Plain Living and High Thinking


Spirituality and Sustainable Development by Rohana Ulluwishewa, published by Palgrave Macmillan, UK (2014), 203 pages. Available in hardback.

Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva

Religion and economics impinge on the lives of most of us. They do not impinge on each other and religion and economics has been largely seen as in conflict. Marxism is well known for its deep aversion to religion. Capitalism and market economics as preached by Adam Smith, Ricardo and other classical economists hardly spoke of religion. Keynesian economics, although not involved in any way with religion, could be seen as a little more concerned with the good life, going beyond material needs. Keynes was much concerned with certain kinds of spirituality and with the value of human and personal relationships. Economics was not the end for him. There are many others, like R.H. Tawney, the distinguished economic historian who saw linkages between protestant ethics and the rise of capitalism. The Quaker families, who established firms like Cadburys were concerned with the welfare of their workforce and shared their gains with their workers.

In Sri Lanka, Professor Hewavitharana initiated work on what he called Buddhist economics, where I would think he aimed at integrating economics with some forms of spirituality, a concept called gross national happiness.

Rohana Ulluwishewa, in a new and highly readable book has come up with a theory of his own, which claims that the only way to achieve sustainable development is to integrate the spiritual dimension into the development process. He is not talking about the kind of spirituality that is associated with organized religion, and certainly not the kind of religious fervour that is now the vogue in Sri Lanka. He does not believe that men and women are intrinsically spiritually flawed, and that they are all egoistic in their core being. It was the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who said that "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

Although Ulluwishewa does not quote Kant, he clearly disagrees with him as he believes that man can overcome the ego or the "I" within him, and can be more concerned about others and be intensely altruistic. It is the world system or the world view around him that makes him think of "I". A spiritual dimension, by changing his innermost self, can lead the way in changing the world. The way to development starts with oneself, by demanding less from the outside world, and being happy with less and not more, and respecting the interest of others, and not only of himself.

Before I go further, let me briefly describe the career of Professor Rohana Ulluwishewa. His main academic concerns were with geography and the environment. He was an associate professor at the Sri Jayewardenepura University. After gaining an MSc from the London School of Economics, he completed his PhD at Kyushu University in Japan. In his 30-year academic career, he has worked as Senior Lecturer at the University of Brunei and was Visiting Fellow at Wageningen Agricultural University and Leiden University in the Netherlands and at Leeds University, UK. He was an honorary research associate at Massey University in New Zealand, where he currently lives. To be published by an internationally recognized publishing firm is an achievement for any Sri Lankan scholar.

The volume is organized in four parts, each part consisting of several chapters. The first part deals with the concept of spirituality and makes a clear distinction between religion and spirituality. As a person becomes more spiritual, he is less self centered and more conscious of serving others. It is a transformation of the human mind. "While religious people may gain this by pursuing religious practices, such as prayer, repetition of the divine name, meditation, devotional singing, getting involved in service activities and regular reading of religious literature, non-religious people may experience spirituality by variety of non-religious means. Such people may get involved in social service and charity works; attend spiritual talks, seminars and discussion and practice meditation. In some cases, they undertake research in order to understand the mind and to gain self-knowledge. Science-based professional services such as spiritually oriented psychotherapy, coaching and counseling are other means which could lead non-religious people towards spirituality."

In part two, the author looks at the global economic system and considers it "a product of spiritually underdeveloped human minds." These spiritually undeveloped minds are at the heart of the system, and they constitute the economic and social elite of the current system. The spiritually advanced are a minority and are only at the periphery of the system. Part three of the volume points out that "the root cause for the failure of conventional development to alleviate poverty and inequality, to achieve environmental sustainability and to deliver happiness to all is nothing but the self-centeredness and greed in the human mind." The author does not see an end to poverty or an assurance of sustainable development so long as human greed is encouraged, as the present system does. Part four points out various paths to create a more just and equitable system where poverty and inequality are eliminated and a sustainable environment and greater happiness are brought about.

The author stresses that "spiritual growth is an exclusively personal task. No one can do it for another." However, some policy measures could help "such as a shift of priority from the problem of poverty to the problem of affluence." According to the author, poverty cannot be solved so long as problems arising from affluence are not sorted out. He also highlights a few other policy recommendations – incorporating spirituality into formal education as well as into development studies, not as taught courses evaluated by formal examinations, but as practices aimed at changing the students’ perceptions, attitudes, values and character; encouraging selfless service as development; taking measures to re-spiritualize religions; promoting scientific research on spirituality; and incorporating spirituality into professional personal services such as counseling, coaching and psychotherapy.

The volume refers to a new spiritual revolution occurring all over the world. It has little to do with traditional religious institutions. The Western world is showing an interest in the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Dalai Lama, Sathya Sai Baba and other similar individuals. "There is a growing interest in simple living across the Western world, and voluntary simplicity movements and simple living networks are gaining momentum." There is also a growing altruism, which is a hallmark of selflessness. It is estimated that about 15 percent of Western populations are altruistic. (My impression is that there is more altruism in poorer countries and among poorer people, as it is ingrained in the circumstances of their lives). More and more religious institutions are engaged in relief of poverty all over the world. In business, there is increasing concern with the interests of stakeholders, rather than with the interest of shareholders, which is a very positive sign.

"The ultimate goal of including spirituality into the corporate sector is to shift the purpose of business from its current aim of profit maximizing to serving customers, society and the planet; to do business as a service to people and as a spiritual activity." The author’s aim is to encourage the expansion of non-self serving activities everywhere, and that would be moving towards spirituality.

Let me make one personal observation. People in general are living longer. Across the globe, about twenty percent of the population is over the age of retirement. Once past that age, most of us would see a shift in life’s priorities, and more towards a spiritual and not necessarily a religious direction. Even from a health point of view, it would be desirable to consume less. It is arguable that the movement towards greater spirituality, which the author is advocating, has more resonance with the older generation than with the young. This is not to say that a spiritual content in education and instruction of the young is not desirable. The opportunity is arguably more promising with the older generation. While increasing spirituality is to be encouraged, there are probably other measures which we should not forget in generating sustainable development. There are many parts of the world where population growth is making sustainable development unachievable. Strong encouragement towards smaller families could well be a starting point for achieving greater spirituality in these parts of the world. While spirituality can certainly speed up the path towards sustainable development, there are many other ways and initiatives that can be taken to ensure sustainable development. The volume has made a significant contribution towards our understanding of what is called sustainable development and the ways of achieving it. Each one of us can make a difference by taking the steps essential for a more healthy and contented lifestyle. This volume is published in the UK. What the author says should have a familiar ring in the Eastern countries, apart from the Western audience it appears to be targeting.

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