Subtleties Of Wealth: How The ‘Mahabharata’ Discusses Prosperity And Charity


Worship Lakshmi, but don’t let riches go to your head, teaches the great epic. 

By Abhinav Agarwal

What does wealth mean to you? Let me start with myself. It has meant different things at different points in time and life. I suppose this is true for many of you as well. As a child, wealth meant being able to buy a new Amar Chitra Katha comic, or a shiny new toy. A little older, after I got a job, it meant audio cassette collections of my favourite artistes, books, then more books. A car, a house, and so on… What wealth is not, is a measure of my, or anyone else’s, worth. Is it?

The pursuit of wealth, often, means having to choose between doing what is right versus doing what is expected. The two are often not the same. While situations are rarely black or white, doing what is right may lead to self-satisfaction, while doing what is expected — to wealth. Should I do one and not the other? Would you? Should I try to do both by finding an acceptable — via media? Or, do one and defer the other, to a later, unspecified point in time? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Is it really a zero-sum game? The answer, as in so many things in life, lies in determining what your dharma is. Dharma is, if nothing else, subtle.

With that prelude, let me turn to the Mahabharata to bring out the subtleties when discussing wealth.

For a text as large and complex as the Mahabharata, it is no surprise that an entire upaparva is dedicated to charity. It is fittingly called the Dana-dharma Parva. At more than six-thousand shlokas, it is the second longest upa-parva in the Mahabharata, and is a part of the Anushasan Parva, the thirteenth of the eighteen major parvas. It contains part of Bhishma’s deathbed discourse to the Pandavas and Krishna. This is not to say that the rest of the Mahabharata does not talk about charity. Far from it.

Let us now ask certain questions about wealth.

What happens when the pursuit of wealth becomes an end in itself? Wealth for the sake of wealth is a short and sure trip to misery. The Rajsuya Yagya performed by Yudhishthira gives us enough to chew on. Perhaps, the most ostentatious display of wealth to be found in the Mahabharata, is in the Rajsuya Yagya Parva. There are descriptions of the wealth that Yudhishthir received as gifts from kings. For Duryodhana, wealth was an end in itself. Upon seeing the gifts that Yudhishthira received at Indraprastha, all Duryodhana could tell Dhritarashtra was, “This ordinary prosperity does not please me. I am miserable on seeing the blazing prosperity of Kunti’s son.” (Sabha Parva) Yudhishthira had placed upon Duryodhana the responsibility of receiving all these gifts. In Duryodhana’s estimation, “Of the riches that were brought there, supreme and invaluable, one could not see the near end, nor the far one. My hands were too tired to receive all those riches.” If wealth is seen for the sake of wealth, what does its acquisition lead to? Discontent. Because, per Duryodhana’s logic, “Discontent is the root of prosperity. That is the reason I wish to be discontented. The supreme one is one who strives for prosperity.” Thus, any and all means were justified. “In attaining prosperity and riches, shouldn’t self-interest be our way?” Where did this lead to? The infamous game of dice at Hastinapura. What did that game of dice lead to? The battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Is wealth bad? Should, therefore, a king adopt socialism, and lead his kingdom down the road, to penury?

The answer should be obvious. Let’s hear it from the words of Shambhara, as recounted by Bhishma to Yudhishthira, in the last chapter of the Raj-dharma Parva: “A king’s foundations are his treasury and his army. The treasury is, again, the foundation of the army. It is the foundation of all dharma, and dharma is, again, the foundation of the subjects.”

… and…

“What is said about dharma is true. It does not exist where there are no riches.”

Ponder over the statement. Penury does not lead to dharma. Far from it. It is wealth that makes dharma possible. A false renunciation of material riches does not lead to dharma. For the preservation of dharma, riches are required. Let us re-emphasise that piece of wisdom that our elders had figured out thousands of years ago: “It is said that one without riches is weak and one with riches is strong. One with riches can obtain everything. One with a treasury can overcome everything. The treasury provides dharma and kama, and this world and the next.” This is as unambiguous an assertion of the value of wealth as you will find. Wealth as a means of accomplishing and preserving dharma — not as an end in itself.

If you have wealth, who do you give it away to?

Bhishma tells Arjuna that “giving to the person who does not ask is superior.” Why? Because “an effort made to solicit has been said to show lack of control.” [Chapter 60, Anushasan Parva]

When it comes to giving away wealth, the human ego favours giving to those who are favourably inclined towards you. Resist the temptation, so say the wise. Bhishma goes on to tell Arjuna that “One must search out brahamanas who are not liked and whose means of subsistence has suffered.” What happens when one does not?

Go back to the Adi Parva and read how Drupada went about obtaining a son who would destroy Drona. Why did Drupada want to do that? Drupada refused to even acknowledge Drona as a friend. Why did Drupada do that? Read chapter 121 of the Adi Parva to find out. In any case, a chastened Drupada first sought out Upayaja, who refused to perform the yagna that would yield a son to Drupada. He then went to Yaja. Yaja agreed — lured by the offer of riches. The results were, decidedly, mixed. Drupada did obtain his wish, but at what cost!

How do you give away wealth? The short answer would be – in a way that the cause of dharma is served. To know what the ancients thought of the matter, we can go to the Matsya Purana, which has, perhaps, a complete list of the ways in which one can do a daana. For the sake of convenience, I am including a list and brief description:

Tulapurusha  तुलापुरुषदान: The donator should sit on the scale and gold should be placed on the other side, until both the scales are balanced equally. Hiranyagarbha हिरण् यगर्भदान: a pot full of gold is donated. Brahmaanda ब्रह्माण् डदान: a universe made out of gold is donated. Kalpapaadapa कल्पपादपदान: a tree made of gold; In Gosahastra गोसहस्त्रदान: a thousand cows; in Kamadhenu कामधेनुदान: a cow and a calf made of gold. In Hiranyashva हिरण्यश्वदान: a horse made of gold; in Hiranya ashvaratha हिरन्याश्वरथदान: a horse and four chariots constructed of gold. Hemahastiratha हेमहास्तिरथदान: an elephant and a chariot made of gold are donated. Panchalangalaka पञ् चलांगलकदान: ten ploughs — five made of gold and five made of wood are donated. Hemadhara हेमधरा: a golden model of the Earth is donated. Vishvachakra विश्वचक् रदान: golden model of the Universe in the form of a wheel is donated. Mahakalapalata महाकल्पलता: ten creepers of gold are donated.

Saptasagara सप्तसागरदान: Seven pits are made in the ground, representing seven oceans. The first pit has a little bit of salt, the second, milk, the third, clarified butter, the fourth — molasses, the fifth — curds, the sixth — sugar, and the seventh, holy water. An idol of a god or goddess is placed in each. Brahma in the first, Vishnu in the second, Shiva in the third, Surya in the fourth, Yama in the fifth, Lakshmi in the sixth and Parvati in the seventh. The pits are then covered with jewels to the brim.

Ratnadhenu रत्नधेनुदान : A cow made of gold with different parts made of jewels is donated. Mahabhutaghata महाभूतघटदान: A pot made of gold filled with jewels is donated.

That wealth is fickle has been a lament of many, for long.

The Dana-dharma Parva has a story on that, too.  Once, Shri (the goddess of wealth and prosperity) came into the midst of cattle and expressed a desire to “dwell in each of you.” The cows refused! Why? In their opinion, Shri was “temporary and fickle.” Shri was stunned! After a lot of cajoling and pleading, the cows relented, and it was, thus, that she came to reside in the urine and dung of cattle. Don’t be surprised, and don’t pucker up your noses. Much has been written about the benefits of cow urine and cow dung.

The second point regarding wealth comes from the Markandeya Purana.

When the devas and the asuras fought, the devas had to flee. Brahma advised them to seek Dattatreya’s blessings. Dattatreya was none other than Vishnu reborn. He advised the devas to fight again the asuras, but this time, in front of his eyes, since his gaze would weaken the asuras. The devas did as asked. The asuras, spotting Dattratreya with his wife Lakshmi, forgot about the war and decided to abduct Lakshmi. They did so, and carried her off in a palanquin on their shoulders. Dattatreya told the devas that this was the most opportune time to attack them. Why? “When Lakshmi was on a person’s feet, that person obtained a house. When Lakshmi was on a person’s lap, that person obtained a son. When Lakshmi was in a person’s heart, that person obtained all his desires. But when Lakshmi was on a person’s head, this meant that Lakshmi was about to forsake that person and leave for someone else.” Thus, it came to pass, that the devas were able to fight and beat back the asuras.

Let me conclude by reproducing what Drupada told Drona when the latter had come to ask for the gift of a cow:

“Your wisdom is lacking and inferior if you suddenly begin to address me as your friend. O one with a dull mind! No great king can ever be friends with someone like you. You have no prosperity, nor do you have any riches. Time decays everything, including friendship. It is true we were friends once, but that was based on a relationship of equality.”

Worship Lakshmi, but don’t let wealth go to your head. Thus says the Purana. Thus teaches the Mahabharata. Decidedly, a difficult lesson for most. Do you agree?


— Abhinav Agarwal. Son. Husband. Father. Technology. Software. Management. IIM-B gold medalist. Views expressed are personal.

References: The Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy. This is the unabridged English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. Markandeya Purana, Gita Press. Matsya Purana, abridged translation by Bibek Debroy.

Featured image: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images