By Dhanesvara Das
Money, that ubiquitous substance that everyone the world over pursues to fulfill their desires, is rather young in the history of the world—a mere 2,600 years or so old. Prior to that there was no such thing as we now understand it anywhere on this planet. The earliest form of money found in India was that of the Greeks, and is estimated to have arrived there certainly no sooner than the fifth century BCE. Prior to that time all trade was done by barter exchange. There was no notion of “the economy,” and such a thing was certainly not the focus of everyone as it is today.
Often when I make this point someone will cite the fact that Balarama wagered gold coins in His chess gambling match with Rukmi, and that this is therefore “proof” that money was in India at that time. While coins may well have been crafted as a convenient way to handle gold, those coins did not serve as a medium of exchange as money does today. Indeed, in the KRSNA Book (Chapter 11) Srila Prabhupada explains that in those days trade was done by exchange: “Upon hearing the vendor call, ‘If anyone wants fruits, please come and take them from me!’ child Krishna immediately took some grains in His palms and went to get fruits in exchange. In those days exchange was by barter; therefore Krishna might have seen His parents acquire fruits and other things by bartering grain, and so He imitated.”
Understanding this point is essential for our correct understanding of how the varnashrama culture operated, because we often hear devotees assuming it to be the case that money was a feature of Vedic society. It was not, and there are important reasons for that. We will come back to money and varnashrama culture below, but let’s first look at how varnashrama culture functioned.
Varnashrama culture functioned by the cooperative effort of all segments of society. From the Bhagavad-gita we learn that people are divided into categories known as varnas, and that each group would work according to their guna and karma, or their own nature. Many people have experience of the great satisfaction achieved by doing work that they genuinely like to do, which is another way of saying that it is according to their guna and karma. Each varna had their “duties,” which are explained in the dharma shastras. In the varnashrama culture members would voluntarily do this duty understanding that doing so would lead them to a heavenly reward and a higher birth in their next incarnation. Further, the ksatriya was tasked with seeing that everyone had proper engagement. This protected both the individual as well as the group. Their duties were typically performed in cooperation with others, each person reciprocating the service of others with his own service.
We can get some insights into the social dynamics of the varnashrama culture from Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja’s description of Bangladeshi culture in his book Glimpses of Traditional Indian Village Life. There he writes:
“Bangladeshi culture does not promote individual dynamism, competitiveness, or the type of efficiency required for technological advancement. Rather, although not uninterested in economic development, a Bangladeshi is more concerned to preserve the indigenous group culture that fosters the sharing and cooperativeness necessary for a traditional labor-intensive agrarian society… Necessity also dictates maintaining good relationships with neighbors. Most people aren’t well situated economically, so those who have more are expected to help those with less. It’s a culture of sharing and responsibility toward others… Bangladeshis emphasize dependence on others and a sense of group identity. They usually say “our house” and “our country” rather than “my house” or “my country.”… The group lends support when a member is in difficulty, whether moral, social, or economic. Reciprocally, members have obligation to the group, one of which is conformity. In fact, the pressure to maintain fellowship with the group is extremely strong. In this way the group regulates the behavior of its members, keeping them within the bounds of acceptable conduct.”
I want to underscore that efforts that were made to maintain the group dependency, because individual members falling away from the group would threaten the survival of the entire group. Although I do not know that varnashrama culture is intact amongst these Bangladeshis it is not unreasonable to extrapolate their experience to varnashrama culture, since it must also have been a labor-intensive culture that depended on the support of the group. Varnashrama culture also functions on the basis of such mutual dependence. The varnashrama culture is often compared to a social machine, and if important parts are removed from the machine it cannot function. We learn from the Bhagavatam how the varnashrama culture began to disintegrate with the fall of the brahminical class, then later the ksatriya class, and now it is the vaisya class that is wreaking havoc all over the world.
Adding Money to Varnashrama Culture
What would happen if money is added to a mutually-dependent group such as the Bangladeshis or varnashrama culture? Let’s consider the influence of money. Typically money makes us feel independent of others because money allows us to purchase our necessities in the market. This gives us a sense of freedom which we have come to value in modern society. The result is that when a person has money, they don’t need others and don’t have to conform to the group standard. They are free to act independently. If I have money I don’t need you. And if you have money you don’t need me. It should not be too difficult to see that the effect of money is to destroy the group solidarity of the mutually-dependent cultures, which in turn destroys the culture itself. We have a recent example of this from the formerly isolated area of Ladakh.
Anthropologist Helena Norberg-Hodge, was the first foreigner accepted to make her home in Ladakh (Kashmir). She had the privilege of living there over the course of three decades, coming to know life in the traditional villages before the intrusion of Western culture. She documented what it was like both before and after the influx of the West, and how the Ladakhi culture was destroyed. She writes:
“A Western tourist can spend more [money] in a day than what a Ladakhi family might in one year. Seeing this, Ladakhis suddenly felt poor. The new comparison created a gap that never existed before because in traditional Ladakh, people didn’t need money in order to lead rich and fulfilling lives. Ladakhi society was based on mutual aid and cooperation; no one needed money for labor, food, clothing, or shelter…In the traditional economy, Ladakhis knew that they had to depend on other people, and that others in turn depend on them. In the new economic system, local interdependence disintegrates along with traditional levels of tolerance. In place of cooperative systems meeting needs, competition and scarcity become determinants for survival.” 
Another important aspect is place: in mutually-dependent societies everyone has a place from which to relate to others. they may wish to have a higher status, but in any case they have some status. Having a place gives a person a sense of belonging and a sense of security. With the introduction of money we can be free, but our place can only be had when we have a job. Without a job we have no place in society and thereby become alienated. This increases the sense of voidism and impersonalism that has so alienated the masses of people in the modern day.
What we learn from these cultural lessons is that we cannot successfully mix these two cultures: the modern culture with its artifacts such as money, and the traditional of mutually-dependent relationships. Indeed if we want to have a close and supportive community we have to combine our interests, and particularly our economic interests. This will do much to bring us closer together and give us a real sense of security.
Unfortunately in our efforts to understand and establish rural communities we have not understood the necessity of village economics, and thus we have not been able to achieve the successful results that we so desired. In our future efforts to establish the varnashrama culture we must be careful to understand the proper functioning of the varnas, the positive results of mutual-dependency, and what is necessary to protect the budding culture from undesirable cultural influences. Studies in Indian Coins, D. C. Sircar, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2008, pgs. 4, 8, 349  Of course this is illusory since without the help of many others our money is useless.  Helena Norberg-Hodge, The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize, from Case
Against the Global Economy, Jerry Mander, and Edward Goldsmith, editors, Sierra Club Books, 1997
Check out my blog about the solution to sustainability: http://gitagrad.blogspot.com. And checkout my blog about the solution to the economic crisis: www.spiritual-econ.blogspot.com.