Does spirituality benefit society in any practical way, as social service does? I will address this question by analyzing a widespread social problem, starvation, and then generalize the principles understood by that analysis.
The Causes of Starvation
On seeing a beggar starving, a sensitive person will want to give some food. This will offer immediate relief, but a thoughtful person may ponder: “A few hours from now he will be hungry again. What causes have brought this beggar to starvation? And how can we remove those causes?”
Following are some causes of starvation.
(1) Wanton living and self destructive behavior among the poor. Many people who earn enough to make ends meet squander their earnings on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Families often lose everything because the head of the family drinks too much. It is common to see beggars refuse food because they only want money to buy, say, cigarettes.
Natural disasters like earthquakes are big business opportunities for alcohol peddlers because many of the disaster-afflicted people tend to use the relief money to forget their suffering by intoxication. Is providing material relief to addicted people not like pouring water into a leaky bucket? No matter how much they are helped materially, their situation will not truly improve till they rectify their habits. Neither governmental nor non-governmental organizations have succeeded much in helping people avert the tragedy of self destruction caused by bad habits.
(2) Greed and exploitation. Mismanagement of resources is a greater cause of starvation than a shortage of them. Mahatma Gandhi put it well: “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” In the well researched book Food First, Francis Moore Lappé points out that much of the world’s best land is being misused for production of cash export crops. Therefore it is greed among the affluent that’s at the root of the resulting starvation.
Starvation does indeed result from factors beyond human control, such as drought, but even then, the human response to the natural calamity often compounds its impact. Food First reports a study of famines in Africa showing that during every drought the affected nation had within its own boundaries the food resources to feed its starving citizens, but relief was withheld because of economic or political motives. The merchants wanted to hoard the grains, cause artificial inflation, and earn more profit. Or the politicians wanted to deprive regions supporting the opposing politicians and thus settle old scores or gain the upper hand. Sometimes the food-grains rotted in the storehouses while people all around starved. Or worse still, crops were burned or grains sunk into the ocean. The same sad story of Africa often repeats itself in various parts of the world wherever natural calamities strike.
Thus greed is an invisible cause of starvation. Can material welfare work counter greed? A social worker may get charity from a wealthy person and use it for offering some relief. But as long as greed impels the haves to exploit the have-nots, the relief that social welfare offers will not be much more than a drop of water in a desert.
The Vedic texts of ancient India offer a holistic welfare program based on a profound philosophical understanding of life. To appreciate how these books would tackle the problem of starvation, let’s have a quick overview of the basic Vedic philosophy.
The Vedic teachings assert that we are eternal souls covered by temporary material bodies. (Bhagavad-gita 2.13) We belong to an immortal realm where we enjoy everlasting happiness in a loving relationship with the Supreme Person, God, most fully identified by the name Krishna (meaning “allattractive”). To enable us to wholly experience the joy of love in the spiritual world, Krishna gives us the free will to choose to love and serve Him. When we misuse our free will and desire enjoyment separate from Him, we are placed in the material world. Here we forget our spiritual identity and misidentify with our material body, which offers us the sensory apparatus to interact with the foreign material environment.
Within the framework of bodily misidentification, we seek material relationships, experiences, possessions, and positions according to our dreams and schemes. But our desires for enjoyment are unlimited, whereas the resources of this world are limited. Consequently, the pursuit of enjoyment leads to an intense struggle.
Worse still, being spiritual by constitution, we can never become happy by gratifying our body, just as a driver can never be nourished by fueling his car. So, whether or not we succeed in our plans for material enjoyment, we remain mostly dissatisfied. And ultimately all our dreams turn into nightmares as our bodies the very basis of all our enjoyment are battered by disease, wrecked by old age, and destroyed by death. After each death in a human body, our desires and activities earn us another body, human or subhuman, and our struggle continues.
Only the souls in the human form have sufficiently evolved consciousness and intelligence to understand and remedy their terrible predicament in material existence. Therefore, the Vedic texts urge all humans to dedicate themselves to promoting spiritual wellbeing, a cause more complete and effective than promoting material well-being.
Ending Starvation The Spiritual Way
Let’s now return to the problem of starvation and see how promoting spiritual well-being can help tackle it.
(1) Self-restraint. Surveys show that the religiously committed are less likely to succumb to bad habits. Dr. Patrick Glynn writes in his book God: The Evidence, “It is difficult to find a more consistent correlative of mental health, or a better insurance against self-destructive behaviors, than a strong religious faith.” Spiritual practices can help cure the addictions that lead to starvation.
(2) Compassion. A spiritual vision of life increases compassion and decreases greed. When a reporter asked Mother Teresa about the secret of her compassion, she pointed to her rosary beads. Devotion to God naturally arouses compassion for all His children, our brothers and sisters, and inspires us to selflessly work for their holistic uplift.
When wealthy people are God conscious, their compassion is not restricted to an occasional act of charity; rather their whole life becomes dedicated to helping the deprived in every possible way, materially and spiritually. When the heads of state are spiritually enlightened, they care for all the citizens like their own children not for political expediency, but out of spiritual love. They create socioeconomic structures to provide employment for all in normal situations and adequate relief during emergencies.
Thus godliness automatically engenders goodness; a godly person naturally develops good qualities like self-restraint and compassion, which are essential to the effectiveness of any social welfare program.
(3) Natural prosperity. The Vedic texts explain that harmonizing with God leads to well-being not just in the next world, but also in this world. Our very existence depends on God’s grace. Despite our scientific progress, we still need God for our heat, light, air, water, and food. Despite our hard work in sophisticated factories, our food is still made in God’s factory, nature.
When we disobey the Lord’s injunctions, through material nature He withholds life’s necessities. When we live in harmony with God, He instructs Mother Nature to profusely supply all the necessities of life to His obedient children.
Material prosperity through divine harmony is not a fantasy; the God-centered society of Vedic India offers a historical demonstration. The amazing prosperity of traditional India is well documented in the Vedic texts themselves, by traveling medieval historians like Fa Hien and Hua Tsang, and even by modern Indologists like A. L. Basham. In fact, the wealthiest country in the world today, America, was discovered by Europeans searching for a new ocean route to the wealth of India.
Are Good Intentions Good Enough?
Srila Prabhupada illustrates the pitfalls of well-intentioned but ill informed welfare work through an incident in his life: Once while in Calcutta, he saw a neighboring woman scolding her youngest son. The woman’s slightly older son had typhoid, and the doctor had strictly forbidden him to eat solid food. While the mother had been away shopping, her sick son had begged his younger brother to give him some parathas (a fried food), which he did. When the mother returned to find that her son’s sickness had worsened, she scolded her younger son for his harmful “kindness.”
Imagine an alcoholic who routinely squanders all his earnings and abuses his family members in his drunken stupor. When he falls sick, he receives free medical care, which cures his illness but not his addiction. He resumes his habitual intoxication and abuse. The intentions behind the free medical care are good in that they relieve him of his illness, but they are not good enough to offer a solution to the deeper problem. Srila Prabhupada would often compare social welfare efforts devoid of spirituality to blowing on a painful boil. The good intention fails as a lasting solution.
The Vedic texts say that suffering is an impetus to raise our consciousness to the spiritual plane, where we automatically reclaim our right to eternal happiness. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The miseries of material existence serve to indirectly remind us of our incompatibility with matter.” To understand this better, we need to swallow a bitter pill: acceptance of the fact that this world is like a prison and everyone here is like a criminal, imprisoned for rebellion against God. Hardship in this world is meant to rectify us.
Consider a welfare worker who zealously works for the transfer of a criminal from a low-class prison cell to a high-class cell. If the welfare worker doesn’t help the inmate reform, the inmate will not gain release, which should be the reformer’s goal. His actions are shortsighted and incomplete. Ultimately they serve neither the purpose of the prison (reformation of the prisoners) nor the long-term interests of the prisoner (freedom from captivity). The Vedic texts prompt us to ponder whether providing material improvement without spiritual enlightenment is much different. The gift is at best incomplete. In the ultimate analysis, it serves neither the purpose of the material world (rectification of the rebellious mentality of the souls) nor the souls’ ultimate interests (freedom from the inevitable sufferings of material existence, including repeated birth and death).
The foregoing discussion is not meant to suggest we turn a blind eye and develop a cold heart toward the sufferings of our fellow human beings. Compassion is undoubtedly a noble quality, and the Vedic texts urge us to use it to its maximum effectiveness by becoming instruments of God’s compassion.
The Complete Welfare Program
God being the most loving father feels pain to see His children in pain, no matter what their trans transgressions. He creates a cosmic justice system to bring about their gradual reform. But being much more than just a neutral judge, He also creates a mercy system to offer quick relief to sincerely repentant souls. Through His representatives, the saintly devotees, He disseminates genuine spiritual knowledge. By learning the cause of suffering, intelligent human beings can voluntarily reform themselves and learn to live in loving harmony with God. Then God, out of love for them, waives their karmic punishment partly or fully, according to the degree of their repentance. And ultimately God helps them return to their eternal home to live happily with Him forever. (Bhagavad-gita 10.10–11) Therefore Vedic scriptures call upon all intelligent social workers to become agents of the Lord’s compassion and do the highest good to everyone.
Suppose you are the friend of a millionaire. One day you see your friend’s estranged son wandering on the streets, drunk, disheveled, diseased, distressed, and starving. When someone offers him food, he gulps it down and continues his aimless wandering. Then someone else comes and gives him a new set of clothes. He happily wears the clothes, but still remains lost and forsaken. Someone else gives him free medicine, which provides him some relief but no permanent solace.
Then you seat him in your car, take him home, bathe and feed him, and treat his ailments. When he has sobered, you talk with him lovingly, explaining his father’s great affection for him. You clarify and remove the misunderstanding that strained their relationship. And when he is ready, you take him back to his father’s mansion, where he is fed the best food, given an entire wardrobe of clothes, and attended to by a team of expert doctors. His reunion with his father has solved so many problems. Material welfare workers are like the people who offered food, clothing, and medicine to the lost son, whereas the devotee is like the father’s friend, who took the son back to his father.
We are beloved children of the Supreme Lord, the master of the goddess of fortune. Therefore we are all like princes in the kingdom of God. But our causeless misuse of our free will drives us from the shelter of our all-loving father and forces us to struggle for paltry pleasure in the material world, like the lost son of the millionaire.
ISKCON’s Service to Society
Most people are so spiritually uninformed they don’t even know they are the beloved spiritual children of the supreme father and that an eternal, joyful life is their birthright. In a world bedeviled by such spiritual bankruptcy, the International
Society for Krishna Consciousness:
• Provides systematic spiritual education free to everyone, irrespective of caste, race, gender, religion, nationality, and so on.
• Offers an attractive alternative culture that enables people to practice spirituality in a practical yet potent way and thus lead deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives.
• Propagates the nonsectarian, universal, time-tested chanting of the holy names of God, especially the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Chanting enables millions of people to easily harmonize themselves with God, thus paving the way for them to return to His kingdom.
• Helps millions of people break free from the self-destructive drives of meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling by offering them a higher happiness and thus saving them from immense karmic suffering in this and future lives.
• Runs the world’s largest vegetarian food-relief program, Food for Life, and offers free nutritious sanctified food (prasadam), which nourishes the body and awakens the soul. Prasadam reaches millions of people all over the world, including war-torn areas.
ISKCON works tirelessly at the grassroots level to help people return to harmony with their own true nature as beloved children of God. Thus harmonized, they can find and distribute the treasure of love, peace, and happiness that lies hidden in their own hearts. Henry David Thoreau pointed out, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at its root.” Among the various welfare measures offered by different organizations, ISKCON’s propagation of pure spiritual education and culture strikes at the root of suffering and helps people become truly happy forever.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. His free ezine, “The Spiritual Scientist,” gives a scientific presentation of Krishna consciousness. To subscribe, register at www.thespiritualscientist.com.