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The mouse merchant money in ancient india


Money in Ancient India
Foreword by

Gu rcha ra n Da s

Foreword by Gurcharan Das
Translator’s Note
Section I: Clever Wives
The Story of Kirtisena
Upakosha and Her Suitors

The Unfaithful Wife
Section II: Courtesans
How a Courtesan Should Handle Money
The Gentleman’s Life
The Courtesan Who Fell in Love
The Courtesan’s Tricks
Section III: Gamblers
The Gambler’s Lament
The Dice Game
The Gambler and the Gods
Section IV: Poverty
Charudatta’s Lament
How to Seek a Fortune: Part One
How to Seek a Fortune: Part Two
The Image of Poverty
Section V: Thieves
The Merchant and the Bandits
The Man Who Outsmarted Himself
The Miser and His Kheer
The Merchant and the Dry Tank
Section VI: What a Merchant Needs for His Business to Succeed
The Mouse Merchant

The Mice That Ate Iron
King Vikrama and the Mendicant
Section VII: The Sanudasa Cycle
The Travels of Sanudasa the Merchant
Copyright Acknowledgements
Follow Penguin

For my father, Hameed Sattar,
who taught me how to count cash.

MOST CULTURES HAVE looked down on the making of money. This isn’t surprising as

moneymaking emerged from within settled agricultural communities whose material life was
relentlessly cyclical. Any change in the seasons of planting and harvesting threatened survival. Hence,
people tended to be conservative, and suspicious of change and of anyone different, especially an
outsider. The merchant was especially distrusted because his life entailed something new—travel,
risk-taking and innovation. People marvelled at the novelty of his life, combined with envy at his
ability to grow rich beyond measure without producing anything tangible or having to toil under the
sun. Not surprisingly, his wealth was not matched by social acceptance until recent times. No wonder
the merchant has been a subversive figure in history.
Set against this background, Arshia Sattar’s marvellous book is like a fresh breeze. She has
translated Sanskrit stories from ancient and medieval India, which offer a nice corrective to the
universal prejudice against the merchant. They present a profoundly human and usually sympathetic
picture of his trade. Our merchant heroes are sometimes gullible, sometimes greedy; at moments
ingenious, but dim-witted at others; and hopelessly in love with courtesans but also loyal to their
wives. There are honest and dishonest merchants; extravagant and ascetic ones. Above all, the
merchant is a full-blooded person with agency; not the stereotype of prejudice to whom even the great
William Shakespeare succumbed in The Merchant of Venice.
Most of these stories unabashedly celebrate money. ‘To have money is to have life,’ proclaims
Sanudasa, when he discovers the pearls he had hidden in the topknot of his hair before he was
shipwrecked. In the Panchatantra, there is a remarkable conversation among four brahmin friends in
which the unanimous conclusion emerges: ‘Let the sole aim be, of men of sense to make money.’
In another account from the same text, even the corpse seems to prefer death to poverty. ‘A man is
better dead than poor,’ is the corpse’s silent answer to a destitute, weary man. Further on, the text
teaches us that wealth ‘can be acquired in six ways, as follows: by begging, serving kings, farming,
teaching, moneylending and trade’. After reviewing the pros and cons of each alternative, it is
concluded that trade is best suited for the acquisition of wealth because it provides the maximum
autonomy to an individual.
Despite this uninhibited praise for money and trade, India’s society was also agricultural and
conservative, but it found a rightful place for the trader within the hierarchy of caste and wealth.
While it accepted the vaishya as ‘twice-born’ and of high caste, it placed him in the third station in
the social pecking order, behind the brahmin (the ‘priest’) and the kshatriya (the ‘landowner’,
Pre-modern India was also one of the greatest storytelling cultures of the world and its stories
naturally reflect its values. Arshia Sattar has chosen stories related to artha (‘wealth’ or ‘material
well-being’), which is one of the four classical aims of the Hindu life. Not only do her stories reveal
Indian society’s attitude to the merchant but also the merchant’s attitude to money. While entertaining
us with the romance of the merchant’s seafaring life, the stories offer great wisdom about money.

The goal of artha, however, quickly hit a wall, against another imperative of life, dharma (‘moral
well-being’), the moral dimension of business and political life. Should one unscrupulously pursue
wealth and power, or does real success come from ethical conduct? Mostly, the classical goal of
dharma seems to trump artha in the stories—there is a right and a wrong way to make money. But
there are other downsides to artha. One of these, as the Panchatantra points out, is what is today
called the problem of ‘work–life balance’:
A man preoccupied by the need for wealth
Gives up values, forsakes his family,
Abandons his mother and the land of birth,
Leaves his own place disadvantageous,
And quickly goes to foreign place;
What else?

There are always trade-offs in life. While you can make lots of money travelling far and wide, you
must be prepared to give up the mundane pleasures of domesticity. The stories bring out other
ambiguities of the human condition—there are no easy answers.
A tradition that celebrates artha—‘money is a good thing and everybody wants it,’ as Arshia Sattar
puts it—also had to cope with another ideal. Early on in the development of Indian society, from the
time of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism, there emerged an ascetic streak. The sannyasi (the
‘renouncer’) became a dramatic hero in saffron robes, who posed a challenge to the traditional,
secular order and its thinking about the good life. He created ambivalence about money, in particular,
and it has continued to the present day. The brahmin, in any case, had always been in two minds about
money, but he could not speak out against it as he depended on the wealthy patrons.
The kshatriya had also mainly valued action in war and aristocratic idleness in peace, and scorned
the life of daily toil. In recent times, Marxist influences in India have added to the ambivalence. With
its antipathy to private property, Marxism tried to convince us that the bourgeois trader was an
exploiter. These prejudices came together in the post-Independence generation of Jawaharlal Nehru,
who combined the high brahminical with the English upper-class Fabian scorn for money, and
institutionalized the most rigid socialist controls over business between 1950 and 1990—a period
also known as the ‘Licence Raj’.
Only after the reforms of 1991 did India begin to lose its hypocritical attitude, and two decades
later, it seems to have returned to its ancient uninhibited attitude to wealth and the celebration of
artha as a legitimate goal of life. Business schools have mushroomed across the land, and many of the
stories that Arshia Sattar has translated could form the basis of entertaining, edifying case material for
instruction in classrooms.

The Story of Indian Business
The relationship between commerce and social status is an old question that has been debated ever
since commerce first emerged in human history when there was an agricultural surplus. It is also

related to the ethical question of the right way to do business, for those whose wealth was righteously
acquired were rewarded with reputation and status. It is questions like these that engage the authors of
our unique multi-volume history of Indian business.
The Mouse Merchant is the fifth volume in Penguin’s The Story of Indian Business series. The
series seeks to mine great ideas in business and economics that have shaped commerce on the Indian
subcontinent, while entertaining us with the romance of the high seas and adventure in the bazaar.
Leading contemporary scholars closely examine historical texts, inscriptions and records, and
interpret them in a lively, sharp and authoritative manner for the intelligent reader who may have no
prior background in the field. Each volume offers an enduring perspective on business enterprise in
the past, avoiding the pitfall of simplistically cataloguing a set of lessons for today. The value of the
exercise, if we are successful, will be to promote a longer-term sensibility in the reader, which can
help to understand the material bases for our present human condition and think sensibly about our
economic future. Taken together, the series as a whole celebrates the ideal captured in the Sanskrit
word artha.
The series began with Tom Trautmann’s sparkling interpretation for our times of the renowned
treatise on the science of wealth, Arthashastra, which was authored over 2000 years ago and is
considered the world’s first manual on political economy. Kanakalatha Mukund took us south in the
next volume, Merchants of Tamilakam, to the beguiling world of trade between south India and
Rome—where the Roman senator and writer Pliny the Elder called India ‘the sink of the world’s
precious metal’—and into the lives of Tamil merchants, which she drew from the epics
Silappadikaram and Manimekalai and other historical materials, to the end of the Chola Empire.
Next, we jumped centuries to Tirthankar Roy’s radiant account of the East India Company, which
taught us, among other things, how much the modern multinational corporation is a child of a company
that is reviled even today in India. We hopped again to the late eighteenth century during the decline
of Surat and the rise of Bombay, where the distinguished Lakshmi Subramanian recounted the ups and
downs in the adventurous lives of three great merchants: Trawadi Arjunji Nathji, Jamsetjee
Jeejeebhoy and Premchand Roychand.
Following these first five books is a veritable feast. Three more books will cover the ancient and
early medieval periods: Gregory Schopen will present the Business Model of Early Buddhist
Monasticism based on the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya; Himanshu Prabha Ray will take us into the
maritime trading world of the western Indian Ocean, along the Kanara and Gujarat coasts, using the
Gujarati translation of the Sanskrit work Lekhapaddhati. Donald Davis will raise contemporary
issues in the area of commercial and business law based on medieval commentaries on the
voluminous Dharmasastras by authors such as Vacaspati Mishra and Candeshvara.
Then, Scott Levi takes us from the early modern period to the modern one with the over 500-yearold saga of Multani traders in caravans through central Asia, rooted in the works of Zia al-Din
Barani’s Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. The celebrated Sanjay Subrahmanyam
and Muzaffar Alam will next transport us into the world of sultans, shopkeepers and portfolio
capitalists in Mughal India, while Ishan Chakrabarti traces the ethically individualistic world of
Banarasidas, a Jain merchant in Mughal times, via his diary, Ardhakathanaka.

The feast doesn’t end there. Chhaya Goswami dives deep into the Indian Ocean to recount the tale
of Kachchhi enterprise in the triangle of Zanzibar, Muscat and Mandvi from 1750 to 1900. Thomas
Timberg revisits the bold, risk-taking world of the Marwaris; and Raman Mahadevan describes the
Nattukottai Chettiars’ search for fortune. Then, Vikramjit Banerjee presents, through the works of
Gandhi, Vivekananda, Nehru, Ambedkar and others, the competing visions of prosperity among the
men who fought for India’s freedom in the early twentieth century. Finally, Medha Kudaisya rounds
up the series by breathing life into the debates surrounding the ‘Bombay Plan’, a fifteen-year
economic plan for India, drawn up by eminent industrialists in 1944–45, who wrestled with the idea
of proper roles of the public and private sectors.
The privilege of reading these rich and diverse volumes as they come from the pens of our scholars
has left me—one reader—with a sense of wonder at the vivid, dynamic and illustrious role played by
trade and economic enterprise in advancing Indian civilization.

What These Stories Teach Us About the Business Life
Arshia Sattar’s delightful stories about the business life offer, as I said, both entertainment and
instruction. The story that lends its name to this collection, ‘The Mouse Merchant’, teaches that
innovation in business is sometimes more important than capital. It tells the tale of a remarkable
young man who builds a fortune—his starting capital being only a dead mouse! Employing
extraordinary entrepreneurial skills, the young man sells the mouse as cat food, the proceeds of which
he invests to buy food that he sells to loggers, receiving logs from them as payment; in this manner, he
goes on to build a fortune in timber. This is a story not only of intelligence and acumen but also of
determination and hard work. Thus, an equally important lesson from this story is that the seemingly
mundane ability to implement and persevere is as important as good strategy in order to succeed in
Sanudasa’s longish story is perhaps the most beguiling in this collection and holds many lessons.
One of these is the importance of reputation—an extremely valuable asset in business; also called
‘brand equity’ these days. Because Sanudasa’s father, Mitravarma, built such a fine reputation based
on his dealings in business, he was made guild master by the king, and his son was able to trade on
the strength of the trust his father had built in society over a lifetime. A merchant in Tamralipti took
Sanudasa with him on a sea voyage based on his father’s reputation. Mitravarma had treated his
employees well, and they, in turn, reciprocated by helping his son when he was in need.
Siddharthaka, for example, helped Sanudasa get a new start in life and let him join his caravan. Even
the king helped his mother create the elaborate subterfuge that forms the spine of this story. The
reputation, however, which Sanudasa worries about, is of a different kind, because of which he does
not want to impose on his mother’s family—not take advantage of his maternal uncle for venture
capital. The point is that reputation is not an exercise in public relations or ‘branding’, as some
believe. It is based on the trust that a business person creates over decades through daily dealings
with customers, suppliers and employees. It endures even after an individual’s death as in the case of

Mitravarma, or Jamshedji Tata for that matter.
Another common element of these stories is the role of the state in promoting the prosperity of its
people. In ‘The Story of Kirtisena’ from the Kathasaritsagara, we are told that the dharma of the
ruler is to ensure security and levy moderate and competitive taxes: ‘King Vasudatta is a virtuous man
and he wanders through the forests, protecting them. He levies low tolls and punishes thieves and
bandits himself.’
In the story titled ‘Ayodhya’ in this book, the wonderful description of Ayodhya taken from the
Ramayana points to the ruler’s duty to create good infrastructure, which is rewarded by attracting
Ayodhya was a well-planned city. Its roads were wide, and as long as 60 yojanas. They were strewn with flowers and
always sprinkled with water to keep the dust down. King Dasharatha ruled from there and protected his realm like Indra
protected heaven. Ayodhya’s wooden gates were symmetrical, beautifully proportioned and were adorned with fine carvings.
Its markets were well laid-out and the city’s fortifications were carefully constructed by skilled artisans. Ayodhya was filled
with bards and musicians, and its wealthy citizens hoisted colourful banners on their roofs.
Like a young bride adorned by a girdle of green, Ayodhya was surrounded by gardens and groves. Its impenetrable
fortifications were girt by a deep moat, making it impossible for enemies to enter the city . . . people from different lands
traded there without obstacle or difficulty.

This subject is known as ‘political economy’ today, and continues to be the source of impassioned
debate between the political Left and the Right, between the rightful spheres of politics and
economics, and the right level of taxation by the state. In ancient India, as the Arthashastra and other
texts point out, the rightful share of the king was ‘shadbhaga’or one-sixth, or a 15 per cent tax rate.
Consistent with this advice, Book XII (87) of the Mahabharata gives the following advice to the
The king, O Bharata, should always act in such a way towards the vaishyas that their productive powers may be enhanced.
The vaishyas increase the strength of a kingdom, improve its agriculture and develop its trade. A wise king, therefore, should
always gratify them. Acting with heedfulness and leniency, he should levy mild imposts upon them . . . There is nothing
productive of greater good to a kingdom, O Yudhishthira, than the adoption of such behaviour towards the vaishyas of the

The reference to ‘mild imposts’ is called being ‘investment friendly’ in our times, and it is a concern
with national competitiveness. The epic’s advice is practical, for if taxes are too high, the merchant
will move away to the neighbouring kingdom and the king might lose his tax base.

The Philosophy of a Righteous Merchant
Finally, and a good place to bring this Foreword to an end, is the business philosophy of a prosperous
and righteous merchant, Vardhamanaka, found right at the beginning of the Panchatantra. In order to
live a successful life, it says, a businessman must learn four skills: first, to make money; second, to
conserve it once it is made; third, to spend it wisely; and finally, to give it away. And he concludes,
‘That is the way to live in the world.’ I quote below from Patrick Olivelle’s translation of the

Panchatantra (Oxford World’s Classics, 1997):
Money—If you don’t have it, try hard to earn it! When you have earned it you should guard it well: and as you guard it,
always make it grow! When it has grown, give it to worthy men.’

It is not an intuitive idea—especially to one not engaged in business—that to guard wealth sensibly is
to ‘make it grow’. Those who are entrusted with conserving wealth know that money never stands
still, but goes up or down. One’s savings will diminish, as Vardhamanaka explains in the ensuing
passage. This is not only because one will spend it wastefully when it is kept under the carpet or that
it will diminish in value because of inflation, but also due to the ‘time value of money’. Money does
not hold steady, and the same money in the future is worth less than it is today. Hence, accountants use
the ‘net present value of money’ to calculate cash flow and the rewards of an investment. The
Panchatantra continues: ‘When a man fails to earn, he has nothing . . . if one does not use the money
when there is need then one might as well not have earned it to begin with.’
The third element of ‘the right way to live in the world’ is to learn to spend money wisely, and the
fourth is to give it away, presumably before one dies. It is sometimes said that it is more difficult to
spend money than to earn it. McGeorge Bundy, erstwhile head of the Ford Foundation, used to remind
industrialist Henry Ford that his (Bundy’s) job was the more difficult one: ‘You only have to earn
money, but I have to spend it!’
In learning the skill of spending money, it is important to strike the right balance between miserly
and extravagant. It is not only the rich who have to struggle with this problem, but it is, in fact, the
burden of every individual who has trudged out of poverty into the middle class and has some
discretion in spending money.
Vardhamanaka’s advice—‘If one does not use the money when there is need, then one might as
well not have earned it to begin with’—is about finding this very balance. It used to be called the ‘art
of prudence’, a virtue of the eighteenth century which does not have much purchase value in our times.
This is perhaps because ‘prudence’ suggests a self-interested, expedient individual; and we are
expected to admire selfless individuals, not prudent individuals. Prudence is a virtue of businessmen
who are supposed to be motivated by greed and selfishness. But is that true? A human being is
essentially self-interested. A prudent mother bundles up her child in the cold, or an umbrella is
prudently carried by me when it looks like it might rain. Nothing selfish or greedy about that! This is
merely rational, self-interested behaviour. A prudent businessman behaves in a rational, selfinterested way in seeking opportunity or in looking to the future consequences of his actions. These do
not make for selfish actions although they are self-interested. They are compatible with acting
considerately and bearing in mind the interest of others.
The fourth part of Vardhamanaka’s advice is to give money away or what is called ‘philanthropy’
today; a word derived from the ancient Greek, meaning love of humanity—philos or loving (in the
sense of benefiting) and anthropos meaning human being or humanity. According to Arshia Sattar,
this was not common advice in the ancient texts. Only one story in this collection is about
disinterested giving: the merchant who builds a water tank for weary travellers so they may stop, rest
and quench their thirst.

Translator’s Note
WHEN GURCHARAN DAS asked me to contribute a book to his series on money, my first reaction
was an entirely flattered but very firm refusal on the grounds that I knew very little about how money
worked in real life, and even less about business theories and practices. I was, therefore, supremely
unqualified to be a part of such a series. Gurcharan reminded me that I knew stories about money and
I knew stories about merchants and how they did business, and so, I was halfway close to being
qualified. ‘As for how business itself works,’ he said, ‘it’s simple. Buy low and sell high. That’s all
you need to know.’
While I have not yet been able to translate that audaciously simple aphorism into the reality of my
own life, it did give me the impetus I needed to search for the stories that came to comprise this
volume. As I looked for the ‘buy-low-and-sell-high’ stories, I found that I was becoming more
interested in Indian attitudes towards money in the classical period; more accurately, the attitudes
towards money that were displayed in the universe of Sanskrit stories. And so it is that this volume
contains such diverse offerings as a gambler’s plea to the dice to favour him from the Rig Veda; a
description of a wealthy man’s pastimes from the Kama Sutra; how a master thief tests his sons’
suitability for their family profession; and how merchants make and lose their fortunes. And yes, there
are a few ‘buy-low-and-sell-high’ stories that demonstrate business practices as well.
What is abundantly clear is that a disdain for the material world and its many pleasures is but one
strand in the classical Hindu tapestry of life. Even apart from merchants, whose business is business
and the creation of wealth, other people like brahmins and kshatriyas also value money and what it
can buy. All the characters that appear here are united by the idea that money is a good thing.
Charudatta laments his poverty, courtesans despise impecunious gentlemen-callers, merchants face
incredible dangers to make their fortunes, and good wives use all their cunning to keep their
husbands’ money safe.
One of the pleasures of reading and translating these stories is how robust they are—for the most
part, the characters in them are positive, brave, determined, optimistic, often opportunistic, and rarely
despairing or discouraged. There is always another day ahead, another way to recover what you have
lost, another strategy to be employed in the pursuit of wealth. It is also a pleasure to encounter the
women in these stories. Often, they are the primary characters. They are as daring and motivated as
their male counterparts, and in a culture that has increasingly placed a value on the shrinking violet,
the bright and audacious sunflowers of these stories are a welcome change.
This is a book of many voices, as it should be, for a collection that explores different ways of
thinking about money from different genres of literary texts, and from a period of time that covers just
about a millennium. And since I have mined the works of several translators for this collection of
tales, this note should more correctly be called a ‘Compiler’s Note’. Like so many others before me
in the long storytelling traditions of the subcontinent—most notably, Somadeva, whose stories from
the Kathasaritsagara form the basis of this book—I have put together stories and extracts in a single
volume that have been told and translated and retold and transcreated by other people over the years.

In some cases, I have edited parts out of their texts; in others, I have retold stories from older
translations; and in still other cases, I have made my own translations.
My thanks to those whose works I have used—teachers, mentors, peers and colleagues—in the
larger enterprise of sharing the best of the world’s literatures. Warmth and gratitude to Gurcharan
Das, who not only gave me a rule of thumb for how to make money but also used all his charm to
beguile me into putting this volume together. I thank him for the many hours of pleasure I enjoyed
while reading for this project and also for pushing me to write a more comprehensive Introduction to
the volume. Yet again, my editor R. Sivapriya’s gentle but firm persuasions have resulted in a better
book altogether, and I thank her for her continued trust in my words. While putting this book together,
I have thought with much love (and some amusement) about my father who tried all his life to teach
me how to look after my money. Although I have failed him hugely in that regard, I am sure he would
have been delighted with these stories about people who did what his daughter could not. This book
is dedicated to him.
Arshia Sattar
Bangalore, 2013

THIS VOLUME CONSISTS of stories, poems and extracts from the Sanskrit universe—a universe
which, for this collection of tales, spans the Vedas, the epics, drama and the secular storytelling
traditions. The stories here cover more than a millennium: from the period of the late Rig Veda to that
grand twelfth-century compendium of wondrous tales, the Kathasaritsagara. Not all the stories are
about business practices or traditional commerce, but all the stories are about money—the way
money and responses to it are depicted in Sanskrit literature, which must be related to the way money
was dealt with in real life. While the individual pieces vary enormously in terms of when they were
written and the texts from which they are taken, the extracts here share one crucial idea without
exception: money is a good thing and everybody wants it.
For all the important strands within Hinduism that reject the acquisition of wealth and worldliness,
there are equally robust strands of Hinduism that understand how money works and revel in all that
wealth can do. This is a culture that has both a god and a goddess of wealth. Kubera, the god of
wealth, an essentially chthonic deity, appears in later Buddhist and Jain pantheons as well—perhaps
reflecting the movement of the ascetic religions’ followers towards trading as a profession. Kubera is
the Lord, the owner of all the wealth imaginable in the three worlds. Despite not being worshipped as
other divine and semi-divine figures are, Kubera remains a positive figure, never generating the kind
of ambivalence that Mammon, for example, does. In Hinduism, conventional worship is reserved for
the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi (or Shri). Lakshmi nominally remains the consort of Vishnu in her
aspect as the goddess of wealth, but she functions more or less independently as one who blesses her
supplicants with material prosperity.
We can argue that artha has always been a Hindu value, at times elevated, at other times scorned.
For the most part, however, it remains rather close to the core of a Hindu way of life, even when it is
rejected entirely (as by the ideal of sannyasa) or when it is confined to a certain period in a man’s
life (grihasthashrama). And so it must be that this collection of literary fragments speaks more from
texts that either revel in the pleasures that money can buy, or from texts that watch what money can do
with a superior, withering gaze.

The Texts
The Vedas
The Vedas, composed over many centuries from about the twelfth century BCE onwards, are the first
outpouring of literary expression from the subcontinent to which we have access. Over the millennia,
they have become the foundational texts of the religion that we now call Hinduism. In and of
themselves, the Vedas contain many emotions: from creatureliness and supplication to arrogance and
bravado, from contemplative quietude to anxious pleading. There are also myths and stories of
adventure and conquest; even of love. The verse compositions in the Vedas (and I will restrict myself
from here on to talking only about the Rig Veda) are commonly called ‘hymns’, but given the range of
situations and moods they encompass, I would rather think of them as ‘poems’, most of which are
addressed to the gods. In their fullness, the Vedas provide us with a nuanced and complex view of the
world and of the human condition. The Hindu tradition has chosen to focus on the more esoteric and
philosophical poems in the Vedas, while ignoring the ones which are overtly materialistic and
acquisitive. There is much in the Vedas to delight us, and for me, the more richly observed and
depicted universe they contain is far more enchanting than the unidimensional one that has come to
dominate ideas of ancient Hindu belief.
In early Rig Vedic compositions, the gods are asked for many things: freedom from fear as one
walks in the forests, a good night’s sleep, wealth measured in heroic sons, and also and equally
importantly, wealth measured in horses and cows. The Rig Veda has given us some of the purest and
most inspiring expressions of an uplifting spirituality, but it also reveals a human world where wealth
is recognized and validated. Moreover, wealth is craved and sought after—if you don’t have it or
can’t get it by your own efforts, you ask the gods to help you. The Rig Veda is represented in this
collection of tales by ‘The Gambler’s Lament’, a most unexpected and deeply moving ‘prayer’ to the
dice. As I suggest above, we may struggle to think of this as a hymn in the strict sense of word. The
power that is being beseeched for help and protection is not a conventional deity; the man who begs
for help is not someone that we would automatically identify with. Nonetheless, it is a very early
expression of how people on the subcontinent thought about money, its place in their lives and what
poverty means in a society that has not yet learned to valorize the renunciant.

The Epics
The epics were compiled about a millennium after the earliest Vedic compositions, even though the
stories they tell were probably in circulation much earlier. The epics succeed a period of quietism
(as expressed in the Upanishads) and an active and positive construction of renunciation as a human
value (as evidenced by the spread of Buddhism and Jainism). The Ramayana and the Mahabharata

represent another facet of the Hindu aspirational universe, steeped as they are in the values of a
martial ruling class, the kshatriyas. Here, the acquisition and disbursement of worldly power is the
engine that drives the stories—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are fundamentally stories of
disputed kingship that necessarily involve not simply descriptions of power and wealth, but also the
quest for them.
Additionally, and through narratives about the quest for power, Hindu ethics that bracket human
choice and action— the principles of karma and dharma—are explored in the epics. The Ramayana
and the Mahabharata take these abstract ideas which were developed in the Upanishads (as well as in
Buddhism and Jainism) and fill them out through stories of individual dilemmas, codes of caste
behaviour and their violations, and philosophical debates and conversations.
The epics are warrior stories—the kshatriya as a person and kshatriya-ness as an ideal are at the
centre of the epics’ concerns. Although the kshatriya is led by virya (heroism), he must, as a king, also
be able to negotiate wealth and power. While the Ramayana attempts to move towards serenity and
resolution, the Mahabharata moves towards despair and emptiness. As such, these epics differ in their
depictions of the king’s relationship to wealth and money. In the Ramayana, Ayodhya is the ideal city,
ruled by a succession of ideal kings who make it a prosperous centre for trade. The Mahabharata, on
the other hand, is about the breakdown of an ideal world and hence, the extract from it in this volume
presents the emotional violence of the dice game where Yudhishthira, the man who would be king,
loses everything—his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers, and in a final, desperate throw, even his

Secular Texts: Mricchakatika, Kama Sutra and Kathasaritsagara
The paradigmatic play in Sanskrit literature is the nataka, perfected by Kalidasa in approximately the
sixth century CE. The nataka has many formal and generic constraints, not least among which is the
commandment that the story of the play be already known, drawn from earlier epic and mythological
narratives. And so, kings and princes abound, as do semi-divine women—all of impeccable character
and behaviour—who experience a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings until they are
reunited, and the cosmic order is restored.
For me, the more interesting kind of play has always been the prakarana (the secular drama)
whose plot is invented, made up by the playwright without relying on classical literature. Money and
power play a pivotal role in these plots. In such marvellous prakaranas as Mudra Rakshasa and
Mricchakatika, we find ourselves in metropolitan worlds where the rich upper classes (and castes)
jostle for power, and a poor man has no place. Charudatta’s lament, from Mricchakatika, shows us
just how important wealth was, even to a brahmin.
Charudatta’s metropolitan world is also the setting for the Kama Sutra, where we learn how a rich
man should spend his money and his time. There is much that can and should engage him, for his
wealth is meant not only to enhance his pleasures but also to make him a better person. If there is any
conflict at all about wealth being a value in itself, the story literatures put that to rest. Here, artha

shines in all its glory. The other traditional values of dharma and moksha are relegated to the
margins, as the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure occupy centre stage.
The majority of the pieces in this collection come from the Kathasaritsagara and its tributary texts,
the Panchatantra, the cycles of King Vikrama stories and the Seventy Tales of the Parrot. And so it is
that this book is filled with the hustle and bustle of cities, with merchants and courtesans and
travellers and thieves. It shows us how dependent trade and commerce were on good kings and good
administrators, how it was that they laid the foundations for prosperity and fair practices. Not only
was it important to have rules and regulations for how business was to be conducted, it was more
important that those regulations be enforced by a vigilant and conscientious ruler. Clearly, some cities
were more attractive to traders and merchants than others—mythical cities, like the perfect Ayodhya,
first under Dasharatha and then Rama, were welcoming places for traders to conduct their business.
Historical cities like Pataliputra and Ujjain were cosmopolitan, home to people of various
persuasions and religions. In the stories located in and around these metropolitan constellations, you
are as likely to find a Buddhist monk as you are to find a gambler or an impoverished brahmin
teacher. Not to mention, of course, the wily courtesan.
The stories where artha is central are as much about how to earn a fortune as they are about how to
spend it. What we do with our money is as important as how we get it. There are a few stories here
that tell you how to make money, but there are far more about the pleasures of spending it.
Conspicuous by their absence are stories about what we now think of as philanthropy, i.e., money
spent for the greater good without hope of material reward or return. There are plenty of stories about
extravagance and random generosity where merchants lavish their wealth on friends and retainers
(and of course, on courtesans), but there is only one story about a merchant who wants to build a tank
where weary travellers might rest and recuperate. There are even stories about merchants who share
their spoils and profits—but, once again, these actions are tightly focused on the giver and the
receiver, and are not intended for a general, anonymous public.
It is interesting to speculate on the religious/sectarian underpinnings of these stories. For example,
in ‘The Merchant and the Dry Tank’, the merchant in the version included in this book remains
unnamed. But there is another version of the same story from another manuscript tradition of the King
Vikrama cycle, in which our philanthropic merchant is named. His name is Dharmashila, which is,
obviously, a Buddhist name. There are stories where it is clear that brahmins are not suited to making
fortunes, but equally, there are stories that take a casual sideswipe at the practices of Buddhists and
Jains. Although the stories in the Kathasaritsagara are far older than the compilation itself and might
have earlier been part of more overtly Buddhist collections, we know that the Kathasaritsagara was
put together in twelfth-century Shaivite Kashmir. In this text—the primary source for most of the
stories in this volume—there is an instance of the Bhagavad Gita being criticized, as well as more
than one instance of Shiva coming to the rescue of a beleaguered protagonist. Yet, the story of
Lohajangha, with all its Vaishnavite imagery, is retained as it is within this Shaivite text.
This religious pluralism, or rather, this secularism, in terms of no one religion being either
privileged or prejudiced, is a good reflection of mercantile practice in general. Within Hinduism,
trading is appointed (with some exclusivity) to the third caste, the vaishyas. However, such casteless

creeds as Buddhism and Jainism also endorse trade as an appropriate profession for their adherents,
primarily because it is supposed that a merchant can live a relatively non-violent life.
And so it is that the world of the merchant, which cuts across religions and sects, provides us with
one of the few secular texts that we have from the classical period.

Themes and Tropes
Clever Wives
There are three stories in this section, both from the Kathasaritsagara—that wonderful, expansive
twelfth-century text that revels in the lives of merchants and magical beings.
In the first story, we encounter Kirtisena, a merchant’s wife, who, while her husband is away on
business, escapes from her mother-in-law’s torments and uses her wits to find favour with the king
until she is reunited with her husband. She is able to add to her husband’s considerable wealth as a
consequence of the king’s admiration for her. In the second story, Upakosha is the wife of a brahmin
who is cheated by a merchant. An incredibly complex ruse over a long night which involves the help
of all her household staff ensures that Upakosha brings the dishonest trader to justice. Although the
stories are about two different kinds of women (Kirtisena, a merchant’s wife; and Upakosha, a
brahmin’s wife) and two different kinds of men (Kirtisena’s husband, an honest merchant; and
Upakosha’s tormentor, the venal and dishonest merchant), it is the king, ultimately, who enables the
final resolution in which the virtuous are rewarded and the guilty punished.
One of the most attractive things about the stories in the Kathasaritsagara is that in them we
encounter women of all kinds—good ones, bad ones, virtuous ones, cunning ones, vicious ones,
clever ones, greedy ones, kind ones and promiscuous ones. They belong to all classes and religions
and professions—the courtesan is as capable of fidelity as the wife is of adultery. Brahmin women
are no more virtuous than women of the merchant classes, and old women are as likely to be greedy
as rakshasis. Far from making this a misogynist text, as some have suggested, I believe it makes it a
realistic text. Women are not depicted with the hyperbole of the epics, the enforced virtue of the
natakas nor with the anything-is-possible extremities of mythology. They are depicted as they are.
In the context of this book, the wife of the merchant provides an interesting counterpoint to the other
woman in the merchant’s life, the courtesan. These two categories of women cannot be contrasted in
any meaningful way in terms of their qualities, or their propensities and temperaments, but they do
exist in different physical and emotional spaces for the merchant. The merchant’s wife leaves home
only under the most dire circumstances (like Kirtisena, for example), while the courtesan almost
never leaves her city dwelling. Most typically, the courtesan is a companion in the merchant’s (often
misbegotten) youth. The wife remains a companion in later life, often producing the sons that will
grow up to have their own set of adventures before they settle into a comfortable middle age.
The merchant needs them both—the courtesan to enhance his social prestige outside the house, and
his wife to ensure the continuity of his lineage and status within his community. For all that a
courtesan adds to a man’s glamour, his reputation is equally maintained by the conduct of his wife—
like Caesar’s spouse, she must be above reproach.
Often, a merchant will have more than one wife. He might easily marry a woman on his travels and
she will, at a later point, be integrated into his domestic arrangements. These good wives will also

grow into mothers-in-law, whose duties include the successful management of the co-wives and the
family wealth while the merchant is away. This is the case with Sanudasa’s mother whom we shall
meet in the last section. But, poor Kirtisena has the misfortune of having a shrew as a mother-in-law,
and she has to use all her wit and wisdom to make sure she retains her place in her husband’s heart.
The last story is about an unfaithful wife. Chandrashri is not the most sympathetic of characters, but
she does point to the kind of loneliness a woman with a travelling husband might experience. In the
Gathasaptashati, an anthology of Prakrit poems from the seventh century which also come from a
world of trade and commerce, there are a number of poems that depict this situation—the lonely wife
who lets the weary traveller into her home (and her bed) for the night. Perhaps she knows that her
faraway husband is also seeking comfort in the arms of another. The Kathasaritsagara does not judge
these women or these men (despite the somewhat exasperated note on which the storyteller ends the
tale), reminding us that it is, fundamentally, a text about human beings; people like you and me.
Humans, as Shiva tells Parvati in the frame story of the Kathasaritsagara, ‘are always unhappy’. We
could invoke Tolstoy and agree that this is what makes human stories interesting—they are filled with
trials and tribulations born of infidelities, rivalries, love, jealousy, greed, anger and desire. Nowhere
is happiness more fragile than in the most intimate of our relationships and so, in this section on the
wives of merchants, we consider how these women cope.

One of the most attractive and alluring figures in the literatures of the world is the courtesan, and
perhaps nowhere is she as central to the life of a wealthy, cosmopolitan gentleman as she is in the
story universe of the Indian subcontinent.
Most commonly, in story literatures (as against poetry), the Sanskrit word used for courtesans is
vaishya, which is, as we know, a generic word for anyone who carries out a trade of any kind. This
places the courtesan firmly within the universe of the merchant. Like her male counterparts, she
inhabits a world fuelled by artha, i.e., money and power. I have yet to come across a story about a
woman merchant or a female trader, and so, I make the assumption that the courtesan takes their place.
She becomes a counterpoint to the virtuous (and sometimes cunning) wives of merchants.
The stories in this section cover many aspects of the courtesan’s life—tales of what happens when
a courtesan breaks the rules of her profession and falls in love, how a cheated lover gets his revenge
on a courtesan who has stripped him of his wealth through her wiles and so on, are among my all-time
favourites. They are filled with humour and sarcasm, tricks and pranks abound, and there is a tonguein-cheek quality to their telling that can only come from a place of irreverence and a position of
social and economic confidence.
While merchants have their adventures in many places— on the high seas, in forests, in magical
lands—the courtesan remains a city woman. It is rare that a courtesan would travel, and so she
becomes an integral part of the city’s landscape, which is the starting and ending point for every
merchant. Again, it is the city that represents the merchant’s natural home—the place where real

money has real value (unlike the many instances of enchanted wealth that merchants encounter on their
travels). And so it is that the courtesan must appear in the life and times of any merchant worth his
In a merchant’s world, the courtesan is not the outsider; rather, she is the ultimate object of desire,
she must be had. Far more agile and assertive than the concubine of the royal harem, she entertains at
will and discards unsuitable lovers and companions on a whim. Moreover, every self-respecting
gentleman (merchant or otherwise) must have a courtesan in his life. She adds to his glamour, his
social status. The presence of this alluring woman in his life tells us that not only does the gentleman
have money to spend, he is also a connoisseur of beauty and of the arts. More than a wife and family,
a large mansion and many servants, this woman represents the merchant’s fortune—the making of it,
the spending of it, and most importantly, the pleasures that it can afford him.
This section opens with an extract from the Dasha Kumara Charita, where a mother, in a bitter
argument with her courtesan daughter, explains how a courtesan should be brought up and treated.
While there is a terrible cynicism here in seeing the young woman as not simply an object of pleasure,
but also as a commodity of sale, there is an underlying conviction of the courtesan’s power, her skills
and her learning that make her someone who is, eventually, financially independent. Even though a
courtesan appears to be subservient to her mother and her lovers, she, above all, knows that it is her
independent capacity to become rich that makes her the centre of this universe. The stories selected in
this section reflect the many choices a courtesan can make, including the choice of falling in love.
The second extract is from the Kama Sutra, and describes the life and style of a gentleman of the
city, sometimes called a libertine. While that particular nomenclature does not appeal to me, it is
clear that we are dealing with a gentleman of leisure; someone who has time and money on his hands.
It could be that this is a time in his life before he embarks on the real business of making a living. It
could also be that he is taking a hiatus from making a living—enjoying a short break back in the city,
recharging his batteries after arduous travels and reorganizing his finances for the next journey. What
I find wonderful about this description is that this gentleman must be a worthy companion to the
courtesan he seeks. He must match her in sophistication and wit, in elegance and grace, if not in actual
good looks.
On her part, the courtesan has no interest in an impecunious lover or an unkempt man. And just in
case she makes the mistake of falling in love, her mother is there to bring her back on track. I have
chosen two very different stories from the Kathasaritsagara. My favourite, about Lohajangha and
Sundari, is about the courtesan who falls in love with a poor man. The other, about the gold-shitting
monkey, is about how a courtesan ensnares an innocent young merchant and how he gets his revenge.
What draws one’s attention in this story is that the young man’s father had sent him to an older
courtesan for training, so that he would be aware of how courtesans might try to trick him of his
Returning for a moment to ‘The Courtesan Who Fell in Love’, we notice that it stands a little apart
from the other stories in this section. For one, our heroine, Sundari, breaks all the rules of her
profession and falls in love, and that too, with a poor man. Furthermore, Lohajangha, her beloved, is
a brahmin, a most inappropriate partner, who has no interest in money, driven as he is entirely by

love. Lohajangha wins Sundari back and vanquishes the evil designs of her mother because he has the
favour of Vishnu—a rare case in a text like the Kathasaritsagara, which comes out of a Shaivite
world. The story is littered with Vaishnava titbits—from being located in Mathura, Krishna’s
playground, to a tryst with Garuda, to a sojourn in the Lanka of the Ramayana, which involves a
meeting with Vibhishana, its new king.
For all the tinges of disapproval and disdain towards the figure of the courtesan that we might see
in these stories, there is also an undeniable pleasure in the idea of a woman such as this—smart,
funny, beautiful and, sometimes, even faithful.

In our contemporary lives, we know that institutionalized gambling is one of the pleasures of the
Diwali season, an invitation to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to remember us through the coming
year and bestow her bounty upon us. Gambling, per se, has long been a sanctioned part of Hindu
culture, and so it should come as no surprise that gamblers inhabit the story universe. They are
everywhere in the city as minor characters—citizens of a shadowy demi-monde of the night. They are
usually penniless or in debt, or both. Stories about gamblers manifest some of the various attitudes
towards money—the more philosophical among us might suggest that we are allowed to gamble
because it teaches us that money goes as easily as it comes, that money is but the dirt of one’s palm,
that attachment to money is foolish, and that the highest and the mightiest and the most virtuous have
lost everything to gambling. For those who think thus, the purpose of stories about gambling is
didactic; it is about being taught something, rather than about pleasure or gain. For others, those who
have little regard for subtle moralizing, gambling is a buzz, a tingle, a compulsion.
This section contains three episodes: one, ‘The Gambler’s Lament’ from the Rig Veda, where a
benighted gambler begs the dice to roll for him rather than against him. He has lost everything: his
wife, his dignity, his family, and yet he plays again. In his world, this is the only way to get back
everything that he has lost.
The second excerpt in this section is the well-known episode from the Mahabharata where the
newly crowned Yudhishthira loses his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers and even his wife, in a
crooked dice game against a master player. The consequences of this game he loses are cataclysmic:
they lead to the bloody war between the two sets of cousins at the end of which the world as we know
it comes to an end. Many of us have asked why Yudhishthira plays the game at all if he knows that he
is a bad player, as well as a gambler who has no control over himself. One of the explanations
offered by scholars is that playing a ceremonial game of dice was part of the rajasuya, a ritual that
Yudhishthira, like any ambitious king, was performing. He had no choice but to accept Duryodhana’s
invitation to the dice game. How fascinating that the declaration of undisputed kingship should
involve not simply a display of wealth through gambling, but also a disregard for wealth that might
well be lost through that very same gambling. Yudhishthira becomes a ‘gambling teacher’ or the court
gambler for Virata in the last year of the Pandavas’ exile. This leads us to another intriguing idea: that

gambling, like hunting, archery and statecraft, is another skill that a king must possess.
But even kings who play badly or gamble recklessly, like other ordinary gamblers, must suffer.
Yudhishthira did, as did Nala before him. The last story in this section is about a gambler who is
redeemed through love. A fitting end to a section of cautionary tales about losing your money and
everything you have along with it.

As a counterpoint to the validation of wealth as a worthy goal of human life and endeavour, it would
also be useful to look at some examples of attitudes towards poverty. Once again, we need to remind
ourselves that the ascetic life with its vows of poverty, celibacy and abstinence embodied by
sannyasis and monks is a restricted set of values, not mandated (or even recommended) for everyone.
For those who continue to live in the world, poverty can be a great burden.
The first extract in this section is from Mricchakatika, a classical Sanskrit play about an
impoverished brahmin who falls in love with a wealthy courtesan. Set in the roiling and tumultuous
metropolis of Ujjain during a people’s revolution, Mricchakatika follows the rise and fall of the
fortunes of Charudatta who has been reduced to poverty by his generosity over the years. His troubles
increase when he falls in love with Vasantasena, and he finds himself not merely incapable of being
the kind of lover a woman of her status should have, but is also accused of stealing the jewels she left
in his safekeeping. His lament, which opens the play, is not simply about not having enough to eat or
not having fine clothes, it is about the loss of friends and one’s position in society.
The second excerpt is from the Panchatantra. In it, brahmins curse their poverty in much the same
way Charudatta does. They think of ways to alleviate it, and their ideas of trade, business practices
and how to make a profit are fascinating. In a wonderful dovetail, the merchant Sanudasa (whom we
shall meet later in this volume) puts into practice many of the methods recommended by these learned
but impoverished brahmins.
The third excerpt actually continues the tale of these four brahmins from the Panchatantra, but I
have chosen to use a different version of the same story from another text; I do this partly because it is
told more fully in the version I have used and partly to highlight the fact that the same Indian stories
are told over and over again in a variety of texts and contexts. Sometimes, the intent of the story
changes depending on who is telling it and to whom and when. This is particularly the case with
framed narrative where the situation of the teller and the listener determines the story’s effect. In the
Panchatantra, this tale appears in the last book, ‘The Book of Rash Deeds’. The title of the book
itself tells us some of what we need to know in terms of how we should read/receive the story.
Further, the Panchatantra itself is a teaching text—its teller, Vishnu Sharma, teaches three
recalcitrant princes, through stories, about governance. Vishnu Sharma is a brahmin, and perhaps his
version of ‘How to Seek a Fortune’ is both a little envious as well as cautionary—envious because
brahmins can only dream of the kind of wealth merchants command, and cautionary because the story
clearly shows that brahmins cannot make commercial decisions.

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