International Affairs Review

Spring 2016 Article

Preconditions For Mass Conversion in Indian Society

By Caleb Smith
An Indian Hindu widows covers her face as colored powder is thrown in the air during Holi celebrations organized by the NGO Sulahb at the Meera Sahbhagini Ashram in Vrindavan, India, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. The widows, many of whom at times have lived desperate lives in the streets of the temple town, celebrated the festival for the first time at the century old ashram. After their husband's deaths the women have been banished by their families to the town where devotees believe Lord Krishna was born, for supposedly bringing bad luck. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

The spread of religions is a recurring phenomenon throughout history but it is more frequently discussed in relation to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; largely because they lead various bloody campaigns to convert others. Conversely, others, like Buddhism and Hinduism do not share these histories. This paper will examine why and how religious diffusion was possible for Buddhism and Hinduism,  as well as how Islam entered Indian society from 700 BCE until 1500 CE.  In doing so, the lenses for analysis will include theories of sociology of religion — a field of study that examines beliefs, practices and organizational forms of religion using the tools and methods of the discipline of sociology--as well as anthropological perspectives on religion (Hartford, 2006). As religion is a fundamental component of civilization, it is imperative to have an understanding of the effect religion has on social behaviors, movements, structures and beliefs. Ultimately, we will find that the spread of religions will rely upon whether or not a religion supports the will of oppressed classes of people to overthrow or maintain the status quo.

First and foremost, we must establish a clear understanding of organized religion.  The term “religion” itself remains firmly in the lexicon of everyday language, but oftentimes, its use goes without a second thought. In the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “We have learned more about 'the religions,' but this has made us perhaps less...aware of what it is that we . . . mean by 'religion.' " (74). According to Webster’s dictionary religion is: a) the belief in a god or in a group of gods, b) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods. While these definitions are true, they mainly serve to capture dogma and practice of religion. The inadequacy of these definitions of religion arises from the problem of incredible diversity amongst religious beliefs and traditions--some of which are in conflict with one another. But content aside, there must be principles and characteristics from which we can derive a comprehensive definition of religion. How can we identify what is common amongst all religions to the extent that we can discover the core of religion? Thomas Idinopulos wrestles with this dilemma in his essay What is Religion?

...No single definition of religion seems possible. Efforts to define religion according to conceptions such as "the supernatural," the dichotomy of "sacred and profane," and "ultimate concern," may clarify aspects of religious expression, but they are hardly adequate to the meaning of religion itself. Buddhism does not easily accommodate references to the "supernatural." Nor does the sacred/profane dichotomy do justice to the complexity of religious feeling, which is often a mixture of the two. And the phrase "ultimate concern" suffers from such vagueness that it hardly qualifies as a general definition of religion.

These purposely nebulous concepts many have attempted to use to define religion fail because they are not universal, but rather limited to the cultural contexts in which they were conceived. Therefore, the reason why a definition for religion is so daunting, is that such a definition cannot be normative or prescriptive--projecting a subjective criteria for what the author believes religion should be, thereby alienating religions that do not fit into the given schema.

Instead of trying to boil all religion down to culturally relative buzzwords, we should examine the societal impact of religion does in addition to how it is practiced. Understanding the social function of religion is supplementary to a grasp on practice and dogma. Indeed Max Weber would agree: “The ‘essence’ of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social action,” (Weber, 1963).  Stephen Sharot builds upon the writings of Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim in his work Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosi, Priests, & Popular Religion  in attempts to understand why certain world religions have grown to overtake popular religions through a comparative analysis. Sharot’s analysis is rooted in the use of two analytic frameworks. The first is the framework of religious action that includes four subcategories: the transformative, the thaumaturgical, the nomic, and the extrinsic. This serves as a means of comparison for elite and popular forms of religion.  The other framework is that of the environment of religious action, “in order to account for the variations among the religions with respect to the interrelationships of elite and popular forms of religion,” (3-5).  This framework includes religious values, religious organizations, and socioeconomic and political environments.

Sharot’s work complicates the concept of religion further by distinguishing between world, elite, and popular religion. Before we can fully utilize the comprehensive frameworks employed, a clear distinction between the categories must be made. World religions are characterized by the strong presence of concepts of rationalism, transcendentalism and universalism. Rationalism in world religions entails demystification of the natural world and subsequent ethical codes as opposed to a loose set of superstition and taboos. These ethical codes are meant to direct individuals’ action toward salvation. Transcendentalism in world religions is marked by the existence of a holy plane separate from the physical world and soteriologies: “Soteriology refers to a form of salvation that cannot be attained within the parameters of mundane existence,” (8). The aspects of salvation unique to world religions are that its benefits are not meant to be gratifying in terms of earthly rewards and that salvation is directly related to obedience to ethical law corresponding to religion. The final dimension of world religions is universalism: compliance to religious ethical laws applies to everyone at all times, completely bypassing social, spatial, and temporal boundaries. Because Hinduism has had “comparatively limited diffusion over cultural, ethnic, or social-structural boundaries” there is some disagreement about whether or not it classifies as a world religion (10). (Regardless of the classification of Hinduism, the intent of this paper is to focus on why it has remained mostly within its culture and society of origin.) However, the amount of adherents to a religion outside of its original society is not how one can identify a world religion, but rather by the accessibility of its content to people from different societies.

However, it is crucial to mention that the adherents to world religions may not reach total consensus on these themes in praxis or, if they do, their agreement is not always simultaneous. This is a problem caused by social divides within religions. New concepts, beliefs, and hermeneutics of religious texts are embraced by religious elites while the community of laypersons continues different traditions until those of the elite are imposed on them. Note that laypersons were not always inclined to accept these changes immediately.

So, who are the religious elites? Sharot introduces two basic sociological definitions of who is considered an elite: “those who are recognized as having reached the highest level of particular branch of activity” and “those who occupy the highest positions of a social organization that has an internal authority structure,” (11). These definitions are in accordance with two religious positions of social distinction Max Weber introduces to us: virtuosos and the hierocracy. Virtuosos are seen as rare individuals with the ability to live in accordance with the religion’s most arduous moral standards, while the hierocracy, or clerics, controls the “distribution of religious benefits within societies,” (11).  These two types of elites, while both are privileged above the layperson, do not necessarily collaborate with one another. According to Sharot:

Weber wrote that hierocratic organizations struggle against the autonomous development of virtuoso religion because it is seen as a challenge to the general accessibility to sacred values provided by the organizations. In the case of hierocratic organizations called churches, in which charisma is separated from the person, the struggle with virtuoso religion is one between office charisma and personal charisma. Rather than deny the legitimacy  of all virtuoso religiousness, hierocratic organizations have admitted that full adherence to the religion’s highest moral values is an extraordinary achievement that can be channeled for the benefit of the majority, who lack the qualifications or ability to achieve such heights. Thus virtuoso religion, particularly as organized in monastic organizations, has been transformed into an instrument of hierocratic control, even though tensions often persist between hierocrats and virtuosos, (11).

Therefore, friction between these two elite classes comes from  the virtuoso’s intent to model behavior for the masses to follow, while the hierocracy is concerned with maintaining control over a larger community of laypersons rather than a smaller but more devout one. The distinct intentions of these elite classes will inform the attitudes of laypersons toward the elites, sometimes elevating the virtuoso to sainthood, while viewing the hierocracy as part of a contrasting religious world.

Villagers watch a fire ritual before dawn from rooftops during the Holi festival in Phalen village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)This brings us to the masses, the non-elite, which should be understood as heterogeneous and dynamic. Religious beliefs and practices amongst the masses varied depending on social stratification, region, and time period. And, while different from the religion of the elite, “popular religion is not viewed as an inferior version of elite religion or necessarily opposed to it. The extent to which the religion of the elites and the religion of peasants overlap, differ, and conflict, and the extent to which these dimensions vary from society to society, are subject to empirical investigations, comparisons, and explanations.,” (14). That said, we can begin to hone in on Indian society specifically, in attempts to understand the histories of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as their manifestations as religions of the masses and the elites.

As previously mentioned, Hinduism, belongs to the family of Vedic religions. Because Vedic religion is not derived from a singular holy text or figure, it is difficult for scholars to place the origins of Hinduism historically. They can only estimate based on a collection of works known as the Veda. Of the religions in this study, Hinduism has the oldest foundations. Buddhism, Jainism, and other religions that belonged to the later Sramana (mendicant) movement, influenced younger developments of Hinduism.  

This means that at least some of the ideas and ideals that characterized the Śramaṇa movement came to be absorbed into Brahmanism and are not necessarily borrowings from Buddhism and Jainism...Which were the ideas and ideals that characterized the Śramaṇa movement? The single most important idea is the doctrine of KARMA (ACTION): the belief that acts bring about their retribution, usually in a following existence. Connected with this belief is the religious aim of finding liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirths (SAṃSĀRA),” (Buswell, 330).     

These doctrines were largely accepted and supported the traditional varna (“color” in Sanskrit) caste system dating back to Aryan/Dravidian society, as social distinction was derived in part by complexion.This distinction based on skin tone privileged “wheat-colored” Aryans and relegated darker-skinned Dravidians to subservient roles in society. Offspring of Aryan-Dravidian unions with medium complexions would comprise the middle castes. The castes are as follows: Brahmin (holy scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors, aristocrats), Vaishyas (cultivators, merchants, artisans), and Shudras (landless peasants/surfs), (Bentley, 182). The rationale is that through one’s actions in a previous incarnation, they are responsible for their current station in life. The related principle of dharma (moral obligation) further enforces the Varna as pillars of society, as it requires everyone to fulfill the “essential duty" of whichever Varna they have inherited (Sharot, 103).

Therefore, we can observe a hierarchy within Hinduism to which we can apply Weber’s Elites and Masses framework.  “There is no rank order of castes across India, but there is consensus that Brahmins are at the top and harijans are at the bottom, although both are divided into subcastes whose ranking varies from region to region. In the sense of an elite as superior in a certain quality, the whole of the Brahmin caste might be considered  a religious elite because of their relative ritual purity in comparison with other castes,” (Sharot, 104).  Given that Brahmins are both social and religious elites, their powers as the hierocracy have far reaching effects as the majority of Indian society is Hindu. These powers are extended by the fluid and changing boundaries of Hinduism:

Hinduism has assimilated formerly isolated tribes, religious groups originating outside of India, and innovative religious movements arising among the indigenous population by incorporating them as castes or subcastes, each defined and regulated by religious rules, especially those of purity and pollution. Thus a considerable variety of beliefs, practices, and identities are to be found under a broad religious canopy characterized by socioreligious differentiation as  well as interdependence and linkages...Hindu inclusivism also has its spurious and intolerant features. The official classification of various tribal groups with animist religions as Hindu is questionable when they do not worship any of the major Hindu deities, and there has been tension between the tendency of Hindus to consider Sikhism as a branch or caste of Hinduism and the demand of sikhs to be recognized as a separate religious group,” (103-104).

Yet the Brahmin caste still promotes Sanskritic Hinduism as the standard by which all other branches will be judged. Through this inclusivism, the Brahmin caste  imposes social control through dharma and an elite interpretation of Hinduism on the whole of society.

Aside from the ways in which elites have been able to exercise their power in society, there are other reasons why Hinduism has reached the level of prominence it has. Aryan society in what is now northern India had many social indicators that would shape its development of religious beliefs (Bentley, 80). Author of “The Sociological Worldview,Sal Restivo, states: “All religions reflect the cultural concerns of the societies they develop in. Other things being equal, gods of war are products are products of warlike societies...the gods of patriarchal societies are male...polytheism is found in societies dominated by classes...and reincarnation is associated with small village communities in which individuals experience intense face-to-face interaction,” (149-150). In the previous explanation of varna, we can understand where the polytheistic nature of Hinduism comes from. Likewise, the Aryans were not necessarily conquerors, but faced conflict regularly as a result of migration to South Asia,  a land inhabited by native ethnic groups who may have seen them as a threat. Thus, Aryans worshipped the war god, Indra, who is closely linked to Hindu deity, Shiva, the destroyer (Bentley, 75). Patriarchy was developed through the emphasis on war, reserving property and political rights to men, and the Lawbook of Manu, which officially stated women should concern themselves with obeying their husbands, maintaining the household, and having children (Bentley, 82-84). A pastoral and migratory society such as this one would probably have “intense face-to-face contact” by virtue of having to trade and care for livestock with one another, and cooperating to defend the group or navigate new lands. Historically, we can see Hinduism as a logical and pragmatic rationalization of the world given its basis in Aryan-Dravidian culture.

The social adaptability of the religion proves remarkable as well. While Jainism and Buddhism were beginning to grow more popular, Hindu scholars made revisions to Vedic epic poems that would preserve Hinduism’s place as a prominent religion. The Mahabharata was edited to include Vishnu and paint him as the champion of the virtuous individual. The Ramayana was changed to model the ideal of romantic love for Hindu married couples. Lastly, the Bhagavad Gita was a parable that recounts an encounter with a kshatriya warrior and an incarnation of the deity, Vishnu, that fortified the principles of dharma, samsara, artha (pursuit of economic well-being and honest prosperity), kama (the enjoyment of social, physical, and sexual pleasure) and karma as well as moksha, the salvation of the soul through its escape from the cycle of reincarnation (Bentley, 190). Moksha is the ultimate aim, especially for  lower classes to live according to dharma, artha, and kama because it means an end to their oppression.

Hinduism had the support of many political elite as well. The Gupta dynasty (320-550 C.E.) favored Hinduism by giving portions of land to Hindu Brahmins and backing an educational system that sponsored Hindu values. Hinduism was later adopted under the Chola Empire, which ruled from 850 C.E. to 1267 C.E. (Bentley, 317). During this time Hindu temples served not only as a place of religious value, but as cornerstones of survival. Hindu temples were important economic, agricultural, and educational centers. After the Chola Empire fell, the Vijayanagar Kingdom was started by two representatives of the Muslim sultan at Delhi. They renounced Islam and took up Hinduism as the religion of the new, independent empire from 1336 C.E. to 1565 C.E. These resurgences of Hinduism create a legacy that emphasizes Hinduism as a defining part of a national and cultural identity.  

Overall, Hinduism is supported even by many oppressed in its caste system because it offers them a sense of cultural belonging, hope, and a connection to their history. Implicit in the principles of samsara, karma, and dharma, is an exoneration of elites for their hand in social inequality. Therefore, systemic oppression of the masses is read as not as political but divine retribution, despite its historical relationship to colorism and classism. At the same time, dharma, artha, and kama, create a way of living that promotes an economically active, morally conscious, and pleasure-seeking society. These are positive things, but distract the masses from organizing even if they see the castes as oppressive. Therefore, the status quo remains is undisturbed.

Buddhism is starkly different in its history and views on societal structure. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Guatama, born in 563 B.C.E.  into a kshatriya family. As the legend goes, his father was determined to shelter him from any suffering, but eventually he grew bored of his life devoid of challenge and wandered away from the palace. On his various excursions, he stumbled upon an old and weak charioteer, a corpse, and a sick man. He had never before known sickness, old age, or death as part of the human condition. Then, one day he saw a monk and admired him. He vowed to commit to a life of transience and asceticism, in search of enlightenment. Eventually, he determined that asceticism was not the answer, but rather that the elimination of desire would end suffering. Buddhist teaching is reflective of this through the Noble Eightfold Path that advocates for a moderate life that is dedicated to “right belief, right resolve, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, and right meditation.” This is the key to nirvana, “a state of perfect spiritual independence” and “an escape from the cycle of incarnation,” (Bentley, 186). Buddhist teachings rejected the social classes and claimed that salvation was possible for anyone without the use of Brahmins.

Naturally, this made Buddhism wildly popular. Other factors that caused the religion to thrive were: its use of  vernacular tongues, stupas(shrines), Holy sites venerated by pilgrims,  and monastic organizations. Sanskrit was the literary language of the elite Brahmin caste, which made it highly inaccessible to the people. Early Buddhist teachers opted for the languages spoken by the masses in their teachings instead. Stupas and holy sites encouraged meditation on Buddhist values and gave the devoted a physical space in which they felt more connected to the Buddha. This allowed for simpler spiritual observation than Hindu rituals and sacrifices. Monastic organizations were a catalyst in the popular spread of Buddhism because they allowed people to devote their lives to the religion in large numbers, who in turn, went out and educated others in Buddhist teaching. They also became important resources for the Indian people in other ways: “They served as banks for their communities, and they helped organize life in the Indian countryside by allocating their lands to individuals or groups of cultivators. Thus, during the centuries following the Buddha’s death, monasteries wielded enormous social and economic as well as cultural influence in India,” (Bentley, 186).

Although Buddhism rejected the varna, it was not without its elites. From 300 B.C.E-100 C.E., we see two significant changes in Buddhism that mark the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism (greater vehicle) and distinguish virtuosos and the hierocracy in the faith. One is the coining of the term bodhisattva (enlightened ones), used to refer to individuals believed to have reached spiritual perfection who had deferred their attainment of nirvana so that they could help others in their pursuit of it as well. They are comparable to saints in that their elite distinction devotes them to the service of the people. The second change is that Buddhist monasteries eventually began accepting gifts from wealthy followers and proclaiming that they had reached nirvana in return. This constructs Buddhist monks as the hierocracy since they concerned themselves with the distribution of religious benefits within societies. Such a hierocracy created a double standard for the wealthy and poor laypeople, as the wealthy could donate, deviate from Buddhist doctrine, and still attain nirvana, while the poor were granted no such privileges.

Similar to the Gupta support of  Hinduism, was the Mauryan dynasty’s acceptance of Buddhism. Emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhism circa 260 B.C.E. following the war against Kalinga. Legends claim he took pity on them, and was moved to pursue a life of virtue, magnanimity, and compassion. He found Buddhism suitable to this aim, and well-suited for his vast and diverse territory as well. As a result:

In honor of ahimsa, the doctrine of nonviolence, Ashoka banned animal sacrifices in Pataliputra, gave up his hunting expeditions, and eliminated most meat dishes from the table of his court. Ashoka rewarded Buddhists with grants of land, and he encouraged them to spread their faith throughout India. He built monasteries and stupas and made pilgrimages to the holy sites of Buddhism. Ashoka also sent missionaries to Bactria and Ceylon, thus inaugurating a process by which Buddhism attracted large followings in central Asia, east Asia, and southeast Asia,” (Bentley, 186).

It is evident that Buddhism had economic and spiritual benefits, in addition to responding to a restrictive social order.

It seems that the popularity of Buddhism demonstrated the general will of the people for a change in social hierarchy and a demand for greater spiritual autonomy. The reasons for the fall of Buddhism as the primary religion in India lie in the proliferation of the political elite that supported Hinduism and conquest of Indian dynasties by Islamic powers. While rulers were sometimes tolerant of religious minorities, the benefits of Buddhism dwindled without rulers like Ashoka, and Brahmin elites in Hindu empires made concerted efforts to eclipse Buddhism by claiming it as a branch of Hinduism and broadening Hinduism’s appeal.

Given the long and rich history of Vedic and mendicant religions, Islam did not spread in India overnight. Muslim presence in India goes as far back as 711 C.E. when Muslim military forces conquered the region of Sind, located on the Indus River Valley in Northern India bordering modern day Afghanistan. This positioned Sind as a contiguous expansion of the Umayyad Empire. Following the Umayyad Empire, Sind remained under Muslim control because the Abbasid caliphate took over until 1258 (Bentley, 315).

Though Islamic rule was later overturned by Hindu rulers, Muslim influence was consistent by peaceful means as well. Arab and Persian traders who came by sea trade routes were influential vessels of Muslim culture through their control of essential transportation and trade routes between India and the West. It was not uncommon for Muslim communities to settle coastal cities in India where they contributed to the economy and had children with Indian women. Islamic culture was also brought by to India from central Asia by land through the Turkic tribes. They settled in present-day Afghanistan bordering the northwestern boundary of India. Sufis also served as important agents of conversion to Islam because they allowed Indian converts to continue to practice rituals belonging to their culture or original faith as long as they committed to Islam.

This trend reached its peak in the Bhakti Movement, which sought to emphasize the spiritual values and objectives shared by Hinduism and Islam while erasing their difference. This can be seen as Indian resistance to total conversion of Islam, while also rejecting the social restrictions imposed by the caste system of Islam. The Bhakti movement also demonstrates, the significance of pluralism in Indian society, as teachers conceived of Allah, Vishnu, and Shiva as manifestations of the same supreme being. Though the Bhakti movement was unsuccessful in innovating a lasting syncretic union of the two religions, it  is indicative of the fluid nature of Indian religion.

Muslim military conquest returns to India with Mahmud of Ghazni, who raided India seventeen times between 1001 and 1027, oftentimes stealing riches from Hindu temples. He destroyed them, as well as holy Buddhist sites and shrines and is infamous for his attack on the Somnath Hindu Temple of Gujarat where he killed over fifty thousand Indian people who fought to protect it (Bentley, 316). Though Mahmud’s raids were not a vessel of Islamic culture or cause for conversion to Islam for Indian people, they incited terror that deterred from practicing Buddhism, which was already starting to decline. Later, Mahmud’s heirs  mounted a campaign to conquer northern India that resulted in the sultanate of Delhi, an Islamic territory that ruled from 1206 to 1526. During the rule of the sultanate, Muslim architecture, art, literature, and shrines multiplied throughout the land. Eventually, their weak administration lead to their downfall, but they left a lasting impression on India that informs the legacy of Islam in the Bengal region of India today.

Islam offers an alternative to Hinduism that suggests radical dismantling of the caste system. Where Hinduism blames past incarnations of the oppressed for their station in life, and Buddhism offers ways to buy salvation, Islam subjects everyone--regardless of class--to the same laws. The religious elite of Islam have enhanced political voices, but not the power of inclusivism that allowed Hinduism to swallow religious minorities. Therefore, there is more room for difference, as history would suggest through the Muslim kingdoms and empires such as the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Mali, etc. To lower castes in Indian society, Islam represents both social and spiritual liberation, a rejection of the status quo that would severely limit social mobility. This is why there were around twenty-five million Indian Muslims by 1500C.E.

In conclusion, mass conversions to a given religion rely upon whether or not a religion’s values  supports the will of oppressed classes of people to overthrow or maintain the status quo. Hinduism complies with the classic Indian caste system and has strong connections to the history and culture from which Indian society descends. The elite have used this historical and cultural significance to control the masses to the extent that peoples in lower castes may not perceive their position in society as oppressed by the elite, therefore they support the status quo and seek justice through moksha rather than social and political reform. Converts to both Buddhism and Islam rejected the status quo because of popular cultural demand for change. Buddhists less so than Indian Muslims, because of the adoption of Mahayana Buddhism that allowed the wealthy to bribe their way into nirvana. Islam does not advocate for class hierarchy or allow alternative routes to salvation afforded by social standing. It allows simple and direct devotion to Allah where Brahmin act as intermediaries in Hinduism. However, Islam has often been applied to support patriarchy, even if in Muslim empires and kingdoms women have enjoyed more rights than under other religions historically. It is not devoid of hierarchy, but advocates for the most egalitarian of societies out of the religions to gain prominence in Indian society, hence why it is still the second most popular religion in India. Hinduism’s long historical tradition and value as a unique and authentic cultural marker of India firmly cements it as India’s most popular religion even today (CIA, 2006).

Epilogue: Sociology of Contemporary Indian Religion

Though a long historical view of Indian religions provides indispensable context necessary to understand the modern religious landscape of popular religions in India, it is crucial not to confuse this context as the whole story. Since 1500 C.E.,  India has adapted and endured significant power struggles that have served to shape its political and social environments, which in turn shaped the religious landscape. Such historic moments include the invasion and colonization of India by European powers and evangelists, Indian Independence, and the legacy of the Nehru administration.

While the exact origins of Christianity in India are unclear, some scholars trace its arrival as far back as 52 C.E. with the arrival of St. Thomas (Zacharia, 2016). Of course, the number of adherents remained fairly small through 1500 C.E. relative to the popular traditions of Hinduism and Islam. Now, Christianity is the third most popular religion in India due to Portuguese and British colonization, as well as Italian, Irish, American, German, and Scottish missionary efforts which brought and sustained a multitude of Christian and Catholic denominations in the subcontinent.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s rise to power was a direct result of his efforts as Mohandas Gandhi’s successor in the movement against the British Raj (Jawaharlal, 2014). In the 1930’s  Nehru became president of Congress, and later went on to be India’s first Prime Minister when the country gained its independence in 1947. That year solidified a new India, one that would be distinct both from the pre-colonial era and the British Raj. For the first time, India was a modern nation-state, solidified under a single central government with complete sovereignty from foreign powers (Copland, 2012). As Prime Minister, he ushered in an era of state-propagated secularism to respond to the Muslim League’s proposition to divide  regions of the country along religious lines. Nehru’s primary concern was a united nation of India, especially in its formative years. That said, popular religions in Indian society remained popular, but the state included provisions in the Constitution to avoid privileging Hinduism and protecting religious minorities in the public sphere. Nehru’s insistence on secularism lived on through Indira Gandhi, his daughter, and Rajiv Gandhi, his grandson. Altogether, their terms lasted from 1947 until 1989 with a two year interruption by Charan Singh as the second Prime Minister.

In the 1980s into the 1990’s, opponents of secularism, particularly members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ran on a platform of Hindutva (Hinduness), or Hindu nationalism, as a means to capture the vote of middle class Indians who perceived protections for Christians and Muslims as special privileges. But as India’s economy started to thrive in the global market, the middle class lost interest in scapegoating religious minorities, so Hindutva rhetoric began to lose popularity.  However, this is not to say that Hinduism declined as well. According to Meera Nanda in The God Market, India has seen a direct correlation between the increase of Hinduism in the country and the increased collaboration of government, religious, and private institutions, a phenomenon she calls the State-Temple-Corporate Complex (Nanda, 2011). The effect of such a relationship between these pillars of society is unlike that of Hindutva because instead of claiming India as a country for and by Hindus, the state of India claims Hinduism as a defining tenet of society. The distinction being that though other faiths are welcome and protected, they are not at the core of “Indian-ness.”

Today, the Indian population consists of over 70% Hindus, 14% Muslims, 4% Christian, and other religions trailing behind in much smaller numbers (India). It is clear that now, as it was hundreds of years ago,  there must be popular consent to the religious status quo. However, economic and political globalization has drastically reformatted the social matrix through which elites acquire consent from the people. Furthermore, the State-Temple-Corporate complex muddles the religious elites with those of political and economic realms. Their interests become consolidated. This is not a distinctly Indian phenomenon, evidenced by the proliferation of televangelists and Christian conservative politicians in the Global West, Zionism, and radical Islamist terror constituting the modern global political stage. Now we are left to question: what does the appropriation of popular religion for capitalist ends mean in a world that demands an alternative to global capitalism to correct the massive economic divide  and to avoid imminent planetary death? An urgent question, indeed.


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