This episode marks the start of a THREE part mini-series on purpose, wealth, and success, as we dive into stories of the beloved elephant headed deity, Ganesha. We’re diving into a topic that I feel is very relevant in our American culture today. After years of living abroad, in many ways disconnected from the fast paced modern world, I’ve seen some of the large contrasts our culture has with others around the globe. It’s also clear how western ideas of capitalism, success and fame have spread across the globe. And one thing is very clear to me, that there is a pre-occupation here in the US and in the west with success and wealth, the acquisition of goods or stature. In fairness, it has always existed in the world, and it’s likely connected to our human nature, but the obsession has hit epidemic proportions here in the so called West.
As a species, I think it’s fair to say that human kind feels a collective wound or disconnection from the world, a feeling of emptiness inside, it seems to be part of our human nature, and how that feeling, or dilemma, is met personally and socially can tell you a lot about a particular culture. It’s addressed in some way or form in every culture, every religion, personally and socially. In our modern western culture, the happiness, connection and wholeness we all seek is to be found through material success. Once you make enough money, once you buy that car, once you have that stuff, then you’ll be happy. Then you’ll be satisfied. That hole you feel inside… fill it with things. And once you’re are filled up enough, you’ll find that elusive happiness. Once you get to the end of the race, you’ll be fulfilled and joyous.
And it catches us then on a treadmill of working and spending. Work, work, work, make money. Feeling down? Feeling empty? Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by life and work? GO shopping! Feel the temporary rush of buying stuff, of what wealth provides. Get all hopped up on the goods. We literally have retail therapy in this country. Want to feel better? SPEND! Consume!
We’ve created a culture that self soothes through shopping. Through consumption. People stress with work so they can make money. They use the money to shop and self sooth from all the stress and anxiety their work, their quest for money, brings them. It makes no sense!
IS spending the source of meaning in life? Growing up in the US, I was filled with questions about why we are here, what’s the meaning of life, what’s it all mean? And my questions were usually met with responses like, “don’t ask questions like that, you need to go to school, get a job, make money. That’s how the world operates.” Money, money, money. It has become the center of our world.
It has nothing to do with purpose or following your dreams (unless that purpose or those dreams are about making more money).
Now there are other cultures that take an entirely different approach to this human dilemma, this longing for wholeness and happiness we all seek on some level. In stark contrast to the American model, some cultures believe that you feel a hole, a wound, because you look outside yourself for what actually lies within. This is important because the resolution to that human tendency to feel disconnected or empty is to look inward, instead of outward. Your fulfillment comes not from outward possessions and stuff, but by inward vision. The source of wholeness is not outside of you, it’s within you.
This lies in stark contrast to what we are told in the west.
I think the difficulty we have today, is not to choose or replace one view with or over another, but rather how can we find a way to integrate what we can learn from various approaches to this fundamental human question or tendency. What can we learn about ourselves, our culture, and our personal and collective growth and evolution.
I think the trappings of materialism are pretty clear to most, but that doesn’t mean we have to swing the pendulum the other way and renounce everything material.
The question is: How do we live within the rules, boundaries and relationships of the material world, while integrating the wisdom that can only be found by looking inward? Can we live in the world of money, and still find an alternative to wholeness, to happiness that includes something other than an endless attempt to fill that hole with stuff. Or without trying to find happiness in the number of Instagram followers we have, or the number of likes on a Facebook post.
We see this very idea addressed in a story about the beloved Elephant headed God, Ganesha. We’ve explored a story about Ganesha’s birth in Episode 8, and today and throughout this miniseries we’ll explore a few more stories of Ganesha that give us some different insights into the world. In particular, insights into living with purpose, and being aware of the trappings of wealth and success, fame and power.
Once Upon a time,
In an age when everyone, and I mean everyone, was gaining access to heaven. Even the nastiest, dirtiest, most savage murderers you could conceive of, were all getting in. You see, people had found out that all they had to do was visit this one Shiva temple in a place in India called Somnathpur, and all of their sins would be forgiven. Shiva was kind of a push-over when it came to things like that.
Shiva represents the absolute. He is everything. The “Godhead”. And he’s known for being a bit of a softy when it comes to certain practices or prayers devoted to him. He’s said to be very easy to please that way. But now that the word is out, now that it’s common knowledge that Shiva can be so easily pleased, heaven is getting filled with rascals and unsavory types. And all the hells are going empty!
Live as greedy and selfish a life as you want, but make your way to this temple, offer prayers to Shiva, and you’ll escape the horrors of eternity in one of the various hells.
So the gods are freaking out. Yama, the God of Death, in particular is freaking out. So he goes to Shiva and Parvati up on Mt. Kailash, and begs them to do something about the situation.
So Parvati, the Goddess, the great mother, listens to the worries of Yama and the other gods, and decides to help. She starts to scrape along the surface of her arm and this oily black tar comes off her skin. She collects the tarry substance, and molds the material into the four-armed elephant-faced god, Ganesha.
And it’s said they wait for the oily tarry gunky stuff to dry, before Ganesha actually comes to life. And I can’t help but picture this moment in my head. You’ve got Yama, Death, right? The grim reaper sitting there, next to the immaculate pristine goddess. This awkward moment, waiting for the gunk to dry. Like, “So, how’s the death business?” I think of like an old granny and a rugged biker guy sitting next to each other trying to pass time. I don’t know why I always picture that, but it makes me more fond of that particular moment to think of it that way.
Anyway, so, Ganesha wakes up, and Parvati commands him to place obstacles before anyone who travels to the Shiva Temple. She instructs him to place wealth, money, fame, success, power, sex in the way of all who wish to enter the temple. And she says, “And those who see through your tricks, let them enter!”
In images of Ganesh, you’ll often see a snare, a noose, held in one of his hands. One of the interpretations of this is that he’s holding the reminder that wealth and success can easily ensnare you based on your perspective and motivations. Your purpose.
Ganesha also sometimes holds an axe with a prod on it. He’s prodding us. He’s prodding us to look inward. And he’s prodding us to live our purpose out in the world. Without purpose, we are likely to get ensnared by wealth and fame.
When you look inward, you discover who you really are. When you know who you are, you’re free to be in the world for whatever purpose that may be. Maybe through that enactment of your fate you receive wealth or fame, that’s fine. So too is it fine if in living your purpose you don’t acquire fame or fortune. Because the fulfillment isn’t in those things. It’s in the realization of who you are.
When you wake up every day, do you get up for the money? Are you in a job that isn’t serving you or your purpose, but you stay because it pays well, or “has nice benefits”? We see where that path goes. It’s no mystery. Despite, perhaps, the media and marketing continuously putting forth the idea that you need to get this thing or that thing before you’ll be happy, I think it’s very obvious to most that these things won’t bring you happiness. We see this touched on time and time again throughout the sages of history.
Talk with people who are deemed successful in our culture. Their money hasn’t made them feel any more or less fulfilled. Those that do feel a sense of fulfillment, you’ll find almost universally, live with a sense of purpose. A purpose that is larger than themselves. Yes, maybe in living that purpose they acquired massive amounts of wealth along the way, but that’s not why they did it. They did it for something larger.
Those unhappy with large sums of money, are usually still chasing the dragon. They’re looking for that next hit. Once I get that pay raise, that promotion, that deal, that thing, then I’ll be happy. Once I get the bigger house, finally, I’ll be good. They’re ensnared. They haven’t realized it yet.
And you can find people, at any layer of society, and regardless of their social position, you can find them living purposefully, and you will find people living with more joy and fulfillment then most.
This story gives us all a really great opportunity to look at our own lives. Look at our own motivations for things. Are we constantly telling ourselves that happiness will come AFTER I get that thing, that outward, material thing.
This story is saying, “Hey look. Life is about more than the acquisition of more stuff.” If you are seeking fulfillment, redemption, realization, enlightenment, happiness, any of those things, and you allow yourself to be distracted by money or fame, you will never be fulfilled.
Ganesha, with his obstacles, is literally the giant elephant in the room that no one is talking about. People all throughout time and history speak of the trappings of wealth and money, yet in our modern culture we simply don’t talk about that, because our culture glorifies and praises the acquisition of money, power, and fame.
So these obstacles that Ganesha places, they become, he becomes the barrier. The thing you have to get passed. The thing you have to get by, to cross over, to go beyond this boundary, beyond the temptation that money, fame, and success can bring. Ganesha is considered to be the remover of obstacles. But he is both the remover of the obstacle and the obstacle himself!
But this isn’t a story about giving up all wealth! And this is important. The goddess tells Ganesha, “let those who see through your tricks, enter!” She doesn’t say let those who renounce all money, or only people who have no fame or success. No, she says if they can see through all of that. If they know what their true purpose in seeking fulfillment is. What their true purpose in life is. Then they can pass the threshold. The gateway of Ganesha, and enter heaven.
And we are not just talking about the trappings of large sums of money. We’re not saying that me and my little poor relationship to money isn’t a trap, and only when we are talking about really BIG amounts of money, or grand concepts of fame or success, yeah… just those are traps.
No. This story is talking to all of us. If you keep hoping that the next purchase or the next partner, or the next job, or the next iPhone, will finally bring you fulfillment and happiness, then you are doomed to feel exiled, to feel wounded or disconnected, unfulfilled.
Try to fill up with stuff, and you’ll always find that you are feeling lacking. With spending, shopping, there is a heavy compulsive element to it too. This strong desire, like, oh my gosh, I NEED that new iPhone, I need that new THING. Once I get it, I’ll be satisfied. I’m unsatisfied with my current phone. I need the new iPhone! And what happens when you get it? Maybe there’s some novelty of new features or whatever… but then what? You’re back to the same you, the same concerns, the same feelings, the same need to be fulfilled and happy… That thing, that purchase, hasn’t actually given you anything sustainable or lasting…
Look inward. See the divine in you. Through understanding yourself, your purpose in life will be revealed as the simple act of being YOU. And whatever that life story of you brings, it brings. Welcome it. Accept it. And continue to live as you, as you are meant to live.
That’s it! Wealth will come and go. Fame may come or it may not. Those things can be abundant or not. But they are transient. They are even a little elusive. If you attach your happiness to them then your happiness will always seemingly be in a state of flux and wanting.
But if you live with purpose. You wake up every morning and live your purpose. That doesn’t wain. Nor does it matter (in the spiritual sense) if you are making money.
We all want to make sure that our basic needs are met, but beyond that, what is money really giving you? Living with purpose can give you gifts that money never can. And that’s what cultures and people have been telling humankind for ages. Somehow, in our modern American culture, we missed the memo.
We are all susceptible to it. When I moved back to the US from asia with my family we had the full intention to live a life of service. To be close with our family and community and to serve. But living in the heart of Southern California, it was super easy to get swept up in money being the center of the world.
Cost of living is high, the economy isn’t great, I have a wife and child to support. College to think of, bills, insurance, this and that. It’s reallllly easy to forget about purpose and just try to do the things that will make you the money to pay your next bill, to put the next meal on your table.
But that inevitably leads to a poor quality of life, to stress, to a lack of fulfillment and joy.
And regardless of where we are financially, when living a life filled with purpose, there is joy. There is a sense of connection, of happiness, of fulfillment. It’s not money that brings that, its purpose. It’s literally learning how to offer what your gifts are: to the world.
When I’m living, giving my fullest gifts, I almost paradoxically have more of myself to give my family. I’m lighter, easier to be around, more likely to hunker down and roll around on the floor with my family, rather then stress out in my office trying to “get work done”. And don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. But what are my motivations behind it. Does a fear of unpaid bills drive me to put money at the center of my world, instead of my family or my purpose? If I only work for money to provide for my family, but if that negatively effects my relationships with my family, then does that make sense? What actually drives me each day?
So stop for a moment. Ask yourself why you woke up this morning. Did you wake up just to go to that job that pays your bills? Or did you wake up with a sense of why you were put on this planet. Why you are here, and how you can be that, live that, now, today.
You don’t need to shun success, you don’t need to shun wealth or fame. But know their trappings. Know their seduction. So you can see it clearly when the temptations arise. Being in the world, offering up your purpose to existence, may include you acquiring wealth or fame, or money or power, but don’t let them take you away from your purpose. Because it’s not the gaining of more stuff that will make you happy, it’s the truth behind your purpose, it’s the truth of knowing who you are, that brings fulfillment. It’s that truth that will renew the world.
Alright, well, that’s it for Part I of III for our mini series about wealth and purpose, and exploring stories of Ganesha. Join us for part II as we continue down the rabbit whole to see the effects of consumption and spending as we dive into the story of Ganesha and the King of Gold!
Listen to this story here: