“In the material world we possess riches and wealth in many ways, but sometimes not in very honest and pious ways, because that is the nature of accumulating wealth. According to Vedic injunction, therefore, such wealth should be purified by giving cows and gold in charity to the brahmanas.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 5)
The modern day concept of “social justice” is a byproduct of the industrial revolution and more specifically the rapid rise in wealth due to new outlets for commerce. In times past wealth would be determined strictly off the amount of land owned. In eras prior to that, during Vedic civilization, wealth was based on the number of cows owned, as through a few cows and a small plot of land, the basic economic needs would be satisfied. But now wealth is based on net worth in terms of dollars, and the potential for earning dollars is unlimited. Though it seems the situation would lend itself to less competition and worry, the actual situation is just the opposite. More envy exists, as one person is not satisfied with their own plot in life due only to the fact that others are deemed to have more. Hence the birth of the popular movements to redistribute wealth, to “even out the score” so to speak. Thankfully we can revisit an ancient time to see how even with economic abundance one can purify their existence and live peacefully with their fellow man.
On the surface there should be no reason for envy, especially in economically enriched nations like the United States. Even the average poverty stricken person in such countries has basic amenities like food, clothing and shelter. The food doesn’t have to be begged for; it comes in the form of an ATM style card that can be swiped at supermarkets. The average person in poverty owns at least one car, a television set, and also an air conditioner. Compare this to the life of poverty voluntarily adopted by the gosvamis of Vrindavana, and you’ll have a more accurate understanding of what it means to be poor. These famous transcendentalists renounced worldly life to dedicate all of their time to spreading the glories of bhakti-yoga to the masses. They lived on practically nothing for food, slept under trees, and had to beg for whatever they got. And they did all of this on purpose, as renunciation is considered beneficial if you want to focus on worshiping God.
The envy sets in when you see one person flying around in corporate jets and eating at expensive restaurants. While all of this is happening, others are struggling just to meet the monthly bills. They are sometimes working two jobs to support their children. It doesn’t seem fair. Of course what is missed in this cursory review is the hard work it takes to get to a specific position and how choices make a difference in outcomes. In illusion the means of redress immediately proposed is to level the playing field. Equalize the outcomes instead of the opportunity. Sort of like taking away points from a basketball team that is running up the score, the idea is to give others a chance by taking money from the very wealthy and redistributing it.
While the idea may seem nice, it does little to solve the problem. For starters, there isn’t enough money to take, as to ensure that everyone has the same income means to take a large portion from the producers. And of course this can only be done once, as the producers will no longer have an incentive to work hard and create if all of their wealth is confiscated. At the same time, the receivers reach a higher position without having worked for it, so they will not have learned anything from the experience. It’s similar to the concept of spoiling your children. If they are handed everything throughout life, they will not know how to earn a living when they grow up. The parents won’t be around forever, so the adults that were formerly children must eventually learn to cope in the real world.
Under Vedic philosophy, it is understood that all material results arrive through karma, which can be translated to mean “fruitive work”. The translation is derived from the most basic act of planting a seed and waiting for the fruit. There is work in such a process, and the fruit at the end is the reward. In the meantime, so many thorns may appear on the plant, and during the harvest time the thorns may tear into your sides and cause you to bleed. Nevertheless, you are intent on reaping the rewards, so you will take the bad with the good.
For those who are economically wealthy, hard work was likely applied to reach the position, but at the same time they could have failed. Many people play the stock market but not everyone hits it big. Lots of companies are started, but not every one goes public and makes billions of dollars. The distribution of rewards is ultimately managed by the higher authorities, who take into account every action, not just those we can remember. For instance, if we work hard to start up a business, we may think that we are worthy of success, but we may have forgotten sinful deeds committed earlier on in life. Maybe in a previous life we did something bad, and so that consequence is due to arrive at some point in the future.
Also, to earn money requires expertise in business, which sometimes relies on dishonesty. The business owner will rarely say that he is doing well enough so that everyone in the firm deserves a raise. Never will he openly admit that he is making so much money off of selling a product. On the contrary, he will say that he is hardly making any profit and that the budget is very tight. This is the nature of competition in business, as to succeed one has to be very keen, revealing little about their operation, lest someone come in and try to capitalize on their formula.
Though in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, this sort of lying is sanctioned for the businessman, lying itself is still considered sinful. In addition, earning a lot of money is not the primary aim of life, as one who is focused on material wealth has not purified their consciousness to the right level. The aim of the human form of life is to reach the highest state of maturity with regards to consciousness, as the benefit to an existence is to taste the sweet fruit of the association of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In this light there are many ways to purify one’s existence, as with any condition where full God consciousness is lacking there is a need for purification. For the person with tremendous riches, the easiest method of purification is charity. In the Bhagavad-gita, we are told of the different types of charity. It is not that one should distribute their wealth to just any person at any time. The recipient must be worthy and the mindset of the donor must also be proper. He must not expect anything in return, and the recipient should not use that gift for purposes other than serving God.
“That gift which is given out of duty, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person, and without expectation of return, is considered to be charity in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 17.20)
The brahmana lives in the mode of goodness, which is the highest of the three modes of material nature. Every human being should strive to reach this mode, but by default most are in the mode of passion. It is only under the influence of passion that one can work so hard to achieve riches that don’t provide lasting happiness. The cycle of work and reward can be likened to pushing a heavy rock up a hill, only to have it fall back down soon after. You feel great once you get the rock all the way up, but eventually you’ll have to repeat the process.
The brahmana’s duty is to study the Vedas, teach Vedic wisdom to others, perform sacrifices, teach others how to perform sacrifices, and accept charity. The brahmanas are the equivalent of the priestly class or the intelligentsia, so they likely don’t have time to earn a living. This is okay as long as there are others to give in charity. Gold and cows are wonderful commodities that can allow the brahmanas to survive without turning towards fruitive activity.
A long time ago, a king of a small farm community celebrated the birth of a new son by giving away gold and cows to the brahmanas. This was no ordinary son, of course, but the behavior of the father set the right example. Nanda Maharaja, the foster father of Shri Krishna, the very same person the rest of the world refers to as God, was so elated to receive his new bundle of joy that he made sure to follow protocol. He had so many cows in his possession, and rather than hoard them he gave them away generously. In the same fashion, the religious holidays in Vedic culture, especially those that relate to the appearances of the Supreme Lord, are celebrated with donations in charity to worthwhile causes, such as those which aim to spread the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, to the society at large.
On fruitive activity alone I can’t rely,
My existence I certainly must purify.
I worked hard to get to where I’m at,
But forever I can’t keep everything intact.
Charity is the way to really know,
That beyond material success I must go.
With birth of darling Krishna king so elated.
With charity of gold and cows occasion celebrated,
Give to a cause which by devotion is led,
Such as to society holy names to spread.