“Greed is an imperfection that defiles the mind”
— Gautam Budhha
In our great epic, the Mahabharata: Bhishma Pitamaha, the divine son of the sacred River Ganga, is asked about the source of sin and evil in the world. Bhishma replies to his questioner, Yudhishtira, a young King seeking wisdom. “From greed, sin and all adharma flows, a stream of misery. Greed is the poisoned spring of all cunning and hypocrisy in the world. It is greed which makes people sin… Greed is the source of evil.”
Like lust, greed is also a severe internal affliction, a diseased condition of the mind that leaves us permanently dissatisfied, permanently insecure and permanently in a state of lack, want and need. As the wise old saying goes, “He who loves money excessively, never has money enough.” The more you acquire, the more you covet, and the more you dwell in want and insecurity. An offshoot of this insecurity is the fearful need to hoard, store and cling to the wealth you have amassed.
Hoarding and spending
Greed manifests itself in two broad tendencies — the impulse to hoard and the impulse to spend extravagantly. In the first case, the ‘victim’ is obsessed with amassing more and more wealth and putting it away safely for a future need. Such a man cannot trust Providence for the morrow: he is determined that he will be his own provider, and will not look to God to take care of his needs; he trusts his avarice and miserliness more than he trusts God’s generosity and compassion!
The ‘big spenders’, as they are called, are on an acquisition spree; they cannot stop buying things that they don’t really need. Bigger, better, newer, faster… whatever the excuse, they keep spending on luxuries and whims, indulging their urge to splurge and acquire more and more…
Root cause of unhappiness
I would say that this tendency to accumulate material wealth, the craving for more and more, is the root cause of human unhappiness. Greed, listed as one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian teachings, binds people with fetters that shackle their capacity for self-fulfillment and inner harmony. The more we are attached to a house, a car, a piece of jewellery or an object, the more we lay ourselves open and vulnerable to unhappiness. The desire to possess leads gradually on to the impulse to accumulate and hoard. Invariably, we begin “keeping up with the Joneses” as they put it in England – i.e. constantly comparing ourselves with our neighbours, and trying to be one up on them.
Our senses are instruments of cognition that Nature has blessed us with; they tell us to eat when we are hungry and seek warmth when we are cold. The fulfillment of such needs is essential for human survival. It is only when our needs and wants become unreasonable and obsessive that they cease to be natural and enter the danger zone of covetousness.
Goal of life
Artha or wealth, is one of the purusharthas or legitimate goals of life. But we must understand that amassing wealth is not the sole aim of our life on earth — it is only the means to a higher end. Our money, our assets, our car, our house and all our worldly goods (acquired by fair, honest means) can help us and our loved ones lead a life free from want and deprivation. At a higher level, they can help us help others who are not as fortunate as we are. In other words, wealth is an aid to living life well; it cannot be the ‘be all and end all’ of our life!
Unfortunately, our society today recognises and equates accomplishment and success with money. In business, sports or entertainment, a ‘star’ or a ‘leader’ is valued by the millions he has amassed, the size of his bungalow and the car he drives. I do not grudge these celebrities the money they make but I am pained by the fact that we lesser mortals compare ourselves to them, and feel frustrated, inadequate and insecure!
Happiness and success cannot be measured in terms of money, power, position, wealth or social status. For a man may have all of these and still be miserable. The world thinks that a millionaire is a ‘successful’ man. Success is measured by the yardstick of inner happiness – your ability to be happy and make others happy; the ability to love and be loved by others; the ability to live in harmony with those around you, with your own self and God’s cosmic laws.
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