The tragic irony of the miserly
When an instructional point is conveyed in a straightforward way, people frequently dismiss it as, “Same old moralizing.” But when that point is made using humor or sarcasm, it registers far more strongly, deeply and possibly transformationally.
This Subhashita uses sarcasm to convey the futility of the miserly mentality. Misers don’t want to give up even a fraction of their possessions to anyone. And yet at their death, they will have to give up not just a fraction, but the entirety of their possessions. Few things frustrate us as much as when things turn out the exact opposite of the way we wanted them to turn out. By highlighting how this frustrating fate is sure to befall misers, this text jolts them out of their stupor of self-congratulatory self-aggrandizement.
What if misers console themselves by thinking that their possessions are going to their family members? That is often a hollow consolation because their relatives don’t care for them as much as they care for their money – indeed, their relatives frequently care for them only because of their money. And for their self-seeking mentality, those relatives alone can’t be blamed – they may well have got that mentality from the misers themselves.
What if misers console themselves by thinking that they will get the credit for having given so much charity at death? Such thinking is typical of the distorted reasoning that characterizes misers. We get credit for charity when we give voluntarily. But when we give up involuntarily as happens at death, we get no such credit – we simply get the karma for having held on to those things for so long.
Why do misers hold on to things so irrationally? Because they believe that their self-worth is determined by what they have. Actually however, our self-worth is determined by what we do with what we have. If we use our money constructively, then we can increase it by, say, investing it wisely. Or better still, we can earn good karma by giving it in charity. And best of all, we can use for the service of the Lord by seeing it as a manifestation of the Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, who is most pleased when she is engaged in his service.
Srimad-Bhagavatam, eleventh canto, describes the story of the Avanti Brahmana who was a super-miser and who alienated everyone around him by his tight-fistedness. Through a series of vicissitudes, he lost everything. Impoverished and homeless, he was derided by the people whom he had neglected earlier. At that time, by the grace of the Lord, he got a life-changing epiphany. He understood that his mind was the primary cause of his distress – the mind had made him madly attached to money and rabidly suspicious of everyone and that very mind was now making him feel sorry for himself. Energized by this insight, he resolved to offer that mind to Krishna through the diligent practice of bhakti-yoga. By such resolute practice, he transcended the devilish distortions of the mind and attained the Lord’s ever-joyful lotus feet.
Significantly, bhakti-yoga enables us to become charitable while also channeling our tendency to hold on to things. Bhakti wisdom helps us understand that the only thing that will stay with us is our consciousness – and the only person who will always stay with us is our Lord who is present with us in his indwelling manifestation as the Supersoul. So, the only thing worth holding on to is the connection of our consciousness with Krishna. Bhagavatam (11.2.53) declares that great devotees are not ready to give up their connection with the Lord for even half a moment in exchange for the wealth of the entire universe. They understand that the universe’s wealth will not last, but their Krishna consciousness will. By holding on to Krishna, they exhibit the summit of enlightened self-interestedness. Pertinently, Bhagavatam declares Vishnu to be our enlightened self-interest (7.5.31).
When we thus realize service to the Lord to be our svartha (self-interest), we progress firmly towards our paramartha – the supreme wealth of eternal ecstatic devotion.