Ecstasy and Ethics of Poverty- a romantic myth

- R.N. Sharma, Ph.D.
National Chemical Laboratory
Pune 411 008, India
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 115-116.

Introduction: The faces of poverty

Poverty, essentially, is a basic lack, means, a deficiency, generally of resources for subsistence. In the non-human animals such poverty is only found marginally in the "pecking order" for distribution of resources in society.

The lowest ranking member of a group may be inadvertently, or intentionally deprived of meager resources. In the human species, inequitable resource distribution is the rule rather than the exception. Food, shelter, healthcare may be described as minimum human needs for bare subsistence. Deficiency in these spells material poverty, which has plagued "civilized" man since pre-history, the condition still with us even as the twentieth century draws to a close. Among humankind, to whom we shall confine ourselves to the rest of this article, poverty can also be of the spirit, emotions, ideas, and knowledge. Humankind continues to be haunted by these vicarious poverties since times immemorial, the situation by no means much improved due to the much-avowed technological advances. Poverty or deficiency/ absence/ denial/ negation of material requirements for sustenance of life at even subliminal level is the more universally prevalent and poignant. Indeed, today poverty (any of the above types) may be found coexisting with, or sometimes even as a small island/pocket/cancer in affluence.

There are some special faces of poverty : In India, there is poverty of the spirit in lack of consideration, compassion and empathy with fellow man. Sharma (1998) has remarked emphatically on this in two recent publications. The intractable, incorrigible inertia, obduracy and obstructiveness of an unfeeling, unrepentant, and supremely indifferent Indian bureaucracy is a poverty of no mean dimensions and consequences. It subverts and corrupts in its wake all edifices of the State : the judiciary (backlog of thousands of cases! The corrupt bailed out ad nauseum, the rare reformers and crusaders being incarcerated!); the police (custody deaths, "encounter" killings, accident victims bleeding to death on the roads in which society in the modern civilized world would lives be allowed to be snuffed out on roads just for want of completion of bureaucratic formalities, even the common public shuddering to help for fear of harassment by the "system") ; education (the commercialization of teaching by the teachers); Ö. The list is endless. In nearly all cases, the pathological propensity of the modern republican Indian to switch over to the comfortable and powerful former colonial = present clerical mode of functioning in all areas is the culprit, The generator of these special poverties of the human spirit, for the system provides bland cover for non-performance as well as perverse obstructionism.

Facets of Poverty

Poverty has been described as a virtue, or even a blessing, in many religions. This is largely as a sop, a solace, the whistle in the dark for despairing souls groaning under the burden of unbearable deprivation. On the other hand, voluntary denial of conveniences, something extending even to essentials, for a cause or aspiration is often in the nature of a self imposed discipline which may have an ethic ( in the sense of value ) for the eventual achievement of an avowed objective, which may lead to an ecstasy of spiritual nature. Examples of such voluntary, self chosen/ imposed poverty are reflected in the architectural grandeur of some cave and temple structures of India where, from prehistoric to as late as the medieval era, artisans and craftsmen, including monks, have spent whole lifetimes chipping away at granite to create odes of superlative spiritual aesthetics to Gods and men of various hues. The caves of Ajanta, Ellora, and Karla, and various temples, especially the Khajurao odyssey of sex in stone, and the Meenakshi temple at Madurai in India are prime examples of this facet of human endeavor embracing poverty as a dedication for a higher purpose. The special tool of fasting used by Mahatma Gandhi in India was another, if unusual, and novel example of voluntary adoption of poverty ( of subsistence by refusing nutrition ) to achieve political this case leading to no less than independence from colonial rule : decidedly an ethic and an ecstasy for the people of the Indian subcontinent.

Other than the chosen denials illustrated above, all other material deficiencies of vital requirements for subsistence generate suffering and pain, certainly not ecstasy, in those condemned to suffer them. There is certainly nothing ethical either about hunger and disease leading to continually aggravating impoverishment, of the body and the soul, in children and adults, men and women. The decline of the physical leads to the shriveling of the spiritual, and the vicious cycle erodes the very humanity through generations - awareness of hopelessness and despair adding to the misery of ravages on the body and day to day living, which is actually slow degeneration and daily death. Poverty depraves not merely the body, but the soul as well : there is no dearth of documentation for this.

It is a travesty of the human condition that the unique evolutionary gift of conscious awareness and intelligence in the human animal becomes a curse for the poverty stricken. The pain, anguish and despair is obviously the more deeply experienced by the human as compared to the perception of pain or deprivation by the non-human animals. Such a poignant state can have neither ethic nor value, and therefore not ecstasy either.

Justifications for Poverty

Numerous religions seek to justify poverty (along with pain, suffering etc.) as Divine will, Karmic nemesis, or simply as a self-, or supra (divine) imposed self- discipline to convert the sufferers into better persons, more acceptable to God, or in Heaven. The need for projecting such justification is, of course, the contradiction inherent in an all powerful, loving, merciful being (God)/ system (Religion) condoning/accepting misery and despair of its acolytes for no discernible cause (sin). The victim may accept such a sop since he has no options, but he does it under duress, certainly not with pleasure, or any sense of goodness or morality. Indeed, the opposite viewpoint sometimes mooted that Poverty is the biggest sin, is definitely more biorational and comprehensible.

Romantic myths of Poverty

The notorious inability of Joan of Arc to comprehend why her poor countrymen were not consuming cakes in the absence of bread could be attributed to innocence-ignorance of the ground realities. Glorifying poverty as some kind of ethical virtue, or it being capable of generating a pristine, primeval ecstasy is an equally romantic myth of the modern urban man availing all comforts of contemporary human civilization , with only impersonal, second or third hand awareness of actual poverty. Voluntary chosen or self \endash imposed negation of modern conveniences, including even information inputs, as in a rustic retreat, is once again a fancy diversion, an illusion. Modern amenities in such settings are only a phone call away-at the nearest post office, or in these days, by the mere switching on of any of the numerous electronic communication devices. Voluntary rejection of such access can lead to simulation of actual deficiency conditions, but this could still be illusory, and artificial, the "poverty" of means capable of being dispelled at will in the slightest emergency affecting life or limb.

The ecstasy, and the ethic, imagined, visualized or "experienced" in such "poverty" is therefore contrived and artefactual, with little, if any relation, to the actual reality of the condition. Foregoing clean water, hygienic food, life saving drugs, at least the minimum informational inputs from the world, social interaction may be the penance of a recluse seeking a "higher truth". Such self-abnegation can have neither meaning, nor virtue for the average human from the urban or today, even the rural milieu. The ethic and ecstasy sometimes claimed or aspired through voluntary imposition of deficiency conditions are as illusory as the "poverty" created. Retreat in reclusion in simulated poverty states may be achievable, though it would essentially be artefactual. Embracing real poverty, and living among the poverty stricken, has been achieved only by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, who could infuse ethics, and derive a spiritual satisfaction from the exercise. But again, these were rare humans, the acme of the species, with high spiritual objectives. For them, seeking poverty was for an altruistic goal, a determined, grim undertaking. Poverty can never be fun or games, or a source of joy or inspiration, as some idealists and romantics like to profess from distances far removed from the dusty, grimy grind of the gutters. Poverty leads to subhumanoid attrition of human body and spirit. Ecstasy and ethic are essentially human traits, of a transcendental kind at that. The implied /claimed coexistence of these states with Poverty is therefore a contradiction in terms, which cannot be reconciled except in the case of special spiritual endeavours of a rare breed of humans. The romantics who seek bliss in Poverty chase a mirage, and those who claim to have found it, coin a false myth. The best proof of the above assertions lies in the undeniable fact that the poverty-stricken would any day opt for an exchange of their lives of penury for existence of blatant consumerism and affluence. The poignant query is "are there any takers for this offer among the advocates of Poverty who see ethic and ecstasy in it?" The answer is, of course, an indubitable, resounding NO. That concludes all arguments. Poverty is a curse, a sin, a blasphemy and an indictment of the whole spectrum of humankind. Those who profess to see ethic or ecstasy in Poverty deserve neither consideration, nor quarter.


Sharma (1998a) Asian/Indian Man : An Agonizing Appraisal. pp 70-3 in Bioethics in Asia. Eds. Norio Fujiki and Darryl R.J.Macer. Christchurch NZ, Eubios Ethics Institute.

Sharma (1998b) What ails Ind? One answer. AIBA Newslink 22 (1),1-2

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