In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Capitalism and Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Indentured Labor and Varying Vectors of Hinduism in the Diaspora
  • Hinduism and Indian National Identity
  • Transformations of Sacred and Secular Space in Neoliberal India
  • Hinduism and Commercial Urban Centers

Hinduism Capitalism and Hinduism
Deonnie Moodie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0277


Hindu and capitalist formations have developed in conjunction with one another on the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Yet these subjects are not often studied together or by the same scholars. What follows is a set of works that provide a broad entrée to the subject when read together and across one another. These sources are organized roughly chronologically, beginning with treatments of the economic context into which European trading companies and eventually the British Crown integrated their practices of exchange and exercise of power in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This includes scholarship demonstrating that economic practices conducive to capitalism—or even some aspects of capitalism itself—were prevalent prior to European imperial presence in India, leading to the dominance of particular caste communities in the new economic and social configurations brought first by European trading companies in the 17th century, and then British Crown rule in 1858. It also includes treatments of how the colonial state legislated markets such that Hindus altered the way they framed their theologies, practices, and identities. While focusing predominantly on the Indian context, there are some works treating the effects of compelled migrations of Hindus to the Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa, and East Africa in the 19th century in a system of indentured servitude initiated to stem labor shortages after the abolition of slavery in Britain. Scholarship spanning the long 20th century examines ways that Hindu ideas and practices were part of the framing of the Indian nation and provided the moral foundation of constructions of the socialist and isolationist state when India gained independence in 1947. There is a significant body of literature on transformations of Hindu forms coinciding with the economic changes from the 1980s onward. While scholars are careful not to mark this as a sharp break from capitalist configurations predating it, there was a marked shift in Indian political economy and Hindu cultures when the nation began to adopt economic reforms more friendly to global markets. This happened slowly in the 1980s as elites—upper-caste Hindus in particular—became frustrated with India’s economic stagnation and policies designed to accommodate non-Hindu and lower caste groups. It then occurred more rapidly in 1991 when the nation sought an International Monetary Fund loan, and was then subject to a Structural Adjustment Program that forced it to adopt deregulation, liberalization, and privatization policies. Scholarship demonstrates that as economic relations turned outward once more, and as Hindus have continued to migrate for economic opportunities across the globe, Hindu practices have become at once more cosmopolitan and more chauvinistic. New deities are called upon and new religious sites and communities are formed in order to treat the anxieties that accompany decreased economic security. Simultaneously, a renewed national pride revives colonial tropes of an inherently spiritual India, lending strength to Hindu nationalist movements. The world over, that spirituality is read as free and freeing—separate from restrictive forms of religion—and Hindu forms deemed “spiritual” from yoga to breath work are employed in self-help and wellness programs by Hindus and non-Hindus alike. They are also oftentimes repackaged and commodified, made to serve the aims of increased worker productivity and profit.

Capitalism and Community in Precolonial and Colonial India

Asher and Talbot 2023 provides an overview of trading networks and cultures in the subcontinent prior to European arrival, into which Europeans gradually integrated. Yang 1998 analyzes sites of market exchange in the 18th and 19th centuries as simultaneously sites of religious practice including pilgrimage. Rudner 1994 argues that capitalist practices predated capitalism’s official arrival in India and were reinforced by Hindu traditions and networks. Ray 1992 examines the ways that caste communities sought engagement in business activities alongside Europeans, while Bayly 1983 asserts that the British were forced to build their economic ventures around existing Indian networks, communities, and bazaars. Jain 2007 shows how India’s mercantilist classes came to dominate the emerging capitalist economy in what the author calls “vernacular capitalism.” See also “Merchant Castes.” Birla 2009 brings our attention to the way the colonial state produced the legal categories of culture (including especially Hinduism) and markets (in the capitalist sense) as distinct and mutually exclusive, when they are in fact deeply entwined. Gandhi, et al. 2020 continues this line of thought in the authors’ attention to the ways exchange is embedded in community. Sartori 2008 argues that it was capitalism that produced the concept of Hinduism in a communal sense as a way of combating the feared homogenization that capitalism may bring. This scholarship unsettles MaxWeber’s claim (Weber 2000 [originally published in 1916]) that there is a homogenous entity called “Hinduism” that is inimical to the accumulation of capital, even while the same scholarship reinforces his claim that economy is always inherently entwined with religion.

  • Asher, Catherine B., and Cynthia Talbot. India before Europe. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

    An historical overview of India between 1200 and 1750 CE. The development of elite cultures including religious ones alongside the development of local and global trade networks and economic structures is treated most closely in chapters 6, “Expanding Political and Economic Spheres, 1550–1650” (pp. 187–230); 7, “Elite Cultures in Seventeenth-Century South Asia” (pp. 231–287); and 9, “Changing Socio-Economic Formations, 1650–1750” (330–365). The latter traces Europeans’ gradual integration into preexisting economic structures. First published in 2006.

  • Birla, Ritu. Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv125jt3q

    A history of the legal production of the market under colonial rule as both public and as a site of governance. Economy, deemed public, became legally separated from culture, deemed private. Focuses on ways Marwaris translated their longstanding economic practices into the logic of the public/rational market in order to demonstrate their ability to manage the new nation’s economy. This laid the foundation for the notion that Hinduism fosters capitalism.

  • Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    Examines transformations to North Indian society during the expansion of British imperialism in the 18th century until the transition to British Crown rule in 1858. Examines presence and activities of merchant families and bazaars, demonstrating that the British had to build their entire empire including economy upon this pre-existing structure.

  • Gandhi, Ajay, Barbara Harriss-White, Douglas E. Haynes, and Sebastian Schwecke, eds. Rethinking Markets in Modern India: Embedded Exchange and Contested Jurisdiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    A collection of essays spanning the early 20th century until the 21st, which advocate for revived and more nuanced attention to Indian markets as sites that may provide alternatives to Western capitalism. Essays complicate simple readings of global capitalism that would disentangle capital from community. They demonstrate the ways that caste, magic, gods, reputation, and mutual dependencies are intertwined with markets and processes of exchange.

  • Jain, Kajri. Gods in the Bazaar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1131bjr

    Examines widespread circulation of Hindu images through calendar art from the colonial era to the present. Sets within context of what she calls “vernacular capitalism” in which India’s mercantilist classes came to dominate manufacturing industries in the emerging capitalist economy. Those manufacturers’ productions, including calendar art, reflected their particular identities, most often Hindu, giving the space of the so-dubbed secular and public bazaar a particularly Hindu flavor.

  • Ray, Rajat K., ed. Entrepreneurship and Industry in India, 1800–1947. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Wrestles with the question of why Indian industry did not develop as quickly as in other places in the 19th century. Introduction examines ways the European economic and political interests excluded Indians from business enterprises, looking at efforts by numerous different caste communities. Essays provide overviews of different regional dynamics, often focusing on the economic activities of particular caste communities.

  • Rudner, David West. Caste and Capitalism in Colonial India: The Nattukottai Chettiars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520376533

    Ethnographic study of South Indian mercantile caste, the Nattukottai Chettiars. Demonstrates, counter to Weber’s argument, that this caste’s Hindu practices including ritualized economic exchange, control of temples, and extensive kinship networks reinforced their engagement with capitalist practices. Shows that such practices predated capitalism’s entry into India via British colonialism, and made this caste well-poised to engage in, expand, and acquire material gains from capitalist enterprise.

  • Sartori, Andrew. Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226734866.001.0001

    Taking Bengal as a case study, argues that the concept of culture invoked across the globe since the 17th century was produced by capitalism’s expansion. Anxieties about the alienations of modern, Western life followed such expansion, and a need was felt to celebrate the local and communal. Chapter 4 homes in on Hinduism as one such culture produced and distinguished from other cultures in 19th-century British India (pp. 109–135).

  • Weber, Max. The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2000.

    Attributes capitalism’s late arrival in India to Hinduism, which he characterizes as fatalistic and other-worldly. Whereas he had previously argued that Protestant Christian values produced capitalism, he proposed that Hinduism’s qualities were antithetical to capitalism. Originally published in 1916.

  • Yang, Anand A. Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Gangetic Bihar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    Analyzes markets as sites not only of economic exchange, but of social, political, cultural, and religious exchange as well, taking rural Bihar in the 18th and 19th centuries as a case study. Chapter 3 focuses on fairs, highlighting the role of religion in spurring the travel of pilgrims as well as commodity production and consumption (pp. 112–160). Chapter 4 looks at the use of rural markets in Gandhi’s call for a nation free from religious and caste divides (pp. 161–220).

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