Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.

Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.

Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes

upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||

[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.

arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||

[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.

Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.

In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.

Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.