The Wisest Way to Invest

Ever since the beginning of civilization, humans have been trying to devise ways in which they can store the results of their hard work for the future. For a hunter-gatherer, since he dealt with perishables such as fruits or meat, the options were limited. His best bet was to share what he got with others so that on days when he couldn’t find anything, somebody else would be willing to share their find with him. Thus, in those days, sharing was the wisest way to invest.

As societies evolved, and people began to store up, value and trade in more durable items such as grains, cloth, domestic animals and metals, this began to change. Why would I give my hard earned wealth to someone else and depend on their mercy when I could instead preserve it for use during difficult times? So I would rather stockpile my grains than distribute it among my friends. But even grains cannot be stored forever, and thus evolved the practice of trading it for something that lasted even longer, such as precious metals.

With each of these developments, selfishness became more and more a ‘smart’ option.  The wealth thus controlled by those who are smart and selfish could also be made available to others in need at a price, giving rise to options that gave a return on investment. From this point, a wise way to invest is not one in which my wealth just remains safe, but those in which it grows! Banks, stocks, bonds, foreign exchange, and other avenues for investment that we have today followed in time.

But in spite of all this sophistication, there is still no certainty or even a minimum guarantee in any of these methods of investment. Banks have collapsed taking down with them the savings of many who were wise enough to put their money there. Investments worth billions have vaporized in stock market crashes and recessions. Those who invested in land, a resource that has inherent value, is always in demand and usually never depreciates in price, have also had their investments locked away for long periods when they needed them the most, or lost it to infrastructure and industrial projects or ever-changing laws. Any person, who has seen enough of the world will know that there is no security for the money that you save – no matter how smart you are, or how diverse your modes of investment are.

This brings us to the same question of what the wise way to invest is. Is there a secure investment that will neither lose value nor fail to be of use at a time of need? Here we consider wisdom from two different sources which will help us to arrive at an answer to this question.

In Mahabharata, Karna is one of the most powerful warriors on the Kaurava side and has sworn to take the life or Arjuna. Indra, the Lord of Devas who is also the father of Arjuna, approaches Karna in the guise of a Brahmin seeking alms and begs for the divine armour and earrings that Karna was born with, wearing which makes him invincible. Karna is known for his selfless generosity and is about to give Indra what he asked for when Karna’s charioteer reminds him that this charity can cost him his life. To quote from Karnabharam, a play written by the legendary playwright Bhasa, Karna asks not to be stopped and explains the unmatched benefit of giving thus:

विद्या क्षयं गच्छति कालपर्ययात्
सुबद्धमूला निपतन्ति पादपा: |
जलं जलस्थानगतं च शुष्यति
हुतं च दत्तं च तथैव तिष्ठति ||

Education (or knowledge) rots over time, even deep rooted trees fall; water in reservoirs will also dry up, but that which is offered to god and given in charity will always remain

Great Expectations, a nineteenth-century novel by Charles Dickens [spoiler alert – skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the book and are planning to], illustrates this point at least twice in the story (yes, it’s a story, but I believe the principle operates in real life as well and has thus inspired the author). First is when the ambitious protagonist Pip inherits a fortune from an anonymous benefactor, and it turns out that this benefactor is an escaped convict whom Pip, as a kid, had saved from starving. More than any effort that Pip had made to rise up the social and financial ladder and become a gentleman, it was this one act of kindness that brought him the greatest return. Further, on coming of age, Pip uses his yearly allowance from the unknown benefactor to get his friend Herbert a job (and later secretly helps him buy into a partnership). When Pip loses his fortune and ends up in debt, he is offered a position by Herbert and that opens the path ahead for Pip and allows him to pay off his debt. If there is one takeaway from this great novel, it would be this – that kindness, and not cunning, is what will take us higher in life.

Most people, however, unwisely think that they can safeguard their wealth by stashing it away, and lose it through charity. A story about King Bhoja lays bare the hollowness of that thought process. 

King Bhoja was a man of great wisdom and generosity. His minister, being of the opinion that the King should fill up the treasury and not be so liberal in giving, left a short anonymous note on the King’s table.

आपदर्थं धनं रक्षेत्
(save money for times of need/misfortune)

On reading the note, the King left a reply under it, as a continuation to the shloka.

श्रीमतां आपद्: कुतः
(from where can misfortune befall those who are favoured by the Goddess of Wealth?)

The minister added:

कदाचित् चलिता लक्ष्मीः
(Favour of the Goddess of Wealth is fickle)

And the King completed the shloka with its fourth leg:

संचितार्थोपि नश्यति
(Accumulated wealth is also destroyed)

Even a powerful monarch cannot be sure that his wealth will remain safe. Even if he could, he cannot be sure that he himself will be around to enjoy it. The wealth that we receive now, that is ostensibly got in return for an effort aimed at acquiring those, are in reality the results of good things we have done in the past. The only way to perpetuate that good fortune is to keep investing in an even greater good.

Unlike all other investments that are protected only by local laws that are themselves ephemeral, often annihilating that investment along with them, investment in kindness is safeguarded by the inviolable and universal law of Karma. No matter how we hoard our wealth, it is absolutely impossible to take it beyond a point called death, which we have no way of predicting. All our plans and schemes get defeated by this undefeatable enemy. On the other hand, if we use our wealth to help those who are in need of it now, even death cannot come in our way of redeeming it in an hour of need.

It is interesting that after so much deliberation, we came back to the same conclusion that the tribals of the old knew intuitively!

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