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Non - possessiveness - a universal framework.

What we impose upon ourselves beyond our bare necessities adds to the burden of life. Even
austerities are burdensome if they are adopted more due to external pressures rather
than out of a voluntary and natural inclination to do so.


The principle of non-possessiveness is the life-breath of Jainism and the core of all religions.

In the journey of our life, we don’t travel empty-handed. We travel with possessions – things that we have accumulated for our comfort, for our happiness, sometimes for no reason at all. One important question in our journey through life is - should we travel with maximum weight or with minimum baggage? Which of these is better for us? Will the journey be more joyous with more belongings or will it be easier with less?

Look at this familiar scene. We pack our bags before a journey, taking along whatever we think we need. You think,“If I fall sick on the way, isn’t it better to carry medicines?” Not knowing which disease might inflict you, you carry an entire medical kit. Similarly, you carry eatables and utensils far beyond your needs. Then your mind turns to clothing and you think, “Should I not to be prepared for changes in weather?” You pack in cotton clothes for warm weather, and thick blankets and woollens in case of cold weather.

Then the thought occurs, “What if something gets stolen? Better to pack one more of each thing.” In the process everything is duplicated.

Thus, uncontrolled imagination increases the baggage of life. You justify your possessiveness by believing that you are preparing yourself for the most unpredictable of situations, be it regarding food, medicine or clothes. Now, if you embark on your journey carrying all these belongings, can you have a pleasant trip? Will your steps be heavy or light? Obviously they will be heavy. You will soon be soaked in sweat and panting for breath. In all probability, you will unburden your weight on somebody else’s shoulders.

Contrary to this, there is that other traveller who carries nothing but bare necessities. He does not imagine needs nor carry more than what is required. His steps are therefore lighter, and his journey pleasant. He reaches his destination easily enough.

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 lives.

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 as charity.

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 a virtue.

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 spiritual purpose.

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 paternal feelings?”

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.

Published By " Sugal & Damani Family "