for www.krishnadharma.com on Oct. 21, 2010
In an attempt to get the books to balance the government is proposing major cuts in benefits, leading to the likelihood of austere times ahead for many poorer families. The cuts are not that unpopular, not at least with the tax-paying section of the country, but as a value and practice austerity itself is not at all popular today. The word is synonymous with hardship in most people’s minds, fit only to be eradicated wherever it may be found and replaced with comfort and convenience.
Vedic culture tends to take a different view. Far from being anathema, austerity is seen as helpful to those desiring to secure their actual and lasting happiness. The Vedas enjoin that everyone should embrace austerity during the final stages of life in order to prepare for death. That definitely goes against the modern grain. Most of us are hoping that our pension will provide an easy life of comfort and enjoyment. A bit of bowls or golf, plenty of holidays, and feet up in front of the fire. Heaven.
Not in the Vedic model, which instructs that we should leave our happy home and head off to holy places for a life of privation and spiritual practise. Not a golf course in sight.
It all comes down to our basic paradigm, which in turn stems from our philosophical view of life. The materialistic worldview begins with the underlying and largely unstated assumption that we are material beings. Life’s aim therefore is to live it large with all mod cons and if possible a servant or two would also be nice.
The first point of Vedic philosophy, on the other hand, is that we are eternal spiritual beings stuck in temporary forms. The material world is not our real home and life’s purpose is to extract ourselves from it for once and for all, going instead to immortal realms of unending happiness. This means we need to be free of attachment to this world and all that it has to offer in the shape of bodily pleasures. Otherwise we will get to stay here in one body after another as we pursue worldly desires.
Giving up those desires may not be too difficult if we are struggling to find sufficient means to merely survive, as the benefit cuts threaten to inflict upon some. But Vedic teachings help us to cope. They explain that we depend upon God only, that he alone provides sustenance to all beings. We do our best to earn a living and provide for ourselves and our families, but at the end of the day what we do or do not have depends upon God. He is the supreme controller, even of Mr Cameron and his government. The Bhagavad-gita therefore instructs that the first austerity of the mind is to be satisfied. Do our duty and accept the God-given result without over endeavouring for more.
For some the God-given fruits of our labours may be more than others, and maybe that means more comfort, but if we accept that we eventually need to free ourselves from material bondage this is not necessarily the best situation. Heading off to holy austerities will be a whole lot harder if we have become too accustomed to luxury.
Real austerity though is not simply a belt tightening exercise. Nor does it have to mean punishing the body; suffering in horse hair shirts and the like. The Gita describes true renunciation as detachment from an enjoying spirit. It explains that a genuinely austere person uses everything in God’s service rather than for selfish interests. Such a person claims no ownership over anything, accepting only what is required to keep body and soul together so he can render divine service.
Most of us will need to cultivate that mood and vision through long and serious practise. It is therefore recommended that we start scaling down our enjoyment and consumption at least from the age of fifty, when the end of life hoves ominously into view. Death will surely come and snatch everything away, so start letting go before that happens. Give it all to God before he takes it anyway. One Indian philosopher said that if we are intelligent we should use our temporary possessions while we have them to gain eternal benefit, and the way to do that is to employ them in Krishna’s service.
This is the easiest form of austerity. Not many of us can abandon our earthly lot and go to the forests clad in tree bark, gleaning fruits and roots from the wild, as was the practise in ancient days. A lifetime of Tesco and central heating leaves one ill-prepared for such agonies. But any of us can sit down peacefully in Vrindavan or some other sacred site and chant Krishna’s names, leaving the anxieties of our earthly trappings to the next generation. A lifestyle that even the meagre state pension could stretch to, if it still exists when we finally retire.