In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4, the sage Yājñavalkya decides to retire to the forest after dividing his property between Maitreyī and Kātayāni, his two consorts. Maitreyī then gets into a discussion with Yājñavalkya on whether the property would keep her happy forever. She asks:
yan nu ma iyaṃ bhagoḥ sarvā pṛthivī vittena pūrṇā syāt kathaṃ tenāmṛtā syām iti.
“Would I become immortal if all the wealth of the world were to become mine?” Yājñavalkya has to make a clear choice between artha and moksha here, and this is what he says in response: no.
neti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ. yathaivopakaraṇavatāṃ jīvitaṃ tathaiva te jīvitaṃ syāt. amṛtatvasya tu nāśāsti vitteneti.
“No, your life would be like that of those who have rich possessions. There is no hope of immortality through wealth.” And then the Upanishad goes on with Yājñavalkya revealing, upon request, one after the other spiritual truth to Maitreyī.
This short episode should clarify beyond doubt that the true focus in this, as in every, Upanishad is moksha, not artha; amṛtatva, not vitta. If it weren’t for this focus on deliverance or salvation, the Upanishads would have lost meaning long ago, as many of the other parts of the Vedas have.
Noise can make us forget that the Upanishads, not other texts, are central to Hinduism. But in reality, one cannot claim to uphold Hinduism but let go of Upanishadic messages. It is impossible to uphold some other text or portion thereof, if it contradicts the message of the Upanishads, and claim to uphold Hinduism.
Why am I writing this? This is to set the record straight after reading an article titled ‘The Desirability of Artha’ by Bibek Debroy. I would perhaps not have bothered if it were from someone else, but for such a prominent public intellectual to let go of the centrality of the Upanishads in advocating for Hinduism illustrates that the intellectual disaster that has struck India’s right-wing elite is of a greater magnitude than I had imagined.
In an article which sets out to establish the desirability of artha, which desirability is, of course, not questionable, Debroy makes the point that the superiority of moksha in Hindu scriptures is ‘superficial’. This is an unpardonable mistake. There is no question of comparing artha to moksha in the core of Hinduism; the latter wins hands down, and explicitly.
After having made this seminal mistake, Debroy’s article gets entangled in a mess of absurdities.
Take, for example, the idea that the Varna system represents ‘nothing but economic specialization’ if we were to consider it ‘without defending its subsequent hereditary aspects’. This is like saying cyanide represents harmless matter if we were to consider it without defending its poisonous character.
Debroy also claims to give the original meaning of Brahmacharya. According to him, it need not necessarily involve celibacy. No doubt one can achieve moksha even while being a gruhastha, but that does not mean you go and preach sexual intercourse to the Brahmachari.
Continuing, Debroy argues that Hinduism is quite concerned about wealth creation (one could argue it’s always transformation); the impression that it isn’t concerned comes, according to Debroy, from a selective and biased reading of Hindu texts. Well, one can argue without end about which texts are part of Hinduism and which aren’t, but there is no doubt that the Upanishads are. There is also no doubt that they are central to the religion; any selective reading must involve them in order to remain meaningfully Hindu. In such a situation, to bring the limited scope of a couple of parvas from the Mahabharata as proof that ‘Hinduism’ cares for wealth-creation – so much that moksha loses its supreme position among the purusharthas – is to give up the core of Hinduism and wallow in superficiality.
Debroy even pushes his economic agenda into the mouth of the scripture. According to him, because public works were driven by individuals, not kings, we must take it as an acknowledgment by scripture that there should be little State involvement in public works today, too. I am not opposed to the proposition itself, but the farce of deriving it from the Mahabharata.
And what is that reference to the Buddha doing in the last paragraph of the article? The claim is that the vaishyas supported Buddha. So what? That makes moksha‘s superiority superficial as claimed? Or is it that we should welcome the author’s economics as ancient and absolute truths which supported the Buddha? Or is it a way to draw to his brand of western economics those who are concerned about the economic state of the Dalits?
Why is this intellectual disaster happening? Why are the self-appointed protectors of Hinduism themselves defaming Hindu scriptures (Debroy is apparently translating the Mahabharata and it is said to be a seminal work in Indology)? Why are the Hindutvavadis defending the indefensible exterior of the religion and discarding the perfect core, i.e., the Upanishads? Why do they not even hesitate to deny supreme importance to moksha to argue for their brand of artha?
The reason is that they try to approach Hinduism through the politico-economic lens. What appears through it is the monster created by the British and worshipped by Indian nationalists – the Indian Nation. This monster is their God. In singing its praise and positioning themselves as its high-priests, they do not seem to understand that they are destroying the impeccable spiritual core of Hinduism.