There’s at least one thing common to the scorn and furore on the announcement of Ivanka Trump’s supposed candidature for the top World Bank rank, the celebration of Gita Gopinath’s appointment as chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and the grief on Meera Sanyal’s passing away: the perceived relationship between women and money.
The narratives of Trump’s apparent unsuitability, Gopinath’s glory, and (the loss of) Sanyal’s insightful grace all stick out conspicuously because the domain of economics is dominated by men. That the “hysterical sex” should be able to deal coolly with finance is not a very popular idea. But scholars like Sriya Iyer are out to change this.
In her second book, Economics of Religion in India, Iyer tackles not one but two prickly subjects, and she does so with controlled ease. Iyer is a lecturer of economics at Cambridge and has another publication, Demography and Religion in India (2002) to her credit, in addition to several academic papers. While the two books come years apart, Iyer’s interest in the endlessly fascinating subject of religion seems not to have dwindled at all. And thankfully so. For in the light of India’s current (and perpetual) hyperbolical discourse on religious nationalism and prominent “economists” eating out of the government’s hands, we could use as many sane voices as there can be.
Jesus of Nazareth says: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both god and money.” But India has many simultaneous servants of both – at least if one presumes that the mainstay of any religion is a god.
Politics and the economy are inextricably linked to religion in India, as are many other things. And with a strong tradition of temple-based economies, the spill-over of the religious into the secular in modern India is actually not surprising.
In fact, temple economies are not at all a thing of the past for the country, as temple towns like Haridwar, Madurai, Shirdi, Benaras, Tirupati, Ajmer, or Mathura – to name just a few – prove. That these micro-economies are able to give governments loans (interest free, no less!) says a lot about their financial power.
Building on “The India Religion Survey”
It is this kind of power that religion wields over society that makes an economist like Iyer want to study it. She is inspired by classicists like Adam Smith, who first studied the links between religion and economics, and sparked a long line of such analysis in the West. Iyer notes many, many such studies exploring the links between religious and economic forces, largely in the context of Christianity and to some extent, Islam. She then points to an academic lacuna of such studies in India, with this book being an attempt to bridge the gap.
Iyer states early on that “...the key aim of this book is to view the persistence of religion in societies not merely as the outcome of largely sociological processes, but also as a rational economic response to changes in the political, ecological, and economic environments in which religions operate…The competitive, adaptive, pluralistic and fragmented character of Hinduism makes the economic approach both particularly helpful, indeed necessary for understanding religion in India.”
It must be clarified, though, that Iyer’s study is not only about Hinduism. She takes into account other major and minor religions too, including Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism. In fact, most of her findings are based on her ambitious and pioneering study, “The India Religion Survey”, which she and her colleagues conducted between 2006 and 2010.
The currency of hatred
The second chapter, titled “Religion and Religious Conflict in Indian Life”, is especially interesting in the light of the occurrence of riots in India. Iyer cites some (rather shameful) figures from a study conducted between 1950 and 2006, which pegs the average number of Hindu-Muslim riots per year at 39, and the average number of those killed, injured and arrested in these riots at 2574. While the study stops there, it is difficult to claim that things are better, especially in the light of deliberately induced violence in the form of hatred-driven initiatives like cow vigilantism.
Iyer has some insights to offer on Hindu fundamentalism, especially four aspects that she identifies: dependence on leadership, religious practices and regulations, interactions with non-fundamentalists, and the fostering of isolation. These drive a certain kind of political narrative that feeds into majoritarianism, and uses violence to maintain it. According to Iyer, religious riots are not spontaneous outpourings of fundamentalist zeal, but planned activities funded by the middle-class via the political parties. “Though ostensibly irrational, hatred is modelled as a function of supply and demand in a political market,” she adds chillingly.
It’s the economy, as usual
Another interesting connection explored in the book is one between communalism and economic growth. Iyer proposes that communalism and its expressions, such as rioting, are a result of a skewed society. Unequal development in society, she contends, is often marked by religious extremism.
Religion is sustained by factors such as solidarity, altruism, egalitarianism, pacifism, domesticism, spirituality and festivity. Iyers writes, “The poor have need for these factors because they have less access to other secular forms of satisfaction.” Ensuring these aspects of life in exchange for loyalty is a strategy harnessed by political parties to drive people towards often undesirable kinds of action.
Iyer also examines the provision of services by religious organisations and what they say about the governments in question. Dubbed the “club goods” of religion, these include faith-based education, food distribution, healthcare, and employment, and are inversely proportional to welfare provisions ensured by the government. “Marketing” these services and competing for adherents make religious organisations aggressive, leading to fundamentalism.
Cutting through the academic writing
In this and many other ways, Iyer analyses major religious issues through economic lenses. But though her insights are valuable, her writing isn’t lucid for the lay reader. Written as an academic thesis, this work doesn’t make a good “book” where narratives are held together.
Iyer presents several aspects of the complicated relationship that economics and religion share, but the individual essays do not serve as easy standalone references. With its exhaustive reviews of literature, multiple iterations of the same idea, and numerous facts and statistics, it can seem a cumbersome read for someone looking for ideas and narratives. But it certainly holds between its covers a wealth of information and insight for anyone interested in exploring the connections between economics, politics and religion.
In her conclusion, Iyer asserts that economic theory ought to be applied to religious matters at the policy level to improve the country’s socioeconomic conditions. And while optimism is a great thing, it is best not to forget the economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell: “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”
The Economics Of Religion In India, Sriya Iyer, Harvard University Press.
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a writer and researcher who engages with Indian cultural history through Culture Express.