The Dharma of Dollars Hinduism and money: a colonial reflection

I. Hinduism and money?

Is the prevailing stereotype, namely that so-called “Eastern” cultures revolved and continue to revolve around spiritualism and so-called “Western” culture centers around materialism, actually true? Or is this stereotype a clever marketing ploy first put forth by Swami Vivekananda more than a century ago, and now perpetuated and capitalized upon by new-age, Yoga-professing neo-Hindus? By reactionary right-wing Hindutva fundamentalists? Or by imperialist colonizers (in the past and present) desiring to (continue to) exploit and to dominate (formerly) colonized countries economically?

What exactly is the connection, imagined or otherwise, between money/material accumulations, Hinduism, and Hindu practices?

But first, what is Hinduism?


II. Hinduism(s)?

Hinduism is a conglomeration of a variety of beliefs and practices with no one, or official, set of doctrines or religious authorities. Though “Hinduism” is often heralded as the “oldest religion,” it is possible to argue convincingly that it is among the youngest of the world’s religions. This claim, which at first glance seems implausible, is justifiable if one examines the history of the invention of the term “Hindu” itself and its original uses. Students in introductory courses to Hinduism are often surprised to learn that Hinduism does not have a founder as does Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. They are even more surprised to learn that Persians developed the term “Hindu” and that they used it as a geographic, rather than a religious, term. In the singular the term referred to the country through which the Indus river flowed while in the plural it referred to the people who inhabited the land of the Indus. The term slowly evolved (devolved?) into a religious one when it was used by Muslims, by Christian missionaries, by British colonizers, by colonized “Hindu” reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, and by Hindu nationalists like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Consequently the term has developed a life of its own, outside the imagination of its first creators and, ironically, has become the means by which the majority of “Hindus” self-identify.


Money and its accumulation, as I will show, is a matter of dharma (proper duty and behavior). Hinduism, at least according to the passages found in Manavadharmashastra, encourages the majority of its adherents to be money-oriented and materialistic.

Though the origin of the term is clear, this does not mean that “Hinduism,” a contrived category, has clear boundaries that differentiate it from other religions, nor does “Hinduism” have essential teachings that are purportedly held by all adherents, despite the claims of contemporary Hindu nationalists. Those who believe that the mechanism of karma is a unique Hindu idea and, therefore, a defining characteristic, would also dispute my claim. Karma is not, I contend, an exclusively Hindu concept. After all, it is a key component in both Jainism and Buddhism. Others hold that the sutra (thread) that ties together all Hindus is the centrality of a body of texts known as the Vedas. While some Hindus do indeed uphold the sanctity of these Sanskrit texts, not all Hindus endorse the epistemic authority of the Vedas. Attempts to define the scope of Hinduism are thus fraught with problems: either the proposed definition is too broad (such as defining it in terms of karma) or it is too narrow (such as defining it in terms of the Vedas).

The term “Hindu” is thus notoriously difficult to define. Substantive definitions have been tried, as have experiential ones. Defining Hinduism in terms of family resemblances and overlapping Venn diagrams, currently in vogue, though somewhat useful, is only partially satisfying as the resultant classifications are far too broad.

To offer readers a definitive account of the connection between Hinduism and money would thus be deceitful and definitively incorrect. My reflections here, then, will be somewhat limited and reflect only the sentiment found in the Manavadharmashastra, The Law Code of Manu (hereafter “Manu”) a so-called “Brahminical”/Sanskritic “Classical” text. There is no doubt that this is only a sliver of all of the possibilities and I would not claim otherwise. So, why this Brahminical/Sanskritic/Classical text and not others?


III. “Classical Hinduism” and “Brahmanical Hinduism”

I will stipulate “Classical Hinduism” to encompass Sanskrit texts and practices between 200 BCE and 11th century CE. The “Classical” age is noteworthy for being a time when the dharmashastras (treatises on proper duty and behavior) were produced and later codified. I will stipulate “Brahmanical Hinduism” to refer to the Sanskrit texts and practices of the Brahmins (the so-called “priestly class”) from Vedic times to the present. It allows scholars to pick out Brahmanical norms from those put forth by other varnas (classes). Their prescriptions for proper behavior, most importantly, are somewhat systematized and uniform thus making this constructed category useful for the purposes of this analysis. Money and its accumulation, as I will show, is a matter of dharma (proper duty and behavior). Hinduism, at least according to the passages found in Manavadharmashastra, encourages the majority of its adherents to be money-oriented and materialistic.

Manu was one of the first texts to become part of the European world. Translated in 1794 by William Jones, the text was further translated into several languages, including French and German. Nietzsche, the German philosopher, mentioned the text several times in his corpus. The British, moreover, looked towards it as a pre-eminent example of Hindu law and they thus integrated it into their colonial rule of India. It is surprising that, with knowledge and awareness of this text, the first colonizing Orientalists did not object to the portrayal of Hinduism as spiritualistic, rather than materialistic. But, as I will suggest below, perhaps not accepting the material sensibility of Hinduism helped colonizers to justify their colonization.

Manu is centered upon issues of shuddha (purity) and ashuddha (impurity). It offers a detailed account of how to act in almost every imaginable situation in the world and simultaneously maintain one’s purity. There are rules about when and how to eat, to bathe, to have intercourse, to get married, what sort of woman would be an ideal wife, what sort would not, what sort of job one should have, funerary practices, and so on. These rules about how to behave in the world were differentiated according to varna (class), ashrama (stage of life), and gender. There are four ashramas. These are brahmacharya (celibate student), grhastha (householder), vanaprastha (forest dweller), and samnyasi (ascetic renouncer). The ashrama system was contrived and constructed concurrently with the systemization of dharma in the dharmashastras. While it is not followed strictly by the vast majority of Hindus (either today or in the past), it has played a role as an idealized or aspirational model.

Are texts like Manavadharmashastra prescriptive or descriptive? That is, did they put forth ideals towards which society ought to aspire or were they detailed characterizations of what was actually transpiring? In all likelihood, a relatively small group of people, primarily Brahmins, were aware of the ideals but may not have followed them strictly, if at all. Even today, Hindus are aware of Manu (though they may not know much of the content) though they refer to it as an unattainable or superannuated ideal.

It is for these reasons that I am using Manavadharmashastra as the text around which to orient questions concerning Hinduism and money.


IV. The dharma of dollars?

In the idealistic eyes of many contemporary (and deluded) “yoga” practitioners and in the Orientalist eyes of 19th-century American transcendentalists, Hinduism and so-called Eastern religions and philosophies have been envisioned as an antidote for Western ills and materialism. Since Hinduism does not have a founder, as already mentioned, it has made itself even more available to fulfill the imaginary projections of its sycophants, proponents, and opponents. So it has been remarkably easy to imagine Hinduism to be anti-materialist, to be relativist, to be a mysticism, and, for some, to resemble, in some “primitive way,” Christianity. And since there are no official Hindu spokespeople, as there are for Catholicism for example, there have been disconnected and unofficial attempts to address blatantly false or dangerous imaginations, or, in some cases, to try and replace them with their own imaginative possibilities.

Since Hinduism does not have a founder, as already mentioned, it has made itself even more available to fulfill the imaginary projections of its sycophants, proponents, and opponents. So it has been remarkably easy to imagine Hinduism to be anti-materialist, to be relativist, to be a mysticism, and, for some, to resemble, in some “primitive way,” Christianity.

But what do the dharmashastras (treatises on proper duty and behavior) state about money and the accumulation of wealth? What does one find in actual texts, deemed “Hindu”? How is money addressed in Manavadharmahastra? Does it confirm or clash with the standard Orientalist stereotype?


V. Manavadharmashastra: Money as a means

Manu wholeheartedly supports and enjoins the accumulation of wealth, specifically for the grhastha (householder), but not for the brahmacharya (celibate student) and not for the samnyasi (an ascetic). The brahmacharya and the samnyasi stages are more alike than different: while the brahmacharya is beginning close study of the vedas and is learning to be detached from material things, the samnyasi practices and meditates upon the vedas and has renounced all material things, wealth and objects (artha) accumulated during the grhastha phase. Manu’s sentiment (and the sentiment presented in the ashrama system), to be poor when one is a student and to get a job and save some money after one is married, and then to downsize when retired, is not unusual!

Wealth, however, must not be accumulated in excess and must not be accumulated by the incorrect means. Manu writes:


“Except during a time of adversity, a Brahmin ought to sustain himself but following a livelihood that causes little or no harm to creatures. He should gather wealth just sufficient for his subsistence though irreproachable activities that are specific to him, without fatiguing his body.” (Manavadharmashastra  4.2—4.3 Hereafter MDS) (all translations of passages from Manu are from Patrick Olivelle’s The Law Code of Manu, Oxford University Press,  2004)


The restriction concerning sufficiency is, in part, linked to attachment. That is, there ought to be no attachment to material things–though this does not mean that they ought not to be accumulated (as is the case for the brahmacharya and samnyasi). Manu explains:


“He must never seek to obtain wealth (artha) with excessive passion, through forbidden activities, when he already has sufficient wealth from just anyone even in time of adversity; nor shall he be passionately attached to any of the sensory objects (artha) out of lust, but using his mind he should stamp out excessive attachment to them.” (MDS 4.15-4.16)


So, it would be perfectly reasonable for the married Hindu man to purchase a Bentley or even a Ferrari, but he should not be perturbed if and when it gets stolen or damaged. He should also not lust after one.

But what is the purpose of material accumulations (artha)? Is their pursuit a means to a greater end, or an end in and of itself?

Manu explains that all activities are centered on vedic study and practices, begun as a brahmacharya:


“He should forsake all pursuits (artha) that interfere with his vedic recitation, eking out a living some way or other, for that recitation constituted the fulfillment of all his obligations.” (MDS 4.17)


So, the aforementioned Bentley/Ferrari is necessary only insofar as it is conducive to vedic recitation. But would not a KIA or a Hyundai be sufficient? Or even just a used bicycle? Manu explains:


“Let him be a man who stores grain sufficient to fill a granary, a man who stores grain sufficient to fill a jar, a man who has sufficient grain to last three days, or a man who keeps nothing for the next day. Among all these four types of twice-born householders, each should be recognized as superior to the ones preceding it and better at winning the heavenly world, according to the Law.” (MDS 4.7-4.8)


So, according to this passage, the Bentley/ Ferrari is preferable and more instrumental in progress towards moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth)! The more wealth that one accumulates, the better one will be at attaining moksha. This seems rather ironic, and I will return to it shortly.

There are many other passages in Manavadharmashastra (and other dharmashastras) that relay similar sentiments.

The stereotype that Hinduism is less materialistically oriented than other traditions is clearly false.

The aspirational model, of course, is the brahmacharya (celibate student of the Vedas)/samnyasi (ascetic renouncer), which are merely two side of the same coin. Like their Jain counterparts, but not nearly to the same extent or intensity, one of the four central aims of the grhastha (householder) is to support and venerate the brahmacharya/samnyasi. That is, the laypeople are expected to support the novice monk (i.e., the brahmacharya) as well as the full-fledged ascetic.

The student is pampered in expected ways, as is the samnyasi. When I was a graduate student in at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago studying Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, among other subjects, there were a number of people, some close relatives, who were attuned to their dharma (duty, obligation) to help support the student. To this end, they made every effort to assist me in my studies–by feeding me when possible, by giving me a desk, and generally keeping an eye on my well-being. I was even supported by two Hindu temples, whose boards saw the traditional importance of supporting students of the Vedas. Those people and institutions that could afford to assist me were sufficiently prosperous such that they could afford to support an impoverished student such as myself.

The expected accumulation of wealth by the grhastha and the expected abandonment of the same envisioned when one becomes a samnyasi seems contradictory, or at least ironic. The paradox, though, is less paradoxical when one considers that the grhastha supports, wholeheartedly, the overall project and model of the archetypal brahmacharya and samnyasi, namely, the non-attached. A similar, but more pronounced version of this is found among Jains, where members of a very wealthy lay community take vows to abandon (and distribute) all of their possessions and to be models of detachment. Lay Jains and lay Hindus accumulate wealth, in part, to support and venerate those who have nothing, who either are training to become detached or have renounced all worldly possessions and social relations.

Despite this aspirational model of detached asceticism, it is still not possible to characterize Hinduism as spiritual and to confirm the unfortunate stereotype.


VI. What about Goddess Shri Lakshmi?

In popular forms of contemporary Hinduism, the goddess Sri Lakshmi is revered as the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The Goddess is believed to be Lord Vishnu’s wife. In the Visnusmrti (99,4) she is identified with prosperity:


“You are Lakshmi; you are beauty; you are prosperity.”


In contemporary renditions (posters, postcards etc.), her iconography includes several pots of coins. She holds one pot that is overflowing with gold coins and that spills into a second pot. In some images she is also depicted as producing gold coins from her raised right hand in the abhaya mudra (gesture of fearlessness) intended to indicate her protection, in this case, monetary.

When I was a graduate student in at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago studying Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, among other subjects, there were a number of people, some close relatives, who were attuned to their dharma (duty, obligation) to help support the student. To this end, they made every effort to assist me in my studies–by feeding me when possible, by giving me a desk, and generally keeping an eye on my well-being.

While Sri Lakshmi is found in contemporary (and ancient) Indian temples, and especially ones associated with Vishnu, her image is also found above cash registers of businesses owned by Hindus and in Hindu homes.

Are these the same Hindus who are only spiritual, in contrast to their “Western” materially-oriented (and materialistic) counterparts?


VII. Perpetuating the stereotype: What’s at stake?

So if the stereotype is wrong what is to be gained by perpetuating it? And, of course, who benefits from it?

It is easily demonstrated that perpetuating such dichotomies justifies the colonization of the so-called East, whose denizens, though pleasantly idealistic in their spirituality, require the patronage and guidance of their Caucasian/Western oppressors. One of the most infamous expressions of this patronizing and condescending sentiment is found in Rudyard Kipling’sThe White Man’s Burden,” in which he demonizes and infantilizes Filipinos. In his now infamous poem, he encouraged Americans to nurture the Philippines, which had been ceded to the United States by Spain as part of the settlement for the Spanish-American War of 1898.  (Speaking of money, Spain was paid $20 million in compensation for the loss of the Philippines. Colonialism used to be something of a cash-and-carry affair.) The United States refused to recognize an independent Philippine republic. Kipling writes:


Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed

Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. (1899)


Here, saving Filipinos from themselves is characterized as a responsibility to be endured by “White men” who must, ironically, improve the lives of those who have been newly colonized. This savior complex is re-articulated whenever colonized brown-skinned primitives are saved from either themselves or from other brown-skinned primitives. Moreover, the so-called brown-skinned primitives are dehumanized by Kipling and considered to be spawns of the Devil, tracing their recorded ancestry to the most insulting and unflattering creatures in the Christian hierarchy. Kipling closes his unfortunate poem infantilizing them, calling them “half-child.”

Like children, then, who cannot be trusted with, or do not know the value of money or other materials things, members of these spiritual traditions need someone better equipped to manage them. (I am reminded, unfortunately, of the condescending attitudes of some business people and business oriented faculty in universities towards their (spiritually minded) and “idealistic” humanities brethren.) I am reminded of the patronizing and condescending attitude that some take in connection with the preservation of ancient Hindu “art” by removing it from India and storing it in western museums.

Such attitudes surely justify and legitimate colonial exploitation.

When one combines these sentiments with those that link capitalism and Christianity (perhaps Protestantism?) then it is also easy to portray Hinduism and other religious traditions deemed to be spiritually minded to be very low on the hierarchy.


VIII. Mimicry, mockery, money

It is amusing that, in recent times, the tables have been turned and many Hindus, and people who claim to be Hindu, have branded a certain kind of Hindu spiritualism and marketed it with tremendous success in the West, just as Swami Vivekandanda did more than a century ago. One need only look at the phenomenally successful Deepak Chopra, who has combined new-age Hindu spiritualism with Ayn Rand-ish individualistic capitalism. Or perhaps at Bikram Yoga and all of the thousands of avatars of American yogis, wearing costly Lulemon yoga pants and drinking expensive Whole Foods recovery concoctions (with Sanskrit names!). But perhaps the most ingenious rebranding of Hindu spirituality was instituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose establishment of the International Day of Yoga has brought money and Hinduism together with more power, pizazz, and potential than any other.

But is the merging of Hinduism and money in this way a mimicry or a mockery of so-called Western materialism? English-educated colonial Babus dressed in British clothing styles and adopted British mannerisms both as a way of mimicking their colonial superiors and mocking them? Are these new and improved fusions mimicry, mockery, or just simply good marketing?

Either way, Hinduism certainly is not mere spiritualism. I would put money on that.

Deepak Sarma

Deepak Sarma is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University. After earning a BA in religion from Reed College, Sarma attended the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he received a PhD in the philosophy of religions. Sarma writes and researches about “Hinduism,” contemporary Hinduism, bioethics, Madhva Vedanta, cultural theory, post-colonial studies, and museology. He is the author of two monographs: An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta (Ashgate, 2003) and Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Inquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta (Routeledge, 2005), and is the author/editor of Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader (Columbia, University Press, 2011) and Hinduism: A Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).