Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Well-being : March 12, 2000

Idle worship

Sudhanshu Ranade

Some things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Take advertising for instance. There was a huge convention at Chennai recently, the "Brand Summit," which brought together many important people connected with the advertising industry in all sorts of different ways; everyone, in fact, except for the consumers. Perhaps it was because of this that the proceedings were entirely devoted to a discussion of how to get people "hooked" to this or that brand; by hook, or even by crook. Not one of those present seemed the least bit interested in using advertising to inform the people, to enable them to get better value for their money. The whole thing, in short, was entirely about the manufacture of illusions. Reminds me of my dog Sausage. She turns up at every meal, attracted by all the smells. You can, if you are so inclined, dump practically any eatable on her at such times, so long as it is accompanied by the fascinating aroma that keeps getting wafted her way from the table.

S. Venugopal/Fotomedia

The temple at Tirumala and its environs.

The stock market is another thing that has come to lead a life of its own. "Joint stock companies" came into being, four or five centuries ago, to help promoters raise risk capital from the public; either to augment the capital otherwise available to them, or to "share" or "spread" the risk, instead of putting all their eggs in one basket. This capital pooled together by different investors, big and small, would share not only the gains of the enterprise concerned, but the losses as well. From here it was but a step to allowing sale or purchase of these "shares" of the part owners of the companies that were set up in the West for trading with the East. After all, people do not take the same view of risks over the lifecycle of any given enterprise; nor do they need hard cash at any given time with the same pressing urgency. And so, even as one set of people regret having invested in the shares of a particular company, or simply find themselves pressed for ready money, and therefore clamour to be allowed to "withdraw" their money, there are other people who are able and willing to invest in these very same shares. So the enterprise can continue to go about its business, despite the reluctance of some of the original investors to continue. This, then, is the route by which we came to be where we are so far as the tradability of stocks is concerned.

But the result has been that the primary purpose of the stock market is now no longer to raise money for huge and/or risky productive ventures, for which bank finance might not be easily available. The stock market today mainly serves an altogether different purpose. So much so that, when everything is going well, enthusiasts openly describe it as the "wealth creation" industry. It is not at all uncommon for the "market value" of the shares of this or that company to run into tens of thousands of crores of rupees, when nobody in his right mind would value its assets, or profits expected to accrue over its entire life time, at even one-hundredth of this sum. In short, the whole business is now no longer directed towards increasing production; it is now squarely concerned with increasing "wealth." It is a bit like the way that, a few hundred years ago, the life of this or that country became suddenly energised by the fortuitous availability of huge stocks of gold. Some people, some countries, suddenly became very rich; simply because of the great increase in their "wealth."

And with that we can turn to India. The reason why gold made so dramatic a difference to the fortunes of the economies into which it entered, was that it was constantly passed from hand to hand. Someone used the gold to buy something that he would not otherwise have bought; and then the person into whose hands it passed bought something else; and so on, ad infinitum, with production, income and employment merrily increasing all around. That is what money does, when there is a great deal of productive capacity lying unutilised. India, however, was on a different trip; as seems so often to be the case. The huge amount of gold that came into India in exchange for all the things we exported was to a great extent simply stashed away. (In this connection, it should be remembered that we were in those days one of the leading exporters in the world; our goods were very much sought after.) And so the the economy was depressed rather than stimulated.

Mind you, this phenomenon of the rich (and of course, the poor) remaining untainted by riches is one of the things that I have always most admired about Hindus. And I really do not know whether to feel happy or sad that this is rapidly changing. As someone said, "they build bigger and bigger houses these days, but smaller and smaller people live in them."

In conclusion, let me quickly touch on some other things that have for thousands of years been typical of Hindus. Ceremonial Hinduism naturally comes to mind. The basic purpose of ritual is to help us to get ourselves together, and thus enable us to go about our lives in a more positive and energetic fashion. But rituals long ago took on a life of their own; the quality of our prayers has for thousands of years been more important to us than the quality of our lives. The result has been that many of our gods are very well off indeed: Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati, for instance, and Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala, but we ourselves are not doing too well.

One great thing that rituals have done for us is to bring and keep us all together. It is they that have welded India firmly into one cultural entity. It is they that enable the people of any one part of the country to identify with and feel for people living in other parts, however distant. But, sadly, even here there is a problem. It is only the people who are far from us that we feel close to. As one of Dostoevsky's characters put it, "The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion for them if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my complacency and restricts my freedom."

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