Material World: India’s God Industry

Politicised Hinduism or ‘Hindutva’ has not attracted the same attention – outside India at least – as similar movements in Islam and Christianity. But it is no less remarkable. The social forces underlying Hindutva are analyzed by Meera Nanda in her books Prophets Looking Backward (Rutgers University Press, 2003) and The God Market (Random House India, 2009).

Invented ‘traditions’
What is happening in India may look like the revival of old traditions, but Nanda points out that many ‘traditions’ were invented quite recently. For example, a “brand new hybrid god” has been created by combining the head of the elephant god Ganesha with the features of the ape god Hanuman. A high school science teacher has recast Mariamman, who used to be the goddess of smallpox, as the goddess of AIDS.

New ceremonies have also proven popular – and money spinners for the priests who preside over them. Thus, many temples have installed “golden cars” – chariot-like vehicles in which an idol “is taken around the temple perimeter in a procession led by priests, musicians, elephants, etc.” Huge crowds watch re-enactments of the divine wedding between Meenakshi and Sundareshwara.

Ritual for the upper strata
In the early and mid-twentieth century it was common for educated Indians (if religious at all) to take pride in their “philosophical” approach to Hinduism, as opposed to the superstitious practice of the benighted masses, centred on idol worship, rituals, fasts and sacrifices. By contrast, the current fashion for religious ritual is strongest among the upper strata of society. A 2007 survey found that educated urban Indians are more – not less – religious than rural illiterates.

Why should this be? Part of the reason may well be simply that only the relatively well-off can afford the costs associated with ostentatious religious observance. By no means everyone, for instance, can afford to go off on long pilgrimages, though the numbers who do are still mind-boggling. (The Balaji temple at Tirupati was visited by over 23 million pilgrims in 2004.)

The state-temple-corporate complex
Whatever else it may be, the god industry in India is a big business with enormous political clout. Priests and gurus receive generous material support from the supposedly secular government, such as land and infrastructure for new temples, and ashrams and schools for training priests. In some provinces, priests are now paid directly by the government. All this is justified in the name of promoting culture, tourism and economic development.

Religious institutions also get financial support from leading Indian companies, prompting Nanda to speak of a “state-temple-corporate complex.” The privatisation of higher education has enabled the priests to make major inroads in this sector.

A game for everyone
The ideology of Hindutva, which fuses Hinduism with Indian nationalism, is associated most closely with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or, in English, Indian People’s Party) and its allies. It is, indeed, these forces that are most adept at exploiting religious sentiment to mobilize political support.

Since the late 1970s, however, the other main national party, the Indian National Congress, has increasingly compromised its original commitment to secularism and tried to use religion in its own interests. Even the ‘communists’ and other ‘leftists’ play the same game. Thus, in 2007 top officials of the Left Front government of West Bengal participated in a ceremony to bless land that they had forcibly taken from farmers in order to build a car factory for Tata Motors.

The atomic elephant
Hindutva also serves the great-power ambitions of the Indian state. The BJP stands for “a foreign policy driven by a nationalist agenda” and “a strong national defence” ( The ‘Indian nation’ is imbued with sacred qualities, while ‘Greater India’ is conceived of as a Hindu realm extending over all of South Asia and much of Southeast Asia.  

When India conducted a successful nuclear test, idols of Ganesh appeared at festivals around the country with guns in the elephant’s hands and atomic orbits in place of the halo traditionally placed around his head. There was a plan to build a temple dedicated to Shakti, goddess of energy, at the site of the test explosion, but fear of radioactivity led to its abandonment.  

What about globalisation?
The rise of a religiously based Indian nationalism is at variance with the stereotype of globalisation as a process leading to cultural homogenisation, with American culture becoming global culture – the Macdonaldisation or Coca-Colonisation of the world. Let us note here that in the economic sphere the BJP enthusiastically embraces globalisation. The BJP, according to its website, favors “small government and free-market economic policies.”

The stereotype is vulnerable to criticism on several grounds. Globalisation facilitates the expansion not only of American or Western corporations, but also of sufficiently competitive companies based in other regions. That includes at least some Indian companies, as shown by Mittal’s takeover of East European steel mills. The same applies to the religion business: witness the success of various Indian guru-entrepreneurs in Western markets.

Nanda develops another interesting argument. She observes that during the early Nehruvian period of Indian independence (1947 – 1975), when Indian nationalism had real material content (a national development strategy based on a strong state sector, protectionism, etc.) religious nationalism was very weak. When economic nationalism was abandoned, religious nationalism rushed in to fill the ideological vacuum. That is, economic and religious-cultural nationalism are functional substitutes not complements.

Socialists do not take sides in the contest between national capitalism and global capitalism. We are not just against capitalist globalization but capitalism in all its various forms.

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