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"Economic Sutra: Ancient Indian Antecedents to Economic Thought" | India’s economic wisdom

Covering economic thought from the Vedic, post-Vedic and early medieval periods of India’s history, Economic Sutra is a window into the minds of those who formulated ancient India’s first economic policies, writes Vissa Venkata Sundar

Price:   399 |  14 Dec 2019 1:37 PM GMT  |  Vissa Venkata Sundar

India’s economic wisdom

Thomas Macaulay famously articulated his colonial prejudice: “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India…It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit

[sic] language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England”.

We have been brought up on a steady diet of subjects and discourses that have been imported from the West in our schools and colleges - be it politics, history, science or economics. What is even more baffling is how disingenuous our own “intellectuals” were to disown and neglect the contributions and relevance of the home-grown Indian thoughts or philosophies. Perhaps, this Eurocentric bias was filtered down in Indian scholarship and the Indian education system during and after the colonial period, writes Satish Y Deodhar in Economic Sutra.

Deodhar’s book has come as a pleasant find and a valuable read to discover the history of economic thought from the Indian subcontinent - untold, unread and even today under-researched in many ways.

As you read through, you would be in utter disbelief to know how ancient India had a breath-taking historical rapporteur of economic thought, policy and practices. Deodhar calls this book a “perception-correction initiative” and rightfully so. He traces and distils the economic thoughts and behaviour of ancient Indian authors. The book provides a comprehensive perspective on the elements of Indian economic thought leading up to and after the Arthashastra. It presents the spread of economic ideas both before and sometime after Kautilya.

The book compels one to undertake this journey to understand our history up-close and personal. As someone said, unless textbooks present some amount of history, students may lose direction and meaning to their current studies. Second, our minds can derive new inspiration from the study of history. We may learn about both the futility and fertility of controversies as well as about detours, wasted efforts and blind alleys. Lastly, history provides insights into the ways of the working of the human mind.

The author points out some practical reasons for Indian history’s invisibilisation and self-effacement. In the book he says, India’s tropical climate showed little mercy both to texts and to the infrastructure of the ancient times. For want of good writing materials and its durability in those times, such texts were composed using terse metrical verses and passed on to future generation through memorisation. Mostly orally composed, this literature has no single author and the compositions are a collective knowledge of many sages as was revealed to and by them. The Arthashastra, was one such classical work of the great sage Kautilya, written as a treatise for the ideal functioning of an economy, state administration and the conduct of the ruler.

As the author says, India has experienced a continuous and uninterrupted existence of social, religious and economic life, a phenomenon that finds few parallels in any other civilisation. The Golden Age of India had reached its peak during the Gupta Dynasty circa sixth century CE. Thereafter, India witnessed invasions by Huns, the barbarian hordes from Central Asia. They ransacked and destroyed Takshashila, one of the oldest and thriving universities in the north-western part of India, where foreign students would also come to study. From there on many Sanskrit texts had gone into oblivion and the decline continued with the turmoil caused by subsequent conquests over the centuries and the capture of the Indian polity by the British in the eighteenth century. While the invaders employed the Indian educated class for administrative purposes, they didn’t engage themselves with the Indian literature concerning economic matters, the book further points out.

This 200-page book is divided into seven chapters with a brief on Indian texts and history, early economic thoughts and Kautilya’s postulations. The author mentions, that this book intends to construct an enduring memory of the contributions of ancient Indian literature to economic ideas. He further adds an important distinction that while the modern economic theory focuses on the pursuit of material wealth and pleasures alone as an end in itself, Indian text has treated economic well-being as one of the four purusharthas or life objectives.

This compact book is an attempt to give due recognition to the economic discourse, thoughts and features of the ancient Indian economic literature. The book will expand one’s intellectual interest and offers a perspective, of which you perhaps were not aware. It is an enriching, compelling and engaging book unearthing gems of the ancient Indian antecedents to economic thought that we blissfully are unaware of or have shunned it thanks to our obsession of isolating our historical past and referring to it in pejorative terms. This book underlines the fact that economic thought in India, predates the Western tradition by a millennium or more. 

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