Wealth and Society, an Indian Perspective (by R Y Deshpande) – Part 1

Given that money is in the news these days, especially in India, a lot is being said and written about money and economic development these days. We also published two short columns on our blogs (see here and here). We think that it is also an appropriate time to take a closer and deeper look at the Indian civilizational perspective on wealth and money as means to promote individual and societal well-being.

We are happy to share with our readers an essay by Prof. R. Y. Deshpande on this important topic. Deshpande ji lives in Pondicherry and is a noted litterateur, educator, widely published author and poet, a man of Science and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. 

If the state’s role is to facilitate the well-being of the individual and society, can economic development be the sum and substance of its entire development focus? What is missing from the present discourse on development? What can Indian wisdom teach us about the organisation and development of a society, which may also facilitate an individual’s development as per his/her intrinsic nature? These are some important questions explored in this essay. 

The essay is presented in two parts. We are deeply grateful to Deshpande ji for allowing us to publish this essay on Matriwords.



Today man of commerce is the supreme ruler. The world trade center is the symbol of our prosperity. Man of learning, man of art, man of strength, man of works, everyone is meant for the man of industry and business. Everything, every nut and bolt of the collective machinery is organised around him. Everyone has to participate in the economic enterprise. The state apparatus, legal system, wage structure, market mechanism, media, pressure groups, the entire system serves only his purpose. He is the wielder of political power. He is the shaper of even democracy. Our professional commitments have to be functional to meet his demands. In the process we have become efficient slaves. We have lost something precious. The integrality of man’s personality is absent. In the harsh commercial buzz no voice of the soul is heard. Affluence has made us empty and superficial.

The spectacle we witness today is the spectacle of what Sri Aurobindo calls “economic barbarism”. We are in service of the vital man, man of ambition and greed and lust. The successful capitalist and organiser of industry is the superman of the commercial age. Today the craving of this superman has grown on a ubiquitous scale. It is even argued that we are reaching the End of History. The days of petty battles are over and man can devote himself to the pursuits of life. This is the picture given to us by Fukuyama. In it globalised capitalism would usher in unending progress. But we are full of hubris and self-assertive arrogance. Another clash of a more subtle kind has entered into the world of inequalities. Conflict of civilisations is becoming acuter. We are unable to resolve the disharmonies that issue out from it. Values that make life warm and endearing are lacking in our money-based relationships. Life has become efficient sans enjoyment.

We must therefore ask the question whether India should follow the western model of a competitive economic system. We might acquire a certain discipline and organisational efficiency. We might become a nation like many other commercially prosperous nations. We might possess social, political, industrial, military system as powerful as of an advanced nation. But that would spell disaster if we are to lose our national character, our innate swadharma and swabhāva. That would be a tragic irony, says Sri Aurobindo, if this is to happen. We will have failed in the world. Which also implies that we will have failed in our soul’s expectations of ourselves.

We study the ideas of Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen. But we never ask if these are pertinent to us at all. The aspect of relationship between the individual and the society is rarely seen in the Indian context. The fact that we are also a product of an outstanding culture is not taken into account. Individual choices leading to collective decisions is one side of the coin, the pragmatic or the down-to-earth side. But there is the other side also, that of an enlightened society promoting the prospects of an individual. Both are complementary to each other. One cannot be severed from the other. But the unfortunate thing is that progress and economics become synonymous in the entire business of the day.

Money is undoubtedly a force of action and its role in the commerce of the world cannot be dismissed. It is necessary for the fullness of the outer life. But it cannot possess us. It is meant for a truer and more harmonious ordering of vital and physical existence.

In ancient India vitta, — wealth, riches, prosperity, management of finance, — was given preeminent position as a part of regal curriculum. In the totality of operation and of organisation of the society it was recognised that economic prosperity does not depend only on the material resources. It greatly depends upon the entrepreneurial class, the Vaishya. Again, in this system the primary emphasis is not on consumption, acquisition, and possession, but on spending, sharing and giving. In this context it is perhaps good to remember what the Mahabharata advocates:

“The power of production in the Vaishyas should always be encouraged. They make the realm strong, enhance agriculture, develop its trades… A wise king should be favourable to them. There is no greater wealth in the kingdom than its merchants.”

In the Indian wisdom economic development and wealth maximisation are not the aims in their own right. Progressive socio-moral well-being and increasing commitment to the Law of the Right, Dharma, are held as its culminating ideal. Dharma, Artha, Kama are not ends in themselves, but are just means to an end and that end is Moksha. This is what Bhishma tells us. Society has to go beyond Artha-Kama to fulfil itself. If it does not, the vital force that sustains it cannot get renewed and eventually there will be its decline and fall. This has happened several times in the history of civilisations. The wholesomeness of society demanding fulfilment in every aspect of human endeavour and aspiration will not allow any truncated approach to succeed and in the non-recognition of it there shall be always conflicts of different kinds. Without it life will sink, like a stone in water.

But then what is development? And is it a question of philosophy or a question of economics? High per capita income is the goal and rapid economic growth is the instrument. But with that how does one improve the quality of life? What constitutes a better quality of life? Undue stress on economic considerations is the bane of such a professional thinking.

The goal of development, argues Amartya Sen, is the expansion of human capabilities that will give people freedom to do the things that they value. There cannot be any dispute with the proposal for the widening of human horizons of activity and out-reaching the boundaries to terrain that are presently not visible to us. But if that is going to win a freedom which is a kind of a licence to do whatever is conceivable in a vitalistic formulation, then of this great endeavour it can hardly be a desirable anticipation. Indeed, values should be the first objective and everything else directed in promoting them, — irrespective of the struggles one may have to put in. But what are or what defines values?

But there is no automatic connection between per capita income and human development. The income index may be a good modern way of assessing growth and progress, but that cannot be sufficiently indicative of the value of life or quality of life one would live. If human development without income is a limping proposition, income without human development will be putting the cart before the horse. However, connecting these two together beyond a certain point is to miss the priorities of the human soul and human spirit. In fact this cannot be altogether wholesome or true: for human development, if we have to understand the term ‘development’ in its enlightened sense of evolvement, perhaps the economic criterion does not really acquire such an overbearing importance.

After all the economic machinery, be it cooperative or competitive, cannot be simply a machinery aimed at production, production of luxury goods or production of destructive weapons or production of material things for material purposes. It has to promote joy of work for its own sake, joy according to the nature of the individual engaged in that work which will also give him freedom and enough leisure to grow inwardly, to be more and more in touch with the rich and beautiful possibilities life can offer him.


5 thoughts on “Wealth and Society, an Indian Perspective (by R Y Deshpande) – Part 1

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  1. this is a really in – depth post Beloo, commerce and history have always been so intermingled with one another and one can never learn any of these separately. Through history commerce was agrarian centred and hence we come to see more of development in agriculture and per capita income measured mainly with agrarian products. Now the complete socio economic system is different and so the change in perspective.
    Menaka Bharathi has recently published http://simpleindianmom.in/paleo-diet-myths-truths-know/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Menaka for reading and for sharing your perspective. Indeed much has changed since those times when majority of the economic activity was centered around agriculture. And yet there are some timeless values regarding money and wealth generation, and more importantly the relative value of money and wealth in the overall societal wellbeing which must be understood and adapted with times if we want to keep a society well grounded and whole in its inner functioning.


  2. Money, of course is more a means to live the outer life that we all have. And our desires are so much a part of this outer life. But for the soul within, its an all together different ball game isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ramya for reading and for sharing your thoughts. Yes I agree desires are what keep us focused on the outer life and its wants. And perhaps an exclusive focus on that causes the imbalance that we see in our societies today. Time to rediscover that which helps us attain a harmony of the inner and outer 🙂


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