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April 2, 2023

First published April 1, 2023

 in Economic Times

Forgotten Ballads Of Indian Merchants

Published on 1st April, 2023, in Economic Times.

India was famous for trading with Southeast Asia and the Middle East since ancient times. However, Hindu scriptures shunned mercantile economy and focussed on agricultural economy. Value was placed on land tax, not on toll tax. By contrast, Buddhism and Jainism greatly value merchants. This is why in Hindu epics such as Ramayan and Mahabharat we never hear about traders but Buddhist Jataks and Jain charitras do.

As per Buddhist lore, soon after he attained Buddhahood, Siddhartha Gautama was fed by two merchants. They said they could not be bhikku (monk), so Buddha encouraged them to become upasaka (worshippers) and build a stupa containing his relics. He gave them his hair and even designed the stupa, inverting his bowl over three layers of folded monk robes. The Jataka tales narrate tales of many wise, shrewd and ethical merchants who identified as Buddha-to-be.

Over time, many saw Buddhism as prosperity theology. If you help Buddhist monks and build their monasteries, you get fortune. Thus we find Buddhism spreading along major trade routes, over land Silk Routes in Central Asia and over sea Spice Routes in Southeast Asia.

While Buddhists travelled to Southeast Asia on ships, Jains dominated trade along the Western coast, especially Gujarat. They avoided sea-travel to the Middle East for fear of ritual contamination, a practice common in upper caste Hindus. Many Jain merchants owned or financed ships travelling from India to the Middle East. They controlled trade routes through the deserts of Rajasthan to Delhi. These sea and land routes existed since Harappan times and explains why Gujarati language has much Persian influence.

In the 13th century, a ballad was written Sarvananda Suri, praising Jagadu-seth, a great merchant whose ships sailed all the way to the Middle East. He was so successful that he helped build not just local Jain temples but also Hindu temples and even mosques for fellow merchants. During a famine he had saved up so much grain that he freely distributed food to neighbouring kingdoms, irrespective of whether the king respected Jainism or not. He even helped kingdoms of the Delhi Sultans.

In one story, he heard that ships were sinking on the coast of Gujarat as goddess Harsiddhi would look upon them angrily from her temple atop a coastal mountain. To prevent this from happening, he requested the goddess to come down to the base of the mountain. The goddess agreed that for every step she took a buffalo was sacrificed. Even though the merchant was Jain, for the benefit of his fellow merchants, he decided to sacrifice buffaloes. This so impressed the goddess that she declared that an image of him should be carved in her temple and people should remember the generosity of the merchant who thought not just for his own profit, but for other people’s profit. She also embraced vegetarianism and forbade animal sacrifice in her temples.

In Akbar’s time, in the 17th century, Somchand and Savachand were successful businessmen whose ships traded with the Middle East. The two merchants did not know each other at all. But had heard of each other by reputation. During one monsoon, Somchand’s ships disappeared, which made his creditors anxious. He was forced to sell his personal property to repay his creditors. The local king demanded the one lakh rupees that he had loaned. A desperate Somchand gave a false promissory note, asking the king to collect the money from Savachand. Savachand was surprised to receive this note. It was a lie, a forgery. Why would Somchand do that? He then saw two drops of tears on the promissory note and figured this was an act of desperation. So he gave the king the money. After the rainy seasons, Somchand’s ships returned to the harbour, and he made a huge profit. He immediately took one lakh rupees and went to Savachand to return the money that Savachand had given the king. Savachand said there was no record of any transaction with Somchand in his books and, therefore, he could not claim the money. Full of remorse, Somchand begged Savachand to take the money but Savachand argued that, in fact, he owed Somchand another one lakh, for the second tear drop he had added on his promissory note. This became a strange case where Somchand was trying to repay a loan, while Savachand wanted to pay the price of ‘tear drops’. This case came before the Jain Council who were so impressed by the generosity, kindness, integrity and honesty of these two merchants that they begged them to build a Tunk (enclosure of Jain temples atop a hill) in Palitana, which stands to this day by the name of Sava-Somji Tunk.

During Shah Jahan’s time we hear of a merchant who was building a Jain temple, but left it incomplete, lying to everyone that he didn’t have enough money. The other Jain traders, therefore, contributed to the temple. Finally he revealed that he did not want to build the temple only with his own money because then only he get credit for the temple. He wanted it to be a community activity that benefits all and brings the merchant community together. By claiming bankruptcy, he got others to participate in the project.

A childless Jain merchant built a temple atop Mount Abu in the hope of getting a child. One day, while fetching water, his wife and he were asked to pay fees to the descendants of the merchant who had built the well. Not wanting their children to profit from their temple, they decided to stay childless.

Study of history and culture today is too spellbound by tales of kings and monks to focus on these legends and parables of merchants and their nobility.

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