Hinduism and Wealth, or Artha

Maha Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth

by Jayaram V

The earth that holds treasure in secret places, wealth, jewels, and gold shall she give to me; she that bestows wealth liberally, the kindly goddess, wealth shall bestow upon me. A Vedic Prayer


Wealth and Dharma in Hinduism

Hinduism does not suggest a complete negation of life, nor does it prescribe a life of reckless enjoyment. In choosing material things, enjoying worldly pleasures or pursuing liberation one should practise restraint, detachment and discretion (vivekam) or discerning intelligence (buddhi). The last one is important because it is by which we learn to discern the right from the wrong or make thoughtful decisions about how one should live or pursue material things. These principles are common to all sects and traditions of Hinduism, which regard wealth not only as the means to serve God and his creation, but also as a trap and a deluding force if it is wrongly used.

Wealth is also viewed in Hinduism as an offering in the sacrifice of life. You are supposed to make that offering without burning your hands or incurring the displeasure of gods. In that sacrifice, God is the host (yajamana), the offering (havi and hutam) as well as the recipient of offering. You have to perform the sacrifice without claiming ownership or doership. The Bhagavadgita declares that Yoga is skillfulness in action. The skill is with regard to how you perform your actions without incurring karma, so that you can achieve liberation. It is equally true with regard to Dhana Yoga also, or the yoga of material abundance in which you skilfully use wealth to perform your duties and worship God.

Hindu scriptures clearly suggest that whatever profession you may choose you have to earn wealth by ethical means according to the principles of Dharma. The epic Mahabharata amply illustrates how wealth can delude people, and lead them astray. Dharmaraj impulsitvely gambles away his whole wealth and possessions including his wife, while Duryodhan wrongfully claims the inheritance of an empire which rightfully belongs to his cousins. Many elders side with him because they do not want to lose their power and positions. One of the passages in the epic declares an important truth about wealth that wealth earned through righteous means does not diminish or become lost, whereas wealth earned through dishonest means or with evil intentions lead to suffering and destruction.

Beliefs and practices associated with wealth

Hinduism is not averse to the pursuit of wealth. However, wealth should be rightfully earned through righteous means only. A person becomes rich or poor according to his actions and according to his fate as determined by his previous actions. Hence, individual actions and personal responsibility are of paramount importance in matters of wealth. Since wealth is impermanent, one should not become attached to it or use it for selfish purposes. The following are some of the important beliefs and practices, which are associated with wealth according to Hinduism.

Wealth as divine

According to Hinduism, wealth is not evil. It may be used by evil people or demons for evil ends, but wealth in itself is not evil but divine. In truth, it is an aspect, manifestation or personification of God and part of his materiality and universal body or beingness. Indeed, the whole creation is God’s universal abundance, with which he upholds and nourishes all beings, including gods. Whatever we experience or enjoy through our senses is his wealth only, including the food we eat. The Vedas state that in the beginning of creation, he used parts of his universal body to perform a sacrifice to create all the words and beings. Hence, we are also part of his wealth. Since wealth represents God and is an aspect of God, we have to treat it with respect and spend it wisely, without claiming ownership. God is also known as Paramartha, the higher wealth. In material life artha is important, but in spiritual life one should seek only parmaratha, or the higher wealth of God, which is liberation, by attaining which one seeks nothing.

Wealth as the power of God

In Hinduism Wealth is considered God’s eternal force or Shakti. She is also known as Prakriti (Nature) or Mother Goddess. All the wealth of the universe arises from God through her actions only. In the hands of good people that power leads to peace and happiness, but in the hands of evil ones it leads to chaos and suffering. Just as Shakti has numerous forms, wealth has numerous forms. Some of them are gross and some very subtle. The wealth of God manifests in creation in diverse ways as beauty, name, fame, status, light, success, victory, peace, happiness, strength, knowledge, wisdom, harmony, vigor, virtue and so on. All divine qualities which are enumerated in the Bhagavadgita such as truthfulness, non-injury, absence of anger, renunciation, compassion, etc., are collectively called divine wealth (daiva sampatti).

Wealth as one of the chief aims of human life

According to Hindu way of life, wealth is one of the four chief aims of human life (purusharthas). The other three are Dharma (religious and moral obligations), Kama (sexual pleasure) and Moksha (liberation). They are interdependent. According to Vedic tradition, artha or material wealth becomes important to humans (purushartha) when they become adults and take up the duties of householders. During this phase, they have to perform several obligatory duties and sacrifices to nourish gods, ancestors, dependent family members, and people who seek alms or who approach them for food or help. However, since wealth is impermanent they should not become attached to wealth or distracted by it.

Wealth as a divinity

In Hinduism, Goddess Lakshmi personifies all the wealth and abundance in the universe. As the consort of Maha Vishnu, she assists him in the preservation and continuation of the worlds and beings by ensuring that they receive their due share of abundance according to their respective karma and God’s grace. Whenever Vishnu incarnates upon earth, she also incarnates as his associative power and plays her dutiful role in restoring Dharma and destroying evil. In the pictures she is depicted either as sitting at the feet of Vishnu or residing in his heart, which points to her importance. In creation she manifests in eight forms as primal goddess, goddess of agricultural wealth, goddess of courage, goddess of strength, goddess of progeny, goddess of victory and success, goddess of knowledge, and goddess of material wealth

The manifestations of wealth

Wealth manifests in creation as the attributes of God and as the qualities and powers of Goddess Lakshmi some of which are already described. Goddess Lakshmi manifests in all planes of existence. She is also hidden in all aspects of creation and in all goddesses as their attributes and divine qualities. She also goes by numerous names which are used by devotees in their prayers and invocations. Each name represents a particular aspect, power, quality or force of the goddess. She is also worshipped in Tantra as divine force. As an aspect of Mother Goddess or Prakriti she represents all the dualities and diversity in creation. For example, she not only represents the abundance of wealth, peace and happiness but also the abundance of adversity, poverty (daridra) and suffering.

Six forms of divine wealth

In Hinduism, God has numerous names. Of them one of the most popular one is Bhagavan, which is mostly used as a title rather than a name. Generally speaking, Bhagavan means he who is endowed with all forms of prosperity and divinity. Literally speaking, Bhagavan means he who pervades, controls or illuminates the bhaga (parts) of Prakriti or the material universe. According to another interpretation “bhaga” (as in vibhaga) means giving, distributing, or apportioning. In this sense, Bhagavan means he who apportions or distributes various forms of wealth throughout his creation for the preservation of the worlds and beings. According to the scriptures the Manifested Brahman possesses six divine qualities or abundances namely strength, fame, wealth, knowledge, beauty and detachment. They manifest in his creation also in varying strengths. In gods they manifest according to their role in creation, in humans according to their karmas and in others according to their purpose.

Wealth as an aspect of Dharma

In Hinduism Dharma is the base, the center and the support. Everything else in creation serves its purpose, which is to ensure the order and regularity of the world and their continuation. The same is true with regard to wealth also. The scriptures declare that the root of happiness is dharma (sukhasya mulam dharma), and the root of dharma is the wealth, which is righteously earned (dharmasya mulam artha). Morality or virtue is also part of Dharma only. In other words, in your pursuit of wealth you cannot ignore the importance of upholding Dharma, practicing virtue or achieving liberation. Wealth is the means to practise Dharma and honor your commitments and obligations through rightful means or what we call skillfulness in yoga (yoga kausalam). The Vedic sacrifices are sources of wealth. They ensure the circulation of wealth through exchange of gifts. However, their primary purpose is not to earn wealth, but to nourish the gods, the ancestors, and other beings. Wealth arises from them as a gift from gods, blessings from ancestors or consequence of good karma.

Whether being wealthy is a sin

As we have seen, Hinduism does not consider wealth evil or earning wealth or being wealthy sinful. Wealth is divine, and abundance denotes the presence of God. Hence, wherever there is wealth, there is God and vice versa, which is why we keep the images of gods in our houses. All gods are opulent because they are aspects of God only. They live in luxury and enjoy the abundance of wealth and power. However, being wealthy is fraught with danger, since people can develop attachment to wealth and become easily distracted, whereby they may neglect their duties and fall into evil ways. Hence, having excess wealth is similar to keeping poisonous snakes in the house. Besides, in the hands of an evil person, wealth can become a potential source of evil. Therefore, the scriptures advise people to be aware of the dangers of wealth and avoid being greedy or selfish. One cannot also cling to wealth forever. Once the aims of Dharma are fulfilled, a person has to renounce his wealth and retire to forests to practise renunciation and achieve liberation. Hence, the law books prohibit ownership of wealth for renunciants and forest dwellers who retire from active householder duties and take up the life of renunciation (sanyasa).

How wealth should be earned

The law books suggest strict guidelines for worldly people how they should earn wealth. They advise people not to fall into the trap of excessive materialism or earn wealth through dishonest means, ignoring the aims of Dharma. Worldly people have a right to enjoy wealth as long as they rightfully earn it, without violating or ignoring the principles Dharma. One should avoid stealing other people’s wealth or resort to such evil methods to accumulate wealth. Even businesses should be conducted according to the principles of Dharma only and wealth should be earned as part of one’s moral obligation, duty, service and trust. Householders have to earn wealth according to the rules of Dharma and for upholding Dharma. Since all wealth rightfully belongs to God and nothing is truly owned by anyone else, under no circumstances we should claim ownership of anything. We have a right to earn and use the wealth of God for righteous purposes, but we cannot claim it as our own. Those who do so incur sinful karma and remain bound to the cycle of births and deaths.

How wealth should be spent

In Hinduism, the ends do not justify the means. One must earn wealth strictly by ethical means and spend it for ethical ends. One cannot take liberties with his morality, or his obligation, since it can lead to one’s spiritual downfall. The Vedas declare that if you uphold dharma, dharma will protect you (dharmo rakshita rakshitah). Therefore, the means and the ends are both important. One should earn and spend wealth with an attitude of detachment and renunciation for righteous ends. He who accumulates wealth for selfish reasons, verily accumulates sin. He incurs karma and becomes bound. Wealth is divine, but in the hands of evil people it becomes an evil force. It also becomes evil when a person earns it solely to fulfill his selfish desires or uses it solely for his own enjoyment. Hence, Sri Aurobindo stated that although wealth was divine, for long it remained under the control of evil forces, and it was time good people came forward to regain it and repossess it for the sake of God and righteousness.

Wealth as a deluding power

Wealth is an aspect of Shakti, who is also known as Maya or the deluding power of God. As part of her Dharma or obligatory duty she uses wealth as an intoxicating power to distract people and keep them bound to the cycle of births and deaths. People with the predominance of rajas and tamas are more vulnerable to the influence of Maya. The Bhagavadgita (Chapter 16) explains how people under their influence become self-conceited, arrogant, proud, egoistic and intoxicated with wealth and perform their duties for namesake only out of vanity and against established traditions. By that, they fall down into darker hells, and at the time of their rebirth are cast into demonic wombs. The Isa Upanishad suggests that the right way to live upon earth is to acknowledge God as the source of all wealth and use it with sacrificial attitude, renouncing attachment, egoism, doership and ownership and the desire to use it for selfish ends.

The importance of charity

In Hinduism charity (dana) is considered one of the highest virtues. If nonviolence is the highest virtue on the ascetic path, charity is the highest virtue in worldly life which is not only a good karma but also a purifier which washes away all sins. It is also an important aspect of God’s dharma, since God himself exemplifies it with his charitable and forgiving nature. Therefore, tradition encourages people who are engaged in household duties to give alms and gifts to honorable people such as Brahmanas who possess the knowledge of the Vedas and perform sacrifices, to students of the Vedas who are not allowed to eat food cooked by themselves or by their close relations, to men of wisdom and renunciants on the path of liberation who renounce the use of fire and the use of money and live on other people’s generosity, and to poor people who approach for food or help. Gift giving is also encouraged as part of Vedic ceremonies and sacrifices. The Puranas prescribe several types of charity such as the gifting of cows, land, gold, food, utensils, etc. Charity should be given without expectation and as a sacrifice to God.

The beliefs associated with wealth

Many beliefs and superstitions are associated with wealth in Hinduism. For example, many Hindus believe that if goddess Lakshmi is displeased she will take away peace, wealth and happiness. They also believe that certain days and times are auspicious and conduce to wealth, and one should initiate new projects or perform important tasks on such occasion only. Some people believe that giving certain objects such as curd, milk or money on certain days is inauspicious as it may induce Lakshmi to walk away from their homes. Fridays are considered auspicious for worshipping Lakshmi and receiving wealth, but not giving since she may walk away with those things. If money comes on its own on Fridays, it is believed by some as a sign that the goddess is pleased. The Vastu Shastra prescribes several rules for laying out residential houses, buildings and other constructions to prevent misfortune and loss of wealth and ensure favorable conditions. People also perform vratas and rituals, wear charms and amulets and keep their houses, minds and bodies clean to overcome adversity and please Goddess Lakshmi so that she would bestow upon them good fortune, peace and happiness.

Wealth and the role of chance or fate

Hinduism recognizes the importance of chance or luck as well as individual responsibility in the lives of humans. Both play important roles in matters of wealth. The scriptures suggest that if a person has performed good deeds in previous lives and earned good karma, he may take birth either in a pious family or in a wealthy family or in a noble family according to his predominant desires. The opposite is true with regard to sinners. However, a person may also take birth in a poor family or in adverse conditions if he chooses to learn some lessons, expiate for his past sins or advance on the path of liberation. A person also achieves success, name and fame in his current life according to his or her past and present actions or accumulated karma. Even luck, whether good or bad, is influenced by past actions and may manifest in one’s life as a consequence of karma. However, one can still hope for an improvement in living conditions by engaging in good actions, praying and seeking God’s help.

The dualities of adversity and prosperity

Just as everything in the world manifests in pairs, prosperity, good fortune, good luck and abundance have their own opposites. In Hinduism, they are collectively represented by another goddess who is popularly known as Jyestha Devi (the elder sister) or Bhudevi (the goddess of earth who bears all difficulties). According to the Puranas, she is the elder or the twin sister of Lakshmi and a goddess in her own right. Lakshmi is a rewarding force, and Bhudevi the punishing one. Together they ensure the righteous enforcement of karma and dharma. While people worship Lakshmi out of love and devotion, they worship her sister out of fear and worry. She is chiefly responsible for difficulties, problems, bad luck, suffering, sickness, scarcity, poverty, adversity, calamity, failure and so on which collerectively fructify as one’s fate or the consequence of one’s actions. She manifests in the lives of people in three basic forms, as sorrow (dukham), penury (daridram) and miserable fate or bad luck (daurbhagyam). Therefore, devotees worship Lakshmi, imploring her to protect them from her and the three miseries and grant them peace, prsoperity and happiness.

Manifestation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth

Goddess Lakshmi is the universal Mother. She is the source of all abundance. We have already discussed some of her forms and how she assists God in upholding Dharma and enforces his divine laws. She has numerous forms, which people worship at homes or in temples according to their needs and aspirations. The prayers and invocations to goddess Lakshmi contain references to her numerous manifestations which personify her various qualities, victories and functions. Of them the most significant ones are, Primal Nature, Knowledge, Faith, Power, Cleanliness, Self-control, Strength, Beauty, Light, Intelligence, Perfection, Purity or Sinlessness, Compassionate, Motherly, Righteous, Charitable, etc. The idea is that one should not worship the goddess seeking wealth only. People may approach her for help in times of need, but one should never lose sight of the higher purpose, which is to cultivate purity through austerities and yogic practices and achieve liberation. Goddess Lakshmi personifies purity, beauty and perfection. Those who worship her should do so to cultivate the qualities which she represents and put them to proper use in performing their obligatory duties and upholding God’s Eternal Dharma.

Wealth and asceticism

Those who take the duties of householders have permission in Hinduism to pursue wealth and use it to uphold Dharma and meet family obligations. The four chief aims of human life are meant for householders only. However, those who renounce worldly life and pursue liberation have to shun wealth and worldly comforts and live without desires and expectations. They are not supposed to use fire, use their family names, cook their food or own any property. As the Bhagavadgita declares, they have to be contended with what comes by chance, transcend all dualities and attachments, cultivate sameness and live solely in the contemplation of God. According to tradition, ascetic people cannot carry more than what they need to keep their bodies alive. Many traditions shun the company of wealthy people, or worldly people, as contact with them can lead to temptations and distractions. They may accept food or clothes from others for their survival and daily necessities, but they cannot keep more than a few possessions such as a staff, a begging bowl, sandals or a water jug.

Wealth and inheritance

The continuation of Dharma depends upon the continuation of family. According to the Vedas a father lives through his progeny. His name, fame, status, knowledge, reputation, duties and obligations are transferred to his sons upon his death. They live through them. Therefore, the Hindu law books recognize the right of sons to their father’s wealth. Daughters are entitled to it only in exceptional cases when a person has no sons or when the sons lose their right to property due to gross misconduct, insanity or ostracization. The Dharmashastras are not unanimous on matters concerning wealth and inheritance. The Vashista Sutras declare that a father’s wealth as well his debts fall upon his sons, which should equally be distributed among them. If they are born through different wives, their right depends upon the caste of their mothers and their relative proximity to the father’s lineage. According to Manu if a girl decides to remain unmarried for life, she is entitled to live in her father’s house until she dies. Upon her father’s death she is entitled to receive one fourth of her brothers’ inheritance for her maintenance. If any brother refuses, he becomes an outcast. Upon the death of their father, it is obligatory for his sons to look after their mother.

Conclusion

Thus, Hinduism does not shun wealth or ignore its importance or relevance to the task of upholding Dharma and ensuring the order and regularity of the world. It views wealth as an aspect of God, and worthy of worship. In itself wealth is divine, but becomes evil in the hands of evil forces or when it is earned through selfish and evil means. Wealth is an offering in the sacrifice of life. God is the true owner of all. One may enjoy wealth but not at the expense of one’s own karma or liberation. The principles of Dharma should guide our attitude and relationship with wealth, and how we may use it in pursuit of the chief aims of human life.

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