The Mouse Merchant (Money in Ancient India)

The Mouse Merchant (Money in Ancient India)

FREE Delivery
$29
Quantity
Ships in 1-3 days
Item Code: NAG471
Author: Arshia Sattar
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780143424727
Pages: 224
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8 inch X 5 inch
Weight 300 gm

About the Book

 

Even in ancient India, money is always a good thing and everyone wants it. The stories in The Mouse Merchant -selected from the Sanskrit universe, from the period of the late Rig Veda to the twelfth century-tell us how money was dealt with in everyday life in ancient and medieval Indian society. At the heart of these tales is the merchant. Sometimes gullible, sometimes greedy ; ingenious at some moments. dim-witted at others; and hopelessly in love with courtesans but also loyal to their wives, our merchant heroes show how innovation in business is sometimes more important than capital. The Mouse Merchant puts these stories into the context of Indian business history, giving not only rare insights into the romance of the ancient seafaring life but also great wisdom about money.

 

About the Author

 

Arshia Sattar teaches classical Indian literatures at various institutions all over India. Her acclaimed English translations all over India. Her acclaimed English translations of Valmiki's Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara are Penguin Classics. She has a PhD from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago, and her areas of interest are Indian epics, mythology and the story traditions of the subcontinent.

 

Gurcharan Das is a world renowned author, commentator and public intellectual. His bestselling books Include India Unbound and The Difficulty of Being Good. His latest book, India Grows at Night, was published in 2012. A graduate of Harvard University, Das was CEO of Procter & Gamble India before he took early retirement to become a full-time writer. He lives in Delhi.

 

Foreword

 

Most cultures have looked down on the making of money. This isn't surprising as moneymaking emerged from within settled agricultural communities whose material life was relentlessly cyclical. Any change in the seasons of planting and harvesting threatened survival. Hence, people tended to be conservative, and suspicious of change and of anyone different, especially an outsider. The merchant was especially distrusted because his life entailed something new-travel, risk-taking and innovation. People marvelled at the novelty of his life, combined with envy at his ability to grow rich beyond measure without producing anything tangible or having to toil under the sun. Not surprisingly, his wealth was not matched by social acceptance until recent times. No wonder the merchant has been a subversive figure in history.

 

Set against this background, Arshia Sattar's marvellous book is like a fresh breeze. She has translated Sanskrit stories from ancient and medieval India, which offer a nice corrective to the universal prejudice against the merchant. They present a profoundly human and usually sympathetic picture of his trade. Our merchant heroes are sometimes gullible, sometimes greedy; at moments ingenious, but dim-witted at others; and hopelessly in love with courtesans but also loyal to their wives. There are honest and dishonest merchants; extravagant and ascetic ones. Above all, the merchant is a full-blooded person with agency; not the stereotype of prejudice to whom even the great William Shakespeare succumbed in The Merchant of Venice.

 

Most of these stories unabashedly celebrate money. 'To have money is to have life,' proclaims Sanudasa, when he discovers the pearls he had hidden in the topknot of his hair before he was shipwrecked. In the Panchatantra, there is a remarkable conversation among four brahmin friends in which the unanimous conclusion emerges: 'Let the sole aim be, of men of sense to make money.'

 

In another account from the same text, even the corpse seems to prefer death to poverty. 'A man is better dead than poor,' is the corpse's silent answer to a destitute, weary man Further on, the text teaches us that wealth 'can be acquired is six ways, as follows: by begging, serving kings, farming teaching, money lending and trade'. After reviewing the pro: and cons of each alternative, it is concluded that trade is best suited for the acquisition of wealth because it provides the maximum autonomy to an individual.

 

Despite this uninhibited praise for money and trade, India': society was also agricultural and conservative, but it found; rightful place for the trader within the hierarchy of caste and wealth. While it accepted the vaishya as 'twice-born' and 0 high caste, it placed him in the third station in the social pecking order, behind the brahmin (the 'priest') and the kshatriya (the 'landowner', 'warrior'). Pre-modern India was also one of the greatest storytelling cultures of the world and its stories naturally reflect its values. Arshia Sattar has chosen stories related to artha ('wealth' or 'material well-being'), which is one of the four classical aims of the Hindu life. Not only do her stories reveal Indian society's attitude to the merchant but also the merchant's attitude to money. While entertaining us with the romance of the merchant's seafaring life, the stories offer great wisdom about money.

 

The goal of artha, however, quickly hit a wall, against another imperative of life, dharma ('moral well-being'), the moral dimension of business and political life. Should one unscrupulously pursue wealth and power, or does real success come from ethical conduct? Mostly, the classical goal of dharma seems to trump artha in the stories-there is a right and a wrong way to make money. But there are other downsides to artha. One of these, as the Panchatantra points out, is what is today called the problem of 'work-life balance':

 

A man preoccupied by the need for wealth

Gives up values, forsakes his family,

Abandons his mother and the land of birth,

Leaves his own place disadvantageous,

And quickly goes to foreign place;

What else?

There are always trade-offs in life. While you can make lots of money travelling far and wide, you must be prepared to give up the mundane pleasures of domesticity. The stories bring out other ambiguities of the human condition-there are no easy answers.

 

A tradition that celebrates artha-'money is a good thing and everybody wants it,' as Arshia Sattar puts it-also had to cope with another ideal. Early on in the development of Indian society, from the time of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism, there emerged an ascetic streak. The sannyasi (the 'renouncer') became a dramatic hero in saffron robes, who posed a challenge to the traditional, secular order and its thinking about the good life. He created ambivalence about money, in particular, and it has continued to the present day. The brahmin, in any case, had always been in two minds about money, but he could not speak out against it as he depended on the wealthy patrons.

 

The kshatriya had also mainly valued action in war and aristocratic idleness in peace, and scorned the life of daily toil. In recent times, Marxist influences in India have added to the ambivalence. With its antipathy to private property, Marxism tried to convince us that the bourgeois trader was an exploiter. These prejudices came together in the post- Independence generation of Jawaharlal Nehru, who combined the high brahminical with the English upper-class Fabian scorn for money, and institutionalized the most rigid socialist controls over business between 1950 and 1990-a period also known as the 'Licence Raj'.

 

Only after the reforms of 1991 did India begin to lose its hypocritical attitude, and two decades later, it seems to have returned to its ancient uninhibited attitude to wealth and the celebration of artha as a legitimate goal of life. Business schools have mushroomed across the land, and many of the stories that Arshia Sattar has translated could form the basis of entertaining, edifying case material for instruction In classrooms.

 

Introduction

 

This volume consists of stories, poems and extracts from the Sanskrit universe-a universe which, for this collection of tales, spans the Vedas, the epics, drama and the secular storytelling traditions. The stories here cover more than a millennium: from the period of the late Rig Veda to that grand twelfth-century compendium of wondrous tales, the Kathasaritsagara. Not all the stories are about business practices or traditional commerce, but all the stories are about money-the way money and responses to it are depicted in Sanskrit literature, which must be related to the way money was dealt with in real life. While the individual pieces vary enormously in terms of when they were written and the texts from which they are taken, the extracts here share one crucial idea without exception: money is a good thing and everybody wants it.

 

For all the important strands within Hinduism that reject the acquisition of wealth and worldliness, there are equally robust strands of Hinduism that understand how money works and revel in all that wealth can do. This is a culture that has both a god and a goddess of wealth. Kubera, the god of wealth, an essentially chthonic deity, appears in later Buddhist and Jain pantheons as well-perhaps reflecting the movement of the ascetic religions' followers towards trading as a profession. Kubera is the Lord, the owner of all the wealth imaginable in the three worlds. Despite not being worshipped as other divine and semi-divine figures are, Kubera remains a positive figure, never generating the kind of ambivalence that Mammon, for example, does. In Hinduism, conventional worship is reserved for the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi (or Shri). Lakshmi nominally remains the consort of Vishnu in her aspect as the goddess of wealth, but she functions more or less independently as one who blesses her supplicants with material prosperity.

 

We can argue that artha has always been a Hindu value, at times elevated, at other times scorned. For the most part, however, it remains rather close to the core of a Hindu way of life, even when it is rejected entirely (as by the ideal of sannyasa) or when it is confined to a certain period in a man's life (grihasthashrama). And so it must be that this collection of literary fragments speaks more from texts that either revel in the pleasures that money can buy, or from texts that watch what money can do with a superior, withering gaze.

THE TEXTS

The Vedas

The Vedas, composed over many centuries from about the twelfth century BCE onwards, are the first outpouring of literary expression from the subcontinent to which we have access. Over the millennia, they have become the foundational texts of the religion that we now call Hinduism. In and of themselves, the Vedas contain many emotions: from creatureliness and supplication to arrogance and bravado, from contemplative quietude to anxious pleading. There are also myths and stories of adventure and conquest; even of love. The verse compositions in the Vedas (and I will restrict myself from here on to talking only about the Rig Veda) are commonly called 'hymns', but given the range of situations and moods they encompass, I would rather think of them as 'poems', most of which are addressed to the gods. In their fullness, the Vedas provide us with a nuanced and complex view of the world and of the human condition. The Hindu tradition has chosen to focus on the more esoteric and philosophical poems in the Vedas, while ignoring the ones which are overtly materialistic and acquisitive. There is much in the Vedas to delight us, and for me, the more richly observed and depicted universe they contain is far more enchanting than the unidimensional one that has come to dominate ideas of ancient Hindu belief.

 

In early Rig Vedic compositions, the gods are asked for many things: freedom from fear as one walks in the forests, a good night's sleep, wealth measured in heroic sons, and also and equally importantly, wealth measured in horses and cows. The Rig Veda has given us some of the purest and most inspiring expressions of an uplifting spirituality, but it also reveals a human world where wealth is recognized and validated. Moreover, wealth is craved and sought after-if you don't have it or can't get it by your own efforts, you ask the gods to help you. The Rig Veda is represented in this collection of tales by 'The Gambler's Lament', a most unexpected and deeply moving 'prayer' to the dice. As I suggest above, we may struggle to think of this as a hymn in the strict sense of word. The power that is being beseeched for help and protection is not a conventional deity; the man who begs for help is not someone that we would automatically identify with. Nonetheless, it is a very early expression of how people on the subcontinent thought about money, its place in their lives and what poverty means in a society that has not yet learned to valorize the renunciant.

 

Contents

 

Foreword

ix

Translator's Note

xxiii

Introduction

1

SECTION I: CLEVER WIVES

 

The Story of Kirtisena

35

Upakosha and Her Suitors

45

The Unfaithful Wife

51

SECTION II: COURTESANS

 

How a Courtesan Should Handle Money

55

The Gentleman's Life

58

The Courtesan Who Fell in Love

64

The Courtesan's Tricks

73

SECTION III: GAMBLERS

 

The Gambler's Lament

85

The Dice Game

88

The Gambler and the Gods

95

SECTION IV: POVERTY

 

Charudatta's Lament

107

How to Seek a Fortune: Part One

111

How to Seek a Fortune: Part Two

116

The Image of Poverty

120

SECTION V: THIEVES

 

The Merchant and the Bandits

125

The Man Who Outsmarted Himself

126

The Miser and His Kheer

128

The Merchant and the Dry Tank

130

SECTION VI: WHAT A MERCHANT NEEDS FOR HIS BUSINESS TO SUCCEED

 

The Mouse Merchant

135

The Mice That Ate Iron

137

Ayodhya

139

King Vikrama and the Mendicant

143

SECTION VII: THE SANUDASA CYCLE

 

The Travels of Sanudasa the Merchant

153

Copyright Acknowledgements

193

 

Add a review
Have A Question

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy

CATEGORIES