Published on 4th May, 2018, in The Economic Times.
In the Vedas, Vishnu is the name of a minor god, who is younger brother of Indra, and is known for the three steps he took to span the world. But later, in the Puranas, we see a shift in Hindu mythology and he becomes the preserver of the world. What preserves the world? Good governance, or dhrama? What is good governance? Adequate wealth generation and adequate wealth distribution.
And so, Vishnu has always been associated with economic activities: just as Krishna as cowherd, is linked to animal husbandry, while his elder brother, Balarama, holds a plough and is linked to agriculture. As Ram, he is considered fair and just, alluding to proper distribution of wealth. In fact, Vishnu is called down to earth every time the earth is plundered and the earth appeals to him in the form of the Earth goddess, Bhu-devi, who takes the form of a cow.
In fact, cow is a metaphor for earth making all kings Gopala, or cowherds, those who ensure the earth is being ‘milked’ correctly. What is interesting is that the form of Vishnu connects him with economic activity. And this is best understood when we compare and contrast him with Shiva, who became equally powerful god in Puranic times, as compared to his less popular Vedic form, Rudra.
Shiva is imagined as a hermit, linked to desolate mountains, caves, and crematoriums. He is smeared with ash. He wears animal hide. He can be seen wandering alone in the forest, trident and rattle-drum in hand. In contrast, Vishnu is linked to an ocean of milk, to butter, to rivers, to woods, to farmlands and pasturelands. He wears silk fabric, assuming the existence of farmers, spinners, weavers, dyers and washers.
He wears gold ornaments, assuming the existence of miners, smelters, smiths and jewellers. Shiva’s ash is made effortlessly by burning wood, dung and corpses. Vishnu’s sandalpaste demands effort. The aromatic stick has to be rubbed on a wet rock for a long period of time.
The more effort, the more sandalpaste. Just comparing and contrasting ash and sandalpaste makes one realise the difference in the philosophy of Shiva and Vishnu, seen through an economic lens. Shiva is about letting go and accepting what is. Vishnu is about making efforts to enjoy the good things in life.
This thought recurs when we see how they associate with milk. Shiva is linked to raw unboiled unprocessed milk. Vishnu loves butter and ghee, creation of which demands effort.
Shiva does not seek milk; Vishnu demands to be served, and even enjoys stealing butter and distributing it to all. Shiva is the bull, who cannot be domesticated, but still is vital to the economy as bulls make the cows pregnant. Castrated bulls, or bullocks, can be beasts of burden but they cannot make cows pregnant. Vishnu is linked to cows, which is vital for rural economy.
Shiva sits still on top of the mountain, withdrawing from the world, outgrowing hunger.
And if there is no hunger, there is no demand, or supply, or market. In other words, destruction of the economy. Is that good? The goddess tells Shiva that while outgrowing one’s own hunger is good, surely taking care of other people’s hunger, feeding others is also good. Thus a counter-point is added to Shiva’s hermit ways. Shiva’s hermit ways challenges the hunger of man, but so does the idea of generosity that the Goddess speaks of and Vishnu embodies.
Yes, hunger sustains the market. But whose hunger? Our hunger or other people’s hunger. What hunger sustains the world? The shareholder’s or the consumer’s or the employee’s. Capitalism is obsessed with shareholder’s wealth. Communism with employee’s wealth.
Capitalism celebrates consumerism. Communism mocks it. Yet a perfect ecosystem is one where everyone’s hunger is satisfied, and more importantly satiated. A satiated Vishnu feeds the world, thus creating Vaikuntha.