Several economic historians have laid a great deal of blame on the religious outlook and institutions for the economic backwardness of India. For instance, vera Anstey ascribes Indian poverty to the peculiar religious outlook of the Hindus that encouraged rigid traditionalism and conservatism on one side and other worldliness and fatalism on the other.
In a similar vein, Morris. D. Morris blames the “inherent social structure of Indian society” for the slow rate of economic progress. There is no doubt that certain Indian customs and ceremonies did not act in the best economic interests of the country.
For instance, the religious basis of many social customs and institutions including, in particular, marriage, birth and death rites, encouraged extravagance and dissipation of savings and often led to indebtedness.
Likewise, the universality and early age of marriage, together with the intense desire for male offspring, tonded to increase the birth rate. At the same time, early and frequent motherhood increased maternal and infant mortality. The ‘purdah’ system withdrew many women from productive employment and prevented them from assisting their menfolk at busy seasons.
Religious objections to the taking of animal life did not allow the destruction of harmful pests such as the monkey, the flying fox, the squirrel, the jackal and the rat which regularly do terrible damage to fruit and vegetable crops. The Hindu worship of the cow permitted the diseased ones’ ‘to service, the eat up the precious fodder supply and to mate and beget inferior young.’
Similarly, the highly religious attitude of the Hindu led him to support a large body of entirely un-productive mendicants. There is also no denying the fact that the caste system checked free mobility of labour, discouraged manual work and made it difficult for labour and capital to cooperate in production. The joint family system also discouraged initiative and enterprise.
Vera Anstey is not wrong when she asserts that the results of these customs and institutions tended “towards over-population, improvidence, the checking of economic enterprise, and the prevalence of a poor standard of mental and physical development, particularly in the case of women.”
However, the overall impact of these socio-religious institutions was only to slow down the rate of economic development in the country. To put the entire blame for the backwardness of India on these institutions alone would be a gross distortion of facts.
The poverty of India was not due to the fatalistic or spiritual out look of the people. Rather, it was the poverty combined with political anarchy that bred fatalism among the people. In ancient times, when the hold of religion was stronger, the Indians did not hesitate to amass wealth, trade with the world and also manufacture a large volume and variety of goods.
It was only when the administration was weak and inefficient so that a man lost in a moment the fruit of years of his labour by the rapacity of an oppressive ruler or a chance invader that he sought the consolation of a religion that preached fatalistic resignation.
That religion did not discourage people from persuing material ends is further proved by the fact that the communities most amenable to the influence of orthodox religion like the Marwaris and Jains among the Hindus and the Khojas, Memons and Bohras among the Muslims, showed a remarkable adaptability to industrialism and took a leading part in the industrial life of the country.
These institutions could have been blamed for the poverty of India had they been entirely static. That, however, was not the case. India’s social institutions had themselves been adjusting and adapting themselves to the changing needs of the times.
It would, therefore, be correct to conclude that India’s economic backwardness was caused by the special politico-economic relationship existing between India and England and the economic policies that flowed from it.
India’s social institutions at best only influenced the form and tempo of whatever economic development took place but they certainly did not determine it. In-fact, it was the slow economic progress that allowed them to survive.