In Articles, Events and UpdatesDecember 11, 202318 Minutes

Sustainable Development: A Vision Rooted in Ancient Wisdom

Sri Madhusudan Sai at the 6th Multinational Enterprise and Sustainable Development Conference 2023

Sarve bhavantu sukhinaḥ
Sarve santu nirāmayāḥ
Sarve bhadrāṇi paśyantu
Mā kashchit duḥkha bhāgbhavet

May everybody be happy, everybody be healthy. May everybody see good and auspicious things everywhere. May nobody have any sorrow.

This is an ancient Indian prayer, and if we dream of a developed nation, I would like to envision a nation where this prayer is totally fulfilled in both letter and spirit. I am honoured and delighted to be amidst all of you for the 6th Multinational Enterprise and Sustainable Development Conference 2023. My sincere gratitude goes to the organizers, and I am pleased that our university, the Sri Sathya Sai University for Human Excellence, could collaborate with this conference.

This gathering represents a confluence of brilliant minds, ranging from policymakers and academicians to social enterprises, and if you were to categorise my role, perhaps a touch of spiritual enterprise. It is a convergence of diverse perspectives and opinions, and I am pleased that this is happening within an academic institution. Such discussions could easily take place in the lavish settings of five-star hotels, where futuristic theoretical dialogues often dominate, but what is truly practical and implementable is often overlooked. I am genuinely delighted to be part of this forum, and my primary focus is directed towards addressing the students, who hold the utmost importance for me. While some may consider us VIPs, in this context, they are the MITs—the most important individuals in the house. Therefore, I aim to direct my speech towards them. You hold the power to shape the destiny of this country and the world, making you the most important individuals in this context. Allow me to draw upon a bit of ancient Indian wisdom, as that is the unique flavour that I can bring to this conference.

India has always stood sustainability, with the concept deeply ingrained in our way of life. Sustainability was never up for discussion, debate, or questioning. Every action we took was infused with the belief that it could be repeated not just tomorrow or the day after but for generations to come. The Parampara process, our traditions, whether on a small scale or a grand one, always prioritised sustainability.

Reflecting on this intrinsic connection to sustainability, and seeing Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait in this room, I recall a journalist once asking him to encapsulate his philosophy in three words. Gandhi, drawing from the Ishavasya Upanishad, succinctly responded with, ‘tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā – consume with a sense of sacrifice. Don’t consume more than your need.’ This simple formula urges us to consume only what is necessary, leaving the rest for those who need it more. It encapsulates the essence of sustainability in its purest form.

The second part of the sloka elaborates, ‘tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā gṛdhaḥ kasyasviddhanam – Consume with a sense of sacrifice.’ That constitutes the first part; the second part advises, ‘Do not take another man’s wealth.’ Now, one might question, ‘Why would I take another man’s wealth?’ It is, in essence, a rhetorical query, with the response emphasising the legal consequences and the option to end up in jail. However, the deeper wisdom within our scriptures extends beyond mere legality.

The profound meaning behind ‘mā gṛdhaḥ kasyasviddhanam can be summarized as follows: refrain from taking another’s wealth. This principle goes beyond the obvious illegality of theft. It urges us not to deplete the shared pool of resources with unnecessary acquisitions. Instead, the guidance is to take only what is essential, leaving the rest for those whose needs surpass our own. Essentially, it advocates taking only as much as you need, encouraging a mindful and considerate approach to resource utilisation.

Such profound concepts from our Upanishads played a crucial role in maintaining the sustainability of our society. We consistently adhered to the practice of taking only what we needed, even when we possessed the financial means, the authority, or the power to acquire more. Our actions were driven by a consideration for those with fewer resources, and we willingly made sacrifices on their behalf. Comparing this ethos to contemporary sustainability, I firmly believe that the essence of sustainability lies in sacrifice.

In the present context, sustainability can be synonymous with the willingness to sacrifice some of our own wants and desires, sharing what we have with a broader community. In essence, the formula for sustainability can be encapsulated in the simple phrase, ‘Give more, take less.’ This embodies the principle that, by fostering a spirit of generosity and sacrifice, we can pave the way for a sustainable and harmonious coexistence.

When presenting this concept to my younger students, I often encourage them to visualise it on a grid, with giving on the x-axis and taking on the y-axis. This framework reveals four distinct categories of individuals. The first group comprises those who take more and give less, commonly identified as capitalists. The second category includes people who give more and take more, often referred to as socialists. Minimalists, forming the third group, give less and take less. Finally, the fourth group, the spiritualists, are characterised by giving more and taking less. In the current context, the pressing need is neither capitalism, socialism, nor minimalism. Rather, the need of the hour is spiritualism. Spiritualism, distilled to one word, is selflessness—a sense of sacrifice before we consume. This principal advocates thinking of others before indulging in personal enjoyment, aligning with the scriptural injunction deeply rooted in India’s cultural ethos. Can there be a more solid and fool proof formula for sustainability?

The essence of global discourse on environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability boils down to a singular idea: are individuals willing to sacrifice some of their wants and desires for the greater good of all? This willingness to sacrifice is the linchpin for achieving sustainability in all dimensions—environmentally, economically, socially, and in every conceivable way.

While the need for models, values, and strategies for a sustainable world is acknowledged, the most pivotal value in this pursuit is the willingness to make sacrifices. Beyond the familiar mantras of recycle, reduce, and reuse, I introduce an additional imperative: refuse. If one truly does not need an item, regardless of financial capacity or resource availability, the directive is to simply refuse it.

Reflecting on my recent visit to North America, where, on average, an individual purchases 82 pieces of clothing annually, it raises the question of when one would find the time to wear this abundance? Such patterns, if replicated globally, would necessitate the resources of 5 or 6 Earths to sustain the population.

The crux of the matter is sustainability—our perpetual consumption exceeds genuine needs. The advent of economics stems from our insatiable desires against finite resources, defining economics itself. While commerce and economics advocate growth and GDP expansion, GDP alone fails as a true indicator of societal development or national challenges. The contemporary discourse focuses on genuine progress indicators, considering environmental, social, and economic dimensions. Balancing one end at the expense of the other proves unsustainable in the long run, presenting the predicament we currently face. Amidst the efforts of policymakers and the many global conferences and intellectual debates, a critical need emerges for a unified global effort and serious commitment. While a carrot-and-stick approach may influence businesses, the true essence lies in self-driven sustainability.

The solution lies in personal choices—deciding to purchase one less item than usual signifies a step towards genuine sustainability. This collective shift in consumer behaviour has the potential to disrupt artificial supply-demand dynamics, burst asset price bubbles, and normalise commodity prices globally, benefiting all. Our model promotes a sense of sacrifice, advocating the consumption of only what is truly needed and refusing unnecessary excess.

Initiating this change at the grassroots level holds the key to sustainable societies. By recognising the consumer as king, especially the influential Indian youth and the broader Asian and global south population, a significant shift can occur. Choosing not to succumb to peer pressure or superficial trends, but making conscious consumption choices, empowers individuals to reshape the equation toward sustainability. Consumers, especially the vibrant Indian youth, possess immense power, and I aim to inspire and motivate you to wield that power responsibly.

In essence, take only what is necessary; do not deny or starve yourself, but refrain from excessive consumption. This approach ensures that ample resources are available to those who cannot afford them. Prices will stabilise, and supply-demand dynamics will reflect a more realistic and sustainable balance.

During the COVID era, a joke circulated that resonated with a profound truth. It humorously highlighted the paradox: not buying unnecessary items with money we don’t possess leads to economic downturns, while the reverse—purchasing non-essential items with borrowed money—seems to stimulate economic prosperity. This reliance on debt-driven economies, however, presents a concerning reality in today’s world.

The antidote to this predicament lies in embracing a mindset of sacrifice. My sustainability model draws inspiration from this concept. At our institutions—comprising higher education, universities, hospitals, and colleges—we adhere to a unique principle: none charge a single rupee.

One might question the sustainability of such a system without financial transactions, accounts, or receivables. The answer lies in the sacrifice of thousands worldwide who have embraced this idea. The result? Equitable opportunities are extended to the lowest strata of society, empowering the socio-economically weaker sections. This empowerment facilitates their rise, enabling them to learn self-care and, in turn, care for their families.

I am particularly impressed with the government’s Swayam portal, extending its accessibility to even the last and least privileged students in the country, enabling them to hone their skills and obtain a degree. Equally commendable is the work program for women in education, ensuring increased opportunities for higher education among women. Within our institutions, there is a strong emphasis on empowering women in leadership and education. A significant portion of our student body comprises women, because of our fee-free structure.

In this regard, parents find it feasible to enrol their daughters in universities without incurring expenses until marriage, challenging the notion of women as liabilities. Furthermore, we provide stipends to the students, encouraging parents to sustain their education beyond undergraduate studies, allowing them to pursue postgraduate degrees.

In rural areas, women’s education sees a mere 1% enrolment, highlighting a stark contrast to the 50% population they represent. The untapped human potential within this demographic highlights the urgent need for intervention. By combining efforts from the government, social services, and spiritual enterprises like ours, we propose a model termed the Samaja, Sarkaara, Samstha model.

The government, as Sarkaara, formulates sound policies. Samaja represents society coming together, pooling resources, and making sacrifices for the greater good. And organisations like ours, Samstha, all play a crucial role in efficiently delivering services to the rural and needy. This model aims not only for economic sustainability but also environmental and, most importantly, social sustainability. Recognising that we are social animals, not just part of the jungle, we emphasise the survival of the weakest in our society, not the survival of the fittest. It is our collective responsibility to ensure everyone has equitable opportunities, regardless of their background. Every individual should have access to education, healthcare, social protection mechanisms, and no weaker person should suffer. I believe that achieving this vision within 25 years is not too soon. Let us work towards a nation where everyone enjoys equal opportunities, regardless of their origins.

And Ramarajya, as we used to call it, is eloquently described in Valmiki’s Ramayana in the 6th kāṇḍa, portraying how Rama governed and the state of affairs during that time. It stands as a timeless model of sustainability. The verse mentions the timely blossoming and fruit-bearing of trees without the intrusion of pests or crop-related issues. Rainfall was consistent, and the wind was pleasantly soothing to the skin, indicating a harmonious climate and a well-maintained environment.

Moreover, all sections of society, be it businessmen, administrators, intellectuals, or service providers, operated without the shackles of greed. Content in their respective roles, individuals were aware of their capabilities and didn’t succumb to the temptation of professions solely for monetary gains. Their satisfaction stemmed from being supported by the entire community.

The society adhered to dharma, the righteous path of sacrifice and consumption. In this idyllic setting, falsehood was unheard of, and truth (sathya) and righteousness (dharma) were the guiding principles. The entire community, in their pursuit of virtue, found happiness in practicing dharma, utilising their wealth, resources, knowledge, and abilities for the greater good.

The message is clear: for true happiness, one must adhere to dharma. In the current context, the right thing to do is embodied in the principle of ‘tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā’—to sacrifice and consume thoughtfully. I urge each of you to reflect on these words, to refuse what you don’t need, and extend a helping hand to those in greater need. By living a life of sacrifice, we can collectively contribute to building sustainable and joyful societies. This is the vision of the developed nation we dream of, the developed world we are working towards, and we eagerly anticipate lasting partnerships with all of you.