In the past 100 years, especially following the rise of scientific economic philosophies such as capitalism and communism, business is increasingly seen as a materialistic, corrupting and polluting evil force. To make money (enterprise) is bad, but to distribute it (charity) is good. The wealthy are continuously pitted against the ‘common man’ who was seen as essentially poor. Those with money are considered certified oppressors.
This assumption influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and their socialist policies and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, hence the great value placed on the simplicity, poverty and celibacy of its missionaries, the sangha pracharak, the most prominent of whom is our current prime minister, whose cavorting with the rich discomforts many in his own party who are suspicious of people with money. The Brahmin-educated bureaucracy shares this suspicion as they have watched from the side lines vaishya traders engage in crony capitalism with kshatriya politicians in the neo-caste order that has been emerging since later 20th century India.
Ironically, even the business communities of India such as the Jains, Marwaris and Gujarati Vaishnavs endorse this assumption that money is evil and make it a point to atone for the sin of business by being vegetarian and funding temple-building projects and making huge donations to gurus, who fast on their behalf. And saffron-robed gurus, who travel in fancy cars and oversee vast FMCG, healthcare, hospitality and spa empires, hide their shrewd consumer insight and insist they own nothing and that their luxury lifestyle is just the generosity of devotees. To admit they enjoy their hard-earned wealth would be career suicide.
For we are placing wealth-chasing Indras and wealth-clinging Brahmas on pedestals as our role models, not the wealth-attracting Vishnu who does not need wealth to validate himself.
In the Hindu Puranas, the problem is never with wealth. Wealth is a goddess, Lakshmi, one of the oldest, invoked in the Shri Sukta of the Rig Veda for cows and grain and gold and children. The problem is with our relationship with wealth. In the Puranas, Brahma’s son Indra is always chasing wealth. In contrast, Vishnu attracts wealth and Shiva is indifferent to wealth. The wealth chasers are not worshipped; the wealth-attractors and the wealth-ignorers are enshrined in temples. Vishnu is linked to householders and Shiva to hermits. But then Shiva is made to marry a princess of the mountains, Parvati, who is also the goddess of food, Anna-poorna, thus drawing attention to the value of food, if not wealth, in human society. Even the hermit who shuns wealth needs food. Thus, production and distribution of food and wealth are separated, though both are seen as key to society.
This concept of our relationship with wealth does not interest economists, both on the Left and the Right. There is talk of behavioural economics, but this subject does not bother with emotions, for the simple reason that emotions cannot be measured and so are outside the purview of science. In contrast, the Hindu scriptures are obsessed with human relationship with wealth. Do we derive our identity from how much money we have? Is that what society celebrates in the list of the richest people in the world? If yes, then it is not a good thing. For we are placing wealth-chasing Indras and wealth-clinging Brahmas on pedestals as our role models, not the wealth-attracting Vishnu who does not need wealth to validate himself.
If we want our investors to take risks with their wealth to uplift Indian society, we have to understand their relationship with wealth. The rich know that they are respected and feared for their wallets. Why, then, would they bother to loosen their purse strings, which has the risk of making them poor?
The role of Hindu spirituality is simple and it is deeply intertwined with Hindu materialism: to help the poor be content and the rich be generous. But in the world of modern management, contentment is a bad word and charity (the act of giving) is valued more than generosity (the desire to give), for the former is measurable, not the latter, and that is where the root cause of the problem lies.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.