Op-Ed: Capitalism and spirituality, part two

April 19, 2018, 2:45 a.m.

Yesterday the Daily published part 1 of my article on capitalism and spirituality, the topic of a public conversation between “a capitalist and a yogi” this week at the Business School. If you haven’t read that, I suggest that you take a look before reading part 2.

The capitalist on the April 19 program is Jonathan Coslet, Chief Investment Officer of TPG Capital. After graduating from the Wharton School and Harvard Business School, he has pursued a long, successful career in the financial world. He also serves on several boards at Stanford. According to Wikipedia, TPG “is one of the largest private equity investment firms in the world, focused on leveraged buyouts, growth capital and leveraged recapitalization investments in distressed companies and turnaround situations.”

The yogi on the program is Sadhguru, an honorific title meaning “True Guru.” Also known by his regular name, Jaggi Vasudev, he was raised and educated in South India, had a powerful mystical experience in 1982, left his business to practice and teach yoga and founded the Isha Foundation in 1993 as a base for teaching what he came to call “Inner Engineering.” The training, which includes meditation and various yogic practices, can be received in various formats, from a set of online instructions to workshops and retreats ranging from two days to multi-week intensives. I have no doubt that the practices are effective and have helped many people.

Sadhguru has a huge following in India and internationally. There is an impressive center, the Isha Institute, in Tennessee. An eloquent and charismatic presence, he tends to speak in terms of the science and technology of wellbeing. This language, with Sadhguru’s brilliance and humor, has made him an appealing guru around Silicon Valley.

Four years ago I attended another public conversation with Sadhguru at Stanford. Having gotten a glimpse of his economic and social ideas at that time, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he is now teaming up with a leader in the private equity world to talk about the compatibility of capitalism and spirituality. Based on notes I took on the earlier experience, I would like to describe it here, as a way of opening further thought about on the discussion that is taking place at the business school.

Sadhguru presented what struck me as a troubling version of trickle-down spiritual economics. He proposed to accomplish a beneficent transformation of society by working with 85 billionaires in America, or 2000 “leaders” in India (by which he also meant the high business class, the rich and corporate). He mentioned how brilliant the super-rich leaders were, what a pleasure it was to work with them.

I didn’t doubt that he enjoyed their company; certainly the rich are often brilliant and charming. But I was deeply disturbed on hearing him express disdain for the power of the poor and less privileged to change society. He said repeatedly, “What’s the point of people who have nothing talking about sharing?” It was wiser, he asserted, to focus his attention on the richest and most powerful 1 percent, as they are the only ones who can “share,” or make a difference.

Imagine someone saying in early 20th-century America and later, “What’s the point of women fighting for equality and liberation? They don’t have the power. Men have the power. The men must GIVE women whatever they need.” Apply this similarly to the struggles of African Americans, farmworkers, anti-apartheid South Africans or any other grassroots movement for justice and equality.

Sadhguru proposed that he would spiritually transform the billionaires, and they would solve the problems of inequality and suffering among those who are economically below them. Did he mean that scores of Gates Foundations would bloom, and they would give away their money as they see fit to the poor, deprived and diseased? That didn’t sound like a plan for solving inequality.

But he went further, claiming that these spiritually transformed rich people would transform the system. To say that such a systemic transformation is improbable is a serious understatement.

His host and interlocutor in that conversation was Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon, Stanford medical professor and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Dr. Doty asked an important question: Don’t you think that those who possess power, including vast wealth and other means of controlling people and systems, will be unwilling to give up power voluntarily? Sadhguru didn’t answer, but turned the conversation in a different direction.

I am sure that when Sadhguru teaches meditation, pranayama and yoga asanas along with inspiring wisdom and delightful humor, to millionaires, billionaires and rising tech workers and entrepreneurs, they will feel better about themselves and become more effective at what they do. Perhaps corporate leaders will buy more massage chairs and other instruments of well-being for their employees; perhaps they will make more donations to good causes. They may genuinely help people through philanthropy. But they will not change the system that made them powerful. Feeling better about themselves is a double-edged proposition. I’m not against it. But if they are running industries that exploit and oppress, support extreme inequality and contribute to environmental destruction, I’m not necessarily in favor of their getting better at what they do.

I would say it is only the poor and the less privileged who can lead the way to transformative social change. They will be joined by allies from groups that are not so oppressed, but it is their grassroots movements that will lift up the causes of justice and press for transformation. (If you doubt this, watch some of the excellent documentary films on the civil rights movement, or on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.) And the 2000 leading Indians, or the 85 billionaires, will for the most part resist, threaten, lie to and attack them.

Another disturbing aspect of Sadhguru’s talk was his allusion to transformation in India. He hinted that he had already started changing India by working with top business leaders, and that the desired transformation was really happening. It was not hard to divine that he was referring to the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist, majoritarian party had recently triumphed in Indian elections. Modi has positioned himself as the promoter of business and economic growth and as the strong leader India needs. But he has a much darker side having to do with religious bigotry, authoritarianism and violence against Muslims. Googling Sadhguru + Modi will bring up videos of Sadhguru meeting with or speaking highly of Modi. In one video he praises Modi’s determination to “put the nation first” — a phrase that in these times ominously echoes the “America first” rhetoric that accompanies the authoritarian, nativist, anti-Muslim pro-corporation ethos of the Trump era.

I don’t know if the conversation between the capitalist and the yogi will go in this direction or not. Maybe Sadhguru will speak differently this time. I write of my experience to encourage audience members this week to listen sensitively and to think carefully about what it may mean to couple capitalism and spirituality.


— Linda Hess ’64, senior lecturer emerita, religious studies

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