When Enough is Enough

By Yamini Narayanan, Senior Lecturer in International and Community Development at Deakin University, originally published in Sustainable Development.

Artha, the pursuit of material wealth, worldly materials and experiences, has been long recognized, in both Indian and Western philosophical thought, as one of the fundamental driving motivations of human lives. In ancient India, artha was more commonly invested with an enterprising or an extroverted dimension, of attending ‘to the matter at hand’ (Scharfe, 2004) but post-Buddhist influences clarified the notion more specifically, ‘as “object” or “objective” of various actions, and artha acquired meanings of substantial and material content’ (Scharfe, 2004,p. 249). In Kautilya’s Arthashastras, one of the most authoritative treatises on artha, artha also refers to a range of political goals such as good statecraft and political duties, and an ‘object of commerce or agriculture’ (Scharfe,2004, p. 249), the pursuit of which is central to the process of settling down to the privileges and duties of a householder. As such, artha has two major aspects – good statecraft, and pursuit of personal wealth, and is as such ‘a secular, not religious category’ (Parel, 2008, p. 53).

The Arthashastras recognized that a healthy society and state require economic growth and political participation. Therefore, the state was deeply invested in the married life of the individual, for it was only the householder who was engaged in activities related to economic development of the state such as the production of food and goods, and paying taxes (Scharfe, 2004, p. 261). Wandering monks and saints, who are held in esteem in more ascetic Indic religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, are regarded with some impatience in Hinduism, unless they have devoted an earlier part of their lives to some form of economic labour (Scharfe, 2004, p. 261). Thus work, which forms the central means of barter within economics, assumes a higher implication in the value system of spiritual economics informed by artha. Spangler (1983) comments thus:

To work lies at the heart of being human. It is a gift itself, the gift of being productive, of honing our talents, of expressing our creativity, of enriching the whole of which we are also a part . . . in a physical economy, we seek work as necessary for survival; in a spiritual economy, work is necessary for growth [emphasis mine].

Without explicitly intending to, Mahatma Gandhi infused artha with meanings of service, by arguing that work within economics was synonymous with self-reliance, which he deemed necessary for healthy economies, particularly indigenous and local ones (Iyer, 1990). Mahatma Gandhi called self-reliance swadeshi and explains (Iyer,1990, p. 371) ‘In its ultimate and spiritual sense, swadeshi stands for the final emancipation of the human soul from its earthly bondage’. Swadeshi calls for dedicating one’s work and services to the interests of one’s immediate community, and requires one to discharge one’s legitimate duties through fair, and not foul, means. As Sfeir-Younis (2001) argues, in order to witness a truly meaningful ‘transformation of the world’, it is imperative to practise economics differently, because it is not possible to practise economics in a ‘moral, ethical and spiritual vacuum’. Gandhi said (Iyer, 1990, p. 366) ‘ Swadeshi contains pure economics’.

The second major dimension to artha is the recognition that wealth provides personal gratification. The scriptures note that wealth may be experienced by human beings in three ways: through charitable and altruistic donations, through enjoyment and lastly through ruin (Scharfe, 2004, p. 260). If it is not given away or enjoyed, it is certain to bring on ruin. Charity is clearly the superior choice; however, the donor is also beholden to be responsible for his own welfare, for, as Mahadevan (1967, p. 154) writes, ‘A certain measure of economic security is essential . . . to keep body and soul together. There is no virtue in poverty’. Traditional religious texts have pointed out that spiritually sustainable economic growth is not consonant with no economic activity, for this is needed to raise the poor out of inhumane living conditions;1 however, excess, unsustainable indulgence of the material realm, without justifiable need, is to be avoided.2

However, pursuit of artha through hedonism (or through cheating the poor and helpless, intimidation, illegal means etc) is not based on a desire for a decent and pure life, informed by righteous behaviour. Pursuit of artha through such means lacks compassion. Artha must come from proper conduct and sources – wealth frittered away irresponsibly or accumulated through hurting others will lead to grief (Scharfe, 2004, p. 254). In other words, experience of artha must be informed by the third Purushartha guideline: dharma. Davis (2007, p. 244) explains that dharma may be understood as ‘law plus religion plus morality’, and offers clarity on the behaviour and intention that should inspire each human act. Based on Lord Rama’s interpretation of dharma from the epic text Ramayana, Davis (2007) explains that it also means the pursuit of righteous behaviour, within the family, community and country.

Enlightened experience of wealth and responsible spending of resources is thus seen as a critical way to mature self-understanding. Mahatma Gandhi pondered at length the question (Iyer, 1990, p. 94) ‘does economic progress clash with real progress?’. If economic development means accumulation of wealth and profit without limit, then, Gandhi believed, ‘economic progress . . . is antagonistic to real progress’ (Iyer, 1990, p. 97). Moreover, as Herman Daly put it, infinite economic growth on a planet with finite natural resources is an ‘impossibility theorem’ (deFonseca, et al., 1993).

Scholars of development have also been recognizing that sustainable economic development must be consonant with spiritual principles, to deliver both economic growth and economic justice. However, modern economic development has capital accumulation as the single most important indicator of success, and such a conception has clearly led to exploitation of the socially and politically weaker peoples of the planet. Former World Bank economist Alfredo Sfeir-Younis said (2001) ‘Economics, as a major source of diseases and unhappiness must be challenged accordingly. Economic values and economic decisions permeate almost all we do in this global society and, as a consequence, we see major dysfunctionalities at all levels’. The healing of society would occur, he maintains, only when economics and spirituality are reconciled (Sfeir-Younis, 2001).

This article was originally published in Sustainable Development, Volume 18, Issue 5, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

  1. In the Dhammapada (No. 203), for instance, the Buddha said, ‘one of the causes of immorality and crimes is poverty [daliddiya ] . . . rulers should find ways to raise the economic standard of the people’ (Rahula, 1978, p. 33, in Mendis, 1994, p. 198). However, in Dhammapada No. 204, the Buddha also said ‘Health is the highest gain, contentment is the greatest wealth’ (Mendis, 1994, p. 198). Implicit in this is the view that human welfare must be measured in material and physical terms, as well as spiritual terms, though complete absorption in material life will lead to misery. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the renowned Indian statesman and philosopher (2005, p. 192), wrote ‘Absorption in the mechanical and material sides of life leads to a disbalanced condition of consciousness’. Jesus quotes from the Old Testament: ‘Man doth not live by bread alone’ (Deuteronomy 8:3). []
  2. The Bhagvad Gita instructs that the true seeker of spiritual knowledge has to engage with dhyana yoga or meditation to overcome the desire for wealth and pleasure. The Gita explains that such a practice of spiritually sustainable lifestyle must be satatam, or constant (Radhakrishnan,2005, p. 192). []

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