Wants Versus Needs Economics

A spiritual perspective on the economic basis of modern society.

A FUNDAMENTAL concept that Krsna teaches in the Bhagavad-gita is the distinction between body and soul: "The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is sure to come to an end … [but] for the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. … He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain." (Bg. 2.18, 2.20)

In Bhagavad-gita we learn that although the body (including the subtle, psychological body) is made of temporary, material energy, the soul is made of eternal, spiritual energy. Spiritual advancement comes as we increasingly realize our position as a loving servant of the Supreme Lord. An important factor in spiritual advancement is to reduce the demands of the body, because those demands reinforce our material identity and distract us from our real, spiritual identity.

The idea of reducing the demands of the body to assist in spiritual advancement, is, of course, not unique to the Vaisnava spiritual tradition. All major religions offer similar guidance. But even though our spiritual guides tell us to reduce the demands of the body as much as possible, our cultures often tell us the opposite: success means increasing material prosperity. This is certainly true of the socio-economic structure in most parts of the world.

The Basis of Modern Economics

I had been studying Srila Prabhupada's books for ten or fifteen years when I took my first economics course. On the first day of class, the professor matter-of-factly explained, "Economics is the study of how to allocate scarce resources in a world of unlimited wants."

My jaw dropped. The professor had revealed that our social structure stands on the premise of attempting to fulfill "unlimited wants." The "unlimited wants" he referred to are, of course, our material desires. So the question arises: If a social system rests on trying to fulfill the unlimited material desires of its members, what does that say about the prospects of spiritual advancement? The answer: The prospects for spiritual advancement are pretty dim.

With my prior training from Srila Prabhupada's books, I was able to make more discoveries as the course proceeded. For example, we learned how to make a supply-and-demand graph. The vertical Y axis shows different price levels, starting with $0, and the horizontal X axis shows different quantities of the item consumed, starting with 0 units at the XY intercept. (Or the X axis can show the gross domestic product [GDP]). An upward sloping line from the XY intercept is the Supply curve. In other words, at a price of zero, the manufacturer is willing to supply zero units of the commodity in question, and the greater the price, the more units a manufacturer is willing to supply.

A downward sloping line that starts at some point on the Y axis and crosses the Supply line is the Demand curve. This line shows that at a very high price, consumers are willing to buy 0 units of a commodity. As the price drops, they will be willing to buy more units.

What the manufacturer (or the government, in the case of GDP) wants to do is to push that downward sloping Demand curve out and make it shift toward the right, away from the XY intercept. For the manufacturer, this means he is selling more units of his product, making a bigger profit. For a government, it means it is increasing the GDP, the material standard of living of its citizens. But for the spiritual scientist, it means that the demands of the body are increasing and conditions are becoming less favorable for spiritual advancement. Because how is the Demand curve shifted out? By increasing the artificial demands of the body.

Srila Prabhupada comments:

Advancement of material vision or material civilization is a great stumbling block for spiritual advancement. Such material advancement entangles the living being in the bondage of a material body followed by all sorts of material miseries. Such material advancement is called anartha, or things not wanted. Actually this is so. In the present context of material advancement one uses lipstick at a cost of fifty cents, * (This was written about 1960.) and there are so many unwanted things which are all products of the material conception of life. By diverting attention to so many unwanted things, human energy is spoiled without achievement of spiritual realization, the prime necessity of human life. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.27, Purport)

As an alternative, Srila Prabhupada urged his followers to develop a society in which families work to produce their actual needs of life, instead of producing things primarily for the market. In Mauritius in 1975 he explained:

I see that in Mauritius you have enough land to produce food grains. So produce food grain. I understand that instead of growing food grains, you are growing sugar cane for exporting. Why? You are dependent on food grains on rice, wheat, dal [lentils]. Why this attempt [to export]? First of all grow your own eatables. … The first necessity is to be self-sufficient. That is God's arrangement.

Increasing Demands

Ideally, society should be organized so that families first produce for their own needs. Then they can sell any excess at the market. And if there is enough time and manpower, they can produce more for the market.

But when the whole focus of an economy is market-oriented production, competition drives commodity prices down so much that the manufacturer must expand his market share by increasing the artificial demands of the body. To understand this better let's imagine I'm a sugar producer in a simple society. Up to now, sugar is used only as table sugar, and the amount of sugar people need for their own cooking and table is limited. So I can't make more money simply by increasing my production, because people don't need any more sugar. As a businessman, to expand my market share and increase my profits I have to introduce new sugar-based products, such as rum, candy, and soft drinks. And I must invest in advertising to increase people's desires for these products. But by stimulating artificial demand for my products, I actually increase the material desires of my customers and divert their focus away from spiritual development.

Of course, this is a simplified example. In our modern situation, increasing consumer demand is more complex. Nevertheless, Srila Prabhupada's point stays true: material advancement of society rests on stimulating our desires for commodities we don't actually need. And the further we move from a needs-based economy to a wants-based economy, the more difficult it is to make spiritual progress.

You may wonder: Where does this leave the Krsna conscious businessman who depends on market-oriented production for his livelihood? Srila Prabhupada knew that modern society makes it impossible for most of us to engage in self-sufficient production. He nevertheless encouraged devotee businessmen, because their contributions made it possible to build temples and distribute prasadam and Krsna conscious literature. They presented the best example of Krsna conscious family life possible in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

But at the same time, Srila Prabhupada looked to the future with a plan to build a model of society where it would be much easier for the average person to stay fixed in spiritual life. The economic basis of that society would not be to increase the artificial wants of the body but to simply meet the needs of the body, saving time and energy for advancement in Krsna consciousness, the true purpose of human life:

Our project is Krsna consciousness. Come here, live peacefully, keep your body fit, and work for yourself. Produce your own food. Produce your own cloth. Don't be very much anxious for artificial necessities. Save time and become advanced in spiritual life.

Srila Prabhupada's goal was to set up a varnasrama society in which the economy is focused principally on fulfilling peoples basic needs rather than encouraging them to increase their wants, which would lead away from spiritual advancement.

Formerly the editor of Hare Krsna Rural Life, Hare Krsna Devi Dasi is currently compiling a five-volume series of Srila Prabhupada's teachings on varnasrama and farm community development.

(The author would like to thank Jaya Lalita Devi Dasi for her advice on this article.)