“No one knows where compassion should be applied. Compassion for the dress of a drowning man is senseless. A man fallen in the ocean of nescience cannot be saved simply by rescuing his outward dress—the gross material body.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 2.1 Purport)
Throughout the world, governments and cultural leaders have taken up the plight of those classified as poor and downtrodden. Programs are being proposed and billions of dollars are being spent in the hopes of ending world poverty and hunger.
Compassion for the poor is nothing new. It is very natural for a person to pity others they view as less fortunate. Mainly caused by feelings of guilt, those who are well-off feel bad for those who they view as less fortunate in a material sense. These feelings are especially common amongst wealthy people. The affluent drive around in fancy cars, fly in private jets, and live in very expensive homes, spending lavishly on everything from clothes to food. Being accustomed to such a lifestyle, the wealthy can’t fathom how others can survive without these things, thus they pity them.
The proposed solutions for ending poverty and world hunger are generally all the same. They typically involve spending large sums of money through the processes of charity and redistribution of wealth. Most charitable organizations exist to help those who are less fortunate. Andre Agassi, the legendary tennis player, has set up a foundation to give disadvantaged youths a chance to attend high quality schools in his hometown of Las Vegas. Other celebrities hold annual golf tournaments to raise money for similar causes. Poverty is very common in African countries, so there is much time and money devoted to helping people in that region. The famous Live Aid and Live Eight concerts raised millions of dollars for those struggling in Africa. Governments around the world also take a prominent role in combating poverty. By raising taxes on those deemed to be wealthy, money is redistributed from high income earners to low or no income earners in the name of “fairness.” The Great Society program initiated by President Johnson in the U.S. in the 1960s was an example of this.
While the intentions are very good and noble, these programs don’t usually solve anything. Programs from the Great Society have been in place for over forty years and the poverty rates in America are virtually unchanged. Billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into struggling African countries, yet virtually no progress has been made in solving the hunger problem. More than anything else, these programs serve to alleviate the guilt felt by those who pity the poor. The main reason these program don’t work is because they simply aim to solve material problems. One’s material senses can never be satisfied, no matter how much wealth one may acquire. As Shrila Prabhupada mentions above, compassion for the gross material body is senseless. According to the Vedas, the first book of knowledge, one should have equal compassion towards all living entities, regardless of their financial disposition. Whether one is rich or poor is not important, but rather the plight of their soul is what really matters.
Having compassion for the wealthy may seem like a strange concept. One may have every material facility available to them, but it doesn’t mean that they are happy or satisfied. The demands of the senses can never be satisfied. One need only study the lives of a few famous celebrities to see this truth in action. Rock stars are famous for ruining their lives through drug and alcohol addiction, though they are extremely wealthy and famous. Even great entrepreneurs and businessmen, who are extremely wealthy and successful, take to philanthropy or politics in hopes of satisfying their senses. This proves that the acquisition of wealth doesn’t automatically equate to increased happiness. At the time of death, all of one’s wealth and possessions and family relationship become nullified. Then what happens? This question is what the focus should be on.
As far as concern for the poor, obviously those who are constantly in distress will have trouble making spiritual advancement. For this reason, the Vedas prescribe a simple lifestyle for all. Not eating too much or hankering after great wealth, one should be satisfied with his or her allotment in life. This leaves plenty of free time to engage in the real occupation of man, that of service to Krishna. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the original name of God that applies to everyone. The purpose of this human form of life is to develop an attachment and love for Him. Only then will we truly be happy. In the Vedic system of varnashrama dharma set out for society, the brahmanas, or priestly class of men, would voluntarily put themselves into poverty. They would limit their possessions so as to avoid attachment to all things material. Living a very meager lifestyle, they would depend simply on Krishna’s mercy and the charity of others. In the Vedic system, charity is only to be given to the brahmanas. Giving away money to others may be a selfless act, but if the recipients of charity utilize it simply for sense gratification, then this form of benevolence doesn’t really do anyone any good. Charity given to bona fide brahmanas benefits all of society since the brahmanas constantly serve the Supreme Lord Krishna. In order to maintain a plant, one must water the roots and not the leaves. In a similar manner, if we serve Krishna, the root cause of the entire creation, then the rest of our problems are automatically solved.
Great leaders of the world would be better suited channeling their time and energy towards educating the population about the science of bhakti yoga, or devotional service to God. This science isn’t very complicated and anyone can understand it. In this age, one simply has to recite God’s name in a loving way as much as possible and eventually all problems will disappear. By encouraging everyone to engage in the congregational chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, world leaders can make a real difference in solving everyone’s real problem, that of filling the existing spiritual void. Real wealth can only be acquired when one has developed a pure love of God.