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 Maheshwari Marwari community. His father was Raja Baldevdas Birla. In 1884 A.D. Baldeo Das Birla went to Bombay in search of new avenues of trade. He established his firm Shiv Narian Baldeo Das in Bombay in 1884 and Baldeo Das Jugal Kishore in 1897 in Calcutta. The firms started business in silver, cotton, grain and other commodities. He was succeeded by 4 sons, Jugal Kishore, Rameshwar Das, Ghanshyam Das and Braj Mohan. Ghanshyam Das was the most successful of the four brothers.
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 him. Of these businesses, he wanted to turn the moneylending business into manufacturing. So he left for Calcutta in Bengal Presidency, the world's largest jute producing region. There, he began "[i]ndependently as a jute broker". In 1918, he established Birla Jute Mills, 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 ₹5 million in 1919, the Birla Brothers Limited was formed. A mill was set up in Gwalior in the same year.
In the 1940s, he ventured into the territory of cars and established Hindustan Motors. After independence, 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 organising 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 the 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 the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (CEERI), a famous residential public school named 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 realising Birla's dream. TIT&S also evolved as the Center of Excellence in Textile based education and training. Moreover, the G D Birla Memorial School, Ranikhet, a premier residential school has also been established in his honour by Syt. B.K. Birla and is today one of the best residential schools in the nation and even The Birla School in Kalyan, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India was founded by his efforts with the collaboration of Kalyan Citizens' Education Society (KCES).
There is a memorial to Ghanshyam Birla in Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, London. It comprises a large statue overlooking the gardens with an inscription. He died in 1983 at the age of 89.
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.