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Is material progress really the culprit? || BITS Pilani (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
8 min
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Questioner (Q): I have a dilemma related to material progress. When I have debates with my friends and relatives who are good with academics and meditate sometimes, they are of the view that any kind of development, such as mobile phones, internet, etc., is a positive progress for us. I disagree with them.

Let’s consider mobile phone as an example. We can ignore all the unhealthy uses and focus only on the positives—for example, if I am in an emergency, I can call my family for help. I still consider the mobile phone harmful, although it does have utility in this context. If I did not have the option to call my family, people around me would take care of me.

So, I think that the mobile phone has increased the separation between us. And the same goes with other inventions. A car used as an ambulance might have some utility, but we were taking care of our health even before ambulances were invented.

Acharya Prashant (AP): Do the facts corroborate your stance?

Q: My stance is that I do not want this progress.

AP: Your stance is that even before the ambulance was there, people were being taken care of. If you look at the average life-expectancy of the people, let’s say, in the 16th or 17th century, what do you find there? Or, let’s say, you look at the situations of Europe at the time of the Black Plague—what do you find there? Or would you say that even without antibiotics and medical advances, people were still being taken care of?

Let’s just try to consider this—maybe I am not entirely right on this, it is for you to consider. What you are saying is, “I exist at a particular point of time—I, my body. Everything that existed before me is alright, and anything that is going to come in my time and after my time is evil. So, the center of decision-making is my physical existence.” Is it not body-centricity and materialism of the deepest kind?

What you are saying is, “Technology before my physical existence is alright; technology after my physical existence is not alright.” Who are you to become the center of decision-making? And what if somebody in the 16th century was saying the same thing? And why are you taking away the right of somebody to say this in the 25th century? Today you can, with a great sense of privilege, say, “Technology has had a course of unabated development till my time,” right? Till this century what you find is constant technological growth. Now, let’s say technological growth stops at this point—then what will the fellow in the 25th century say? He will say, “You know, until the 21st century we had the period of technological advancements, and now, since the last four hundred years, there is nothing.”

We feel that our age is special. All old people say the new generation is corrupt, and they have been saying this since the last five thousand years. Every new generation says the old generation is outdated, and they have been saying this since five thousand years. Similarly, everybody feels that where we stand today is a special age. There is nothing special here.

I am not endorsing technology and its uses, as we see them today—we will come to that a bit later—but what you are saying is pure body-related egoism. “Because, as a body, I exist at this point of time, therefore I take this point as the watershed; this point will decide the boundary. Before this point, whatever happened is acceptable. Now, in my lifetime or after it, no more advancements should happen.” That cannot happen. Just as everybody before you had the right to develop things, humanity will always have that right to develop stuff.

So, the question is not about having that right or withdrawing that right; that is a given. The question is something else; the question is, given the kind of numbers that are there on Earth today, can you have consumption of the kind that we are having? Now, that is a special fact specific to your generation, nothing else.

The Earth was never so crowded—and in this lies no subjectivity, this is a fact—and human beings on the Earth were never consuming as much as we are doing today—this too is a pure objective fact, there is no subjectivity here. So, it is not coming out of a position that I am special; it is not related to me, there is nothing subjective here. It is an objective fact that the Earth is both overcrowded and overstretched in terms of resources. We just don’t have enough on the planet to satisfy the consumption lust of the people that we have, and both are increasing—the number of people and their propensity and ability to consume.

Economic growth is giving money into the hands of the people, and spiritual degradation is making them more lustful towards consumption. So, you have these two weapons multiplying manyfold over: “I have money and I have a desire aroused to severely consume; I will use my money for that.” Now, that is what makes your age special.

So, that is what has to be understood, that blind consumption means annihilation for everybody—for you, for the species, and for the planet. And that consumption cannot be checked unless you address the consumer. And when I say consumer, I do not mean the man or the woman with money in his or her pocket. When I say consumer, I mean the ego. Unless you address the ego, you will not be able to save the planet. All the side-effects that you are talking of—the mobile phone or the ambulance or the automobile—they are not coming because of the growth of technology; they are coming from lack of growth of spirituality.

Technology will continue to develop, and you cannot arrest that. Even if you pass a law trying to somehow arrest the growth of technology, that cannot stop. The reason is simple: Understanding is the very nature of the human being; we will always be curious. In fact, our curiosity is directed more towards the world rather than towards the self. But even the curiosity towards the world is a part of our deep desire towards self-realization. Because we want to know who we are, that is why we keep exploring the world again and again so deeply; that is the reason why every new child that is born on the planet will want to explore the world a little more, a little further.

Science will continue to develop; you cannot stop that and it must not be stopped. There is no reason. So, the question now is, since we will have scientific progress and we will have technological progress—I am not accounting for a scenario in which an asteroid comes and hits the Earth and we meet the fate of the dinosaurs and there is no science and technology left. In a normal scenario, science and technology will both continue to develop.

Now, the question, therefore, is: Who, then, is the knower of science and the consumer of technology? That is the question you should ask. Is the knower of science wise enough? Because science is going to become even more powerful. Is the consumer of technology wise enough, sane enough? Because there will be even more abundance of the goods on offer. The markets will be brimming with stuff offering consumption—endless consumption.

So, are you sane enough? That is the question you should ask. The supply side cannot be stopped; the demand side has to be addressed. You cannot prevent markets from stocking their goods, but you can enlighten the customer, the consumer. That is what you have to do. And it will have a feedback effect, because the consumer, in some sense, is the producer as well. Mankind has a collective mind. If the consumer is enlightened, chances are the producer, too, will have some sense. In any case, if the goods don’t sell, who will produce them? Even if there is no wisdom, there will be the market compulsion.

So, you have to educate the masses. You have to awaken wisdom in the life of the ordinary man, the common people. That is the way.

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