A Poverty of Spirit

Research figures just released reveal an alarming rise in the number of impoverished households in the UK. The Poverty and Social Exclusion project, based on interviews with more than 14,500 people in Britain and Northern Ireland has reported:
• More than 500,000 children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly
• 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions
• 12 million people are too poor to engage in common social activities
• About 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing
According to the most recent figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, some 20% of the population in Britain live below the poverty line. Nearly a million people in the UK received food from food banks in the last year – and that figure is growing. Worldwide, of course, it is even worse. The World Bank’s latest figures show that more than 2 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 a day.

A few years ago I saw the late Nelson Mandela speaking in Trafalgar Square in support of the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign. Addressing a crowd of thousands, he said, “In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty.” He went on to say that the huge problem of world poverty is “man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Surely this is true, but what are those actions? At least here in the UK things have actually got worse since Mandela’s 2005 speech, and are still heading in the wrong direction, as the above research indicates. So what can be done?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said the world has enough for man’s need, but not his greed. Often at the root of world scarcity and need is exploitation of one nation by another, driven by rampant consumerism. The average US citizen, for example, consumes thirty times more resources than his Indian or African counterpart. We in the UK are not far behind.

It seems we are insatiable for more and more technological marvels, for gas-guzzling cars, exotic foods, the latest fashions, and yet another pair of shoes. Capitalising on our rapacious desires, vested interests in the shape of big corporations are amassing huge piles of cash, while the debt ridden masses, lured by their endless advertising, sink into all kinds of poverty.

But what do we really need? Can a bigger TV or the latest I-phone actually make us happy? The very fact that we consume never ending supplies of newer and newer inventions should give us a clue.

The motto of the Krishna movement is “simple living, high thinking.” In other words human life is seen as having a higher purpose than satisfying our senses and minds. By minimising our material needs we simplify our lives and free up time for spiritual practise, and by such practise we reduce our desires and become peaceful. It is the endless stream of worldly desires and our vain attempts to satisfy them that destroy our peace of mind, impelling us to excessively exploit the earth for her precious resources. Thus we create an imbalance and its consequential poverty for so many.

Although initiatives such as Make Poverty History and more recent efforts such as The Hunger Project may offer some immediate relief, these are only external solutions. We need to address the deeper causes of the problem, causes that may well lie in our own hearts. Ultimately it is a poverty of spirit in both practise and understanding that leads to material poverty. The spiritual teachings of the Vedas, such as the Bhagavad-gita, say that God has provided us with everything but we should take only what we require. Actually the world and its wealth belongs to God not us. If we take more than we need we become thieves. Ultimately we are punished by the material energy, suffering shortages and so many other problems, such as the impending ecological crisis threatening to envelop us all.

The best way to tackle world poverty and indeed all other material problems is to simply abide by the divine instructions given by God, depending on him for our needs while engaging in spiritual practise to keep our desires and demands in check. Only then will we be peaceful and happy.