Greedy but not Corrupt

Aug 12, 2012, 08:54 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

Economists, politicians and corporations are all talking about how greed is destroying values and ethics, and is responsible for the current economic meltdown and recession. Greed is seen as a disease that needs to be wiped out and everyone is looking for a quick solution — a law, a set of instructions, a code of conduct that the world needs to comply with.

When the word ‘greedy’ is said, images of corrupt politicians, underworld goons, and insensitive corporations crop up in our minds. Our films, our novels, the media, reinforce this visualisation. Greedy is the bad guy, the evil guy, the vile wretch who the hero destroys.

Yet that was not how the sages saw greed. As they sat in forests, they observed that animals were not greedy. They ate what they needed to eat. They stored what they needed to store. The lion after eating its meal does not trouble the deer. The elephant after having its meal does not destroy any more trees and simply enjoys playing with the herd or swimming in the river. So what makes humans greedy?

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

And they traced it to imagination. Animals cannot imagine — certainly not in the scale humans can. They do not imagine future hunger. We do, and that fills us with fear. We generate and store extra food to provide with that imagined future scarcity.

In animal society, physical strength creates a pecking order. In human society, pecking order is established using other criteria: such as the knowledge we possess, the race or lineage or household we belong to, the weapons we possess, and most critically, the wealth we possess. He who has most money is the dominant alpha. When we dominate, we feel powerful and safe. When we meet someone with more money, we feel powerless and insecure.

And so greed is traced to imagined fear — future scarcity and our imagined position in the social hierarchy. To stay powerful, we need to keep our wealth, grab it and hoard it, not share it, which leads to someone being deprived and being poor.

In the Puranas, fear makes the yakshas hoard wealth, fear makes rakshasas steal wealth, fear makes devas immerse themselves in pleasure and fear makes asuras feel deprived and cheated. They are all sons of Brahma. They inherit Brahma’s fear that makes man cling to things rather than grow in thoughts.

When I look at superstars in the film and sport industry, winning prizes and branding luxury goods, and making zillions by hard work and fair means, I wonder — can they be qualified as greedy?

They have more money to satisfy desires of several generations of their family. But they continue to work, refusing to retire, or make any room for the next generation. They keep charging exorbitant fees and demand tax exemptions and financial rewards from the government. It is legitimate, certainly not criminal. Yet, why is this not qualified as greed?

Is it because they are not fat and ugly and disgusting like certified villains? Are we not endorsing greed when we admire them? They are by no means corrupt. Yet it is through such delightful role models that rot sets into the value system. 

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