Published on 8th May, 2015, in the Economic Times.
The Lord rested on the Seventh Day. So say Abrahamic mythology. That was on Friday say the Muslims, Saturday say the Jewish folk, Sunday say the Christians. Unable to agree, the 2-day weekend came into being, satisfying needs of the Jewish and Christian Sabbath. This is now deemed secular. In fact, what is and what is not secular is always codified by the West, because it was in the West that religion and state came to be separated after the rise of the scientific revolution in the 16th century, which also played a key role in the rise of banking and industrialization.
This was the age when aristocrats controlled all land in Europe, and the Church that forbade banking. This did not bode well for industry. The only bankers were Jewish people, who had no choice in the matter as they were not allowed to own land. And they were victims of widespread anti-Semitism, a result of bankrolling kings and landowners who could not repay their debts. Entrepreneurs were at a loss. Many changed their faith, became Protestants, rejecting papal oppression so as to pursue banking. They sought refuge in America, which attracted those with entrepreneurial spirit, as well as those facing debt and persecution in Europe. Jewish bankers and traders, tired of European anti-Semitism also moved to America. All of them worked hard and eventually helped USA outpace Europe in terms of wealth and power. Having seen how religion could be dangerous for business, it was the newly formed USA that spearheaded the idea that religion should be kept private.
The relationship between religion and business in India has been far less violent and far more complex. Indian society is made of villages, each of which is a set of communities that pursue different trade and professions. Integrity of these communities was maintained by preventing inter-marriage. Thus there were communities of laborers, craftsmen, traders, landowners and priests. It ensured knowledge and professional secrets were passed on within the family from generation to generation. This was the caste system. The rise of new religions such as Buddhism and Jainism and Sikhism, and arrival of new religions such as Islam and Christianity were accommodated within this caste framework. Thus entire trading communities followed Islamic faith or Jain faith or Sikh faith, or worshipped a particular deity. Each community had its own set of rules. Jain bankers for example would not, and still do not, invest in what their gurus deem to be ‘violent industries’.
But this system did not allow room for disruptive innovation as relationships outside caste were frowned upon expect in markets. Also, willy-nilly, it created social hierarchy, with landowning and trading communities dominating the village politically and economically, and the priestly communities dominating the society using the doctrine of purity. As a result, certain services such as sweeping and tanning and butchery were seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’ and even ‘untouchable’. This had widespread social consequences. Orientalist academicians in desperate search for a ‘Hindu Bible’ blame a text called Manu Smriti for this caste system, not realizing the text codifies a prevalent practice, and does not establish it. In fact, fluidity caste structures became rigid social identities to satisfy the administrative needs of British colonizers.
Urbanization broke this hierarchy at a structural level. Rise of a secular state, then liberalization and software industry boom ensured that entrepreneurship moved out of the traditional ‘bania’ lobby, so much so that many entrepreneurs of the IT-service sector traditionally come from ‘brahmin’ backgrounds. But the fact remains, that the richest people in India even today can be traced to old trading and entrepreneurial castes though they are mostly described nowadays using religious or regional nomenclature such as the Jains, Marwaris, Parsis, with the exception of the Chettiars. Now conscious efforts are being made to put the spotlight on and encourage Dalit entrepreneurs, Dalit being a term used for those who were traditionally and structurally placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, denied resources and privileges as a result of structural unfairness. Thus ‘jati’, the religious-social construct of India (not just Hindu), continues to shapes Indian industry, whether we like it or not. Government policies have simply tried to reframe it, make it less unfair, as it seems impossible to annihilate it.
When Indians place an image of Ganesha or of Mother Mary or an image of Mecca on their desks, it has traditionally been seen as s social practice, not a religious act. No one thinks much of the Lakshmi photo kept in the Finance Department above the safe. No one thinks much of the Lakshmi puja done on Diwali. Or the Satyanarayan Puja done in the factory during Navaratri. No one thinks too much of a Muslim colleague taking a longer lunch break on Friday to go to a nearby mosque.
This integrated approach where religion, industry and society mingle and merge, is alien to the West. From the West comes the multinational ecosystem which is why in corporations religion is approached very consciously, awkwardly, either in conciliatory or in confrontational terms. We are increasingly inheriting this Euro-American gaze of seeing religion with suspicion, of turning all things communal, of either completely hiding it or displaying it oppressively. And that is not good for business.