The Non-Monetary Uses of Money in Hinduism

Parul Aggarwal, Cassandra Stewart, Taryn Pollack, Christine Young

Throughout time, diverse rituals and traditions have evolved in numerous religions and cultures throughout the world. This paper will address non-traditional forms that money takes on in various regions of India with a concentration on the Indian state of Punjab, which is located in the North. In Hinduism, the celebration of the New Year (Diwali) and parts of the wedding ceremony demonstrate non-monetary uses of money within a culture. The diversity in India has led to many different traditions being associated with Diwali, and has spawned different meanings and reasons for performing those same rituals and customs. The practice of praying to business related items, gambling on Diwali, worshipping coins, and the story of the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi) demonstrates the different ways money is looked at in Hinduism. The idea of praying to gods and goddesses in the hopes of bringing wealth to a family on Diwali is balanced by the idea that without knowledge the wealth is meaningless. While money is necessary to live, knowledge is necessary to sustain life.

Representing an age-old culture and celebrated throughout India, with many rituals and traditions attached to it, is Diwali, the Hindu New Year. Diwali is known as the festival of lights, where tradition maintains that lamps and lights are lit throughout the house to keep the memory of Prince Ram’s return to his kingdom after defeating the demon king Ravan, who had abducted his wife Sita. The heroic deeds of Ram, Sita, and Lakshmaan are recounted in the Ramayan with Diwali symbolizing the victory of virtue over vice. Another reason for putting lights around the house on Diwali is to light the way for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is believed that she visits the houses of her devotees and bestows luck and good fortune where she chooses. There are hundred’s of rituals and traditions associated with Diwali, depending on which region you are from. This is due to small amounts of regional variation that can alter the way people practice and believe in certain traditions.

In many Punjabi (north India) families, it is believed that the time to enter into new financial deals, buy tools of your trade, and start new ledgers is on Deshara, which comes before Diwali. Deshara is the day that Prince Ram defeated the demon king Ravan, and thus this is the day that starts the “auspicious period”, which lasts until Diwali. The time between Deshara and Diwali is the time that it took for Prince Ram to return home, with Diwali being the day he returns to his kingdom, where people had put lights around their house to light his way home. On Deshara, business’s wipe their ledgers clean and start a new ledger after performing a prayer, because it is believed that it is a fresh start and all the bad luck that a business might have been experiencing for the past year is now erased. Since this time of year is also considered an “auspicious period”, one will have good luck with customers and finance as well. Along with ledgers, business implements such as scissors for a tailor or scales for a goldsmith, are also prayed to because it is believed that if the tools of your respective trade are blessed, they will bring you fortune and wealth. In a sense, the people are praying for prosperity and wealth in their business and financial dealings.

In other northern parts of India, it is believed that instead of one, there are five days of Diwali known as Dhantrayodashi (Dhanteras), Narakchaturdashi (Kali Chaudas), Diwali (Laxmi Pujan), Bali Pratipada (Govardhan Pooja) and Bhaubij (Bhaiya Dooj). The festivities begin with Dhanteras, which is the busiest day for the merchant community since it is considered an auspicious day for business. This is the day many people buy an idol of Lakshmi to worship. People also buy gold or silver jewelry, or at least one-kitchen utensil. It is believed that the purchase of a metal object on this day is an auspicious token and that the particular item will reap rewards that coordinate to it’s purpose. For example, if a person wears the piece of jewelry they bought on Dhanteras then they will have good luck in whatever they try, while on the other hand the kitchen utensil will ensure that there is always plenty of food in the kitchen. On the third day of the festival (Diwali) some communities worship their account books for the upcoming year, unlike Punjabi families, who practice this on Deshara. In south India, instead of praying to account books, many farmers adorn and worship cattle because they produce the main source of their income and are believed to the be the incarnation of Lakshmi. The fourth day of the festival (Vikram Samvat) holds a special significance for the merchant community. Normally, share markets are closed for the holidays but a special session is held on this day called a muhurat session because it is considered an auspicious day for share trading.

An unusual custom, which characterizes the festival of Diwali, is gambling, especially in north India. It is believed on this night, the Goddess Parvati played dice with her husband and enjoyed it so much that she decreed that whoever gambled on Diwali night would prosper throughout the coming year. Today, dice games have become obsolete in India and have been replaced by card games such as flush, rummy, and gin. In today’s society, the wealthy organize games involving thousands of rupees in clubs, hotels, and private farmhouses, but the majority of people just play at home. In Punjabi families, it is considered a vice to gamble during the year, but is considered to be acceptable on Diwali. They believe that if you win, when gambling on Diwali you will win all year round and will have wealth in your favor. Some Punjabi families also believe that if a person does not gamble on Diwali, then in their next life they will be reincarnated as a donkey. This is considered to be very unpleasant since the donkey is the animal who carries heavy loads on his back throughout his life. On the other hand, some people claim to gamble on Diwali in order to remind themselves of the fickleness of lady luck (Lakshmi), and to create a sense of balance in the pursuit of material success. In ancient India, dice games were very popular and Diwali might have been a time where farmers could relax and spend time with family and friends, by playing dice games and betting money that they had just acquired from the end of the harvest season. This may be the actual social origin of the unusual practice of gambling at Diwali, which now has acquired a divine sanction of recognition. Gambling may have come into practice because when families are supposed to keep their door open all night in order to welcome Lakshmi into the house, someone was needed to keep guard all night. In order to keep from falling asleep, people played cards or dice. In many parts of Gujarat, the entire Hindu month of Shravan (usually in August-September) is considered auspicious for gambling, instead of just Diwali.

Another custom that is practiced in India at Diwali time is the worshipping of silver coins during prayer. At nighttime, a prayer is performed and various objects are set alongside statues of the various God’s and Goddess’s. Silver coins with pictures of Lakshmi and Ganesh are set in silver trays and prayed to just as they were statues. Lakshmi is prayed to because as the goddess of wealth, it is hoped that she will bestow the home with good fortune and prosperity. While Ganesh, is prayed to because he is the God that will remove all obstacles. He will remove any obstacles that might prevent any type of work from being unsuccessful, such as business ventures or job interviews. Silver is used instead of gold because it is accessible and was also used as currency in India. Up till the 1900’s, gold coins in bags were prayed to also, but only by kings and big business families, not by the general public. Many business families also place cash registers or boxes where they store their money next to the statues and pray to them in hopes of protecting their earned wealth. In some Punjabi families, a replica of the house (handi) is also placed alongside the statues. The handi is always the same shape and has openings where people can place food and money, indicating that the house will always be filled with food and wealth. It is also traditional to exchange gifts and money within the family. Whenever money is given to a family member, it is an odd number and usually is a number that will have “1” added to it. For example, the given amount will be 21 or 31 or 41, but not 27 or 45 or 63. It is not exactly known why this is so, but it is considered bad luck to give only evenly numbered bills.

Diwali is also known as Lakshmipujan, which translates to “the worship of Lakshmi.” Lakshmi’s story and the way she is portrayed illustrate the way wealth is viewed in Hinduism. She holds the promise of material fulfillment and contentment, but is seen as being fickle, which is considered to be the nature of wealth. She is the goddess of wealth and represents the goal of worldly, as well as spiritual, prosperity. Being the wife of Lord Vishnu, she provides him with wealth for the maintenance and preservation of all creation. Lakshmi is depicted as having four arms and four hands, and standing on a lotus. One of the hands symbolizes wealth and is depicted with golden coins falling out of it, meaning that she provides wealth and prosperity to her devotees. The lotus that she stands on signifies that while living in this world, one should enjoy wealth but not become obsessed with it. This is analogous to the lotus, which grows and thrives in water but is not immersed in it. Some pictures show two elephants standing close by, symbolizing the recognition and respect associated with worldly wealth. However, the idea is that a true follower should not earn wealth merely to acquire fame or to satisfy material desires, but should share it with mankind in order to bring happiness to others as well as themselves. The owl is her vehicle and since the owl cannot be seen in the day, Lakshmi visits the houses of her devotees at night. The owl symbolizes black money and the immoral uses of money. Since the owl is an animal that can see in the dark, it can detect “black-money”, which is money that has not been put into the service of mankind and has instead been squandered on corrupt deeds. This way, Lakshmi can navigate her way towards such money and punish the people responsible for using it. The creation of Lakshmi begins with her first being created as Shreedevi, who nurtures and fills the earth with life and bounty. Both the Gods and the demons desire her wealth and a war is waged from which the demon king Bali emerges triumphant. Impressed by his strength, Shreedevi crowns him king of the Earth and agrees to be with him. However, Bali grew arrogant and felt that he owned everything on earth, which disturbed her greatly. The Gods, who had been reduced to poverty, devised a plan in which they retook control of the earth. One of the Gods’s approached Bali and asked him for some land. To mock him, Bali replied that he would give him as much land as a dwarf could cover in three strides. The chosen dwarf was actually the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who in three strides covered the whole earth and claimed it for the Gods. Shreedevi, impressed by the God’s intelligence, decided to go to them, demonstrating her fickle nature in which she is faithful to no one. However, Shreedevi’s gifts were neglected by the Gods as well, and she leaves them. In the end, she is reincarnated as Lakshmi and chooses Vishnu to be her husband, as he is the only one who is not interested in the power, pleasure, and prosperity that money can bestow. Alongside with Lakshmi, Alaksmi is also born who is old and ugly representing the hunger, greed and evil side that money can bring out in people. Lakshmi’s story represents the nature of wealth, which is fickle and favors only those who do not abuse it. It can be said that in Hinduism, money is given a human quality by designating it the power to be evil or good depending upon how it is used. If it is not used properly, it will either “leave you” or will lead Lakshmi to “punish you.” Thus one should enjoy their wealth, but should not horde it and not help mankind.

Married women in India are known as the “Ghar Ki Lakshmi” meaning “the house’s Lakshmi.” When a new bride enters the family, she is considered lucky and is a symbol of Lakshmi herself. This is because in Indian culture, it is women who run the house and not the men. It is believed that the woman is the one who knows how to budget the money and she is the one who will save some money for a rainy day. It is said that men should only earn the money, because they are not “intelligent” enough to run the household and will only spend the money in a wasteful manner. The financial responsibilities and the control of money in a household are represented by silver key chains that women wear in India. The key chains will contain all the keys to the house along with the key to the cabinet where all the money is kept and also to the food pantry. Whenever anybody needs money they will have to go to her, since she is the only one who can open the cabinet. Therefore, whoever has the key chain controls the money and thus controls the house. This responsibility is never given to men and it’s probably because of how women are seen as a representation of the Goddess Lakshmi.

In Punjabi Hindu weddings, there are several ceremonies that involve non-monetary uses of money. There are two examples that clearly illustrate non-conventional uses of money. The first is called sar pher. In this practice, one person holds bills in their hands and moves amongst the dancing guests and circles their heads with the bills. This is done to ward off the evil eye of other guests at the wedding who may be jealous of the happiness they see amongst the dancers. After the dancing is finished, the bills are then gathered and given to the poor or to the local temple so that it can be put towards helping the community. Another practice, called Kangana, is done after the wedding when the bride is at the groom’s house. In this game, a tray or pot of water is mixed with milk and vermillion and then coins are placed inside the vessel. The bride and groom have several tries to find the coins, whoever finds them first is said to rule the household.

There are several other practices that foster a sense of community and build relationships between members of different families that are united by the marriage of a son or daughter. One of the practices is stealing the groom’s shoes, which he leaves at the base of the altar before the marriage ceremonies begin. The bride’s sisters, cousins, and friends steal the shoes while the groom’s brothers, cousins, or friends try to find them. Since the groom cannot leave the altar without his shoes after the wedding ceremonies, he must pay the bride’s family money in order to get them back. Often, the price of the shoes is negotiated with the bride’s family trying to get as much money as possible. If the price asked is too high the elders might step in and put an end to it. This creates a bond between the new family members. Another practice is called milni, and is when the bride’s side of the family greets the groom’s side of the family, and money or gifts are given. In this tradition, each family member from the bride’s side meets their counterpart in the groom’s family. For example, the bride’s uncle would only offer money or gifts to the groom’s uncle. The gifts of money are given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family in order to welcome them as members.

In conclusion, non-monetary uses of money are far reaching and can provide a sense of community and foster relationships between different families and individuals. For Hindus, Diwali is a time of celebration when business wipe their slates clean and pray for good fortune in the year to come. Diwali also fosters a sense of community amongst family and friends. It is an occasion when disagreements are forgotten, old friendships are renewed, new friendships are formed, and families get together to feast and play. Practices such as praying to silver coins in the hopes that the goddess Lakshmi will bring good fortune to the house in the New Year is a clear example of a non-monetary use of money. However, the hope of gaining good fortune is balanced by the belief that wealth with out knowledge is useless. Hindu weddings also demonstrate some of the nontraditional ways that money can be used by establishing new relationships and helping the newly united family members get to know one another.

Non-Monetary Uses of Money: An Addendum

While researching this subject, we thought that it might be interesting to compare or contrast non-monetary uses of money between cultures. We chose to investigate the Roman Catholic tradition of alms-giving when lighting votive candles and praying for the intercession of God. However, our research showed that in the eyes of practicing Catholics this practice is not viewed as abnormal. While the practice of alms-giving when lighting votive candles is not as prevalent in newer churches, it has not been extinguished in older churches. A short summary of our findings is included below.

Catholicism is the oldest Christian religion, with a long history in which monetary practices have been intertwined with religious rites. One of the clearest examples of this intertwined relationship is the practice alms giving when praying for intercession (lighting of votive candles). For Catholics, the image of the candle burning its life out before a statue represents a person’s love for God and symbolizes that person’s devotion to the Catholic faith. Most often votive candles are white representing the pure body of Christ, the wick contained therein represents His Soul and the flame symbolizes the unification of the Divine nature of the human soul within the body of Christ. The flame consuming the wick also can represent the loss of resistance to God in the soul. As the flame consumes the rest of the candle the person that lit it has found a union with God.

While these images might indicate a harmonious union of faith with everyday life, in actuality the candles that embody Christ himself cost money to produce. It could be argued that the Catholic Church only asks for donations to cover the cost of the votive candles used in intercession. However, there is not a standard consensus about the price the faithful Catholic should pay when asking for the intercession of God it can be assumed that the amount given always exceeds the cost of production. Why then, do the “faithful” give money in excess of the cost of production if there is truly no charge for the intercession of God? Among the Catholics that we interviewed, there was no real consensus about the practice of almsgiving when asking for intercession. Most of the people that we interviewed believed that the excess money that they had given in excess of the cost of the candles supported the church’s missions within their parish and abroad. Cynics seemed to believe that the Catholic Church is in the business of selling salvation for profit. People with these cynical views seem to think that the Catholic Church has an ideal “racket” going. The Catholic Church is in the business of selling paradise in the hereafter to its faithful devotees. Catholics give alms to their church in the hopes of a better life in the hereafter, but there is never any concrete evidence that a faithful Catholic has a better life after death than a heathen. The only thing that holds this practice together is the faith held by the believers that they will have a better life in the hereafter if they are “good” Catholics than if they are not. Pre Vatican II, votive candle alters were found in most Roman Catholic Churches. In our post Vatican II world, this is no longer the case. In the Church’s quest to “modernize” the Catholic faith, such seemingly old and backward traditions have been largely removed or replaced by other more cost efficient traditions. Often the votive candles were replaced with electric versions which completely eliminated the symbolism of sacrifice and union with God.



Alakshmi; she is usually shown as being old and ugly to show what money can do a person who uses it unwisely.


Picture of sar pher, which is the practice of waving money around a dancers head to ward off the evil eye. This picture was taken at a wedding. From a family photo album.

Picture of the practice of kangana, which takes place after the wedding at the groom’s place. In this water, vermillion and milk is mixed into a vessel with some coins. Out of the bride and groom whoever finds the coins first is said to rule the household. From a family photo album.

Picture of house lighted up at Diwali, with the door left open to allow Lakshmi to come inside unhindered


Photograph of a prayer altar in a home in southern California. It has the images of various Gods and Goddesses along with Ganesh and Lakshmi. It also has the silver coins in a tray and the handi (replica of the house) on the left hand side. On the right hand side is the bag filled with money and a red envelope filled with money that will be gifted later.

A person putting out lighted lamps on Diwali to light up the house.

The handi, close up. It symbolizes the person's house. Inside the handi, food and money are placed during prayer in the hopes that one's house will always be filled with food and wealth.

Ganesh (left hand side), Lakshmi (in the center) and Saraswati (right hand side). Ganesh is the God that removes all obstacles, Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth and Saraswati is the Goddess of knowledge.

During Diwali time money or gifts are given in between family members The red envelope contains an image of Ganesh.

Plate of mostly silver coins with some gold coins sprinkled in. Most of the silver coins have pictures of Lakshmi or Ganesh. Some of the coins are actual Indian coins that were used as currency. These coins were placed at the prayer altar during prayer time. The red on the coins is the vermillion that is put on the coins during prayer, while the flowers are placed after prayer.

Close up of a bag containing money that is placed on the prayer altar during prayer. Many families will also place their account books or tools that they use in their businesses.

The amount of money given on Diwali, at least in most Punjabi families, is an odd number; it will always be $21 or $31, never $35 or $37.


Another image of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. However, this time she is shown sitting and gold coins falling out of two hands instead of one. Usually the gold is only falling out of one hand, while the other is raised to bless her devotees. Compared to the image of Alakshmi, Lakshmi represents the benefits of money and is always shown to be beautiful and young.