Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #20 – Poverty, Protest, and the Vedic Way

May 17th, 2021

Before I left our ashram in Cali to return to the States, I was asked to address our congregation about the current crisis in the country. Protesters blocked the city roads, and basic commodities could not be trucked into the city in response to a new proposed tax during a time that many families are struggling just to put bread on their tables due to COVID. The lecture posed several challenges due to the complexity of the situation, the limited time I had to present it, and the fact that I wasn’t sure of the audience’s mindset. I thus decided to narrow my focus to how a misunderstanding of destiny exacerbates class conflicts, and how a class of learned teachers are required to guide society through the subtleties of class cooperation and mutual prosperity.


I began by describing an ideal cooperative social system through a common analogy that compares an ideal society to a body where the head (the intellectuals and religious leaders), the arms (the military and administrative class), the stomach (the mercantile class), and the legs (the laborer class) work cooperatively for the benefit of the whole body. Based on that, I discussed how a misunderstanding of destiny/karma can exacerbate class conflict.


For example, if the mercantile class is not cognizant of the law of destiny and instead embraces the concept of meritocracy, a philosophy that professes that whether one is fortunate or unfortunate is solely based on that person’s effort, they can easily become callous to the plight of the poor and not recognize that often, even with a sincere effort, it is impossible for many to overcome their hardships.[1] As a result, policies may be supported that plant seeds of resentment by allowing income disparity to reach a level where the basic needs of the poor are neglected while the more elite continue to prosper.


On the other hand, if those championing the working class seek the unattainable goal of economic equity because of their failure to understand that there will always be people who, by the law of karma, have and create more wealth, they will inevitably need to curtail societal freedom to achieve economic equity, which is artificial and karmically impossible. In that case, as history has often shown, not only will freedom be lost, but by destroying the incentive of those most capable of economic productivity, the over-all economy will become worse, and the most vulnerable and poor will continue to wallow in poverty, exploited by a new elite class: party bureaucrats.


To maintain a society that is economically prosperous, and to avoid a destructive revolution that makes things worse for everyone, the mercantile class must ensure that while expanding their profit the basic needs of all society are met either by a fair share of taxes or the establishment of substantial charitable foundations. If they don’t do this, and they neglect the hungry, the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam warns, they even risk their spiritual life.


“For a person having a differential outlook, who differentiates between the belly of himself and of other living entities, I (the Supreme Lord) appear in the form of all devouring death and continue his existence in the fearsome material world.” (Bhag. 3.29.26)[2]


Of course, this is a complex subject that needs a more comprehensive analysis than a short lecture or a two-page summary can offer. I hope, however, I did show how the knowledge found in our tradition, in this case the teachings of karma, is relevant in addressing social unrest.


I finished my talk by adding an important point emphasized by Śrīla Prabhupāda that needs to be added to any proposed social solution, otherwise even welfare work loses its value. Although one’s basic needs are required to function peacefully, ultimate happiness is internal. Without a class of trained spiritual teachers to guide people and teach the science of the soul, all of society, from the downtrodden to the elite, will be mired in dissatisfaction, envy, and constant strife, no matter how much prosperity they accrue. We must therefore keep Bhaktivinoda’s short instruction at the forefront of all our endeavors, even for social change, if our goal is lasting peace:


“This material world is full of suffering. Chant the holy name of Krishna as our only business.” (Aruṇodaya-kīrtana I, verse 6)




[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/a-belief-in-meritocracy-is-not-only-false-its-bad-for-you

[2] Translation (as per Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī’s commentary) by Hari-parshad das


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