Is money the root of all evil? No, quite the opposite. Interestingly, the origin of money arises from humanity’s search for God from our perennial human concern with the divine.
Before monetary systems began in the third millennium B.C.E., wealth was simply the accumulation of material goods, livestock and other commodities. The basis of economics was simple barter: so many cattle for so much grain, etc. But when wealth began to be stored on a symbolic basis by using money, which has little or no utilitarian value, gold was the primary substance used. (Silver was the second most common substance.)
Gold, the king of metals, is universally prized and most precious. Why? Even today, gold has relatively few practical applications. It is used primarily for jewelry and ornamentation, decoration, dentistry and sophisticated modern technology such as noncorroding electric circuitry in computers. You can’t eat it, live in it or protect yourself from the elements with it. Gold can’t be grown or reproduced only discovered, mined or smelted from ore. Despite that, throughout history people around the world have been attracted to it. Although it has little intrinsic usefulness for human survival, it nevertheless was sought and valued even before monetary systems arose and was considered as the ultimate form of wealth for kings, priests and merchants.
In fact, gold was considered a divine substance with divine properties. According to Jack Weatherford in The History of Money (Random House: New York, 1997), the ancient Egyptians believed that gold was sacred to Ra, the sun god, and they buried great quantities of it with the corpses of their divine pharaohs. Likewise, the people of ancient India considered gold to be the sacred semen of Agni, the fire god, and they donated gold for any service performed by Agni’s priests. Among the Incas of South America, gold and silver represented the sweat of the sun and the moon, and they covered the walls of their temples with these precious metals. Gold is the first precious substance mentioned in the Bible. Gold artifacts and jewelry have been found which date back 6,000 years. Nothing else in history served to display wealth, power and prestige as did gold jewelry and adornments.
The Origin of Money?
Why was gold selected for use as money? The origin of monetary systems is not clear. Three types of origin have been proposed: a sacred or religious origin, a social or state origin and a commercial or trading origin. The latter is preferred by economists because gold’s physical qualities are clear. It is the ultimate commodity to use as a medium of exchange for storing value, and has been universally accepted as such since Roman times. Pure gold is the most malleable and ductile of all the metals. It is unaffected by air, heat, moisture and most solvents. In short, it is durable (noncorroding, unchangeable and practically indestructible), convenient (easily portable), malleable (easily worked), easily divisible, easily recognizable, scarce, beautiful and universally acceptable (prized).
All that is true but not sufficient to explain the use of gold as money. In my opinion, the commercial theory must be merged with the sacred theory for a complete explanation because there is a psycho-spiritual dimension which must be recognized as well. That is the fundamental aspect of gold, prior to the commercial aspect. Nothing else shines forever, as if indestructible and immortal.
According to Paul Einzig, in his book Primitive Money, “Primitive man was guided by non-economic considerations. Among these [was] the belief and fear of supernatural forces. The evolution of the economic system in general was itself largely influenced by the religious factor.” (I quote Einzig from an article entitled “Money Systems of the World, How We Got Where We Are” by Stephen Zarlenga in The Barnes Review, June 1996.)
The earliest money was ingots of precious metals used in Mesopotamia about 2500 B.C.E. This gold and silver protomoney was called shekels or talents. When money systems of eastern Mediterranean societies began shifting from a cattle standard to a gold standard, between 1500 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E., the temples played a big role in monetizing gold. Prayer and sacrifice by the temple authorities on behalf of worshipers brought, at the outset, great quantities of consumables as fees for such services; temples became the earliest centers of trade and commerce. As gold began to replace livestock as a medium of exchange, temples accumulated a large proportion of the existing gold. Their abundance of gold was one reason for temple officials to monetize it. Another was their control of existing gold stores; it would be difficult for others to obtain it except through them and they could therefore create a value for it by accepting it for their services.
The Divine Nature of Gold
However, it was the “divine” nature of gold which brought it to palaces and temples in the first place. The value of gold includes its capacity to remind us of divinity. Think about that the next time you hear someone say, “Oh, what a divine necklace” or “What a heavenly ring” or “That jewelry is simply out of this world.” There is greater wisdom in those words than the speaker probably understands.
The simple truth is that gold is precious and has ultimate appeal because early in human history it was regarded, like the sun, as a tangible symbol of a higher state of being, a domain beyond the physical which is characterized by radiance and permanence. (Jewels are also regarded that way, as Aldous Huxley pointed out in a talk entitled “Visionary Experience,” which I collected in my 1972 anthology The Highest State of Consciousness. I acknowledge his insight as the beginning of my own consideration of money in relation to God.) Because gold is so durable one could almost say eternal and because it seemed to come from a world of timelessness and light, it was, for early modern man, a reminder of paradise, a sparkle of spirit. Gold still has that quality and we still experience it that way, although for most people the experience is subconscious. Nevertheless, gold and, more broadly, precious metals and gems and even sky-lighting fireworks is fundamentally a scintillating symbol of the Ultimate Reality from which creation springs. To wear it or jewels somehow increases a person’s appearance of worthiness; somehow it apparently makes him or her a “better” person of “higher quality” than someone who has no gold or jewels.
The Meaning of a Crown
Let’s consider that further. Think about why royalty wear gold crowns. Why do they place a circle of gold and jewels upon their heads? The answer: It creates an effect reminiscent of a quality originally thought to be embodied in rulers and leaders, but which has been lost through the ages. Originally, that is, when civilization arose leaders and heads of state were quite literally considered to be god-kings or agents of divinity. There was no difference between a spiritual leader and a political leader. Those who led their people in either sphere of activity were one and the same. The “divine right of kings” to rule meant, theoretically speaking, that monarchs were superior human beings with self-evident godliness which qualified them as worthy to lead their people and as worthy of reverence. Addressing them as “Your majesty” or its equivalent was meant quite literally, as in “You transmit or reflect the majesty of God.” That concept is still present in a theocracy, where a nation or religio-political organization is headed by someone who is regarded as divine or an elevated agent of divinity, such as the pope, the Dalai Lama, the Emperor of Japan, and the mullahs of Iran. In non-theocratic monarchies, the head of state is nevertheless usually the head of the state religion. It was thus quite natural in early history for temples and the priestly class to be associated with the royal household.
The Meaning of a Halo
That quality of divine superiority is the same thing we see in the halos around saints and angels depicted in works of art. A halo, for saints, is the sign of holiness; a halo, for angels, is the sign of their membership in a divine order of creation beyond the human. However, even a halo is only a symbol of something else—something which the artist could not represent directly and realistically. What is that something?
A halo is an artistic stylization of the bright golden light which surrounds holy people and celestial beings, and is especially intense around the head. It is a clearly perceptible indication that the person is worthy of honor and reverence. It is the sign of extreme holiness or divinity.
Both halos and crowns, when we penetrate to their true meaning, are symbolic forms of what clairvoyants call the aura, the energy field or envelope of light surrounding a body, whether human or divine. The word, aura, is derived from the Latin aurum, meaning “gold,” whose chemical symbol is Au. The color, intensity and shape of the aura are said to be indicators of a being’s physical, mental and spiritual condition. A highly spiritual person, one who is deeply attuned to God or to the Divine Source of our existence, can be identified by his or her aura, it is said, because it is literally visible and has an unmistakable golden color. It shines and scintillates like sunlight, and it has its greatest dimension and intensity around the person’s head, where it is called the corona, the same word for what is seen around the sun during an eclipse. When royalty is crowned, of course, it is called a coronation.
That is what crowns and halos represent, and they are associated by tradition only with royalty, holy people and supernatural beings such as angels and archangels. That is, it seems to me, what gold signifies. In the center of ourselves, we are always aware of God since we are one with God, but the ego creates the illusion of separation from God and habitually substitutes itself for God. And all the while we subconsciously long for removal of the illusion so that Reality is directly perceived. Gold, through its various properties and qualities, is linked to God in the minds of those who do not perceive God directly through the ascent of consciousness.
Thus, since that is the condition of most of humanity, gold is precious and has been associated since the rise of royal, priestly and mercantile classes at the onset of civilization with the human outreach for God. In the words of James Buchan, the meaning of money (to quote his recent book’s title) is “frozen desire.” Because money can fulfill any mortal purpose, Buchan says, for many people the pursuit of it becomes the point of life. However, I reply, the point of life is God-realization; that is the heart’s deepest desire, and it is not a mortal desire but a immortal one. Ego misplaces that divine desire onto false substitutes for God-realization, such as power, fame, prestige, honors, social status and, of course, wealth. Through its permanence and its beauty, gold subconsciously reminds us of the goal of life, but insofar as ego blocks perception of true God and attempts to install itself as God, gold will continue to be a false god, and greedy accumulation of it an empty form of self-worship.
In the mythic view of history, human life began in a Golden Age. People lived like gods, free from worry and fatigue, free from hardship and suffering. They grew happily into old age and died peacefully in their sleep. That mythic view, however, is a false one; it hearkens back, in retro-romantic fashion, to a condition which never existed in history. The true Golden Age is to be found not in time but in timelessness—the timeless but ever-present condition known as heaven or everlasting communion with God. The timeless-now exists eternally, but can only be attained via ascent to a state of consciousness beyond ego called God-realization, because ego is itself the source of time and temptation, sin and suffering.
The ego, not money, is the root of all evil. Satan personifies the ego-principle in humanity. Satan, wanting to replace true God with itself, projects its yearning for divinity onto things and situations which it ignorantly thinks can substitute for God. Gold is one of the oldest substitutes, but it is nevertheless inherently unsatisfying.
If the conquistadors in search of El Dorado had understood they were actually questing for El Dios, they would have become conquerors conquistadors of the ego. If the miners in the gold rushes of California, Alaska and elsewhere had realized their search for gold was really a search for God, they would have erected temples instead of banks. Bank vaults retain, even hoard, the shiny metal; temples nurture, even release, the sparkle of Spirit. God alone is our true treasure. Only when we awaken to that fact via enlightenment will we experience the true Golden Age.