At the start of anything new, like New Year, Hindus look towards Ganesha. We want him to remove obstacles from our lives, and usher in prosperity. We have been conditioned to see his big belly or lambodara as a symbol of wealth. We have forgotten that this is the symbol of contentment: for the snake around his belly does not chase the rat at his feet, who in turn does not nibble the modaka sweet that Ganesha holds in his hand. The obstacle to our happiness is the discontentment that seems to be our Zeitgeist.
Business schools tell us never to be satisfied: we must aspire more, compete for more, crush the competition and grab more, because it is a dog-eat-dog world, where losers get nothing. Meanwhile, students of the humanities are shown how unfair the world is, full of the elite and privileged who plunder the earth, and corner wealth and power, by enslaving the rest. So we have to constantly dissent, revolt, push back. It has now even created the cult of ‘woke’: forever angry, relentlessly triggered and totally helpless, despite great privilege.
The discerning eye can see the influence of Western operating systems on both the ambitious Right and the revolutionary Left. The West has been shaped by Greek and the Biblical stories, which have always been at odds with each other. The Right celebrates the individualistic ‘heroic’ ways of the Greek gods that gave us the mighty Roman military, which subjugated the Mediterranean. The humanities, though avowedly atheist, are curiously aligned to the collective Christian way where obedience to the ‘leader’ is celebrated, as in the holy Roman empire, the Knights Templars and the Jesuit missionaries.
Both mythologies made their way into the East India Company that colonised Asia. They also gave rise to capitalism, and socialism, the former indulging the ‘heroic’ elite, the latter indulging the ‘saviour’ leader who leads the exodus against the enslaving pharaoh. We are being told there is no alternative — Greek individualism or Biblical collectivism, the Western way, or no way. We are being fooled that this confrontational stance between the haves and the have-nots is rational, and universal. It is not. It is cultural.
Theory of rebirth
There are many other ways, eclipsed since colonisation, which claimed to be harbingers of enlightenment and humanism. The Indian way, for example. Jain, Buddhist and Hindu worldviews are based on rebirth. The anxiety of being judged in this, our one and only life, does not exist. Here you stay trapped in the merry-go-round of life until you repay your debts to others. Here, hunger is eternal. So is greed. Food does not take away hunger, wealth can amplify your greed. What you should seek is contentment. Success is not finding food or hoarding food, it is outgrowing hunger. In ancient Indian art, the hero or vira, is the one who protects wealth. The Mahavira, or great hero, is the one who outgrows the need for wealth.
Orientalism equated Jainism and Buddhism with monasticism — and so ignored how they inspired mercantile communities to establish the Silk Roads and Cotton Highways, that stretched from Europe through South Asia to Southeast Asia. Orientalism also reconstructed Hinduism with casteism, and mysticism: obscuring rituals that were designed to remind all humans of the importance of repaying debt. In this worldview, suffering makes us narcissistic. The end of suffering, beginning of contentment, makes us think about others.
Values for work and life
Contentment is not the theme of Greek or Biblical mythologies. Greek mythologies valorised achievement: elysium for heroes. Biblical mythologies valorised obedience: jannat for halal, jahannum for haram. These are values that shape work and in life, in an allegedly globalised secular world. In Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu mythologies, the ambitious are unworthy of worship; they are too hungry to be bothered with fairness. Veneration is reserved for those who outgrow hunger, and show compassion for others.
Contentment is not about moving from ‘have-not’ to ‘have’. It is about moving towards ‘sufficient’ so you can identify the ‘surplus’. This contentment does not result in complacency. Complacency is born not of contentment but of insensitivity and indifference. Contentment expands our gaze: we move from focussing on the ‘sufficiency for the self’ to a perspective on ‘surplus for others’.
Generations of devotees have been distracted by Ganesha’s belly to ask why it houses the predator (snake) and its prey (rat). Or why Ganesha with food in his hand has a pest (rat) as his pet. The greatest obstacle we need to overcome is our obsession with our wants and needs. This is why the elite today seem trapped in the cult of the eternally famished, constantly at war, fearing loss of privilege. When you constantly believe that what you have is insufficient, you will never find the surplus to invest in others.
Devdutt Pattanaik is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.