By Porisma P. Gogoi

Title: The Dharma of Business — Commercial Law in Medieval India; Author: Donald R. Davis, Jr; Publisher: Portfolio by Penguin Random House India; Pages: 155; Price: Rs 299

The first thing that comes to minds when we hear the word “dharma” is “religion”. But how is “dharma” related to business? It is interpreted as “duty” — the duty of traders towards their businesses as well as themselves. As the “Laws of Manu” state, “Commerce (varrta) is the religious work (tapas) of a Vaishya (trader).”

To that extent, business law in medieval and early modern India was developed within the voluminous and multifaceted Dharmashastras, which codify the concept of dharma, which laid down rules for merchants, traders, guilds, farmers and other individuals in terms of the complex religious, legal and moral idea of dharma.

Gurcharan Das, a former Chief Executive of Proctor and Gamble (P&G) and author of best-selling books like “India Unbound” and “India Grows at Night”, in a lucid introduction, narrates how a dishonest seller loses her market share by selling low quality mangoes at a high price, referring to her as a “person of low dharma”. The message? Good actions are rewarded and the bad ones punished.

Going further, Davis, an Associate Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions at the University of Texas, Austin, explains: “The fact that it wasn’t hard to find things to discuss convinced me that it would be worthwhile to present an account of business law in these traditional sources to a general audience.”

The book aims to describe substantive legal concepts and categories of commercial laws found in medieval and early modern Dharmashastra texts. It also provides an interpretation of how common modern assumptions, values and goals in the business world would look through the prism of Dharmashastra.

The Dharmashastras explicitly state that among the four classes or ‘varnas’ into which Indian society was divided — Brahmins (scholars), Kshatriyas (royalty, nobles), Vaishya (merchants and farmers) and Shudras (servants and labourers) — commerce and business are the dharma of the Vaishyas.

The book also identifies the fact that business is not only a way to make and increase wealth but also a religious duty, which came as a set of laws that gave religious significance to secular business dealings.

As Davis explains: “The whole point of Dharmashastras was to convert ordinary activities into sacred duties by prescribing particular ways of doing them. If you followed the rule for making loans, for paying employees, for securing partnerships, and so on, you were not just conducting fair business but also building religious merit, good karma.”

The book has been written in simple language to provide a new perspective on commercial law during medieval and early modern India, and how the concept of “dharma” is relevant to the businesses in even our own times.