This article originally appeared in the August/September 2003 issue of Yoga International.
“Money,” we are told, “makes the world go ’round.” This appears to be true in the modern world, to be sure. Many people are anxious about money. We are fearful when we have money because we might lose it again; we are fearful when we lack money because we face an uncertain future. Of course, the future is even uncertain for the rich. And besides that, wealth is relative. One person’s fortune is another’s penury.
As yoga practitioners, how are we to relate to money in a balanced manner? Should we believe Sir Francis Bacon when he writes that money is muck—“filthy lucre”? Is money intrinsically bad, or is it our attitude that needs changing? Philosophers and revolutionaries have blamed money for all kinds of social ills, and some would even like to see it eliminated altogether. Perhaps, in a perfect world, it would be better to have no money at all. But at least for now money is part of our everyday reality, and we must come to terms with it.
Is money intrinsically bad, or is it our attitude that needs changing?
The Greed Syndrome
Even if money is not the root of all evil, as some would argue, throughout history it has caused a considerable amount of trouble. Today, most of us have fallen under its spell, allowing our pursuit of financial security and the profit motive to govern much of our day-to-day behavior. Money has been known to bring discord into families, ruin the best of friendships, corrupt the morally weak, and fill jails with embezzlers, defrauders, bank robbers, counterfeiters, gamblers, and swindlers. Yet, money has also brought relief to the indigent and sick, and has built roads, bridges, parks, and museums.
If money is not evil in itself, perhaps the evil lies in our faulty attitudes and intentions. In his first epistle to Timothy (6:10), St. Paul made the uncompromising statement that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Looking through the lens of yogic wisdom, however, we see that the root of all evil is not love of money but ignorance—to be more specific, ignorance of our true nature, which spawns all kinds of negative emotions and motivations, including greed.
So long as we are not cognizant of, or in touch with, our spiritual core, we feel inadequate and incomplete and predictably go in search of objects and experiences that might fulfill us or make us whole. Money is a common pacifier for our spiritual restlessness. Everyone knows (but few care) that our Western society is heavily overconsuming, and that this overconsumption is part of the greed syndrome. We desire more “stuff” to fill our spiritually empty lives; stuff requires money and so we work hard to be able to afford all the things we feel we need.
In truth, at the heart of our existence is inexhaustible plenitude (purna). We do not need to add anything to our life to be complete or whole. Our quest for fulfillment in the outside world is simply a fateful habit. As St. Augustine noted, we will be restless until our heart comes to rest in the Divine, the ultimate Being that is our true nature. No external thing will ever satisfy this inner hunger. The yogins have always seen this clearly, and this is the reason they emphasize the virtue of voluntary simplicity and often choose to live in poverty.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the death of God—the demise of the inherited theological construct of the divine father figure. Long before him, the sages of India have spoken of the need to transcend the conceptualized deity in favor of the realized ultimate Being. An integral part of this process in our era is the death of the Money Idol, our favorite substitute deity. If we are dedicated to the spiritual ideal of inner freedom through self-transcendence, we must also rid ourselves of our obsession with money. Like food, sex, work, and relationships, money simply represents a type of energy, which we may use to support our life and to benefit others. We need neither to fearfully recoil from money (as if it might irrevocably pollute and destroy us) nor to enslave ourselves by restlessly hoarding more and more of it. Money harms us only when we make it what the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern.” Then we forget who we are and what our life’s higher purpose is.
The Christian medieval scholastics ranked avarice among the seven mortal sins. Yogins would agree with this assessment. The yoga scriptures cite greed (lobha), along with delusion (moha) and anger (krodha), as one of the “portals to hell,” that is, a main obstacle to inner peace and happiness. These three are also found at the very center of the Buddhist “Wheel of Life,” a wonderful graphic representation of the forces that shape our lives. Together, they are a potent cause of suffering and can be uprooted only through vigilant mindfulness and the cultivation of the great virtues promoted in yoga and all other spiritual and religious traditions.
We must make the time to inspect the ways in which we allow our preoccupation with money and the acquisition of material things to disturb our mind. And time, by the way, is not money, as Benjamin Franklin insisted in Advice to Young Tradesman, penned in 1748. It is, however, as ultimately insignificant as money. The adepts of yoga have traditionally sought to conquer time by “remembering” the eternal Spirit (atman)—the ultimate foundation undergirding all manifestation, including time and money.