By Suma Varughese March 1997 Forsaking the pursuit of material pleasure, many people the world over are discovering joy and happiness in living simply with the satisfaction that they are not harming the environment. Simple living, of course, has a precedent in Indian tradition Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication but in the deliberate reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment.—Mahatma Gandhi. When Jayesh Shah quit stock broking in 1993, he said good-bye to a company he had built from staff strength of two to 110 employees and 40 computers. As the owner of one of the top 10 stock broking firms in India, Shah’s life was opulent. Today, as publisher of Humanscape, an Indian magazine dealing with social and political issues from a humanistic angle, Shah, more often than not, travels by bus. Save for an occasional family dinner, he rarely socializes, and the lifestyle his family maintains, though comfortable, is thrifty, and free of frills. The changeover for him has meant ‘freedom to do what I really want to do’. Dr. Manesh L.Shrikant, 61, is another success story. At 30, the youngest general manager and then chief executive of Mukand Ltd, he was living in a palatial apartment in Darsham, Bombay’s most prestigious high-rise, when it struck him that he would need a proportionate income to sustain his life style. Sensing a threat to his freedom, he moved his family to a two-bed-room apartment, even as his general manager stayed in a luxurious bungalow in Juhu. ‘Neither the corporate power nor the affluence was of any use to me,’ he says. Today, his values are derived from his childhood, when money was scarce. ‘Having experience poverty, I knew that simple food tasted as good or better than a five-star meal. I tell my children their worst luck is that they have a very rich father”. ‘The more I cut down,’Shrikant adds, ‘the more time I have to be happy.’ Today, he is honorary dean of the S.P.Jain Institute of Management, where he is experimenting with synthesizing business efficiency and humane values. ‘We make our students aware of the pitfalls of success and their training projects are usually in slum areas, not air-conditioned multinational offices.’ Another cameo. Derek Monteiro, a former student at IIT Bombay, he is a New Age artist-singer-composer. His livelihood is precarious, but Monteiro is blissful. ‘I’ve given up chasing ego-based goals,’ he says. ‘Life becomes simple when you realize that there is a creator who creates us and sustains us. Life is complete.’ The American have an utterly unpoetic term for this new romantic phenomenon: downshifting – a move away from materialism towards a simpler, more fulfilling life. Downshifting, also known as ‘simple living‘ or ‘voluntary simplicity” is a roaring trend in the land of the shopping mall, provoking a flood of literature and a slew of action groups. Books such a Voluntary Simplicity By Dune Elginand Simplify Your Life:100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter by Elaine St Janes are runaway bestsellers. A nationwide public opinion survey in the USA on consumption, materialism and the environment once revealed that 28 per cent of the respondents had voluntarily taken steps to make less money in the past few years. John Robbins, heir apparent to the Baskin Robbins ice-cream empire until he renounced it at 21, says: ‘Among my parents’ friend were some of the wealthiest people in the world, and I must tell you in all honesty, they were also some of the most neurotic people in the world. So I’ve had the opportunity to learn firsthand that acquiring things is a total distraction.’ While the American Dream is being redefined in its home turf, its stock has never been higher in India. Years after liberalization led to the flooding of the market with irresistible goodies copiously promoted by the parallel satellite revolution, Uncle Sam struts through every small town, chomping on a burger, sipping a cola, wearing denims and chasing money. Yet, as a nation, we have never fully bought into the philosophical base of materialism, perhaps insulted by our ancientculture of renunciation and our poverty-stricken masses. We remain deeply suspicious of the phenomenon, and survivors or refuseniks of the consumerist culture routinely surface every day. Rajshekharan Nair, a talented journalist, would rather earn a pittance than leave his beloved Kerala, a coastal state in southern India. At the opposite end of the scale, we have former sybarites like Titoo Ahluwalia, chief of MARG, a leading Indian market research agency, enthusiastically embracing the isolation and quiet of country life. So how does a potential exodus to simplicity begin? Like all big truths, it radiates from an infinite number of paths and possibilities. For Jayesh Shah, it derives from the humanist philosophy of the Argentine, Silo, who defined all actions that ended with death as meaningless, thereby excluding personal goals such as money, power, status or fame, in favor of goals larger than or transcending the individual. For Dr A.Sadanand, managing trustee of the Bharati Sanskrit Vidya Niketenam an Indian institute teaching Sanskrit, simple living is a function of individuality and freedom. ‘The source of joy and happiness is to live life according to individual philosophical, emotional and psychological molding, not according to the expectations of other.’ For Baiju Parthan, artist and writer, simplicity is an existential stance, which enables him to lie in equilibrium with the universe. For Vedanta teacher Acharya Ram Mohan, simplicity is a function of who you are: ‘Simple living emerges from being a simple person. Developing trust in life, dropping survival attitudes leads to simplicity.’ Whether fuelled by intellectual conviction, philosophical stance or spiritual prompting, priorities are recast away from money, power, position, and fame—what one might call tangible goals—towards a more intangible fulfillment. Shrikant explains the movement succinctly: ‘For some people success is not an eternal source, it is internal. It’s a question of what I am, rather than what I have.’ My own search for simplicity began, ironically enough, a year after I became editor of Society, an elitist lifestyle-and-people Indian magazine. Those days I was unhappy, confused, godless—an unlikely candidate for spiritual awakening. Nevertheless, to my astonishment and gratitude, that is precisely what I underwent. In less than a moth, like a jigsaw puzzle coming together, I received a series of insights that revealed the secret of happiness—indeed, of life itself. I learnt that happiness could only be found through that of others; that universal welfare was a conduit to one’s own well being; that interconnectedness was the stuff of life. And conversely, that any action in conflict with universal welfare led to suffering. Using the larger good as a parameter clarified much of life for me both at the individual, and the collective level. As much as it would keep a mother from bullying and browbeating her child, it could make the political system shift from selfish power play to selfless service. As much as it kept an employer focused on the employee’s welfare, it could keeps the economic system focused on the welfare of the environment. Husbands wouldn’t beat their wives and nations wouldn’t wage war against nations. Caste, creed, community, wealth would cease to divide. Keeping our sights fixed steadily on universal welfare as the means to our own welfare spells the end to all conflict, and the reign of enduring harmony, for both ourselves and the world at large. There is no convert as zealous as the atheist, no saint as ardent as a sinner. Having drunk deeply of misery, I clutched at happiness with almost inhuman ferocity, determined not to let anything come between it and me henceforth, no matter how high the price. Since then, my one abiding purpose in life has been to reach that spot where focusing on universal happiness would be my natural state. My journey has been both internal and external. Even as I looked within and embarked on the perilous task of discovering and deactivating the factors that blocked my happiness, I was also widening my sights, attempting to see not just the roots of our social, economic and political conflicts, but also their possible solution based on universal welfare. In or out, both paths led to simplification. Internally, my pursuit of happiness simplified priorities, illuminating not just the futility of such goals as fame, money, power or possession, but their potential danger as well. The broad spectrum of human misery showed me how much unhappiness was caused by desire alone. Then I began to understand that only by going beyond desire could I hope to truly secure happiness. This idea has a time-honored place in our tradition; indeed, it may be said to be the central tenet of the spiritual path. ‘The man who forsakes all desires and moves without longing, without the thought of mine or I, attains peace‘ is the wise counsel of the Bhagavad Gita. The process of elimination is not easy, especially as it is threefold: emotional, psychological and physical. Emotional simplification is to let go of feelings that endanger happiness—feelings such as anger, hate, greed, envy—the cardinal sins. Above all, it means letting go of the past. Says Kartik Vyas, a personal growth trainer and yoga enthusiast: ‘Through yoga, I realized that thought can cause both joy and stress.’ Psychological simplifications entail going beyond ego gratification by power, status, dominion or needs such as those of survi
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