Last Saturday, at the 25th annual convention of the Meerut Management Association, I delivered a keynote address on how the economic future of India - and the world - is going to be in a state of constant turbulence. Largely driven by uncertain commodity prices, geopolitical shifts, inflation and interest rate cycles, policy flip-flops and corruption and governance, it is not going to be easy for entrepreneurs to go about their business.
But it was not these ideas that they were concerned about. Instead, based on the speech of former Banaras Hindu University professor of physics, AN Tripathi, the discourse shifted to the morality of money. The entrepreneurs of Meerut were equally anxious about the future of the planet as they were about their businesses, the increasing consumerism as well as economic growth, corruption as well as the moral deterioration behind it. "Your five turbulences are not complete," one of them said, "without counting our fallen ethics, values and morals."
A day before, I was sitting in an austere room on the third floor of the International Buddhist Institute in Delhi. Over an intense talk with the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje on his proposed "global tour" to 12 countries including Taiwan, Spain, UK, Germany and France, the underlying theme was the same. Beginning May 3 through August 31, the 28-year-old will hold forth on youth and wealth.
"The idea of wealth is one-sided," he said. "External wealth is an important form of wealth but not the only form. We need physical wealth to sustain, we can't disengage with that. But what we need is balance. Being content, free of greed is absolute wealth." He was referring to happiness, an idea that has been expounded upon on similar lines by great thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Ved Vyasa and the Buddha.
If the Karmapa wants to expound the Buddhist way to wealth, the Pope is pushing for a Christian system. Four months ago, at the peak of Occupy protests across the Western world, the Vatican stepped into the money and morality debate. In a note titled, Reform of International Financial and Monetary System in Perspective of a Public Authority, the Vatican' proposed a "universal jurisdiction" according to "the Christian inspiration".
This includes the subordination of economics and finance to a "global public authority", responsible for the common good and a "central world bank" to govern global financial institutions. "The economic and financial crisis which the world is going through calls everyone, individuals and peoples, to examine in depth the principles and the cultural and moral values at the basis of social coexistence," the document stated.
Religion entering political spaces is a phenomenon that we've seen over the ages and across geographies. Today, the religion of finance and unfettered free markets is clashing with the religion of morality, moderation, balance. The reaction of the Karmapa and the Pope - as well as that of the entrepreneurs of Meerut and the Occupy protestors - is the backlash of a system captured by the rich and powerful and gone out of control. Sooner or later, a new balance will be established. Based on the current discourse, it will be more inclusive, more regulated and perhaps more humane.
But even now, religious leaders are missing the point. They are attempting to fix the symptom, not comprehend the cause. To understand the cause, we will need to recognise money for what it is - and step outside morality and religion altogether. The outer manifestations of money (coins, notes, digits or even the toil of man) may help but will be incomplete. We need to see money for what it is. Here, Sri Aurobindo provides a grand solution, defining it as a force, not unlike winds, rivers, fires that have the power to help us breathe, quench our thirst, warm our homes.
Money, likewise, has the potential to sweeten our lives, catalyse resource mobilisation so the bounties of our planet reach the bodies that need them. Right now, however, it seems this force has been captured, is causing financial havoc and widening inequalities. It is burning homes, destroying crops, asphyxiating us. Under the radar of glitz and glamour of wealth, a war is on. In this war, the politics of nations is aligning itself with people. What we need to see is whether the emerging morality of money realigns itself as well.