The Money Analogy and the Politics of Doing the Right Thing

According to Vaishnava teaching, one can gauge a person’s spiritual status by how they react to finding money on the street: Do they keep it for themselves? Do they leave it lying there?
By Satyaraj Dasa (Steven Rosen) on 9 Sep 2011 for ISKCON News
Begging cat on the street

According to Vaishnava teaching, one can gauge a person’s spiritual status by how they react to finding money on the street: Do they keep it for themselves? Do they leave it lying there? Or do they look for the original owner? What would you do?

In Sanskrit, there are three terms that cover the gamut of possible reactions to finding money in the street: bhoga, (enjoyment); tyaga (renunciation); and seva (a service attitude). His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada often commented on this “money analogy,” saying that a bhogi is one who finds money in the street and uses it for his own purposes. This is the enjoying spirit to which most people are slaves. Their senses dictate what they do. The world is meant for their pleasure. If they find something that doesn’t belong to them, no matter, they will use it as they see fit.

A step beyond this is the tyagi. Here is someone who realizes the value of renunciation. Such a person has risen beyond the usual pleasures of the world, at least to a certain degree, and is now rejoicing in more subtle forms of material enjoyment. At best, they know that nothing in this world truly belongs to them, and they are thus willing to relinquish the enjoying spirit to some extent. In Prabhupada’s analogy, this person leaves the money in the street: “It’s not mine, and I have nothing to do with it.”

As laudable as this approach might at first seem, a superior mode of behavior quickly reveals itself to a thoughtful person. The mon- ey left in the street obviously belongs to someone. Why not pick it up and give it back to its original owner? If it is at all possible to discern who left the money there in the first place, wouldn’t the best course of action involve returning it to that person? This is called seva, or divine service.

But this is all to illustrate an analogy.

If we take the accouterments of this world and use it in God’s service — for it all obviously belongs to Him/Her — we are then proper- ly reacting to the phenomena we see around us. Otherwise, we are merely thieves.

Sometimes Prabhupada would use this same analogy to highlight three other Sanskrit words: karma, jnana, and bhakti, which are closely related to the other three words mentioned above. Prabhupada’s use of the analogy is always enlightening:

There is another example. Just like somebody drops his money bag, unconsciously drops. So somebody picks up and he thinks, “Oh, here is so much money. Put it in my pocket.” [laughter] He’s a thief. He’s a thief. That is karmi. Karmi is trying to simply take from God’s property and put it in his own pocket. That is karmi.
“Bring me more. Bring me more. Bring me more.” And the jnani, he sees that one purse is there, somebody has left, so “Why shall I touch it? Let it remain there.” He doesn’t touch anyone’s property. Jnani: “Why shall I be criminal? Let it remain.” He’s jnani. But a bhakta, he finds a purse, so what is his duty? He does not put it into his back pocket; neither does he throw it away — “let it stay there.” He finds out, “Who is the proprietor? Who is the pro- prietor?” So he can ask somebody if anyone has lost anything. So somebody says, “Yes, yes. I have lost my purse.” So you can examine whether it belongs to him: “I will now examine it.

Sir, here is the purse.” “Yes, it is mine.” So these three men, who is best? Hmm? The man who takes the purse and puts it in his pocket — is he the best? Or is it the man who neglects it? This second one says, brahma satyam jagan mithya, “Why shall I touch it? It is mith- ya. It is false.” Eh? He is good? Or the one who finds out and gives to the proprietor? Who is good?(Srimad- Bhagavatam 6.1.31, lecture — Honolulu, May 30, 1976)

What would you do?

In fact, life presents us with this choice, or choices that reflect similar truths. Let’s face it: the world is not ours for the taking. It be- longs to God. We are simply here as visitors, and we’ll be leaving all-too-quickly. While here, we should use whatever is given to us in the service of the Lord. How can we pretend that anything really belongs to us? The natural elements come from God. Everything we see, taste, touch, smell or hold dear are “His/Hers.” Are we not thieves — bhogis or karmis — if we just take it for our own enjoyment, without recognize to whom it really belongs? Are we not thieves, too — call it tyagis or jnanis — if we renounce the world, which was given us by our Maker? Are we not obviously put here for a reason — not to enjoy or renounce but to serve? Clearly, the virtuous per- son is the sevaite or the bhakta — the person who sees that nothing really belongs to her but that everything belongs to God. Such
vision necessitates using all things of this world in God’s service. This is the realization that Vaishnava tradition hopes to share with the world.

Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-nine books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008); the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is founding editor of Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008); and Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita (Praeger-Greenwood, 2010). the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and an associate editor of Back to Godhead Magazine. Rosen is also the author of numerous books, including the popular Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance (Continuum International, 2000) and The Hidden Glory of India (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2002). Several years ago he was called upon by Greenwood Press, a major academic publisher, to write the Hinduism volume for their “Introduction to the World’s Major Religions” series. The book did so well that they further commissioned him to write Essential Hinduism, a more comprehensive treatment of the same subject, under the auspices of their prestigious parent company (Praeger), and the book is now receiving worldwide acclaim. Rosen’s books have appeared in several languages, including Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech, Swedish, Chinese, and Russian.

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