The Hindu Work Ethic
October 20, 2006
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.