Why you should care

Because sometimes, principles yield heady results.

Sachin Chopda’s business portfolio is dazzlingly diverse: an entrepreneur and investor, he’s touched nearly every booming market in India — e-commerce, real estate, cancer-fighting technologies for hospitals. But when a German business came his way a few years ago, offering a hefty investment for a beverage distribution company he oversaw at the time, Chopda says he refused, because they expected him to sell booze. Pune-based Chopda won’t touch tipples — personally or professionally.

Chopda, 43, is Jain — the religious community comprising less than 1 percent of India, yet one that dominates business, especially in the country’s financial center of Mumbai. Like many Jains, Chopda is vegetarian and avoids alcohol, abiding by the religion’s principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, the same idea that influenced Gandhi. They are highly represented among stockbrokers and investors — even the diamond industry. A 2013 study found that Jains were 25 percent likelier to gravitate toward self-employment (that golden ticket, startupping), and they’re among the most highly literate groups in the country. They’re also growing, according to census figures, and becoming financially stronger as a group.

In India, most business types will tell you corporate social responsibility hasn’t quite caught on, which places religious ethics as a rare moral compass guiding this emerging market.

Jains invite comparisons to the good old Protestant work ethic or to Jewish communities. The analogy holds water: Christians’ aversion to moneylending and the Jews’ acceptance of it helped shape a thriving banking community among the Israelites. On the flip side, Jain religious restrictions ironically brought them more success. They couldn’t, historically, be farmers or manufacturers — they might risk harming an animal, even a bug, says Malay Patel, an academic associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, who’s published research on Jains’ business ethics and success. Indeed, some Jains are so devout that in order to avoid killing an insect, they wear masks or sweep the ground in front of them to avoid stepping on a tiny creature. Still others choose to fast till death at the end of life, to avoid racking up bad karma in their final days.

What’s left? Money management — a clean opportunity to facilitate the economy rather than messily building it; and crucially, to make choices about where the cash flow goes. “Broadly, it’s ethical investing,” says Ketan Sheth, a non-Jain broker who says his colleagues aren’t so different from those in the U.S. who eschew coal. But that doesn’t make it less radical: In India, most business types will tell you corporate social responsibility hasn’t quite caught on, which places religious ethics as a rare moral compass guiding this emerging market.

Like Chopda, Jain investors and brokers avoid anything tainted by meat or alcohol. Chopda’s also nixed anything related to leather or animal testing from his portfolio. India’s five-star hotels have enjoyed a boom in recent years, as the country opens up to wealthy travelers, but many Jains skipped the opportunity thanks to hotels’ inclusion of non-vegetarian food and liquor on their menus. “Commerce cannot be an exception to the principles of life,” says one Mumbai-based family office investor. “There has to be a continuity.”

Jain success fits into a larger story about religiously driven finance. There are also Sharia investing codes, which similarly ban alcohol, along with porn, pork and gambling. Jains have used the parallels to dive in on Sharia opportunities in droves, in fact, even while seeking their own stock index. And in 2008, the Dow Jones Dharma Index launched to track companies aligned with Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain ethics.

“The most successful entrepreneurs in India aren’t actually Hindu,” Patel says. We can theorize about why — minority communities have to band together, for instance. “They’re definitely networked,” Sheth says. India’s Parsis, comprising another tiny sliver of the population, have reaped disproportionate financial victories in Mumbai right alongside the Jains. And the Jain International Trade Organization, along with posts about upcoming startup opportunities, also offers matrimonial events on its website.

But like many religious and ethical systems, things can get hairy in two big ways: extremism and relativism. The former has manifested in a kind of vegetarian super-activism. The nation’s banned beef, a reflection of Hindu (and Jain) ahimsa ethics. Last year, a family was reportedly attacked in Mumbai for eating non-vegetarian food in their own home, because their apartment building was majority-vegetarian. And Jains and Muslims don’t always get along; blows have been exchanged, and a group of Jains last year presented complaints to India’s minority-protection groups, arguing their Islamic brethren received more minority reservations (like affirmative action) than they.

And the relativism? At some point, Jain investors told me, the money flows on without you. The financial system is so complex and intertwined that you can’t guarantee your rupees won’t feed things you don’t agree with. Chopda says it’s about being practical; he sees more ritual-oriented Jains as “not really aligned with the advanced world.” And though he thinks Jains need some devout types to continue the tradition, he’ll take modernity (with its gray areas), thank you very much.

But there’s something different, even amid the ambition. The Jain family office investor told me he and his peers might be less aggressive than 21st-century financial flows demand. Perhaps they’d be even richer if they nixed their ethics. But for him, “it’s never about wealth creation. It’s about sticking to certain principles.”

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