India is by any standards a highly religious country, but by no stretch of the imagination is it purely Hindu. It has sizeable minority religions that have evolved, alongside the dominant Hindu religion, over many centuries. Some of these other religions are conventionally seen as members of the ‘Hindu family’, having been created on south Asian territory: Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Others are extremely long-established in the south Asian peninsula: the religions of tribal people, the religions of the scheduled castes (whose separate existence from brahminical Hinduism remains controversial), Christianity, Islam and the Parsi faith. In total, counting in Scheduled Castes and Tribes, minorities practising religions other than mainstream brahminical Hinduism may well comprise as much as 45 per cent of India's population. Even if we exclude the scheduled castes and tribes, 17 per cent of the population belonged to minority religions in 1991. Yet, while the relation between religion, politics and the construction of the Indian nation has been well established, simple facts about the economy, such as the contribution of the minorities to GDP, are unknown. The effects of religious belief and adherence on the process of wealth creation in India has been so strikingly ignored that one might be forgiven for thinking it unimportant.
In this chapter an attempt is made to show the ways in which India's religious pluralism may give structure to the economy. We start by summarising part of the heavily politicised debate surrounding Hinduism and development.