The Hindu Work Ethic

October 20, 2006

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Here is a picture of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, part of the Hindu diaspora’s flowering.

I wrote the following in 1994 for Hinduism Today.

The Hindu Work Ethic: or, The New “Hindu Rate of Growth”
by Rajeev Srinivasan

India has suddenly become a fashionable destination for investment; many large
companies view India as a must-have market. Is this a flash in the pan, given her
enormous problems of underdevelopment? I think not: because there is a fundamental
Hindu work ethic.  In fact, the 21st century, rather than being the Pacific century, will
really be the Asian century, and India will be a major player in this.
Americans, with some justification, have considered the thrifty Yankee farmer of the
northeastern provinces to embody the spirit of sacrifice and hard work that has allowed
them to conquer and tame a continent.  

Similarly, the rise of the East Asian world has been attributed to the inherent qualities of
a Confucian model that upholds values of duty and responsibility, as well as sanctioning
the pursuit of material possessions. In contrast, it has been presumed in the west that the
pervasive poverty and misery in India is the result of a Hindu ethic of self-abnegation,
fatalism, and other-worldliness.  However, this is a false assumption: the success of
Indians all over the world is proof   of the incorrectness of this belief.

It is interesting to analyze historical western attitudes towards East Asians to contrast
these with their attitudes towards Indians. In the  wake of the Opium Wars and other
unpleasant encounters, and indeed   after World War II, the prevailing wisdom in the
west was that  Mongoloid peoples were inherently inferior: dull-witted, slothful,
untrustworthy, and at best capable of aping the west. Of course, the rise of Japan, Hong
Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore has emphatically   denied that notion; pundits
(including the irrepressible Mr. Lee Kuan  Yew) have come up with the notion of the
“Confucian work ethic” to  explain the unqualified East Asian success.  

It is my contention that in the same fashion, there is an underlying   Hindu ethic–as yet
undiscovered by western commentators–that will make India a major economic power.
This would merely be a return to ages past: in medieval times, India was one of the
world’s richest  nations, producing a significant fraction of the world’s entire trade,
particularly in textiles, high-value agricultural products, gems,  steel, and so forth. This
could not have been the case without a  well-organized and well-run commercial
structure.  Further, Indians were good traders: observe the Phoenicians and Romans
coming to the   Malabar coast in search of black pepper, worth its weight in gold; or  the
maritime empire of the Pallavas, which dominated South East Asian  trade as far afield as
Cambodia. More recent examples include the Indian diaspora in East Africa. What has
held India down over the last   millennia is a combination of inevitable cyclical decline,
invasions, and outright looting, especially by the British, with a lot of  misgovernment
and stultifying bureaucracy thrown in.

What are the fundamental features of this Hindu work ethic? They are:   thrift, hard work,
sense of duty, respect for the family unit, respect for education, mathematical skills, and
entrepreneurial skills.

For a poor nation, Indians are remarkably thrifty, saving up to 28% of   their gross
national product. While not as high as that of the Chinese or the Japanese, this is certainly
very high. When channelled wisely, into useful investment, this is a major asset.

Those who have lived outside India can testify to the extraordinary   hard work put in by
small-business owners of Indian origin.  In California, a significant number of high-
technology millionaires are  workaholic Hindus. Somehow, in India, the rewards for hard
work have been so hard to come by that it has made no sense to work hard. 

The Hindu paradigm of dharma–of doing one’s duty, whatever it may be–is a powerful
force in keeping the individual focused on a  superordinate goal. It does not make one
fatalistic; on the contrary,  if one’s dharma is to be a trader, to amass wealth, then there is
scriptural authorization to do so.

Hindus have been castigated for being clannish and unwilling to mix with others. This,
however, has another side to it: that the Hindu,  much like the Japanese, the Chinese, or
the Jew, believes that he has   a duty to a unit, be it the extended family or to the
community (as he  defines it–often a caste grouping or a language grouping). Far from
being a negative, this “tribal” consciousness is an extremely   important asset in a rapidly
shrinking world, where connections count  for a lot. In addition, on a more personal level,
the existence of support mechanisms from the immediate and extended family is a
significant benefit. 

Perhaps the most serious problems facing American society is the poor quality of its
human resources–education is valued little here. On the other hand, Indians have always
revered education. In the new   information era, educated and skilled people will be the
greatest asset a nation could have; thus, India is well positioned for the future.

Hindu scientists and mathematicians were among the most advanced in the ancient world;
to this day, the mathematical precision required by Sanskrit lives on in the racial skill set.
Thus Hindus’ notable predilection for science and technology: and this flies in the face of
the western prejudice of Hindus as superstitious and primitive. To   manipulate complex
financial and technical information, Indian brainpower will be in much demand in the
future.   

Indians have tremendous entrepreneurial skills; even in India, with liberalization, a large
number of people have started their own small   businesses. The ambition and
perseverance needed to succeed in these will serve the country well, just as Germany’s
small businesses have been the engine of the economy there. 

Will all this result in fundamental growth in India? The term, “the   Hindu rate of growth”
has been used disparagingly to refer to India’s recent history of 2-3% annual growth in
GDP, as though there were something inherent in Hinduism that limited growth. On the
contrary, I   believe that the true “Hindu rate of growth” is a healthy and sustainable 6-8%
a year. 

Of course, there are limits to growth: environmental degradation, overpopulation, AIDS,
and cultural homogenization. There is   speculation that AIDS might become a pandemic
in India; this would be a serious problem. In addition, there is evidence that, for example,
in Japan, the young are beginning to lose their Confucian ethic, and   becoming mindless
emulators of vacuous American fads. 

If India can avoid some of these traps, there is no reason why the Hindu work ethic
cannot transform the country in a single lifetime, lifting untold millions of our brethren
from poverty to a fulfilling   life. It is, finally, the time for Hindus to “arise, awake” as
Swami Vivekananda predicted a century ago.

[Note: because of the overwhelming importance of Hindu culture in India, I generally use
the terms Indian and Hindu interchangeably,   with no disrespect meant towards Indians
of other faiths].

Rajeev Srinivasan lives near San Francisco.

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5 Responses to “The Hindu Work Ethic”


  1. […] The Hindu Work Ethic: or, The New “Hindu Rate of Growth” by Rajeev Srinivasan India has suddenly become a fashionable destination for investment; many large companies view India as a must-have market. Is this a flash in the pan, given her enormous problems of underdevelopment? I think not: because there is a fundamental Hindu work ethic. In fact, the 21st century, rather than being the Pacific century, will really be the Asian century, and India will be a major pla … Posted by rajeev2007Nice post out of thousands.Link to original article […]

  2. wanderlust Says:

    an awesome blog. an awesome article. keep up the good work.

  3. cuziyam Says:

    A nice article.

    The article “Going Dutch” by RUSSELL SHORTO in NewYork times provides similar corelation to the european capitalism.

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/magazine/03european-t.html?_r=1&em=&pagewanted=all

    The article’s implied message is that American economy will improve, if it incorporates the sprit of Christian philanthropy like the european countries.

    I was of the opinion that it is the Chrisitan theology that allows and asks for more war and destruction in the world. Your comments, please.

    PS: I took time reading your article. Please reciprocate.

  4. cuziyam Says:

    Summary of the Going Touch is below:

    The article is written by an American about the European Vs American capitalism. As per the author:

    Americans think that the form of government that takes care of its citizen by way of social welfare schemes can only be a socialist government. But, the author counters that prejudice by showing the Netherlands, an harbinger of capitalsim who introduced the world’s first stock market, and a very successful capitalist and developed country tuned towards free-market-oriented economic system; here the government sponsors various welfare schemes to her citizens.

    Reasons?

    1. History of collectivism: in which any development activity starts from the bottom and reaches the toppest layer of the system. Unlike America, the toppest layer includes representatives of all the classes, consisting of trade-unions, business and government representatives; here employers and unions work together.

    2. Tradition of religion: make the people commitment to look after poor. The relief system of the church is taken over by the state.

    3. tradition of private-enterprise: makes the country continue with a capitalistic system smoothly.

    This system is developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi. Religious values and a tradition of cooperation are what lie beneath the modern social-welfare system of the Netherlands. Not in America. In America insurance companies try to wriggle out of covering chronically ill patients, in the Dutch system the government oversees a fund from which insurers that take on more high-cost clients can be compensated.

    Though everybody gets equal benefit and equal treatment, a man with more money can have supplemental benefits.

    Unlike America, there is almost no red tape for all classes of citizens. And unlike America, the corporates here cannot cheat money legally.

    Unlike the American Capitalism the system here is not based on government, but of society that does not have the costliest American dream, but values simple and economical way of quality living. This system makes people of different income levels live equally and together.

    For this, unlike the America, the Dutch pay more tax.

    Yet, the European system is capitalism to the core. The difference is that this system combines all the power structures of the society – individuals, corporations, government, nongovernmental entities like unions and churches.

    A 2007 Unicef study of the well-being of children in 21 developed countries ranked Dutch children at the top and American children second from the bottom.

    Unlike America where the work and achievements take a pedestal and make Americans sacrifies much of their life time to it, a Dutch places equal respect to work and leisure. The work culture of the Dutch keeps them calm and fresh and equally productive.

    The system also has a few negative points :

    Every one has clear roles. It is the government’s duty to take care of the poor, while the individual works for his personal interests. But, for Americans it is for the individuals to initiate a service to poor.

    People here do not want to stand out or excel, unlike the Americans who want to break away from deficiencies – natural or alleged or otherwise. They want to remain as normal as their neighbours.

    The system has been successful as it has been a country of homogeneous population. This is disturbed lately due to multi-ethnic immigration.

    Conclusion:

    The article shows that while the American dream chase after quantity in its capitalistic society, the Dutch live and look for quality in the same economical system, and so is enjoying a better life.


  5. […] Rajeev Srinivasan who lamented the West’s inability to acknowledge the Hindu Work ethic. The article can be read […]


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