When you hear the word ‘poverty’, what images immediately come to your mind? The leprosy-afflicted man you saw the other day begging at a traffic junction? The squalid slums carefully tucked away and out of sight in some remote corner of your city, which you’ve only seen on TV but, of course, have never visited? Pictures of children with swollen bellies and flies stuck on their dirt-streaked faces in an ‘obscure’, drought-affected African country?
Conversely, when you hear the word ‘prosperity’ or ‘being rich’, what or who do you instinctively think of? Bill Gates? Or maybe your cousin in America, whom you love to hate because, with the enormous mansion he lives in and the three mega-size cars that he owns, you think he’s made it really ‘big’, while you, holed up in a suffocating apartment only a little bigger than a matchbox and located in a distinctly ‘down market’ part of town, and possessing only a scooter (not even a motorbike!), consider yourself miserably poor in comparison?
If that’s how you think being ‘poor’ and ‘prosperous’ or ‘rich’ are all about, you’re wrong, but you can’t be blamed entirely. That’s how I used to think, too. Almost all of us have been sedulously programmed to think that way.
I studied Economics at high school and then earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics—from what is (misleadingly, of course) touted as the country’s ‘most prestigious’ college. The various causes of, and solutions to, the ‘problem of poverty’ were a major focus of the Economics curriculum in those years—as I am sure it still is. I later went on to do a Master’s in Sociology—from what is (again, mistakenly, as I can vouch from personal experience) bandied about as the country’s ‘foremost university’—and there, too, I studied much about ‘poverty’.
Poverty, I was given to believe, referred to a condition of material deprivation. If you did not have adequate food, clothing and shelter and so on, you were considered to be poor.
Poverty, then, was all about things—the things you didn’t have: enough food to survive, enough clothing to cover yourself, a good enough place to live in, enough money to get medical care or a ‘decent’ education for your children, and so on. Reflecting the materialistic worldview that has come to be seen as so utterly ‘normal’—as normal as breathing or eating—that few would ever even think it could, or needed to, be questioned, poverty was seen as wholly an economic phenomenon. The ‘war on poverty’, something that governments of countries, international aid organisations, NGOs and the media kept promising with great gusto to take up, was all about seeking to improve the economic conditions of people living below the ‘poverty line’. The level of ‘development’ or ‘prosperity’ of a country was measured by the proportion of its inhabitants who lived above the ‘poverty line’. The higher this proportion and the more material things its inhabitants had access to the more ‘developed’ and ‘progressive’ it was considered to be.
That, in brief, was how I had been trained—by the education system, the media and the general social milieu—to conceive of poverty. I don’t think of it in exactly the same way now, though. I’ve come to realise that poverty is a much more expansive phenomenon, with economic poverty being only one of many forms of poverty, and not necessarily or always the most terrible of them.
Poverty, I’m beginning to now understand, is not just about lacking adequate access to the material things that are considered necessary for sheer survival. In fact, as I now realise, you can wallow in an abominable surfeit of such things and still be pathetically poor. Of course, I don’t at all want to underestimate the immensity of the misery that economic poverty often entails, and I would definitely support well-intentioned, meaningful and appropriate efforts to alleviate it. Yet, I now know that this is not the only form of poverty that exists and that needs to be recognised and dealt with.
From almost instinctively thinking of poverty as simply material lack or deprivation, I’m increasingly coming to realise the immensity of various other forms of poverty that are often much more pervasive than economic poverty. Unlike economic poverty though, these forms of poverty remain largely unrecognised. Governments of countries, international aid institutions, NGOs and the media definitely aren’t talking about wanting to tackle them on a war-footing.
Intellectual poverty, cultural poverty, psychological poverty, emotional poverty and spiritual poverty—these are some forms of poverty that abound all around, and within, us, but which hardly anyone seems to talk about. Many people don’t even know that these forms of poverty exist! Some of them might recognise these phenomena, but they may not term them as forms of ‘poverty’, though.
Unlike economic poverty, these forms of poverty have nothing to do with lack of access to, or ownership of, material things or what is considered as less than adequate ‘money-power’. They are all about a particular state of being, rather than a condition of having (or, to be more appropriate, of not having). How you are as a person, not the magnitude of the material wealth that you possess or don’t possess or the amount of money that you earn or don’t earn, defines your poverty or prosperity (as the case might be) in these terms.
I can earn a fat salary, and, going by conventional standards, I might be judged super ‘rich’—but this doesn’t necessarily make me rich intellectually, culturally, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. In fact, on all these scores I might be miserably poor. If stocks and shares or the ‘best’ restaurants and night clubs or the ‘hottest’ holiday-spots across the world or new ways of making a couple of more millions or office and family-related politics are all that I know or love to talk about, I’m definitely extremely poor intellectually.
I might drive a Mercedes or a Rolls Royce, but if I can’t appreciate (maybe because I think I have no time for such what I might call ‘trivialities’) a sunset or an infant gurgling away or a ladybird sunning itself on a leaf, I’d say I’m culturally terribly impoverished.
I might be the boss of a large MNC, but if I lose my temper at the drop of a hat or treat the man who cooks and sweeps at my home shabbily, or if I have no love for animals and no concern for the environment, I am obviously poverty-stricken, emotionally and psychologically.
If I am any of the above, I am spiritually poor, too.
In all these cases, I desperately need to be lifted out of the poverty in which I am mired and enabled to rise above the intellectual, cultural, emotional, psychological and spiritual ‘poverty-line’.
Rescuing people (most of all, ourselves) from intellectual, cultural, emotional, psychological and spiritual poverty is as necessary and urgent a task as helping ‘poor’ people overcome economic poverty.
Addressing these forms of poverty, too, should be an integral part of ‘developmental’ discourse.
Helping economically-poor people materially isn’t, then, the only form of charity that’s possible and needed, and it’s not always the most important. And then, it isn’t only the materially-poor who need to be helped to ‘develop’. Economically-rich people who are poor in non-material ways, too, deserve charity—in the form of suitable non-material help to emerge from intellectual, cultural, psychological, emotional and spiritual poverty.
If you are economically wealthy and can be very poor on other counts, the converse can also hold true. You might live in a hovel or be beggar, but, at the same time, you could be intellectually, culturally, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually very prosperous. Government records might mark you as living below the ‘poverty line’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are poor in these non-material senses of the term. In fact, some of the truly richest people that I’ve ever met have been economically very poor.
A cobbler I befriended many years ago, who had studied till the 3rd grade and barely managed to eke out an existence, was one of the intellectually richest people I knew. You could talk to him on virtually any topic. He was a loving soul, too, a wonderful combination of heart and mind that’s rare to find among university-educated folks (myself included).
Some of the culturally richest people I’ve known were humble village dwellers. They were amazingly hospitable, kind, affectionate, simple and gentle souls—and that, to me, is a true measure of one’s cultural level.
The emotionally and spiritually richest person I knew was Babba, the home-help’ (I hate calling her that, because she was more than a mother to me) who brought me up. I’ve never seen any person more angelic than her.
I suppose most spiritually advanced enlightened beings were economically very poor, too. Many of them were born in economically-wealthy families, but opted for a life of voluntary economic poverty.
We came into this world empty-handed, and that’s the way we’ll leave it, too. We aren’t going to take along with us any of the material wealth that we might have earned while in this world. In the eternal life after death, all that’ll count is our wealth of faith and good deeds that we might have done while on earth. That’s where forms of our poverty, or prosperity, as the case might be, other than economic will make a decisive difference.
When you reflect on all of this, you might be provoked, as I was, to reconsider the ways in which we conventionally understand some key terms that have become part of our basic vocabulary—words like ‘poverty’, ‘wealth’, ‘prosperity’, ‘progress’ and ‘development’ that we often uncritically employ in ways that conceal and distort much more than they reveal.
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