December , 2019
Spiritual Economics-The Principle of Sustainable Development
15:26 pm

Prof. Bidyut Kr. Sarkar

Economics as an important discipline of intellectual study and research has been established in academic and corporate world with its lofty objectives and widespread applications. But if we examine to what extent these objectives have been realised (particularly that of welfare economics), there remains much to be desired. Theories and models based on analytical and mathematical concepts kept on coming up with short-term gains and long-term pains. This prompts one to investigate the philosophy underlying these theories which points to an urgent need of a paradigm shift in our basic thoughts.

At the mundane level, the connotation of the term ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ is dependent on space, time and person but at the transcendental level, the implications of these terms converge though their symbolic expressions vary, as our Shāstra says- ‘Ekam  Sad, ViprāBahudhāVadanti’-The Truth is One, the sages express it in different ways. Hence, we go to a realised soul like Sri Aurobindo to comprehend what do we mean by being spiritual -‘It is spirituality when you begin to become aware of another consciousness other than the ego and begin to live in it or under its influence more and more. It is that consciousness wide, infinite, self-existent, pure of ego etc. which is called spirit (Self, Brahman, Divine …)

Let us go through one more relevant definition. ‘Consciousness is a reality inherent in existence. It is there even when it is not active on  the surface but silent and immobile…invisible…It is not…a phenomenon dependent on the reactions of personality to the forces of Nature…consciousness is usually identified with mind, but mental consciousness is only the human range…there are ranges of consciousness above and below the human range, with which normal human has no contact…supra-mental and sub-mental ranges.’

The contemporary authors have defined economics in different ways—some emphasise on the production and distribution of material wealth, some on the individual behaviour of the consumers, still others on the utilisation of scarce resources and so on—accordingly we have various branches of economics like macro-economics, micro-economics, welfare economics, behavioural economics and many others. All of them agree with varying degrees of emphasis that economics is a science that deals with material wealth. In Indian scriptures, the science of economics is covered within one of the Purushārthas (four objects or aims of human existence-Dharma, Artha, Kāma and Moksha) called Artha and is studied within one of the branches of education called Vārtā.

In Arthashāstra of Kautilya (there were many books on Arthashāstra but currently only one of them composed by Kautilya is extant) the expression ‘artha’ has a very wide connotation, “Artha is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings. In (1.7.6-7), it is used in the sense of material well-being; in(15.1.1), livelihood; in(1.4.3), economically productive activity, particularly in agriculture, cattle rearing and trade; and in  general, wealth as in the ‘Wealth of Nations’. Arthashāstra is thus ‘the science of politics’ as it is used in (1.1.1) or (1.4.3). It is the art of government in its widest sense. The subjects covered include - administration, law, order and justice, taxation, revenue and expenditure, foreign policy, defence and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other - promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.” In Vārtā, “subjects relating to agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade” were covered.

Thus, we see that both in contemporary thought as well as in ancient Indian understanding, economics implies a vast field of activity (in theory and practice) covering almost all aspects of an individual, society and state involving the material dimensions.

Now we need to integrate the above two concepts to understand the essence of ‘spiritual economics’—it is a paradigm in which the pursuit of material wealth is carried out, not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve the higher goals of life viz. to be aware of the highest consciousness and realise the union with that following any of the numerous paths laid down in our scriptures. Once the mind gradually moves from the mundane material plane to the spiritual realm, philosophical questions pose themselves—generation of material wealth for what? Is it for personal enjoyment or sense pleasure? The answer comes from deep within - not for the personal enjoyment or aggrandisement, but for the general welfare of the society—that has always been the viewpoint of Indian thinkers.

The spiritual outlook helps a man to be aware of wider perspectives in life beyond his parochial sense pleasures, it helps one to realise-‘No one is satisfied with (material)wealth’ but material wealth is initially necessary for a householder person to sustain his body and others in his society so that they may go through the right kind of daily practices (sādhanā) through righteousness (Dharma) to ultimately reach the highest realisation (Moksha). Hence ‘spirinomics’ or ‘spiritual economics’ may be defined as a system of generation of material wealth through judicious utilisation of constrained resources through benevolent human responses with the objective of welfare of the society in general and realisation of divine consciousness in particular.

It is to be carefully noted that by ‘spiritual economics’ we do not necessarily mean ‘religious economics’. If we consider the widespread connotation of religion and then apply that to the expression ‘religious economics’ we arrive at certain methods and practices which are largely dependent on the Smriti aspect of religion (which has been the basis of many texts written on this subject and practised in some theological states). In our case, we are developing the concept based on Shruti aspect of the religion which reveals some fundamental truths independent of space and time (and hence there is great unity of thought regarding these principles amongst all major world religions).Incidentally, it may be mentioned in the passing that if we consider the scriptural definition and socio-cultural application of the expression ‘dharma’ then spirituality and all other related concepts presented here may be accommodated within its ambit.

The notion of 'sustainable development' was introduced into the political agenda by the World Commission on Environment and Development through its report (WCED, 1987), also called the Brundtland Report. As per the implication of the report, "Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

“More precisely, sustainability is defined as a requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations. The notion ‘quality of life’, includes everything that influences the situation in which people live. Hence, it includes much more than material consumption. It is intended to capture the importance of health, culture, and nature”.

The word ‘development’ generally implies economic development though some scholars have expanded the meaning of the term to include some more aspects of human living as we notice in the previous definition. General understanding as well as Indian spiritual comprehension regarding individual development points out that there are other important dimensions associated with the word. The most comprehensive connotation of individual development according to ancient Indian wisdom includes four aspects viz. Dharma (righteous behavior), Artha (material well-being), Kāma (legitimate worldly desires) and Moksha (spiritual development),which together is denoted by the expression ‘Purushārthas’ or Chaturvarga (the four aims of human life)—economic development ensures Artha and Kāma. Thus, comprehensive development of a typical human being (householder) involves positive change in all these dimensions simultaneously. Again, the connotation of the term ‘development’ varies based on the philosophy of man. For example, if we consider a specific Vedāntic philosophy of man (TaittiriyaUpanisad, Pancakosa etc.), we may say development of an individual involves upliftment in his physical, mental, intellectual, ethico-moral and spiritual dimensions. On the other hand, at the collective level, it may mean societal, regional, national or international enhancement. Now since individual is the cause and society or any other collective entity is the effect, in this article, by ‘development’ we will primarily mean positive changes at the individual level leading to overall welfare at the collective level.

Thus ‘sustainable development’ implies a paradigm in which individuals, within a collective entity like society or nation, experience positive changes in all the Purushārthas in such a way that similar changes are ensured in the life of his/her next many generations to come. Keeping these comprehensive perspectives in mind, if we scan our environment, we discover a very disturbing scenario. In the natural environment, there is a huge depletion of natural resources, particularly, non-renewable ones e.g. coal, petroleum etc., some of which may not last even the present century. In the social environment we find a mixed situation—some indicators like equity etc. are showing some improvement whereas other indicators like crime rates, suicide rates, divorce rates, atrocities against women and children etc., are showing very disturbing negative changes (on an average) across almost all so-called civilised societies. In the technological environment, we observe disruptive changes with such frequency and scale that were never experienced before, having far reaching consequences—some of which are obvious and some are not. Man has stockpiled weapons and arsenals of mass destruction which can destroy the earth, our only home so far, many times over. In this way, if we expand our awareness around us and take into consideration the nature of changes that are happening in our interconnected multi-dimensional environment, we find a very complex and disturbing manifestation in which the positive changes appear to be highly unsustainable—hence there is a great euphoria regarding the sustainability question.

Therefore, the most important point to be considered is the fact that the mainstream thinking regarding ‘sustainable development’ appears to be parochial—by ‘development’ if we consider secular economic development only and then get focused to its sustainability (which is the present typical thinking in theory and practice), then we are missing out other more important dimensions of individual development and this lacuna is making the sustainability targets difficult to achieve as the data related to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its transformation into Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) show. Here comes the effectiveness of spiritual economics.

Since spiritual economics or spirinomics based on Indian Vedāntic spirituality is rooted in all-encompassing consciousness, it encourages a holistic world-view and takes into consideration all dimensions of human personality and their interactions with the collective entities. Thus, human values and ethical actions are inherent in this paradigm. It is not an extension of secular economics; it is rather a comprehensive economic world-view in which the non-spiritual aspects are subsumed. It addresses the basic limitation of contemporary mainstream economic thoughts which are largely human values-neutral. For example, Sorokin opines, “The widespread notion that an improvement of economic conditions necessarily leads to a corresponding ennoblement of human conduct is largely a myth.”

Schumacher is more scathing, “The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of the expansionist success.”

Our sage-poet Tagore brings out the relevance of spirinomics amidst this values-crisis in beautiful words, “Our Laxmi is not the goddess of the cash balance in the bank: she is the symbol of that idealist plenitude which is never dissociated from goodness and beauty…in the old time when commerce was a member of the normal life of man, there ruled the spirit of Laxmi, who with her divine touch of humanity saved wealth from the unseemliness of rampant individualism, mean both in motive and method.”

This spirinomics gives rise to new paradigm based on the virtuous cycle involving Higher Self Nishkām Karma (actions devoid of selfish desires), SattwaGuna as opposed to lower self, Sakam Karma and blind RajoGuna. The virtuous cycle leads to giving inspiration instead of grabbing motivation. We may refer to innumerable shlokas in our Shruti and Smriti shastras to establish this point. For example, “…the entire universe was born of a sacrifice (i.e. giving inspiration), and furthermore the universe was maintained by proper sacrifice. It was man’s responsibility to maintain order by properly performing... [his]duty… The man who, firm in his sacrifice, offers gifts…to the end of the ceremony, he gains health and wealth, blessed with offspring; he shall also be in the keeping of the gods.”

This ‘giving model’ and was later developed into the concept of an executive development model based on universal love (which is the natural outcome of spirituality/consciousness) and remained the hallmark of our civilizational progress and has the potential to save the world from mutually assured destruction.

Swami Vivekananda expresses this difference in world-view more succinctly. He states, “In the West they are trying to solve the problem how much a man can possess, and we are trying here to solve the problem on how little a man can live on…if history has any truth in it, and if my prognostications ever prove true, it must be that those who train themselves to live on the least and control themselves well in the end gain the battle.”

Hence spiritual economics is based on a low need, low greed model which essentially gives rise to sustainability at all levels. It does not try to generate demand or supply by hook or by crook, it is not obsessed with GDP or GNP, it tends to ensure holistic well-being and happiness of all through more equitable distribution of material wealth and generation of some which is really needed. It is not focused to scale of economies through undue emphasis on optimisation (excluding other human dimensions) and application of high-end technologies, rather it gives more emphasis on small scale industries (MSMEs) and appropriate technology.

Toynbee, the great historian, conforms, “I agree that we ought to aim not at gross national product but at gross national welfare. My tests of welfare would be…the average per capita spiritual welfare…the average standard of self-mastery, which is the key to spiritual welfare…”

Since spirinomics is essentially rooted in spirituality, it leads to a sustainable paradigm. A non-spiritual system leads to greed and consumerism which ultimately leads to abuse of the resources, disturbing the natural equilibrium of demand and supply. Moreover, it results in concentration of material wealth and consequential unrest and violence in the society—an analysis of the contemporary economic and social history of the world yields ample illustrations to establish this argument. For example, it may be established that two world wars in close succession is a result of following such non-spiritual economic models. Indian Vedāntic spirituality essentially brings in self- control and control of the vices which ultimately brings in the giving impulse as opposed to the grabbing tendency as well as frugality and ascetic spirit. Thus, it curbs consumerism, concentration of wealth and ensures more equitable distribution of the produce—all leading to a more sustainable development.

From the very ancient past, India has followed an economic model which has been essentially spiritual. The economics behind the model has been a facilitator in the overall spiritual endeavour, of the four Purushārthas, as has been already mentioned and Artha is directly related to economics. It was not seen in isolation, rather pursuits of Artha was supposed to be tempered and guided by Dharma and Moksha. Kautilya’sArthashāstra says, “…by following [the principles set out in this treatise] one can not only create and preserve dharma, artha and kāma (legitimate desires) but also destroy [their opposites, i.e. unrighteousness, material loss and hatred]. It is a guide not only for the acquisition of this world but also the next.”

It may also be noted that this great and voluminous treatise on economics and public administration opens with a spiritual note and salutation to Brihaspati and Sukra (‘the gurus of the gods and anti-gods and the originators of the science of politics’). Mention of economic activities may be found in our Upanishads as well. Indications of economic activities may be obtained in Brihad-Āranyak-Upanishad.

The ideas of spiritualised economic principles were not confined to theoretical classics only but efforts were made to put them into practice. Thus, the spirinomics in action may be seen in the activities of the corporate bodies of our ancient times. From Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jataka stories, Kautilya’sArthashāstra, Dharmashāstras, we find that corporations in the form of guilds in the economic arena were conspicuously present from the very ancient days to the post Christian era and if we analyse the management of these guilds, we get ample indications of the application of spiritual economics.

As far as economics education in ancient India is concerned, it seems that economics as a separate branch of study did not develop till few centuries before Kautilya, but from the fact that education was compulsory in the Varnāshrama system for the first three varnas from the very ancient Vedic period and from the fact that proper varna oriented education was imparted by the Ācharya, Guru, Siksaka, Upādhaya, Parisada, Charana etc. over and above the spiritual subjects like the Vedas, it may be inferred that some kind of economics education was there in the overall elaborate scheme of education in ancient India. It is also to be noted that this secular subject of economics was taught in a spiritual environment which may be inferred from the duties  the   resident-student (i.e. antevasin / brahmachāri) had to perform as well as from the methods used to impart education, along with the various spiritual subjects (Trayi&Anviksiki). Economics and public administration as a separate branch of study with adequate emphasis has been mentioned in Kautilya’sArthashāstra—in those days, Vārtā consisted of subjects related to agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade. Some aspects of macro-economics were also dealt with in the third course for the prince viz. Dandaniti or public administration. Even if we go through the duties of a Vaishya (the people who were largely involved in material wealth generation and hence displaying the economics into action) given in the various established texts like Mahabharata, Dhrmashāstras etc. we find fair amount of sacro-secular symbiosis i.e. economic activities were to be performed keeping spiritual goals in mind. For example, according to the Mahabharata, ‘regarding the Vaishyas, he should make gifts; study the Vedas, perform sacrifices and acquire wealth by fair means.’ Thus, the essential aspects of spirinomics as defined by us was very much present in those days.

The outcome of the application of these unique economic principles in our ancient times was spectacular—many thinkers and researchers have established this fact beyond doubt. Let us examine the following, “The history of India shows that when the country was spiritually great it was also materially prosperous and culturally creative.” As a result, for thousands of years India was at the top in all spheres of human development and also in the world economy.

When fundamental physical laws are applied to economic scenarios startling revelations are obtained. For example, in a brilliant book called Entropy, Rifkin opines, “We have convinced ourselves that we have made tremendous progress…on closer examination such claims turn out to be pure bunkum. The debunker turns out to be the second law.” (i.e. Second Law of Thermodynamics of Physics which talks about Entropy). Then he suggests the solution, “Spirituality can transcend this effect of the Law”.

Thus, historical and socio-cultural perspectives as well as the view-point based on physical sciences, all point to the great relevance of spiritual economics today. Some of the mainstream thoughts seem to be drifting towards spirinomics. It is observed that some ideas mentioned in the Economic Survey 2018-19 presented before the Union Budget 2019 in the Indian parliament point in this direction. For example, the ‘nudge economics’, ‘policy for homo sapiens, not homo economicus’ etc. These ideas of behavioural economics can be enduringly manifested provided we are rooted in spirituality.

A deep contemplation based on the profound wisdom statements of our ancient and contemporary thinkers (glimpses of which we have tried to present here) leads one to conclude that a holistic approach (breaking several

inter-disciplinary barriers) is very much required to solve the socio-economic problems of gigantic proportions that the mankind faces today. To achieve that, one needs to tap the spiritualised intuitive resources along with the intellectual ones so that the comprehensive development may be achieved at the individual and the collective level.


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