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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Narcissus

Published: 19.07.2017


In order to ensure their survival, nature has equipped all living beings with a Narcissus-instinct. However, its primary role is confined simply to the awareness of the self and its protection.

Almost all living things, other than humans, continue to be controlled by the behavioral hardwiring instilled by nature and carried forward by genes. Human beings alone have undone that influence (at which point in their evolutionary history we do not know) and have become their own masters. That is when the narcistic instinct within human beings started growing and became more demonic than useful.

Strange is the riddle of this Narcissus or 'I' (ego; love for the self).  Although its focus is the self, it also has an altruistic element, as we see in such instinctive behaviors as care for the young.  And as long as this altruistic element is present, the Narcissus-instinct remains a constructive instrument of survival for the self and others. However, the moment it ceases to care about others outside the self, it becomes ignoble and destructive. This is the origin of the all-consuming black hole of maha-parigraha (extreme covetousness).

At the root of parigraha (covetousness) is this narcistic 'I'. The intensity of parigraha in a person is in proportion to the intensity of affinity he has for this awakened Narcissus. The inflation of this 'I' (ego) and its satiation are inter-dependent. The more it inflates the more it seeks satiation, and the more it is satiated the more it inflates.

The sense of 'I' has both benign and malignant forms.  In its benign form, it seeks contentment; in its malignant form, it is in the grip of unquenchable desires. The benign 'I' abandons many attachments and proceeds towards modest goals. The malign 'I' is never satisfied and sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire of unlimited attachments.

Parigraha thrives in the ground watered by discontent. The malign 'I' is focused entirely on the possessions of others.  Such an individual takes little satisfaction in what he already has; his line of thinking is always directed at what others have that he does not. He continues to burn in this fire of discontentment leading to intense acquisitiveness. Parigraha is the son of discontent and father of envy. A parigrahi (a covetous person) is therefore incapable of true friendship.

Utility and consumption for its own sake are the two goals of acquisition.  There is nothing wrong with satisfying the basic needs of life, but the trouble starts when consumption alone becomes the goal. The universally accepted modern economic theories have, ironically, perverted the true purpose of economic activity by using consumerism as an index of development. The more you consume, the more developed and civilized you are considered.  The introduction of the information age has aided in the spread of such ideas on a global level.

One of the major causes of intolerance leading to violence as well as environmental degradation in the modern world is this ever-growing consumerism. It sounds strange but it is very true that an apparently simple and seemingly beneficent concept of economic development can in the long term lead to psychological changes that have far reaching influence in many other areas of the social system. Consumerism is a two-edged sword. On one edge it systematically depletes natural resources, polluting and destroying the environment as a consequence. On the other hand it breeds destitution, disparity and discontent in masses leading to terrorism.

When an individual or a group is bent upon satisfying self-inflated needs, it tends to ignore the needs of others and fails to appreciate how it might be infringing on the rights of others. Thus the malign 'I' is also a potent fuel for conflict. Conflict is self-generating; though it begins small, it usually becomes large, and in due course it even consumes the malign 'I' that was its cause.  This is but one illustration of the self-destructiveness of the self in the grip of its appetites. 

People usually get offended when someone asks them to drift away from the pleasures, comforts, and joys of life. This reaction is due to their limited knowledge. They fail to see that what they take to be joy now could be a prelude to misery. In fact, such advice is not meant to push someone away from joy; it is to prevent him from turning a blind eye to the danger lurking under his momentary enjoyments. A diabetic is prevented from eating sweet things in the same spirit. The prohibition is not meant to curb enjoyment of the sweet taste but to prevent the diabetic from harming himself by aggravating his ailment.

Parigraha is such a cancerous disease that it is detected only when it has become an acute condition. And even then, the sufferer hardly thinks of getting rid of it because he is enthralled by satiation of his appetites. And more, the narcissistic instinct ever present within also creates a protective shield of obsession for one's own ideas and convictions. Other views are repulsed by this shield, with the result that the individual turns a deaf ear to the good advice he needs to hear.

Soul, mind and body coexist in a state of equilibrium. Likewise, man, society and state coexist in a state of equilibrium. Society, environment and development, too, coexist in a state of equilibrium. Such major and minor equilibriums exist at every level in this universe and perhaps in other universes. The earth, our planet and only home, depends on these dynamic equilibriums. Man alone, the unique animal at the top of the evolutionary ladder, is endowed with the capacity to understand the nature of the complex systems on which life on earth depends.  But does he also have the capacity to act on that understanding?

The culture of unbridled consumption and maha-parigraha (extreme covetousness) are siblings. Nature has endowed this earth with life-sustaining materials and natural systems that replenish these materials. It has enough of everything for all times to meet genuine regulated needs. But the black-hole of maha-parigraha is devouring that natural wealth so fast that it has overloaded the earth's capacity to regenerate. The world is now stumbling towards the precipice of devastation and our malignant 'I' is accelerating this self-destructive journey.

It is also destroying our healthy social tolerance. Man, born in the motherly lap of nature, is obsessively absorbed in the destruction of that motherly lap and, in turn, himself. In truth, man is swallowing the very future of his progeny when he continues to feed the limitless hunger of his bloated ego. The horrifying consequences for our progeny are generally ignored as mere educated guess work, but unless the human society changes its ways these consequences are sure to come. However, to avert them will require coming to terms with this malignant 'I' and start limiting acquisition with the help of the sentiment of contentment.

With every single breath one inhales, every single morsel one eats, every single fiber one wears, and every small action one performs, one is taking something from nature. It is his moral and ethical duty to return, at least a part of what he has taken, to nature for its health.

So wherever one is in the multiple layers of human society, one has to pause and ponder over how inflated is his 'I', his ego  and his ambition. He has to open his eyes and try to be sensitive to the sad consequences of this inflation that will push him, his society, and future generations into the gorge of unprecedented pain, misery, and, finally, annihilation.

Breaking out of the prison of 'I' for a little while can reveal that mere following of the ritual cult of aparigraha (non-possession) is counterproductive. It gives a false satisfaction of having performed one's duty and in the long run increases tolerance for covetousness (parigraha). The sincere realization that the very planet is endangered by consumerism and greed could probably jolt the human society into action. Only then the importance of embracing contentment and real aparigraha (non-covetousness) at every step and in every dimension of life can be understood, and effective steps to reign in the demonic Narcissus within could be taken.

If the modern human society wants to shake off the yoke of covetousness it has to practice thinking ahead in context of time and space. Will the joy experienced not turn into misery in the future? Is the intensity of pain lurking in the womb of the future not more acute than the present experience of pleasure? Experience combined with knowledge awakens a sense of judgment and discernment. This, in turn, reduces one's obsession with attachments and finally the scope of future pain. This principle is applicable at every level — social, intellectual and spiritual.

At the spiritual level, the malign 'I' acts as a potent toxin that pushes the soul continuously towards its downfall. It is so subtle that its traces soil the soul even when the soul is cleansed by means of spiritual practices. In truth, no matter what lofty heights one attains in one's spiritual quest, liberation cannot be attained if even a particle of that 'I' is left.  The story of Bahūbali illustrates the depth of penetration of this narcissistic attitude.

While indulging in rigorous austerities, Bahūbali was knocking at the final door of omniscience leading to liberation, but in vain. Where, he wondered, had he gone wrong?  Suddenly he had a revelation and recognized his mistake. He realized that all his efforts and all his spiritual practices were being done while sitting on the throne of this 'I'. This realization at once shattered the overpowering shadow of 'I' and he was free. The Narcissus within was exterminated and all doors of knowledge and eternal bliss were opened.


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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. Body
  3. Consumerism
  4. Environment
  5. Genes
  6. Greed
  7. Jaipur
  8. Parigraha
  9. Prakrit
  10. Prakrit Bharati Academy
  11. Soul
  12. Space
  13. Surendra Bothara
  14. Tolerance
  15. Violence
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