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The value of money

July 18, 2012

Money is a very strange object indeed. Most men want to possess money without realizing that slowly money begins to possess man. Though one may argue that one should not be preoccupied with making money, one cannot do without it. In a world that is driven by commercial relationships, one cannot imagine functioning without money. Economists define money in terms of the three functions that it serves. It is a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. Money’s most important function is as a medium of exchange to facilitate transactions. Without money, all transactions would have to be conducted by barter, which involves direct exchange of one good or service for another. In order to be a medium of exchange, money must hold its value over time; that is, it must be a store of value. If money could not be stored for some period of time and still remain valuable in exchange, it would not be something that man would covet to possess. Money also functions as a unit of account, providing a common measure of the value of goods and services being exchanged.

Though it is only a means of transacting in this world, most of us have come to become dependent on it. Money is also central to many a relationship, whether personal or professional, and success or failure is today determined in sheer monetary terms. While one can easily reconcile possessing and using money in a householder’s life, it is different to understand how monks should relate to money. Traditionally, the concept of Sannyasa was to embrace austerity and celibacy. A sannyasi had no real use for money; and gold and a piece of stone were supposed to mean the same to him. This is indeed hard to imagine as today many monks and ashrams have got into the world of serving society, which necessarily means that they have to interface with money on a daily basis. They have built institutions that not only are in constant need of monetary donations but also generate wealth in many cases.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was one of those rare monks for whom money not only meant nothing, but was also a source of irritation. His whole body was known to experience a severe burning sensation whenever he came in contact with money. He always used to tell his disciples that ‘Gold’ and ‘Lust’ were the two main things that a monk had to be cautious about. It is indeed interesting to see how Swami Vivekananda, who was brought up with this background, dealt with money. During his parivrajaka days, he carried no money and left himself completely at the mercy of the many kind souls who supported him. He had accepted the vow of poverty and saw no need for money. Once he reached the West, he was subjected to the painful experience of not having enough money to meet even his daily needs of food and stay. He had become famous after the Chicago lecture and was a much sought-after public figure. He was being invited to deliver lectures all over the United States and had signed up with a lecture bureau that organized his talks. He was soon to learn that the bureau was exploiting him and he started managing his own lectures with the help of the few friends and well-wishers that he had now got. While in Los Angeles in early 1900, he was even criticized for charging for his lectures and derided for breaking his monastic vows. Vivekananda knew that he had to collect as much money as he could from the prosperous West in order to be used in ameliorating the suffering of the downtrodden masses in his own beloved India. Despite the clarity of how the money that he raised should be used, Swamiji also had his own self-doubts. There were instances when he gave up the idea of charging for his lectures and raising money, refused donations and even returned the money to donors in some cases. He wrote then to Alasinga Perumal, “You know the greatest difficulty with me is to keep or even to touch money. It is disgusting and debasing.” Later he wrote again, “The public lecture plan I intend to give up entirely, as I find the best thing for me to do is to step entirely out of the money question – either in public lectures or private classes.”

Things changed when he went to America for the second time. The monastic organization in India needed funds and so did the work that he was planning for the regeneration of the masses. He now understood the practical necessity of dealing in monetary issues. He knew that Institutions cannot be built without money and he was clear that it was a tool that he needed to use wisely. Even to spread the message of his own master, he needed money. He now began to examine the ethical issue of a monk handling money from a more pragmatic angle and decided to focus on the effective and efficient use of money. He laid down clear rules on how money needed to be raised and for what purpose. He was emphatic on how the money raised should be spent and reported to the original donor. In a letter to his brother disciple Swami Shuddhananda he wrote, “Ask Brahmananda to write this to everyone in relief work – they must not be allowed to spend money to no good. We want the greatest possible good work from the least possible outlay.” While he clearly understood the functional utility of money, he was also not carried away with this idea. In July 1897, he wrote to Swami Akhandananda, “Money and all will come of themselves, we want men, not money. It is man that makes everything, what can money do? – men we want, the more you get, the better.”

Swami Vivekananda was that extraordinary visionary who knew that while money was important and needed for achieving his goals, it was human capital that was the need of the hour. This is now being realized by a society that is getting tired of the mindless pursuit of wealth and is talking of developing ‘Human Capital’ for the survival of man himself.

Kannada version in Prajavani (26-Jul-12)

Balu