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Fostering Greed

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

A substantial percentage of Indians appear to be devoured by Greed, propelling the vice to become the cornerstone of their being. In decades past, we enjoyed pointing critical fingers at the capitalist West, even as we brandished our spirituality and religiosity in their faces. We are not a people to be carried away by wealth and money, we proclaimed; we are a spiritual lot, we contended. The iconic Mahatma Gandhi became our badge of honour: we evinced intense pride in him and his impeccable principles, as his name was stamped forever on the world stage and seared into the pages of history.

Since then, much has changed. We appear to have become just as capitalist and consumerist as the societies we once derided. Greed is evident when we read of the incredible number of scams and corruption that have plagued our nation, siphoning away money which rightfully belongs to the citizenry. Greed scores a goal when we read about executives receiving a 250 per cent increase in salary: viz Wipro’s Rishad Premji, who will now make 6 crores per annum. In contrast, his father, the cherished IT czar Azim Premji, who crafted the company in the first place, was given 10 per cent to elevate his annual salary to 87 lakh. The rest of the employees were granted an 8 per cent hike. In  a letter to shareholders, the older Premji decried the current environment in which people are often ensnared by “false choices…Through my years in Wipro, I have learnt that not getting trapped by these choices is at the heart of enduring success…Do we have to shed what is old to become new? We must retain the strengths and learnings of the past, even as we embrace the future by developing new capacities and innovative approaches.” Infosys’ low-keyed and unpretentious Narayana Murthy echoed similar concerns when company executives awarded themselves whopping increases last year.

Greed (avarice, cupidity or covetousness) is the excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved – not for the greater good but for one’s own selfish interest, to the detriment of others and society at large. Greed is most commonly associated with money, possessions, power, fame, status, attention or admiration.

Analogously, it is argued that Greed is programmed into our genes because it promotes progress. Without Greed, a person, community, or society may lack the motivation to build or achieve, move or change:  it engenders positive economic and social growth. Whereas Altruism is a mature and refined virtue, Greed is visceral and ideally suited to the consumer culture. Altruism may attract admiration, but it is Greed that our society venerates, encourages and idolises. It delivers the goods and riches on which we have come to depend. In the 1987 film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas’ character) comments, “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, Greed works. Greed clarifies: it cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

While Greed may be good for economies, it may not be the case for individuals. A person who is consumed by Greed becomes utterly fixated on the object of his greed. Life in all its richness and complexity is reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate and hoard as much as possible of whatever it is that he craves. Even though he has met his every reasonable need and more, he is unable to adapt and reformulate his drives and desires. The problem with Greed is that it feeds upon itself; it grounds us at one of the lowest levels of life’s pyramid, and thereby prevents us from attaining the maximum degree of growth and self-actualisation.

All religions condemn Greed precisely because it prevents us from perceiving the larger picture: it checks us from communing with ourselves and with God. In the Buddhist tradition, Desire for all things worldly holds us back from the path to Enlightenment. In the Christian tradition, Avarice is one of the seven deadly sins. It is portrayed as a form of idolatry that forsakes the love of God for the love of the self and of material things; it abandons things eternal for the temporal. In Purgatory, Dante paints the avaricious as persons bound and prostrate on a hard rock floor, serving out their punishment for attachment to earthly goods and the neglect of higher values. According to St Paul, Greed is the root of all evil: radix omnium malorum avaritia. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna calls Covetousness a great destroyer and the foundation of sin. Sadhguru says that “What you accumulate can be yours, but it should never become You…Most people unfortunately invest their whole lifetime in pursuit of material well-being. This is called, Dying to live.”

Greed is also intrinsically intertwined with showing off: they constitute the two sides of the same coin.  There was a time when you could gauge a person by the watch he wore. During my encounters with various heads of state, I made them pass the watch test: the size and brand of their watches helped me judge their propensity for Greed, it helped me analyse their benevolence towards their people. Were they truly dedicated to the welfare of their nation, or were they in office merely to amass wealth and power? Many Third World politicians, whose countries were steeped in poverty, brandished massive gold and diamond Rolexes and Cartiers; the more charismatic and iconic leaders sported nondescript, inexpensive time-pieces.

Today watches are passé. You can assess the passion and commitment of leadership by the type of car they utilise. Those who are truly absorbed with the plight of their people do not have the need to mount exclusive luxury cars or wrap themselves in flashy displays of convoys and blaring red-batti security. A projection of images which embrace simplicity and humility reflect real character and concern for others.  People must be judged by their actions, not by what they flaunt.  Ostentation invariably reflects Greed.

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