Op-Ed: Capitalism and spirituality, part 3

May 1, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Journalist: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of western civilization?

Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.


This frequently quoted (and probably apocryphal) quip of the Mahatma comes to mind as I contemplate a recent event at the Business School, billed as “Capitalism and Spirituality.” I adapt the quotation for my present purpose:


Q: What do you think of relating spirituality to capitalism?

A: I think it would be a good idea.


It would be a good idea, but that is not what happened in the on-stage conversation between “a capitalist and a yogi,” presented on April 19 to a large and highly appreciative audience in the Business School.

I wrote a two-part op-ed prior to the event, raising questions on what might be meant by the juxtaposition of these two vastly signifying terms, and suggesting ways in which audience members might listen to the conversation with a deeper awareness of the issues involved. The two parts were published in the Daily on April 18 and 19.

This follow-up, written after the event, becomes the third and final part of my commentary. It would be important to read parts one and two in order to engage with this piece.

The capitalist in the conversation was Jonathan Coslet, who has spent most of his career at TPG Capital, described as “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 was Jaggi Vasudev, known to his many thousands of admirers as Sadhguru, meaning a true or supreme teacher. In part 2, I described Sadhguru’s teaching and influence. I also reflected critically on things I had heard him say at Stanford four years earlier. Two readers posted online comments, disagreeing with my description of Sadhguru. The first spoke from a sincere spiritual position, saying that I had misunderstood Sadhguru’s words and failed to appreciate the profound and invaluable teaching he was offering. The second opined that I must be a communist, given my critique of the way corporations and capitalists operate.

At the Business School event, Sadhguru spoke broadly against devoting one’s life merely to the pursuit of wealth and power. He pointed out that we should align ourselves with deeper motivations than personal greed, and that businesses should seek to promote well-being. Sadhguru was often witty and humorous, and Jonathan Coslet smiled and laughed along with hundreds in the auditorium. But not for a moment did anyone come to grips with the contradictions of what they represented, the problems of pairing capitalism and spirituality. They went merrily along without any acknowledgement of the harsh tensions and conflicts between the two. I’ll give just a few examples.

(1) Inequality is not a thing of the 19th century, now replaced by the relative democracy of the market economy as Sadhguru said. Inequality is more extreme now than ever. The three richest men in America own wealth equal to that of the lower 50% of the population. One of those three is Jeff Bezos, whose comment about excellence Mr. Coslet happily projected along with other inspiring quotes on the big screen. This rapidly growing inequality, especially since the 1980s, is fueled by the ever-growing extremity and potency of pro-corporate, pro-capitalist power in the U.S. Former Secretary of Labor and U.C. Professor of Public Policy Robert Reich has documented this alarming increase in inequality effectively through his books, website (robertreich.org), and the film “Inequality for All.”

(2) Both Sadhguru and Mr. Coslet referred to environmentalism as a positive thing. But business interests have ruthlessly opposed and crushed efforts to protect the environment and deal with climate change. At this moment the EPA (for example) is in the hands of climate change deniers who are rapidly dismantling all regulations to protect the environment and the health and well-being of those who suffer from the destruction of the planet’s natural systems. This type of policy and action, doing immeasurable harm, is funded by billionaires, paragons of capitalism, most prominent being the Koch brothers. There are countless examples of fierce and violent opposition by corporations against environmental activists — Chevron’s battle against indigenous people in Ecuador, Shell’s vicious suppression of the Ogoni movement in Nigeria, the promoters of the Keystone pipeline relentlessly arrayed against Native American water protectors. These examples are about oil, but the policies affect agriculture, water, automobiles, air quality, on and on.

Might an infusion of “spirituality” change these attitudes and actions? Let us hear in practical terms how that could happen. Perhaps we could examine whether TPG Capital avoids investment with corporations that despoil the planet, or calls out corporate powers bent on destroying environmental protections. (As I write this, a headline pops up on my screen: “Trump directs EPA to dismantle clean water rule.”) Perhaps we could inquire into what corporate leaders the Business School honors and listens to, and how those leaders and businesses relate to environmental issues.

(3) Mr. Coslet spoke of river pollution in India as caused by “deforestation.” He didn’t mention industrial waste, dams or large-scale agriculture. Various online sites list the main causes of river degradation in India. None of the sites I visited places deforestation among the major culprits. All of them put industrial waste near the top of the list, along with sewage, agricultural runoff, oil pollution, acid rain and global warming. Mr. Coslet reported admiringly that Sadhguru had brought his research and policy proposals to Prime Minister Modi, and that Modi was adopting them and cleaning the rivers. I think investigation will show that this is not true. Indian friends of mine who have long been involved in environmental issues, especially cleaning of the Ganges, have told me that Modi has been all talk, aimed at political gain and no action, or inappropriate action regarding river cleanup. Even friends who are staunch supporters of Modi’s party have expressed disillusionment and sharp criticism of him on this issue. Recent online articles that came up on a search for Modi + river pollution reflected this view: “India’s federal auditor slams Modi’s slow Ganges clean-up”; “India is killing the Ganges, and Modi can do nothing about it”; “India’s rivers and air remain dirty despite New Delhi’s promises: Activists regret that little progress has been made on pollution and sanitation”; “Despite Rs 20,000 crore to clean up Ganga, we can’t even bathe in India’s holiest river.”

No, I’m not a “communist” — a rather silly suggestion made by someone who commented on my previous op-ed, as if we were still in the middle of the cold war. One of Robert Reich’s useful books for this discussion is called Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. There are other writers and thinkers who radically interrogate American/global capitalism and theorize its transformation in ways that would support and not undermine democracy, justice, public health, public education, general well-being. But is the GSB interested in asking hard questions about the dominant economic system?

In conclusion, I pose this question to the Business School: What is the point of having a feel-good, laughter-filled public conversation between a capitalist and a yogi without the slightest acknowledgement of the serious and fundamental conflicts between the spiritual values Sadhguru advocates and the root motivations and actual functioning of capitalism? Denying or ignoring fundamental spiritual/ethical problems about capitalism is something like denying or ignoring climate change. It will lead to no good. Senior Associate Dean Sarah Soule, who introduced the two speakers on April 19, said enthusiastically that this was only the beginning, and that she hoped to see many such programs in the future. I hope to see serious engagement with these questions at all levels of the Business School and in all future dialogues between capitalists and yogis.


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

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