organic life? What we need is not to regress, but to expand our knowledge, and take the giant steep from material knowledge to spiritual knowledge – to consciously see the universe as a living entity, full of life everywhere, where every living beings influences and cooperates consciously or unawares with every outer existing thing. Would we want to give our knowledge of the solar system and sit planets and its streams of energy connecting them all. Omniscients of yore may have known all these things, but for humanity at large it s the first time we have some glimpses of the true universe as well as the worlds inside the atom. Would we want to give up the feelings of sympathy we have for a simple insect, a plant knowing (as nobody in the Middle Ages could even presume) that all inside consists of living cells and within these cells the most amazing regulated processes? Could we give up the feelings of awe and respect for the divine this knowledge has evoked in humanity. In centuries to come we will understand astrology and the living powers in the solar system and beyond – if only we feed ourselves with the deeper and occult wisdoms of spirituality. Such occult hints are fully available in Jain and other ancient teachings – if we open our eyes to read and cognize them. We live in a time that is different from that of the Tīrthaṅkaras, Buddhas and other ancient sages. Their teachings were and are universal, and are as true for our time as they always were. Nonviolence and humility, ethics in general are more needed than ever before.

But the situation is different. We have to answer the situation at present, inspired by their wisdom – our wisdom. Apart from growing spiritually and ethically – indeed more important than anything – we also have to take care of our external actions and behavior concerning our environment, as was already discussed above in the section of this chapter. Many biologists and others in the western world have become aware of this need. So, what are we going to do regarding the practical implications of our modern life style? Our planet is crushed under the load of human activity. We exploit its resources instead of receiving gratefully what the Earth offers us. We can curtail the use of materials we have 'stolen' from the Earth and so far are continue to steal from her. In this connection we have added in this book a number of articles, written by David Pratt, concerning the use of energy – a study in which becomes clear which form of energy are 'parigrahic' and violent in character, as compared to alternative forms of energy. The conclusions of this section on right use of energy from an aparigrahic point of view may not always be as you expect. We have to take action and not sit silent – those who are in the positions to do so have to open our mouths before it is too late.

In conclusion: let us life nobly and with a heart of sympathy for all that lives, and let our practical actions be guided by a sane mind.

- Jaipur, Kandy, January 2016


Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aparigraha
  2. Body
  3. Buddhism
  4. Consciousness
  5. Dharma
  6. Environment
  7. Greed
  8. Hinduism
  9. Jain Philosophy
  10. Jainism
  11. Jaipur
  12. Mahatma
  13. Mahatma Gandhi
  14. Manu
  15. Non-violence
  16. Nonviolence
  17. Omniscients
  18. Parigraha
  19. Purāṇa
  20. Science
  21. Tīrthaṅkaras
  22. Veda
  23. Vedic
  24. Violence
  25. Vrata
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