Materialism and Spirituality: Two ways of Living

Jan - Feb 2003

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There are two aspects of human life: one that relates to the physical body materialism; and the other that relates to the inner self (the soul) spirituality. Materialism means an inclination towards acquiring material possessions and comforts; in short, it is a tendency to lead a life in which pleasures of the body are given preference above anything else. Spirituality means, centred and established on the soul, that is, activities in life are decided keeping in mind the awakening of the soul. Normally a persons needs are fulfilled with limited materials such as food to satisfy hunger, few clothes to cover the body, a bed for rest, a house for shelter, etc.; anything over and above the basic needs either remains unused or is misused.

For example, if a person who can eat four chapattis for lunch were given eight chapattis, it would be beyond his capacity to eat the extra four chapattis. A single bed is enough for a person to sleep on; any more bed space would remain unused. Considering this, a few hours work is sufficient to satisfy bodys requirements. The same is true for senses also. There are five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing and vision. No matter how beautiful a view may be, the eyes will tire of seeing it after a few minutes. The ears will not be able to listen to melodious music indefinitely.

A person will be able to eat only a certain quantity of food of his liking. Thus the senses have limited requirements, beyond which they become saturated. But senses are never satisfied they always crave for more. The mind is considered to be the sixth sense. Its attributes are greed, attachment (moha) towards worldly objects and people, and egoism. The mind experiences joy when these three attributes are attended to. Man generally engages his time and effort in satisfying the requirements of the body and the mind. The mind propels him to fulfill the three attributes and also employs the body in its schemes. This is not surprising, since satisfaction of the senses is a bodily requirement, and the mind is one of the senses.

The mind is different from the rest of the senses in that it is always unsatisfied and ambitious. New hopes and ambitions arise once the old ones are fulfilled. Suppose a person desires to buy a house. He would remain preoccupied with that thought because there is an attraction in it. Once a house is bought, the attraction fades. If a person does not have children, he would yearn for them; once he has children, they appear burdensome. A similar principle applies to other things, such as household items, clothes, etc and to attachment towards people. Therefore greed and attachment are attractive only until they are fulfilled.

Egoism also follows a similar principle. A secretary in a company feels his job status is low and aims for a higher status so that he can elevate his standing in the society. It is possible that several persons within the company may be trying for the same position. Therefore he becomes an enemy for them, since now he is an extra competitor in the race. In case he does succeed in fulfilling his egoistic desire in progressing towards his dream position, mental peace would elude him because there would be several people scheming to dislodge him. His ego thus becomes his own dangerous adversary.

The worth and importance of a well-mannered, disciplined person is obviously more than that of an egoistic person. No circumstances or individuals can challenge a gentleman, whereas examples of egoistic people suffering ruin can be seen all around us. A gentleman is respected while an egoistic person is ignored.

Greed, attachment and egoism can never be satisfied. They function as mirages they project nice dreams in front of a person and then disappear. The person then remains busy in fulfilling the dreams. This is the reality behind the body-related requirements, desires and cravings, which provoke the person to fulfil them but which remain unfulfilled. Life is spent in this blind race. Time and efforts are expended in trying to realise something that is imaginary and so dissatisfaction continues. Whatever is acquired fuels the dissatisfaction even more. This is the lifestyle of people today. In the end people realize that they have not achieved anything worthwhile in life.

The other aspect of life is the inner self or the soul, called antaratma in spiritual terms. Looking after the soul results in eternal peace, satisfaction, bliss and the acquisition of both material and spiritual benefits. Here, priority is given to the soul compared to the body. Therefore bodily requirements are kept to a minimum and the principle of simple life, high thinking is adopted. This means, a person who takes care of his soul has to practise restraint over the senses and remain satisfied with minimum resources. If, for example, the food intake is kept low, it has the double benefit of longevity and protection from diseases. On the other hand the consumption of too much sugar, salt and fat can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis respectively. An excess usage of other senses also causes problems. For example, watching too much television or too much exposure to computers damages the eyesight. Youngsters today listen to loud pop music, which severely affects their hearing ability. Overindulgence in sexual activities decreases the vitality of a person.

Wearing simple clothes serves the purpose of covering the body. In the eyes of wise people, wearing fashionable clothes decreases the value of a person. Why? Because fashionable clothes are expensive, so in their view it would be a waste of money to possess them. A person who cannot afford such clothes and yet wears them means he is fashion and status conscious, and that he would have purchased them on credit. It should be understood that if fashionable, expensive clothes determined the status of a person, no one would have listened to Mahatma Gandhi, who wore only one piece of cloth over his body. But it is a fact that people sacrificed everything at Mahatma Gandhis call for Indian independence.

People who practice restraint never experience financial crisis or remain in debt. They maintain a healthy body and healthy mind. They are called people of character; they receive respect from the society.

A content man thinks: when several million people can live in conditions worse than mine, why do I need to increase my possessions? If I can earn honestly and spend wisely, there is no need for me to desire to become rich or adopt immoral means. It must be noted that only a limited amount of money can be earned honestly. Those who wish to possess an unlimited wealth have to resort to unethical practices.

If one wishes to develop attachment (moha), why not consider the whole world as his family, i.e. adopt the principle of vasudhaiva kutumbakam? Why spend valuable time and efforts for the sake of a few family members only? When the feeling of vasudhaiva kutumbakam develops, a person exhibits love and compassion towards everyone and offers his services for the welfare of humanity. On the other hand, if one person or a group of persons are showered with excessive love and caring, it spoils their habits and becomes a cause of suffering for everyone concerned.

Thinking about the welfare of the soul protects a persons wealth, time and efforts from unnecessary wastage, which can then be directed towards charitable causes. This has been the path adopted by great personalities. It was the reason why they were continuously occupied in the works of welfare. Because of their righteous deeds, they remained satisfied and achieved fame. Everyone around them became their friends, admirers or supporters due to the high quality of their qualities, deeds and nature. They receive the blessings of God and always remain blissful. Nothing remains to be achieved by a person who follows the path of the welfare of the soul.

A comparison of the lives of great personalities (who adopted the soul as their true guide in life) with ordinary people (who remained focused on their body) shows that real joy and happiness lie in looking after the soul. Although it is necessary to look after the body for survival, the point being made here is that one should not get engrossed too much in satisfying the bodily requirements. Giving priority to bodily requirements causes frustration. Conversely, taking care of the soul primarily and also meeting the minimum needs of the body results in permanent joy. It is this joy that the people are after today but seldom succeed in finding it.

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