Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
The ladder of success
The author is a Mumbai-based writer on developmental and environmental issues.
India's Puranic tales have repeatedly asked the question: what is real wealth? There has always been a tough contest between wealth as material affluence and wealth as well being in a deeper sense. Even the gods have got into arguments about this.
So, once upon eternity Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi argued heatedly about which was more important - wealth or zest for life. The Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, Devi Lakshmi, was emphatic that material wealth is what ensures enjoyment and thus gives a person zest for life. Those who have to scramble every day for the basics of life have a dull and prosaic existence.
Vishnu reflected quietly on this for a moment. Then, with that ever deep smile, he asked Lakshmi why so many wealthy people have lives as dull as ditch water. Without zest for life, Vishnu said, wealth has no value and can even become a burden. Lakshmi was not convinced. So they put the matter to a test.
Both came down to earth in human form and separately became guests of a miserly merchant who was as sullen as he was wealthy. All of a sudden the merchant was full of pep and enthusiasm. Everyone attributed this change to the fact that the lady guest was turning every utensil she touched to gold. No one took much notice of the other guest, Vishnu in the guise of a frail old man with an irritating cough.
After a while the old man quietly left the merchant's house. Immediately the merchant was back to his old morose self. His depression and lack of interest in life was now so severe that even the growing pile of gold utensils meant nothing to him. Eventually he asked the mysterious guest with her golden touch to leave.
Back at the celestial plane Devi Lakshmi may have conceded that zest for life - an inner light and energy, symbolised by Vishnu - does not depend on abundance of material wealth. That energy comes from self-knowledge and awareness of the infinite wonder of life. But for mortals the issue has never quite been settled. And this story could be a metaphor for our times. A "wealth of knowledge" crowds our present but how much of it is conducive to deeper "well-being"?
The 20th century has seen a burst in the wealth of science, industry, medicines and human skills. There has been an explosion of knowledge in all these fields and even greater abundance of monetary gain for those who work in or control these spheres. An unprecendent string of technological revolutions has made way for today's "knowledge economy".
The pop-heroes of this emerging culture are high-skilled individuals with a Midas touch. Memories of the Midas myth only lurk vaguely in the background. For King Midas found that the magical power of a literal golden touch can be a curse. He wound up turning his own daughter into solid, lifeless gold!
If you do a search on the world wide web for "wealth and knowledge" you will find tens of thousands of sites. Most of them are based on the view that wealth is knowledge and knowledge is power. Is that really "knowledge" or just "information"? Is it "wealth" in the sense of monetary abundance or also welfare? And power for whom, to do what?
The root of the word wealth is "weal" - which means well being, sound, healthy. This was the basis of familiar terms like "wealth of knowledge" and "wealth of experience". Virtually all traditional, non-tribal, societies balanced the lure of the "Midas touch" with the awareness that money, and thus power, are a limited means to the larger goal of a fulfilling life. This basic truth has remained constant since human beings first started accumulating - from the stone age to cyber-space.
But it is still major news when a scientific study, in the U.S. concludes that the relentless pursuit of money is hazardous to mental health. Most journalists took pains to point out that having lots of money per se is not injurious to health, only hankering for it is problematic. But even just keeping pace with life in the world's most prosperous country is hard going for most Americans.
Therefore anti-depressants and cheer-up pills are a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S.
Some months back, a magazine did a story on how anti-depressant drugs are a boom industry of the future. This is a sadly ironic concluding note for the 20th century which has given human-kind a "wealth" of knowledge in so many fields. Much of this knowledge has indeed enhanced welfare by giving millions of people relief from many old maladies and various kinds of drudgery. This liberation aspect of modern knowledge systems is often celebrated as the achievement of the 20th century. Yes, this has left the planet with an unprecedented ecological crisis but conventional wisdom holds that a new generation of technological innovation will solve the problems of the earlier generation.
Relatively little attention is given to what Time Magazine once called "20th Century Blues". This was the title of a cover story which reported on the findings of inter-disciplinary studies involving psychologists and anthropologists. These studies show that the structures of modern industrial life run contrary to some of the most basic emotional and psychological needs of human beings. Thus the endemic rise in depression and anxiety related emotional disorders. A good part of the problem is the "hurry and worry" competitive culture which comes as a package deal with modern urban living.
One particular image seems to currently epitomise this reality. It is the picture of a Silicon Valley computer professional who hasn't the time to go home and is snatching a few hours of sleep on the office floor. The man is crouched under his office desk to avoid the glare of lights which stay on day and night because someone is always working. These hardships are endured in the hope of striking the "Midas touch" and having a life of leisure.
Meanwhile the average American _ that person who is not even trying to make millions _ is working longer hours than ever before. A forty hour work-week is still the American idea of a good hard-working culture.
But over a third of the American work force now works more than 50 hours a week. Yes, at the end of that gruelling week that average American has more to spend than the over-whelming majority of human beings on earth. But, as a recent survey showed, only some 42 per cent Americans say that they are "happy".
Of course this lack of happiness is nothing compared with the misery of those who have to struggle in vain for even the bare minimum of food and shelter every day. And there is a vast stretch of possibilities between fulfillment of basic material needs and what one considers to be "plenty".
The miserly merchant in that puranic tale is a universal symbol of the hollowness of endless material plenty. Every culture has found ways of exalting the value of a higher, inner energy - in this case symbolised by Vishnu. It is this energy which enables us to have the fullest "wealth" of experience in life. Yet in every age that old argument is a running sub-text in most people's lives.
What gives you greater power: material wealth, which may vanish any time, or an inner vibrancy which is fully in your own control?
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