Capitalism: The underlying economic & political philosophy of Hinduism

The word dharma, as espoused by the spiritual traditions of India like Buddhism and Hinduism doesnot mean ‘religious’ as is generally understood. It is common to confuse a dharmik person with a religious person. However, the word ‘religion’ doesnot come even close to explaining the concept of dharma. The concept of Dharma which is at the core of Hinduism, is explained in Sri Bhagwad Gita which is one of the most sacred and influential Indian texts. Signifying the importance of Bhagwad Gita in his life, Gandhi wrote,

When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external tragedies and if they have not left any visible or invisible effect on me, I owe it to the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita.

Bhagwad Gita is essentially a conversation between Krishna and his friend Arjuna. Krishna explains to Arjuna about dharma and how to act in accordance with dharma. He says that dharma means righteousness and an individual can become dharmik only if he is on the path of righteousness. Merely following certain rules like going to temples, chanting hymes (which you might barely understand), wearing specific dresses, sporting beards, going to pilgrimages or trying to convince other people to convert, might make an individual religious, but it does not make an individual dharmik.

    Krishna emphasizes that all individuals are pious because God resides in all individuals. Therefore he does not give a check-list of do’s and don’ts to Hindus which they can follow to be on the path of righteousness. This is because the path of righteousness can be different for different individuals based on their unique circumstances and situations. A sinful activity in the eyes of one can be an act of kindness in the eyes of the other. For example, some people might consider administering anesthesia to patents as a sin while others may consider it as an act of kindness which will relieve the patients off their pain. Therefore, no act can be classified as sinful or holy, good or bad. Everything depends upon the circumstance and context and it is for the individuals to decide. No religious texts or even Gods can help an individual make certain decisions. Every individual has to figure out his own Dharma. Gurucharan Das discusses the complexity and subtlety of Dharma in detail in his book, “The Difficulty of Being Good – the Subtle Art of Dharma”.

    In Hindu traditions, Ram played by the rules to protect Dharma. However, Krishna stole butter, lied to his mother about it, flirted with girls, encouraged Arjuna to fight a war which caused widespead bloodshed, and even encouraged the Pandavs to break the rules of war. However he did this to protect Dharma and hence enjoys the status of the Gods. Duryodhana, Aswathama, Dronacharya and Kripacharya on the other hand, even though played by the rules, ended up on the other side of dharma.

    Since every individual has his own dharma, Hinduism gives absolute freedom to individuals to make their choices. All the figures in Mahabharata faced a dilemma about how they should choose their actions so that their actions are in accordance with dharma. This dilemma is faced by all Hindus. Rig Veda which is one of the most prominent Hindu texts even encourages questioning the very existence of God. Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? When was it created? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

This dilemma encourages Hindus to think about religious, spiritual and material issues. No wonder India has been a land of great dissenters and revolutionary thinkers like Mahavir Jain, Gautam Buddha, Guru Nanak Dev and Swami Vivekananda amongst others.

    It is unfortunate that for a country which has been defined and influenced by Hindu philosophy which guarantees complete freedom to individuals to think and act, its present economic and political system is a complete anti-thesis of it. India is one of the rare countries where governments can lock you up in jail for making comments on Facebook. Twitter handles can be blocked if you criticize a Minister’s son. You need permissions from politicians and bureaucrats to start an educational institute or starting a business to support your family.

    India is messed up because it has moved away from its traditional and dharmik values of giving utmost freedom to individuals. Unregulated free market Capitalism is the underlying economic and political philosophy of Hinduism because Capitalism is the only economic and political system which acknowledges and guarantees freedom to individuals. Unfortunately because of Nehru, India adopted socialism which is a complete anti-thesis of Hinduism and capitalism. Under socialism, economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of a few politicians and bureaucrats. Power hungry Nehru ignored the lessons of Hindu philosophy and Noble laureates like Milton Friedman while adopting socialism. Consequently India paid the price and remained underdeveloped while other countries in the region like China, South Korea, Singapore etc., made substantial economic progress. By global standards, Indians have one of the lowest standards of living, lowest literacy rates and poor access to health care. This lack of freedoms, especially for the backward sections of the society has perpetuated the caste system which has become a blot on the Hindu society. However marginal economic growth in the past few decades have shown that economic freedom can eradicate this malpractice.

    Economists have already shown that individual freedoms are a necessity for societies to develop. For Hindus, individual freedoms are a religious right. If a country guarantees religious freedom, than it should guarantee individual freedoms of speech and property to all religious groups which are based on individual freedoms. Otherwise secularism is a sham.

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Ghanshyam Sharma

Ghanshyam is doing PhD in Economics at Clemson University. He has earlier worked as a Consultant in the Planning Commission of India.

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