The Lotus And the Gold Coin: A Diwali Reflection on Lakshmi
Let us mark Diwali by honouring goddess Lakshmi as not only a divine form of wealth, but also of virtue and spiritual wisdom.
It is also an opportunity to reflect on the significance of ‘honest’ wealth in our lives.
The word ‘Diwali’ means an arrangement or a row of lights. Traditionally, Diwali is celebrated on the darkest night of the year when the necessity and the beauty of lights can be truly appreciated. Given the antiquity of India, the diversity of its religious traditions and the interaction among these, it should not surprise us that different religious communities celebrate Diwali. Each one offers a distinctive reason for the celebration that enriches its meaning.
Even for the Hindu community, there is a confluence of many traditions connected with Diwali. One of the most widely shared tradition associates Diwali with the rejoicing over the return of Rama to his home in Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years and his victory over tyrannical Ravana. Citizens of Ayodhya joyfully welcomed Rama home by lighting thousands of earthen lamps, even as almost one billion Hindus do so today on the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Some celebrate Diwali as the triumph of Krishna over the evil, Narakasura. For others, Diwali ushers in the New Year and the beginning of a new calendar. It is an occasion of thanksgiving for blessings received and prayer for future well-being. The divine is worshipped as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth for happiness and prosperity. The worship of Lakshmi is one of the most widely practised features of Diwali across the Hindu world and I wish to focus my reflection on this ritual practice.
It is significant that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is one of the many forms of divinity in the Hindu tradition. This suggests to me that matters related to the acquisition and use of wealth cannot be disconnected from our religious commitments. We cannot compartmentalise wealth as belonging to a sphere that has nothing to do with the divine and our religious lives. By dedicating a god or a goddess to every important dimension of life, the Hindu tradition emphasises life’s unity and inclusivity. As a goddess, Lakshmi is a powerful affirmation of the innumerable, but too often overlooked, ways in which women contribute to the prosperity of our world. Some of these ways are identified in the multiple representations of Lakshmi as a divine form of wisdom, courage, power and success.
The worship of Lakshmi on the occasion of Diwali underlines the human need for wealth to ensure a decent and dignified life. Wealth is one of the four legitimate goals of Hindu life, along with pleasure, virtue and spiritual growth. She testifies to the fact that the Hindu tradition is not anti-materialistic. Poverty is suffering and the Mahabharata cautions against its glorification.
If, however, we study carefully one of the most familiar icons of Lakshmi, we notice that wealth flows from one of her four hands. She stands or sits on a lotus and also holds the lotus in her two upper hands. The lotus, the most powerful symbol of purity and goodness in the Hindu tradition, is the dominant symbol in the icon of Lakshmi. The point is that wealth does not stand as an independent goal of human life but must be considered in relation to the goals of virtue and spiritual growth. Our eyes must see all four hands of Lakshmi; we must not seek her blessings of wealth without also seeking her gifts of purity and virtue. The Mahabharata teaches us that wealth must always be united with virtue, and virtue is a precondition for acquiring wealth.
When does wealth exclude virtue? First, according to the Mahabharata, when wealth is acquired in oppressive and unjust ways that cause harm and suffering to other beings, including the world of nature. Today we have to widen our understanding of the modes of wealth acquisition that cause harm. These must include paying unlivable wages, inhumane work conditions, exploiting the labour of people in vulnerable circumstances, child labour, human trafficking, and deceptive and corrupt practices that lure others into making choices and purchasing products that are inimical to their well being. Wells Fargo Bank, for example, was recently exposed for engaging in the unethical marketing of financial products. All such ways of wealth making are included in the Bhagavad Gita’s category of improperly acquired wealth.
According to the Mahabharata, one of the tests of properly acquired wealth is whether it is fit to be given as a religious gift or used in the performance of rituals. The idea here is that only wealth acquired by fair means is qualified to be religious offerings. The giving of wealth that is acquired through improper means does not generate good results.
Second, wealth is corrupted and made impure through its distorted uses. In the Bhagavad Gita, such distorted use of wealth is at least two-fold. The first is psychological; this is the use of wealth to assert one’s superiority over and to devalue others. Wealth corrupts when used as a symbol of status and higher human worth. The second distortion in use, according to the Bhagavad Gita, is the utilisation of wealth to dominate and destroy those who are perceived as rivals and competitors. It is the use of wealth to control, subdue and impede the prosperity of others. Wealth is misused when business corporations pay huge sums to lobbyists and support politicians for the purpose of implementing policies favourable to the corporation but inimical to the common good.
Today, we cannot reflect meaningfully and critically on Lakshmi and wealth without considering the implications of corporate wealth. According to a recent study, of the world’s 100 economies, 69 are corporations and 31 countries. Walmart’s annual revenue of $482 billion would make it the 12th largest nation in the world if it were a country. Although enjoying many of the rights and privileges of individual persons, and wealth and power that surpass most nations, corporations, with few exceptions, have not consistently concerned themselves with the common good.
In recent times, we see pharmaceutical corporations purchasing the rights to life-saving medicines and making these inaccessible to the poor by exorbitant price increases. Let us take one example. Solvadi, a life-saving drug for those suffering from the Hepatitis C virus is sold by Gilead Sciences. The price for a 12-week course of treatment is $84,000 (Rs 54 lakh) or $1,000 per tablet. The actual production cost of a course of treatment is between $68 and $136. In the first year of sales, Gilead made $12.4 billion, and exceeded the cost of acquiring the start-up company. The issue here is not the right to earn a reasonable profit on investment. It is a malfunction of wealth, however, when greed overrides the concern for human well-being and the common good.
Because of their global nature, the rights and powers corporations enjoy are exercised often by shareholders, who have no concern for the good of local communities. The sole measure of success for most is the maximisation of profit and market share. Towards this end, consumerism is encouraged and relentless advertising generates artificial desires for more and more products to the long-term detriment of the common good. Lakshmi’s lotus, the standard of purity and goodness by which we must judge the acquisition and disposition of wealth, has to be applied to corporations. Concern for the common good cannot be peripheral to the objectives of corporations, but must be moved to the centre of their concerns.
Finally, wealth is corrupted and corrupts us when it is pursued as the ultimate good. The Katha Upanishad famously reminds us that human beings will never find contentment in wealth alone. The hope of finding contentment through wealth acquisition is a delusory path with an ever-receding destination. It condemns us to a state of anxiety and insecurity, bolstered by the perception of others as rivals and threats to our self-value. Divinity, the ultimate good and the true end of human longing, is trivialised and reduced to a mere instrument for the gain of wealth. The fundamental purpose of religion to transform us into compassionate beings by awakening us from the sleep of ignorance is never realised. The fourth hand of Lakshmi is in the gesture of fearlessness. It is the greatest of her gifts, but only received when we understand the limits of wealth and seek an end that transcends the finitude of worldly goods.
Let us worship the goddess Lakshmi on Diwali day, honouring and expressing our gratitude to her as not only the source of wealth and pleasure, but also of virtue and spiritual wisdom. Let us look not only to the hand from which coins of gold fall. Let us look also to the hands that hold the lotus flower and which proclaim the indispensable value of virtue and purity and to the fourth hand that points us to a goal that endures beyond the transiency of wealth. Let our seeing (darshan) this Diwali be complete and may it be an occasion in our homes, temples and communities for moral reflection on the significance of wealth in our lives.
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