Wednesday, Jun 29, 2022

Whither Saraswati

Our ruthless pursuit of wealth at the cost of wisdom and equity bodes ill

Whither Saraswati Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu

India is the only country in the world where money is worshipped. Gold coins with the image of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, are bathed with milk and offered flowers. We have always blessed newlyweds with wealth, food and property—dhana, dhanya and sampatti. So the past 20 years have been not about discovering, but about rediscovering, our economic heritage after a decline spread over a thousand years.

The Roman empire referred to India as the land of the golden sparrow that, in exchange for gold, only gold, indulged its appetite for luxury goods from spices to printed fabrics. From the Jataka tales written 1,500 years ago, it is clear that we were traders as well as manufacturers. But a thousand years ago we stopped trading. We did not let merchants travel across the sea for fear of loss of caste. This closed-door policy meant that we became increasingly inward-looking, with no understanding of what was happening in the rest of the world.

The Arabs took over the sea-routes from Indians, later passed on to the Portuguese and finally to the British, who destroyed our manufacturing abilities for the benefit of the industrial revolution that swept across Europe in the 19th century. We were reduced to suppliers of raw materials and the gold that once flowed inwards started moving outwards. This drain of wealth caused the golden bird to fly away. We became poor!

With independence, through the protectionist policies of a patronising state, we sought to regain our manufacturing and trading capabilities, while purging our society of caste and other social and economic inequities. It did not work. To resurrect the golden bird, we had to liberalise the economy. So appeased was Lakshmi that this year the emperor of Pax Americana, casting a blnd eye to India’s poverty, arrived here with economic obeisances of his own.

But India’s growth is dangerously unequal. The gap between the rich and poor is rising rapidly and it is only a question of time before this will lead to violent confrontations. This happened before and will happen again every time Lakshmi is worshipped alone. Since ancient times, Lakshmi has never been worshipped alone. She is always worshipped alongside Narayan, Saraswati or Ganesha, deities associated with learning and wisdom. Our economic growth seems to be ignoring the latter deities to the country’s peril.

In the Mahabharata, there is the story of the warring cousins, Kauravas and Pandavas, approaching Krishna for help. “I will support you both. You can either have my army or me. Take your pick. Narayani-Sena or Narayan?” the Kauravas said they wanted the army. The Pandavas said they wanted Krishna. What does post-liberalisation India seek? Narayan is who we are. Narayani-Sena is what we have. The quest for Narayan is the quest for emotional security and intellectual maturity. When we have Narayan, we become caring, generous and wise. Wise kings create happy kingdoms; rich kings do not.

Today, India’s aspiration is to be rich, not wise. When we refer to ourselves as a knowledge economy we are saying Saraswati helps us generate Lakshmi. We have reduced knowledge to a lever that makes us clever, not wise. Education has become a tool to generate jobs, not wisdom. Ancient scriptures warn us that the absence of Lakshmi is as much a problem as is her presence. When Lakshmi comes in, she tends to kick Saraswati out. This will not happen if the king seeks Narayan. Our kings do not.