Linking Poverty and Hinduism

A couple of paragraphs from Alvin Toffler’s The Thought Leader Interview (hat tip: Anish Sankalia) caught my attention:

QUESTION: How then would you distinguish China from India?

TOFFLER: India is “democratic.” One wonders how democratic life is for its peasants, but it has at least the trappings of a Western democracy. Yet there are certain advantages to not being a democracy. I certainly don’t admire it, but China says, “We’re going to create a market economy,” and bang, everyone does it or else.

There may also be a religious basis for the difference between India and China. Hinduism propagated poverty as a virtue. China, as far as I know, never did that. And as we say in Revolutionary Wealth, people who pray for wealth may never get it, but cultures that pray for poverty usually get exactly what they pray for. [Emphasis added.]

It is not entirely Toffler’s fault that he believes that Hinduism propagates poverty as a virtue. After all, the English media portrays MK Gandhi with his emphasis on poverty as some sort of Hindu spiritual leader. Perhaps Toffler believes that the “Saint of the Gutters” M. Theresa with her insistence on the virtues of poverty (the poverty stricken love Jesus more) is some sort of Hindu icon. Again, thanks to the Indian media which perversely celebrates poverty.

Mr Toffler, time to get a reality check. Hindus most ardently worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Ask someone who knows what “Subh Labh,” which is seen in countless places of Hindu worship, means. Hindus quite vehemently reject equating poverty with saintliness or virtue.

He was doing alright as long as he was talking about information overload and the rapid pace of the rate of change. But then he decided to explain the difference between India and China on religious grounds. It is another example of a person carelessly straying out of his domain of expertise and stepping in horse doo-doo.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

13 thoughts on “Linking Poverty and Hinduism”

  1. I know people will disagree, but Hinduism does prpoagate poverty as virtue. Yes, Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped ( by the Vaishyas), where if we scrap our mythologies then we will find Saraswati as more worshipped Goddess. If we look back to the Varnashram, then we will find the highest stature of the society was occupied by the brahmin ascetics and their only way of livelihood was alms given by people. O’course there are exceptions, but it can not be denied that poor brahmins were honoured.

    Mahatma Gandhi once pointed out this specific nuuance of hinduism. He told that in every religion of the world the ecclesiatical community always tried to have influence in the seats of powers and tried to amass wealth. But in Hinduism, the ecclesiatical community primarily sustained on the alms or at least strived to sustain ( exceptions are there, myth of Parashurama, but at the end of it all he leaves kingdom; Himu, during Humayun-Akbar transition etc.).

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  2. @Dodo,
    You’re right that Brahmins were honoured. But that was for their knowledge and not their poverty. Yes, Brahmins were asked to live at a minimum and devote themselves to pursuing knowledge – but this did not apply to the other ~95% of the people. As an aside, the puraNas say that Brahmins are poor because of a *curse* of the Goddess! Not a good thing 🙂

    Knowledge and Wealth are not at loggerheads at all in Hinduism. Indeed, Artha (wealth) and Kama (pleasure) are two of the four Purusharthas (Aims of life that have to be pursued) in the Hindu way of life.

    There are innumerable prayers in the Hindu religious literature asking for wealth. In fact, even ascetics composed prayers that asked for wealth (even though not for themselves). For example, a famous composition ‘kanaka dhArA stotram’ by Sri Sankaracharya says to the Goddess, “Like the honey bees to the pretty blue lotus,
    let those glances shower me with wealth”.

    I think at some point of time the virtue of ‘non-attachment’ (vairagya) that Indic religions like Hinduism potray, got confused with ‘poverty’ and hence this impression among people. (Janaka was a powerful and wealthy king but a master at non-attachment).

    Lastly, just a clarification:
    > If we look back to the Varnashram, then we will find the highest stature of the society was occupied by the brahmin ascetics

    brAhmaNas are not ascetics. The ascetics are the ‘sanyAsis’ who do not belong to the varNAshrama.

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  3. Equating government’s socialist policies as Hindu policies is nothing new.

    It’s like saying Hindus revere ascetics and because ascetics are poor, Hindus worship poverty – now that’s some logic!

    Dodo, just because Hindu worship knowledge, as Vidya Lakshmi, it doesn’t mean they don’t worship wealth, as Dhana Lakshmi.

    Even if you ignore religious texts as mythologies, just talk to any number of Hindus and say what they worship! Apparently, Mr. Toffler never spoke to an average Hindu.

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  4. I would agree that Mr. Toffler was better off giving grand theories explaining the past and the likely future. Speculating is alright but when your feet are not firmly on the ground it is better to keep silent, the wise man knows where to stop talking. His Knowledge of India and Indians seems to be miniscule , as we can interpret from his pronounciation.
    The problem seems to be that the China story is so ingrained into the western psyche that India as an alternative seems improbable alternative to most “experts”.

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  5. Thanks Sharan for the clarification and the information.

    These helpful enlightening comments really increases the fun and motivation of reading blogs and posting views.

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  6. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
    – Alvin Toffler (Heidi Toffler?)
    Going by his own thoughts, hopefully Mr. Toffler may find the time to “unlearn and relearn”.
    Nevertheless, Westerners in general see and portray India as a systematically poor country – economically, politically, socially – compounded by the the fact that India is till date one of the largest recipients of foreign (western) aid.

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  7. Not sure about Hinduism, but Povertly most definitely is seen as a virtue in India.

    Just look at the movies, where a poor man almost ineveitably is the honest one. And the rich one is the villian.

    But why movies – Would the Mahatma be seen as the same person in India if he was rich. NO.

    And have your forgotten the term: ‘Garib Brahmin’. Pick up any indian story book, you will see that term quoted as a virtue.

    And ah yes! The roadside justice. If a car owner has an accident with a Cycle wallah.. expect the car owner to be thrashed. Not because its his mistake… but… out of perverse logic… oh you rich .. bade baap kee aulad.. let me teach you a lesson. It doesn’t matter that the car guy was a honest tax paying indian..

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  8. Whether Indians worship Lakshmi or not, it is a fact that they do not see pursuit of wealth as a good use of their time. There was too much of fatalism preached and practised all through. I quote this passage from India Unbound:

    Indians have not traditionally accorded a high place to the making of money. The Vaishya or bania (merchant) is placed third in the four-caste hierarchy, behind the Brahmin and the Kshatriya (warrior, landowner), and only a step ahead of the laboring Shudra. Since the economic reforms,making money has increasingly become respectable and the sons of Brahmins and Kshatriyas are getting M.B.A.’s and want to become entrepreneurs. (Page xiii)

    A generation ago, in Maharashtra’s countryside, most young people would have been very happy to get any government job. It is only now that you see higher aspirations, though not in desired measure yet.

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  9. Great article Atanu.

    Back in business school (one of the top four business schools in the US) in a Macroeconomics course the whole class discussed about how “India suffered from the “Hindu rate of growth” till the end of 1980s”. The course had borrowed material from articles published in reputed magazines like “The Economist” which propagated this notion of “Hindu rate of growth”. I had to point out that perhaps we should be calling the currency crisis in Argentina a “Christian currency crisis”. There was pindrop silence in the room after this comment and professor quickly changed the topic. 🙂

    I believe this has happened because of our apologetic nature and often poor knowledge of our history and culture.

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  10. Amazing how superficial foreign business schools can be. Case studies (those dreadful Harvard produced inanities of raddi) fill in for rigourous theory and application, and magazine articles fill in for news. I thought tenured profs at the 2nd quartile schools are lazy. Surojit, it looks like profs in the top vigesile are as bad.

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  11. This case is a classic example of the perfect stupidity of people when dealing with Hinduism. People who posted comments about the “fatalism” of Hinduism should check on my blog.

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  12. True Hinduism advocates austerity, simplicity and detachment, but DOES NOT GLORIFY poverty.

    If Hinduism glorifys poverty, King Janaka who was a very rich king will be never treated as a great Rishi.

    If Hinduism glorify poverty, people will not pray to Lakshmi for wealth. If Hinduism glorify poverty, Hindu kingdoms will not be dazzling in wealth.

    Just study what King Janaka taught 12 year old sage Suka. “ YOU CAN POSSESS THINGS AS LONG AS YOU ARE NOT POSSESSED BY THEM. Lord Krishna dazzled in wealth so to his disciple warrior Arjuna.

    Hinduism emphasizes the need to observe dharma [duty ] while amassing the wealth. Poverty became very important in India due to Buddhism and Jainism NOT by Hinduism. Because India is a Hindu there is a greater tendency to identify POVERTY with the religion. We don’t identify the poverty in the Philippines, for example, with its Catholic religion. Nor do we identify the success of Japan with its Buddhist-Shinto religion.

    Jesus said: “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Just like Hindu teachings Jesus is NOT advocating poverty but to amass wealth and use wealth properly.

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