Namaskar Y'all - 2017

Lakshmi or Sarasvati, Wealth or Wisdom

By Shyama Parui

Imagine you are on a trip this summer and as you are touring ancient ruins shrouded in mystery, you find a magical lamp. Just like Aladdin, you dust off the lamp and come face to face with a genie. In your case, however, the genie can only grant you one wish. What will you wish for? Will you wish for wealth or wisdom?

I posed this question to my family and discovered something new about each one of us. In all honesty, I don't know if there is a right or even a best answer. If I was in above scenario, the mental debate would be endless. It would probably exhaust the genie's patience and he would threaten to walk away.

Growing up in a traditional Hindu family, I watched my mother conduct daily prayers and rituals honoring the gods. Unlike my siblings, I found myself only on the periphery of the action. Being the youngest, my parents usually did not involve me in serious family matters like pujas, but that worked in my favor. It freed me to be a dispassionate observer, question our family's beliefs and at times take the liberty to see the humor in some of our rituals. For as long as I can remember, I wondered why Goddess Lakshmi, who grants wealth, prosperity, and household bliss was honored with extra fanfare during Diwali.

By contrast, Goddess Sarasvati, with the power to grant us knowledge, wisdom, arts, and aesthetics was celebrated in a low-key affair during spring. Parental direction, too, seemed to contradict their actions. The grown-ups constantly nagged the kids to study sincerely and seek the blessings of Maa Sarasvati but they focused their own attention on praying to Maa Lakshmi hoping to be showered with wealth.

If we lived in isolation, each person on an island, it may have been easier to figure out what we value the most. Since that's not the case, we continue to be influenced by our families, friends and the society we live in. So, the dilemma of what to seek for our happiness remains unresolved. In general, it is considered completely acceptable, maybe even desirable to declare, “I love to learn."

On the flip side, most people wouldn't be praised for standing up on a soapbox and saying, “I love to earn." We'd be embarrassed to divulge how much we love and desire money even though it plays such an important role in our lives. Jen Sincero brings up that point in her article “10 Ways to Become a Money Badass" (Money, June 2017). In my opinion, she gives valuable pointers on how to have a healthy relationship with money. This seems especially relevant here in the US, where there is a tremendous emphasis on financial independence, earning your allowance from a young age as well as a love for spending. Images of India, fairly or unfairly, highlight poverty but as any visitor will tell you, destitution is not hidden. Aiming for a well-paying occupation becomes critical to avoiding poverty.

Success is often seen as the amount of money you make as opposed to the amount of knowledge acquired or imparted. If it was the latter, teachers would be wealthiest. This topic reminds me of an awkward conversation from years ago, when I was a graduate student. It was the first puja I was attending at the local temple and I happened to strike up a conversation with a woman. After introductions and some small talk, I mentioned that I was working toward my Master's degree in Psychology. Her immediate response was, “My daughter wanted to pursue Psychology too, but I discouraged her. There is no money in Psychology, we want her to study economics." That was certainly not the reaction I was expecting, but I had to sigh and assume that she wanted the world to be manipulated by money hungry executives rather than have therapists who can help us stay sane.

If acquiring higher income was the only goal we set for ourselves, our coffers could potentially fill up but I am not convinced that our happiness would increase proportionately. If money was all that mattered, guests would accept an invitation to your dinner party based on the value of your house, as shown on Zillow or respect you based on the make and model of your car. We would have to discard our passions, artistic endeavors and relationships. Life would be stark, like the world before Goddess Sarasvati infused it with beauty and music.

Let me pause here for a moment. Based on what you've read so far, what have you gathered about me? Have you formed an impression of me as the author and as a person? There seems to be a tendency to draw conclusions about people we know, perhaps even people we don't know based on their affinity to either knowledge or riches.

If we choose to worship Lakshmi, does it mean we are motivated by greed and more likely to chase the latest shiny object available in the market? And, if we are loyal followers of Sarasvati, are we the smart loners or poor artists? In reality, wealth and wisdom aren't mutually exclusive. Talented artists, who have managed to earn plenty of dough exist and so do financially successful entrepreneurs, who have plenty of good advice to share. It is heartening to know that you are not doomed to fail one way or another.

Today, as a mother of two, I cannot entirely escape the details of religious teachings or shy away from spiritual or ethical discussions with my family. I've come to realize that divine forms of Lakshmi and Sarasvati are like sisters, but also have their differences. Like most sisters they also share a deep connection and one cannot be happy without the other. We need to be smart about making, keeping and saving money. We also need to invest in the arts and education. As I told my kids, it's all about the choices we make. One may have to opt for a decent size paycheck, which is paired with the uninspiring white walls and cubicles of a corporate giant, or choose the creative joy of writing that may not be lucrative. The push and pull of wealth on one side and wisdom on the other is constant.