If I take up spirituality, do I have to give up my material ambitions?

Ambition is defined as a strong desire to achieve some goal. There can be a difference in the nature of the goal – for spiritual ambitions, the goal is spiritual growth; for material ambitions, the goal is material benefit. Examples of spiritual ambitions include aspiring to be a better person, understanding religion and scripture, undertaking spiritual practices such as meditation and learning to give or serve. Examples of material ambitions include aspirations to be respected by others, desire for fame, wealth, power or comfort.

However, can everything we do be classified as either purely spiritual or purely material?

Consider the example of a person who has the desire to understand scripture so that they can use their newfound knowledge to gain popularity, the respect of their peers and bring in some money on the side. The desire to understand scripture is spiritual, but the objective of obtaining fame and money is material. Is this goal a spiritual or material ambition?

When we talk about giving up material ambition on the path to spiritual progress, we are seeing the world and our actions through a lens that paints everything black or white. But this is not the nature of this world. In Chapter 17 of the Bhagavad-gītā (The Divisions of Faith), Lord Krishna illustrates that there is more than one factor that colours our performance in the material world. Our actions are really a spectrum of grey, and will continue to be grey for the most part of our spiritual journey. This means we will find it very hard to separate the material from the spiritual, and there is a good reason for this.

Material Ambitions

The original question of material ambitions in the context of spirituality arises because we desire to know how to live, think and act. The intent behind the question itself is goodness, because there is a desire to improve, be a better person and lead a better life. This desire may also be mixed in with some fear and anxiety because we have never had to take a leap of faith to completely “give up” material ambitions before. If you are concerned on that front, please rest assured that you don’t have to take any such leap. The reason is because it is an impossible leap for the majority of us who are entangled in the web of material existence.

Material ambitions have always been a large part of how most of us have defined our existence and purpose in this world, primarily attributed to our conditioning and desires. Giving up material ambitions is tantamount to giving up our material desires. If we were able to shed our desires at will, we would be enlightened in no time!  Material desires are very much a part of our conditioning and it is important to acknowledge this. Internal transformation is not a pill that can be swallowed, it is a process that must be followed. Material desires are the reason we are still entangled in the cycle of birth, old age, disease and death. They keep us bound to the material world, running on the hedonic treadmill in search of comfort, enjoyment and acceptance from others. There will be some profound moments in our life when we realise that our material life choices are not really carrying us towards the destination we wanted. These are moments of realisation. They are by no means the end of our material life, but they can mark the beginning of our spiritual journey.

A more helpful perspective regarding giving up material ambitions could be, “How should I act given that I have chosen to embark on a spiritual journey? What should I do to get off the hedonic treadmill and break free of the cycle of birth, old age and death?”

There is an exact answer to this question, since it was Arjuna’s question to Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gītā when He explains the three modes of material nature.

The Three Modes

arjuna uvāca

kair liṅgais trīn guṇān etān atīto Bhavati prabho

kim-ācāraḥ kathaṁ caitāṁs trīn guṇān ativartate

Arjuna inquired: O my dear Lord, by which symptoms is one known who is transcendental to these three modes? What is his behavior? And how does he transcend the modes of nature?

When explaining the process to transcend material desires, Lord Krishna discusses the three modes of material nature. The three modes are the mode of goodness, the mode of passion and the mode of ignorance. Just as a competent navigator studies the routes on a map to the destination, understanding the three modes is important to transcending them.

guṇān etān atītya trīn dehī deha-samudbhavān

janma-mṛtyu-jarā-duḥkhair vimukto ’mṛtam aśnute

When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes associated with the material body, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.

The three modes are considered the “performers” of all actions in the material world. They can be thought of as states in which we exist that have a strong influence on how we respond to different situations. For example, water can exist as a solid, liquid or gas. When faced with a firm obstacle, a block of ice may stop or crack, whereas liquid water can seep through. And when there is a deep hole in the ground, liquid water may get trapped in the hole, but steam will escape. The modes of material nature not only determine our behaviour under different circumstances, but they also manifest as our thoughts, intentions, judgements, desires and perceptions. In other words, they define us.

Lord Krishna explains that the living being is said to be of a particular “faith” according to the modes he has acquired (Bhagavad-gītā 17.3). “Faith” is a perfect word to describe the modes. For example, do we believe that doing the right thing is most important under any circumstance and place our faith in goodness? Or do we believe that the world is a place where we should be more self-serving because everyone else is also selfish and trust in passion? Or do we believe that it is okay to harm others in the process of living our life and cultivate faith in ignorance?

This article sheds more light on the three modes of material nature.

Real freedom comes from transcending the three modes of material nature. In the Srimad Bhagavatam, Introduction to Chapter 25: The Three Modes of Nature and Beyond, Srila Prabhupada describes the process for transcending the three modes.

1. First, by increasing the mode of goodness, one can defeat passion and ignorance.

2. Then one can conquer material goodness by evolving his consciousness to the platform of transcendence.

The Mode of Goodness

Transcending the three modes of material nature can be thought of as crossing a deep chasm. When we reach the boundaries of our endeavour for spiritual progress, we have the opportunity to jump across this chasm if we wish to. However, there is no point in trying to jump when we haven’t even reached the cliff edge. Imagine a person leaping across solid ground. What does that achieve?

While much has been said about the leap of transcendence, the truth is that a lot of our spiritual progress is defined by coming to the mode of goodness, because that is the nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Krishna is absent of the modes of passion and ignorance. Therefore, in order to reach Him, we must be aligned with His nature. Such a transformation of our inner nature cannot happen with just external change or imitation. Although it may begin with that, ultimately it demands a complete metamorphosis of our natural state of existence. This process is a lot of hard work, but it is extremely rewarding.

While our faith and principles underpin the modes we exist in, they are also evident through our motivations and actions. In Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad-gītā, Lord Krishna explains the divine and demoniac natures. Divine qualities include self-control, nonviolence, simplicity, truthfulness, forgiveness, fortitude, humility, compassion, gentleness, austerity, honour and fearlessness; freedom from anger, envy, greed and fault-finding. Divine actions include the cultivation of spiritual knowledge, renunciation, purification of our existence, cleanliness and charity.

The dominant motivation in the mode of goodness is to give, serve or benefit others. The divine qualities support this. However, consider a divine action of charity to an organisation that inflicts harm on others. Even though the motivation is giving, the nature of the action is in ignorance. Or alternatively, consider the person who cultivates spiritual knowledge in pursuit of respect and reward. Even though the action is divine, the motivation is self-serving and therefore in the mode of passion.

Right MotivationxRight Action=Mode of Goodness
(supported by divine qualities) (supported by knowledge)  

As expressed above, right motivation and right action are both essential to define the mode of goodness. While right motivation can be developed through divine qualities, right action can only be executed with true knowledge. That is why the cultivation of spiritual knowledge is also an action in the mode of goodness. Lord Krishna provides examples of these combinations of motivation and action to explain the divisions of faith to Arjuna in Chapter 17 of the Bhagavad-gītā.

Conclusion

Viewing spirituality as being at loggerheads with materialism creates an inconvenient dichotomy that makes it difficult to navigate towards spiritual progress. But seeing our spiritual ambition as material existence in the mode of goodness presents several useful opportunities for advancement. Aligning our material life and state of existence toward the mode of goodness requires a transformation of our internal qualities which define our motivation, as well as appropriate external actions informed by knowledge.

Awareness of our internal qualities can be developed through practices such as meditation. Living a life of service to others fosters the right motivation and enables us to see through our false ego. Simultaneously, we can also comprehend right action by cultivating spiritual knowledge and understanding the consequences of human actions in this world. This can be further informed through the advice of  spiritual masters and the association of others walking the same path. Once we have arrived at the mode of goodness, we are attuned to God’s nature and ready to take the leap of transcendence.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I believe I’m a good person. Am I not already in the mode of goodness?

A: While we aspire to come to the mode of goodness, pure goodness is only achieved when we transcend the modes of material nature. In the purport to BG 17.3, Srila Prabhupada explains that in materially conditioned life, no work is completely purified. They are not in pure goodness. Pure goodness is transcendental; in purified goodness one can understand the real nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Today, everyone from the common law-abiding citizen to the person who commits a heinous act of violence considers themselves to be “good”. Therefore, it is quite common to consider ourselves good. If we acknowledge that some aspect within us is not good, we immediately see it as an area of improvement and endeavour to change. This is humility. Points for internal introspection would be to examine if the motive behind our every action of ours is to serve other living beings, if our lives are aligned with scriptural injunctions and if we always exhibit only divine qualities. If we are still unable to see any areas for progress, we can always request honest feedback from those who are close to us.

Q: My occupation is not aligned with the qualities of the mode of goodness. Should I change my job?

A: When we begin our transformation, we often tend to focus on large, dramatic, symbolic external changes. However, a lot of our progress is defined by small but significant internal changes, and by actions that are often less visible. For example, we can start with the way we treat our close family and relationships. Are all our actions defined by kindness? Do we always have the right motivation in mind? Do they reflect divine qualities? Are the things we say to ourselves kind or harsh? The answers to these questions are likely to shine light on areas of our lives we can improve before we make large, emblematic changes. We also need to examine our motivation behind significant changes of external circumstances if we feel the desire to implement them before the small ones. If you still feel convinced about the need for a big change to your life, it is advisable to consult a senior on the spiritual path or your spiritual master.

Q: Should I pursue a career opportunity which offers better remuneration but also involves a lot of hard work, time and effort?

A: Material suffering can sometimes be an impediment to spiritual progress. Our essentials need to be taken care of. These include food, shelter, clothing, sleep, safety, security, love and belonging. If these needs are not met, it is difficult to find motivation for self-actualisation. If your career aspirations help you address one or more of these needs, it can be conducive to spiritual progress. On the other hand, if the benefit of advancing your career is greater worldly enjoyment, the choice essentially boils down to whether the additional effort spent on chasing material comfort will hamper your spiritual progress.

Q: If I obtain a high paying job, I can donate more money to spiritual causes. Is this in the mode of goodness?

A: Charity is considered one of the virtues of a gṛhastha – a householder. Donating a portion of our income to noble spiritual causes is in the mode of goodness. At the same time, material pursuit in excess is also considered undesirable. In his purport to the Nectar of Instruction (NOI 2), Srila Prabhupada explains that human life is meant for plain living and high thinking. Devotional service is spoiled when we become too entangled in collecting more funds than required or over-endeavouring for mundane things that are very difficult to obtain. Charity is desirable within the means that are already available to us, without compromising on spiritual advancement.

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