|Life is a journey too. Having come into this world, we do realize that
life is not stagnant but ever flowing from the first breath. The question
is, during the transition from childhood to youth, does the traveller
of life carry the burden of his desires or does he travel light? And in
this question lies the essence of the vow of non-possessiveness.
What we impose upon ourselves beyond our bare necessities adds to the
burden of life. This is true of religious norms, rules and vows also.
Austerities are burdensome if they are adopted more due to external pressures
rather than out of a natural inclination to do so. No doubt, vows such
as those of nonviolence and truthfulness benefi tour lives greatly and
help in resolving life’s problems. But they have to evolve from
within. If imposed, they will only hinder one’s spiritual evolution.
Instead of travelling higher and higher, one is weighed down by them as
if tied to a stone in water.
If a stone is dropped into water, it sinks to the bottom and remains there
for years without ever dissolving in the water. It remains a separate
entity from the very water in which it lies. On the other hand, if you
put a lump of sugar in water, it will instantly dissolve and lend its
own sweetness to the water.
The same is true of austerities in life. Those vows of selfdiscipline
which weigh down on life like the stone in water without enhancing or
enriching the inner self are not true austerities. In ancient times, many
such austerities were practiced, but Jainism rebelled against them for
they were believed to be modes of bodily punishment, rather than means
of achieving true happiness and joy.
True strength of character must be cultivated and until that happens,
man’s liberation is not possible. We have to weave truth, non-violence
and non-possessiveness into the fibre of our being. The aspirant who will
limit his needs will stay away from deceit, untruth and violence. The
vow of non-possessiveness is therefore mandatory for an aspirant.
In nurturing this vow, we nurture the true meaning of life. We have to
be conscious of two factors regarding possessions; the first being the
reason for acquiring material comforts and the second being limiting them
within one’s needs. When we forget these two factors and accumulate
out of sheer greed, life becomes a burden. Then, the only aim that remains
in life is material accumulation. And I ask you - of what use is it to
life? How does it enhance the quality of life?
Mohammed Ghazni came to India, plundered and looted her wealth but was
so busy accumulating that he was never able to enjoy it. When during the
last hours of his life, he asked for the plunder to be brought before
him, one question tormented him. “Why did I plunder and destroy
to acquire this heap of wealth? Of what use is it to me?”
Indeed, these are pertinent questions and in them lie the answers to salvation.
And fortunate are those who ask themselves such questions early in their
One who does not question the aim of accumulation ends up losing focus
and becomes oblivious to all other aspects of life. He neglects his family,
society, nation and himself as well. He is hungry, but does not eat. He
is tired, but does not rest. He earns more and more; earning becomes an
obsession with him. He has no idea where his goal lies. He loses himself
in the maze of possessions. Can such a man take care of others? Can he
ever take time to tend to the needs of his family? To such a man, can
the community and nation ever matter?
Once during caturmāsa, we set up residence next to a mansion. The
owner of that mansion lived abroad and a watchman was appointed to take
care of the mansion. He was paid well and it was said that he also had
some personal wealth. But he always projected an image of poverty. He
would eat just roasted gram in front of us, trying to evoke our sympathy
by saying that he could afford no more.
We were obviously sorry to see his torn clothes, his meagre meals and
his ageing condition. Much later we realized that the reason for his pathetic
appearance was not poverty, but his thrifty nature.
It is not poverty, but miserliness which is dreadful.
Some days later, the watchman fell ill. He took no medicines neither did
he consult a physician. Often he remained unconscious. The people said,
“Looks like his end is near. Let us make arrangements for him to
be laid to rest.”
But there were some wise people in the town who believed that the authorities
should be informed about his condition. They were concerned that the townsfolk
would be questioned regarding the personal property of the man in the
event of his demise.
So, the local government body was informed. To the utter shock of the
Tahsildar himself, a sum of rupees fi ve thousand along with some jewels
was found locked in the old man’s possession. So much of wealth
and yet such a piteous state?
So the Tahsildar advised him, “Give away how much ever of your wealth
you wish towards charity. Whatever remains will become government property
and will be put to good use.”
All those who were gathered around him encouraged him to follow the advice
of the good Tahsildar. They said to him lovingly, “Brother! Since
you have no inheritors and your end is near, don’t lose this golden
opportunity to do some good.”
But this only aggravated him. He questioned with irritation,“Why
do you want to kill me before my time? What if I do survive? What will
I eat then?”
The people exclaimed, “Oh! What have you eaten so far? All you have
done is accumulate money. You have hardly ever eaten a complete meal!”
When the Tahsildar tried to place a rupee in his hand to motivate him,
he simply pocketed it. Some days later when he died, his wealth was made
government property. Of what use was all his accumulation?
Some people alienate themselves from society and nation and stay isolated.
And some are worse than that. They remain aloof even from their own selves,
not even bothering to fulfil their bodily needs. Great thinkers propound
that even if the boundary of desires is not set, one must give away all
extra possessions as charity. They believe that to earn all the wealth
in the world and give it away as charity is a meritorious deed.
But Lord Mahāvīra had a much larger vision. According to him,
such a vision of charity is not a sublime one. To accumulate on one hand
and then give back on the other can only fan the ego, nothing else. In
other words, to first take from people and then return it back to them,
is not to give of oneself. And furthermore, the ratio between what is
taken and what is given is always an unfair one. This does not qualify
Jainism has placed great emphasis on charity, but the primary emphasis
is on non-possessiveness. Charity is to wash away the grime that has stuck
to the feet, but non-possessiveness is not to allow the grime to stick
to the feet at all.
The moralists say that if grime has stuck to the feet, it should be washed
away immediately. Do not let it remain. But the better thing is to avoid
such a situation. Likewise, to control one’s desires and to adopt
the vow of non-possessiveness is the best path. But until one is ready
for that path, it is at least better to wash away the grime of accumulation
by doing charity. Of course, in charity, the risk of becoming arrogant
is high since one is revered so much. In non-possessiveness, there is
no such risk because it arises only from simplicity.
Therefore, Jainism propounds that one must put a brake on desires. One
must learn to stop or at the very least, regulate the vehicle of life,
which meanders aimlessly and without limits, crushing others in its way.
However, one can cause injury to others and then condone that act by applying
balm on their wounds. But this is not life’s ideal.
Do you know that in olden days, a special medicine known as mimāi
was made from human blood? A man would be tied and hung upside-down. A
wound would then be inflicted on his head so that his blood dropped into
a container below.
After the required amount of blood was collected for the mimāi, the
man would be untied, fed well and nurtured back to good health. And then
the process would be repeated for more blood.
The above example is to illustrate that hurting people and then bandaging
them cannot be a part of sādhanā. Nor is it correct to fi rst
cheat others, deprive them and then do charity to pat one’s ego.
It is far superior to adopt the vow of non-possessiveness, to give up
all that is dear, to stop deceit, theft and exploitation. Sacrifice has
always been considered superior to charity.
If your mind has not yet evolved to the extent that you can completely
ignore all of life’s needs, you can at least begin by short-listing
them. It would indeed be tragic if you spent most of your life only chasing
material wealth without realizing any sublime goals in life. Does it ever
happen that a person goes to the market without knowing what he wants
to buy? Do we not make a list of what we require from the market?
Such a list of one’s needs and an organized method should be adopted
even in life. Whether Lord Mahāvīra was approached by an aspirant,
a king or a beggar, his simple message was the same to all - to understand
one’s needs. This is the vow of nonpossessiveness for an aspirant
- icchā parimāṇa vrata. However, even up to this day,
we have not understood how to list out our needs and so we go about in
circles as though blindfolded.
Once needs are listed, greed will be harnessed and exploitation will come
to an end. Those who walk such a path live a life of enrichment. On the
other hand, those who do not harness their needs spend their lives trying
to fulfil them, very much like a blindfolded man without direction.
Think of a man who starts a cloth store. When he profi ts from it, he
thinks of investing his money in another venture in order to earn more
money. He opens another shop; this time a provision store. He begins to
earn a lot more and is drawn into the vicious cycle of greed. The more
he earns, the more he wants. And thus, one day, the person who began with
a humble store becomes the owner of the entire market. He is now like
Kubera, the Lord of wealth.
There are many such people who tell me about their ventures. I listen
to all of them. They think that they are exhibiting their brilliance,
and I am always left wondering that if they have acquired so much, what
have they left for others? Such is the greed of man that he cannot see
beyond his own desires.
Have you ever pondered why this is so? It is because man believes that
his worldly possessions are the yardstick by which he will be gauged in
society. A liar is ashamed when his lies are exposed; a thief is aware
that he is a criminal; a pleasure-seeking person is always trying to hide
his hedonism. But a possessive person does not consider himself a sinner,
nor does he hide his possessive tendencies. On the other hand, he is proud
of himself. Society also looks up to such people and reveres them. Great
respect is given to those who exhibit their riches and the splendour of
their lives. At any gathering, those who exhibit their possessions are
treated with more respect. What an irony! Our ascetics who have renounced
all possessions are also impressed and infl uenced by such people. In
their lectures and talks, they do not hesitate to praise their wealthy
patrons. In fact, they refer to them as blessed souls!
When the spiritual masters themselves place the sin of possessiveness
on the throne of virtue, how can they direct the common man away from
possessiveness? When leaders are trapped in such weaknesses, how can one
expect any better from their followers? No wonder then, that the masses
cannot even comprehend that possessiveness is a sin and non-possessiveness
By excluding possessiveness from the category of sin, we are reducing
to mere slogans the words of Lord Mahāvīra and all that the
scriptures say. If the vow of possessiveness can be violated and not considered
a sin, then what about the other four vows of non-violence, truthfulness,
chastity and non-stealing? Can they be violated as well? If possessiveness
has been masked with an aura of virtue in the present day, then isn’t
it time we stopped using words such as ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’
since we do not truly believe in their distinction?
I think that in this manner, to consider a vice as a merit is detrimental
to humanity at large. It becomes the cause of man’s decline. It
is the root cause of revolts and
conflicts. Until man does not accept possessiveness as a sin, he cannot
be liberated, he cannot evolve, and there will be no end to the unrest
that seizes him.
So where was I before I digressed? Ah, yes! I was telling you about people
who talk to me about their wealth and possessions with great pride. They
boast about the expanse of their business, the number of shops they own
etc. Once they gain control over the local market, they spread their business
to other cities. They subsequently open their shops and fi rms in large
metros like Bombay and Calcutta. Obviously then, if every small merchant
begins to accumulate at such a large level, the tendency towards economic
exploitation is bound to increase.
To curtail this tendency, we have to adopt Mahāvīra’s
vow of limitations. It teaches that one’s best interest lies in
setting a limit on the expansion of one’s business and the extent
of energy one must invest in it.
Some of you may ask, “How do we decide when we can make an exception
to these vows and rules?”
Take for example, the diśā parimāṇa vrata - the vow
of restricting distance for travel. A person who has completed the maximum
distance that his vow has permitted for the day sees a woman being molested
about ten steps ahead. What should he do in such a critical situation?
Should he cross his limit or remain an on-looker? This is not a new question.
I remember an incident about the gatekeeper of a bungalow. On the door
of the bungalow was a signboard that read: Do not enter without permission.
One night a gang of thieves slipped past the gate and made for the house.
On seeing this, the guard ran after them. But before he could nab them,
the thieves had broken in. As he reached the door, he saw the signboard
and stood transfixed, not daring to go inside, thereby allowing the thieves
to escape with their loot.
The vows of limitation described in the scriptures are not meant to be
adopted in such a senseless manner. Once you take the vow you are prohibited
from crossing your limits with regard to the five āśravas.2
But if crossing it for the welfare of another is necessary, then the vow
of restricting distance should not become an obstacle. For the welfare
of humanity, one must exercise one’s discretion and wisdom with
regard to these vows.
The purpose of the vow of restricting distance is for man to set physical
limits on himself so that he can mark out the boundaries of his material
existence. This is to create a state of readiness in him for a higher
Today the world is in turmoil as the increasing greed for power among
nations has swept all sense and sensitivity away. Every nation is trying
to take advantage of the smallest of wars between other countries to fill
its own coffers. This is the ugly face of possessiveness.
In the past, greed was not as unleashed as it is nowadays. If a country
discovers an oil well, or another a diamond mine, all other nations immediately
wish to take possession of it. Trade and accumulation are the chief aims
of all wars today.
It is in these tumultuous days that the message of Lord Mahāvīra
brings a ray of hope. His message clearly states that you must put the
brakes on your needs. In doing so you will never breach the territory
of another and cause havoc. This is an important point and it is from
this that the vow of nonpossessiveness springs forth. Unless you stop
accumulating beyond your needs, how can you adopt this great vow?
The next step is that of charity. Charity is the repentance for accumulation
of wealth. In the context of charity, I stress on the word ‘repentance’.
When you give charity, do not think of it as a favour. If charity is done
either for fame, or to gain respect, it is not praiseworthy. Such charity
does not foster goodwill. It is a noteworthy act only if it is an act
of renouncing any particular object. Moreover, charity given from a kind
and empathetic heart works as an antidote to hatred and nurtures goodwill.
Selfless charities help uplift societies and nations.
There once lived a king who had an able minister to assist him in the
affairs of the state. They were content in most walks of their individual
lives, yet they shared one common sorrow. Both of them had no children.
The king often remarked to his minister that a home without a child was
no home at all. They prayed fervently for a child, but to no avail.
Once, a monk arrived in their city. His wisdom and intuition inspired
the people and they flocked in thousands to seek his blessings. When the
king heard about the saint, his hopes were kindled. He was sure the holy
man would help him beget a son. The minister was hopeful too. So they
decided to visit the monk. The king bowed before him and solicited his
blessings. “Oh Master!” he said. “Bless our homes with
sons so that we may fi nd joy. Without a child, all the wealth of this
world gives us no pleasure. There is darkness in our hearts, our homes
seem gloomy and so does this entire kingdom.”
The monk said, “If you want a son, then first you must find the
father within yourself; for what use is a son to you if you do not possess
The king was baffled. He exclaimed, “Master! How can
one be a father in the absence of a child? Until I don’t become a
father, how can I feel like one?”
Now the holy one asked gently, “Are all your subjects not your children?
All through your reign as king, have you not been addressed as a parent
by your subjects? Yet, you have not endeared yourself to them as a parent
would to his offspring. Therefore, fi rst instill a feeling of affection
in your heart. I promise you will find a son who will illumine your name.”
He continued, “Make an announcement throughout the
kingdom that beggars will be given alms tomorrow.”
The next day, all the beggars of the town waited to be fed. When the king
and his minister arrived to give away alms in all their finery, the monk
said, “If you both set aside your royalty and go before them as
ordinary mortals, you will truly understand them and their needs.”
Thus, the charity began. But instead of gold and riches, the
beggars were given bits of stale roṭī as suggested by the wise
man. They were astounded. Such meagre charity after such a
big announcement! That too from a king? They could not make
sense of it. But knowing that they could not argue with the king,
they accepted what was given to them as their fate.
As they returned with their meagre alms, the monk awaited
them at the gates of the palace. He told them to give him their
roṭī and in return he would make them king. When none of them
believed him, he asked for half their roṭī in return for which he
promised to make them a minister.
The beggars said, “Master, why do you make fun of us?”
And they moved on, none parting with his roṭī, not even with a
bit of it. Many beggars later, a young boy passed him. There was
a strange light in the boy’s eyes.
As he was leaving the gate, he was asked, “What did you get? Are
you satisfied with whatever you received?” The boy answered, “This
roṭī is what I have received and I humbly accept it. After
all, what else can befit a beggar’s destiny?”
The monk thought, “There is the essence of renunciation in this
boy’s voice. Misfortune may have made him a beggar but his tone
implies that he is not a pessimist. I am sure he has faith in the future
but at present he is living within the confi nes of his circumstance.”
Thus thinking, the holy man said, “Alright son, give me this rotī.
I will make you the king.” The boy said innocently, “Whether
you make me a king or not, please take this rotī. I came here with
great hopes, but I am content with what I have received. However, I will
gladly part with it if you need it.” The monk asked him to stand
aside and wait awhile, while he continued his search among the beggars
for another one who would be generous with his rotī. At last, another
boy passed by who tore his rotī into half and gave it to the monk.
Happy at the end of his search, the monk said to the king and the minister,
“Here are the two capable sons that I promised you would have. A
king should be large-hearted, and willing to sacrifice his all. These
qualities are evident in the first boy. The roṭī was important
to him, it was all he had, but unlike the others, he relinquished it without
any hesitation. Therefore, he is worthy of being groomed to become the
heir-apparent.“The other boy may not have such generosity; nevertheless
he parted with half of his rotī. It is a minister’s role to
be cautious and practical in the affairs of the state. Therefore, the
second boy is worthy of being the minister’s son.”
In this story, the king and the minister are analogous to a
saint and an aspirant. The message of the holy man is that the
temptations of this world are like the pieces of bread. If you
relinquish them completely, you will get the saint’s throne. If
you relinquish even half your desires, you will at least get to be
an aspirant, if not a saint.
The spiritual aspirant should be watchful of two factors. First,
one must set a limit on material accumulation and secondly, one
must nurture the spirit of sharing. One’s wealth should be spent
in the development of society. Only such an attitude can bring
about peace and contentment not just at an individual level, but
at a universal level as well.