Although death claimed Kenneth Lay before he served a day in prison, the convicted former CEO of the Enron Corporation will forever be an icon of unbridled greed. The son of a Baptist minister, Lay — who in May was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges in one of America’s biggest corporate scandals — maintained his innocence until he died. “We believe that God in fact is in control, and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord,” he said after the verdict. Despite Lay’s protestations of purity, evidence presented during his trial painted a picture of wretched material excess that included a $200,000 yacht for his wife’s birthday, as well as $100 million in personal debt, all of which Lay defended by saying, “It was difficult to turn off that lifestyle like a spigot.” Lay’s extravagance may fuel our collective outrage, but our righteous indignation runs smack up against a steady barrage of countervailing cultural messages: that greed — well harnessed and regulated — is good not only for corporations, but society as a whole, even the poor. In truth, we’ve come to think of greed as an ambiguous quality — sometimes good, sometimes bad.

The world’s major faiths have no such illusions about greed. Greed, say many of them, is not only unambiguous; it is the Mother of All Sins. In The Mahabharata, Bhishma, son of the holy river Ganges, delivers Hinduism’s great treatise on greed, naming it as the matrix out of which all other evil arises. —