Global Context: On India, Calvinists, and cow-dung shampoo

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In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

Should you read In Spite of the Gods? That depends. If you’ve never heard a man compare militant Hindus to Calvinists, then yes. This will be amusing. If you are looking for a book that gives a riveting narrative of the rise of modern India, the answer is yes. If you want a book that is well researched and interspersed with colorful and humorous vignettes observed first hand by the author, the answer is yes. If you are looking for an author who is treats religious and theological matters with the depth and discernment that one would expect from an undergraduate, the answer is no.

In Spite of the Gods is held together by one overriding question: Will India be a world power, and if so what type of power will she be? The author, Edward Luce (former Financial Times correspondent in India), answers the question by means of historical research, an enviable grasp of current and international affairs, and numerous and colorful first-hand stories.

The major strand of Luce’s argument is that, within a few decades, India will be a major world player. She will be a major player, in part, because of a good hand dealt her by recent history: Of first importance is the fact that India lost most of its foreign reserves in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War. As a result, India shifted gears and build an open-market strategy that catapulted it into significance in a rapidly-globalizing world. Another stroke of luck is the English language bequeathed by the English during the days of colonialism. Yet a final good fortune is that China also is on the rise, thereby giving India the opportunity to be a counter-balance to China’s power. India, in Luce’s eyes, is a rising world power and she will be a democratic counterbalance to authoritarian China.

The minor strand of his argument is that India’s rise will be in spite of, and not because of, her gods. Perhaps the most telling story is Luce’s visit to the Cow Product Research Centre outside of the city of Nagpur. At the Centre, run by militant right-wing Hindus (whom he compares to Calvinists!), Luce is given a tour of the laboratories. After being told that he must make the journey barefooted and through piles of cow dung (which, he is told, heals athlete’s foot), he is made to participate in a cow-worshiping ceremony.

“I was handed a silver tray, Luce writes, “with candles on it and also turmeric, rice, flowers and red paste. I had to circle the tray a few times above the head of one of the cows before smearing the paste on the cow’s forehead and my own. ‘Now you are praying to the cow. She is my mother. She is your mother,’ said [the guide]. Mother seemed unfazed by all the attention.

Next, Luce was taken to into the laboratories where he was shown Bunsen burners and beakers full of cow’s urine, which, he was reassured, is an anti oxidant that will cure cancer. Then there was this: “Next we were shown cow-dung products. My favorite product was cow dung soap. There was also a cow-dung shampoo for dandruff. Mansinghka said the centre had submitted a number of cow-derivative applications to the US Patents Office and other countries. ‘God lives in the cow dung,’ he said. ‘All of these recipes are contained in the holy texts.‘”

The upshot of this encounter, for Luce, is that the Cow Product Research Centre is yet another example of fundamentalism-a uniquely modern religious affliction that people’s ancient symbolic beliefs and holds them to be literally true in the present-comparable to jihadism in Islam and Calvinism in Christianity.

This brings me to my criticism of the book: It should be clear from this little excerpt that when it comes to religious studies and theology, Luce is more of a rock skimmer than a scuba diver. Although he has done his research on matters economic and political, has not done so on matters religious. If a man can compare Islamic and Hindu radicalisms to Christian Calvinism, he has not earned a place at the table concerning issues theological.

Aside from this criticism, I strongly recommend the book for its insightful rendering of the rise of modern India.