Diwali is one of most auspicious festivals in India. On this occasion, we Indians worship and welcome Lakshmi Maa (Goddess Lakshmi) in our homes and lives. “Lakshmi” literally means wealth and Lakshmi Maa is a symbol of wealth and prosperity (both material and spiritual). Every year, Diwali season sees a huge surge in demand for gold because purchase of gold is considered auspicious during Diwali. We have celebrated the coming of Lakshmi Maa in our homes for centuries, clearly indicating the respect that Hindu philosophy attaches to material and spiritual wealth.
While Indians have lead the world in matters of spiritual wealth, we have lagged behind in terms of material wealth.
What is material wealth? In crude terms, wealth represents the accumulation of money and other assets like gold, house, stocks, etc. In a society which has Ram-rajya, a person can accumulate money and other assets only by working hard or by producing goods and services which are of value to other people. Ram-rajya is symbolized by a just society with a rule of law and the freedom to pursue one’s self-interests. It is a society which rewards honesty and hard work and deters the dishonest.
Hence, in Ram-rajya, wealth reflects the hard work that a person has put in over a period of time. Employees working in private firms and even government agencies work hard throughout their lives to generate wealth. Wealth also reflects that a person was able to identify the needs of the people and hence was able to produce goods and services according to their needs. For example, a rickshaw-puller is a businessman who helps people to move from one place to the other. Hence his earnings reflect the services he has provided to his customers.
But wealth reflects more! Accumulated assets indicate that a person did not blow up everything he earned. He saved a proportion of what he earned. These savings play a crucial role in the economy and society. In India, people save not only for their retirement and unforeseen situations, but also to ensure that they can leave a part of their wealth for their children to lead comfortable lives. This is an extremely important attribute of the Indian society especially in the contemporary times when people in the western world are contemplating the benefits and losses of having kids!
Wealth also plays an extremely important role in the economy. When people save, they directly or indirectly transfer this wealth in the form of savings (through financial institutions like banks) to those people who are looking to invest money. Only when investments are done, goods and services are produced and jobs are created. For example, a rickshaw-puller can provide service to the people only when he has the capital to purchase a rickshaw.
Clearly in a just society, material wealth is attained by helping others and working hard. In Hinduism, karma is of special significance. Hence ‘hard work’ for helping others has a deep philosophical and spiritual significance. Therefore, material wealth being an indicator of hard work and service to the needy, is closely linked to spiritual wealth.
However in contemporary times, wealth has become a dirty world and the wealthy are looked upon with suspicion. This transformation in our outlook towards wealth is because for hundreds of years, Indians had to deal with political and economic systems where only the dishonest and corrupt had a reasonable chance of acquiring wealth. There was no opportunity for the people belonging to the poor economic strata to move to higher economic strata.
Before Independence, it was extremely difficult for Indians to enter businesses or government positions. Hence, a large majority of Indians remained poor. The people who could prosper under the British rule were mostly those who expressed their allegiance to the Crown.
Unfortunately there was a status quo even after independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi ensured that Indians were governed under laws enacted by the British. Further Nehru and Indira created a sophisticated network of license-raj which made it impossible for new people to enter business. Since businesses were discouraged, new jobs could not be created. So a small proportion of the population protected by license-raj prospered while a majority of Indians continued to suffer under perpetual poverty. It was almost impossible for the honest to become rich. People realized that wealth can be generated only by dishonest means. This perception is evident in most Indian movies which continue to project the wealthy as the ‘bad guys’. Before the half backed liberalization of the 1990s, this perception was not far from reality.
It was only in the 1990s under the Prime Ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee that India was able to partially dismantle the absurd socialist system created by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. However despite not getting an opportunity to acquire wealth through honest means, Indians continued to appreciate and understand the concept of wealth and the role that it plays in any society. Therein lies our hope for a better future. Happy Diwali!!