Update: The title of Meera Nanda’s upcoming book will be “The God Market: How Globalization is making India more Hindu” and not “God and Globalization in India” as previously reported. The book will be published by Random House later this year. This post contains the full text of the introduction, except for the chapter outline and personal notes.
Introduction: God and Globalization in India
India had its own “why do they hate us?” moment after the city of Mumbai came under attack in late November 2008 by a bunch of gunmen with links to terrorist outfits based in Pakistan. Many in India answered the question much the same way George Bush famously explained the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States: Islamic terrorists hate us because we are good and they are evil; we are free and democratic and they hate freedom and democracy. Some took this rhetoric even further and argued that we are good, free and democratic because we are a Hindu nation, and the Islamists hate us because we are Hindus.
This us-them divide was further linked to globalization, a word that got bandied about a great deal in the aftermath of Mumbai attack. Pakistanis hate us, many argued in India, because we are winning in the global economy, while they are a bunch of sore losers bent upon dimming the bright glow of our economic miracle. The terror attacks were seen as a conspiracy meant to destroy the confidence of global investors, slow down or even reverse the outsourcing of IT and other jobs to India, and stop the foreign tourists from coming.
Not only is India seen as winning the globalization race on the economic front, but on the civilizational front as well. As Robert Kaplan, a well-known foreign policy expert wrote in The New York Times shortly after the Mumbai attacks, globalization has led Indians to rediscover their glorious Hindu civilization, supposedly the source of its “vibrantly free” democracy, while Muslims of India and Pakistan are re-discovering their Islamic culture which has only encouraged them to withdraw into “beards, skull-caps and burkas.” This sentiment was echoed in India as well. As M.V. Kamath, a commentator well-known for his Hindu Right views wrote in The Organiser, while the “indestructible, incredible India, so cheerful and forgiving,” is busy sending rockets to the moon, its “sick” Muslim neighbor and many Indian Muslims are bent upon isolating themselves by “wearing skull-caps.. forcing women to wear burkas and otherwise refusing to join the mainstream.” In both cases, the excesses of the Taliban and allied extremists are being made to stand for all of Islam, while the accomplishments of India – but none of its failings — happily claimed for the glory of Hinduism.
In this narrative, India with its Hindu civilization is presented as the bright, forward-facing side of globalization, while Pakistan — and indeed, Islam itself – is made to stand for its dark, demonic and backward-facing underside. The world gets divided into two: the winners who have the right kind of civilizational resources to play and win in the global economy, and the rest who are deemed to be laggards, if not total losers.
India has joined this game of civilizational one-upmanship with great gusto. Out of the four BRIC countries that are projected to emerge as global economic powers by the middle of this century – Brazil, Russia, India and China – India is most aggressive about projecting its civilizational virtues in its quest for a Great Power status. Quite like the United States, India sees itself as the outpost of democratic capitalism, pluralism and religious tolerance in a world full of religious zealots and terrorists.
WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT
This book questions this narrative that pits a virtuous, victorious and Hindu India against the evil designs of Islamic terrorists – or rather, to use the language of Hindu nationalists, the evil designs of all those who follow the “criminal Semitic creeds” including not just Islam, but Christianity as well. It is the thesis of this book that the growing liberalization and globalization of the Indian economy is not only compatible with, but is actually contributing to the growth of a virulent form of political Hinduism which is as wedded to the project of politicizing and universalizing a Hindu (or “Vedic”) worldview, as the Islamists and Christian fundamentalists are to maximizing the influence of their own respective faith traditions. The “us” is not the virtuous opposite of “them,” but rather a twin, who differs only in appearance and rhetoric, but not in ambitions and methods.
This book will show that underneath the rhetoric of free markets, democracy and secularism, India is undergoing a sea change in its political economy and political culture – a change that is being hastened and encouraged by the forces of globalization. We will examine the evidence for the emergence of what we will call the “state-temple-corporate complex” in India that is dissolving the pre-existing boundaries (such as they were) between the Hindu religious establishment, the machinery of the state in matters relating to education, the media, health etc. and the interests of big businesses and corporations, both Indian and multinational. (A note to the reader: since Hindus make up the vast majority of the people of India, it is Hinduism that will be sole focus of this book. Changes in the rest of the many religions of India will be acknowledged, but not investigated in any detail.)
Aided by this state-temple-corporate complex, a very ordinary, ritualistic – but very nationalistic — Hinduism is growing in the pores of the Indian society. Unlike most post-9/11 books that concentrate on the extremist or fundamentalist movements, this book focuses on the everyday Hinduism of ordinary Indians, especially those belonging to the new middle classes whose lifestyles, consumer tastes and aspirations are defined by the global consumer culture. The changing religious culture of the new middle-classes is important to understand for the simple reason they have been most receptive to global capitalism on the one hand, and to the siren songs of Hindu nationalism on the other.
This emphasis on everyday Hinduism stems from the fundamental assumption this book is based upon, namely, popular Hinduism is the soil in which the tree of Hindu nationalism is rooted, and Hindu gods, rituals and sacred texts are the nutrients that keep it growing. Hindu gods, myths and rituals by themselves have no necessary or inherent link to nationalism, or any -ism at all, including Hinduism itself, which some have argued is a modern invention. But they serve as readily available and dearly cherished cultural resources for mobilizing Hindu supremacist passions among the masses. As the national history, culture and destiny of India gets to be told and ritually enacted — over and over again, everyday — through the medium of Hindu gods and goddesses, the line between the worship of God and the worship of the nation is getting fainter by the day. India is not only witnessing a resurgence of popular religiosity, this religiosity is becoming indistinct from national and even civilizational self-glorification that openly demonizes Muslims and Christians and often verges on hubris. Backed by nuclear bombs and an ever-growing arsenal of sophisticated weapons, this hubris can spell disaster for the entire subcontinent.
The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies at home, and the growing linkages with corporate capital abroad, is aiding and abetting this fusion of faith with jingoism — this thesis lies at the heart of this book. In other words, Hindu nationalism does not exist in the realm of ideas alone, but is embedded in the dominant political-economic institutions of India Inc., the new India that dreams superpower dreams.
At the institutional level, popular Hinduism is riding on the coattails of the so-called “public-private partnerships” that are filling in the space vacated by the public sector as India comes under the sway of market reforms. The book will provide concrete evidence for the growing Hinduization of a whole variety of institutions run by the four-sided public-private collaboration we call the state-temple-corporate complex (or STCC for short). The four collaborators include: first and foremost, the elected representatives of the people along with the machinery of the government; two, the corporate sector, both Indian and foreign; three, the country’s dominant religious sector, made up of a loose network of Hindu temples (some of them stupendously wealthy), their management committees with powerful government and business representatives on their boards and the many well-connected gurus, yogis and swamis; and last but not the least, the representatives of political Hinduism, or Hindutva, who maintain fraternal relations with the Hindu establishment on the one hand and with the corporate players on the other.
This four-sided collaboration, this book will show, is responsible for openly or covertly smuggling in a jingoistic and yet deeply superstitious and socially conservative Hindu agenda into private and government-aided institutions of higher learning. In addition, public money for tourism and infrastructure projects is flowing into promoting pilgrimage to Hindu temples and other holy places, renovating and even directly subsidizing the building of new temples, ashrams and priest-training schools.
So pervasive and so utterly taken-for-granted is this institutional support for propagating Hinduism in the guise of promoting “Indian culture,” that even the formally secular agencies of the state openly indulge in it at tax-payers’ expense — and hardly anyone asks any questions. If “they” have their fanatical mullahs, “we” have the eager cooperation of the four main pillars of society, backed by the enthusiastic consent of ordinary people.
At the ideological level, globalization is fuelling the dreams of making India an economic and spiritual superpower – a science and technology superstar and world guru (or jagat-guru) rolled in one. Elated by India’s success in the global economy (such as it is), many players of the state-temple-corporate complex, along with influential opinion-makers in the media, have bought into the dreams of superpower-dom. A new self-image is being fashioned in which Indians are the Chosen People who have the “innate ability” to see and hear the Divine, and who are therefore endowed with superior reason and intelligence. This race of spiritual and intellectual giants, the myth goes, has long been besieged by dwarfs who believe in the Semitic conception of God which has been the source of all the evils in the world. The 21st century is supposed to be the Indian century, when India will awaken to its destiny and take its “rightful place” as a great civilization and a great power. Elements of this new mythology have already seeped into the public sphere and can be easily identified in conversations with educated, middle-class Indians, in media commentaries and in the religious discourses of popular gurus.
This Chosen People-Great Power myth is not a pipedream, but has real world consequences. This cultural narcissism is very much on display in the eagerness with which India has joined the US-led “axis of the enlightened” nations against the “axis of evil” nations which are mostly Islamic and therefore assumed to be fundamentally unenlightened and violent.
This entire arc of development – starting from India’s deepening links with the global economy, the increasing religiosity of the Hindu majority, the growing inter-penetration of popular Hinduism and the public sphere, all the way to Hinduism’s purported superiority over “Semitic monotheistic” civilizations and the prospects of secularism under the conditions of globalization — is the subject of this book.
GLOBALIZATION AND RESURGENCE OF RELIGION
On the surface, our thesis strains plausibility. For a great many years, notable social theorists have been predicting a decline – if not the death – of organized religions, nation-states and nationalistic feelings in the global village interconnected by markets, the internet and communication satellites. We, on the other hand, are asserting not only that popular religiosity and nationalism are growing in India as the country is getting more integrated into the world markets, but that the two are merging into each other and stoking the flames of intolerance — and even terrorism — against non-Hindu minorities.
At first glance, it does seem counter-intuitive that a closer integration with the rest of the world should encourage the kind of burst of religiosity and nationalism that India is experiencing. Wasn’t the global spread of free-markets and democracy supposed to “end history” by “replacing irrational desire of nations to be recognized as greater than others with a rational desire be recognized as equal”? That was certainly the gist of Francis Fukuyama’s bestseller The End of History which caused a great stir when it was first published in 1992. The self-correcting logic of the global market was supposed to replace the interest-driven and often corruption-laden policies of individual nation-states, and eventually purge the world of nationalism itself. National identities were supposed to give way either to supra-national identities (like the European Union), or to gently transmute into a postmodern “pastiche sensibility” that values a variety of life-style choices borrowed from all over the world, with no special attachment to any one national culture. What is more, global markets were supposed to moderate and secularize traditional religions, turning them into gentle “prosperity religions” whose role, as Alan Wolfe, a well-known American sociologist of religion put it recently, is “not to question the modern world’s riches but to bring them within the reach of everyone.” A world-wide outbreak of liberal democracy, pluralism, respect for difference, secularism, prosperity and international peace – that was the original promise of globalization.
What is happening in India shows that market forces do not necessarily secularize societies, or to put it other words, modernization and development do not necessarily lessen the hold of religious beliefs and practices on the lives of individuals, culture and social institutions. Even the supposedly secularized “prosperity religions” can happily co-exist with – and actively encourage – religionization of national identities.
Indeed, India offers a good example of how globalization promotes not secularization, but rather de-secularization of society, and how new technologies and institutional arrangements provide new opportunities for traditional religions to modernize themselves and penetrate deeper into the pores of the society. Despite the rhetoric of Timeless and Eternal Truth, Hindu dharma, like all other religions, is constantly adapting to the changing society and in the process, influencing the direction of change. What is noteworthy about Hinduism’s adaptation to India’s growing integration into the global market economy is how the Hindu establishment has given its blessings to – and in turn, benefited handsomely from — a highly rapacious form of corporate capitalism, while feeding a sense of innate Hindu superiority over the rest of the world.
It is, of course, too soon to foreclose the possibility that the logic of the marketplace may yet help to moderate the Frankenstein of political Hinduism that the markets themselves are aiding and abetting. It clear that large-scale and violent self-assertion of religious identity (as over the issue of the Ram temple in Aydodhya), or massacre of innocents of the “wrong” religion (as in Godhara, Gujarat) is not good for the country’s global image and foreign investments. Since no one knowingly kills the goose that lays golden eggs, Hindu extremist parties and their supporters among the upper-crust may well learn to moderate their rhetoric and actions in the interest of maintaining the image of India as a place of peace and harmony. So far, however, the chances of moderation do not look good: Hindu-led violence is not declining but only being outsourced to local dals and senas, the many armies of this or that god or goddess, whose activities do not get the kind of international media attention that the attacks on Mumbai received.
All said and done, India is like a tightrope walker these days: one false step can throw the entire country and its economy can fall in utter chaos. The ever growing merger of Hinduism and nationalist sentiments increases the possibility of just such a false step.
There are three paradoxes of the growing Hinduization of the Indian polity that this book seeks to explore in fuller details.
The first paradox is that the state-temple ties are deepening in a country that takes pride in its secular democracy where the state is supposed to have no official religion of its own. India with its Godless Constitution is indeed an exception in South Asia, a region made up entirely of faith-based nation-states, including Islamic sates like Pakistan and Bangladesh, Buddhist states like Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and until recently, a Hindu state like Nepal. This naturally makes one wonder why and how India’s public sphere, including the agencies of the state, have come to be saturated with overtly Hindu symbols and rituals?
This book explains this paradox by focusing on the machinations of the state-temple-corporate complex that is filling the space left vacant as the state has begun to withdraw from its public-sector obligations.
In one sense, the existence of STCC is nothing new. The supposedly secular state of India has never shied away from celebrating Hindu religious symbols in the public sphere – all in the name of propagating “Indian culture.” Merchants and business houses, too, have a long history, going back many centuries, of sponsoring temples and monasteries devoted to their own chosen God or gurus.
But the current neo-liberal economic regime, this book will argue, is bringing the state, the business/industrial elite and the religious establishment in a much closer relationship than ever before. As the Indian state is withdrawing from its public-sector obligations, it is actively seeking partnership with the private sector and the Hindu establishment to run schools, universities, hospitals, tourist facilities and other social services. As a result, public funds earmarked for creating public goods are increasingly being diverted into facilitating the work of these private charitable institutions which bear a distinctly Hindu traditionalist bias. This, in turn, is helping to “modernize” Hinduism: many of the newly minted, English-speaking and computer-savvy priests, astrologers, vastu shastris and yoga teachers who service the middle-classes’ insatiable appetite for religious ritual, are products of this nexus between the sate, the corporate sector and the temples.
The second paradox that this book explores is apparent “liberalism,” and the post-modernist eclecticism and hybridity of Hindu nationalism. The kind of political Hinduism that has become the new normal in India differs from the much-derided “Islamofascism,” or the garden-variety Christian fundamentalism in the US in one significant detail: there are no equivalents of fatwa-issuing mullahs or Bible-thumping preachers among the more popular and influential figures of Hindu nationalists. Of course, Fatwa-like death threats, Taliban-style moral policing, terrorist attacks on Muslim and Christian communities, Vedic literalism in the guise of “Vedic science” and forced conversions all go on in India, but they are mostly outsourced to fringe and lumpen groups. The mainstream of political Hinduism, unlike the mainstream of political Islam, consistently presents its agenda in the liberal language of “real” secularism, democracy and tolerance, all of which are claimed to be Hinduism’s gift to the world.
By and large, the modern-day preachers of Hinduism are far too sophisticated to resort to the far cruder methods of mullahs and Bible-thumping ministers. Like a virus that replicates itself by using the biological machinery of the host cell, Hindu nationalism installs itself in the minds and hearts of ordinary people by using their deeply-held religious beliefs, dearly-loved rituals and festivals, and fondly-remembered myths, hymns and songs. What is even more insidious is how modern Hinduism has learned to present its deeply unjust, hierarchical and mystical worldview as the epitome of “integral” humanism, democracy and science. This shallow but shiny gloss of liberal-sounding vocabulary is how modern Hinduism is sold to the IT-workers, financial-sector employees and other white-collar service providers who make up the bulk of the new middle-class.
This kind of pseudo-modern Hinduism thrives on a strikingly post-modernist style of thinking which draws wild and unwarranted equivalences and analogies between pre-modern and modern conceptions of liberal democracy, tolerance, science etc. This great interpretive flexibility and hybridity of Hinduism is routinely admired by intellectuals and ideologues alike as a source of India’s purported tolerance and openness to modern ideas.
But this book will argue that this eclecticism has served not to liberalize or modernize, but to deepen the hold of Hindu religious culture on the secular aspects of Indian society, including education, government administration, business enterprises and even the judiciary. Hindu eclecticism excels in transferring the attitudes of reverence, faith and enthusiasm typical of religious experience to secular institutions and ideas. The rituals of Hindu puja, for example, are transferred to the Indian nation which is literally represented as a Hindu goddess, Bharat Mata. The attitude of reverence reserved for religious teachers is transferred to scientific teaching and learning to the point that laboratories are treated as temples and temples as “occult laboratories”. The all-pervasive atman, or shakti of Hinduism becomes the “energy” of quantum physics and so on. Dominant ideas, ways of thinking and political projects give the appearance of being modern, but they retain the core of traditional Hindu worldview.
The third paradox has to do with the manufacture of consent for privatization and trickle-down economics. The results of the 2004 elections clearly showed that the majority of voters who did not share in the gains of the new economy were turned off by the hoopla about “India Shining” and threw out the Hindu-nationalist led government. In a country where more than 700 million people still live on less than two US dollars a day and where the majority is seeing a worsening of whatever little there was in the name of public services like schools and hospitals, it is not easy to convince the masses of the virtues of free markets.
This raises the following question which this book tries to answer: How are the economic policies which require dispossession of the poor but give them precious little in return being sold to the electorate? What, in other words, are the ideological legitimations for the new economy which can make it acceptable to even those who are not benefiting materially from it?
The answer lies in what this book calls “superpower swadeshi” (lit. one’s own country, swa “one’s own,” and deshi, “country”.) India has performed a linguistic sleight of hand straight out of Orwell’s 1984: the Gandhian meaning of swadeshi as self-reliance and economic nationalism has been redefined as whatever will make India powerful on the world stage, or whatever will make India into a “superpower.”
The idea of India as a superpower in science and technology, an economic powerhouse and at the same time, a great spiritual guru to the whole world mobilizes the patriotic and even religious passions of even those who are actually losing out in the rush to privatize. After the long history of colonial humiliation, there is a great hunger among ordinary Indians to be respected — and even feared — by the rest of the world. The promise of superpowerdom seems to satisfy this hunger.
This “dream” of becoming a superpower, this book will argue, not only sells market reforms, but also promotes Hindu chauvinism which is openly targeted at Muslim and Christian minorities. Hindu chauvinism is built into superpower swadeshi because Hinduism plays a huge role in defining and glorifying what is swadeshi. The idea that Hinduism is “innately” more spiritual, more rational (even innately more computer savvy!), and more liberal than other religions is quite deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. The Hindu Right parties actively promote these ideas of Hindu superiority in their attempt to project India as the victor in the global clash of civilizations.
Overall, then, the aim is to look below the surface of the shiny but thin veneer of modernity represented by new shopping malls, fashion boutiques, car-dealerships, IT-parks and special economic zones cropping up all over the country. Underneath the gloss of globalization, there is a bubbling cauldron of faith, politics and big money creating a society with a deeply politicized religion and an equally religionized politics. In this society, age-old resentments against non-Hindu Indians, and age-old ambitions of dominating the outside world are finding a new, more self-confident – but potentially more dangerous – expression. It is this culture and its material foundations that this book has tried to describe.