The defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s general elections last year was greeted with relief by secularists and democrats everywhere. Not entirely unreasonably: they read the fact that the BJP lost a solid 3.4 percent of its previous poll share as evidence that Indian voters had rejected the majoritarian politics of Hindu pride and prejudice, peddled by the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. The general consensus is that the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has lost its appeal among the urban youth and middle classes – that secularism has won and “God has left politics,” to borrow the elegant title of a recent essay by Delhi journalist Hartosh Singh Bal. Market reforms and globalisation emerge as the stars of this saga. Both the friends and critics of the BJP agree that it is the fervour for making money in India’s roaring economy that doused the flames of Hindu nationalism from the hearts of the middle classes. But that is not all. The ‘free’ market, we are told by a section of influential Dalit intellectuals, will not only free India from the menace of communal violence, but will also lift the curse of caste oppression. It is fair to say that the gospel of globalisation is gaining ground in India.
The story about how the markets defeated the BJP goes as follows. Hindutva appealed to the middle classes and youth back in the bad-old-days of the 1980s and 1990s, when these groups were feeling beleaguered and angry due to the failures of Nehruvian socialism and ‘pseudo-secularism’, which, in their view, gave undue preference to Muslim and Christian minorities. But in the nearly two decades of economic liberalisation and foreign investments that began in the early 1990s, India has witnessed a great burst of economic growth. As a result, the Hindu middle classes are angry no more. Far from feeling beleaguered and discriminated against, they have become more cosmopolitan, more self-confident, and more willing to take on global challenges and seek out global opportunities. Indeed, so confident is the Great Indian Middle Class that it has claimed the 21st century as India’s Century. And so the critics ask: What use can such forward-looking people possibly have for the past glories of Hinduism, about which the stodgy old men in khaki shorts keep harping? This story has found great favour among the self-proclaimed Friends of the BJP, who want the party to drop Hindutva altogether, or at least to make it sound less communal, and emerge as a ‘normal’ pro-market, pro-defence, anti-‘minority-appeasement’, right-of-centre party.
A similar story is being told from the opposite end of the political spectrum, made up of Dalit intellectuals, most of whom are no friends of the BJP. Influential members of this circle, notably the journalist-activist Chandra Bhan Prasad and the economist and Planning Commission member Narendra Jadhav, have claimed that economic liberalisation, fostered by globalisation, is improving the living standards of Dalits, liberating them from the caste norms that consigned them to degrading work for generations. They derive their evidence exclusively from two districts of Uttar Pradesh that have access to labour markets for semi-skilled work in Delhi, Lucknow and other cities, while ignoring significant evidence that the incorporation of Dalits in the unorganised sector is taking place only on extremely exploitative terms, without any legal protection to speak of. Yet such thinkers remain convinced of the powers of the market, and are pushing to bring affirmative-action policies into the private sector, which they say will open the doors for Dalits to enter the modern, hi-tech economy. The markets’ blow against caste norms in employment is naturally seen as a victory for secularism, because by destroying the material conditions of caste hierarchy the markets are seen as loosening the hold of Brahminical justifications for caste. Thus, at least some friends of Dalits, like the friends of the BJP, have come to embrace the gospel of globalised markets in the name of upward mobility for Dalits.
India is not the only country where markets are supposed to be exorcising the demons of religiously inspired fanaticism, patriarchy and other sources of oppression. Parts of the Islamic world – Dubai, Turkey, Malaysia, and even Egypt and Iran – are cited to support the proposition that “global capitalism is the single best hope for combating Islamic extremism,” as the American-Iranian author Vali Nasar put it in his new book, The Forces of Fortune. Nasr and others refer warmly to Turkey, where the deeply pious and deeply capitalist-minded middle-class entrepreneurs from small towns have been able to moderate the Islamist instincts of the ruling Justice and Development Party. In a reversal of the idea that ‘McWorld’ breeds jihad, as put forth by the US journalist Benjamin Barber in his well-known 1995 book Jihad vs McWorld, the charms of ‘McWorld’ are now being hailed for aborting jihad by seducing the actual and potential jihadis into shopping malls.
Those who believe in the moderating powers of markets assure us, as the political scientist Alan Wolfe did in a 2008 essay, that “religion’s priority of belief and secularism’s commitment to individual rights are not in opposition,” as most religions are adapting to the capitalist world by becoming “prosperity religions”. The aim of these prosperity religions is not to question the morality of acquiring wealth, but rather to bless the believers into thinking that they can become rich as well by the grace of god. Thus, Wolfe assures us, the rising religious fervour in many parts of the world is nothing to worry about, as this safely feeds into fervour for making money and getting rich. Thus, the new evangelists of prosperity religions cheer the fact that, from China to Russia to Turkey, ‘God is back’, as the title of a recent book by the British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge would have it. They suggest that if the entire world were to erect a US-style wall of separation between state and religion, there would be no reason to worry about jihad or fundamentalist religious extremism, because then all religions would learn to embrace both democracy and capitalism and thus metamorphose into prosperity religions, as they apparently have in the United States. Such a celebration of American secularism, of course, fails to account for the fact that this country has an active and very influential Christian-fundamentalist movement.
Others, such as Richard Wright, the author of The Evolution of God (2009), go even further, proclaiming that globalisation is carrying out the expansion of moral imagination that was kick-started by the Abrahamic God. Just as Christianity and Islam learned to see other tribes as brothers under the God of Abraham, global economy is setting up ‘non-zero-sum games’ that allow people to include distant strangers in faraway lands in their circle of moral concern. So, according to this line of thought, when the whole world becomes interlinked through trade, we will all learn to become more tolerant, and a great concord of civilisations will ensue – just as the Abrahamic God intended. Globalisation, in other words, is doing God’s work. Again, however, this celebration of global tolerance fails to account for the fact that globalisation is not a non-zero-sum game: it produces very clear winners and losers.
Worship the nation
How believable is this gospel of globalisation? Is globalisation really the antidote to religious nationalism? Can market fundamentalism drive out religious fundamentalism? Are multinational enterprises the unwitting (or witting) vehicles of religious moderation? If so, should not secularists learn to love the corporate world as a friend and ally? Well, it depends. Most importantly, it depends upon what we mean by religious nationalism, which is the form that rightwing religious movements tend to take through much of the postcolonial world, including in this region. If we reduce ‘religious nationalism’ to street violence or terror in the name of god, then the answer is ‘yes’ to all the above questions.
Any overt violence is not good for business, and no one knows that better than those who make a living through business. Thus, those upwardly mobile Indians who are benefiting from off-shored information-technology jobs and the expanded consumer choices made possible by foreign investment and trade definitely do not want to create an impression of religious bigotry and political volatility in India. As such, there should be little wonder that the largely Hindu middle classes deserted the BJP in the last election: they do not want to risk bloody riots in Bombay, Ahmadabad, Delhi and other centres of commerce by flogging the dead horse of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, or by getting exercised over a dargah in Karnataka or Christian-versus-Hindu issues elsewhere. That is the reason that even those who admire Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi – which includes captains of Indian industry, well-known journalists and Amitabh Bachchan – advise him to showcase his state’s economic development but tone down his anti-Muslim invective. That is also the reason why the business press cheered when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition won in 2009.
If we look at religious nationalism through a wider-angle lens, however, without reducing it to mere communalism, the picture changes entirely. Suddenly, globalisation and its parallel neoliberal economic policies appear as allies, not enemies, of religious nationalism. Indeed, globalisation is turning out to be good for the gods everywhere. This is nowhere more so than in India, where, aided by what can be thought of as the ‘state-temple-corporate complex’, a new Hindu religiosity is getting more deeply embedded in everyday life, in both the private and public spheres. At least for now, growing economic prosperity seems to have weaned the Indian middle classes from the extremist elements of the Hindu right, who incite animosity against Muslims, Christians and the pub-going Westernised elite. But the rising prosperity has definitely not turned Indians against the more subtle ways in which Hinduism is becoming the de-facto religion of the ‘secular’ Indian state.
In India, Hinduism, the religion of the majority, is becoming more, not less, entrenched in the routine, everyday conduct of statecraft. Meanwhile, it is also being celebrated in the public sphere as the real fount of spiritual-cum-‘scientific’ values that are supposed to turn India into the 21st-century superpower. There is a widespread belief, for example, that India’s success in information technology comes from the ‘Hindu mind’, which thinks in abstractions and is good at breaking codes, and that India can be trusted with nuclear weapons because of its culture of non-violence that has Hindu roots. If India were a homogenous Hindu society, such blending of faith and modernity would be problematic only for the tiny (and much neglected) minority of diehard nonbelievers and principled secularists, who want to create a new culture that does not need to invoke supernatural powers and who want the state to have nothing whatsoever to do with any religion. But considering that India is a multi-religious society, home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world and to a considerable number of Christians and Sikhs, the constant conflation of Indian culture with Hindu gods, goddesses and rituals is obviously problematic.
Since there has been an endless debate in India about who really is a Hindu, and what exactly secularism means, it is useful to indicate how these terms are being used in this essay. For all practical purposes, this essay assumes that a Hindu is as a Hindu does. That is, all those people around the world who say they are Hindus – including (but not solely) all the men and women who offer pujas to Hindu gods and goddesses in their homes, and/or line up outside temples, and/or undertake pilgrimages on days considered auspicious on the Hindu calendar, and all those who observe Hindu rituals at the time of birth, marriage and death – are counted as Hindus. Their rituals, gods and goddesses, and ways of worship do differ along caste, class, gender, age and regional lines, but they are nevertheless unified by a set of metaphysical beliefs about god, nature and human beings that are distinctively Hindu. Insofar as secularism has any meaning in India, it means equal distance between the state and all the various religions of Indian people, just as there is an equal distance between the hub and rim of a wheel. So, in this essay, when the Indian state is held accountable for betraying its secular principles, it means the state has betrayed this principle of equal distance by being partial to the religion of the majority – ie, Hinduism – over and against the religion of the minorities.
Around the world, the deep embedding of religious faith into the pores of the state and the civil society is what religious nationalism is all about. Communalism is a terrible but still largely accidental feature of religious nationalism, and can wax and wane depending upon the political context. Yet religious nationalism has two far more enduring purposes that go beyond communalism: one, to make the majority religion the basis of the nation’s collective identity and the source of its ultimate values and purposes; and two, to allow the institutional space of the majority religion – the networks of temples, ashrams, religious schools or gurukuls, charitable hospitals, etc – to take on the welfare functions of the state, while retaining their distinctive religious nature. The idea is to erase the line between the ritual and political spaces, or to remove any distinction between the worship of gods and the worship of the nation. These features of religious nationalism depend upon the institutional arrangements between the state, religions and other dominant institutions of the society, including of course the amorphous domain of the market. These institutional arrangements are not etched in stone, but rather evolve and change with the changing political and economic context.
In this deeper, more fundamental sense, religious nationalism is able not only to survive but actually to thrive under the current regime of neoliberal globalisation. It would be foolish to try to lay down universal laws of cause and effect for something as history- and culture-dependent as religion and nationalism. But certain trends can be seen to be favourable to a wider role for religion in the public sphere under neo-liberalism, fostered by globalisation. As nation states open up those social functions that used to be performed by public-sector enterprises to so-called public-private partnerships, it becomes easier for religious institutions, often aided by public funds and supported by corporate donations, to establish a greater presence in the public sphere. Indeed, in the US this is exactly how ‘faith-based initiatives’ were able to punch holes through the much-celebrated ‘wall of separation’ between the church and the state under the neoliberal presidencies of both Bill Clinton and George W Bush. As US-style capitalism spreads around the world, it is not entirely unreasonable to look at how the changing equation between the state and businesses is affecting the fortunes of religious enterprises.
In a recent book called The God Market, I reported on precisely such institutional arrangements between the Indian state, the loose assortment of Hindu temples, ashrams, gurukuls, pilgrimage centres, etc, and the business sector. Using evidence culled from reliable media reports, budgetary data from government documents, reports of state-level temple-management agencies and the websites of prominent temples and ashrams, the book looks at how neoliberal economic policies are affecting the fortunes of Hinduism. It concentrates largely on two domains most relevant to religious affairs: the establishment of ‘deemed universities’, which specialise in ‘Vedic sciences’, and religious tourism.
My main theses in that book can be summed up in three simple propositions. First, the demand for religious services in India is currently growing, especially among the urban, educated and largely Hindu middle classes who are benefitting the most from globalisation. Second, the supply of these religious services, which cater to the majority community, is being facilitated by the neoliberal policies of the state. And third, the net result of this is the mindset of Hindu majoritarianism, which accepts the ever-deeper but often invisible (because it is taken for granted) identification of the national culture of India with the religion of the Hindu majority.
This is not to say that neoliberal reforms and globalisation are creating these circuits of demand and supply where none existed before – the process of domesticating and ‘Hinduising’ modernity did not start with the current phase of globalisation. After all, the very idea of neo-Hinduism has more than 150 years of history. Further, the middle-class religiosity that revels in ritualism, idol-worship, fasting, pilgrimage and other routines of popular theistic Hinduism was not entirely absent from the cultural milieu of the educated middle-upper classes that came of age in the more ‘socialist’ or secular era.
As such, the new market economy did not create the religious market, as India always had plenty of choices when it came to gods, faiths and modes of worship. Instead, what the new economy has opened up is more spaces in the public sphere into which religion can penetrate. Contemporary Hinduism, both in its more spiritualist and more devotional forms, can thus be seen to have adapted quite well to the new consumer lifestyles, exploiting the new institutional spaces opened up by the public-private partnerships made possible by privatisation drives in higher education.
Four secular myths
One feature that seems to hold true across the world in this age of global capitalism is simply this: The demand for religion is growing all over the world, though, ironically, not in the most religious of all industrially advanced countries, the United States. (There, the number of nonbelievers has doubled over the last decade, to 15 percent of the population.) In the rest of the world, globalisation seems to have brought about a global Great Awakening in its wake. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge put it in God Is Back, “growth in faith has coincided with a growth in prosperity … In much of the world, it is exactly the sort of upwardly mobile, educated middle classes that Marx and Weber presumed would shed such superstitions who are driving this expansion of faith.” This phenomenon of the upwardly mobile, urban middle classes turning to faith in increasingly larger numbers has been well recorded in formerly atheistic countries such as China and Russia, which are currently undergoing rapid economic development. The wildfire of Christian evangelicalism, especially Pentecostalism, is spreading all across the developing countries in Latin America and Africa. But what is less well known is that a new breed of evangelical Islam is currently spreading in parts of West Asia, which is also learning to package traditional Islamic virtues in new language of prosperity and individualism.
India is no exception to this worldwide trend, with the population that is prospering simultaneously becoming the most religious. Anyone familiar with India can attest to the growth of popular Hindu devotionalism of murti-pujas (idol worship), temples and pilgrimages, and the time-honoured passion for miracle-working god-men and -women, all combined with the growing craze (and market) for yagnas, astrology, palmistry and other occult arts. Visible signs of growing religiosity can be found everywhere in modern metropolises, where the statues of popular gods are getting taller, temples are becoming grander, and the lines of well-heeled devotees outside temples and ashrams in posh suburbs are increasing in length.
The rising religiosity in India is demolishing four of the most cherished myth of secularisation theory. Let us look at these myths in the light of Indian evidence: First, the myth of the prosperous non-believer. Classic secularisation theory was based on the assumption that growing prosperity and existential security would make people less concerned with god and otherworldly matters. On a macro level, when different countries with different levels of economic prosperity and social welfare are compared, the relationship still holds true. A well-known 2004 study by two Harvard sociologists, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, of 19 countries covering most of Europe, North America, Brazil and Japan showed clearly that the level of religiosity declined in those societies, which provided greater ‘existential security’ through better welfare measures (though some of even these countries, like Brazil and parts of Europe, have also showed resurgence of religiosity in recent years). Within each society, those in higher income levels were found to pray less frequently than those in lower-income brackets. Overall, the poor were found to be twice as religious as the rich, when measured by how often they prayed.
The data from India, as provided by the National Election Survey in 2004 and 2009, turns this picture on its head. In contrast to other countries, the rich, the upper castes and the educated in India are significantly more religious than the poor, the lower castes and those who are less educated. When in 2004 the National Election Survey asked a representative sample of the Indian population how often they prayed, 60 percent of the rich and middle-class Hindus said they offered puja everyday in temples or in family shrines, while only 34 percent of the very poor and 42 percent of the poor did so. This trend held up across caste and educational level. The ‘twice-born’ castes were the most religious, with 58 percent doing puja daily, while Dalits and Adivasis were found to be the least religious, with only 35 percent of each category reporting the habit of daily pujas. When the data is mapped on educational levels, those with college degrees are more given to daily pujas (at 53 percent) than those who are illiterate (38 percent) or with only a primary education (46 percent).
When measured again after a gap of five years – five years of market growth and ‘India Shining’ – the trends held up. The rich, the upper castes and the more educated continued to pray more often than other social groups. But there was one surprising result: Dalits and Adivasis seem to be praying more than they used to do. In the 2009 NES survey, 40 percent of Dalits and 43 percent of Adivasis said they offered daily pujas, a significant jump from the 2004 survey. (These trends can be compared since the two surveys followed the same methodology and were carried out by the same team of researchers from Lokniti, a research programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.)
It is not entirely clear how this rise in religiosity of the ‘subaltern’ classes came about. It could be related to rising living standards: there are reports that Dalits who are trying to break out of their caste ghettos and improve their standards of living are beginning to undertake ostentatious religious rituals such as kathas and jagratas in order to ‘pass’ as upper castes in their neighbourhoods. If true, this recourse to showy Hindu rituals would be a sad commentary on the prevalence of casteist attitudes in the larger society. Yet however one explains the rising religiosity among Dalits, it belies the expectations that rising economic prosperity of those at the bottom of the heap will break the hold of caste-ism and secularise the Indian society. Even if there is some economic trickledown in places, as the advocates of ‘Dalit capitalism’ have been claiming, economic betterment is accompanied by a growth of religiosity – rather than a decline, as predicted by secularisation theory.
Second, then, is the myth of privatisation of faith. Those who believe in secularisation theory expect that as societies become modern, religion will recede from the public sphere into private lives. But the reality has belied this expectation. In fact, religions all over the world are becoming less private, more visible in the public sphere and more influential on policies on everything from medical research, women’s reproductive choices and sexuality to the environment, terrorism and armed conflicts. In India, too, there is sufficient evidence of the growing presence of religion in the public sphere. Many of the rituals and pujas that used to be simpler domestic affairs are now becoming more public and more ostentatious. Indeed, many of these public rituals are becoming full-blown political events, where holy men and political figures join forces. It is common for campaigning politicians to organise ‘political darshans’, using public money, and representatives of all parties seem to think nothing of using the state machinery for organising large-scale Hindu rituals for political gain. The Congress party’s Digvijay Singh’s order to hold public prayers and yagnas for his victory in the 2003 elections in Madhya Pradesh was more than a match for the BJP chief minister of Karnataka, B S Yediyurappa, who used up INR 1.1 million in just five months for his pilgrimages to temples. Even the communist government in West Bengal thought nothing of doing a bhoomi puja for the land it wanted to gift to the Tatas for the Nano car factory.
Participation in public rituals like kathas, kirtans and satsangs is also growing among ordinary people – or, rather, these events and rituals are moving out of the family and into the public square, while also becoming more ostentatious and expensive affairs. The trends for engagement in public religious activities, again as measured by the National Election Surveys in 2004 and 2009, are following the trends for private pujas, with the wealthy, the upper castes and the educated leading the way. Close to 30 percent of upper-caste and wealthy respondents were found to have a high level of participation in public rituals, with Dalits and Adivasis generally falling around 16 percent. In recent years, both the upper castes and Dalits have shown an increase in public religious events, with 18 percent of Dalits reporting higher participation in 2009, as compared to 16 percent in 2004.
Third is the myth of ‘de-ritualisation’. The classical theorists of secularisation, from Karl Marx to Max Weber, believed that modernity would “melt all that is solid” (in Marx’s words), including belief in supernatural powers. The basic idea is that, as the general sense of human powers increase, the scope of ‘god’s will’, or fate, will diminish. To some extent this has happened, with people around the world increasingly accepting naturalistic explanations for natural disasters. But this process seems to have hit its limits already, and religions are learning to use the tools of technology and markets to celebrate god’s powers.
India provides a treasure trove of examples of this phenomenon, from the growing trend of ‘e-pujas’, remote darshans and computer-generated horoscopes, to Disney-like theme parks cropping up inside temples. But even at a more basic level, which may or may not deploy modern technology, the belief in the efficacy of prayer and ritual (like yagna) to change the course of events in the natural world is growing. This belies the hopes of 19th-century neo-Hindu reformers from Ram Mohan Roy of the Brahmo Samaj, Dayananda Saraswati of Arya Samaj to Swami Vivekananda, who stressed the textual and spiritual elements of the Vedas and Vedanta over the more ritualistic practices.
And fourth, the myth of rationalism and ‘scientific temper’. The expectation that religions will learn to scale down their claims about the ‘truth’ in the face of the growth of scientific knowledge has been belied. In fact, the language of science is now used to justify religious beliefs. Modern Hindu gurus have finessed the art of justifying the spirit-centred metaphysics of Brahminical Hinduism in modern, scientific terms. This ‘scientistic’ Hinduism sells better among those urban sophisticates who make a living in scientific and technological fields.
This growing religiosity of the well-heeled is often dismissed by intellectuals as somehow not authentic enough, as mere ‘consumerism’ or just one more experience the rich can spend their disposable income on and feel good doing it. But this disdain is unwarranted. Consuming religion is not like, say, consuming a new brand of beer or buying a new pair of shoes. Rather, consuming religion means participating in its rituals, living by divinely ordained prescriptions and generally sharing the sacredness of the experience – activities that shape people’s fundamental orientation of the world, and which give definition both to their view of themselves and that of those who are ‘different’. This does not mean that all religious activities lead to narrow-minded identities, or that all those who are more religious end up becoming intolerant – there are obviously many deeply religious Hindus who are not communal and many terribly communal people who are not religious at all. Rather, all this means is that religious activities shape identities, which in certain political contexts can become partisan.
Because it is so foundational for shaping identities and beliefs, widespread religiosity is a necessary precondition for religious nationalism. Only in those societies where old-style religion is sufficiently alive and well can the symbols derived from that religion serve to mobilise believers in the quest for national glory. When a sufficiently large number of people believe in the efficacy of religious rituals – say, the power of a yagna to bring a monsoon or to produce a son instead of a daughter – they do not consider it an illegitimate use of taxpayer money when elected representatives organise political yagnas. When a sufficiently large number of people believe that all that is good and creative about India comes from the country’s Vedic ‘golden age’, they will not complain much when the government gives out land grants and other subsidies to institutions specialising in ‘Vedic sciences’; or when preachers and politicians alike link India’s success in the global economy to the need to revive sanatan dharma (claimed by its adherents to be the original teachings) – as popular Hindu evangelicals such as Swami Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar routinely do.
There is actually an even more direct connection between religiosity and political choices. Up until 2004, there was a clear correlation between religiosity and voting behaviour: those Hindus who participated in public religious activities more frequently tended to vote for the BJP (38 percent) over the Congress (25 percent). In the 2009 elections, this relationship broke down, and this category of the highly religious showed the greatest decline (11 percent) in support for the BJP. According to Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti, who is involved with NES surveys, part of the reason why the more-religious Hindus deserted the BJP was because the party failed to assert strong Hindutva positions. Even more troublesome is the fact that those who are more strongly and more openly religious also are more majoritarian in their thinking. Such individuals believe that Hinduism is not just a religion, but rather a ‘way of life’ for all Indians – a position that clearly overlaps with that propagated by the Sangh Parivar. It appears that the more ardent Hindus, such as those who pray more often and who participate in religious rituals more often, are twice as likely as others to hold the belief that India is a Hindu country.
Thus, even though Hindu nationalist parties are not always able to win the Hindu vote – or “harvest the Hindu souls”, as one commentator put it after the 2009 elections – a shared ground of understanding does exist between Hindu religiosity and Hindutva politics. Intellectuals and all-purpose commentators such the Delhi political scientist Ashis Nandy, who confidently proclaim that Hinduism has nothing to do with Hindutva, are simply ignoring the available evidence. Popular religiosity is the soil in which religious nationalism strikes its roots. It is for this reason that secularist forces have to pay attention not just to violence in the name of religion, but to popular religiosity itself.
Most observers of social trends will grant that popular religiosity is on the rise in societies undergoing rapid economic change under the current conditions of globalisation. But there is very little agreement on what globalisation per se has to do with it. The most common connection with globalisation and religiosity is drawn at the social-psychological level. Globalisation and the growing reign of labour flexibility involve layoffs and outsourcing to outside contractors, thus heightening the uncertainties and insecurities of middle classes. The insecurities are percolating into family relations and often challenging the old mores that valued simplicity and frugality as virtues. The nouveau riche are seeking a way to balance their newfound wealth with the ‘spirituality’ and ‘simplicity’ they think they are losing by getting caught up in the mayajaal, or illusion, of consumerism. This is a socio-psychological explanation for the Indian trends that this author has offered in her previous work. In this, India resembles the dynamic described by the authors of God Is Back in the Christian context of the US and Britain, where “many religious people see religion not so much as the enemy of capitalism but as a necessary counterbalance to it … Religion provides a way to enjoy the fruits of capitalism while protecting from the thorns.”
At the same time, there is a more direct political-economic link between god and globalisation. As globalisation forces the nation state to privatise more of its social functions, it creates more opportunities for faith-based institutions to take over these functions. This link cannot be generalised, as the state-market-religion relations vary in different societies. But there is ample evidence of faith-based institutions benefiting from the cut-the-government-to-size drives in the US, especially under the presidency of George W Bush.
In India, too, the Hindu establishment is benefiting from the recent de-regulatory changes that favour private enterprise, especially in the area of higher education. (Both the ‘secular’ Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance support these measures for disinvestment and privatisation of education, health and other social services.) The same privatisation drive that has allowed for-profit ‘deemed universities’ to crop up all over the county has also opened the door for Hindu gurus and temple endowments to set up their own universities, which either specialise in ‘Vedic sciences’ such as astrology, vastu and karmakanda, or offer secular education, mostly in management and engineering, with a traditionalist slant. Once such institutions come into existence – with full credentials to confer degrees, and often with hefty land grants from the state governments – they attract donations and patronage from business houses. Almost all the stars of the guru business in India, from the late Mahesh Yogi to Sri Sri Ravishankar and Swami Ramdev, have enjoyed state largesse in setting up their own universities, as have numerous gurukuls that have cropped up to train young boys to become Hindu priests.
The other sector into which the Indian government is pouring money is the promotion of pilgrimage to countless Hindu holy spots – a cosy relationship within the state-temple-corporate complex. ‘Soft’ Hindutva, which unabashedly celebrates Hinduism as the national culture of India, is not a monopoly of the BJP and Sangh Parivar; indeed, all the great anti-communal forces routinely indulge in public celebrations of Hinduism for political gains. But more than just public celebrations, they are known to bend state policies to suit Hindu interests, as happened in the construction of the Akshardham temple complex in New Delhi on the banks of the Yamuna, which critics allege is environmentally unsound; and in the dispute over the land grab for the Amarnath yatra in Kashmir recently.
Any purported ‘ambivalence’ the corporate sector might have toward the BJP extends only to its ‘hard’ Hindutva politics, which has the potential for unleashing communal violence. But there is not much ambivalence when it comes to the promotion of explicitly religious aspects of Hindu culture as ‘Indian culture’ more generally. ‘Soft’ Hindutva has thus become de-facto state policy, regardless of which party is in power, and has the support of the corporate sector as well. Moreover, the concept of the state-temple-corporate complex is not meant to suggest a permanent power grab that has foreclosed all sites of struggle for secularism, but rather to suggest a loose, informal nexus that is using the new enthusiasm for the markets to tilt the balance toward the majority faith in India.
So, what is the answer to the question we started from – namely, can secularists trust globalisation and free markets? It is true that markets might be able to save us from violent religious extremism, and that is part of the reason for why the middle classes deserted the BJP and its allies in 2009. But the markets also deepen the reach of religion into the institutional spaces of society. The only real response to religious nationalism is to actively cultivate a secular culture that can displace the majority faith as the national culture. This would require a purposeful demolition of the truth claims of all faith-based ways of thinking – including the faith in the gospel of globalisation and ‘free’ markets.
~ Meera Nanda is a philosopher of science who initially trained in biology. Her most recent book is The God Market: How globalization is making India more Hindu (2010).