How Hindu Attitudes and Institutions Shaped India’s Economic Growth

This term paper was written for Economics 1776: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, an undergraduate course taught at Harvard College by Benjamin Friedman.

Introduction

Hinduism has no single authoritative scripture from which its believers derive meaning. Unlike the Christian and Jewish traditions, its history does not begin at a singular point or event in history (á la “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”). Neither does there exist in the religion a single mode of worship or even a single object of worship. Its disciples draw upon numerous canons, and as a result, within the umbrella term of Hinduism myriad contrasting schools of thought have existed. For this reason, if it hopes to reach meaningful conclusions, an analysis of Hinduism’s effect on India’s economic development must refrain from a holistic study and must focus on specific components of the greater religion. Vikas Mishra writes of this intricacy, “It is almost naïve to treat Hinduism as one entity. For instance, the economic implications of the ‘Dayabhag’ School of Hindu Law are vastly different from those of the ‘Mitakshara’ School.” Polarizing features can also be discovered in countless other comparisons of Hindu belief sets. For example, the Carvaka school championed materialism while the Ascetic tradition emphasized an aversion toward physical comforts. Interestingly, both beliefs find basis in Hindu scriptures. This disparity between schools of thought in Hinduism complicates the issue at hand.

This study attempts to establish an analysis of the correlations and possible causations regarding certain Hindu beliefs and India’s economic history. It seeks not to make sweeping generalizations about Hinduism, but rather to concentrate on specific aspects of the religion as they relate to the nation’s secular development. To that end, this paper will examine various attitudinal and institutional characteristics of Hinduism and will be generally structured by the enumeration and discussion of these concepts. In doing so, it may be enlightening to also examine within this context other closely related religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. This is by no means an all-encompassing study, but it does address many important connections between Hindu beliefs and structures and India’s economic development.

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