The Hindu concept of debt

Art by Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 24th February, 2018, in The Economic Times

When a man is born he is born in debt (rinn). This is the Hindu concept of debt. He is obliged to repay his ancestors without whom he would have a lineage.

He is obliged to his parents who raise him. He is obliged to his community and culture. He is obliged to the gods and sages. And he is obliged to nature at large. So he spends his entire life repaying his debts. This is dharma. If done dutifully without expectations, he can liberate himself from all debts. This is moksha. If done half-heartedly, or conditionally, he entraps himself in the web of karma and is reborn once again carrying the burden of debt.

This idea of a karmic balance sheet is not found in the Vedic period but emerges in the Upanishadic period, especially after the rise of monastic orders. Some have attributed it to the merchant communities (vaishya varna) who patronised Buddhist and Jain monks and who made sense of the world using their sense of profit and loss. Thus good deeds (punya) were seen as earning spiritual profit and bad deeds (paap) were seen as earning spiritual loss.

At the time the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were reaching their final written form in Sanskrit, roughly 2000 years ago, the Buddhists were compiling the Jatakas. In stark contrast to the Hindu epics that focus on kings and sages, the Jatakas refer to numerous merchant communities. Jain scriptures such as Kalpasutra also give great importance to merchant communities.

They understood the idea of debt and so monks used the idea of debt to explain spirituality to them. Jain monks even designed the snake and ladder game to explain paap (snake) and punya (ladder).

The greatest ladder was earned when common folk (shravaka) took care of monks (shramana) and indulged in charity and building temples in honour of great teachers and sages. And so many Jain businessmen sponsor the building of temples and provide shelter to the wandering Jain monks.

In Buddhist countries like Burma and Sri Lanka and Thailand, the day begins with offering food to the wandering monks. If a monk refuses to accept alms it is considered the most terrible fate, a snake that entraps you further in debt.

Hindu Brahmins spoke of debt differently. They said liberation was possible not by taking care of monks but by choosing to follow one’s varna dharma (caste duties) and ashrama dharma (marriage and raising a family). Thus they opposed the monastic orders. While Hindus saw fulfilling householder duties as the path to repaying debt, the Buddhists and Jains saw charity and alms-giving as the path to earning good karma and hence rising up the spiritual ladder. In the Mahabharata, there is a conversation between a monk who has abandoned his parents and a butcher who takes care of his parents.

In this conversation, the former is seen as not having repaid debts while the latter, though indulging in violent against animals, is seen as repaying his debts. In Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that doing his caste duties as a member of the warrior caste will liberate him provided he focuses on action rather than the consequences. In Ramayana, we hear of the hermithouseholder (tapasvee raja) who dispassionately and unconditionally does his duty as a king without desire for success or attachment to his royal status.

Today, we speak of successful corporates who have to ‘give back to society’. The assumption here is that they have ‘taken’ and so have to redeem themselves, repay the debt owed. We are told these ideas have their origin in Western management with roots in the Abrahamic concepts of spiritual tax known as zakat in Islam and tithe in Christianity.

Here, we are not born in debt. We owe nothing to society until we are successful and rich. However, in the Indic model, every human being who lives on earth, by virtue of being alive, and so having access to the world, is in debt to his family, culture and nature. There is no escape from the karmic cycle until all debts are repaid.