Gold and Gods in Modern India

The curious religiosity of India's nouveau riche


Steve Evans/Wikimedia

It'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.

Religious pilgrimages are at an all-time high. Annual visitation to Vaishno Devi, a mountain shrine near Kashmir, increased from 5 million in 2000 to 10 million in 2012. Private choppers now offer luxury trips to devotees who want to avoid the steep hike. Last year's eight-week Maha Kumbh Mela attracted a record 100 million Hindus from across India for a dip in the holy Ganges, twice more than when it was last held in 2001.

Donations to temples have exploded. The famous southern temple of Tirupati has now become the wealthiest and the most visited religious institution in the world, ahead even of the Vatican.

Swami Nikhilananda, the regional head of the Chinmaya Mission, one of the oldest and most cerebral Hindu orders, maintains that money is no longer a concern. For example, after the mission announced plans to build a major ashram in Pune about seven years ago, donations soon arrived like manna from heaven, and now there's a shiny new $120 million structure attracting devotees from around the country. Since 1993, the mission has almost doubled its ashrams from 200 to 350-as has the Rama­krishna Mission, another old order.

And the guru business, always lucrative, has become a major growth industry. Established orders such as Chinmaya and the Ramakrishna have been adding members at a rapid clip-10 to 15 percent annually. More striking, however, is the proliferation of scores of new gurus, each with his or her unique marketing strategy and formula for enlightenment.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the charismatic founder of the Art of Living, has built a $150 million global empire largely through word-of-mouth testimonials for his patented breathing and meditation technique, which his website dubs a "spiritual breakthrough." Nirmal Baba has become fabulously wealthy by paying 40 TV channels across Asia to air his public therapy sessions, in which he counsels women trying to get pregnant, for example, to have green rather than red chutney.

Then there is the Hugging Amma, who, too, has amassed a fortune by jet-setting around the globe giving healing hugs to millions of devotees.

A Prosperity Religion

But the question is why, in modern India, has Hinduism thrived more than other faiths in other places? Every swami I spoke to-Nikhilananda of Chinmaya, Sadhguru of Isha, and Shantamananda of Ramakrishna-attributed this to Hinduism itself; the fact that it is a loose collection of spiritual insights and practices, free of the rigid dogmas that characterize revealed, monotheistic faiths. "Christianity talks about salvation," observed Swami Nikhilananda, "whereas Hinduism talks about enlightenment."

All great religions are complicated belief systems that to some extent can be adapted to different times. Protestantism's fabled frugality, singled out by Weber, is arguably equally suited to pre-capitalistic scarcity and the capitalistic need for saving.

But the absence of dogma gives Hinduism an almost amoebic ability to mold itself to the socio-economic needs of its times. Hinduism long regarded the renunciation of wealth and the embrace of asceticism as higher virtues-perhaps because that message was better suited for a time of rampant poverty. The pathetic 2 percent annual growth India experienced for decades was even dubbed the "Hindu rate of growth."

Post-liberalization, however, Hinduism has rapidly metamorphosed into a religion of prosperity. Swami Nikhilananda, in fact, tells his upwardly mobile devotees that there is no conflict between core Hindu beliefs and the pursuit of wealth. "It is a misunderstanding to think otherwise," he reassures.

Hinduism is flexible not just ethically but epistemologically, allowing it to avoid the kinds of head-on collisions with science that have sporadically battered Christianity since the Enlightenment. Superstition and belief in miracles is widespread in Hinduism because science can't disprove them. But there is no debate over evolution versus creationism.

Just as there is no intrinsic conflict between Hinduism and wealth, insists Sadhguru, there is also none between Hinduism and science. Both seek to understand ultimate reality. Neither requires one to blindly accept divine revelation. Science examines the evidence of the senses; Hinduism explores one's own inner subjective experiences.

A guru's job, far more than a priest's or rabbi's, is to guide believers into having these experiences through a routine of meditation, yoga, and engagement with religious texts. But what works will vary from individual to individual. A competitive religious marketplace that offers devotees a wide array of different spiritual options, along with market-tested information about them, has therefore been vital to reviving Hinduism, observed Susham Mongia, a bank executive who quit to be a full-time, unpaid teacher at the Art of Living. "A market economy that allows for a direct connection with the believer," Mongia notes, "suits Hinduism's essentially subjective nature much more than when it had to rely on state patronage under Islamic and British rulers."

Religiosity, Revived

All of these factors have combined to make India's religious revival not just bigger in scale than those in other countries, but also deeper. When Berger repudiated his secularization thesis, he offered up a watered down version that made three major claims: modernity would spawn a secular intelligentsia at odds with the popular religious zeitgeist; it would produce an institutional differentiation with religious establishments focusing narrowly on spiritual needs, leaving other specialized institutions to deal with other matters; and it would pluralize societies, allowing different beliefs and values to co-exist. The dominant faith, he said, would have to cope with the fact that there are "all those others," not just in a faraway country but right next door.

But India's resurgent religiosity has defied Berger's updated version on all three counts. For starters, the god bug has bitten intellectuals and urban sophisticates, not just the hoi polloi. Gone is the secular elite that, after independence from the British in 1947, pooh-poohed the superstitions of the unwashed masses and aspired to a higher scientific temperament befitting an industrializing country.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies found that self-reported levels of religiosity in India were much higher among educated city slickers than illiterate peasants in villages. Remarkably, a 2008 poll by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture found that nearly 40 percent of Indian scientists believed that God performs miracles and 24 percent believed that humans with special divine powers do so too.

An engineer-turned-businessman of my acquaintance has no trouble believing that the Sun Yogi subsists, plant-like, solely on energy from sunlight. Nor are such beliefs considered nutty. If anything, this lack of scientific judgmentalism is admired, seen as a sign of incorruptible piety-in direct contradiction to Taylor's view that modernity causes people to lose their capacity to see the world as "enchanted."

Hinduism's many rituals and observances used to be largely confined to women and wives. Men either eschewed religion or subscribed to quieter, more philosophical versions. Now, however, it has become fashionable for men and women alike to partake in public and showy religious ceremonies.

"The educated elite don't feel that they have to defend their practices and beliefs against secularist finger-wagging," writes Nanda. "There is a new, unapologetic and open embrace of religiosity in India today which wasn't there in, say, the first half of our 60-plus years as a republic."

The religious tsunami is sweeping institutions as well. One of the services that Hindu gurus have traditionally provided is scripture-based counseling to "solace seekers," as Sadhguru, whose Isha Foundation grew from nothing in 1993 to hundreds of thousands of followers today, calls them. But with rising wealth and modernity, one would have expected professionally trained specialists to supplant gurus.

In fact, the exact opposite is happening. The stigma against going to therapists is driving Indians into the arms of gurus. "Hinduism can offer better therapy with lesser furniture for the anxieties of modern-day life," chuckles Sadhguru, who himself decompressed in his pre-guru days by riding a motorcycle in the mountains.

Religious institutions are also increasingly stepping in to fill the public-service holes left by India's corrupt and inefficient government. Nearly every order promotes some pet cause, whether it's environmental cleanup, rural education, organic farming, or simply tending to the poor. The Chinmaya Foundation has even initiated programs to hone young people's workplace skills-public speaking, PowerPoint presentations-to succeed in a modern economy.

Pluralism in Peril

A strongly religious intelligentsia might be considered benign. Religious outfits branching beyond spiritual services might be regarded as a desirable civil society response to unmet social needs. However, there is nothing benign or desirable about India's diminishing pluralism, the third prediction from Berger's updated thesis.

India's Hindus-80 percent of the 1.3 billion-strong population-are now eager to shed the perception that Hinduism is a "loser religion," in part by straining to make sure that India's economic rise is attributed to its spiritual source. Hence, they have undertaken a program of pro-Hindu scientific and historical revisionism, which involves dissing minority religions. (While Islamic extremism arguably stems from the socio-economic malaise in Muslim countries, Hindu extremism, distressingly, has its roots in India's success.)

One particularly preposterous claim that some gurus have popularized is that Hinduism's ancient scriptures had already anticipated the discoveries of modern science. Nuclear weapons? Hindus invented them 3,000 years ago. Speed of light? The Rig Veda had that figured out four millennia ago. The basic storyline about why Indians have been particularly successful in the Information Technology age, scoffs Nanda in her book, is that "our Hindu heritage has endowed us with an intuitive grasp of the interconnections between isolated bits of information."

Hindu nationalists meanwhile are pushing history texts in schools that embrace the religion's strengths while blaming its ills-the infamous caste system, the subjugation of women-on monotheistic "invaders."

Such revisionism is feeding an ugly politics of Hindu triumphalism whose core demand is that the special accommodations for minority religions enshrined in the Indian constitution (some of which are admittedly ill advised) be scrapped entirely. Three decades ago, it would have been vulgar and politically incorrect to suggest that India is a Hindu nation. Now it is commonplace. In fact, such sentiments were partly responsible for catapulting Narendra Modi, a Hindu triumphalist, into the prime minister's office this summer. That his state, Gujarat, experienced one of the country's worst Muslim pogroms since partition when he was its chief minister was not a dealbreaker for the majority Hindu electorate. Much of Modi's Hindu base didn't care about the bloody episode and was only too eager to give him a pass, preferring to let him focus on the message of economic revival. For many, the violence actually enhanced the new prime minister's tough-guy appeal.

Hindu-Muslim violence has always marred India, and continues to do so. But anti-Christian violence has increased dramatically as well. By some estimates, there were 53 attacks against Christians from 1964 to 1997. In 2004, there were 4,000, according to a Christian Forums report. Most disturbingly, one is hard-pressed to find any major Hindu guru who condemns such violence, much less campaigns against it. All of this cuts against the bedrock Enlightenment belief that markets and commerce tamp down sectarian differences because people engaged in mutually beneficial exchange have a stake in each other's well-being.

Such excesses can be attributed to a resurgent religion's excitement over newfound popularity, akin to the ostentatious preening of India's nouveau riche. Once the giddiness wears off, Hinduism's own inner decency and the external mirror that globalization shines might cause India to recoil at this reactionary turn.

Hindu hotheads earlier this year caused an international furor when they forced Penguin Books to withdraw-on the threat of a libel suit and violence-University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History because of its overly erotic interpretation of the religion. Indian authors reacted by angrily asking Penguin to cancel their book contracts in solidarity with Doniger.

Globalization will remind India of the international norms of human rights and individual liberties, and hopefully strengthen the domestic constituency pushing for them. If India's domestic religious market has contributed to a bellicose Hinduism, the global marketplace of ideas might yet temper it.

Hinduism has defeated the secularization thesis and reached new heights of popularity by staying on the right side of modernity, using markets and new technologies to identify and satisfy the needs of believers. But its future popularity will depend on staying on the right side of history, and avoiding excesses that might discredit it both at home and abroad.

To that end, Indians might do well to pray not only to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, but also to Saraswati, goddess of wisdom.