“The sages, knowing Me as the ultimate purpose of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attain peace from the pangs of material miseries.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.29)
Thanksgiving is one of the important holidays in the American tradition. Known for its bringing of families together through frantic travelling and the eating of large portions of food, Thanksgiving has become a tradition of culture shared by citizens from diverse backgrounds. The origins of the holiday are completely grounded in religion, with the original event serving as a way of giving thanks to the Supreme Lord for all His blessings. The lessons of Thanksgiving also unlock the secret to economic freedom and the real purpose of human life.
Economics is a widely discussed and studied topic because there always seems to be those who are dissatisfied with the outcomes that result. Even in the greatest of economic booms, there are people who are deemed to be suffering, those not participating in the economic largesse of the time. There are many purported experts on economics; intellectuals who hold panel discussions or come out with books which prescribe what should be done to stimulate the economy of a particular area. Stimulus is the main focus, with each expert having their own idea on what it takes to create a viable economy. Yet from studying the example of a small group of brave individuals some four hundred years ago, we see that the secret to economic success doesn’t lie with charts, tables, textbooks, stimulus, or tax policy, but rather with a firm and untiring belief in God and respect for His children.
Economics is actually quite easy to understand, provided that one is honest in assessing their own behavior. The economic viability of a particular region is dependent on the independent actions of many smaller entities. If we can understand how we operate and what our thought process behind making economic-related actions is, we can understand how the system works on a macro level. The driving force behind economic activity is artha, which is the Sanskrit word for profit or economic development. It is in the fiber of the being of the individual to search after its self-interest, or profit. This is often mistaken to mean selfishness, but self-interest is something much simpler and non-threatening. For example, waking up on time in the morning to ensure reaching the office at a specific hour is an act of self-interest. Getting to work on time will equate to keeping one’s job, which will then allow such a person to pay their bills on time. The driving force is self-interest, the search for profit and the desire to maintain one’s livelihood.
The entire economic system follows the same model. People want to work for a living and be paid as much money as possible while providing the least amount of work. The proprietor of a business wants to turn a profit selling their good or service. This shop owner wants their business to be as productive as possible, which means generating the greatest amount of output with the least amount of cost. The consumer is looking to pay the cheapest price for a good that is of the highest quality. All of these factors can balance themselves out, but we see that the driving force is incentive, the desire to fulfill one’s self-interest. Economics experts and politicians run into problems when they only choose to focus on one area of interest, while neglecting others. Since everyone is acting in their self-interest, it would be silly to say that one person’s interest is of more value than another’s. By saying that one business is worthy of succeeding, i.e. turning a profit at a decent rate of productivity, over another, the principle of artha is quantified, something which doesn’t square with the equality that is shared amongst living entities. Yet this preferential treatment is precisely what occurs through targeted economic policy. It is not surprising then to see the angst and dissatisfaction that results.
A small group of settlers was faced with their own economic issues several hundred of years ago. This group had escaped the land they called home due to the oppressive nature of the government. Desiring more than just economic freedom, this group wanted to freely practice their religion, their worship of God, without any force or coercion from higher authorities.
“Any person who desires the fruits of the four principles religiosity [dharma], economic development [artha], sense gratification [kama] and, at the end, liberation [moksha], should engage himself in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, for worship of His lotus feet yields the fulfillment of all of these.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.8.41)
The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that the rewards of human life can be grouped into four general categories: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Goswami Tulsidas, the great poet and devotee of Lord Rama, accurately points out that achieving all four of these rewards in one lifetime is very difficult. One may get economic success and sense gratification, but these two rewards can get in the way of religiosity. When adherence to religion is absent, there is no question of moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death. In the animalistic stage, the individual entity is only conscious of sense gratification, or kama. Therefore there is no chance of any advancement to a higher lifestyle while in that type of body. The spirit soul is the driving force behind activity, but when it is trapped in a state of ignorance, it cannot take the necessary steps to rekindle its loving relationship with the Supreme Lord, its life partner by constitution.
Only in the human form of body can the soul take part in a civilized community, which begins with dharma. But if one only takes to economic development and sense gratification, their life is really no different than that of an animal. The courageous individuals who fled their homeland in Europe were seeking religious freedom more than anything else because that is the real business of human life. Animals cannot serve and love God, nor can they even understand what life and death are about. The individual soul, when placed in a human form of body, can take the necessary steps to change their desires, which in turn alters their consciousness. When this consciousness is purified at the time of death, i.e. when one’s thoughts are focused on the lotus feet of the transcendent Lord, the individual soul is granted moksha, the freeing from the shackles brought on by material contact.
Those fleeing from Europe became known as the Pilgrims, and they set sail for what was known as the New World. They landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, and eagerly began their new life. There was a wrinkle in their plan however. While they had the religious freedom they were looking for, the other aspects of life, namely artha and kama, were missing. There were no innkeepers or restaurants to greet them, and there were no heated homes to take shelter of. The first winter was very cold and life was extremely difficult. The Pilgrims decided that for their economic affairs, they would have a commune style government. Everyone would live on shared land, and whatever was produced through farming would be equally distributed amongst the community. This sort of central planning is not uncommon to see implemented by governments wishing to work in the interest of the common good. Under the Pilgrims’ model, the personal labor put forth in the production of food grains essentially became a public service.
“Every one of us must be satisfied with those things the Supreme Personality of Godhead has allotted us. We should not encroach upon the possessions of others. This simple idea can be expanded in our daily lives. Everyone should have a piece of land given by the government, and everyone should possess a few cows. Both of these should be utilized for one’s daily bread.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 25.101 Purport)
The community was barely surviving in the commune-style system, so the settlers’ dream of freedom wasn’t really panning out. Young, able-bodied men did not feel it was fair to work hard for the production of food, items that would be consumed by others, and not be compensated for such labor. The governor of this new colony, William Bradford, decided that a change needed to be made. He decided to instead divide up the land and give each family their own plot. Moreover, each group was allowed to keep whatever they produced. This simple alteration, wherein the natural penchant for fulfilling one’s self-interest was allowed to be acted upon, resulted in an economic boom. Along with the help from the neighboring Native Americans, who taught the new settlers how to skin beavers for coats and grow corn, the change in economic systems brought about a flourishing society. The first harvest was so bountiful that the new settlers decided to hold a grand feast, where they thanked God for all His blessings. They were really interested in worshiping the Lord after all, so they sincerely thanked Him for giving them the ability to survive in a new land where the conditions weren’t always favorable.
It is often pondered why America, above any other tract of land, has turned out to be such a flourishing society in a material sense. In fact, many nations follow the daily happenings of America very closely, often making comparisons with the economic growth rates of their own country. Yet the secret to America’s success in the area of economic development is not very difficult to understand, nor is it something that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Ironically enough, the path to economic freedom laid out by William Bradford is actually the same path practiced for thousands of years by followers of the Vedic tradition.
As mentioned before, the aim of human life is to learn about God and use that knowledge to lovingly serve Him. Before this pursuit for knowledge can take place, one must have a peaceful lifestyle, one where enough food is readily available. In order for food to be available, there must be production, which comes through farming. In order for farming to take place at a healthy pace, there must be a reward for hard work, an incentive for the producers to produce. By allowing citizens to own property that they can farm on, economic development is allowed to flourish. If a family raises enough food for their personal needs, they can peaceably and voluntarily trade whatever surplus they have. This is precisely what occurred with the Pilgrims, as they began to trade with the American Indians soon after their food production started to pick up. Under the private property model, one family may have a surplus of apples, while another has a surplus of rice. Each individual, acting on their self-interest, will trade for whatever products they want, all the while keeping price and profit in mind. In such a system, production is not a problem, and neither is profit. The resulting economic security allows ample time for the real mission of life: devotional service.
Ironically enough, only in the human species are there problems with relation to economics. In the animal community, even amongst the carnivores, there is ample food. A tiger only eats animal flesh, and though it cannot find meat every day, it is still given enough food periodically. Though self-interest drives the pursuit of profit, the results to action can only be supplied by God. When the human civilization forgets the Lord’s supremacy and His unmatched ability to provide for everyone, chaos, cheating, lying, exploitation, and greed take over. Lust is the product of misdirected love, wherein one forgets about their loving propensity towards the Lord and instead hankers after some personal association that they know isn’t proper. Unsatisfied lust then leads to greed, the situation where one knows that they already have enough material opulence to survive, yet they continue to search after even more profit. Anger results from frustration, unchecked desires borne of lust and greed which aren’t met. As mentioned in the Bhagavad-gita, these three sentiments are the gateways to hell.
“There are three gates leading to this hell-lust, anger, and greed. Every sane man should give these up, for they lead to the degradation of the soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 16.21)
What is hell? On the highest level of thinking, any person who takes birth in the material world, a land which exists separate from the Supreme Lord, can be considered to be in a hellish condition. When scriptures mention condemnation to a hellish realm, the reference is to the further separation that will occur between the individual soul and the Supreme Lord. The aim is to gradually elevate oneself from a hellish condition to that of a heavenly one. The only heaven that exists forever is in the spiritual sky, where the Supreme Lord, who is always full of form and bliss, interacts with His purified servants, those entities who never desire separation from their prananatha, or Lord of their life air.
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…” (President George Washington, Thanksgiving Day 1789, A Proclamation)
Though the miracle of Thanksgiving showed the natural desire for man to offer service to God, we know from history that as economic development increased, the desire to thank the Lord diminished. The first President of the United States, George Washington, declared in his 1789 Thanksgiving Day proclamation that the annual holiday was a day of service to God. He asked the Lord to forgive the citizens of the country for their transgressions and to kindly bestow His favor and protection upon them. But we know that if such a speech were offered by a President today, he would be sternly rebuked for having violated the perceived notion of separation of church and state. As mentioned so wonderfully by Goswami Tulsidas, the four rewards of life are difficult to achieve at one time. One reward can cause a person to gradually lose their interest in the others. Therefore the wiser choice is to take directly to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service.
How is bhakti different from economic development? Bhakti can actually be anything, provided that the Supreme Lord is involved and that He is viewed in the proper context. Another analogy given by the intelligent Vedic seers is to that of the number zero. Everything in this world, when removed from its relationship to God, can be taken to be the number 0. When 0 is by itself, it is nothing; it has no value. But when this same 0 is put next to a 1, it becomes 10. Once another numeral is present, adding more zeroes actually increases the value of the resulting number. The Supreme Lord can be thought of as the numeral, and the zeroes as the objects of sense gratification in this world. We may have a thriving business, a wonderful family life, and every object of material sense pleasure at our disposal, but if God is not part of the individual’s thought processes, all other things can be thought of as 0. But when the Supreme Lord is added, the ancillary things in life take on meaning.
Therefore, the secret to success in bhakti-yoga is to simply add the Supreme Lord to activities that are already performed. Since we like to sing songs to ourselves, better to take to chanting the sweet and blissful names of the original Divine Being, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Dancing is certainly a popular activity; otherwise dance clubs would always be empty. Under the model of bhakti, one can direct their dancing for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. The starters of the sankirtana movement, the congregational chanting of the Lord’s names in public, would regularly chant and dance in the streets as a way of releasing their dormant loving sentiments directed at the Supreme Lord.
The primary aim of economic development is to provide enough food to eat. One can roam from house to house and place to place enjoying life, but they still need to eat. In this regard, economic development is certainly encouraged, but one is not advised to become dependent on anyone. Once we are dependent on another living entity for our livelihood, we are indebted to them. The only person we should feel directly indebted to is the Supreme Lord, who is the creator of everything in this world. In the Vedic tradition, even the sannyasis, those who are advised to beg for a living, don’t depend on any single individual or family for their well-being. Sannyasis, mendicants in the renounced order, certainly beg for a living, but they don’t ask for alms from the same people every day, nor do they remain in the same dwelling for too long a period of time.
Once we are independent and able to provide for our own food, the aim shouldn’t be to simply eat voraciously with reckless abandon. As we saw with the example of the settlers of the New World, when there is good fortune in terms of abundant food to eat, there is an even greater impetus to thank the Lord. Therefore it is not surprising to see that one of the central aspects to bhakti-yoga involves eating in a spiritually conscious way. For thousands of years, devotees of the Vedic tradition have prepared and offered nice food for the Lord to eat. In His incarnation as the archa-vigraha, or deity, God can take the food which is offered to Him with love and devotion and enjoy it. Such food is known as bhoga, or enjoyment for the sweet Lord who is kind enough to appear in a form visible to the conditioned soul.
The resulting food is then left for others to eat. Since it has a spiritual infusion, the remnants are known as prasadam, or the Lord’s mercy. In this way, we see that under the model of bhakti, every day can be treated as Thanksgiving. Such a mindset proves to be much more beneficial in the long run, for one who gives thanks every day to the only entity truly deserving of it will certainly be rewarded with moksha at the end of life. Being released from the cycle of birth and death, the soul retains its original nature as eternal servant of the Lord in the spiritual sky, where every second brings another opportunity to give thanks to the most benevolent entity.