India’s $40B “God” Industry – Religion, Economics, And Social Impact

India is by far the most religious country in the world. With over 80% of the total 1.4 billion population identifying as Hindu—Islam is the second largest religion, with significant numbers of Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and others. Religion permeates many aspects of life across the subcontinent—for better and worse—and I will tell you why.


According to some estimates, India’s faith economy generates over $40 billion in revenue annually, making it larger than industries like tourism and hospitality. Unfortunately, unlike sectors like tourism and hospitality, it has little return on investment. Tourism should benefit a massive and diverse country like India immensely. But a mix of factors like the lack of government effort and less than welcoming behavior of a certain small but spread-out minority of Indians makes that impossible, for the moment at least.


It’s not a surprise that there are more religious sites than the number of schools, hospitals, and police stations in India.


On one hand, religious rituals and festivals form the rhythm of social life across the country. Charitable giving and volunteering are integral parts of Sikhism and Hinduism, for example.



Langar in Gurudwara | Photo by Karman on Bike


On the other hand, religion has also been a source of division, conflict, intolerance, and general backwardness in India. There are instances of discrimination and violence against people of different religions and castes. Hardline religious fundamentalism can create barriers to social reform and scientific progress. It won’t be wrong to say that religion, besides the lack of strong leadership, is one of the main reasons why India is still poor in 2024.



Discrimination against the Dalits | Credit: Dalit Solidarity Network


This complex dynamic between religion, society, and politics in the world’s largest democracy merits a nuanced examination. And here it starts.



Economics of Religion in India


Indians spend over $40 billion (₹3.02 Lakh Crores) annually on religious activities, including donations to a deity and voluntary public work, to buying homeware temples, idols, and material for sacrifice. The vast majority goes towards ceremonies, offerings, fees, and donations at places of worship. While this finances religious institutions, it raises questions about opportunity costs! And we’re talking about the opportunities for the people who spend on religion for their collective well-being.


Critics (rightfully) argue this expenditure could be better used for development initiatives, improving healthcare, education, nutrition, and security, which will, in theory at least, be more beneficial for the people than sacrificing coconuts, fruits, flowers, and donating expensive ornaments to an eternal deity or an omnipotent god. Defenders counter that faith provides essential spiritual and social support. Attempts to divert these funds would meet resistance. Ultimately, individuals should have the freedom to donate as per their beliefs. 



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However, that does not negate the fact that reforms are needed in some practices. Costly rituals and festivals strain household budgets, trap families in debt, and lead to distressed sales of land and assets – for little good. Worst of all, religion (in some capacity) has been and will always be used to exploit the afraid, poor, and vulnerable. Let’s be clear about it. 


Transparency in temple finances and management is critical – exploitation by self-serving clergy has occurred.


Progressive streams in all faiths should encourage austerity, community service over empty rituals, and gender equality. India’s faith economy seems likely to remain relatively high for a while. While bringing benefits, excess comes at a societal cost. Achieving a balance is the challenge at hand.



Religion as a Double-Edged Sword


Faith shapes societal attitudes and behavior across the subcontinent. It provides moral guidance, spiritual fulfillment, and emotional support to adherents. That’s what it does in theory. In reality, any individual who has a basic understanding of how “religion” works in a not-so-rich, semi-urbanized, unindustrialized society knows that its effects are less than healthy. Again, I’m not saying that it has no benefits at all. But, it also has many faultlines that need to be addressed.



Credit: iPleaders


On the positive side, religion inspires charitable services like free education, healthcare, and disaster relief. Faith-based organizations run schools, shelters, and hospitals, benefiting millions. Belief systems promote compassion, honesty, and social justice. Places of worship double as community hubs.


On the negative side, patriarchal and backward attitudes are engrained in religious texts and customs that are meant to be the “supreme truth.” Taboos regarding sexuality (once Christian, now Hindu), family planning, black magic, evil eye, and caste discrimination also endure. Superstitious beliefs and pseudo-science propagated by pundits and priests do enormous harm.


What’s the solution for this? Reform movements within each religion can modernize certain regressive aspects while retaining spiritual cores.



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The Increasing Irrelevance of Religion?


Credit: Homegrown


Some believe faith will diminish in importance as India moves forward and increasingly industrializes, and its people become more educated and prosperous. But the evidence is mixed, with religion showing resilience even among the middle classes.


Urbanization and consumerism have reduced the observance of rituals and social taboos among educated youth in cities. And interfaith relationships and atheism are on the rise. And while atheism has some disadvantages, it opens up a room for material pursuits – which the collective state of India hasn’t explored in centuries.


But currently, there are also counter-trends of better questioning and inter-faith harmony among young Indians. Asking the state to repress religion is unrealistic and counterproductive. So, promoting progressive humanist values while sensitively reforming regressive practices may achieve better outcomes.


We need better scientists, doctors, and engineers than priests, pundits, and astrologers.



Progressive Reform Within Religions


While faith will likely remain central in Indian life for the foreseeable future, some steps can be taken to reshape certain religious institutions and practices. Reformers within Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and other faiths should focus on refreshing outdated textual interpretations, rituals, and social customs.


For example, temples and mosques could modernize archaic rules prohibiting women from entering inner sanctums or participating equally in services. Dogmas and suspicions need to be erased. Texts and sermons emphasizing gender equality, social justice, and human rights could be amplified while deemphasizing restrictive codes on sexuality or diet.


Faith-based NGOs could expand interfaith disaster relief and charitable projects to unite communities across religions. Training in science and critical thinking could be integrated into religious education to counter superstitions.


Likewise, economic empowerment through job training, microfinance, and social services could be provided to low-income groups prone to superstitious practices that lead to debt.



Balancing the Act


Credit: Prabhala Raghuvir


India is modernizing rapidly, but religion retains a central presence in society. Its impact has positive and negative aspects. Managing this constructively is among the key challenges facing the nation. 


India’s leaders must promote moral, inclusive, and progressive religious values that unite rather than divide its diverse population while doubling down on the negative aspects of religion – be it Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity.


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