India Feature


Religions of India

India may be a secular country constitutionally, but religion has a central and vital place in the daily lives of most of its citizens.

To just say that India is 80% Hindu oversimplifies the country's complex web of histories, identities, and institutions, many of which were codified in modern terms as "religions" only in the last few centuries. Leaving aside the fact that the population is more than 13% Muslim, with significant Christian, Sikh, and other minorities, even the majority Hindu community is extremely diverse. Regional identities often cut deeper than religion (thus Kashmiri Hindus eat meat while Hindus in Gujarat will not). On top of that, each of India's religions encompass age-old traditions that have survived modernity, new-age movements that focus on spirituality, and politically driven ideologies that justify themselves through mythology. But despite the fact that there are, occasionally, the kind of ugly conflicts that flare up in any pluralistic society, for the most part India is a place where you will find an amazing, often touching, degree of compassion—tolerance that extends to curiosity, and secularism that is expressed as humanity.


The Jews have a long history in India, starting with the Cochin Jews arriving in Kerala around 500 BC. The Bene Israel came a few centuries later, followed by Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jews. More recently, the Bnei Menashe claimed to be a lost tribe of Israel and were recognized by Israeli rabbis. Some Ben Ephraim Jews, who were converted to Christianity in the 1800s, decided to re-embrace Judaism as recently as the 1980s.


About 80% of India's population is Hindu. The world's third-largest religion, Hinduism is also often regarded as the oldest, with roots that stretch back 5,000 years. It may also be the most varied, as this millennia-old tradition is actually an amalgam of texts, schools, civilizations, and beliefs with a host of leaders and no single founder. Though Hindus generally believe in reincarnation, divinity itself may be multiple or monistic, and practice may involve dharma (moral duty), ascetic rigor (as in yoga), devotion through prayer, and many other forms of expression. Modern Hinduism draws from four major Vedic "texts"—Sanskrit ritual verses that were recorded orally beginning with the Iron Age Indus Valley civilization and later written down—as well as corollary philosophical and mystical discourses, treatises on the arts, and the epic poems the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Living Hinduism is just as multifaceted as its history. Visitors to India may witness or participate in many aspects of observance including ritual ceremonies, some with fire, ghee, milk, and offerings of flowers and sweets; temple worship, with offerings to deities represented by murthis (statues); or physical practices: ascetics who deny material comfort as an expression of devotion, yogis who push their bodies to the physical limit in order to approach the divine, and ayurvedic doctors who prescribe herbal remedies and offer nutritional advice.


The country's largest minority, India's Muslim population is—including Pakistan's Muslims—second only to Indonesia's in numbers. As with Hinduism, Islam in India also encompasses many different schools and practices. Although India's earliest encounter with Islam was through Arab traders along the southwest coast, the religion's first real movement was through the north and west of the subcontinent in the 8th century, and it expanded from the 12th century onward under the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire. Besides the strength of the Mughal seat of power around Delhi, Muslim communities grew around Islamic rulers around the country.

Like Muslims everywhere, Indian Muslims follow the Koran as the word of Allah revealed to Mohammad in the 7th century. Most Muslims in India belong to the majority Sunni sect, but there are significant portions of Shi'a Muslims as well, who believe in the importance of the Imams and of Mohammad's nephew, Ali. The spread of Islam in India also owes a great deal to mystical Sufi sects, whose founders created centers of learning, music, and charity.


India's third-largest religion (about 2% of the population), Christianity is most visible in south and southwest India and in the northeastern states. The earliest whispers of Christianity in India are accounts of the arrival of ("Doubting") Thomas the Apostle in Kerala in the 1st century and the establishment of Syrian Christian churches, which likely grew out of extant Indian Jewish communities and populations of Syrian immigrants. Later, European missionaries (like St. Francis Xavier, the Portuguese Jesuit) arrived to proselytize. Most Indian Christians follow Catholic or Orthodox practices, but some Protestant churches were also established.

As in other postcolonial countries, Indian Christianity has its own distinct flavors, from the colorful roadside shrines of Kerala to the excesses of Goan Carnival to the pronounced influence of gospel music in the northeast.


Sikhism grew from the teachings of its founder, Guru Nanak Dev, in the early 1500s. Nanak, a Hindu, broke from that religion's rituals and began to preach a monotheistic faith based on meditation and charity. Nine more gurus, or teachers, followed in his footsteps, consolidating and spreading the religion over the next few centuries. Partially as a response to persecution under the later Mughals, Sikhism also acquired a martial flavor, and followers combined elements of both the soldier and the saint. The 11th guru and the spiritual authority for modern Sikhs is the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, a sacred text composed of the teachings of previous gurus and other Hindu and Muslim saints. With a majority of its population in the northwestern state of Punjab (the Golden Temple in Amritsar is the most important holy site), the Sikh community was directly affected by the violence of India's Partition, as well as suffering later injustices under the Indira Gandhi administration in 1984.

Often identifiable by their uncut hair (which the men tie up under turbans), practicing Sikhs also engage in the singing and chanting of passages of scripture (this can continue over days) and the serving of free daily meals at gurdwaras (temples).


Although Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment through meditation and became the Buddha, in 500 BC, in what is now the Indian state of Bihar, India has a surprisingly low percentage of the world's Buddhists. With its focus on moderation and individual duty over divisions of caste or divinity, Buddhism peaked in India with the conversion of the Maurya emperor Ashoka around 260 BC. The following centuries saw Buddhist rituals and institutions taking root outside of India, but within the country it was largely subsumed by other systems of faith. Today Buddhists in India include monks (mostly living along India's border with Tibet), low-caste Hindus who converted in large numbers over the last century to improve their social situation, and Tibetan refugees—including the Dalai Lama and his "government-in-exile" in Dharamshala. In spite of a relatively low number of adherents, Buddhism has had a profound impact on Indian society.


While Jainism appears in practice to be a more stringently ascetic, fiercely nonviolent cousin of Buddhism, the religion has most likely existed as a complement to and influence on Hinduism for thousands of years. Jains believe in reincarnation and do not believe in an all-powerful creator. However, Jains do follow 24 tirthankaras (teachers), the last of whom, Mahavir, was a contemporary of the Buddha. Jain temples house idols of these tirthankaras; these temples are also where you might see devout Jain monks or nuns who wear white and cover their mouths to avoid inadvertently swallowing and killing insects and microbes. Jain sects vary in degrees of asceticism (some even eschew clothing), but in general, Jains do not eat meat, garlic, or onions. Jain practices have been important to India's cultural identity, and while they represent just a small portion of the population, Jains are highly influential in political and economic spheres.

Bahá'í Faith

With the world's largest group of its followers living in India, and the landmark House of Worship (Lotus Temple) in Delhi, the syncretic Bahá'í Faith is a significant part of India's spiritual landscape. Founded in Persia in 1863, this faith seeks to unite the world's major religions and claims that Krishna, the Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, the Báb (a 19th-century holy man), and the religion's founder Bahá'u'llah were all divine messengers.


Though Zoroastrianism was once a major monotheistic world religion with Persian origins (founded by the prophet Zarathustra around 1200 BC), India now has the world's largest contingent of its followers, known as Parsis, a small but well-educated and influential group of Persians who settled in medieval western India. Though many have moved on, Mumbai has a sizeable group, including some prominent industrialists. Mumbai is also home to the Irani community—19th- and 20th-century immigrants who fled persecution in Iran.

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