Towards a Dharma-based Economy – II
by Swami Atmarupananda on 03 Mar 2017 2 Comments

The first blow to this philosophy of work happened in the early nineteenth century. As the Industrial Revolution began to reshape society, people who had once earned their livelihood by farming or through manual skills, like blacksmithing and shoemaking, began to work for wages in factories. Previously they had worked with a degree of autonomy, producing a needed good in exchange for which they earned money, which in turn allowed them to buy the necessities of life; their work was associated with accomplishment, pride, and they had a well-defined place in society.


As the economic system began to change, people could no longer support themselves in the old way, and were forced into urban labour pools. Now they worked in return for wages for someone who controlled production and distribution; they were cogs in a larger machine, and were replaceable. This was widely recognised as a new form of slavery – wage Slavery - when it first arose. Now it is taken as natural. Most people today work long hours all week, week after week, in order to get money: their work often has little or nothing to do with their sense of identity or with a sense of fulfilment. They work for a pay check which allows them to buy what they want, and to entertain themselves in the very little time left to them outside of the workplace.


Another element of the present economic dilemma is of very recent origin - the phenomenal growth of the financial sector in society, in Europe, the Americas, Japan, and increasingly in developing countries like India and China. The financial sector has been around as long as there has been some form of money. Its primary purpose is to make unused money available for use by those who need it and can put it to good use. You have extra money that is sitting idle; I want to start a small business, and I have all the know-how and drive to do it, but no money. So you make the money available to me directly, or, in a more complex society, through financial institutions. And my success is partly owned by you as my financier, and so you profit as I profit. That is a social good.


But in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, the financial sector has grown huge, and has become a way to make money out of money, huge amounts of money, making some people fabulously wealthy: it’s a legal form of gambling. The problem is, in itself it contributes nothing to society. It isn’t generating wealth by producing a social good, and wealth has to come from somewhere: it can’t just be wished into existence. And so it is coming at the expense of actual social good, and it - among several other factors - is helping to create wealth inequality that hasn’t been seen in generations.


All of these problems that we have discussed - the need to foster constant economic growth in order to service debt, the destruction of the commons, the conversion of the citizen into the consumer, the fostering of dissatisfaction in the populace in order to stimulate artificial wants-based - as opposed to needs-based - purchases, the decline of the work ethic, the introduction of wage slavery, the cancerous growth of the financial sector, as well as other factors, amplify one another.


And it’s not that this system ever really worked well for human happiness. It was more of a promise of future happiness, plus present sufficiency of food and clothing and shelter and consumer choices and entertainment for enough citizen-consumers to prevent popular revolt.


But now it isn’t working and gradually that will be evident to people. Right now there’s general awareness that the system isn’t working well, but most people, including most professional economists, believe that we just need to make some minor adjustments to get the engine of society going smoothly again. No, it’s broken, not theoretically but actually, and the inherent contradictions can no longer be sustained.


So what is the way out ? The solution is nothing short of a grand new story based on a new and truer view of self, of the world, of humanity, of meaning, of happiness, of freedom, of relationships, and of the meaning and purpose of life. That will be the real solution.


The problem is, we are at a point of desperation, and can’t wait for a new story to percolate through society and take hold and express itself through new institutions: that takes generations. Yes, that will still have to happen, but short-term thinking is needed as well as long-term thinking. And we need experimentation with new models.


Now, then, let us first look at some broad ideas that need to form the basis of any new system, focussing on the economic aspect. And then we’ll look at some of the experiments that are happening, and which show promise.


Since we are meeting here as representatives of the dharma traditions, we will speak of a dharma-based economic system, and what that might look like. Remember, all human institutions are based on stories; in fact, the very way in which we perceive the world is based on stories. And so, if the story told is based on dharma - broadly defined, non-sectarian, and aware of the universal principles that unite our traditions - how does that work itself out in economic terms?


First of all, whether you take the Buddhist principle of dependent origination or the Hindu and Sikh principle of the oneness underlying diversity,[4] there is the basic shared principle that we are all connected, and that intimate connection is not just theoretical: with practice it begins to become perceptual. That is, it is factual. From that comes love for all, sympathy for all, compassionate action towards all.


And when that principle is applied to economics, we get an economy based on sharing. There is nothing wrong with the creation of wealth, if it is done ethically, but wealth is meant for distribution. Not a crude egalitarianism which mandates that everyone have exactly the same, but an equality of opportunity, plus the provision of everyone’s basic needs and comforts, above and beyond which others are free to create more personal wealth. Sharing, rather than hoarding, needs to be favoured, structurally.


What else flows from this dharmic idea of connectedness? A model of cooperation rather than competition. Yes, competition is part of life, it’s the basis of sports and many games, it is often what motivates a person to better oneself; but in the modern system, which started in the West with the decline of Christian spirituality, competition has come to be seen as the basic driving force of life. Of course, there is one exception as this works itself out in the present society: those with power and resources are assiduous in reducing the competition that they face, while encouraging competition for everyone else. But competition isn’t the basic driving force of life, not even in the animal kingdom. Cooperation is far more important to social wellbeing than competition.


What else? Because we are either all interdependent or ultimately all one, we are responsible for the welfare of others, because my own welfare lies in the welfare of others. And therefore service to others and self-sacrifice have to be intrinsic parts of the new story on which society is founded. When I was a young monk, I was surprised to hear the head of the monastery speak of sacrifice as a grand and glorious thing. I knew sacrifice as something morally necessary, but to me it meant doing without something I really wanted in order to give it to someone else; that is, sacrifice meant loss and frustration; it also meant I wasn’t worthy, ever, because others were always more worthy.


But I learned that the head of the monastery had heard different stories about sacrifice, which made it something glorious and liberating to him, it was something which made him larger. That’s another topic, but again, it comes down to stories, and some stories are truer than others. The glory of service and self-sacrifice are part of a better story, based on a universal truth. There are other foundational ideas, springing from our common understanding of karma and of a universal moral order underlying the universe - that is, a morality not based on the likes and dislikes of a deity, but one that is broad and impersonal, part of the structure of the universe.

Karma and this universal moral order also work themselves out at the economic level, but there is no time to discuss that now; the larger implications are easily enough understood anyway. Now, let us go from broad principles to more specific ideas. In the interests of time, I will simply list the main ideas that follow from the preceding discussion, without explicitly stating the connection to dharmic principles, such connections being fairly obvious:


-        We need to re-establish the commons, broadly, with the understanding that the basic resources necessary to sustain life belong to the people and cannot be privatised by corporations.


-        We need an economy that finds its health in stasis, in equilibrium, not in constant growth.


-        Privilege of opportunity must be reined in, not through a crude egalitarianism of resources, but an equality of opportunity, plus the provision of everyone’s basic needs.


-        The financial sector must once again serve the simple and boring purpose it was meant to serve: providing available money to those who demonstrate that they can use it well.


-        We must go back to a needs-based economy that is not dependent upon stimulating an artificial and constant sense of want. Those real needs are not just material: they can be aesthetic, intellectual, social, cultural, religious, and so on.


-        Corporations must serve social needs, responsibly, with consequences for irresponsible behaviour, and their political power must be subordinated to the power of the citizenry.


-        The mad rush to privatise knowledge - through patenting and copyrighting – must be reined in. All patents and copyrights must be restricted to a shorter time-frame, as they once were, allowing an inventor or creator to get monetary benefit, after which the knowledge  becomes public domain. Results of research at public universities and government-funded institutions must go directly into the public domain. And the realms of knowledge which are patentable must be restricted: absolutely no patenting of life-processes, period; no patenting of simple computer routines and algorithms; limits on the patenting and pricing of life-saving pharmaceuticals; and so on.


-        A new philosophy of work is desperately needed. Work as experimentation with Reality, work as self-exploration and world-exploration, work as self-expression, work as a means for manifesting the glory of the Self in Hindu, Sikh, and Jaina terms or the glory of the Enlightened Mind in Buddhist terms - in other words, ‘work as yoga’ – is the need of the age.


In conclusion, let me state that experiments are already underway in many parts of the world, effecting these very ideas. Some will work, some won’t - that’s the nature of experimentation. Those that work will tend to spread, if enough people see the need and value in them. But even those experiments that don’t work deserve our gratitude, because they also are part of the process, and we learn at least as much from mistakes as from successes.


I wish to mention a few in order to show the variety of experiments that are underway, even if most of them are not consciously ‘dharma based’; however they do illustrate some principles that a dharma-based economy would  recognise. This is not an endorsement of any of the programs, because I haven’t looked deeply into all of them, but just a short and incomplete list
of examples. Local currencies that keep money circulating within a community are being tried in many places; worker cooperatives and worker-owned businesses are being tried; sustainable communities - with various definitions of ‘sustainable’ - are sprouting; the locally-grown food movement is spreading; ‘solidarity economies’, local economies, Buddhist economies, Gandhian economies, and gift economies are all being tried.


The GNH or Gross National Happiness program in Bhutan - whose Program Director, Dr Tho, is sitting next to me, and whose Executive Director, Dr Saamdu Chetri, is sitting over there - is a wonderful example of an innovative project. Food forests, distributed power generation systems, the Zapatista movement in Mexico, the Ejido Movement in Mexico - unfortunately and unfairly ended in 1992, after nine decades, as a concession to US demands - Auroville in Puducherry, the original Kibbutz movement in Israel, the libertarian socialism of the Kurds in northern Syria, all of these and many more are signs of the awakening to the need for new social models.


Eventually society itself - the living whole - will promote what works for its own survival. Society is an organism, not a machine, and like an organism, it follows its own laws of growth, and has its own self-corrective processes, like an auto-immune system, which we must work with, not against or in ignorance of. Therefore evolution rather than revolution is the path forward. That is, society itself will decide what it needs. Our part is not to impose our solutions, but to recognise the general need, to sow the non-theological, life-giving, experiential ideas of dharma, and to be open to solutions as they develop. Out of that the society of the future will flower, for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many: bahujanahitaya, bahujanasukhaya.



[1] Dharmacharya in the Zen lineage of Thich Naht Hanh, and also the Program Director of the Gross National Happiness (gnh) Centre, Bhutan.

[2] This is the view of the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna.

[3] And practically all economies now fall within the spectrum of capitalism.  In the Soviet and Maoist systems, private ownership of capital was replaced by state ownership, which is really state capitalism - state-owned and state-planned economies as opposed to private enterprise systems. In a true  socialist system, the workers in an enterprise collectively control production, distribution, and capital assets. Stalin instituted state capitalism and simply declared it socialism, and Mao followed his example.

[4] The Jaina perspective here, though somewhat different from the Buddhist and Hindu-Sikh, can also be harmonised, but is not separately included in the interests of simplicity.



Courtesy Prabuddha Bharata, February 2017

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