India’s business values: the Jains’ influence

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Protestants are better capitalists. This is probably what I remember most vividly from my high school classes of economics. Not because it stained the shining white cape of the mainly catholic French Republic. I never was much of a patriot. I remember this bold statement very well because it projected a far-bearing light on my understanding of the world, a light that still helps my reading some 20 (CENSORED) years after the fact. Max Weber’s remarkable work helped me make sense of the radically different perspectives from which close European neighbors would approach any given economic question, and this was already of utmost relevance while the European Union was being built on the foundation of the Maastricht Treaty.

All things considered however, associating financial wealth to the austerity of Protestantism seemed quite natural. After all, the dark robes of the pastor did match the obscure corridors of a bank’s vault… I was more surprised to learn recently of the economic success enjoyed by a very different religious community: the Jains of India.

CONQUERORS ON A QUEST FOR MANY TREASURES  

Not only are the Jains peaceful: they profess non-violence and self-control as means of liberation, walk the path of honesty and sincerity, and encourage detachment from material possessions. Not quite the picture one would draw of a modern capitalist… Yet, they are neither social activists nor Jedi knights. Jainism is a transtheistic religion that has been practiced for millenniums, long enough for their preachers to draw up rules as a code of ethics for business practice. The results? Jains have repeatedly been praised for their entrepreneurial and commercial successes all over the world. So much so that the esteemed Economist recently dedicated a whole article to the diaspora of merchants from Gujarat, an Indian State on which Jainism has had a lot of influence. Mr. Modi, India’s Prime Minister, is a Guajarati… as was Mahatma Gandhi. Although a Hindu, Mr. Gandhi was greatly inspired by Jainism and its fundamental principle of non-violence.

While the majority of Jains currently reside in India, they have spread and founded communities all around the World. They are however very discreet and their companies rarely public, with some exceptions such as The Times of India, one of the country’s leading newspaper which is held by a Jain family. Jains’ most visible collective success has probably been taking over the diamond industry in Antwerp, Belgium, where the Indians’ share of revenues has risen to roughly 65%. Within decades, a few hundred families coming mostly from the same town of Palanpur in Gujarat have transformed their Belgium workshops into global enterprises generating billions of dollars, employing thousands of workers, and owning establishments all over the globe. The most iconic one probably is Rosy Blue, the net sales of which have been estimated at over $1 billion annually. It has establishments in 14 locations employing 15,000 persons worldwide. Its CEO Dilip Mehta is a Jain.

Their name suits such accomplishments: the Sanskrit word jina means “conqueror”. Yet the object of their conquests is neither Wall Street’s canopy nor any of their neighbors’ wealth. Rather, they conquer anger with forgiveness, wrap pride in humility, fight deceitfulness with straight-forwardness, and snob greed in contentment, achieving liberation from their inner passions.

Of course, generalization is out of the question. No fairy has ever admitted on record bestowing the combined gifts of pacifism and entrepreneurial success onto every newborn Jain… But Jainism’s impact on Indian culture is quite important and far surpasses Jains’ current share of the country’s population. India being one of the fastest growing economy in a slumping global market, it might be worth examining how these values interact with the business world.

THREE PIECES OF THE TREASURE MAP

While Jainism’s ethics are too complex to be analyzed in details here, the three principles below shed an interesting light on Jains’ business culture.

Non-Violence (ahiṃsā)

At first sight, not the most astounding creed… All major religions profess non-violence. Yet all major religions have God at their center. And God gets angry sometimes… with plenty of volunteers to do what His wrath commands. For Jains, there is no god. We are all part of an independent and self-sufficient universe which does not require any superior power to govern it. Hence no exception is made to slaughter the heathens, convert the infidels, or otherwise herd (and tax) the ignorant lost souls.

The effect of such non-violence on business is… well, brutal! When one cannot harm any creature, including insects, one cannot do much work in the fields, nor deal with the raising or killing of cattle. In a largely agrarian society such as India, this was a considerable incentive for this community to develop good trading and financing skills. This is a self-sustaining process, because peace is essential for trade, encouraging merchants to avoid provocation and to get along with other cultures, always negotiating with a view to reaching a mutually satisfactory compromise.

Greed is even seen by Jains as a form of violence, for it leads to the exploitation of others. This affects the way Jains practice business: where profit is not the overriding aim, focus tends to go back to the fundamentals which sustain commercial success such as the quality of the service provided and the enduring relationship with the clientele and other stakeholders.

Greed is also rejected on the basis of Aparigraha, another principle that is central to Jainism

Non-Attachment (Aparigraha)

Jains believe that unchecked attachment to material possessions can lead to direct harm to oneself and others. They are thus encouraged to let go of superfluous assets and to detach themselves emotionally from their property. One can easily see how this attitude may help a business’ sustainability and endurance prevail over the quest for fast and disruptive wealth accumulation, steering enterprises safely away from the abysses to which overheated mercantile passions may otherwise lead… Approaching any business relationship with the intent to reap only a fair share of benefit, one transaction at a time, encourages repeat business and long term relationships. This is precisely what the Jains value: developing long lasting bonds with providers and clients alike, who over the years become part of a growing community of interests in whichever market of the world where they settle.

The habit of not taking more than is necessary out of a given trade or resource is obviously helpful as well at an age where environmental considerations demand adjustment of business practices. Because they see themselves as but one part of the vast universe rather than its center and reason of being, the Jains always considered nature as worthy of care and protection. Thinking in terms of sustainability and developing environment-friendly activities do not require much of a shift in Jains’ business culture.

This universal approach encourages open-mindedness, another essential principle of Jainism.

Open-mindedness (syād-vāda and anekānta-vāda)

Jains tell the story of blind men encountering an elephant, each man probing a different part of the animal… and each of them describing something different. Only by putting all their perspectives together can the blind men truly “see” the elephant. Only by welcoming the complexity of reality can one avoid the sinister path of dogmatism… and the bloody mischief done in its name.

This metaphor illustrates the most helpful of Jainism’s values in our modern and multicultural world: the moral strength required to acknowledge the limitations of one’s perspective and to treat all differing views with respect. Rather than fearing uncertainty and imposing their truth, Jains welcome the unknown because it ends up contributing to a greater understanding.

In business, having the ability to consider a counterpart’s opinion with a cool and understanding mind has always been an undeniable advantage. But in today’s global market, where deals are made routinely among representatives of all cultures of the world, this becomes a lethal (yet non-violent) weapon. Equipped with it, the Jains have surfed the wave of globalization rather than drowned in it. Maintaining a discreet and respectful attitude helped their becoming part of the social fabric in all the countries to which they have migrated over the centuries. The accelerated disparition of boundaries and the ever-growing connection of markets has offered opportunities to increase their revenues within a much wider network. Tolerating and even welcoming other perspectives helps seeing better than most this diverse and fast changing elephant that is our world .

THE WHOLE PICTURE

Jains’ ethos is no guaranty of success. Jains were also helped by urbanization, which diversified economies and created clusters of potential clients for their businesses. Large families and solidarity within their community also helped them a lot to thrive. And of course, every religion has its pitfalls, and every code of ethics its unintended perversions. One can for example assert that Jains are quite conservative, which does not encourage innovation. Also, the outright elimination of certain industries due to the accessory but inherent insect crushing they generate tends to restrict Jains’ sphere of activity.

But it is both interesting and comforting that, in this day and age, one can still try to be good… and do well.

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