Beyond Sustainable Economy: A Theosophical Understanding of Aparigraha

Published: 19.06.2017

Theme in one sentence:

Aparigraha, when analyzed, is based on the great universal laws of Nature, the understanding of which laws is universal ethics, and the basis for all forms of right behavior for mankind, which at the same time is the real path to liberation from misunderstanding and suffering.

The concept of aparigraha (literally: not-around-grasping) is not explicitly mentioned in theosophical literature, and therefore no formal definition exists within the theosophical context. Theosophy never supports dogmas, and has no prescriptions of behavior. Theosophy, or divine wisdom, is the core of universal truth of every genuine religion and spiritual system, without any prescription of rituals, articles of faith, even without any doctrine one is expected to believe, but occupies itself with that universal knowledge and wisdom which can make every sincere Theosophist a creator of his own ethical pattern of behavior, as well as being an adherent to any existing religion if he chooses so. One has to think and intuit for oneself, and this can only be accomplished by sincere and unwavering motivation to apprehend the deeper truth beyond or underlying the phenomena of the world and the universe. Therefore every rule or dogma standing between the free man and his inner divinity, would blur the clearness of mind needed for inner research and distract the thinker from the essence of knowledge. Whatever I write here is my own understanding from what I have studied and meditated upon, and is not 'authoritative,' because there are no authorities as to what is true or not. It is correct to say that all great spiritual and compassionate teachers of humankind were theosophists in the true sense of the word. Through training and inner experience they had learned to look, metaphorically and truly, behind the horizon, below the surface, beyond the skies. 

These great teachers had in common that they taught ethics to the people, and because not everyone is, in our present state of evolution, able to understand the deepest truths immediately, systems with teachings and advice for behavior were designed. They all taught kindness, consideration and unselfishness. More than that would not have been necessary.  However, the human mind, which is as yet too undisciplined to be pure, clear and quiet, puts up questions which cause turmoil rather than simplicity and clarity. Therefore rules, as reflections of their knowledge, had to be given as crutches. Though necessary, these crutches can give rise to many quarrels and wars and tend to be used for stressing religious differences rather than there underlying unity, and should be discarded as soon as the patient can stand on his own.

Here we can do an effort to briefly discuss the concept of aparigraha in the light of the universal teachings of Theosophy that can be found in different forms and phrasings and in various measure of emphasis in all genuine systems of thought - be it religion or spiritual philosophy or occult science.

1.         One of the fundamental doctrines taught by Theosophy is the universality of cycles in nature. Everything that is born dies, everything that is 'dead' will be born again. There is thus a continuous repetition of interworking cycles, but never twice the same situation, and never a falling back below what has already been accomplished.

There is continuous change - nothing ever remaining the same even for a split second, and all existing things are part of that great play of dance and rhythm which involves all. We humans, too, are but the tiniest sparks of a grand whole to which no borders or limits are conceivable. Still we have in us everything that is contained in the cosmos. We live forever in our ever evolving and never static essence, though all combinations of atoms - and phenomena in general - may fall apart and reunite periodically. Therefore the very idea that something can be 'grasped', 'owned,' 'possessed' is an illusion created by the mental side of our being. The moment we 'grasp' something, it is already changing and flowing out of our hands.

The greatest illusion, it is taught, is the illusion of separateness of our egos, whereas in reality all and everything is connected and influencing one another, everything influences the whole of existence. Each and every existing thing or being is a reflection, not a separation, of the totality of the universe. The universe encompasses not only physical matter (its outer shell), but all Mind, Feeling, Consciousness, Energy (prāṇa), Wisdom (buddhi), Compassion (mahākaruṇā) and Intention/Purpose/Will. Though egos are the centers in which we focus our concentrated consciousness for the task or dharma we are engaged in to fulfill, grasping, seemingly owning goods and money, lands and parts of the sea, the sky or even space, all this  no value when it come to real life, happiness, nobility. Clinging to evanescent (i.e. ever changing) phenomena will obstruct us from the universal and imperishable ESSENCE of all existing things. Through this philosophical analysis it becomes clear that grasping, hoarding, collecting something around an illusionary separated ego, is against the facts of divine nature itself. It is ridiculous to think that we can own a star a million light-years away, but is equally absurd to think that we can own even an atom - or a particular conglomerate of atoms.

2.         Karma brings us in contact with all with which we have a relation, and there we have our responsibilities - and this responsibility is never to go against nature. Any attempt to go against nature will backfire on the actor. When we attach ourselves, or influence for good or bad, any living, conscious being, we entangle our own individual consciousness with that of the other living being. The qualities and energies of such entanglements will involve our consciousness in the form our pleasure or pain, our progress or delay, our loves and hatreds. It means: we can never grasp something without it being followed by the pain of loss.

3.         We are a composite being, and within us reside the loftiest wisdom as well as the basest pursuits. We are, each of us, along with all beings, individually as well as communities, a hierarchy, where the hierarch or acme is the brahman, or ātman, or jīva, or monad or Monas monadum (of Leibniz), at the same time contained within still loftier hierarchies. We have everything within and nothing of a higher nature can be 'possessed' or 'grasped' by the lower, except in the fantasies of the deluded. Every wealth than can occur to our consciousness is within us, and every possession is a limitation of that wealth. A possessionless child may experience much more joy when looking at a flower than a millionaire who is counting his money and has no eye for the simple things.

4.         Everything that exists has its own svabhāva, its own fundamental characteristic nature, say the Theosophical teachings, its own particular role to fulfill in the larger existence all life and we have in our hands all the tools that we need at the present moment. If we want to 'have' something to gain happiness and understanding, even 'omniscience,' it is merely a thought figure built by our minds of limited vision.

5.         There is a continuous evolution of the material side of nature, during which our essential being expresses itself and learns and evolves, followed by involution or withdrawal of matter and evolution of spirit. No thing that exists 'now' will ever exist in the same way in the future. It is therefore useless to try to get a hold of something and then to stick with that. It is like trying to contain water in a sieve. Our evolution is guided by our inmost self, which is itself ever evolving. As the processes of nature and the Universe are cyclic, whatever evolves, will - after associating with and gaining experience in all the five or six or seven elements of the Universe, dissolve in its origin. Everything that one thinks to possess, has always been there in its essence, and this essence will never get lost, because it is we ourselves. The misery of grasping and losing can be avoided - if we only see this wisdom.

6.         There are two sides to Nature: the selfish and the altruistic. Or, to use other words, the pursuit of one's isolated happiness, or the pursuit of happiness as the highest fulfillment for all forms of sentient existence. That the Law of Laws is Compassion is Theosophical teaching[1] - mercy, care for others and the totality of beings, love and sympathy for one's neighbor.  By practicing that compassion we will fulfill all that our consciousness yearns for. Do we not see that desire for matter and power are the direct cause of most suffering in this world, including ourselves?

7.         The noblest ultimate goal is to understand self-consciously that one is the all, to perceive all within ourselves, and to apply the energies of the cosmos to help those who do not understand yet. Then we have everything a man can have, while at the same time possessing nothing whatsoever.

Aparigraha is therefore in harmony with cosmic truth and ethics, parigraha is the opposite. Because people live under the illusion of having a separate ego which seeks to be satisfied at the cost of others, they fail to see that aparigraha - not accumulating anything for one's own satisfaction, and not even cherishing the remotest wish to do so, but to live in relative material poverty and spiritual richness - is an excellent training for man to understand the real nature of the universe, in which all is built on exchange based on mutual love, and trust.

Understand, however, that theosophists do not strive to live merely in poverty. Some may do so on an individual basis, if they find that proper for their own development. We can not expect that people, when born and embedded in a society with particular habits, abandon their habits immediately on philosophical grounds. It is a matter of growth. It is the inner theosophical knowledge that counts, and this leads, ultimately, to total nonattachment to whatever one has received in the form of money, objects or ideas or powers, and to the using of it for good, the benefit of others. All that with which one is surrounded, naturally, whether material, mental and spiritual provides an opportunity to be of great benefit to other creatures or human society. There is a subtle form of grasping, and that is when worldly recognition or a spiritual reward is expected from our actions - even if the motivation is 'to be good.' Charity without afterthought, however, is a form of aparigraha, and is an expression of cosmic law, in India known as yajña. Great things can be accomplished with dedication, service, money, skills, a great mind and insight, for without these the world at present could not function.

Aparigraha in its wider sense is not wishing anything for oneself, and at the same time giving whatever one can give.  It is the total abstention from every desire for oneself, materially, psychologically, and mentally, because the very self as an isolated entity is an illusion. Aparigraha is closely akin to asceticism, but without a prescribed outer form. It is no self-torture, nor yearning for psychic or other powers. It is pure altruism. It may well be that some rich men are, inwardly, greater aparigrahis than some recognized ascetics.

No one can doubt that economy should ultimately be based on harmony with the universal laws, and therefore a sustainable economy is one of giving and orderly organizing, providing opportunities to the members of its society to develop their better qualities and give up and destroy illusions.

* * *

If parigraha is the cause of so much misery, why does it exist at all? Is the cause of misery an inherent, 'divine' property of the living universe? It must be, philosophically, that even parigraha is a reflection of a divine Law or, rather call it, spiritual Fact of Nature. If the soul, the jīva, or ātman, is perfect, why does it make 'mistakes' - why does the possibility of parigraha, grasping, clinging, associating with illusion, and above all, suffering exist at all in the universe? Is the jīva, then, 'the ultimate selfish gene'? And why do we have to face that challenge and oppose the pull of parigraha?

It is said in Jainism that the jīva is omniscient, but has always since the infinite past been accompanied by a kĀrmaṇa śarīra, a body of accumulated karma-particles or entities. Karmas are constantly added, thus maintaining this ever changing karmic body. The only way to get rid of the karmic body is the path of purification, liberating our jīva, our living conscious soul, from this body.

The question arises: why does this karmic body exist and where did it come from in the beginning? Another question arises: why, if existence is eternal, have not all jīvas reached liberation by now? The Jain answer to the second question is that there is an infinite quantity of one-sensed beings (nigodas) in the universe which do not make any progress - - until the moment when souls reach liberation at the top: then they too will enter into the stream of development. They will, through uncountable incarnations in uncountable cycles of joy and misery, of spirituality and materiality, develop all the five sense faculties and mind, and then be able to self-consciously seek liberation like we humans can do right now.

The Theosophical (and Buddhist) answer is: the jīva is perfect only relatively. It is eternally progressing, and contrary to most (exoteric) eastern systems of thought, nirvāṇa is only a relative end. There are however, according to the esoteric systems, infinite nirvāṇas. Each nirvāṇa or liberation of illusions and karmas is the purpose for a enormously large group of jīvas who move through cycle after cycle, always expanding, always experiencing, always finally destined to reach their nirvāṇa. In Theosophy, the beings which Jains call nigodas, are those jīvas or 'god-sparks' (the term used makes no difference because these are but vehicles to make a true meaning clear) who are at the beginning of the grand cycle and purpose to which we all belong: the awakening from an un-self-conscious jīva to a positively self-conscious jīva. When the jīva had reached that goal, it enters nirvāṇa - the true life-consciousness, the acme of accomplishment (siddha) in our universe or loka. To reach this stage the jīva has to stretch out towards all aspects of which the universe consists: the manifested universe has been differentiated in the 'five elements', i.e. earth, water, air, fire and ākaśa or space.[2] For each element, for each aspect of the universe, specific sense-organs are developed. These are symbolized by the senses we know from our daily life: touch, taste, smell, seeing and hearing, and mind as a perceptive organ. In reality these senses refer not only (or even in the first place) to physical nature, but to inner Nature, almost all of which is 'invisible'. Also in Jain cosmography we see that the visible world is only a 'small' circle called Jambudvīpa within the 'waist of the universe' named Madhyaloka or middle world. All the rest can only be truly understood by the inner faculties of a more spiritual character than the physical senses, and are developed after long cycles of experience only, or quickened by yogic practice. Only the greatest among yogi's - far greater than any yogi walking the Earth in public at present - can have true, inner, subjective (i.e. becoming one with the object)  experience and knowledge of the universe. Even these greatest of yogis have not yet reached the final nirvāṇa of human existence.

Nirvāṇa will last long. Nevertheless, there will, in the far future, be a new awaking, a 'nigoda' of a higher level will start its journey - higher than the highest human, but the most primitive in the sense of the coming unfolding of the jīva. The jīva never dies. It reawakens in order to develop still loftier levels of self-consciousness. It starts, on that higher level, again as an un-self- conscious god-spark.

Pudgala, matter, including karmic matter, never perishes. The old karmas of the hoary past are again attracted to the jīva, continuing its karmic body. Though perfect in the past, it is not perfect relative to its future. It will have to face and overcome the past, purify it, understanding a still deeper essence as it already did in the past. And so ad infinitum. It has to learn to see through the surface of the old teachings in order to reach a still deeper essence.

The nigodas of our loka have been liberated beings in the past: that is why, in modern scientific terms, even the simplest germ contains in its DNA in essence all necessities for the whole evolution towards manhood. The intelligence needed to compose a germ or nigoda[3] houses in the wisdom of its jīva. This intelligence and wisdom as vaster than that of the greatest human engineer or scientist. This is because it has been in existence long and long the ages, and is in the depth of its 'heart' or core is depending (i.e. 'hanging down') from still higher consciousnesses.

Coming back to the question: why do we have parigraha at all?

All composed beings in the universe, from sub-atomic particles to galaxies and still larger structures, consist because of parigraha. All things are attracted to each other. They form clusters, living entities of experience. Those who are related in common factors of evolutionary interest form groups, nations, kingdoms of natures, atoms, molecules, universes. In Buddhism it is called tṛṣṇā, tanhā, or 'thirst' for existence. It is the motor of existence. Jīvas themselves are eternally changing, bringing forth out of themselves universe after universe.[4] Without parigraha we would not have existed. Without existence we could not have externalized the universe in such a way that we can develop from unselfconscious jīvas into selfconscious jīvas. Parigraha, in its original meaning, is our inmost wish - the inmost wish of our jīva, our deepest seat of consciousness - to become fully human, a omniscient (as far as our loka is concerned) self-conscience and liberated being who has learned and developed all that could be learned and lives in the bliss of it.

Then why would we oppose parigraha, if it is a reflection of the divine itself? It is because parigraha represents one half of being, while aparigraha represents the other half. Due to parigraha we entered the experiences of this loka and incarnated time after time again, perhaps millions, billions of times. Not only in the physical or semi-physical world, but also in innumerable other levels or being, called heavens and hells. We grasp emotional, physical and mental existence again and again, but never exactly in the same way. The relative wise will spend long periods in heavenly states of consciousness, others will do so in lower heavens and for shorter periods, again others will abide in hellish 'places' (bhūmis) or stets of consciousness for a time. Thus, time and time again we - i.e. the jīva with its accompanying karmas - run the cycle of descend to the deepest of the deepest, that is, the most intricate material involvement. But then... our ultimate destiny is to return, taking the essential truths of all our experiences within us, back into our jīva. Such a cycle may take millions of years, and then again we descend in comparable cycles through innumerable life-forms, innumerable embodiments, and each time we rise again. Until we have reached the point where these cycles can be left behind. Then we seek consciously to rise up. We have experienced all that must be experiences for the inner purposes of our jīva, and now it is no longer parigraha, but aparigraha which guides us. It is disentanglement from the many worlds of matter and illusion. We take the essence, but leave the drags, the world of forms, the world of karmas.

It is an essential Theosophical teaching that this has a reason. Compassion is the Law of laws: compassion streams in every vein of the universe. No acts other than those born of mental delusion are without compassion. We can see it in all nature. The great law of Compassion of this long journey of the souls through downwarda and upwards cycles again and again, exists in order that the higher may help the lower. The higher will influence the lower in such a way that in future the lower itself will become the higher, and the higher will become the still higher. It is like an infinite golden chain of compassion hanging down from heaven - to use a figure of speech - a chain of beings who are dependent of each other. Some are servants, others are masters, and the masters are servants to higher masters. In the human body, every living cell has its own jīva. If isolated it can survive and even procreate outside the human body. But they are, as long as we are alive, all subservient to the human jīva. Many organelles within ourselves are also - originally - beings on their own. They serve the jīva if the cell. Then, on a still lower level, the atoms serve the molecules, the molecules the organelles, the cells, and ultimately the human jīva. Humans serve, willingly, the promptings of still higher, enlightened beings. On every level there is gain. Atoms of the earth are ennobled by becoming servants to the prāṇic influence of a flower of which they become part. Animals emotions can become ennobled when they are subservient to a human controlled mind. Humans become ennobled when they listen to the teachings of the great spiritual preceptors. 'All beings are there to help each other' is a core teaching of Theosophy. Indeed Compassion is the very force behind both parigraha and aparigraha. Only, parigraha becomes polluted when the illusion of selfishness - a typical human trait - becomes dominant. Then parigraha becomes the cause of misery and violence - only when combined with selfishness, egotism. There lies our battlefield towards jinahood.

Today we live in a down-going half-cycle. Most people around us grasp more and more for their selfish satisfaction. We do not have to do like they do. 

If we wish to speed up our path to omniscience, nirvāṇa, freedom from all misconceptions and sufferings, we must train ourselves to live 'like the gods' in unison with the laws of the cosmos. That is the only thing we have to do. If we don't, it will take longer and we move up and down through all worlds of emotions and imperfect viewpoints. It is each one's choice As stated in the first part of this article, the idea of grasping and hoarding, of accumulation of wealth, though this grasping is a reflection of a cosmic choice, in the mundane sense is itself the result of a false concept of ego: the erroneous idea that we might be independent of each other, that we can gain happiness for ourselves without giving as much happiness to others. In the material world this means: sharing, always working for the happiness and spiritual development of all our brothers and sisters - the grand brotherhood of living beings.

Thus is the teaching of Theosophy.


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

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  1. Aparigraha
  2. Blavatsky
  3. Body
  4. Brahman
  5. Buddhi
  6. Buddhism
  7. Consciousness
  8. DNA
  9. Dharma
  10. Jainism
  11. Jīva
  12. Karma
  13. Karmas
  14. Karmic Body
  15. Karmic matter
  16. Leibniz
  17. Loka
  18. Nirvāṇa
  19. Omniscient
  20. Parigraha
  21. Prakrit
  22. Prakrit Bharati Academy
  23. Prāṇa
  24. Pudgala
  25. Science
  26. Siddha
  27. Soul
  28. Space
  29. Svabhāva
  30. Violence
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