The religious angle to debt

Currency Image Finally, after having finished a grueling year at Cornell, I was all set to begin reading the book that everybody has been talking about – Capital in the Twenty – First Century. However, before I could start reading Piketty’s grand book, David Graeber’s Debt – The first 5000 years came my way and it has been keeping me occupied ever since. It is a book about the history of debt, the origin of money – something which I find really fascinating. David Graeber has tried to explain the origin of money and debt by emphasizing on the anthropological aspect of money – its relationship with religion, society, state, humanity. In the second and third chapter of the book, he talks about various theories of origin of money.  What caught my attention in the third chapter was the primordial debt theory which links the origin of money/debt with religion and I wish to share the main insights of this theory through this post.

Graeber starts the chapter on Primordial Debt with the following lines from Satapatha Brahmana :

In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers and to men..If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing to the saints..if one wishes for offspring, it is because of debt owed to fathers form birth..And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt owing to men.

The background for this theory is set by invoking the debate on creation of a common European currency. The author remarks that the core argument against a common Euro currency is that it separates fiscal policy from monetary policy. Primordial-debt theorist argue that these two have always been the same thing. Governments are able to tax people(fiscal policy) to create money(monetary policy) because government is the guardian of all the debt that citizens owe to one another and this debt is the essence of the society. It exists long before money and markets. Graeber says that this sense of debt was first expressed through religion. The Vedic poems(composed between 1500 and 1200 BC) show a constant concern with debt – which is synonymous with guilt and sin. There are numerous prayers pleading with the gods to liberate the worshiper from the shackles of debt. Graeber says that in these hymns, to be in debt, to be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, was to live in the shadow of death. In the sacred texts, debt seems to represent the broader concept of inner suffering, from which, one begs the gods(particularly Agni – the god of fire) for release. The conclusion of this philosophy is that : human existence is a form of debt.

A man, being born is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death

Graeber then asks – “If our lives are on loan, who would actually wish to repay such a debt? To live in debt is to be guilty, incomplete. But completion can only mean annihilation. In this way, the “tribute” of sacrifice could be seen as a kind of interest payment, with the life of the animal substituting temporarily what’s really owed, which is ourselves – a mere postponement of the inevitable.” If this theory is true, then can we use it to explain the debt crisis of Eurozone and the recent financial crisis? The debt level had increased to such a level that it could be repaid only by complete annihilation in that a collapse of the system was required for the system to continue. The primordial debt theorist also use this theory to explain why kings always imposed taxes on their subjects – ” if the king has simply taken over guardianship of that primordial debt we owe to society for having created us, this provides very neat explanation for why the government feels it has a right to make us pay taxes. Taxes are just a measure of our debt to the society that made us.” If taxes represent our absolute debt to the society then the first step towards creating real money comes when we start calculating how much we owe to the society, system of fines, fees, penalties and debt owed to specific individuals. This is how this theory explains the origin of money.

Graeber also presents the flaws associated with theory. His first argument is that the choice of the Vedic material by the primordial debt theorists plays a very important role. He says, for instance, we know nothing about the people who composed these texts and the society which created them. It is not even certain that interest bearing loans existed in Vedic India – which has a bearing on whether the priests really saw sacrifice as an interest on the loan we owe o Death(Yama – the god of death). Some theologians also found this idea ridiculous as they believe that Gods have everything they want and hence there is no reason why they would be interested in any exchange with man since exchange implies equality and exchange between man and God can never be equal.

Graeber also notes that the primordial debt theorists have nothing to say about the Sumer or Babylonia(Mesopotamian empires) despite the fact that the practice of loaning money at interest was first invented in Mesopotamia, 2000 years before the Vedas were composed.

Another problem with this theory is its initial assumption that everybody begins with an infinite debt to the society which gets taken up by the kings and national governments which then justifies the taxes imposed on the subjects by the kings. Graeber, however, questions the concept of society. He claims that it is very difficult to define modular units which can be called societies. He asks – what is society for a Christian American living under the reign of Genghis Khan. He beautifully wraps up his arguments by raising a broader question: Even if we owe a debt to the society, humanity, nature or the cosmos, who has the authority to tell us how should we repay this debt? He says that almost all systems of established authority – religion, politics, morality, economics and the criminal justice system tell us how this debt ought to be repaid. Hence theories of existential debt end up becoming ways of justifying such structures of authority.