Reflection on Hinduism and Poverty

By Shailly Barnes
February 16, 2010

Poverty Scholar Shailly Barnes’ reflection on Hinduism, poverty, and social justice that she delivered to the Religions and the City course at Union Theological Seminary was recently picked up by Huffington Post. Her are her excerpted comments.

I am a lawyer working in law and poverty, specifically, using law to address poverty and structural inequality and to compel systemic change. As I’ve become more engaged in this work, and exposed to the incredible leadership of poor people’s organizations in the United States, Colombia, India and around the world, I have returned to my Hindu faith searching for a source of strength and moral force. What I have found is a compelling social justice current underlying the basic principles of Hinduism, which not only informs my understanding of the world, but gives me a sense of grounding as I continue in this struggle for what is good and right for all.

Growing up in a Hindu-Jain family, religion was always a part of my life in the sense that there were always rituals to learn about, ceremonies that were taking place, and classes to attend at our Hindu temple. For many years, however, the main lesson that I took from my religion was one of dedication and detachment – intertwining the concepts of dharma and karma – to work hard, to do your best at everything you do, but to remain unattached to the results of those actions, because those are far beyond our control.

While it may sound a bit ironic, I eventually revisited these fundamental teachings of Hinduism after being exposed to the socially engaged leadership of two Abrahamic traditions – Islam in Niger, West Africa, and then Christianity in New York City, through the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. In Niger, it was through the efforts and understanding of Sufi Sheiks that I came to see first hand the role and influence of religious institutions and authority in addressing social inequalities that were impacting their community of believers, as well as the responsibility that was placed upon these leaders by their community. In New York, through the Poverty Initiative and its Poverty Scholars Program, which brings together community leaders from a coalition of organizations around the country, I have seen how deliberately its leaders have interpreted Jesus’ message of social justice, bringing the words and lessons of the Bible to life, as a way to understand how to relate to poverty and what we can and should do about it.

Inspired by these leaders in two very different religions, I returned to my own, seeking for an understanding of how Hinduism relates to and understands poverty. It has been difficult. The most common interpretations of Hinduism vis-à-vis social justice vacillate between (a) a fatalistic acceptance of our individual or social circumstances – for the poor and non-poor alike, it is this or that person’s fate to live out this lifetime in their conditions, for good or for bad, and, from a personal point of view, I am living out my karma acquired over previous lifetimes – or (b) aspire at the most to service to the poor to alleviate pressing and immediate concerns, such as hunger and homelessness. I recognize that, in varying degrees, both of these interpretations have their utility; service in particular is a very important part of Hindu culture and plays a necessary role in addressing humanitarian concerns. However, in my opinion, both of these interpretations remain limited in that they do not address the structural causes of social injustices like poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and, therefore, cannot provide for systemic social change.

That said, I know that the understanding I am looking for exists – it is there in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and as later interpreted by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Gandhi said that “the whole gamut of man’s activities…constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide life, social, economic, political and purely religious, into watertight compartments….” Indeed, the concepts of karma, duty and re-incarnation emphasize a one-ness or a unity to all creation. This is not to say that all creation is the same, but it is equally of value to the whole of creation – the whole cannot be a whole without all of its bits and parts. In this sense, Hinduism has great potential to provoke a sense of identity that transcends all kinds of difference, whether that difference is religious, ideological, or relating to power and wealth – so that in the tree, the sun, the cow, the homeless family, and even the banker or politician, I see that unity of being. And in all of these, I see…me. I recognize that where they are is where I once was, or where I am, or where I may be, which is at one and the same time lifting the illusion (maya) of our current realities and apparent differences, recognizing what I have in common with all souls before and after this life, without falling into the trap of a fatalistic acceptance of our circumstances.

Although not Hindu by faith, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. studied Gandhian philosophy and spoke about the “interrelated structure of reality,” where “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” His words further delineate a Hindu theology that, for me, provides a powerful source for a united front in this struggle for social justice. In this theology, our duty (dharma) is to do what is right for all, which, in my line of work means addressing the structural causes of injustice (adharma) that are contrary to the good of all. We live in global society that is systemically denying human dignity at a rampant scale – for at least 1.4 billion people around the world, including upwards of 43 million people in the United States – in the guise of unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, hunger, malnutrition, and other dimensions of human vulnerability and insecurity. Because of our one-ness, even those of us who are not hungry suffer the injustice of a system that perpetuates hunger.

Thus, in my work with the waste pickers in Cali, Colombia, the greenest of low-income workers, who search and salvage recyclable materials from the city’s trash every day, only to earn less than $2 a day, or in my relationships with Poverty Scholars from West Virginia, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Florida, Vermont and Detroit, who are fighting for their land to not be ravaged, their labor – whether in a field, factory, stadium or someone else’s home – to not be abused, their rights to heat in the winter and a roof at all times to be respected, fulfilled and protected, I join a struggle against adharma, hands linked, for a society where liberty and justice are truly for all.

Of course, I am just beginning down this road of understanding my faith and how it might ground my work. I hope to learn from Gandhi and Dr. King, as well as other Indian organizations and leaders, for instance Dr. Vandana Shiva’s organization, Navdanya, an organization of over 500,000 rural farmers in India who have been fighting for legitimacy in their rural livelihoods by challenging the ideas of intellectual property and protecting their rights to biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. I hope that, from these teachers and organizations, their leadership, members and work – which may or may not be explicitly theological, but still embody a living Hindu theology – I will further my own understanding of Hinduism and how to actualize its potential to realize social justice.