What are your views on the role of financial resources in the dissemination of spiritual teachings?
When it comes to money, it is no surprise that it is often seen as a huge taboo in spirituality. It would be easy to avoid discussing this subject, as it is seldom talked about by spiritual teachers, gurus, or masters across the globe, often being easier to just brush it under the rug, hoping it goes unnoticed. But that’s not me. I’m in favor of transparency and addressing misconceptions.
In numerous spiritual circles, the notion of monetary exchange for spiritual teachings is regarded as antithetical—it is a cardinal sin. A commonly held idea is that, in order to ensure that their purity and nobility remain untarnished, spiritual teachings must be as far removed from money as possible. The failure to adhere to this principle can only mean one thing: the teacher, guru, or master is a money-seeking corrupt.
Believing that money is the root of all evil, however, is a terribly mistaken, biased, and prejudiced view and reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of both spirituality and modern society.
In earlier times, yogis, sannyasins, and monks lived within agricultural societies and managed to survive through the provision of alms. They didn’t have to think about money, although some form of sustenance was still an essential requirement. After all, they needed food to eat, and unless they lived in a warm climate year-round, they’d also need adequate clothing and some sort of shelter. The societies these renunciates lived in often supported them, either directly or indirectly, through various types of donations so that they didn’t have to ever interlace their spiritual pursuits with the “mundane life.” More often than not, a spiritual aspirant was a renunciate; there was little room for non-renunciates to follow the path.
In ancient India, a spiritual mendicant on the street would be treated with respect and receive alms; they personified the highest pursuit—the search for enlightenment. At times, this phenomenon can still be observed in certain regions of South Asia. But suppose this were to happen in today’s Western society instead. In that case, such an individual would be seen as a homeless person with crazy beliefs, someone who is wasting their life instead of being a productive member of society. The type of world, society, and culture we live in today is very different from ancient India.
If an aspirant were to seek refuge within the cave of a mountain, endeavoring to pursue a path of meditation and practice amidst the harmonious and tranquil melodies of nature, they would, out of necessity, have to adopt a more “primal way of life.” This would include things like answering nature’s call within the surrounding wilderness, lighting a fire for warmth during the nocturnal hours, and descending the mountain daily to seek alms within a nearby city. If they did this, they’d most likely get arrested and be subjected to a sizable fine or incarceration. A long time ago, when I was a spiritual seeker, I used to do spiritual practice in the mountains. And I can tell you something: mountain or forest rangers, and even the police, are not very fond of finding someone alone or in a small group engaging in spiritual practices or meditation within the heart of a mountain or forest.
In addition to this, many nondual traditions strongly reject the so-called “manifest world,” viewing it only as a place of suffering and malady. Various teachings proclaim the physical body to be a curse, a burden, and the human condition as only a relentless cycle of pain and despair that we must escape from and transcend at all costs. There’s no denying that there’s a subtle inclination toward escapism ingrained in some nondual traditions, completely rejecting one’s relative existence.
Many of the world’s spiritual masters originated in the East, in what is often considered to be economically deprived nations with low levels of material prosperity and barely any social welfare system. In those places and cultures, shunning the “world”—maya, illusion, samsara, whatever one wishes to call it—is understandable. After all, hunger, disease, physical pain, discomfort, and so on, that’s what this world appears to offer them. Therefore, extinguishing this synonymous-with-suffering world and finding the unmanifested, nirvana, or pure and untainted awareness “on the other side,” is viewed as the way.
Breaking free from this type of perspective, however, is critical if one wishes to move forward on the spiritual path. Money is the primary medium of exchange in today’s society. And just like a knife can be used to either cut vegetables or to hurt someone, money can also be used for positive or negative purposes. You can use money to cover healthcare expenses, pay for therapy, or to buy medicine; you can use money to pay the electricity bill, for vehicle repairs, or to purchase groceries; you can use money to buy clothing, cover your child’s education, or to assist the local kennel. It’s just a tool.
The manifest world and human existence are not to be shunned and rejected. A spiritual seeker must never bathe in self-denial, but rather in self-love. Initially, when first embarking on the path, you may have to distance yourself from the world and the ‘objects’ of experience in order to lessen their burden on you, propelling you to discover your sense of awareness. But this dualistic grasp will have to be transcended further down the spiritual journey. The understanding that one has of manifestation itself will change as one evolves on the path, and one will recognize that it doesn’t have to be the plane of sorrow and suffering; instead, it can be the stage for one’s blissful celebration of liberation. We don’t have to escape this world to some transcendental subject apart from it, rejecting it as if it were the devil—we just have to recognize the unfabricated nature of reality as it is.
How is someone supposed to keep performing their craft if they can’t sustain themselves? This is crucial to understand. The key lies in properly and effectively utilizing these funds as “actualizers of potentiality.” If Paul Brunton hadn’t found a publisher who took a risk with their funds to publish and print the original book that made the sage Ramana Maharshi known to the world, we wouldn’t know about Ramana Maharshi and his teachings. Various manuscripts about Ramana Maharshi were intended to be published by his ashram, yet remained collecting dust for decades because they didn’t have any funds to print books, even those with as little as 100 pages. Financial resources are often essential to disseminate teachings and to help seekers discover them. Without the helping hand of some kind students and their donations, we’d have considerably fewer spiritual teachings, centers, and ashrams available today.
If you have read my autobiography, you know I spent many years during my spiritual journey without any money or income. Furthermore, Avah had it even worse, as she had to stretch every penny to the utmost limit, and struggled to afford even the most basic sustenance. But having no money doesn’t make anyone more spiritual; and having money doesn’t make anyone less spiritual. Wearing the same and only pair of shoes I had for four years because I couldn’t afford to buy new ones didn’t make me walk the spiritual path faster. Likewise, not having material possessions doesn’t make anyone less attached to materiality; having material possessions doesn’t make anyone more attached to them. The attachment is in the mind.
I have also seen time and time again that when something is given or acquired without having to pay for it, it is often underappreciated and undervalued (e.g., courses, books, etc.), and the aspirant doesn’t put as much effort into it as if they had actually paid for the teaching. Not only that, but having some sort of monetary barrier to entry, regardless of how small, ensures that those who are not genuinely interested will not come and waste anyone’s time and efforts.
This being acknowledged, when it comes to the case of sincere seekers who cannot afford to attend a session, event, or retreat, then it is obvious that those who disseminate spirituality should make an effort to make it more accessible to these individuals. That’s why I plan to create scholarships, as soon as it is possible, for earnest yet financially deprived seekers, and to also offer a sliding payment scale if it becomes feasible.The entire matter concerning “charging” within spirituality creates a sort of hypocrisy because teachers, gurus, or masters aren’t supposed to charge directly due to their moralistic principles and cultural background, but must raise funds nonetheless in order to survive and to help expand the reach of their teachings. It is unavoidable. So, what do they do? They have to depend upon generous benefactors, or they expect you to give a donation, even at “free” events (“required donation”). There’s nothing wrong with donations or generous benefactors—on the contrary, they can be essential—but they should not be used as a “loophole” to keep spiritual teachings supposedly “pure.”
The spiritual path is not intended to be a way to escape the world or to disregard its mode of operation. Rather, it’s a way to transcend ignorance, limitations, suffering, and incompleteness. No genuine seeker wants to see a spiritual master living extremely lavishly, but it’s undeniable that funds are a necessity to operate and survive in this “physical world.” It’s a matter of being in tune with one of the basic realities of living here—of having a harmonious relationship with our seemingly shared reality within our so-called conventional existence. By the mere fact that this apparent expression is living from the bottomless depth of one’s unconditional wisdom, it is no longer limited, conventional, or relative. Rather, it stands as the very embodiment of freedom.
– Av Neryah