Decoding Spirituality at Work


 

F I F T E E N

Decoding Spirituality at Work


This chapter clears the many misconceptions about spirituality: that spiritualists are not ambitious, that spiritualists will get walked over at the workplace because of their values and that we should not aspire for the nicer things in life.

‘Earn with integrity, spend with compassion.’

—Radhanath Swami


‘So you’re telling me to find my purpose. How can spirituality help?’ Harry asked. His phone rang for a brief moment and then stopped. He checked it and said, ‘Another missed call from my wife. I better check up on her . . .’ He placed the phone to his ear for a minute, but there was no answer again.

‘Is everything okay?’ I questioned.

‘She’s not picking up, but I am sure everything is fine.’

I responded to his original question, ‘Spirituality helps declutter your mind. This clarity gives you the ability to understand your purpose at a deeper level. You don’t have to become a monk like me to practise spirituality!’

‘That’s what Lalita is afraid of,’ Harry chuckled. ‘She thinks if I get too involved, I will also shave my head and join the monastery.’

‘We don’t have any room for you anyway,’ I joked. That really was true—we have so many people come to us to become monks that we are forced to turn some away.

‘It’s not just Lalita. Most people think that if you practise spirituality, your ambition to achieve is compromised. You become satisfied—Zen, like you,’ he said.

‘Do I look satisfied?’ I asked.

‘Well, sort of. I know you’re busy, but don’t you think you would have been more ambitious if you did not practise spirituality? I am sure some of your friends are now millionaires in America!’ he said.

It was a slightly cutting remark, but I was used to it. It’s one of the greatest misconceptions of spirituality. Among many others, this misconception was also addressed by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

‘Let me take your mind back to the battlefield of Kurukshetra,’ I said.

Does Spirituality Kill Ambition?

By now we all know what happened to Arjuna, just as he was about to engage in warfare. For us, it would not be surprising to have a nervous breakdown before battle; most of us are not trained in the military arts and would be fearful of our own deaths. But not Arjuna. He feared harming his grandfathers, his teachers and his own brothers who stood on the other side with arms in hand. He had a strong sense of compassion, but it was misplaced. Not fighting would have inundated the world with social injustice. Arjuna knew that, but knowing something and understanding it are two different things. What is the use of a kingdom, a throne and all this opulence? I can just retire to the forest without harming anyone, he thought.

That is the exact misconception that people have about spiritualists. If you practise spirituality, then you are satisfied with achieving the bare minimum. Why be the managing director of a company when you can be satisfiedbeing a run-of-the-mill worker? In this way, people feel that spirituality kills ambition.

Sri Krishna addressed this issue by urging Arjuna to fight. If Arjuna did not fight, the finite, neutral resources of the world would remain in the hands of the unscrupulous Kauravas, who wished to exploit them and the people under their rule. And as long as people of weak character hold all the resources, society remains in chaos. This is because the resources are used for destructive, self-aggrandizing and selfish purposes. However, if the resources are transferred to the virtuous, they are used constructively for social contribution and as a medium to serve others.

In one sense, spiritualists should be satisfied within themselves. For their personal needs, they should be happy with the bare minimum because they know that things don’t bring happiness. Nevertheless, when it comes to working hard with the aim of serving others, they should not be satisfied. If they are docile and passive, things which could have been used to uplift humanity will not be. Therefore, Krishna inspired Arjuna to fight and win back the throne. In one sense, it was not the throne of the Pandavas. It was the throne of the people of their kingdom who needed the strong value-based leadership of the Pandavas for their society to thrive. Therefore, spirituality does not kill our ambition; it redirects it towards the service of others.

Most people do not have the intention of being completely selfless. To be ambitious and entrepreneurial for yourself is not wrong. There is nothing wrong with having more, earning more and living in luxury. This is coming from a monk whose life’s possessions fit into a 2-metre by 3-metre room. I strongly encourage people to be successful in the world. If you have the desire to have a luxurious life, have an expensive car, have exotic holidays; there is nothing wrong with that. If by the blessings of God we have the ambition and the capacity to achieve more, we must fulfil our potential, not suppress it by force.

What is wrong is if we just live a luxurious life; the important asterisk after ‘living in splendour’ is to assess if we are giving back proportionately. Wealth assists selflessness by enabling one to perform charity. A person may spend crores on their wedding, but is he or she giving proportionate amounts away to help those in need? The standard of our living gives some temporary happiness to our mind, but it does not give deep satisfaction to the heart. Only giving does that. Therefore, I encourage people to passionately pursue their ambitions. But I also tell them that when God blesses us with more because of doing so, we should not only increase the standard of our living but also the standard of our giving.

‘I don’t have a rebuttal to that. However, let’s say that my ambition does not get affected by practising spirituality, does it make me lose my cutting edge?’

Harry asked vaguely.

‘How so?’ I replied as we neared the temple.

‘There is this perception about spiritualists. If you tell someone that you practise spirituality, they look at you funny, as if your ideas and lifestyle are so backward,’ he whined.

‘I don’t agree with that,’ I said. And I didn’t. ‘Spiritualists are some of the most powerful people in the world. Look at civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, or the former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. They were people who practised spirituality.’

‘That’s true, but in the office . . .’

‘So we’re talking about the office!’ I interrupted and laughed. ‘Why did you not say so? We just talked about office politics and how an office is merely a microcosm.’

Harry blushed. ‘In the office . . .’ he paused. ‘If you tell people that you are having a monk over for lunch, they think you are slightly odd. People feel that because you like meditation and yoga and are trying to be humble, others can take advantage of you.’ I understood what Harry was trying to say.

‘That is another misconception that is found in the working world: if you are trying to be virtuous, people will take advantage of you; that spiritual people will get walked over in business. Let me tell you an ancient story of why that is not true.’

The Sage and the Snake

Snakes are both respected and feared in India. According to many stereotypes, India is a land whose economy runs on income from the Taj Mahal, Goa and snake charmers! Of course, that is not true. But you cannot separate snakes and Indian culture—they are part of our landscape.

Thousands of years ago, a group of villagers approached a saintly man who was meditating inside a cave in a mountain. Years of meditation had given him the wisdom to solve any problem that came his way. Panting, the villagers approached him, and with their voices choking with fear, one of them complained, ‘O revered one, please help us. There is a large venomous snake that is terrorizing the village!’ The sage did not respond. He was still in deep meditation. The villagers looked at each other and then pushed the unofficial spokesman to speak again. ‘You can hear the hiss of the snake for miles around. He mercilessly bites anyone on his path, regardless of whether or not he is threatened. As a consequence of this, we are all fearful to venture out in the fields by ourselves, which has led to our crops running dry. The snake’s venom is not the only thing that is killing us off one by one; we are dying of starvation too! We beg of you to help us!’

The saint was naturally compassionate; most genuine, spiritual-minded people are. Understanding the gravity of the situation, he got up from his straw mat and looked at the villagers. ‘Let’s search for that snake,’ he said. The villagers cheered, full of hope as a band of them now trailed behind the saint in search of their hissing enemy.

As they approached the dusty ghost land which was once their home, the bewitching sound of the snake echoed from the other side of the village. It approached the band of villagers with great speed, paying no regard to their pitchforks or torches of fire. The villagers fled for their lives, but the saint stood still, undeterred by the hooded creature that came to attack him. The snake’s slithering and undulating green and black scales shimmered majestically in the sunlight. What beauty! the saint thought. Being confused since the saint was not fleeing like the rest of its prey, the snake stopped and stared at him.

‘Come forth, o magnificent one,’ the saint shouted out. The snake, who had never been treated with such kindness before, was mesmerized by these five words. The warmth of the saint’s words replaced the warmth of the blazing fire it was used to. The snake lost all its ferocity, glided towards the saint and coiled up meekly by his feet in obeisance. The villagers, some of them hiding in the trees and some of them on the other side of the fields, couldn’t hear the conversation. They looked on from a distance, astounded by what they were seeing.

‘I am stunned by your beauty,’ the saint said to the snake, as if they were old friends. ‘But why do you haunt the villagers as you do?’ The snake lowered its hood. ‘Leave your destructive ways and do not terrorize the poor villagers needlessly. Stop biting them—they are no match for you. There is plenty for you to eat in the forest.’ The snake bowed to the saint and resolved to leave the villagers alone. It, too, was stunned by the grace and gravity that the saint commanded.

Anyone can start a new life by making new vows. The snake had done so, too. It turned a new leaf, and scrupulously kept its promise to begin a new life of innocence, without attempting to harm anyone. From that day, the villagers became elated, their crop yield doubled, their cattle grazed without agitation and their children played games in the forest. The saint returned to his cave to continue his journey inward. A happy story? Not yet.

Several months later, the saint came down from the mountain to beg for just enough food from the villagers to keep himself alive. As he travelled to the village, he saw the same snake, coiled up near the root of a tree, lying mangled, practically dead. Its scales had fallen off; it looked emaciated and injured, with sores all over its body.

‘My dear friend, what happened to you?’ the saint enquired with affection.

‘This is the fruit of being good,’ the snake replied. Although its venom had dried up, the snake spoke with bitterness. ‘I obeyed you. I gave up my tormenting ways. I left the villagers alone and stopped attacking them. But see what has happened to me. Everyone pelts me with stones, beats me with sticks, and even the children tease me and drag me mercilessly by my tail. I am now a laughing stock. However, I have kept my promise to you . . .’

The saint smiled and said, ‘O snake, you have done what I have asked, but you have not fully understood my direction. I told you not to bite them, but I said nothing about stopping your ferocious hiss that could deter people for miles on end.’

The snake uncoiled itself and understood what it had to do. The villagers trembled as the hissing sound returned to the area like a bad dream. Both the villagers and the snake lived safely from then on.

‘What a story!’ Harry said.

‘The moral is that spiritual people do not intentionally harm others, nor do they cheat others in business. However, at the same time, they do not behave timidly when it comes to work. Humility or meekness does not mean you are a pushover, it means you understand how to behave properly in all scenarios. Don’t they say, Be straightforward in two things: business and eating. We have to understand that spirituality transforms our character; it doesn’t make us fools!’ I said emphatically.

Harry smiled as I continued, ‘In our ambition to make money, even the sky should not be the limit. But at the same time, we should be wary of the potency money has to distract us and impel us to make compromises with our ideals. If we introspect deeply and have the regular company of spiritual-minded people, we can keep our intentions and actions clean and grow to be a massive success, based on the foundation of good character. It takes time to develop, but good character is a shining light to show us how to live our life. That’s the spiritual principle of sadachar.’

Summary:

  • There are many misconceptions when it comes to being a spiritual-minded person and being successful in the world.
  • One is that spirituality kills our ambitions and zest to achieve. This is false because spirituality just changes our motive to achieve. It makes us want to be hugely successful so that we can have the resources to help others. The story of Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita explains more: Fight and achieve to help others, but be internally content in your personal life.
  • Another is that spiritual people get walked over in business because of their values. The story of the sage and the snake describes how we should stick to our values but be meticulous and straightforward in business.
  • Though we can make as much money as we desire, and use it to serve, we should be wary of its potential to distract us from our purpose.



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