In a recent article (Imagine), we heard how Paramhansa Yogananda described the arts as “Vaishya stuff.”
Surely he didn’t mean that all art and artists should be lumped together under the Gita’s colorful description of Vaishya consciousness as “scheming for petty advantage”?
The clearest explanation I’ve found is from Swami Kriyananda’s book Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, in his explanation of verse 18:44:
The duties of a Vaishya must be those activities which can help him to rise spiritually. Activities that will help him to fulfill his own desire for gain and for ego-, or for self-, expression, and which may at the same time help him to raise his consciousness, include such things as all kinds of artistic expression.
Yogananda listed artists, in fact—including composers, novelists, sculptors, musicians—as Vaishyas. Yet one can well imagine that this designation does not include those as Vaishyas who create works of art, music, and literature for the upliftment of others! Those, rather, who create such works for money, and for people’s mere pleasure or diversion, are what he meant by the term, Vaishyas.
The “mere” in that last sentence is not meant derogatorily. To give esthetic pleasure to others can be a means of raising their, and one’s own, awareness, and of clarifying one’s own and other people’s understanding.
The duty of a Vaishya is to include the benefit of others in his own activities. Thus, he will become more sensitive to the needs of others, and will develop, in time, the nature of a Kshatriya.