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Is Religion the World's Largest Social Enterprise Accelerator?

09/06/2015 16:07 BST | Updated 09/06/2016 10:59 BST

Religion and its role within business is something which fascinates me and is not a topic I feel is widely discussed.

I attended this year's Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford which had the theme of 'Belief.' The Opening Plenary began with the Azan (call to prayer for Muslims) and multi-faith religious imagery together with an appearance from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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Religion surfaced from the outset of the conference - something I have not experienced at other business events. In doing so it provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my own beliefs and how my religion (Hinduism) plays a role in shaping my work as a social entrepreneur and outlook on life.

What is of particular interest is how religion is an issue which can both polarise and unite people. It's an issue which people start wars and die for; and is even used as a veil to justify extremist terrorist activity. At the same time it facilitates humanitarian activities to save lives and make the world a better place through the work of faith based organisations such as Christian Aid.

One of the main principles of Hinduism is the notion of Seva, Karma and Re-incarnation i.e. actions in this life will impact on your future births. We are fortunate to have been born as humans and it is thus our moral duty to help those around us (known as 'seva'); some may say it's also a case of enlightened self-interest that doing good in this life will reap benefits in future lives!

Similarly Buddhism views charity as an act of reducing your own personal greed, which hinders spiritual progress. It teaches to give but without expectation of any return - known as "dana."

In the words of Swami Vivekananda - one of the most prolific Hindu teachers (Swamis) "to be good and do good that is the whole of religion." This has been something my parents instilled in me at a young age and the driving force behind what I do and how I try and lead my life.

Parallels can also be drawn with teachings in Christianity of 'love they neighbour' and the passage from Galatians 6:9 (New Testament) which says "let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up." This surfaces both the notion of being rewarded for good deeds and the need to care for others.

Let us look at Sikhism with its concept of sharing; a minimum of 10% of your earnings and 10% of your time should be dedicated to the service of others and in the service of God. They also have the concept of Langar whereby free vegetarian food is served to all in the Gurdwara (Sikh Temple.) This can be seen as a social-enterprise in its own right with an income stream, manpower and social service embedded within the religion.

Similarly in Judaism there is the similar concept of Tzedakah, where Jews are also obliged to give 10% of their income to the poor. The word "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.

Likewise in Islam there is the concept of Zakat - giving 2.5% of your wealth (above a minimum threshold) to help the poor. The main takeaway for me is that whatever your religious beliefs the teachings are similar. Social action, doing good and making the world a better place feature in all religious teachings.

With approximately 90% of the world's population estimated at holding some form of religious belief, rather than suppress discussions about religion and its role in business and society lets celebrate it and promote the role it plays (or certainly can play) in catalysing social action.