this sense of debt was expressed not through the state but through religion.
To make the argument, Aglietta and Orléans fixed on certain works of early Sanskrit religious literature: the hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas, and the Brahmanas, priestly commentaries composed over the centuries that followed, texts that are now considered the foundations of Hindu thought.
It’s not as odd a choice as it might seem. These texts constitute the earliest known historical reflections on the nature of debt. Actually, even the very earliest Vedic poems, composed sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC, evince a constant concern with debt—which is treated as synonymous with guilt and sin.
There are numerous prayers pleading with the gods to liberate the worshipper from the shackles or bonds of debt.
In these hymns, Yama, the god of death, figures prominently. To be in debt was to have a weight placed on you by Death. To be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, to gods or to men, was to live in the shadow of Death.
Often, even in the very early texts, debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods—particularly Agni, who represents the sacrificial fire—for release. It was only with the Brahmanas that commentators started trying to weave all this together into a more comprehensive philosophy. The conclusion: that human existence is itself a form of debt.
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 for what’s really owed, which is ourselves—a mere postponement of the inevitable.
Priestly commentators proposed different ways out of the dilemma. Some ambitious Brahmins began telling their clients that sacrificial ritual, if done correctly, promised a way to break out of the human condition entirely and achieve eternity (since, in the face of eternity, all debts become meaningless).
Another way was to broaden the notion of debt, so that all social responsibilities become debts of one sort or another.
Thus two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods, to be repaid in sacrifice, but also to the Sages who created the Vedic learning to begin with, which we must repay through study; to our ancestors (“ the Fathers”), who we must repay by having children; and finally, “to men”—apparently meaning humanity as a whole, to be repaid by offering hospitality to strangers.
Anyone, then, who lives a proper life is constantly paying back existential debts of one sort or another;
Human nature does not drive us to “truck and barter.” Rather, it ensures that we are always creating symbols—such as money itself. This is how we come to see ourselves in a cosmos surrounded by invisible forces; as in debt to the universe.
The ingenious move of course is to fold this back into the state theory of money—since by “sovereign powers” Théret actually means “the state.”
The first kings were sacred kings who were either gods in their own right or stood as privileged mediators between human beings and the ultimate forces that governed the cosmos. This sets us on a road to the gradual realization that our debt to the gods was always, really, a debt to the society that made us what we are.
The “primordial debt,” writes British sociologist Geoffrey Ingham, “is that owed by the living to the continuity and durability of the society that secures their individual existence.”
In this sense it is not just criminals who owe a “debt to society”—we are all, in a certain sense, guilty, even criminals.
For instance, Ingham notes that, while there is no actual proof that money emerged in this way, “there is considerable indirect etymological evidence”:
“In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.”
For example, there is a connection between money (German Geld), indemnity or sacrifice (Old English Geild), tax (Gothic Gild) and, of course, guilt.”
Or, to take another curious connection: Why were cattle so often used as money? The German historian Bernard Laum long ago pointed out that in Homer, when people measure the value of a ship or suit of armor, they always measure it in oxen—even though when they actually exchange things, they never pay for anything in oxen.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because an ox was what one offered the gods in sacrifice. Hence oxen represented absolute value.
From Sumer to Classical Greece, silver and gold were dedicated as offerings in temples. Everywhere, money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for giving to the gods.