Wouldn’t life be great if I could quit my day job?
The mythical hero Arjuna is asking just that question in the Bhagavad Gita. He’s in a tough spot. His role as a warrior and a prince requires him to fight a battle he does not want to fight. He pours out his heart to his charioteer, who is the god Krishna in disguise. Surely, Arjuna argues, it would be better for him to leave his post and devote himself to contemplation. Krishna sympathizes with his plight. Yet he opposes Arjuna’s dreamy wish:
“No one can gain perfection by abstaining from work… Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act… Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit… Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life.”
Like Arjuna, we are tempted to think we could realize our human potential if only we did not have to expend so much of our energy on work. By the time we commute home in the evening, we’re exhausted. How are we supposed to find the energy then to work on ourselves? The Hindu tradition tells us we have it backwards. The everyday world of work is precisely where we must pursue our potential.
That is, unless we want to become wandering beggars — that’s an option too!
The Hindu tradition has no romance with Lady Poverty as St. Francis did. This is not a lack of virtue on their part, but realism. Even the Franciscans, who eschew personal wealth, require a certain amount of collective wealth to survive. As the Mahabharata says, “Without material goods, we may neither fulfill our duties nor realize our desires.”
The late gay scholar Alain Daniélou says it more saucily: “Even a poor man may inebriate himself with mysticism, but generally he is too busy warding off cold, hunger, or vermin to be able to dedicate himself fully to contemplation.”
So it is that the Hindu tradition makes prosperity one of the four aims of life, along with purpose, pleasure, and liberation. The Sanskrit word behind “prosperity” is artha. In this context, the word refers to the material means we need to accomplish our other aims in life. The point of making prosperity a goal is certainly not to accumulate money for money’s sake. Rather, it is to have the means necessary to support ourselves, enjoy life, actualize our potential, and seek transcendence. This is what it means to prosper.
As I look at the Hindu tradition, I observe four key points related to the pursuit of prosperity.
1. Our work is worth it.
The Hindu tradition honors our means of livelihood by making its rewards one of the central aims of life. We do well to devote a significant portion of our lives to earning money. Learning to make and manage money is not an inconvenient fact of life; it is part of what gives life meaning. Yoga Journal columnist Sally Kempton puts it well: “Artha is the skills we develop to live a successful worldly life. I’ve found that if human beings don’t get artha together in one way or another, they feel bad about themselves. Artha is one of the basic human dignities.”
Having the means to live well is worth our best efforts. As one of the ancient commentaries on the Rig Veda has it,
“The fortune of him who sits also sits,
But that of him who stands stands erect;
That of him who reclines lies down;
The fortune of him who moves shall move indeed.”
In other words, get busy!
2. Our work provides the resources for our other goals.
There is a sense in which prosperity is the most important of the four aims in life. Without it we are not able to pursue the other aims. An ancient text advising a king about artha, the Arthashastra, states this rather baldly:
“Material wellbeing (artha) alone is supreme… For spiritual good (dharma) and sensual pleasures (kama) are rooted in material wellbeing.
“Material gain (artha), spiritual good (dharma), pleasure (kama): that is, the triad of gain. Of that, it is better to attain each earlier one in preference to each later one… And since material wealth is the root of spiritual good and has pleasure for its fruit, that attainment of material gain which continuously results in spiritual good, material gain, and pleasures is attainment of all gains.”
Most importantly, it is money which gives us the leisure to meditate, to read, to reflect — to engage in those activities that lead us to transcendence. There is no reason to live ostentatiously. Yet we need enough to allow us to find the ultimate freedom.
3. Our work is for the common good.
Those who can earn an income have a responsibility to support those who cannot, whether they are too young, too old, or too sick. Those who make more can support those who add value to our lives in ways that do not readily produce income, namely, educators, artists, and spiritual persons. All of us help to support a government which, in turn, is intended to promote the common good.
In pursuing prosperity, we do not serve ourselves alone but “serve the welfare of the world,” as the Bhagavad Gita says. Thus our work takes on the sheen of a spiritual exercise. As one Indian writer was moved to say, “Wealth truly shines when others benefit from it.” And why not use it to benefit others? “There are only three possible uses for wealth,” says the Indian philosopher Bhartrihari. “To give it away, to enjoy it, or to lose it. Whatever is not given away or enjoyed, ends in the third manner.”
4. Our work is a place we can develop our spirituality.
This is the point Krishna is making to Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. There is a way of working that actually leads us to the experience of transcendence. The key, he says, is to do the work we have been given without concern for the outcome. There is a paradox here. Arjuna is about to fight a battle, and he is to fight as skillfully as he can. Yet, he is to fight without concern for the outcome. If the result does not matter, why engage at all? And if it does matter, why should we not care?
Unraveling this knotty paradox requires understanding the Hindu view of the world. From a personal perspective, though, the practice is rather simple — not easy, but simple. We relinquish our desire to control the world. The ego lets go. Instead, we live out of the deep center of who we are, what some call the Observer Self. It is that deep core of us which does not make judgments about what is good or bad, but simply allows things to be as they are. This is the part of us that is transcendent. It is where we connect with all that is, where we are one with the universe. We continue to play our part in the world. We do what is ours to do. But our way is no longer to seek our personal satisfaction. Our way is to let that universal Being-Consciousness-Bliss express itself and experience itself through the particulars of our lives. This is the path of karma yoga, as the Hindus call it. It is the spirituality of the active life.
Our pursuit of wealth can open us to transcendence. On the other extreme, it can be a source of great suffering if we allow ourselves to consume the poison of greed. The Bhagavata Purana warns:
“The miser reaps no pleasure from his riches. He does not enjoy them in life and, not having fulfilled his duty, nor will he profit by them when he is dead. Like a leprous spot that destroys all a man’s beauty, greed destroys his luster… Money divides friends, brothers, husbands and wives, and parents. All unifying bonds of affection are destroyed by it.”
How are we doing?
Over the years, we as gay men have had difficulty earning as much as our straight counterparts. Researchers have pointed to several factors contributing to our lower incomes and higher poverty rates. They include employment discrimination, lack of support from family, and a propensity to choose work traditionally done by women. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, it gets better.
At least, our average income is improving. This past October, Kitt Carpenter and Sam Eppink of Vanderbilt University published a study with two important findings. First, gay men in the United States are for the first time making more than our straight counterparts, about 10% more in fact. This higher level of income is especially observable among single men. It’s not all good news, though. Their second major finding is that gay men are significantly less likely than our straight counterparts to be employed at all.
It is not easy to interpret these apparently contradictory findings. The researchers themselves offer a few hypotheses, but conclude that more research is needed to explain the discrepancy. It’s possible not every gay man is willing to admit he is gay to researchers. Perhaps those who are willing are those who feel secure in their careers or those who feel they have nothing to lose. This could account for other disparities they saw, such as low numbers of men identifying as gay in the Midwest and higher numbers in the Western states.
In any case, older gay men are likely not experiencing the benefits of this improved outlook. Years of employment discrimination and other factors have taken their toll. Good research data is hard to come by; but SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) concludes that “discrimination across the lifespan and thinner support networks (among other factors) contribute to higher poverty rates among LGBT elder people.”
Making a living is challenging for most people these days. It can be not just necessary but meaningful, though, because it provides the means for us to pursue other goals, it serves the welfare of the world, and if we approach it well, it can open us to the transcendent.