Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Every now and then, when I want to keep something really safe, I come up with all sorts of clever places to tuck it away. The only problem is, when I finally want to get my hands on it, I cannot for the life of me figure out where I could possibly have kept it. Then it becomes all too clear that it would have been much better to just leave it amid the rest of my clutter, instead of trying to be so clever. That way, at least I would know where to look.
Something very similar seems to have happened to the ancient literature of the Hindus; though perhaps for different reasons. Excellent editions of the Vedas, the Puranas, the Gita and the Upanishads are even today cheaply and easily available. But the more you search through this material, the more you will find yourself hopelessly lost.
Take for instance the other-worldliness or spirituality of the Hindus, which was until just the other day routinely trotted out as the basic reason for why India was in such bad shape. India might be far behind the developed world in material comforts, it was said, but this was only because we were "above such things"; this deficiency was more than made up for by our spiritual riches.
In Rig Vedic times, the Hindus had this tremendous lust for life. There was simply no question of their "turning away from life". They lived their lives with such zest; they were so full of energy and optimism. But, later, it is said, the great weight of wisdom descended on their shoulders. Suddenly the Upanishads made them aware of the utter frivolity of pleasure. Life was nothing but an illusion. It was not to be taken seriously. Happiness was a state of mind, rather than a state of being. Once Hindus had come face to face with the majesty of the Atma or Parmatma, what pleasure could they possibly take in the real world; ridden as it was with pain and struggle, hunger and disease, sorrow and death? Fated as they were to come to birth again and again in this troubled world; to die not once but over and over again?
This was no doubt a gross misunderstanding of Hindu philosophy. But Westerners were not the only ones to make this mistake. Instead of playing the game of life, many Hindus too, wound up renouncing life, because it was "only a game". They ceased to strive for material comforts, not only because few comforts were available (which would have made perfect sense; "forgoing" wealth so long as it was beyond your reach), but because wealth was suspect; the wealthy even more so.
This, of course, is nonsense. The fact of the matter is that "the acts of a person who, possessed of little intelligence, suffers himself to be divested of wealth, are all dried up like shallow streams in the summer season". No doubt there is always the danger that wealth might transform a stimulating, exhilarating lust for life into a sordid, restless and burnt-out life of lust. But there is an answer for this: namely, that, in enjoying your wealth (or the wealth of others, if you have none of your own), one must be "like the ocean; lots of water pouring into it all the time - but never the slightest change in its level". Never gets over-heatedted; always remains cool.
Still, as I say, many Hindus too were (and are) hopelessly confused about the whole business. A surprising number of people even today shrug of the realities of the world; as if they don't really matter. Being wary of "clinging", or excessive joy or sorrow over the accidents of chance, I can understand. But it is absurd to attempt more than detachment; to let the body go hang while you concern yourself with your "soul".
The Puranas have some delicious stories on this sort of muddle-headed "turning away from the world". My personal favourite is the one about the king and the elephant. Stop me if you have heard it before.
A hermit sees his former pupil standing on the outskirts of a town as the king is about to enter it with his huge army. Why are you standing aloof, he asks. There is a great rush of people, the pupil answers; I am trying to avoid the crowd. O pupil, the hermit now asks, who is the king among these and who are his attendants? He who is seated on the huge elephant, the pupil replies, is the king; all others are his attendants.
The conversation now moves onto a higher plane. You have pointed out to me both the king and the elephant, the hermit says; but you have not said which is king and which is the elephant. Therefore tell me in particular who is the king and which is the elephant. I am anxious to know it. That which is under is the elephant, the pupil replies testily, trying hard to control his rising temper, and the one who is above is the king. Who is not aware of the relation between that which bears and that which is borne?
The hermit now wants to know what is meant by the word underneath, and what is meant by the word above? Unable to control himself any longer, the pupil now jumps on him and says "Hear what you have asked. I am above, like the king, and you are underneath, like the elephant. I show this example, O Brahmin, for your better information." And here matters rest for awhile - until the hermit presses on with: "you say that you are the king and I the elephant; but tell me now which of us two is you, and which is I!"
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