Ghanshyam Das Birla was born on 10 April 1894 at Pilani village, in the Indian state then known as Rajputana, as a member of the MarwariMaheshwari community. His grandfather, Shiv Narayana Birla, had diversified from the traditional Marwari business of moneylending against pawned items. He had left Pilani for Calcutta, using his modest capital to establish a dealership in cotton. The venture was successful and he came back to Pilani to build a mansion (or Haveli), which still stands by the name Birla Haveli. G. D. Birla's father, Baldeodas Birla, was adopted from the Navalgarh Birla family. Baldeodas's fortune was made in partnership with his nephew, Fulchand Sodhani, through speculation in the opium trade running into more than 10 million rupees, in which his elder brother Jugal Kishore Birla had earned a name.He was involved in the so-called Rodda-Catridge affair and went underground for three months in 1916.
Birla inherited the family business and moved to further diversify them into other areas. Of these, at least three contemporary family business groups existing in India today can trace their ancestry to Ghanshyam Das. Of these businesses, he wanted to turn the moneylending business into manufacturing. So he left for Calcutta in Bengal, the world's largest jute producing region. There he established a jute firm, much to the consternation of established European merchants, whom the biased policies of the British government favoured other than the local Bengali merchants. He had to scale a number of obstacles as the British and Scottish merchants tried to shut his business by unethical and monopolistic methods, but he was able to persevere. When World War I resulted in supply problems throughout the British Empire, Birla's business skyrocketed.
With an investment of Rs.50 lakhs in 1919, the Birla Brothers Limited was formed. A mill was set up in Gwalior in the same year.
In 1940s, he ventured into the territory of cars and established Hindustan Motors. After independence, Ghanshyam Das Birla invested in tea and textiles through a series of acquisitions of erstwhile European companies. He also expanded and diversified into cement, chemicals, rayon and steel tubes. Ghanshyam Das Birla during the Quit India movement of 1942, had conceived the idea of organizing a commercial bank with Indian capital and management, and the United Commercial Bank Limited was incorporated to give shape to that idea. Uco Bank, formerly United Commercial Bank, established in 1943 in Kolkata, is one of the oldest and major commercial bank of India.
Envisioning infrastructural development in his hometown, Birla founded the Birla Engineering College (rechristened as Birla Institute of Technology and Science in 1964) in Pilani and Technological Institute of Textile & Sciences in Bhiwani among other educational institutions in 1943. Both colleges have evolved over the years to develop into one of India's best engineering schools. Now Pilani also houses a wing of Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (CEERI), a famous residential, public school christened after Birla's family and a number of polytechnic colleges. The town of Pilani and the local population enjoy a highly symbiotic relationship with these institutions, thereby stepping towards realizing G.D.'s dream. TIT&S also evolved as Center of Excellence in Textile based education and training. Moreover, G D Birla Memorial School, Ranikhet, a premier residential school has also been established in his honor by Syt. B.K. Birla and is today one of the best residential schools in the nation and even The Birla Schol in Kalyan,Mumbai,Maharashtra,India was founded by his efforts with collaboration of Kalyan Citizens’ Education Society (KCES).
Birla was a close associate and a steady supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he met for the first time in 1916. Gandhi was staying at Birla's home in New Delhi when he was assassinated having lived there for the last four months of his life.