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Grasping and Greed – The Cause of all Misery?

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Greed and Grasping – the cause of all misery?

It is often said that the root cause of suffering in the world is human greed, the desire to possess things for oneself or for the family or the group to which one belongs, and to the fact that millions of people use their cunning, status and economic powers to accumulate more goods and wealth for themselves while being careless about the well-being of those who do not have such position or knowledge. Many times in history as well as today, the rich became richer at the cost of the poor. We all know the relation between greed of particular interest groups and  the environment world wide. In India this human tendency and behavior is called parigraha – which can be translated as grasping, possessiveness and greed. Ultimately, parigraha is the result of the erroneous belief that we all have separate egos who can benefit ourselves while being thoughtless about the happiness of other egos – and that this will be of no consequence for those who are greedy. The greedy, as it often proved in society, are the fittest survivors, the most successful people, and they will carry over their wealth and success to future generations, while many of the more humble people with kind hearts tend to fill the lower ranks of the society – believing that goodness will ultimately be rewarded by God in heaven or by karma on earth. Though the poor are the losers from a social and economic point of view, the true losers are those who feed their own personal ego – because the very existence of the self that they cherish as an independent entity has been proven by the Buddha to be the greatest illusion – the heresy of separateness – and exists only temporarily. When we die we can not takes our assets, our money, our body, even our friends and family with us. If this is all we gained, we will be the poorest of the poorest within decades. However those who have developed a rich, higher mind, at least to some extend, trying to be altruistic and compassionate, study and imbibe spiritual philosophies and act in self-forgetfulness for the larger whole, yearning for genuine beauty, goodness and well-being for all creatures on earth and in the universe, will experience long periods of joy and fulfillment after death – as has been taught by so many religions and philosophies throughout the ages as well as today.


If parigraha, selfish grasping, ego clinging, is the cause of so much misery, why does it exist at all? Is the cause of misery an inherent, ‘divine’ property of the living universe? It must be, philosophically, that even parigraha is a reflection of a divine Law or, rather call it, spiritual Fact of Nature. If the soul, or ātman or essential Self of us, the spiritual life-consciousness or jīva (in Theosophical literature often called monad) that we are in the deepest of our deepest, is perfect, why does it make ‘mistakes’ – why does the possibility of parigraha, grasping, clinging, associating with illusion, and above all, suffering exist at all in the universe? Is the jīva, our very essence, then, ‘the ultimate selfish gene’? And why do we have to face that challenge and oppose the pull of parigraha?


It is said that the jīva or monad in its essence is omniscient, but has always since the infinite past been accompanied by a karmic envelope, a ‘body’ of accumulated karma-units, or entities, elemental beings, or groups of properties (skandhas) created by our own mind. Karmas are constantly added by ourselves during our life, through the continuous vibrations of our mind, desires, emotions and actions. Thus we maintain, though partly being exhausted by the experiences of life itself but at the same time feeding anew, this ever changing karmic ‘body’. The only way to get rid of the karmic aggregate is the path of purification, total abstention from physical and worldly pursuits in action, speech and above all mind, ultimately liberating our jīva, our living conscious soul, from this body. The way to do this, is the opposite of parigraha, called a-parigraha, i.e. not to grasp anything for ourselves, not to cling to anything that is of limited, temporary value for this physical and psychological life only. Then the immortal spirit alone will be liberated of its shackles and shine with a light beyond any imagination.


The question arises: why does this karmic ‘body’ exist and where did it come from in the beginning? Another question arises: why, if existence is eternal, have not all jīvas reached liberation from karma – suffering and joy – by now? An answer to the second question is that there is an infinite quantity of beings or beings-to-be in the infinite universe who have not yet entered the stream of our universe, and therefore have not made any progress here  – but just as souls reach liberation at the ‘top’ and leave the cycles of illusions, these most primitive beings too will enter into the stream of development, ‘at the bottom’. As any beginning, any true end, any truly lowest or highest, is philosophically unthinkable (because: what was there before the beginning or beyond the highest etc.?) The stream of primitive beings entering our saṁsāra – our cycle of development – will, through uncountable incarnations in uncountable cycles of joy and misery, of spirituality and materiality, develop all the sense faculties and a mind, and then be able to self-consciously seek liberation like we humans can do right now.


The Theosophical answer to the existence of suffering is: the jīva, our Self, is perfect only relatively. In its true nature it is connected with the eternal and never separate from it. But as an individual manifestation as a living entity it is eternally progressing – i.e. moving from relatively imperfect to relatively perfect. Contrary to most (exoteric) eastern systems of thought, nirvāṇa as seen by theosophists, is only a relative end. There are however, according to the esoteric doctrine, infinite nirvāṇas. Each nirvāṇa or liberation of illusions and karmas is the purpose for a enormously large group of jīvas who move through cycle after cycle, always expanding, always experiencing, always finally destined to reach their nirvāṇa. In Theosophy, the beings who are the most primitive elemental beings in our universe, without senses to function in our saṁsāra or cycle of manifested existence, are those jīvas or ‘god-sparks’ who are at the beginning of the grand cycle and purpose to which we all belong: the awakening from an un-self-conscious jīva to a positively self-conscious jīva. When the jīva has reached that goal, it enters nirvāṇa – the true life-consciousness, the acme of accomplishment in our universe. To reach this stage the jīva has to stretch out towards all aspects of which the universe consists. The manifested universe has been differentiated in the ‘five elements’, i.e. earth, water, air, fire and ākāśa or space1. For each element, for each aspect of the universe, specific sense-organs or contact-interfaces are developed. These are symbolized by the senses we know from our daily life: touch, taste, smell, seeing and hearing, and mind as a perceptive organ. In reality these senses refer not only (or even in the first place) to physical nature, but to inner Nature, almost all of which is ‘invisible’. The visible and technically perceptible world is only a ‘small’ circle or island or globe or maṇḍala within the vast, mostly invisible universe consisting of more subtle types of matter. The elements of the universe include all the invisible and ever more subtle strata in a ascending scale as seen from our viewpoint on the physical earth. All that is outside our physical realm of perception can only be truly understood by the inner faculties of a more spiritual character than the physical senses, and are developed after long cycles of experience only, or quickened by esoteric yogic practice accompanied by mundane ascetism. Only the greatest among yogi’s – far greater than any yogi walking the Earth in public at present – can have true, inner, subjective (i.e. becoming one with the object) experience and knowledge of the universe. Yet, even these greatest of yogis have not yet reached the final nirvāṇa of human existence. Fot that they still have a stretch to go.


Nirvāṇa will last long. Nevertheless, there will, in the far future, be a new awakening: a ‘most primitive being’ of a higher level will start its journey – higher than the highest human, but the most primitive in the sense of the coming unfolding or evolution of the jīva. The jīva never dies. It reawakens in order to develop still loftier levels of self-consciousness. It starts, on that higher level, again as an un-self- conscious god-spark.


Karma as such never perishes, though individual karmas are continuously created and exhausted. The old karmas of the hoary past are again attracted to the jīva, continuing as its accompanying karmic ‘body’ of ‘followers’ composed of complex elemental beings. This is as true for a man, for any other becoming being, such as a comet, a planet or a galaxy and on. Though the jīva was perfect in the past, it is not perfect relative to its future. It will have to face and overcome the past, purify it, understanding a still deeper essence than it already did in the past. And so ad infinitum. It has to learn to see through the surface of the old teachings in order to reach a still deeper essence.


The most primitive and primordial beings of our universe have been liberated beings in the past: that is also why, in modern scientific terms, and only referring to physical life on the earth, even the simplest germ contains in its DNA in essence all necessities for the whole evolution towards manhood. The intelligence needed to compose a germ houses in the wisdom of its jīva. This intelligence and wisdom are vaster than that of the greatest human engineer or scientist. This is because it has been in existence long and long the ages, and is in the depth of its ‘heart’ or core is depending (i.e. ‘hanging down’) from still higher consciousnesses.


Coming back to the question: why do we have parigraha, grasping, possessiveness at all?

All composed beings in the universe, from sub-atomic particles to galaxies and still larger structures, consist because of parigraha. All things are attracted to each other according to their specific characters. Guided by their jīva, which is their conscious life-essence dressed with intelligence, they form clusters, living united entities in experience. Those who are related in common factors of evolutionary interest form groups, nations, kingdoms of nature, atoms, molecules, universes. This is parigraha. In Buddhism it is called tṛṣṇā, tanhā, or ‘thirst’ for existence, the feeling of attraction to a particular state of existence remembered from the past. It is the motor of the cycle of existence. Jīvas themselves are eternally changing, bringing forth out of themselves universe after universe.2 Without parigraha we would not have existed. Without existence we could not have externalized the universe so that we can develop from unselfconscious jīvas into selfconscious jīvas. Parigraha, in its original meaning, is our inmost wish – the inmost wish of our jīva, our deepest seat of consciousness, our innate necessity – to become, to become fully human, an omniscient (as far as our universe is concerned), self-conscience and liberated being who has learned and developed all that could be learned as a human and who lives in the bliss of it. The same applies to any other than human form of existence.


Then why would we oppose parigraha, if it is a reflection of the divine itself? It is because parigraha represents one half of being, while aparigraha represents the other half. Due to parigraha we entered the experiences of this universe and incarnated time after time again, perhaps millions, billions of times. Not only in the physical or semi-physical world, but also in innumerable other levels or realms or fields of experience, among these those we call heavens and hells. We grasp emotional, physical and mental existence again and again, but never exactly in the same way. The relative wise will spend long periods in heavenly, i.e. pleasant, states of consciousness, others will do so in lower heavens and for shorter periods, again others will abide in hellish ‘places’ or states of consciousness for a time. Thus, time and time again we – i.e. the jīva with its accompanying karmas – run the cycle of descend to the deepest of the deepest, that is, the most intricate material involvement. But then … our ultimate destiny is to return, taking the essential truths of all our experiences within us, back into our jīva. Such a cycle may take millions of years, and then again we descend in comparable cycles through innumerable life-forms, innumerable embodiments, and each time we rise again. Until we have reached the point where these cycles can be left behind. Then we can seek consciously to rise up. We have experienced all that must be experienced for the inner purposes of our jīva, and now it is no longer parigraha, but aparigraha which guides us. It is disentanglement from the many worlds of matter and temporary, in fact illusionary, circumstances we have built around ourselves. We become self-consciously one with the essence, but leave the drags, the world of forms, the world of karmas behind.


It is an essential theosophical teaching that this has a reason. Compassion is the Law of laws: compassion streams in every vein of the universe. No acts other than those born of mental delusion are without compassion. We can see it in all nature. The great law of Compassion of this long journey of the souls through downward and upward cycles again and again, exists in order that the higher may help the lower. The higher will influence the lower in such a way that in future the lower itself will become the higher, and the higher will become the still higher. It is like an infinite golden chain of compassion hanging down from heaven – to use a figure of speech – a chain of beings who are dependent of each other. Some are servants, others are masters, and the masters are servants to higher masters. In the human body, every living cell has its own jīva. If isolated it can survive and even procreate outside the human body. But they are, as long as we are alive, all subservient to the human jīva. They have been grasped by the jīva, out of Compassion, for purposes of bringing forth all the higher natures that are latent within them. Many organelles within our cells are also – originally – beings on their own. They serve the jīva of the cell. Then, on a still lower level, the atoms serve the molecules, the molecules the organelles, the cells, and ultimately the human jīva. Humans serve, willingly, the promptings of still higher, enlightened beings. On every level there is gain. Atoms of the earth entering in plants are ennobled by becoming servants to the prāṇic influence of the flower of which they may become a part. Animal emotions can become ennobled when they are subservient to a human controlled mind. Humans become ennobled when they listen to the teachings of the great spiritual preceptors. ‘All beings are there to help each other’ is a core fact of the universe. Indeed Compassion is the very force behind both parigraha and aparigraha. Only, parigraha becomes polluted when the illusion of mental selfishness – a typical human trait – becomes dominant. Then parigraha becomes the cause of misery and violence – only when combined with selfishness, egotism. There, in this field of choice, lies our battlefield towards spiritual conquest, towards buddhahood.


Today most people around us tend to grasp more and more material goods for their selfish satisfaction. We do not have to do like they do.  It is a choice.


If we wish to speed up our path to omniscience, nirvāṇa, freedom from all misconceptions and sufferings, we must train ourselves to live ‘like the gods’ in unison with the laws or promptings of the cosmos. That is the only thing we have to do. If we don’t, it will take longer and we will continue to move up and down through all worlds of emotions and imperfect viewpoints. It is each one’s choice. As stated so may times before, the idea of grasping and hoarding, of accumulation of wealth or attributes, though this grasping is a reflection of a cosmic necessity, of cosmic compassion even, in the mundane sense becomes serves the result of a false concept of ego: the erroneous idea that we might be independent of each other, that we can gain happiness for ourselves without giving as much happiness to others. In the material world aparigraha means: sharing, always working for the happiness and spiritual development of all our brothers and sisters – the grand brotherhood of living beings.



  1. In the theosophical system there are two more elements, the last two not directly mentioned in publicized ancient scriptures. []
  2. In Buddhism this idea is called the ‘anātma doctrine’, meaning that, though there truly is a eternal and universal life-essence in Nature of which a spark is belonging to every individual living being, it never remains the same even for a split second: it changes eternally, expressing itself, through evolution, as different beings, even different universes. There is no eternally unchanging substance in the Universe! []