The Yoga of Economics

Via on Aug 13, 2010


Which economy tries to fulfill infinite human longings with finite things? Capitalist materialism. That’s not an economy fit for a yogi.

As a yogi and writer here on Elephant, I have, in several recent articles spelled out why I do not like corporate capitalism. But I have not spelled out what kind of economic system or philosophy I prefer as an alternative to corporate capitalism. So, here is a short outline:

Capitalism has failed at creating a sustainable way of life on this planet. And yoga is all about sustainability, sustainable body, sustainable spirit, and, yes, sustainable economics.

So, if not the economic philosophy of capitalist materialism, what will be the underlying values of the new, yoga economy? Like alternative economist and author David C. Korten, I think that “a sustainable society needs a spiritual foundation.” Why? Because, in the true spirit of yoga, spirituality, not materialism, is the ultimate foundation of life.

In his seminal book, Small is Beautiful, the late British economist and Buddhist E. F. Schumacher, warned against the unsustainable nature of capitalism’s rampant materialism.

Schumacher wrote: “Economy as the content of life is a deadly illness, because infinite growth does not fit into a finite world. That economy should not be the content of life has been told to mankind by all its teachers; that it cannot be, is evident today … If the spiritual value of inner man is neglected, then selfishness, like capitalism, fits the orientation better than a system of love for one’s fellow beings.”

Here Schumacher points out a central dogma in current economic thinking: that it is possible, even desirable, to fulfill infinite human longings with finite things.

This materialist philosophy forms the underlying economic doctrine of today’s market capitalism, of our system of unlimited control over productive property. Put bluntly, it supports the dictum that selfishness and greed are good, even necessary fuels for the capitalist engine of growth.

This paradoxical philosophy has resulted in a market system in which land, food, and intellectual ideas are bought and sold without restrictions. This “free market system” has created an economy of disparity, of unequal buying power, and of a deep schism between rich and poor.

More specifically, this philosophy grants the concept of “the divine right of kings” to corporations.

In other words, corporate owners are ultimately only responsible to themselves and their shareholders, not to their employees, nor to the environment, nor to the human community at large.

Finally, this philosophy grants that unlimited accumulation of wealth is both positive and a basic human right.

Today it is widely accepted that unlimited exploitation of the globe’s finite natural resources is unsustainable.

There is little support, however, for the idea that an economy based on unlimited accumulation of wealth, or unlimited control over private property, may be the direct cause of today’s economic and environmental problems.

Nevertheless, the accelerated accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, has caused both economic disparity and environmental degradation.

In short, while there has been an increase in the unbridled accumulation of wealth—which has resulted in an increase in GNP and per capita income, particularly in the Northern countries—there has also been an increase in the spread of poverty—both in the North, and, particularly, in the South.

As long as the basic tenet of unlimited hoarding of wealth remains fundamental to our economy, economic disparity and environmental degradation will continue. We will continue to accept as fair and inevitable that economic growth creates concentration of wealth, on the one hand, and unemployment, displacement of people and poverty, on the other.

Without a fundamental rethinking of the current economic dogma of private property rights as an absolute right above all other values, and that human progress is best measured as increased material consumption, we cannot create an environmentally sustainable and poverty-free yogic economy.

Economist E. F. Schumacher wrote that “no system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own two feet: it is variably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon our basic outlook on life, its meaning and its purpose.”

The “metaphysical foundation” of economic liberalism is motivated by self-interest, individual property rights, and the fulfillment of our material or economic needs.

What, then, should be the basic outlook on life of the new, yoga economy? The spiritual conception of wealth, as described by Indian philosopher and yogi P. R. Sarkar, expresses a common sentiment among many alternative development thinkers:

“This universe is created in the imagination of the Supreme Entity, so the ownership of this universe does not belong to any particular individual; everything is the patrimony of us all. Every living being can utilize their rightful share of this property … This whole animate world is a large joint family in which nature has not assigned any property to any particular individual.”

Sarkar termed this concept of wealth “cosmic inheritance,” and made clear its implications for economic theory: “The system of individual ownership cannot be accepted as absolute, hence [economic liberalism] too cannot be supported.”

With a spiritual worldview as the basis for a new yoga economy, the psychology of greed and selfishness is replaced with the psychology of collective welfare and cooperation.

If the purpose of development—as presently conceived—is to increase material amenities, then sustainable development will certainly help us to continue to consume, but it will not help us attain inner fulfillment.

Therefore, sustainable spirituality—the idea that true progress is movement toward inner fulfillment, toward self-realization—must also be embraced by the sustainable development economy.

Spiritual progress subsumes material development, as people cannot pursue spiritual growth without adequate basic necessities such as employment, food, shelter, education, and medical care.

So, the purpose of development, guided by a sense of spiritual progress, is to help us pursue personal and social pursuits that foster inner growth and communion with people and nature.

Activities such as sports, art, music, theater, yoga, meditation, hiking, etc., do not simply fill our lives with more material things, instead they fill our lives with enjoyment, purpose and meaning.

Reverence for nature, for all non-human creatures, is a natural extension of such concepts as cosmic inheritance and spiritual progress.

Economic activity, therefore, must take into account the existential rights of other species. This outlook is an integral aspect of what Sarkar terms neo-humanism—the view that expands humanism to include a common, unified consciousness behind the diversity of nature.

This outlook, this spiritual ethic based on yoga, is growing amongst many seeking an alternative to the disparities of the global economy.

According to activist Helena Nordberg-Hodge, “we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes from making a connection to others and to nature.

This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are among the strands.”

Thus, the yoga economy, in essence a fusion of spirituality and humanist rationality, is based on principles of love and respect for all beings, sharing, cooperation and spiritual progress.

This new vision, this new yoga of economics, is in stark contrast to capitalist materialism’s idea that the most conspicuous human motives are self-interest, competition and hoarding of wealth.

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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21 Responses to “The Yoga of Economics”

  1. I do not have an interest in discussing general economic, social, and political issues here on Elephant. For those topics I prefer hanging out at these more in-depth and comprehensive specialist sites:

    The Earth Policy Institute (Lester Brown's site. He has been interviewed on Elephant I believe.)

    The Earth Institute at Columbia University

    Both are excellent, with many diverse points of view and healthy well-researched debates.

    Consider Ramesh's point of view above, of course, then go to these sites for other perspectives.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    • integralhack says:

      Bob,

      I suppose Elephant Journal is only as in-depth as its publisher, writers and commentators choose to be. Personally, as long as it includes yoga or "non-new agey spirituality" I think it is perfectly appropriate to discuss these topics.

      In fact, in a time when we are in a deep economic recession and precipitously close to destroying the world's biosphere as we know it, I can't think of anything more pressing for any yogi or Buddhist.

      - Matt Helmick

      • Oh, I completely agree with you, Matt. I'm happy others are discussing these topics on Elephant and I certainly didn't mean to imply it was not Yogic or Buddhist to do so.

        For me it's a matter of where I want to spend my time. I already spent 30 years of my life dealing every day with economic, business, and financial issues and with the related issues of the people and community I worked with.

        Plus I don't know if I'm up to trying to convince Ramesh here that we lifelong business people (don't worry, I'm not a Republican or anything) are, as a whole, pretty good people. It would be a distraction at best.

        Thanks for writing.

        Bob Weisenberg
        ElephantJournal

        • integralhack says:

          Bob,

          You had me at "I'm not a Republican." It's funny that we as Americans jump to clarifying allegiance or non-allegiance to a political party (I do it too!). It's an indicator of the ideological hegemony that we're all trapped in to varying degrees. Most people don't know they're trapped in such a system.

          I agree that many business people are "pretty good people" and I think that Ramesh probably agrees with this. He isn't talking about people but the "capitalist materialist" ideology which most people–good and bad–are trapped in. Part of the insidious nature of this system is that it keeps us concentrated on political nonsense like party affiliation rather than spiritual, economic and environmental well being.

          The insidious nature of capitalist-materialist ideology isn't just a relatively small oligarchy of concentrated economic and political power, it is a recursive value system fueled by a limited set of rules and a terrible objective. Due to this ideological setup, the oligarchy is also trapped within the system and often unaware of their participation. The ignorance permeates the system due to a lack of imagination and narrowly defined rules to uphold the value of greed.

          Matt Helmick

          • It's complicated, but I'm quite certain that capitalism is a necessary part of the solution, not the enemy.

          • Ramesh says:

            Capitalism, as Adam Smith intended it, and as David Korten has documented well in his many books, functions well on a small scale, but once it co-opts the whole economy, as it has largely done in the US today, greed becomes its bottom line and exploitation of people and resources its main effect, especially as corporations move to other, poorer countries. So, the new economy needs to have a balance of small scale capitalist and larger scale socialist measures to (coops and government owned enterprises) to create balance and sustainable growth. So, yes, it's complicated, and capitalism as well as socialism are both part of the solution as well as the problem. For both systems are materialist, so the new economy also need to be based on a spiritual ecological ethics, thus the yoga of economics. Ironically, Cuba ( I am not in favor of its repressive political system, of course) is today, if measured in terms of self-sufficiency, the most sustainable country in the world. Its neighbor Jamaica, is capitalist and has an economy in which agriculture has been destroyed by the US (milk is barely available in Jamaica today, for example, due to failed policies instituted by US capitalist "advisors"….) Moreover, most of the economic and environmental devastation created in the third world is due to capitalist monopolies or corporations exploiting cheap labor and resources. That kind of capitalism is indeed the enemy of both people and nature. So, yes, it;s complicated, Bob.

          • Ramesh says:

            Matt, very well said. I completely agree.

  2. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for these links, Bob. I also love Lester Brown's site and have followed his work for man years.

  3. Ben Ralston Ben Ralston says:

    Ramesh,

    I love this. It speaks to my heart. I have been working in this direction for a number of years.

    I fear however that people are simply not ready for the kind of total paradigm shift that is required, and that a crisis is coming that will force that change. After that, it will be left for those of us who have the vision, and the balls, to learn from our past mistakes and rebuild in a more sustainable way.

    Who knows? We’ll see…

    Love, Ben

  4. Ramesh says:

    Ben,
    glad to hear it, Ben, that you also try to walk the talk.
    Living in an eco-village out in the woods and running a seminar center for yogis and other green type folks, many of my friends in the city think I have arrived, but personally I feel the larger journey has just begun. There are so many ways to improve our lives to live more lightly on the earth, and so much we can learn from the yogi sages of the present and past, in this regard, while at the same time be open to green technologies of the present and future.

    I used to think that crisis would bring the change, Ben, and it might, but crisis can also spiral us backwards into defense mode and more reactionary ways. So, now I try to live as green and spiritual as possible in the moment while working on the larger changes at the same time.

    What I find enormously inspiring is what Paul Hawken has documented in his last book, Blessed Unrest: that there are literally several million activist groups (and even many more millions of people) all over the world working toward a more sustainable, peaceful and spiritual world.
    It's a revolution that so far has escaped the headlines, but it is happening. NOW!

  5. kawabata says:

    Excellent piece with many good observations. Some where along the line about 1840 in the US capitalism got off track. http://kawabata4444.blogspot.com/2008/10/american… There is a middle path.

  6. Joe Sparks says:

    Revolutions (genuine ones) are always directed against the structure of oppression and the distress patterns which comprise it.
    A complete revolution will require the elimination of patterns from the revolutionaries.

    • Ramesh says:

      Thanks, Joe. So far, revolutions have been mainly economic and political, and some, such as the the communist revolutions, quite devastating on people and planet. So, the question is, what is a genuine revolution? I think it needs to be one coming from a spiritual point of view, as materialism, whether capitalist or communist, have been unable to create genuine change, as materialism is by its very dualistic nature polarizing and limiting. So, spiritual insight ( nondual wisdom) and leadership must inform our new economic sustainability revolution. In this regard, even many environmentalists fall short. Hence, Yoga of Economics.

  7. NellaLou says:

    Good to see Helena Nordberg-Hodge quoted here. Her work in Ladakh is seminal.

  8. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    NellaLou,
    thanks for acknowledging Helena's work. Her book and video Ancient Futures are highly recommended!
    http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Futures-Learning-He

  9. Ramesh says:

    Good point, Tripp. Thanks for the link.

  10. Toys says:

    For some reason my browser doesn?t display this page correctly? Anyway, it was a really interesting article, keep up the good work and I will be back for more

  11. Joe says:

    As an active yogi, economist, and libertarian, I have to disagree with where this article is going. It seems to me that the solution you provide to the current economic system, which is not a free market by any means, is a theocratic socialist state, in which everybody has to obey yogic principals. Though the life of a yogi is a great one, I don't believe anybody has the right to force it on somebody else. Which school of yoga would be followed? Who would control it? There are many holes in this argument. I do agree that the world needs to be heading in a green direction, and I believe it is, but it is a slow process. Like you told Ben, people are starting to for form green groups. Global awareness is happening, and it is because the people want it, not because some higher authority has pushed it on them. A greener world is needed, but I don't think any sort of government authority is going to take us there, at least efficiently. I do like your reference to Adam Smith though. Please let me know if I completely misunderstood your article. Maybe you can clarify on what sort of system you think is necessary. Thank you very much.

  12. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Amy, great to know you love Schumacher, too.
    You wrote: "And the great thing is ~ there's nothing fancy about it. Poor people have been doing it for years!"

    So, true, Amy. Some of my greenest friends here in the Appalachia are the old rednecks who grow their own food and live more or less like they always did. We may not share the same yogic philosophy, but we still get along fine and have a lot of "green values" in common.

    Thanks also for mentioning the disparity between poor and rich: it is so important to remember that much of the reason behind the material growth of the Western world has come from blood and sweat and "free resources" in poor countries.
    Glad to hear you share the passion for all these issues, Amy!

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