Work Is Worship

On 5th December 2004, I was honoured with the Basavashree Award, in recognition of my contributions to people and nature through research, campaigns and movements.

The Basavashree Award is given to those involved in selfless service to humanity to create an egalitarian society, an ideal espoused by Basaveswara, a 12th century saint in Karnataka who had revolted against the tyranny of discrimination based on caste, creed and gender.

Though I had worked in Karnataka in the early 1980s, first in the Indian Institute of Science, and later in the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, the richness of Basava’s philosophy was revealed to me only during my visit to the math of Chitradurga.

Basaveswara was a Saint whose spirituality was social reform based on equality of all people.  He refused to make any distinction between man and men, and men and women pursuing different vocations and belonging to different castes and religions.  At the core of his spiritual philosophy for social justice are two categories – “Kayaka” – work as sacred and “Dasoha” – giving and sharing as sacred.

According to Basava, “doing good work is Heavenly” and “there can be nothing more sacred than work”.  Closely associated with the sacredness of work was the sacredness of sharing.  The gifts received from society through ones labour should be shared.  Hoarding and accumulation in the Basava philosophy was sinful.

Basava’s spirituality thus provides alternatives to both the oppression of institutionalized religion in the form of caste discrimination, and the oppression of capitalism which devalues and degrades labour and celebrates and rewards accumulation of capital.

The caste system had put the skilled, creative crafts people and peasants in the fourth caste (Chaturtha Varna).

By putting the dignity of labour and work as worship at the heart of spiritual practise, Basava removed the basis of caste exclusion.  Born a Brahmin in AD 1105 in Bagevadi in Bijapur in Karnataka, Basava became the finance minister of King Bjjala of the Kalachuri dynasty.  And he put his religious philosophy to practise as heed of treasury.  He enriched the royal treasury and at the same time alleviated the sufferings of the people showing that wealth can be created through justice. However, Basava was creating a new religion and a new social order which the religious orthodoxy could not tolerate.  Women like Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikatanivavari and Ghosha are said to have contributed to Rigvedic hymns. But post Rig Veda, institutionalized religion devalued women as it devalued dalits.  Basava’s movement had dalits and women at its heart.  Women like Mahadevi, Akka Mahadevi, Satyakka, Muktayakka, Gundavve, Remmavve, Ammavve, Kalavve, Vaijavve, Annaladevi, Pittavve, Sivapriye, Nachi were leading women followers of Basava’s philosophy who came from all parts of India.  Mahadevi came from as far as Kashmir.

Basava’s devotees came from all sections of society, rich and poor, “high” caste and “low” caste, educated and uneducated. Caste and gender hierarchy was unacceptable to Basava.

However, Basava, recognized that social equality could not be achieved without economic equality.  And Kayaka and Dasoha were the two pillars for economic justice and economic democracy.  Kayaka literally means physical work or work done by the body. It embodies the principles of dignity of man, dignity of labour, and divinity of labour.

These principles are violated both by the old caste system or religious orthodoxy and the new caste system of corporate globalisation.  The financial institutions and global corporation are today’s Brahmins. Ordinary working people everywhere are “sudras” and “dalits”.  Those who do not work, accumulate wealth.  Those who work, get poorer. Sixteen thousand peasants in India took their lives during 2004 because a globalised economic system devalues their work, and creates market opportunities for agribusiness, which sells costly seeds and chemicals and buys cheap produce from farmers.  Global trade is based on false prices which reflect neither the value of work, nor the value of resources.  Economic polarization and ecological devastation is an inevitable consequence of an economic system based on false prices and devaluation of people’s work and nature’s contributions.  According to Basaveswara, it is a great sin to sell or buy an article at an unjust price.  The “cheap” food of globalised, industrialized agriculture is based on not paying the full value of farmers work and natural wealth. Globalisation, based on unjust prices is therefore a sinful system, and we have a spiritual duty to create just alternatives based on the creativity of every individual, and the intrinsic value of everyone’s creative expressions in physical work.

Work as worship becomes a revolutionary force in a period where the global economic system is based on the end to work. “Kayaka” in contemporary times can create new energies to end unemployment and inequality. However, as Prof. Basavaraja states in his book Basavesvara, “Kayaka” does not mean merely a vocation for eking one’s livelihood.  Of course everyone must take up some vocation or the other for one’s existence.  No one should live on somebody else’s labour, as a parasite.  The vocation which an individual follows should not be harmful to the society.  It should fulfill the needs of the society.  The returns for doing work must not be reserved exclusively for oneself, but also meet the needs of the society, thus leading to the principle of each one working according to his capacity and taking the returns from it according to his needs.  Through it, one’s selfishness must vanish, making a room for the global consciousness.  Any work done in such absolute detachment shall become ‘Kayaka’ or worship.

One must work and live well.  And also one must overcome selfishness and not claim the rewards exclusively for oneself.  Without living exclusively for oneself one must learn to live for the good of others as well.  One must distribute the fruit of ones labour in a spirit of Dasoha.  Only then will the work become Kayaka or holy work and worship.  Thus, any work undertaken for the good of the world shall be worship or Kayaka.  It is only in this sense that the Saranas said the Kayaka or dedicated work was paradise.

Work as worship can also offer solutions to the ecological crisis.  The crisis of pollution, the spread of toxic chemicals in agriculture, the excessive use of fossil fuels leading to climate change, are all rooted in replacing human labour with chemicals and machines.  The fossil fuel economy which is leading to climate change is based on “energy slaves”.

The ideological and limited concept of ‘productivity’ of technologies has been universalized with the consequence that all other costs of the economic process become invisible.  The invisible forces which contribute to the increased ‘productivity’ of a modern farmer or factory worker emanate from the increased consumption of non-renewable natural resources.  Lovins has described this as the amount of ‘slave’ labour at present at work in the world.  According to him, each person on earth, on an average, possesses the equivalent of about fifty slaves, each working forty hours a week.  Man’s annual global energy conversion from alls sources (wood, fossil fuel, hydroelectric power, nuclear) at present approximately 8 x 10 watts.  This is more than twenty times the energy content of the food necessary to feed the present world population at the FAO standard per capita requirement of 3,600 cals per day.

In terms of workforce, therefore, the population of the earth is not 4 billion but about 200 billion, the important point being that about 98 per cent of them do not eat conventional food.  The inequalities in the distribution of this ‘slave’ labour between different countries is enormous, the average inhabitant of the USA, for example, having 250 times as many ‘slaves’ as the ‘average Nigerian’.  And this, substantially is the reason for the difference in efficiency between the American and Nigerian economies: it is not due to the differences in the average ‘efficiency’ of the people themselves.  There seems no way of discovering the relative efficiencies of Americans and Nigerians: If Americans were short of 249 of every 250’ slaves’ they possess, who can say how ‘efficient’ they would prove themselves to be. (Lovins, E. (1975), “World Energy Strategies”, London, p133)

The increase in the levels of resource consumption is taken universally as an indicator of economic development.  If the present level of resource consumption in the USA is accepted as the development objectives of India, the total resource demands of ‘developed’ India can be calculated by multiplying the current resource consumption by a factor of 250.  Neither our forests nor our fields or rivers can sustain such a ‘development’.

Kayaka is thus simultaneously a spiritual category, a social justice category, and an ecological sustainability category. “Wealth without work” was also one of the seven social sins according to Gandhi. Establishing work as worship can be as revolutionary a force in our times as it was nine centuries ago in the time of Basavana for creating a just, sustainable society which enhances human dignity and expands human potential.

The duty and right to creative work is not just an economic right, it is not just a human right. Above all else it is a spiritual duty. That is why the unemployment creating corporate globalisation is not just leaving to economic inequality but to a sinful order. The spiritual imperative demands an economy in which every mind and every hand can fulfill its full potential of creativity.

Recognizing that a just society and a truly human society cannot exist as long as people are denied work Gandhi had written an economic constitution.

According to me the economic constitution of India and for the matter of that of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make the two ends meet. And this ideal can be universally realized only if the means of production of the elementary necessaries of life remain in the control of the masses. These should be freely available to all as God’s air and water are or ought to be; they should not be made a vehicle of traffic for the exploitation of others. Their monopolization by and country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle is the cause of the destitution that we witness today not only in this unhappy land but in other parts of the world too.

Leave a comment