By Suma Varughese August 1999 Instead of surviving at the cost of others, it is time we looked back at our holistic roots and embraced a livelihood that harmed none and helped a few It’s funny, but few spiritual traditions or masters have examined the impact of work on spiritual growth True, Krishna did expound on karma yoga, but that dealt with the right approach to work. It gave no guidelines on the kind of work. I’ve often wondered why this is so, and have concluded that most traditions seem to consider spiritual growth an individual pursuit, little affected by how you earn your livelihood. It wasn’t always this complex. I can think of the Buddha, with his flawless awareness of the interconnection of all things, who incorporated this dimension into his spiritual path. Right livelihood is one in the eight-fold path the Buddha advocated to attain nirvana. He was clear that a livelihood that brought suffering to any sentient being was not permissible. ‘All creatures love happiness; all creatures hate suffering,’ uttered the Compassionate One. What if we were to apply this parameter to our lives? Who would—or wouldn’t—measure up? Let’s concentrate on those whose livelihood is condoned by law. The inventor of the atomic bomb certainly wouldn’t. Nor would all those who work in the nuclear field. For whether these forces are used for peaceful or destructive purposes, they destroy all who come in touch with them. Nor would arms dealers, or the armed forces, the police and those whose livelihood demands killing others. In the absolute world of the Buddha, there can be no possible justification for killing. But what about working for a company that pollutes the environment and injures its workers? Surely that too violates the right livelihood parameter. Does this not, more or less, write off all manufacturing industry? What about the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and medical fields whose discoveries are based on the vivisection of animals? What about the computer industry? Based as it is on a technology that derives from a separatist understanding of life, I’m not willing to see it as free from damaging properties. Computer radiation is a real side effect, but much more than that, its invention has displaced millions from jobs, made us dependent, and trapped us in a virtual world. What about the advertising industry that manipulates people into creating needs and traps them into an endless cycle of desire and satisfaction of desire? What about the media, with its insidious hold on our emotions, thoughts and values? Today, our world-view is determined by what the media chooses to print or telecast. If we see the world as steadily more violent, sensationalist, trivial and meaningless, well, the media has its part to play. Some years ago, as the editor of Society (Indian lifestyle magazine), I became increasingly dismayed by the consequences of the values I was propagating-consumerism, worship of money and materialism. So violent did the conflict become that after a while I had to leave the job. Modern civilization is founded on Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest. This is a lesson we have learnt implicitly—as nation states, markets, industries and individuals. Competition is the force that sends us careering down the expressway of capitalism, beating down countries, rival industries, companies and individuals. This instinct to exploit and conquer has depleted forests, poisoned the water systems, sterilized the earth and systematically decimated thousands of plant and animal species. Tragically, today there is little awareness of the larger ramifications of the present way of life. Many actively seek enlightenment and purify their inner selves assiduously, but seldom will they try and figure out the impact of their livelihood on the external world. So, is there any hope for right livelihood today? The greater the suffering, the greater the opportunity, they say. But, at least right now, we are too much in the grip of the present system for dropouts to have many options. Yet, there is a growing number working on alternative approaches. Teaching is a great option. There is something satisfying about passing on knowledge to coming generations. Unfortunately, it too has been converted into an inhuman maw that masticates endless information into the heads of children. But this country has always attributed the highest value to the keepers of knowledge, the sages of the land, and many dropouts are returning to teaching. In the process, they are instilling it with not just finer values, but also shifting the focus on developing character and potentialities. Many are also returning to the land, and taking back for themselves their right to determine their own lives. Others are moving into the realm of healing and attitude molding. If enough of us resolutely turn our back on the present system and work towards creating a form of livelihood that harms none and helps a few, we would be on our way to creating right livelihood for all. Only then would the Buddha truly smile.
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