Friday, April 10, 2015

Is wealth taboo in Hinduism

Bibek Debroy, the noted Economist, is the apt person to shed light on this subject. He says, contrary to popular perception, money or artha is not something Hinduism frowns upon, despite its association with Goddess Lakshmi, but is actually a desirable concept.
Positive Approach To Creating Wealth
Debroy writes, "Selective and biased reading from texts gives the false impression that Hinduism is against wealth creation. In fact, there is a healthy emphasis on creating wealth, with limited expectations from the State."
The Objective Of Dharma
He says, "Across several texts of Hinduism, dharma, artha and kama are described as the three objectives of human existence. Dharma is difficult to translate in English. In different contexts, it can stand for duty, ethics, rule of law, code of conduct, and the spiritual or metaphysical."
Where Does Wealth Fit In?
Debroy explains how weath, duty, desire and nirvana are all connected: "Artha is wealth or prosperity, and Kama is desire, not necessarily interpreted in the narrow sense of sexual desire. Transcending Dharma, Artha and Kama, is Moksha — the ultimate goal of emancipation or liberation."
The Superficial View
He clarifies how the concepts have been understood and accepted merely at the superior level. "At the superficial level, there is an impression that Moksha is superior to Dharma, Dharma is superior to Artha, and Artha is superior to Kama. Also at that superficial level, there is an impression that the template of good behaviour is based on Varnashrama Dharma - the four Varnas and the four Ashramas,"he says.
Varnas Had Economic Roots
"To state the obvious and without defending its subsequent hereditary aspects, the four Varnas represented nothing but economic specialization. If one leaves aside sacrifices, Brahmanas engaged in studying and teaching; Kshatriyas ensured security, rule of law and jurisprudence, imposing and collecting taxes; Vaishyas engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry and trade; while servitude was the lot of the Shudras."
The Four Ashrams
He continues, "As for the four ashramas, brahmacharya was the first, followed by grahasthya, then leading to vanaprastha, and finally to sannyasa."
Lost In Translation
He laments that the true essence and purport of our scriptures is lost by not understanding the context in which they explained a theory. For example, he points out, "Brahmacharya is usually understood as a period when one studies - which is fine. But it is also understood as celibacy, which is not necessarily true. Since this is known, why waste words on something that is obvious? The problem lies with quoting from a text, ignoring the context."
From Brahmacharya To Sannyasa
Debroy argues: "Take the Dharmashastras. Who were they primarily written for? They were primarily written for Brahmanas and Kshatriyas, especially Kshatriyas, who were kings. Words like Brahmacharya and Sannyasa are symptomatic. Brahmacharya is usually understood as a period when one studies, which is fine. But it is also understood as celibacy, which is not necessarily true."
What Is Brahmacharya?
He says: "I can cite chapter and verse to illustrate that Brahmacharya was also interpreted not as celibacy, but as indulging in sexual intercourse within the permitted norms of behaviour, such as with one’s own wife. Similarly, sannyasa did not mean renouncing everything and resorting to a life of mendicancy .and becoming a hermit. Within the grahasthya (householder) stage, one can also practice sannyasa, as long as one sticks to some norms."
Focus On The Next World
"The contested proposition is, thus, the following one: With its emphasis on the next world and dharma and moksha, Hinduism wasn’t concerned about creating wealth. It was instead about pursuing objects that weren’t material ones."
What Does Artha Shastra Mean?
As a counterpoint, Debroy says, one "may think of Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’. But that he didn’t really have this text in mind. He explains, "Arthashastra is about raj-dharma - the duties of a king. Arthashastra is about what we would today call government and governance, the enabling framework for wealth creation."
Bed Of Arrows
Rather than Kautilya's 'Artha Shastra', Debroy clarifies that instead, he has the 'Mahabharata' on his mind - especially, but not only, the sections of the epic that have to do with Bhishma’s teachings to Yudhishthira when he is lying on the bed of arrows – Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva, to be precise. Similar statements can be found in Aranyaka Parva and Udyoga Parva, in greater and lesser degrees, he says.
Mahabharata Misunderstood
According to Debroy, "The Mahabharata also has a substantial section on Raja-dharma. In terms of describing the economy and society, these are much richer than ‘Arthashastra’. The ‘Mahabharata’ isn’t only about the core Kurukshetra war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and it is unfortunate that these sections aren’t usually read."
Artha Is The Basis For Dharma
He says: "I am deliberately not going to cite chapter and verse. But three messages come out very strongly. First, that creating artha is desirable, as long as that wealth-creation is done through legitimate means and that the wealth created is used for desirable purposes. Without artha, even dharma and kama can’t be pursued. Artha is the base..."
Biased Depiction
"There is an impression that Hinduism is against wealth-creation. That’s because of selective and biased reading from the texts. Second, brahmacharya (understood as the period of being a student) is a stage that everyone goes through. But after that, grahasthya is superior to vanaprastha or sannyasa. Had there not been householders, who would have sustained those who resorted to vanaprastha or sannyasa? Third, as one progressively goes down the cycle of yugas - Satya (Krita), Treta, Dvapara and Kali - tendencies towards dharma too go into a decline."
Dharma On A Decline
Third, as one progressively goes down the cycle of Yugas - Satya (Krita), Treta, Dvapara and Kali - tendencies towards dharma go into a decline. In Satya Yuga, people were naturally inclined towards dharma. (But) no longer. Hence, the role of the king and the carrot-and-the-stick in ensuring rule of law.
Money And Marriage
Debroy points out that this proposition, about the importance of artha and grahasthya, isn’t new. For instance, it was also stated, without detailed probing, by Swami Vivekananda in several of his lectures, including 'Karma Yoga,' he says.
Householder's Role In Creating Wealth
However, even when it is recognised, little is written about a householder’s role in creating wealth. For example, a lot of the discussion gets bogged down in the five daily sacrifices a householder must perform – towards Brahma (studying), towards ancestors (funeral sacrifices, having offspring), towards gods (offering oblations into the fire), towards guests (feeding them) and towards non-human species (feeding them).
The King And I
Debroy explains, "These are known, respectively, as Brahma-Yajna, Pitri-Yajna, Deva-Yajna, Manushya-Yajna and Bhuta-Yajna. Note that Manushya-Yajna isn’t quite charity, though it is often understood that way. There are strong injunctions against giving in to the wrong person at the same time. Note also another point. If the king is equated with the State, there were limited expectations from the State, beyond security, law and order, and jurisprudence. For instance, public works were driven by individuals, not necessarily by the king. Who imparted skills training? Not the State, but the counterpart of what may be called guilds."
A King's Duties
He says, "The 'Mahabharata' gives a listing of 17 types of civil suits, in order of priority, which the king should pay attention to. Right at the top was breach of contract. On the criminal side, there is an argument that rich people should not be imprisoned. That’s a drain on the public exchequer. Instead, monetary penalties should be imposed on them. It is the poor, who are unable to pay fines, who should be imprisoned. This is a rather modern line of argument."
Vaishyas, The Primary Wealth Creator
"Who created the wealth? Within the varna framework, given the occupations Brahmanas engaged in normally, wealth must have been created primarily by Vaishyas, with some Kshatriyas and, perhaps, even the odd Shudras thrown in. Whenever there was greater urbanization and trade, this wealth-creation must have increased. In reacting to the texts and quoting from them, it is important to remember this, in addition to the chronological time-line. Why quote from the ‘Dharmashastras’, if we know those were primarily meant for Brahmanas?" 
No Arguments Against Artha 
Debroy concludes, "Remember, that most of the support (including financial) for the Buddha came from Vaishyas. Hence, if there is an impression that Hinduism is against wealth-creation, that’s because of selective and biased reading from the texts. There is a healthy emphasis on creating wealth, with limited expectations from the State. Indeed, there are arguments about a balance between the three objectives of dharma, artha and kama. But that’s not an argument against artha."

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