Hinduism and Entrepreneurship | A Tradition of Change and Continuity

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”

-W. Somerset Maugham

Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. No one really knows when Hinduism began. There is no single founder or lone text that defines this ever-changing and continuous body of knowledge. I’ve always found it hard to describe Hinduism as a religion or even describe myself as religious–even though I have practised the faith for as long as I can remember.

My innate curiosity always leads me to ask many unanswerable questions. My quest to discover the truth at the heart of the human experience has taken me down numerous winding paths across the Seven Seas of the Sun. I’ve studied Judaism, Shintoism, the Ancient Celtic traditions, Tengrism and the list goes on. During my years in Japan, I frequented Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. When I lived in Jerusalem, I embraced fasting on Yom Kippur and the act of seeking forgiveness from those whom I may have harmed.

Through the variety of beliefs and practises that I have experienced, I reached the conclusion that life–in all its forms–emanated from the same source. No matter where in the world you go, or what faith one claims to adhere to; there is an underlying sense that one is eternally seeking to return to a source that seemingly eludes us. Or perhaps ‘it’ is always there and all one has do is to simply answer its call.

The Origin of Hinduism

Hinduism is a rich cumulative tradition of both texts and practices which date back to 2000 BCE. The numerous sacred texts are written in Sanskrit, a language that is used mainly for religious and scientific discourse. The large corpus of Sanskrit literature covers a wide range of subjects, of which the earliest compositions are the Vedic texts. The canon includes work on both secular sciences and the arts; and encompasses a wide range of subjects such as drama, poetry, politics, ethics, culture and society.

Whilst the use of Sanskrit was largely limited to the learned men and women of their day, it was the vernacular languages of the common people that served as a vehicle for spreading the religion to other parts of the world. The many rituals, visual iconography and performing arts played a significant role in its transmission and spread.

In the 4th century CE, Hinduism established a dominant presence in Southeast Asia that would last for more than 1,000 years. With no mandatory dogma, the religion was free to reinvent itself for its time and place. The Hinduism that the ancients practised did not seek to destroy pre-existing cultures; but rather to grow alongside them. Hinduism as it is practised today remains a synthesis of various cultures and traditions with diverse roots. Religious syncretism was, and remains, a core value of Hindu belief.

Whilst one can study and ponder over the texts written by our ancient ancestors, I believe that to truly understand Hinduism, one must immerse oneself in its varied regional practices and discover the ‘Source’ for oneself.

Who is a Hindu?

In ancient texts, the term ‘Hindu’ referred to a geographical location for the people who lived beyond the River Indus. It is the longest river in what is now modern-day Pakistan. The major cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation–Harappa and Mohenjo-daro–date back to around 3300 BC, and represent some of the largest human habitations of the ancient world.

If we were to translate this terminology to modern vernacular, the term ‘Hindu’ would describe one’s nationality, and not one’s religious beliefs. Ironically, the word “Hinduism” itself was first coined in 1830 to describe a collection of practices and beliefs by Indians who opposed British colonialism.

So what does this mean for followers of the faith? Practitioners refer to it as Sanatana Dharma The Eternal Truth/Way. It is a concept that goes beyond religion, philosophy, science or any knowledge that is of human origin. It speaks of continuity and endlessness–not as immortality–but as a ‘truth’ that exists outside of time and space.

To me, the contradictory concepts of continuity and change, is ultimately what defines this undefinable faith.

My Gujarati Heritage

In the midst of that long, unknowable and one might even say incomprehensible history–there is me; wondering about the chain of events that got me here and what is my ‘place’ in all of this. I was born in Singapore to Gujarati merchants that immigrated to this country in 1901. They brought their wares, their culture and their belief systems with them when they decided to make Singapore their home.

The Gujarati community has a long tradition of seafaring and a history of immigration to foreign lands. The mercantile culture resulted naturally from the Indian state’s proximity to the Arabian Sea. Although air travel had replaced sea travel by the time I was born, this innate restlessness I feel to explore new lands is something that is irrevocably embedded in me.

Growing up, I would sit on my great-grandfather’s knee as he narrated the tales of his business ventures across the globe. In a modern world where “innovation” and “disruption” are the buzzwords of the entrepreneurial startup culture; my great-grandfather’s motivations were different. He came to Singapore seeking Lakshmi.

The Goddess Lakshmi

Kamala The lotus flower is one of the epithets of the Goddess Lakshmi

For business owners, the chopda pujan that takes place annually at Diwali is when one prays to the Goddess Lakshmi to bless the business with wealth in all its forms. Whilst amassing great wealth is a goal that countless generations across millennia have aspired towards, I understood from a young age that one cannot ‘own’ Lakshmi. This is despite the widespread norm of most people chasing after Lakshmi, or at the very least, needing her for their material existence.

In Devdutt Pattanaik’s Seven Secrets of the Goddess, he writes, “No one is ever sure who the goddess of wealth and fortune will favour. She can appear suddenly without reason, and leave without warning… Lakshmi is attracted to men of actions that demonstrate strength and smartness. If you display strength and shrewdness, she will come to you. If fail to do that, she will not stay with you for long.”

We can always count on the myths to speak volumes of truth about human psychology. The myths of Lakshmi, in particular, draw our attention to the underlying principles of human economic activity. People may well pray to Lakshmi to achieve success, but she is not pleased with anyone who is lazy and only desires her wealth.

Lottery winnings and large inheritances can and do disappear overnight. Markets crash, businesses that are ‘too big to fail’ miraculously get burnt to the ground and economies of whole countries can tank in a matter of months. Economic history is full of these episodes–from the Great Depression to the Great Financial Crisis. We cannot eradicate greed, no more than we can eradicate poverty.

We bemoan the loss of jobs, the loss of profits, the loss of…. But perhaps, we can dig deeper and ask why this has happened?

The ancient ones have left us their knowledge, cleverly veiled in these myths for the few who can see beyond the obvious and unearth their gems of wisdom. And in the myth of Lakshmi, the answer lies in who she chooses as a spouse.

Vishnu (Beikthano) in Burmese representation

Whilst many chase after her and lust after her, Lakshmi is drawn only to Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe. Lord Vishnu seeks to create order and balance in society through rules and regulations. Dharma is all about balance–taking only as much as one needs and distributing the excess. 

If we continue to live in a world that is catapulted forward by greed, mindless consumerism and taking more from the planet than we can possibly replenish–Lakshmi will inevitably leave; taking her bounty with her as she searches for her Vishnu–who understands he does not ‘own’ her, but remains a chosen custodian and protector of her natural gifts.

The Chopda Pujan

At Diwali last year, I presided over my own chopda pujan for the very first time. In all my years in the business community–I had never seen a woman preside over the ritual. Historically, the family legacy had been passed down from father to son. This patriarchal practise is not unique to the Indian subcontinent. Even today, things have not changed much–even in developed economies.

Statistics by the Center for American Entrepreneurship state that in 2017, 16 percent of the nearly $83 billion invested in U.S. venture-backed startups went to companies with at least one female founder, and just 2.5 percent went to startups with all-female founders. Whilst the rate of participation in the workforce is at 47 percent, idiosyncratic barriers continue to exist for women in entrepreneurship.

On the surface, it may seem that my family has departed from tradition to hand over the reins of the family business to a woman. But I know that this decision was not made for the purpose of “innovation” and “disruption”, but rather, for the sake of continuity.

Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

Recently, a reader posed a rather interesting question on Goodreads after reading my second book The Merchant of Stories. He asked, “You come from a business family. In light of that, do you think that entrepreneurs are born or made?”

I pondered on the question for a couple of days. I remembered everything I had been through on my entrepreneurial journey–from sexism to self-doubt to working ridiculously long hours to all the other chapters that are too difficult and too painful to talk about. I recalled all the naysayers, the ill-wishers and the fair weather friends.

And then the answer hit me. I began typing…

“I do sincerely believe that we come into this world with a myriad of gifts of which we are unaware. In light of that, whilst one can be born with a talent for entrepreneurship; one cannot simply be born an entrepreneur.

“An individual has to actualise and materialise this by embarking on a journey to develop and harness one’s potential. The journey is not easy. It is not for the faint-hearted. Talent is a key factor, but talent alone is not enough. One must also have desire, drive, ambition and tenacity to fulfil one’s potential. Hard work is also a key ingredient for which there is no substitute.

“There are also numerous external factors over which one has no control that play a significant role in one’s journey as an entrepreneur. I discuss these events in The Merchant of Stories. It is how one learns to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity that will differentiate those who dream from those who do.

“Whilst growing up in a business family undoubtedly played a significant role in giving me a solid foundation in business, not everyone in my family is an entrepreneur.

“That is why, ultimately, I believe that the true entrepreneurs are self-made.”

Change and Continuity

The human experience is a chaotic one. Whilst we may build structures of brick-and-mortar; they decay with the annals of time and are thus relegated to the memories of yesteryear and unwarranted nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. We read about the ancient ones in the history books and their lives seem so far away from our modern existence that we might as well be reading fiction.

We look to academics and the learned men and women to enlighten us about what is fact from fiction; all the while the history books are written by the victors and scientific research is funded by corporations. Civilisations disappear, stock markets crash and whole chapters of human history are buried never to see the light of day.

In light of this long and bloody human history, who are we exactly and where are we headed? To answer these questions requires faith, not facts.

After spending 12 years of my life overseas where I embraced a myriad of different cultures, I know that I am like that tortoise that carries its home on its back. No matter where my wings take me, I will never discard my roots. I will live my life like the Banyan Tree–branching out into the sky only to return to my roots as I seek continuity in an ever-changing world.

May the long tradition that I was born into always light my path and guide my way. I, for one, am eternally thankful that in my case; tradition remains a guide and not a jailer.

Author: Dipa Sanatani

Publisher | Mith Books | Author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories

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