Right Livelihood

January 9, 2019
Mahesh Bhat
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Few days ago I stopped by at a fruit cart the on my way home. As I parked my car by the sidewalk I noticed a man begging. He was sitting on the pavement, obviously in some kind of distress. His tattered clothes had dried paint on them. As I walked back to my car, he came to me asked for alms. I asked him why was he begging. He said that he is a building painter and that he fell down while working,got injured and was unable to work. He was trying to reach the contractor for help but in vain and that he had not eaten all day he added. I was not sure of his story but he certainly was poor. I gave him five rupees. As I drove away, I wondered if I should have given him some more money.

Few weeks ago, I stopped by at the cart of a peanut seller near M G Road. I asked him if he grossed atleast Rs.1000 in a day. If he had 100 customers buying roasted peanuts worth Rs.10 each, he would make the sum. He carried out his trade in a busy intersection. He looked up at the sky and said ‘god willing’ or something to that effect.

Budha’s Noble eight fold path lists “Right Livelihood’ as one of the practices. Renowned economist E. F. Schumacher started his path breaking essay Budhist Economics (1966) with this line “Right Livelihood is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eight fold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.” It was one of the essays in his acclaimwed book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) — essays at the intersection of economics, ethics, and environmental awareness.

“For the modern economist this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the standard of living by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is better off than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption” he wrote.

Maria Popova, founder and editor of the website Brainpickings opens her essay on Schumacher’s books with these words. “Much has been said about the difference between money and wealth and how we, as individuals, can make more of the latter, but the divergence between the two is arguably even more important the larger scale of nations and the global economy. What does it really mean to create wealth for people — for humanity — as opposed to money for governments and corporations?”

As more and more money gets concentrated with less and less people, Right Livelihood perhaps is a concept we need to understand and practice. However the first four practices of the Noble eight fold path are right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct. When our governments and corporations are not practising these how do we expect to see the fifth, Right Livelihood?

I have tried to illustrate the point by the short stories of four people I have met over the course of my work.

Malliah like Shiva I photographed him on October 2012. “My name is Malliah, just like Lord (devaru) Shiva and I clean this garbage” he said. He cleans garbage people throw on this ground in J P Nagar 6th Phase in southern Bangalore. He said he worked for BBMP. His salary is Rs.5500 per month and he has not been paid for the last three months he added. ( He was a casual labourer working for garbage clearing contractors. And they were on strike at that time) The ground was stinking of rotting garbage. In the background is the great wall of JP Nagar. He wanted Rs.10 to eat something.


On the banks of Brahmaputra: She was selling some home made liquor on the banks of Brahmaputra. Her skin was scarred by some kind of burn mark. I asked her if I could make a portrait of her. She agreed..kept saying that she is disabled because of the burns and she couldn’t get a job. Selling home brewed liquor was the only sustenance.


Deepa Mondal, Orissa : In 1999, cyclone 05B hit the Orissa coast with wind speed of 250 km/h. 30 feet waves surged 20 km inland, killing over 15,000 people and devastating everything on its path. Few years later, I travelled to parts of Jagatsinghpur district to understand how people were coping with their lives. On that day most of the men in this area didn’t heed the warning and were out on work. As a result, most of them died; more women survived. The government did give some compensation in the form of fixed deposits in the names of the survivors. They tried to put their life back in order, but they were very vulnerable. They lost their husbands, children, some were taken miles away from their homes by the waves and had to walk back stepping on dead bodies. Soon men from surrounding areas and states literally descended on them. They befriended the women in the guise of helping them, earned their trust and made them take a loan on the fixed deposits to start businesses…and then vanished (with the money). I met Deepa Mondal in a small village in Jagatsinghpur district or Orissa. Her husband had died when the cyclone hit their village. He was outside and the wind slammed him against a tree. Deepa was living in a hut with his children at about Rs.15/- per day. She invited me into her hut profusely apologising that she was unable to give me even a cup of tea.

Gomathi is a native of Thiruvannamali, Tamilnadu. She has been in Bangalore for over 15 years now. She sells guavas on Dickenson Road, Bangalore. She used to sell bananas earlier. She had a baby daughter who used be with her all day breathing exhaust fumes. The baby died few years ago. Gomathi went back to Thiruvannamali and came back after few months. She makes little money after doling out the ‘fees’ to the beat cops and staff of the city administration who ensure the safety of her business. (This information is from 2015)


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