Plain Talk About Art, Spirit, and the Merchant Caste

Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass Elliot, and David Geffen in the early 1970s, photo by Henry Diltz.

Paramhansa Yogananda and a young disciple, who would later be known as Swami Kriyananda, were conversing about certain aspects of the spiritual life. Swamiji, who was then Donald Walters, made a remark about the role of the arts; before finding his guru, he had wanted to become a playwright. So he was not a little chagrined when the Master remarked dismissively, “Oh, that’s Vaishya stuff!”

The Vaishya or Merchant caste doesn’t have a terribly good reputation among aspirants on the path of Self-realization. Images of bickering wheeler-dealers spring to mind, or worse, thieves, con-artists, and used-car salesmen, all “scheming for petty advantage,” as the scriptures describe them.

Yet in his book, The Hindu Way of Awakening, Kriyananda eloquently lays out the vital ways in which the individual soul advances spiritually through the countless incarnations of its Vaishya sojourn, as it acquires the inner strengths and refined qualities of consciousness to be able to take the next step into the caste of the Kshatriya, symbolized by the warrior who sacrifices his life in service to the care, protection, and welfare of others.

Examining my life recently, I prayed to Swamiji, “I believe there are qualities of a Vaishya that I will have to cultivate in myself before I can advance spiritually beyond a certain point. But must I develop those qualities by leading lives, perhaps many of them, as a wheeler-dealer merchant or thief, pursuing selfish material desires?”

The answer came quickly as a clear intuitive response: “You can develop those inner strengths through the arts.”

I enjoy watching films about the careers of artists whose lives demonstrate the high spiritual potentials of Vaishya Dharma. I am thinking of a Netflix documentary called Inventing David Geffen, about one of the founders of the Dreamworks movie studio, which Geffen started together with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

David Geffen began his career in the mail room at the William Morris talent agency in New York. Extremely ambitious, he developed the ability to read people’s memos upside down so that he could learn how to be an agent. His first client was the Youngbloods — you may recognize the lyrics of their iconic 1966 hit song: “Come on people now, Smile on your brother, Let’s all get together, Try to love one another right now.” Eight years after being hired in the mail room at William Morris, Geffen had sold two companies and had $10 million dollars.

An aspect of David Geffen’s career that I found especially fascinating was that he loved to take care of people. Although he was gay, to his own great surprise he fell in love with singer-songwriter Cher with whom he was in a very harmonious, loving relationship for a year and a half. Years later, Cher would recall how loving and kind Geffen had been, and how lovingly he had taken care of her.

When Geffen helped start Dreamworks, he pledged 100 percent of his profits to his charitable foundation. He gave $200 million to the UCLA medical school for AIDS research. He was known for his loyalty, and for his willingness to do anything for his friends. Of course, he didn’t become the richest and most powerful man in Hollywood by being easy; those who dealt badly with him did so at their peril.

David and Joni

I was deeply inspired by his life — for his tremendous energy, determination, and focus, but also for the lives he touched. He was, at various times, the agent or manager for Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the Eagles, and many other top groups and superstars. His hit film credits make a long list.

I love to watch movies about the lives of successful, spiritually advanced Vaishyas who are on the cusp of, or who have recently entered the transition to the Kshatriya warrior stage of spiritual evolution.

Another wonderful Netflix documentary that springs to mind is David Foster: Off the Record, about the immensely successful music producer who worked with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Chicago, Josh Groban, and countless others. Like David Geffen, David Foster was generous with his success — his David Foster Foundation is famous for never saying no to a worthy charity. Another Vaishya life worth studying.

Speaking of Joni Mitchell, few of her fans may be aware that, beyond her enormous talent as a songwriter and singer, she despised her superstardom — she was a true artist, writing her songs not for outward success except to the extent that it would buy her the freedom to serve as she wanted to, free of outward control by managers, record companies, or producers. She wrote her songs for the people who might be helped by them.

Did you know that she was originally and always primarily thought of herself as an artist, and that she was a gifted painter. There’s an interesting 16-minute interview with the 72-year-old Joni by an intelligent and personable reporter from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (Joni was born and raised in Alberta). I’ll embed it for your enjoyment here:

One of Joni Mitchell’s most celebrated songs is “Free Man in Paris” — written about her manager David Geffen (yes, the David Geffen who co-founded Dreamworks). The backstory of the song is that Geffen had started a company called Asylum Records. Rock groups and singers were being treated badly by the major record companies in the Sixties, and Geffen started Asylum as a safe-harbor company that would treat them well.

Asylum quickly attracted top talents and was very successful. The musicians were happy, and so was Geffen, because he loved taking care of his artists. But in the drug-addled music business of the Sixties, there were strong cross-currents of contractive self-righteousness and outright selfishness. A blow-up between Geffen and a famous musician was the last straw; he sold Asylum and went to Paris for a break, taking his good friend Joni Mitchell with him. They had a wonderful time, and Joni was inspired and had the understanding and talent to write the piercingly accurate lyrics to “Free Man.” Here’s a short video of a performance at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1983:

Finally, here is a revealing excerpt that addresses the opportunities for spiritual growth during Vaishya Dharma, from The Hindu Way of Awakening, by Swami Kriyananda.

The Hindu Way of Awakening, an excerpt from Chapter 17, “The Avatara and Human Evolution”

As the developing ego begins to awaken to the advantages of having a human intelligence, it stops relying on strength alone to get what it wants, and begins using its intelligence. Gradually, what it develops is the sort of shrewd cunning that is found typically in merchants.

This, then, is the second stage of human evolution. It was called the vaishya, or merchant, caste. For the merchant must use his intelligence to get ahead in life. Typically, moreover, he defines “getting ahead” as accumulating wealth. At higher levels of evolution, a vaishya sees himself as providing society with its practical needs. Where, first, he concentrated on fulfilling his selfish desires, at higher levels of development the vaishya caste produces musicians and artists. It leaves to a later stage, however, those attitudes of which the pure aim is, through the arts, to help people spiritually.

A shudra typically perceives himself as more acted upon than acting. Still typically, therefore, he resents having others tell him what to do, even when he has the need to be told. Often, in this democratic age of ours, such a person will demand heavily of others, “Say, who do you think you are?” By contrast, the question a typical vaishya asks is, “What’s in it for me?”

There are many merchants, of course, who derive great satisfaction from giving generously to others. In such persons, the bonds of selfishness have already begun to loosen. For them, to live only for the advantages they can squeeze out of others is no longer attractive; they have more expansive uses for their creativity.

The purpose of the caste system, then, was to inspire expansion beyond ego-centeredness, until self-interest included the well-being of others; and then to refine that consciousness further until at last one perceived his true self as the infinite, divine Self. Rightly understood, this teaching discouraged the merchant, for example, from thinking that his true duty in life was to exercise his cunning toward selfish ends, even though this attitude was accepted as natural to him at his own stage of development. He was shown a further road to be traveled in his development, in other words. What the caste system provided him with may be described as a road map.

The ego, as it achieves progressive refinement, no longer wants to attract wealth to itself; it begins to give generously to others. For it understands that there is far greater satisfaction in giving than in taking. People at this stage of maturity develop executive qualities—not so much as a liking for telling others what to do, but as a desire to help them to fulfill their own natures. Kshatriya was the name assigned to this level of human evolution. In contrast to the vaishya’s typical question, “What’s in it for me?” the kshatriya’s natural question is, “What’s in it for everyone?” His nature is epitomized by the selfless ruler, or by the warrior hero who willingly sacrifices his life for the good of others.

Obviously, not all kshatriyas, recognized as such by society, are noble by nature. Equally obviously, no society is so simply organized as to consist only of peasants, merchants, warriors, and—the fourth caste, as we shall see in a moment—priests. What the caste system described originally was a loose social system that allowed people to gravitate to positions for which their own natures fitted them.

The kshatriya mentality, as it becomes gradually refined, reaches the point where it realizes that the universal well-being of which it has dreamed is an abstraction. Indeed, the executive mind grows naturally toward a more abstract understanding of life. It employs not only its intelligence, but its will power, in directing others. As the will develops, its normal inclination is toward intellectual refinement, for will and intellect are both centered in the frontal lobe of the brain, at the point between the eyebrows. We see this direction of development among successful executives everywhere in the world. The popular imagination sees them mistakenly in gross caricature: the avaricious tycoon, the “wind-bag” of a politician, the ruthless military general. In fact, many people in these positions have become connoisseurs of fine art, music, and literature, and sponsors of the advancement of religion. If their interest lies in serving others’ well-being, and not only in managing them, they come finally to realize that what helps people most of all is not material prosperity, but a deepening spiritual awareness. Love of God, service to Him in all, and wisdom—these, the refined kshatriya comes to realize, are treasures more precious than gold or rubies.

Once the ego attains this level of refinement, it becomes by nature scholarly, or philosophical, or priestly, and loses its penchant for directing other people’s activities. If priestly in its inclinations, it feels called upon to dedicate itself to the spiritual welfare of all.

Such, then, is the true brahmin, or spiritual guide, the teacher of others in the ways of truth. The brahmin typically is a priest, or serves in some comparable role of spiritual service to society. His typical question of life is, “What is true? And what, in everything, is the divine will?”