Once Upon a Time: History of Indian Business

Who was the most ethical businessman in India in the 17th century? Which was the Buddhist Monastery that had the most savvy business strategy?

Published: Aug 19, 2010
Once Upon a Time: History of Indian Business
Image: Amit Verma
Gurcharan Das, Author and former P&G India chairman

Questions such as above, pertaining to Indian business and economic history will soon be explored in a series of books being brought out by Penguin. Gurcharan Das, author and former P&G India chairman, is the general editor for the project. Forbes India caught up with Das on a Saturday evening to understand the project.

Why is Penguin doing this project?

India has one of the largest growing populations of new business class. India’s entrepreneurs [are drawing attention today]. We wanted to understand India’s entrepreneurial energy. We have always been a seafaring nation with adventurous traders and smart businessmen. There must be great business ideas that may have historically emerged here. This is an attempt to understand India’s capitalistic past. You must remember that one of our oldest texts is Arthashashtra — meaning study of commerce.

Today, a whole generation of Indians has grown up with minds that are decolonised and liberated. They also have not had the good fortune of studying history. They want to know.

Tell us about the project.
We have selected a wide range of themes. And they are spread over ancient, medieval and modern Indian history dating from 3rd Century BC to the first half of the 20th Century. They have been written by a mix of authors — some seasoned experts who are authorities in those areas, like Tirthankar Roy of London School of Economics will be writing on the East India Company. There are others who are young, bright and are keenly interested in those areas. Some of the themes that we have picked up are: The Science of Wealth: The Arthashashtra of Kautilya; Marwaris: What we can learn from their success; Business models of the early Buddhist Monastery.

For example, Business models of the early Buddhist Monastery will look at how a monastery functioned as a corporation, how it made money and spent it and what were the principles that governed it as an enterprise. The scholars will research ancient texts as the basis for the work. At the end of it, we will bring out great business ideas from India’s history that are relevant today.

Any tale you can share now?

One tale that I have found interesting is that of a Jain merchant based on Banarsidas’ Ardhakathanak. He was a successful but somewhat reluctant merchant. He lived during the Mughal period. He made his fortune in Agra in jewelry around 1610. What is fascinating about him is his humanistic quality and his interest in ethics. He was grappling with the life of money making and yet not making that life itself.

How did our society treat merchants and traders?
Merchants have not been highly regarded in India’s history. There were periods and geographies like Gujarat and coastal areas where they were. But by and large they were not so well respected in the society. They are often depicted as people who get rich by robbing the poor and this isn’t just true about India. Perhaps people did not understand how if merchants prospered, the society prospered too. What they see is the glitter — the big luxurious house that the Ambani is building. But in the process they don’t realise that people like the Ambanis contribute significantly to the social well being. This is what Adam Smith called the “invisible hands”.

What about the nexus between business and rulers?
That relationship has always been there. Buddhist monks would go to merchants to collect money and merchants would extract their pound of flesh even then. Rulers of Rajput states depended on Marwaris to fight the battles. If kings lost the battle, [the] merchant lost the money. If they won they would get different kinds of favours. Smart merchants did not give too much. Business was always scared of those with political powers. They are still scared.

Have things changed now?
After 1991, for the first time business is acquiring respect in the society. Industrial revolution began in Europe and the US, 200 years back. Their businesses are in second, third generation. And you see the philanthropic side to it with people like Bill Gates now.

Typically, when money has been there for several generations, when children are sent to the best of schools, they become genteel and are no longer hungry for money. It’s a common saying — first generation makes money, second generation wants prestige and power and it is the third generation that wants art, culture, status and aspires for respect. History reveals that money for long makes you comfortable and complacent.

(This story appears in the 27 August, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Pawan

    Ambanis and social well being! Really? And what is the data that supports this?

    on Jun 11, 2011
  • Sanjay D

    Wonderful set of books I guess, waiting to read. However, I disagree with the fortune sharing view of his; businessmen pledging money in US are first generation businessmen, and not companies like Ford or GE. However, Gurucharan's view holds true in Rahul Gandhi's case; he sounds genuine.

    on Aug 22, 2010
  • Narayan S

    It is wonderful to read this article and interview from one of the most well read, traveled and competent business person. Gurucharan Das has come a long way and he has made several points in this interview. One that stands out is when he talks about generations of businessmen and the hunger for money. Well what he said stands true in many cases but in a country like India few business or political people want to corner all the trade and industry. For example the Maran family wants to have pie in every business in India and generation continues to make money. If that be so how can we say the third generation wants culture, respect etc. I think there are no hard and fast rule on this subject and one has to identify and individual. In any case Das has more varied experience and he knows what he is talking about.

    on Aug 19, 2010
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