Haribol , Prabhu. Do you know where the bhoga is? I need to make prasada for the istha-gosthi tonight.” On hearing something like this, a visitor to a Hare Krishna temple would be justifiably perplexed.
The speaker could just as easily have said, “Excuse me, respected friend, do you know where the groceries are? I need to cook for the meeting tonight.”
Although insider lingo is common in groups of any kind, be they centered on a shared belief system or just a shared hobby, the special terms used by Hare Krishna devotees have great import. They’re not just arbitrary formulations: They influence our attitudes and actions. For example, a little unpacking of the epithet we use for money Lakshmi can serve to show just how deep language can be.
We first note that Lakshmi is a person. Equating an inanimate object like money with a person is not surprising, for the Vedic universe teems with life and agency: There’s a person behind the rain, springtime has a face, and the planets sometimes don’t get along. This omnipresence of personality makes living in the world more a matter of relationship than ownership; rather than trying to control the forces and features of nature, we humans are encouraged to cooperate and co-exist with them.
Of course, some of these persons are more benign than others. For example, Yamaraja, the ruler of death, is a noble and wise servant of the Lord who certainly deserves our respect.
Still, he’s hardly someone you hope to see at your next dinner party: “Have we met?” “Not yet.”
Lakshmi, however, is the wife of Lord Vishnu and the mother of the universe, and her presence (as money) is therefore considered most auspicious. Such an understanding may come as a surprise to those used to thinking of money as the source of evil, but it is certainly in line with how the truly enlightened think. Swamis or gurus who reject wealth as inherently antithetical to spiritual progress never impressed Srila Prabhupada. Instead of rejecting riches, he emphasized the question of how to deal with them: Only if used and accepted in the wrong consciousness will they become a corrupting force.
Don’t Waste It
So what is the proper way to deal with money? If we simply meditate on it as a form of Lakshmi, we can derive two basic principles. The first is that we shouldn’t waste money. If we have some, we’ve been entrusted with the care of the supreme goddess. We must be cautious, then, to engage her in befitting ways. If we use our wealth to acquire unnecessary gadgets or indulge in superfluous luxuries, we are making Lakshmi our personal maidservant. How can we hope to please the Lord by indenturing His beloved queen? Rather, as Krishna explains in the sixteenth chapter of Bhagavad-gita, those who succumb to insatiable desire move away from God and subject themselves to a tormented existence.
Srila Prabhupada was well aware of this pitfall. Even though he dealt with tens of thousands of dollars, he was careful not to waste even one cent. As he mentioned to a disciple in a letter about a business deal gone bad, “I prayed to Krishna specially for this recovery because I thought that Krishna’s money may not be utilized for sense gratification.” He was keen that the opulence that rightfully belongs to the Supreme not be used in the pursuit of base enjoyment.
Don’t Hoard It
The other extreme is undesirable too. We should not hoard money out of greed. Lakshmi Devi is not meant to be our prisoner, locked up for us to simply behold and thereby derive some illusory sense of power and control. Under the pretense of being frugal, we must not avoid legitimate expenditures. To perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, which would proclaim his sovereignty as world emperor, Maharaja Yudhisthira retrieved tons of gold that had been deposited in the Himalayas. But he didn’t do this for his own glory. He acted out of duty and devotion. Not only had Krishna and Narada Muni requested him to become the emperor and establish righteous rule, but also he knew that the sacrifice would give him a unique opportunity to exalt Krishna before all the great personalities of the universe.
In a similar vein, Srila Prabhupada wasn’t averse to spending large amounts of money on prime locations for his temples and other means of sharing Krishna consciousness with the world. Neither did he frown upon appropriate personal spending. In a letter to a disciple about a much-needed surgery the disciple was avoiding, he wrote: “I very much appreciate this example, but it is my order that whenever you are in such trouble, you should not minimize any expenditure. You must have the best kind of treatment available, and you can spend from the money you are collecting on behalf of Krishna. . . . You should not hesitate to spend from Krishna’s money.”
We best not take this message out of context, as some sort of authoritative grounds for pampering ourselves. (It was, after all, a private correspondence and not a public proclamation.) Nevertheless, it does illustrate an important principle: There are bonafide uses of money, and our personal maintenance can be one of them.
The Best Use of Money
How do we know when to spend money and when to save it? The examples above hint at an overarching third principle. Again, the key is to meditate on money as Lakshmi herself. When she appeared from the milk ocean and began searching for a suitable husband, she found only Lord Vishnu to be without flaw. She is described as bhagavat para, which Prabhupada translates as “one who is absolutely dedicated to being possessed and enjoyed by the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Srimad- Bhagavatam 8.8.8). As a chaste and faithful wife, her duty and pleasure is to serve her husband. We should therefore engage her in all manner of tasks that help glorify God and fulfill His desires.
His most cherished desire, as expressed in the Bhagavad-gita, is that the forgetful souls of this world be once again reminded of His love and the deep relationship they eternally share. Thus, money is best used to engage ourselves and others in devotional service. By so doing, we become intermediaries who help reunite Lakshmi with her eternal Lord, rather than usurpers who artificially lord over her ourselves. Along the way, it is certainly appropriate to spend money on our own subsistence. As obedient children of our father, we are entitled to a share of our mother’s service.
The first mantra of Sri Isopanisad presents the same conclusion more philosophically: “Every-thing animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.” We are herein directed to use all opulence in the service of God, its rightful proprietor and only true master. As dutiful servants, we should employ whatever portion of our riches is needed to keep ourselves and our dependents mentally and physically healthy, and devote the balance to the spiritual edification of all of humanity.
Devotees’ use of the term Lakshmi is purposeful and profound. By so doing, we hope to move our minds from rejecting money as an “it” that is inherently antithetical to spiritual life, to accepting money as a “she” who can greatly enhance our service to the Lord. If we can avoid the twin seditions of capricious expenditure and miserly reserve, and instead maintain the wholesome mood of viewing money as the energy of God and as our supreme worshipable goddess, we are sure to prosper both in this world and in the next.
Navina Syama Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Bhakti Caru Swami. He lives with his wife, Krishna Priya Devi Dasi, in Alachua, Florida, USA, where they both serve at the New Raman Reti School.