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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Non-Vedic Philosophy

Published: 21.06.2017


The teachings id the Buddha were oral. Buddha taught that human existence is full of misery and pain, our duty is to get rid of this misery and pain. Buddha's discipline of order is recorded in the canons in the Pāli language, which are called Tripiṭaka, 'three baskets' of books - (1) Vinayapiṭaka (2) Suttapiṭaka (3) Abhidhammapiṭaka. Buddha's main philosophy was based on the Four Noble Truths (āryasatya) - there is Suffering (dukkha), Cause of suffering (dukkha Samudaya), Cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodha) and a Way leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodhagāmini pratipat)

In Buddhism the dimension of spiritual practice for removal of all kinds of miseries is based on the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold path: (1) right faith (samyag dṛṣti), (2) right resolve (samyag-sankalpa), (3) right speech (samyag vāk), (4) right actions (karmānta), (5) right living (samyag ājīva), (6) right effort (right vyāyāma) (7) right remembrance (samyag smṛti) and (8) right absorption/ meditation (smyag samādhi). This path is open to the monks and laity alike.

To desire more than one's minimum need is considered as contrary to the prescribed code of conduct of Buddhism. In the Dhammapada (a core scriptures, especially of Theravāda Buddhism) it is said that charity is fruitful when given without self-indulgence, ownership, aversion, pride, desire (to get something). According to this philosophy, accumulation of objects more than one needs is possessiveness, which takes place due to a mental disorder called abhidhyā and to consider perishable objects and wealth etc. as a permanent source of happiness is called mithyadṛṣti. Possessiveness is not so much a physical activity as it is a mental attitude of the thirst (tṛṣṇa) for sense enjoyment. In the Dīghanikāya Buddha remarks that covetousness or greed is the root of all evils.

Buddha has ruled out both self-indulgence and self-mortification. In his very first sermon at Sāranāth (near Kāśī, now Varanasī) he said: "There are two extremes, o monks, from which he who leads a religious life must abstain. One is a life of pleasure devoted to desire and enjoyment: that is base, ignoble, unspiritual, unworthy, unreal. The other is a life of mortification: it is gloomy, unworthy, unreal. The perfect one, o monk, is removed from both these extremes and has discovered a way which lies between them, the middle way which enlightens the eyes, enlightens the mind, which leads to rest, to knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvāṇa" (Oldenberg: Buddha, 1881).

This Middle Path involves limitation of desires as well as limitation of possessions, i.e. non-possessiveness.


In India the concept of the vow of non-possessiveness (aparigraha-vrata) is a contribution of the Indian ascetic (śramaṇic[1]) tradition. Discarding of all possessions and ownership is also as a condition for monkhood. In Jainism it is evidenced by profound contemplation and expression of this vow in the Jain Āgamas - the authoritative scriptures of Jainism - and interpretative commentaries like the Niryukti-Churni. The concept of aparigraha is also mentioned and emphasized in later non-Jain scriptures, for example the Yogasūtra of Patañjali, though in essence the idea is present throughout all ancient Indian literature. Attachment leading to over-possessiveness by sentient beings beyond one's needs and to have a feeling of ownership is, in Jainism, called infatuation (mūrchhā). Mūrchhā is caused by the passion of possessiveness (parigraha).

A person living a social life can not give up all possessions (like daily utensils, etc.), as monks do, and therefore the practice of small vows (aṇuvrata) of limited possessions for common people was introduced at an early date. In this context the vow for a householder means to have possessions only according to one's need and not to wish for more than one needs. This is called parigraha-parimāṇa-vrata or vow of limitation of desires (icchā-parimāṇa-vrata). In its subtle and sublime form, as practiced by monks, renunciation of possessiveness is called 'the great vow' (aparigraha-mahāvrata) and in its smaller or more practical form for all those who can not live the life of monks or nuns is called aṇuvrata, i.e. 'atom-vow' or small vow.

The observance of the aparigraha mahāvrata or Great Vow by monks and the practice of aṇuvrata or Small Vows by householders is not at all a mark of poverty, want, or passivity in attitude, but it is a way of life manifested in self-control and unstinted activity. Non-attachment or abstinence from self-indulgence is the spiritual aspect of non-possessiveness and limited consumption is its social aspect.

In the ancient literature of Jainism, celibacy and non-possessiveness were integrated into one vow namely 'bahitthādāna viramaṇa'. Before Mahāvīra, from the second till the twenty-third Tīrthaṅkara (founders/ renewers of the faith), the tradition had only four vows (chāturyāma). The fourth vow was bahitthādāna viramaṇa. Bahittha means ownership of a spouse or family member and ādāna means ownership of tools, clothes, utensils, place to live, etc. Abstinence from bahitthā, i.e. chastity and abstinence from ādāna, i.e. non-possessiveness, was considered a vow. But during the period of the most recent and twenty-fourth Tīrthaṅkara, Mahavira, abstinence from accepting a spouse (in the case of a monk) or acceptance of none other than one's own spouse (in the case of a householder) was considered to be the fourth vow of chastity (brahmācārya) or abstinence from sexual intercourse (maithuna viramaṇa). Abstinence from possessiveness, i.e. limiting one's possessions, was restricted to the fifth vow of non-possessiveness (aparigraha or parigraha-parimāṇa vrata). In the case of a layman, brahmacarya is restricted to chastity and aparigraha to contentment.

In the Brahmanical tradition, the word celibacy (brahmacarya) remained unchanged and as such, the word 'non-possessiveness' did not occur as a vow. The spirit of this vow was integrated by accepting charity as a vow. However Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtra has incorporated non-possessiveness (aparigraha) as the fifth great vow among the five yamas (virtues). 

From the moral point of view, the concept of non-possessiveness implies that a person should set a limit to possessions, and only have those that are enough for the sustenance of his or her life and also that possession should not cause any inconvenience to others nor deprive anyone else of his right. It is immoral to rob living beings of their freedom. No person can claim ownership of any material, animal kingdom, human being etc. This idea of non-possessiveness can only flourish on the basis of detachment, selfless intentions, a positive thought process, a right state of mind. In Jainism a concept of 'Leśyā' (intention or state of mind)is discussed. State of mind is categorized in six lavels and depicted through colors. Non-positive states of mind and positive states of mind are explained through a well-known example:

After collecting dry wood a group of six woodcutters was returning home. On the way, they saw a rose-apple-tree laden with rose apples, and one of them said: come, let us satisfy our hunger by cutting this tree and getting its fruits. Another man said, why should we put harm to the whole tree by cutting it, let me climb up, and cut only a few of its branches. The third proposed to cut only the small branches that were bearing fruits. The fourth of them intervened: we do not need any branches, let me climb up and pluck the bunches of fruits only. The fifth one said, the bunches contain unripe fruits also, let me pluck the ripe rose apple fruits only, it will do the least harm to the tree and our purpose will be solved. The sixth woodcutter  was observing and listening to all, and said: the tree has itself dropped ripe fruits, which can satisfy our hunger, why not we pick up the fallen ripe and juicy fruits? This will not harm the tree, an important resource of nature and it will still satisfy our hunger. Due to the difference of approaches of the woodcutters, from the first to the sixth, their level of unselfish intensions (leśyā) can be respectively symbolized by the colors black, blue, grey, yellow, pink and white representing respectively violent, possessive, covetous, selfish, self-controlled and detached (spiritual) personalities.

From the moral point of view, a non-possessive detached person is a protector of environment, who leads his life with the minimum disturbance to the nature and is free from greed and grasping.

When a man behaves with others as he wants others to behave towards himself then his behavioral approach is considered spiritual. When morality shows the element of 'one-ness' in all living-beings, it is a spiritual approach. He lives his life in the spirit of oneness in all. There does not arise any question of accumulation or hoarding or selfish attachment. He renounces attachment even with his body, which to him seems as a mass of material substance.

The vow of non-possessiveness (aparigraha vrata) has a spiritual form, namely limiting desires or non-attachment, a social form namely limitation of possession; an environmental aspect namely least disturbance to nature by minimum consumption. Mahatma Gandhi has rightly pointed out the difference between greed and need: "Nature provides enough for everybody's need but not quite enough for one single person's greed."

A non-possessive detached person is a protector of the environment, who leads his life with the minimum disturbance to nature and is free from greed and grasping.


Though religions like Christianity, Islam and others evolved outside India, yet in view being religious philosophy, they have dealt with austerity, generosity, charity, non-accumulation non-attachment - their moral principles and traditions which have supported non-possessiveness.

According to Christianity, Jesus Christ regarded collection of wealth as a sin because it diverts the mind of the people from God and engages itself with prosperity and worldly position born out of it. It the New Testament, it is stated:  "It is possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, but it is difficult for a greedy men to enter the gates of heaven" (Matthew, 19.23). Voluntary poverty is an aid on the path of God (Luke, 6.20); Christ has exhorted: "When you arrange a dinner at night, instead of inviting the rich neighbors, the poor, the disabled, the blind should be invited. You will be blessed by God. (Luke, 12.12-14). One who has two coats, he should give a coat to a person who is without a coat. One who has food, he should give it too, to one who wants food (Luke, 3.11).

A number of Christian communities and individuals of various countries of the world have imbibed the spirit of non-possessiveness, without using the word 'Aparigraha'. They have dealt with it in their respective literatures, and have widely propagated it. The 'Quaker Group of America is famous for its austerity and compassion. The founder of the Quaker tradition, George Fox, while addressing the rich, the businessmen, has remarked: "How can you live your life enjoying your resources more than your needs, while the poor, the blind and the disabled are passing by your way? How can you hoard the riches?" James Nayler, American Quaker John Woolman and others need to be mentioned for their contentment with austerity. The American poet and philosopher/ historian Henry David Thoreau, who was against slavery (dependence), lived a life of non-possessiveness based on voluntary poverty. Thoreau, who gave the message of not having things more than one can count on one's fingers, was a great critic of those people who by meanness hoard things like ants do.


According to the Islamic belief, prophet Mohammad was himself had no possessions. He never encouraged the accumulation of wealth. In the holy Qur'an, accumulation and greed have been regarded as despicable. According to the Qur'an, by hoarding wealth and riches, life does not become secure. In the view of Islam, the accumulator of things will be taken to task by God (Allah). In Islam taking interest on one's money is considered immoral. In a system where a party or individual thinks only of profit, that system is regarded as illegal. Allah does not like those who cross the limits of anything. It has also been remarked, "Eat, drink, but do not cross the limit (Qur'an, Al Ar'af, 31.). Of the five principles of Islam - tauheed (faith in God), namaz (prayer), roza (fast), zakat (charity), hadj (pilgrimage), Zakat (charity) has a special significance. In terms of Zakāt, the rights of the poor, in the riches of the wealthy, have been determined. Islam exhorts that this creation is God's family. Allah cannot see anyone hungry and unclad. As such, Sadak-ei-fitra (the amount that the rich gives to the poor before the Eid festival) and Zakāt (minimum 2.5 percent of one's income as charity), and doling out charity to the poor, the orphans and the deprived - these have been included under moral obligation and prayer.

Among the aims of Shariah (the Muslim code of religious law) 'luxury' is regarded as unnecessary (Tahsiniyat) because luxury has no beauty. A beautiful life is a life where the right of other beings has not been toyed with. Sufism, which is an inner mystical dimension of Islam, believes in the control of carnal passions. It has its faith in voluntary poverty. It saves itself from violence born of greed. Appreciating the attribute of non-possessiveness Maulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273) observes that accumulation of wealth, gold or silver more than one's need as indicative of immorality.

Zoroastrianism or Parsi

The ancient Iranian or Persian (Parsi) religion is known as Zoroastrianims, founded by Zarathustra (c. 600 BC). It also supports non-possessiveness by having belief in the values like charity, compassion, good of others, modesty, truth, contentment, patience etc. In one of the proverbs it has been remarked. "who so mocketh the poor reproacheth his maker" (Proverbs - 117.5). Further, it has been stressed that by accumulation there is the enhancement of sin.

Chinese philosophy

With regard to non-possessiveness, the views of Confucius and Chinese Taoism are worth mentioning. Confucius regarded equal distribution against accumulation in society. He observed that, where there is equal distribution, there would be no poverty; where there is coherence there would be no want; where there is contentment, there would be no change of power. Lao-tze has termed the habit of hoarding as the tendency of the plunderers which cannot help in the attainment of the 'ultimate'. Lao Tze, in the Tao-te-Ching, has presented three valuable teachings - (1) Acquire strength through deep love; (2) Restrain yourself and be generous; (3) Rule over the world through the renunciation of ego and desire (passions).

Modern times

At present, a number of people,  communities and groups in various countries of the world like America and others are doling their riches as charity for altruistic and life saving projects and missions. Among the prominent American tycoons; Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, Bill Clinton etc., are such noble examples who have doled out their wealth and riches as charity in large proportions, besides their own sufficient needs, and have stepped ahead towards the goal of non-possessiveness.


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

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aparigraha
  2. Aparigraha Mahāvrata
  3. Aṇuvrata
  4. Body
  5. Brahmacarya
  6. Brahmācārya
  7. Buddha
  8. Buddhism
  9. Celibacy
  10. Christianity
  11. Contemplation
  12. Dhammapada
  13. Discipline
  14. Dukkha
  15. Environment
  16. Gandhi
  17. Greed
  18. Islam
  19. Jainism
  20. Kāśī
  21. Leśyā
  22. Mahatma
  23. Mahatma Gandhi
  24. Mahavira
  25. Mahāvrata
  26. Mahāvīra
  27. Meditation
  28. Nirvāṇa
  29. Parigraha
  30. Pride
  31. Smṛti
  32. Sūtra
  33. Taoism
  34. Tīrthaṅkara
  35. Violence
  36. Vrata
  37. Yoga
  38. Zoroastrianism
  39. samādhi
  40. Āgamas
  41. Ājīva
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