Religion and economic activity in India: an historical perspective
RELIGIOUS THOUGHT and economic activity have been closely linked throughout the history of India. To justify this claim, this paper will examine briefly two periods in Indian history, ancient India as exemplified by the Mauryan empire, and medieval India of the 8th to the 13th centuries, while suggesting in both cases that a strong interrelationship exists between religious thought and economic structure. Extrapolating to the present, it shall be contended that a key to understanding the social environment of contemporary India is some knowledge of the myriad links between, and the historical evolution of, the religious and economic forces at work in India's current environment. The apposition in this way, of Indian religious thought and economic activity requires some clarification, because a common view of Indian thought would number mysticism, and other-worldliness, as its defining characteristics, neither of which are readily linked to economic activity. But, in reality, Indian religious thought does address this-worldly concerns. Philosophically, the Hindu tradition recognizes that ultimate reality (Brahman) is not only transcendent and impersonal, but is, also, immanent (intrinsic) and personal (an Isvara). The aim of life for the Hindu is not just moksa, or spiritual freedom, but equally artha, or material satisfaction. Thus, religion in the Indian tradition has not divorced itself from the secular affairs of society such as economic and political activity. With this perspective, that religious thought embraces thought both social and political, as well as strictly religious matters, we turn to the first historical episode in which this claim shall be evaluated. II
The Mauryan Empire (c. 321-c. 185 BC)
THE PERIOD OF THE MAURYAN EMPIRE has been called a "golden age" in ancient Indian history.(1) Under the Mauryans, various small kingdoms came together to form the first Indian empire, which stretched from the borders of present-day Iran to Mysore in the south of India. The Mauryan empire, under Chandragupta and later his grandson, the celebrated king Ashoka, was a model of efficient economic management. It has been called "the world's first secular welfare state, rooted in the toleration of all faiths, the sanctity of all life, and the promotion of amity and peace for all humanity" (Mukerjee, 1959, 92). The wealth of the Mauryan empire is attributed to its thriving land and sea trade with China and Sumatra to the east, Ceylon to the south, and Persia and the Mediterranean to the west. The silk routes from Europe to China put India at the center of a vibrant land trade route, but the Mauryans also had a well developed merchant navy. Connecting the many ports...