Dharma Should Drive the Economy

In current times, any talk about the world’s economy usually conjures a sense of negativity in the mind – whether it is inflation in India, unemployment in Spain, the increasing debt on Greece or firms downsizing in the United States. However, Gurcharan Das, an Indian author who graduated from Harvard with honors in Philosophy, adds a philosophical perspective to what the market place is all about.

The foundation of Das’ argument is that human nature does not change between societies. Human beings might be licentious and will misbehave in any society, whether it is socialist or capitalist, a democracy or an autocracy. The institution of the market, however, is pure and moral and is based on the Indian notion of dharma. Dharma, according to Das, is related to duty, goodness, justice and law, but primarily teaches individuals to do the right thing. The market system, in this case, is not dependent on the laws that have been created to restrain individuals. Instead, it depends on the behavior of individuals in the market. The sense of dharma in the individual provides the restraint for people who behave with mutual respect in most societies.

Common perception in many societies, including the Indian society, is that the market is an efficient but an immoral system. Das believes otherwise. His position is that human beings might be immoral but that the institution of the market is pure. The inherent purpose of the market system is exchange between ordinary human beings who wish to advance their interests. The advancement of these interests can only take place if people trust each other in the market, which happens because of dharma. Dharma provides individuals with internal security because it is based on mutually accepted norms after which they can execute transactions.

Gurcharan Das argues that all business relationships are based on the behavior of dharma whether it is about employees, partners or suppliers. When businessmen adhere to dharma, the business is successful. However, companies are often guilty of squeezing employees for profit and these are the ones that lose their employees. The same philosophy applies to companies selling their products to customers. If companies are dishonest about their products, then customers will not return to them. The dishonest company will be accused of low dharma and its punishment will not be confined solely to the customer purchasing from a competitor but the company will also face the wrath of others because word-of-mouth would cause other customers to stop trusting the company. Hence, the whole market system is contingent on the shared belief that everyone will do the right thing.

Das opines that India will always have a successful market economy because India has a long history of encouraging markets. Traditionally, the Indian merchant has secured an important place in society and has always been seen in high regard by society. Historically, India has had a weak state but a strong society, while it’s neighbor, China, has had a strong state with a weak society. Hence, India had warring kingdoms, whereas China built empires. Since the abolishment of the socialist License Raj in 1991, 20 years of capitalist growth have resulted in India becoming the second fastest growing major economy in the world. Just like the past, India has managed to rise from below, ‘despite’ the state, whereas China has managed to grow from above, by creating a solid infrastructure, ‘because’ of the state.

Das’ philosophical inspiration comes from the Indian epic, Mahabharata, which was written two thousand years ago.  The underlying notion of dharma is prevalent throughout the Mahabharata and is explained as “the moral law that sustains an individual, society and the cosmos.” It is the balance within each human being, which is fundamental in in sustaining the balance in the market place. Thus, when individuals behave according to dharma, there will be order, balance and trust in society. It might take a long time for countries to become economically prosperous again, but dharma might be useful in allowing countries to sustain their prosperity for prolonged periods.

Aditya Mehta is a College sophomore from Mumbai, India joint majoring in Sociology-Religion and minoring in Global health, Cultures and Society.