What Good Is Religion?

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999) begins with a parable from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Maitreyi asks her husband Yajnavalkya whether she would achieve immortality if she had all the riches in the world. Yajnavalkya replies that the accretion of wealth would give her ‘the life of rich people’, but no hope for immortality. In response, Maitreyi wonders: ‘What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal?’

Maitreyi’s question has often been repeated in Indian philosophy to show the predicament of the human condition and the limits of the material world. Sen admits that he is skeptical of Maitreyi’s otherworldly concerns, but says that her remark nevertheless illuminates the oft-tenuous relationship between material gain and having a life of value. Wealth is useful only if it gives a person freedom to pursue a life she values. Thus, social and economic policy should not focus only on increasing incomes or economic growth, but should be concerned equally with creating the conditions for people to enjoy varied freedoms and lead fulfilling lives. Freedom, in other words, must be the final destination of any endeavor aimed at making life better.

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