Why, oh why, are they so materialistic?

Prashant has raised a very interesting point. And one of the more important statements he makes is “… several religions of the world preach that material belongings are unimportant.”

Indeed material belongings are unimportant. If several religions of the world make that point, they are indeed right. But if they don’t go to the next step, they have only a partial grasp of the true nature of things. The next step is to make sure that one does not get bogged down with having to mess around with the unimportant. Here is where “The Panchatantra” is wiser than most half-assed religions.

Check out a brief intro to the Panchatantra from my blog. From the introduction to the translation by Arthur Ryder:

The Panchatantra, being very wise, never falls into the vulgar error of supposing money to be important. Money must be there, in reasonable amount, because it is unimportant, and what wise man permits things unimportant to occupy his mind? … Needless to say, worldly property need not be, indeed should not be, too extensive, since it has no value in possession, but only in use…

Most people are “materialistic” because they don’t have sufficient material. If they had the required material, they would not be “materialistic.” Humans are rational creatures. They will not bother with something that is unimportant. A thing only becomes important when there is a shortage. To make a thing unimportant, see that reasonable amounts of the stuff is available.

Water is unimportant only when there is sufficient amounts available to go around. If you are stranded in a lifeboat, water becomes important. You can make the most impassioned speeches about the greatness of self-sacrifice and nobleness of sharing, but it will not amount to a hill of beans when there is only a little water left and people have to fight to survive.

The objection would be that some people can be “too materialistic.” Let me try to understand that. I suppose it means that some people spend too much of their time running after material things. So what? It is their time and it is what they evidently value. They have nothing better to do. For myself, beyond my basic material requirements (basic as defined by me, not by anyone else), I am quite happy to pursue other interests that I have. As far as I am concerned, a person who spends all his time and effort gathering stuff is more to be pitied than censured. He is being stupid and missing out on other things that life has to offer.

Running after material things at the cost of everything else is stupid, not immoral. So the proper attitude towards these people ought to be, “You are astonishingly stupid”, not “Be good or else god will punish you.” I recall one of Tolstoy’s stories called “How much land does a man need?”

Since I had read it when I was a wee laddie, the details are murky. But the essential bits are these. A man in Russia was granted a fortune in land by the tsar. He could have all the land his heart desired provided he could mark out the territory on foot between sunrise and sunset and be back where he started. So on one fine long day, he starts off at the crack of dawn and runs as fast as he can marking land for himself. He keeps up a very fast pace throughout the day and although he has to get back before sunset, he is tempted by the next field and so on. Eventually, he starts running back to the starting point. He just barely makes it as the sun is setting. He has collected a huge amount of land. He collapses on the ground through sheer exhaustion from running for land and dies.

They bury him right there — in a plot 6 feet long, 3 feet wide. That’s how much land a man needs.

11 thoughts on “Why, oh why, are they so materialistic?

  1. Wow…a very well written entry and a vital issue. I guess all cultures preach that we dont get hooked on to anything…cos excessive attachement be it to wealth…love /anythings brings great grief. Also thanks for bringing to my memory that story by Tosltoy…brought me back memories of high school:)


  2. Amazing!! There was a story by Munshi Premchand, called “6 Beegha Zameen” which conveys the same message in the from of an astonishingly similar story. Cultural background not withstanding, i guess the issues and dilemmas facing all of us are very similar. Moh-maaya, excessive greed, and so on. Nice post.


  3. Well, i agree that greed is necessary. But I DO NOT agree that it is unquantifiable. There is something called “reason” or “logic” whatever is in defiance of objective reason is excessive. consider this–
    If you get land, you want to enjoy it; if you have to enjoy it, you have to be alive; if you have to be alive, you have to know the limit you can walk or run or whatever; if you know the limit, you have to stick to it; if you stick to it, you have to restrict the amount of land you will cover. So ultimately—If you want the land and to enjoy it, restrict the amount of land to the limits of your physical endurance. Anything in defiance will be termed excessive. “excessive” might be un-generalise-able, but not unquantifiable. Simple, isnt it?


  4. I think there is a cognitive (if not semantic)difference between greed and self interest. Self interest is essential for a normal society, greed however is not.



  5. That Tolstoy story was nice. Reminded me of this couplet:
    yaad rakh Sikandar ke hausle tau aali the
    jab gaya tha duniya se donon haath khaali the

    from the awesome qawwali “chadhta sooraj dheerey dheerey dhalta hai dhal jaayega”.

    King Alexander had grand plans and visions. But when he left the face of this earth, he left empty handed.

    (Apparently Alexander had asked that both his hands be left out hanging from his coffin, so that people can know that even a man so rich, goes back with nothing. Not sure if it’s true or just a myth, but something which I’ve heard from many different sources, including my parents as a lesson while growing up).

    ps: even if you don’t like qawwalis, I still recommend reading its lyrics. It’s one helluva poetic composition. Thanks for making my day by just reminding me abt it.
    pps: preview button and/or “remember me” checkbox, pleaaase!:-)

    Atanu’s response: Suhail, that brings to mind the lines from the poem Ozymandias by Shelley: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” And how can one forget the immortal lines from old Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat?

    They say that the Lion and the Lizard keep
    The courts where Jamsheyd gloried and drank deep.
    And Behram–that great hunter–the wild ass stamps over his head
    And he lies fast asleep.

    Now about the preview and the remember-me features: I will ask my support people to help but I am not very hopeful.


  6. I am reminded of Ishavasy Upanishad:
    “Ishavasyam idam sarvam yat kim cha jagatyam jagat
    tena tyaktyena bhunjithaa maa grudhau, kasyasvid dhanam”

    Everything that is in this world is the abode of the brahman. (hence) enjoy it with non-attachment. do not covet. (after-all) what is wealth?


  7. Hi there, Nice article.. I feel the same as how you felt in the article. But, the sad fact is that people are getting so greedy day-by-day that they are creating HELL right here on earth for themselves. I hope they would spend sometime in understand such good things and not be ignorant.


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