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Is Indian work culture informed by the Hindu religion?

Issue Date: June 16 to 30, 2006, Posted On: 6/22/2006

By Bal Ram Singh

Indians are everywhere, not counting the misconception created by Christopher Columbus since 1492 when he landed in what is currently Ecuador and believed he was in India. The indigenous people there are still called Indians.

There are over 20-22 million Hindu diaspora living outside India, according to a 2004 report by the Hindu American Foundation. If this diaspora was a country, it will be the 49th largest country based on population. With an estimated GDP of $1 trillion of Hindu diaspora outside India, their economic strength is larger than that of India with a GDP of only $720 billion.

In recent years, There has been a great deal of interest in India, and also in the Indian diaspora. As Indian technological prowess crashed the party with the advent of Y2K, much of the world has turned to Indians in general and Indian Americans in particular, to watch their culture, behavior, food and lifestyles, to take a peek at what India is really made of.

Controversies over business process outsourcing and Indian call centers aside, interest in India has genuinely come of age.

Forbes in its June 21, 2004 issue stated that “all societies flourish mightily when tolerance is the norm, and our age furnishes many examples of this.” Paul Johnson, author of the article, explains this point using examples of Indians in India as well as in the diaspora.

“It is the nature of the Hindu religion to be tolerant and, in its own curious way, permissive….Take the case of Uganda’s Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant community in Britain.”

“The importation of labor from the Indian subcontinent was part of a continuing search by Guyanese planters for a labor force that was docile, reliable and amenable to discipline under harsh, tropical conditions.” Such is the description of Indians who were brought to Guyana in 1838 by Britishers according to a 1986 issue of History Today.

Johnson offers a philosophical basis of this success by stating “they are a striking example of how far hard work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets.” 

In a recent article (April 1, 2006) UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that Hindus and Sikhs in Britain are the best at money managing. The newspaper interviewed members of Indian diaspora to fathom the reason for their unusual success.

Geeta Nanda, a housing association director said, “I’ve inherited a different ethos to my contemporaries….It’s all part of our ethos. We save before we buy — you can have a big car or flashy jewelry but you get them with cash and not through debt. You have what you can afford,” she continued.

Dental nurse Alka Malkan says she “does not mix religion” with her daily life. “But generally, you are brought up to work hard and not splash out,” she says.

Explaining part of the reason for such a record as spiritual the newspaper said, “Hinduism stresses that increasing the family’s wealth is a duty and a blessing from the goddess Lakshmi, the consort or wife of Lord Vishnu. She is the goddess whose four hands represent prosperity, purity, chastity and generosity.”

And even if it is true, the money management and economic growth explains only one of the four hands of goddess Lakshmi. What about the other three hands?

I always wonder why do we need a goddess, or for that matter a god, to represent such characteristics.

Why name such a goddess Lakshmi? Why is she the wife of Lord Vishnu, why not the wife of Shiva or Brahma?

The root word for Lakshmi is the same as that of the lakshya, meaning aim or target. It basically symbolizes pursuing the aim of life, and the four characteristics represented by Lakshmi may be the keys to success in life.

She is the wife of Lord Vishnu, who is considered as the preserver of the universe. Many of the sustainability concerns throughout the world today are looking back to Indian traditions, if not goddesses, for some guidance.

Speaking of Indian tradition, grihalakshmi is the traditional reference given to a housewife, a word that has stopped evoking much respect in today’s world. Patni, the word used for wife in Hindi, is derived from the word pathni, the one who shows the way of righteous deeds, and that might provide some explanation for goddess Lakshmi’s other three virtues — purity, chastity, and generosity — that are needed to sustain the planet.

Perhaps, it is these qualities that bestow goddessness rather than the other way around. This was in wide spectacle on June 1, 2006, during INDIA New England’s Woman of the Year ceremony.

The 20 finalists included in the recognition have all shown the way by taking upon themselves to work hard, excel and make a difference in the lives of their own as well those of others.

The Woman of the Year, Bishnu Maya Pariyar, whose name also refers to Lakshmi, has already proven the power of the true meaning of the word Pathni, when husbands now routinely defer to their wives for important issues as a result of her work with families in Nepal. 

A side note on the gala dinner for the women honorees; while the official invitation had mentioned dress code as formal business/Indian attire, it was the women (and not the men), including virtually all of the honorees, who wore Indian attire.

This was as if just to make a point that only the female gender is capable of keeping its tradition, all the while it marches to incremental heights of prosperity. That may actually provide the clue to why the hands representing the four virtues of success are those of a goddess, not a god.

Bal Ram Singh is the director of the Center for Indic Studies at UMass. Dartmouth. He can be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.

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