Gold and Gods in Modern India

The curious religiosity of India's nouveau riche

Steve Evans/WikimediaSteve Evans/WikimediaIt's an hour after opening time at a posh jewelry store in New Delhi. The scene is unusually sedate. Missing is the usual din of sales pitches and haggling. The sales girls sit primly behind glass counters, making no effort to pull out the coruscating fineries inside. Yet the customers, mostly wealthy women already dripping in diamonds, show no irritation. Everyone seems content to wait for something to happen.

That something, I learned when I entered the store on a recent trip, was the completion of the Hindu owner's morning oblations to the marbled deities, including the goddess of wealth, perched in the back. "He got stuck in traffic and arrived late," whispered a sales girl, "so he didn't get Lakshmi's blessings before opening." Until he did, business simply couldn't commence.

Not only did no one mind, they didn't think it could be any other way.

Indians love gold and they love gods. But in a contest between the two, gods have a clear edge, even in liberalized, modernizing India-or, rather, especially in that India.

This god-and-mammon revival is a development that wasn't predicted by Western philosophers, whether the right's Friedrich Nietzsche (who famously declared that "God is dead") and Max Weber, or Karl Marx and Emile Durk­heim on the left. To the contrary, they, like so many others, developed the secularization thesis: that in modernizing countries, science would replace supernatural beliefs with rational worldviews, and commerce would seduce people into material pursuits.

In recent years, this 19th-century philosophical consensus has split. On one side are doubters such as the University of Washington's Rodney Stark, who point to America's high levels of religiosity two-and-a-half centuries into the Industrial Revolution. (According to Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Americans retain some religious affiliation.) A post-Cold War religious resurgence in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland) and in relatively modernized Islamic countries such as Turkey also presents evidence against the thesis. And lest one dismiss these revivals as simply a backlash against religious repression by secular rulers, Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their 2009 book God Is Back document the global rise of American-style megachurches, especially Pentecostal, not only in Latin American countries such as Guatemala but also, improbably, in South Korea.

So powerful is this evidence that renowned sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University, one of the major theoreticians pushing the secularization thesis in the 1960s, seriously revised the thesis three decades later, throwing out key aspects and replacing them with weaker claims.

On the other side are thinkers like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose 2007 magnum opus, The Secular Age, forcefully reasserts the secularization doctrine. Taylor notes that moderns might maintain some nominal belief in God, but what distinguishes them from the pre-moderns is that they simply can't experience the world as "enchanted." They might not be militant atheists in the Christopher Hitchens mode, but they are fundamentally cut off from deeper kinds of religious experiences, which makes them tone deaf to non-scientific understandings of reality.

But since India ended its tryst with Fabian socialism and embraced a market economy in the 1990s, it has fallen firmly in the Stark-Micklethwait-Wooldridge camp. God is not only back in India, but back with a vengeance. Economic liberalization has produced what Meera Nanda, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, described in her 2009 book The God Market as "the rush hour of the gods."

Far from posing a threat to Hinduism, India's dominant religion, modernization has given it a major boost. What remains to be seen is whether a revived Hinduism will be good for liberal democracy's core commitment to a neutral state that respects religious pluralism-especially after the May elections that handed a decisive victory to Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist who derides India's accommodations of religious minorities as "pseudo secularism."

Tech Money Goes to the Temple

India has always been a deeply religious country where public displays of piety command an automatic moral high ground-precisely what the jewelry storeowner was counting on by having customers wait while he prayed.

Contrast that to America, the most pious Western country, where religion is something one generally leaves at home. Even wearing a small crucifix can come across as too in-your-face in some American situations. Not so in India where religion, like the stars and trees, is everywhere.

Women and men wear necklaces and bracelets adorned with Hindu religious symbols, without a trace of self consciousness. Figurines of gods adorn dashboards; posters of deities drape store walls; garlanded idols are prominently displayed in professional offices; and religious songs blare constantly into the air from places of worship and loud private ceremonies.

But market-led growth has minted a class of mostly Hindu nouveau riche-generated, ironically, from the high-tech boom-for whom religion is a consumer good, like ostentatious weddings or fancy cars.

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  • sarcasmic||

    Another long article about arrogant jerks with indecipherable accents.


  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    British colonial officials?

  • sarcasmic||

    Them too.

  • SusanM||

    European drivers?

  • ||

    Ok, I went to the smithsonian with my kids yesterday. Natural history museum to be exact. And they have a big exhibit on Indian Americans. And almost,the entire display of their impact on America is about doctors,,cab drivers and hotel operators. I mean, they have displays saying those three things are the cultural impact Indians have here. Down to a mockup of a hotel lobby and a cab meter.

    That was a lot more racist than anything the could have come up with aside from an endless loop of Apu saying "thank you, come again" at the exhibits exit.

  • WTF||

    No 7-11?

  • Rich||

    No "Peggy"?

  • Rhywun||

    They could have at least had a mock IT department.

  • sarcasmic||

    What do you expect? It was set up by Joe Biden.

  • Rich||

    What remains to be seen is whether a revived Hinduism will be good for liberal democracy's core commitment to a neutral state that respects religious pluralism.

    My Hindu friend points out that, regardless of which god anybody believes they are worshiping, Vishnu knows they are really worshiping *Him*. Cool, huh?

  • Bean Counter||

    And Aslan knows that when you do good things in the name of Tash, that you are really doing it as worship of Him.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Dalmia's analysis is flawed in that she chooses to examine India in a vacuum. Her essay is like an attempt to explain the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist militancy in Sri Lanka without even once mentioning the Tamil Tigers. One would think that a major contributing factor to Hindu revivalism would be the fact that modern India was birthed by having large swaths of its territory secede to form (eventually) two hostile Islamic states, of which one has gone to war with India three times. It also ignores the equally revivalist Islamic movements in India, especially the Deobandi of Uttar Pradesh. If Dalmia is going to her V. S. Naipaul on (and she could definitely do worse), she needs to add equal parts of Among the Believers with her India: A Wounded Civilization.

  • Marktaylor||

    This article is a crock of shit.

  • Rhywun||

    Thanks for your helpful contribution. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • briannnnn||

    But he's so right!

  • Bill||

    Interesting article.

  • some guy||

    So, in pre-industrial times people tended to be very religious because they needed to attach some sort of causes to the otherwise inexplicable things that were going on around them.

    Then, when the industrial revoultion strikes, people start to move away from religion as they start to understand how the world really works and that they can work hard under that knowledge to improve their quality of life.

    Finally, as people become affluent they move back toward religion because they've got nothing better to do with their comfortable lives.

  • Rhywun||

    Is that the TL;DR version? I intend to read the article eventually (I read the magazine on the throne). But if that's the idea - it does sound like crap to me.

  • Bean Counter||

    It's really more a matter of a post-industrial revolution world providing material comfort but no sense of purpose or community. Whatever their flaws, religions provide both of these. At it's best, religion can inspire awesome acts of charity and self-sacrifice. At it's worst you get the Middle Ages or the Bible Belt.

  • Rhywun||

    I guess I'm just not wired for religion. Nor do I have any particular "need" for those things.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Europe was 90+% Christian in the 1900s, and the 1800s were a time of enormous religious revival (especially among the laity). Japan also experienced great religious foment during the Meiji era. The move away from religion was largely confined to the elite and the intelligentsia, two groups of people who really had no connection to "how the world really works". Indeed, it is only with the advent of the secular school system the social democratic system that Europe and the US have become more secularized. In any case, India is hardly a good example of a post-industrial modern state. Your thesis needs work.

  • RishJoMo||

    Come on dude lets roll with it already.

  • briannnnn||

    So a four page article that basically says Hinduism is more a fashion statement than a religion and that's why it can coincide with economic success? I'm not sure how you come to this conclusion as being anything but perfectly in line with the though of Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Nietzsche:

    "There is something eternal in religion that is destined to outlive the succession of particular symbols in which religious thought has clothed itself"

    -Emile Durkheim

    The development of the concept of the calling quickly gave to the modern entrepreneur a fabulously clear conscience – and also industrious workers; he gave to his employees as the wages of their ascetic devotion to the calling and of co-operation in his ruthless exploitation of them through capitalism the prospect of eternal salvation.

    -Max Weber

  • briannnnn||

    Religion is [the world’s] general basis for consolation…The struggle against religion is…a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of [people], is a demand for their real happiness.

    -Karl Marx

    God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

    -Friedrich Nietzsche

  • SusanM||

    As long as we're quote slinging...

    "Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
    "The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
    "'But,' says Man, 'the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
    "'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
    "'Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
    "Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his bestselling book, Well That about Wraps It Up for God."

    Douglas Adams

  • briannnnn||

    I was just specifically using the four philosophers that she said would not have predicted this outcome in India and listing four of their most famous quotes which point to the fact that this is exactly what they would have expected.

    Mostly because Dalmia is a dumbass and I like pointing it out, if only to myself and the 6 people who read these comments :)

  • Marktaylor||

    Religion is an attempt to answer existential questions which remain unanswered and likely always will. There is nothing particularly interesting about this point in time. We live with the most cutting edge science today, so did the people of a 100 years ago, a 1,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. Discoveries of Higgs Boson particles are no more helpful at answering questions of existence and purpose than when Grogg discovered shit could float.

  • briannnnn||

    Also, just want to point out how glaringly Eurocentric this take on India is. I don't know anything about her (except that her articles are all ridiculously poorly reasoned), but I would think someone named Shikha Dalmia could offer a slightly less, well White for lack of a better word, viewpoint.

  • AS||

    You make a good point. Middle-aged and older Indians grew up with an inferiority complex with respect to the West. Consequently, they often try to imitate the West in order to raise their status. One aspect of this imitation is for Indian journalists to write the same type of nonsense that Western ones do!

    What really bothers me is seeing her articles in a sensible libertarian magazine. I wish she would write for The Guardian or NYT instead.

  • briannnnn||

    Or not write at all because she sucks at it ;)

  • Warren||

    You're confusing piety with faith Shikha. People want to be seen as religious for the same reason that in a country with over ten million atheists, not a single one has been elected to congress.

  • AS||

    It is not correct to compare religious trends in the West with that in India, because Hinduism is fundamentally different from Abrahamic religions. The latter are faith based, while Hinduism is ultimately based on empirical spiritual experience. A reason for the popularity of gurus is that they have enabled their disciples to obtain spiritual experience.

    The author of this article, like the professor from the Marxist JNU that she quotes, is out of touch with real India and so resorts to wild speculations about the consequences of Hindu religiosity. She complains about Hindu concerns on special privileges for religious minorities. Why should anyone have special privileges (such as subsidized trips to Mecca and permission to have up to four wives)?

  • 4thaugust1932||

    Google "Companies ruined by Indians"

    If you meet anybody from India ask him "What Is Your Caste?" If he answers it, then you're doomed. Because he has already injected Cancer into your Country. Caste is like Cancer. It cannot be Cured. It has to be Cut-Off.

  • 4thaugust1932||

    India is an uncivilized nation for your girl child.


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