Max Weber’s afterglow

Romila Thapar's recent lecture on Max Weber, in which she rightly pointed out the many misrepresentations of Hindu society in his body of work, demonstrates why ideological adversaries in scholarship should not be branded as evil. Rather, engaging them with reason and objectivity is a much more useful and productive course of action for both sides of the debate.

Max Weber’s afterglow

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), together with the neighbouring British Museum, is the heart of Orientalism in its proper sense, viz. the study of “Oriental” civilizations. Exactly one hundred years ago, it came about as the headquarters of what Edward Said notoriously called “Orientalism”, meaning the colonial Empire’s project of pigeon-holing every Oriental culture in order to better dominate it.

At that same time, on their enemy side in the ongoing First World War, the German scholar Max Weber published one of the most influential studies of the Orient, focusing on the question of the economic views and implications of the world religions, and especially the part about Hinduism and Buddhism. It sought to understand why not they but Protestantism had presided over the techno-scientific and economic breakthrough to industrial capitalism and modernity.

Centenary commemoration

Some fifty people gathered in the SOAS’s Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre for the centenary of both SOAS and Max Weber’s work. As for SOAS’s anniversary, chairman Peter Flügel quoted viceroy Lord Curzon calling SOAS at its time of conception the “necessary furniture of empire”, for “Oriental studies are an imperial obligation”. This is a key citation in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis, viz. that Orientalist scholarship was essentially a strategic investment by the colonial establishment.

As for Weber, his view is fairly representative of the general Western opinion (partly by having created it) regarding the Hindu-Buddhist counterpart to the role of the Protestant work ethic in the genesis of capitalism. He had concluded that the Orientals certainly succeeded in launching a mercantile capitalism but, partly because of their otherworldly religion, failed in creating modern industrial capitalism. However, he also had testified in 1916 how, in the middle of the First World War, he had found his study of the Hindu-Buddhist worldviews invigorating. We were going to recreate some of that spirit.

Romila Thapar

The keynote lecture was given by the octogenarian historian Prof. Romila Thapar. She looked quite good for her age, elegant and dignified in her sari. She thus exemplified Sita Ram Goel’s observation that secularists often display a sincere affection for traditional Hindu culture, all the more striking when supposed Hindutva militants go all out for Westernization, from the British-style RSS uniform and brass bands to the present-day BJP-facilitated guzzling down of American economic mores and cultural mannerisms. The secularists of the older generation are culturally still very Indian, and have a traditional pride presenting an unassuming alternative identity to the present idealization of Western examples. (I am reminded of her colleague Prof. Irfan Habib’s proud old-Marxist rejection of US patronage, contrasting to the complete conceptual as well as outwardly Americanization of the younger generation of secularists and Ambedkarites.)

It transpired that she had a vivid interest in Weber’s work regarding India, whom she read some forty years ago. As no Indian scholar of the younger generation showed a similar interest, she had graciously accepted the invitation from SOAS. The institution was familiar ground to her. She earned her PhD degree at SOAS with a dissertation on Ashoka’s inscriptions, published as an authoritative book in 1961. (Also present here was retired Oxford Buddhologist Prof. Richard Gombrich, who strongly disagrees with her on those inscriptions, which he doesn’t consider “secular” at all, but instead outspokenly promoting the specific Buddhist worldview.) She immediately established a good rapport with the audience, speaking slowly with a clear and authoritative diction, as an experienced professor should.

She started with noticing the obvious: that Max Weber’s research on Indian history and society relied heavily on colonial writings available then, and necessarily differed from the present-day theories. Being a prisoner of the colonial view, he did not thematize the implications  of colonialism itself (unlike Karl Marx, who wrote about colonialism in Ireland and India). Weber reproduced and refined the colonial theory of “Oriental despotism”, which militated against the individual freedom and social mobility needed for the genesis of modern capitalism.

Religions and their work ethic

Weber remains most famous for his thesis that the Protestant work ethic in the UK, the US and Germany was responsible for the rise of industrial capitalism. Weber argued that capitalism could not have originated in India because of its lack of fraternization between different groups (esp. during apprenticeship, where Indian pupils were confined to their caste environment), its lack of social mobility, its cultural depreciation of commerce and its otherworldly religious orientation. He did not give sufficient consideration to the Jains, whose trading activity, money-lending and renunciation of enjoying their profits come closest to the Protestant work ethic, though in passing he admits they had potential. In precolonial times, China and India were the main economies in Eurasia and practised mercantile capitalism. But they missed the shift to industrial capitalism, which took place in Europe.

But then, Weber neglected the specific 18th-19th century history of India and the role of both native and colonial capitalism therein. More generally, he treated Hindu culture as a monolithic whole, insufficiently considering the differences between classes and regions, and not taking the changes between the different periods into account. In a borrowed distortion typical for the Orientalists of the colonial period, he based his understanding of Hinduism only on texts, esp. the Vedic corpus to whom different groups across  regions and centuries paid due lip-service all while exhibiting variations and going through changes. Thus, that is why the scripture-based fourfold Varna (“caste”) system figured far more prominently in the Western image of Hindu society than the real-life thousandfold Jati (“caste”) system.

The corrective that Hindu society was too readily seen as changeless may have been the most important message in her lecture, seemingly trivial but full of consequences for both Hindus and practising Orientalists. In this case, the colonial-age Orientalists, with Weber in their wake, may have borrowed their extremely static view of Hindu culture from the Hindus themselves. Allow me to improvise an example.

The “Hindu caste system”

When the Ambedkarites and their Western cheerleaders anchor the caste system, complete with untouchability, in the Rg-Veda’s Purusha Sukta, they are wrong; yet, they are only following a traditionalist Hindu view that prevailed during the past few centuries. The box-type caste Apartheid with caste endogamy of the Puranic and early modern era was nowhere to be seen in the Rg-Veda: the earlier family books don’t report any trace of it, and the Purusha Sukta in the late Book 10 only reports the existence of four distinct functions in a complex society. After that, the caste system gradually hardened with a stage of hereditary caste only in the paternal line (as with the Brahmin Vyasa, son of the Brahmin Parashara and the fisher-girl Matsyagandha; and as with the sons of Dasis who were recruited into the Brahmin caste, mentioned here by Prof. Thapar), and finally endogamy. Equating Hinduism with the classical caste system, as is the wont of the Christian missionaries, the Ambedkarites and many an Orientalist, makes the mistake of disregarding change in Hindu history, but this mistake is based on Hindus having made the same mistake. For some two thousand years, any trespass against or doubt regarding the fully grown caste system was condemned with an invocation of the Rg-Veda’s authority, as if the Purusha Sukta had described the kind of caste system with which later Hindus were familiar.

(It deserves mention here that Prof. Thapar has personally contributed to our awareness of change within Hindu social structure. She has edited the book India. Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, 2006, in which Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts, p.166: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies, the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So, together with geographic expansion, there would be social flexibility.” It has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste and then imposing it on others; but hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. The pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a more ‘equal’ relation between individuals than the more complex later Hindu society.)

Other factual inaccuracies in Weber’s work include the total disregard for the presence of Islam in India, like for that of Buddhism in China, because their foreignness jeopardizes Weber’s explanation of India’s economic performance as stemming from the Indian religions. The different religions were treated as self-contained, not porous. The Indian state was described as agricultural, while recent studies corrected this: there was much commerce, including maritime, and this had only increased with urbanization after the year 1000. Weber also exaggerated the power of karma beliefs to reconcile people to social misfortune. The peasantry often responded to crises by migration, and sometimes even by that supposedly un-Indian behaviour: rebellion. They didn’t wait for the next birth to better their circumstances.

Trade was not despised, and even Brahmins and ascetics involved themselves in it, e.g. in the horse trade. Labour division between castes was more flexible than used to be thought. In the century before Weber, the static view of caste was conspicuously challenged by the anti-Brahmin movements and by the upper-caste reform movements. Even a non-specialist could have been more aware of these developments.


So, let us sum up. Max Weber’s world exists no more, and even the terms of the debate have been altered. Are the categories of religion used by Weber (and likewise by Marx) still valid? They strike us now as context-free and innocent of the changes that took place. Today, this non-change view is regarded as ahistorical. Weber would have been better if he had compared the same period in East and West, rather than comparing apples with pears: timeless societies in the distance with the familiar recent stage of Western society.

We remain stuck with the large question: what prevented Asia from taking the lead in knowledge? Why was the lead grabbed by Europe, after having lagged behind for so long? More was required for this than the Protestant work ethic. And another question, rather trivial but appropriate on this occasion: how would Max Weber have seen the religion of India a hundred years later?


So much for the Weber lecture. People who know something of the Ayodhya controversy may be surprised to learn that afterwards, I had a few friendly interactions with Prof. Thapar. Remembering the flak I drew in India when I took my erstwhile Aryan Origins adversary Michael Witzel’s side in the controversy that followed the publication of his book on Global Mythology, I will take the trouble to explain.

Firstly, it is all rather long ago, about a quarter century. Back then, she took a leadership role in the secularist plea that there was no basis for historans to accept the belief that a Hindu temple had stood at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In the dominant political and academic circles, that position suddenly became a consensus, and I stood out by challenging it. But that debate has been settled, definitively with the Court-ordered excavations in 2003, which laid bare plenty of remainders of the temple. When the war is over, soldiers go home, and let the war psychology which had animated them on the battlefield, subside. 

I will not mention the names of some Hindu and some anti-Hindu scholars who are still repeating quite exactly what they said decades ago, especially in the Aryan Origins debate. They foam at the mouth when they argue their point, and keep on doing so. But for better or for worse, I am not like that. So, the second reason is that I really don’t believe in personalizing debates on specific issues. Admittedly, I was not quite immune to that tendency when I was younger. But gradually, you not only know in theory, but also realize in practice, that human relations should not, or as little as possible, be affected by controversies. Even in controversies that I find myself in today, I endeavour to stay on friendly terms with my adversaries.

Number three is the reason of principle, that I want henceforth to guide all my dealings with adversaries. As Socrates said, the root of everything deemed evil is ignorance. People who objectively do evil, subjectively believe they are doing the right thing, because somewhere they have picked up a mistaken idea of what constitutes right, or of what exactly it is that they are doing. There is no need to intensify the impression that they are evil, it is more helpful to make them see reason, and automatically they will correct their position; for it is not in eagerness to do the right thing that they are lacking.  It also helps to remain aware that you yourself with all your good intentions seem likewise to be on the wrong side from your adversaries’ viewpoint. That is no reason to assume all positions are equal, or to drop your own convictions, but it will help you to better understand how anyone could have taken the opposite position to your own.

Meanwhile, on the lawn outside the SOAS gate, there is a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It carries a translated quotation of his, which I would like to reproduce as my parting shot:

“Meet with joy, with pleasant thoughts part. Such is the learned scholar’s art.”

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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