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June - July 2006


Balancing the Books: Interfaith dialogues & economic discourse in the global age of the 21st Century

by Anuja Prashar

How do Faith leaders, Politicians and Business people collectively strive to portray balance and fairness in the increasingly important political interfaith dialogue taking place in the UK today? How can they achieve balanced representation within their own faith groups and yet stand firm on principles and value systems which also reflect religious values and the globalizing reality of the 21st Century? The Hindu/Vedic values of pluralism and self realization make the task for an individual simple and personal. The social success of Hindus in the UK today is a reflection of this value system effectively in operation.

However, there are two key challenges to this enterprise for collective bodies who wish to engage with these issues, within the political arena of a globalized world. Unless these two challenges are now faced and owned by leaders of each religious group, political party or economic sector, the interfaith dialogue within the UK is akin to spinning your wheels in a mud track, on a rainy day.

The first challenge is the disparity of recognised religious authority across the globe, which leaves an enormous transnational gap of accountability, between what is debated in the UK and what is practised and condoned in other parts of the world. During the era of undisputed national state authority and earlier within systems of colonial imperialism, this globally fragmented institutionalised religious debate would not have been possible. Nor would the repercussions of actions or words in one part of the world have an impact almost simultaneously in another part of the world as witnessed by reaction to the ‘cartoons’ and for our purposes within the UK as witnessed by events of 9/11 and 7/7. Organisations representing religious groups will need to strive to acquire a global or transnational cooperation and collective structure for effective functioning in the future.

The second challenge which is more subtle and yet has an impact that is far more profound and far reaching, is that interfaith dialogue today is exclusively framed within paradigms of a Christian Abrahamic tradition, and the economic discourse is dominated by western experiences and reactions, which together negate the possibility of any other world view. This framework of perception has become deeply embedded in the Western psyche through works like that of Max Weber, one of the founders of modern western sociology and the original advocate for the Protestant Christian work ethic, upon which modern American capitalism became embedded. Weber denounced the Hindu way of life as anti-capitalist and unprogressive in 1958 and advocated for the development of rational capitalism of the Western type. These dominant Christian Abhrahamic paradigms, structure and frame the value systems and key ‘life quality’ questions contained within any meaningful interfaith or economic dialogue today.

The 21st Century information age and the ever improving shared communication links of both internet and education systems across the world, is beginning to challenge the elite status that the Christian Abrahamic paradigms have enjoyed thus far. This challenge will have to be acknowledged and accounted for before religious, economic and social issues can be fully debated and solutions for an increasingly fragmented society are sought. There are various initiatives that mark out these challenges, within the Hindu world and reflecting upon them may lead to some interesting insights and suggestions for a possible way forward.

There is now growing evidence of transnational networks being established within the transnational Hindu world, in all sectors of society across the globe. The traditional religious organisations demonstrate steady growth in modernising temple facilities accompanied with a new and increasingly widened programmes to encompass religious and cultural education with conferences to include Religious, Political or Professional specialists as key note speakers from India and other countries.

The growth in other newer and innovative organisations also demonstrate a move towards transnational networks with less emphasis upon religious practise and more upon economic, social or political agendas which do not always follow conventional Capitalist/Socialist political affiliations. A few significant examples are Global IIT Alumni, Hindu Forum of Britain representing 270 Hindu organisations in UK, APPI which represents over 32,000 physicians of Indian origin across the United States, WAVES conference of World Association of Vedic scholars, Hindu American Foundation for Human Rights, Dharma Summit USA, DAWN group for Asian women entrepreneurs UK, Hindu Council of Australia, Washington India Caucus, SEVA Foundation UK a global charity, Art of Living of India, HCI in New York, Infinity Foundation a global research center, Ayurvedic research center in California, Himalayan academy in Hawaii, Acharaya Saabha in Pennsylvania, Iyengar Yoga association UK and International Network of Asian Businesses UK.
Each nation with large numbers of Hindu populations are beginning to see the rise of organised network groups of professionals, business people and charity volunteers with a self selecting membership that does not promote, practise or defend the Hindu religion or Indian nationalism. This goes against the sociological research published in the West, by authors such as Chetan Bhatt, Steven Vortovec and Prema Kurien who attribute organised Hindu political and social activity as either nationalistic fanaticism, religious fundamentalism, or religious cosmopolitanism that is not grounded in traditional Vedic pluralistic principles and is therefore merely a social phenomena induced through migration to the west. These networks are often referred to as ‘imagined communities’ or re-imagined Indian spaces.

If these networks and organisations were not closely affiliated to Hinduism, as the root source of values or those of Indian origins as foundational members, there could have been an argument for a new socio-religious cosmopolitan movement. As it stands, it would appear that Hindus in ever increasing transnational numbers, are now socially, economically and politically beginning to visibly demonstrate the traditional practise of pluralism that is a core value for all Hindu social and spiritual practise. After all, any member of the majority of Hindu families witnesses that each member of their family has always had the choice to practise their own personal path to self realisation. Not prescriptive, cosmopolitanism is not a new concept for the Hindu way of life and makes a complete nonsense of the idea of Hindu fundamentalism, if there is any.

My evidence of the growing number of Hindu transnational networks and organisations, that do not reflect the binary western paradigms and approaches of Capitalist/Socialist or Fundamentalism/Absolutism supports the research of Sandhya Shukla who suggests that a re-thinking of transnational identities is required which encompasses the material experience of those of Indian origin. I would also add the proactive agency with which people of Indian origin with Vedic ancestry have clearly demonstrated by their economic and social integration and success as the highest per capita income earners of any ethnic group in UK, Australia & USA alike. Shukla also warns against accepting that diversity is a new concept, when thousands of years of Indian history reflects the centrality of the concepts of diversity and pluralism as a living, everyday Indian experience. The proactive agency and material evidence clearly illustrates how the western sociological, religious and political perceptions are at odds with the Indian or Hindu self perception and approach.

The use of the terms cosmopolitan or ‘third way’ as ascribed by western liberals does not do justice to the experience of Hindu transnationals. Neither are today’s transnational Hindus a people of multiple identities, as some academics would like to suggest, while affirming the false concept of an ‘essential Hindu identity’ which then has to put on various ‘masks’ in the experience of migration. Both these suggestions of cosmopolitanism and multiple identities are based upon the assumption of a single essential and absolute experience, that is pre dominantly Western in origin and Christian in its world view. The national debates in the West around immigration, citizenship and economic development do much to sustain these dominant perceptions of the essential rational and progressive western person and the unprogressive and backward eastern person.
The economics of the situation can no longer be ignored if we are indeed going to address a new way forward in interfaith debates and its related social discourses. The Hindu emphasis upon learning and the pursuit of knowledge, higher learning and the pursuit of self realization is evident in the high educational rates achieved by Hindus today at an unprecedented global scale, and especially amongst Hindu women. The renowned economist, Amarthya Sen has shown through his research, how the education of women and the higher education levels of any society vastly increases the potential for development and economic growth of that society.

The manner in which data is gathered to identify the social class of any particular ethnic group within the UK, reflects the degree of embeddedness within the socio-economic discourse of concepts of capitalism and socialism with their roots in Christian paradigms. The notions of workers/labourer, self employment and a social national state are paramount to the processes that construct identities and the results dictate social policy accordingly. The national statistics of UK indicate that those of Pakistani origins are most likely to be self employed with lower educational standards (….% are Taxi drivers) and those of Bangladeshi origins to be least likely, of the Asian groups, to be educated with a higher degree and most likely to be unemployed. However, those of Indian origin (51% Hindu 27 % Sikh) are most likely, of the whole population, to hold managerial positions and have educational qualifications of first degree or higher.

The launch of the International Asian Business Network in April 2006 discussed issues for 2nd and 3rd generation Asian business people in the UK. The greatest concern voiced in this debate was that the Asian business person is becoming substituted by the corporate worker and how this will have a negative impact upon the growth of this very significant economic sector within the British economy.

The National data criteria, which reflect the monitoring of ethnic groups according to their level of contribution to the economy as employees, now and potentially in the future, against the drain they are on national resources, the medical or social services, implicitly imply that employed workers with education are preferable to self employed persons with lower educational skills. How does this imperative compare with that of a Hindu cultural psyche that is rooted in the concepts of self realisation, peace and prosperity?

R.Vaidyanathan demonstrates how this dominant paradigm of workers and employers who are often in India also owners, is essentially a western Capitalist verses Socialist concept and in direct contrast to the statistics and Indian way of life. Writing in THE HINDU he suggests, “Our economy (Indian) is not that of wage earners and shareholders. A significant portion of the economy consists of the self-employed who are both wage-earners and shareowners. The share of the proprietorship and partnership forms of organisations in the national income is 35 per cent, that of corporates around 15 per cent, of government around 25 per cent, and agriculture around 25 per cent. Combined agriculture and the self-employed in industry and service sectors, nearly 60 per cent of the national income is generated by the self-employed and does not fall in the paradigm of either capitalism or socialism.

The defining of the concept ‘peace and prosperity’ will also differ between East and West and brings into question the dominant ‘life quality’ issues that are simultaneously constructed through the capitalist consumer market and the issues for development and life style choices. Indians with transnational identities are faced with such issues everyday. In India R.Vaidyanathan suggests, “The promise of free television sets (in Tamil Nadu) is a classic example of the perils of distorted prosperity based on state subsidy in this century. It is not for basic requirements such as water, toilets or electricity but for watching inane serials. Alas, TV sets and toilets are not interchangeable.”

However, in contrast, in the West, we are increasingly witnessing the adoption of various aspects of the Hindu way of life into everyday modern living by all ethnic groups, that is both subtle and profound. The Values of Yoga, Ayurveda and Dietary control are increasingly wide spread today through out the modern urban and western worlds. The seeking for an enhancement of ‘quality of life’ is a visible 21st C social phenomenon and the pluralistic approaches of Hinduism are today contributing greatly, to answering this search. Yoga, Ayurveda and Holistic lifestyle choices are also providing large markets and new areas for commercial advancements which are having both a religious and economic impact on society and its formations.

The Hindu way of life and its enriching ‘quality of life’ attributes, this author suggests, will have potentially far reaching consequences for the whole global Society in the 21st Century, only if the challenges of dominant religious, social and economic paradigms are acknowledged and overcome through effective and inclusive interfaith and economic dialogue.

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