A Life of Contentment

In Thailand there is a tradition that every person must live the life of a monk for a while. What is the reason?

In Thailand every Buddhist has to adopt the lifestyle of a monk for some time. He shaves off his hair, wears geru clothes, begs for alms, sleeps on the floor and lives in a monastery. This is applicable to all Buddhists, prince or pauper.

I have lived on alms, too. I did not need to, but I purposely undertook seeking alms for four to five years. I did it because it was essential for my mental growth and mental health. Whatever I have gained in life can be attributed to this mode of living. There was absolutely no necessity of begging because my needs were limited, and I had neither family nor children. Why should I have sought alms? In Benares where I was, one never starves, yet begging and resting for the night in a dharmashala, under a tree or in the veranda of someone’s house have such reactions on the mind and body that one’s mental and spiritual life is uplifted.

I do not know when and how it began, but this mendicant lifestyle is prescribed in all religions of the world. It is there among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jains. I have wandered from Afghanistan to Burma. Whenever I had some money, I undertook a train journey. One could travel to Benares without a ticket also. In those days, sadhus received a lot of support. Now it is very difficult. I moved around a lot in 1945 in Afghanistan, Baluchistan, etc. In Assam I took elephant rides. In Madhya Pradesh I lived among the adivasis, tribal people, in places where there were no roads, where even bicycles could not reach. I used to sleep in cowsheds. The adivasis were very poor. One of them fed me with mouse soup for two months, and I drank it unawares. I was doing my chaturmas in Bastar. One of the disciples of my Guruji was a revenue inspector there. When I asked for a place of solitude he took me to the adivasi village for solitary living. The huts there have only one big room. Everything happens there. They all sleep in the same room in a row. I too used to sleep in the same row along with them. During the day I would sit under a tree on a mat of leaves. My host would bring me rice and mouse soup. After the completion of two months the revenue inspector came to take me back. He too was served the same meal. He asked the adivasi what it was and learned that it was mouse soup. We were shocked, but the soup had no adverse effect on me. I understood his poverty because of which he could serve me nothing better. I was surprised to find that the soup affected neither my body nor mind. There were many such incidents in my mendicant life.

The choice of the life of poverty, of begging, is a therapy. It removes sickness. Poverty is not a curse, but its distress is a curse. Poverty is a curse when you feel its pangs. The Mahabharata tells how when Dronacharya saw the utter disappointment on his son Ashwatthama’s face at being denied milk, his heart moved so much that he shifted his loyalty from the Pandavas to the Kauravas. When your wife or parents complain about some deprivation, it stings your heart. Even I would have been affected if I had had children and a wife. There was nobody to take me to task for not earning a living, and I was happy that way. However, I saw how unhappy people are, both the haves and the have-nots. Those who have no money are unhappy because of deprivation and those who have plenty are unhappy for not having more. They become greedier and unhappier. All the saints – Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi – were beggars. Nietzsche, the great political philosopher was poverty-stricken. There are many more examples like that. The great mathematician Ramanujam died of untreated tuberculosis.

Excess of money also brings sickness because a smug complacency, a false security comes to you, which leads to excessive enjoyment. Excessive enjoyment invites ill health and ill fame. You also harbour the fear of the income tax department. Everything that makes you happy and comfortable is packaged with fear and anxiety. Therefore, money should go to him who will spend if for the well-being of others. He may then earn millions of rupees, but he will not claim its ownership. He will consider himself a trustee.

There is a story about Mahatma Gandhi. Once, his wife Kasturba found a four-anna coin lying on the floor of the ashram. In those days four annas had a lot of value. She picked it up and bought a toy for her grandchildren. Gandhiji learned about it and lost his temper. He told her that the money belonged to the institution; it was not his, even though it was given to him. He told her that she was not to use a change of sari till she weaved a new one by herself. He wrote about this incident in the ashram bulletin Harijan Patrika under the heading, ‘Embezzlement in Gandhi Family’.

If a person sets aside one part of his income for the family, one part for the society and one part for the people who live below the poverty line, then even if he amasses wealth it does not matter. It does not breed vice. This allocation of money is righteous because, after all, the money that you earn comes to you from society. So you owe it to society. Society gives you education and employment, builds your house, builds social systems of law and order, sets up public utility services and maintains your security. For all this you are indebted to society. That is called social debt.

Everyone has to pay back five kinds of debt. The first is social debt. Then there is the debt you owe to your mentors and educators who contribute to your intellectual growth. One more debt is the one you owe to the poorest and helpless section of society. The saint pays back all the debts as did Mother Teresa. Sainthood is not conferred as a degree or qualification. Those who pay back this debt are called saints. A saint is one who dedicates himself and everything he has to those who have no one to look after them, the loveless and the orphaned. Even God is described like this. He is the One who gives refuge to the hapless and the loveless. He is deenabandhu, friend of the poor. He is deenanath, lord of the poor. He is deendayal, merciful towards the poor.

If all the moneyed people follow the rule of sharing, of reaching out to the needy, then money is not harmful. Then you need not be worried about money. Money creates havoc only when it is put to selfish use, greedy consumerism and unlimited sensual enjoyment. I am not criticizing money as such. And I do not denounce poverty as such. I only condemn its distress and suffering; otherwise, poverty is a positive quality. Similarly, wealth is a curse and a blessing at the same time.

—13 September, 1997