India has no state religion, it is a secular state. It is the land where almost all the major religions of the world are practiced by their respective followers. Nevertheless the religious diversity has been a major source of disunity and disharmony in the country. This is because in India religious affiliation appears to be overemphasized and many a time people seem to forget the national unity and express their loyalty more towards their own religion.
The glaring example of such feeling is the partition of our country due to the development of the two nation theory. But the matter has not ended there. The communal feeling among different religious groups still persists. Among the major religions in India are: Hinduism, Islam Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Bahaism are the religions with lesser following.
Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India. It comprises of Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Pre-Dravidian religious elements. The follower of Hinduism believe in the doctrine of ‘Karma’, ‘Dharma’, rebirth, immortality of soul, renunciation and salvation. Hinduism allows a number of possible conceptions of God. It also prescribes various alternative paths of attaining God. The Sakta, the Saiva, the Satnami, the Lingayat, the Kabirpanthi, the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj etc. are different sects of Hinduism.
According to 1991 census 697.4 million people (82.6%) in India practise Hinduism and provide a solid base for national unity through common beliefs, festivals, customs and traditions. Islam originated in Arabia as a monolithic religion. It came to India towards the last quarter of the 12th century A.D., with the Muslim invasions. The Muslim rulers in India patronized it. They established long dynasties over large chunks of the country and encouraged conversions from Hinduism and Buddhism. As a result the number of Muslims gradually increased in India.
Islam does not believe in idol worship. It professes the fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s will and considers prophet Mohammed as the greatest prophet. The ‘Quran’, sacred book of Islam, ordains five primary duties of a true and devout Muslim, such as, belief in God (Allah), prayers five times a day, the giving of alms, a month’s fast every year, and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in the life time of a Muslim.
A large number of Muslims in India are converts. “In the conversion of large masses of the Indians to Islam the use of force was an exception rather than a rule. Brahmnical Hinduism offered a much more solid resistance to the spread of Islam. For the lower castes, acceptance of Islam meant an escape from the degraded status they had in the Hindu society to at least a theoretical equality with the ruling community.”
But these large scale conversions to Islam in reality did not actually bring about an acceptance of their higher status either by the caste Hindus, to whom every Muslim was an untouchable or by the Ashraf’s, the uppermost section of the Muslims, who maintained a social distance from the lower caste converts in matters of marriage and social intercourse.
Even the pollution-purity norms were practiced. Therefore, they are not entirely different from their Hindu neighbours. The descendants of the Muslim aristocrats hailing from Arabia, Turkey, a Afghanistan etc. constitute a minor chunk of the Muslim population. During the pre-Independence period when the partition of the country has not been made, the Muslims in India accounted for 24% of the total population. After Pakistan is carved out from India, in 1947, the Muslim population showed a sharp decline. Now the Islam is practiced by 95.8 million people which comprises of 11.35 per cent of the country’s population. (1991 census).
Christianity came to India through the work of St. Thomas, a follower of Jesus. He converted some Nambuthiri Brahmins to Christianity. It is believed that St. Thomas has landed in the ancient port of Muziris in 52 A.D. However in the 16th century the Portuguese arrived in India for trade and established Christian church.
In 1542, Francis Xavier arrived in Goa and began his work among the fisher-folk in the Coromondal coast. The Dutch followed the Portuguese in the process of colonization. But they were not interested in spreading the Christian faith. The Britishers followed the Dutch. They had to spread Christianity through missionaries.
All Christians believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. Jesus was born to Virgin Mary. They also believe that Jesus is the son of God. The Bible is the sacred book of the Christians. The Christians believe that the universe has been divinely created and that man is sinful. They also believe that Jesus was sent to earth to reconcile men and God. All Christians have faith in the day of judgement which must come after the closure of human history. On the day of Judgement people will either be rewarded or punished according to the type of life they have led.
Christians in India are scattered all over the country, but they are mostly found in Kerala where they constitute nearly one- fourth of the state’s population. At present, 20.5 million people or 2.43 per cent of the total population practise Christianity in India.
Sikhism had its origins in the wider religious revolt called Bhakti movement which was directed against the bigotry and caste based narrowism practiced in Hinduism. Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the 16th century A.D. Guru Nanak held that God is formless, timeless, all powerful master-creator who is not influenced by feeling of jealousy and discrimination.
According to Rose “The Sikh creed involves belief in one God. Condemning the worship of other deity, it prohibits idolatry, pilgrimage to the great shrines of Hinduism, faith in omens, charms or witchcraft and does not recognize ceremonial impurity at birth and death. As a social system, it abolishes caste distinctions and as necessary consequence, the Brahminical supremacy and usages in all ceremonies, at birth, marriage, death and so on.”
The ‘Grantha Sahib’, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs includes religious hymns not merely of the Sikh Gurus, but also of several Hindu as well as Muslim saints who were contemporaries of the Sikh Gurus. However, the Sikhs are ideologically nearer to the Hindus in comparison with the Muslims.
Sikhism is strongly a monistic religion. Therefore the Sikh Gurus, in spite of being held in utmost reverence, are not equated with God. The Gurus play an inevitable and instrumental role of realizing God. The ‘Gurudwara’ is the place of worship for the Sikhs. It literally means the Guru’s abode. No act of Sikh worship is complete without the ‘Sadh Sangat’ or holy gathering.
The ‘Sangat’ has got the supreme power to censure, reprimand or punish a person for any offence committed by him. The Sikhs as a collectivity can be identified by their (i) Kesh, (ii) Kanga, (iii) Kacch, (iv) Kara and (v) Kirpan, meaning un-cut long hair and beard, wooden comb, shorts, iron bangle in the hand and short sword respectively.
The Sikh are mainly concentrated in Punjab and Haryana and constitute 1.96 per cent of the country’s population. Buddhism originated in India during the 6th century B.C. as a reaction to Hinduism. The main reasons of its origin may be related to the unjustifiable social rigours, like the practice of child marriages, rigidity of caste system, dominance of Brahmanism etc.
Caste and Class Differentially:
As a form of stratification, the caste is peculiar to the Indian society. It may be called as an extreme form of closed class system. The status of individuals in the social hierarchy is determined by birth or descent. The caste system is also found in other parts of the world, but not in a complete form as it is evinced in India. Roman order into patricians, plebeians and slaves was akin to the Indian caste system with the hierarchy of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras.
The Greek society was also divided into the closed class of citizens, helots and slaves. Medieval Europe had also a set of hereditary endogamous classes of nobility, yeomen, burghers and serfs. In Japan nobility was the top hereditary class which was followed by military personnel and commoner. The commoners were divided into three sub-castes of husbandmen, artisans and traders. The prevalence of outcastes or hinim was also found in Japan. The existence of the Negroes and their social segregation from the whites possesses apparently all the characteristics of an endogamous caste system.
In India, the caste system is not confined to Hindus alone. We also find castes among other communities like Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. These castes are linked with four varnas such as Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras, for determining their ritual status. Among the Muslims we find the hierarchy of Shaikh, Saiyed, Mughal and Pathan. Similarly the Christians also have caste consciousness due to conversion from the Hindu fold. The Sikhs have many castes, the most prominent being the Jat, Sikh and the Majahabi Sikhs. It is believed that there are about 3,000 castes in India, out of this one can well imagine the extent of caste diversity in India.
Every society classifies her population into different segments on the basis of occupation, wealth or education, which are considered predominant characteristics. Persons belonging to a particular segment of society are pronounced as a separate class. They formulate their own values and aspirations for the efficient functioning of their community. Stronger the class consciousness, greater are the chances of social conflicts.
In India which is also a closed society, the class consciousness has been intensified by the pace of social and economic change and this has threatened the old social order. In such a state of affairs when the higher groups tend to lose their supremacy due to economic advancement, they become staunch advocates for the retention of the caste system.
This write-up on Indian religions contains information on religions in India, Indian religion and major religions of India.
Cultural India : Indian Religions
Whether it's the gathering of the faithful, bowing in prayer in the courtyard of a mosque, or the gathering of lamps that light up houses at Diwali, the good cheer of Christmas or the brotherhood of Baisakhi, the religions of India are celebrations of shared emotion that bring people together. People from the different religions and cultures of India, unite in a common chord of brotherhood and amity in this fascinating and diverse land.
At present Buddhism is one of the major world religions. The philosophy of Buddhism is based on the teachings of Lord Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (563 and 483 BC), a royal prince of Kapilvastu, India. After originating in India, Buddhism spread throughout the Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Southeast Asia, as well as the East Asian countries of China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
Christianity is one of the prominent religions in India. At present there are about 25 million Christians in India. It is interesting to note that the Christian population in India is more than the entire population of Australia and New Zealand or total population of a number of countries in Europe.
Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world. Hinduism is world's third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, where Hindus form about 84 per cent of the total population. Hinduism is also known as "Sanatan Dharma" or the everlasting religion.
One of the prominent religions of India, Islam forms about 12 per cent of India's population. Though India's contact with Islam had begun much earlier, the real push came in the 8th century when the province of Sindh was conquered. Though the Muslims form only 12 per cent of the total population of India but the influence of Islam on Indian society is much stronger.
Jains form less than one percent of the Indian population. For centuries, Jains are famous as community of traders and merchants. The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan have the highest concentration of Jain population in India. The Jain religion is traced to Vardhamana Mahavira (The Great Hero 599-527 B.C.).
Sikhs form about 2 per cent of Indian population. In comparison to other religions, Sikhism is a younger religion. The word 'Sikh' means a disciple and thus Sikhism is essentially the path of discipleship. The true Sikh remains unattached to worldly things.
Though the total number of Zoroastrians in Indian population is very less yet they continue to be one of the important religious communities of India. According to the 2001 census, there were around 70,000 members of the Zoroastrian faith in India. Most of the Parsis (Zoroastrians) live in Maharashtra (mainly in Mumbai) and the rest in Gujarat.
Guru Nanak Dev
Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji is credited with starting the Sikh religion. He was the first Guru of the Sikhs and is worshipped next to God. His sole aim in life was to unify the Hindus and Muslims and form a universal religion of brotherhood and compassion. He believed that true salvation could be achieved only by devotion of thought and excellence of conduct.
Lord Mahavira is often credited with the advent of Jainism in India. However, Jainism existed even before Lord Mahavira was born. He is supposed to be the twenty-fourth (last) Tirthankara according to the Jain philosophy. A Tirthankara is an enlightened soul who is born as a human being and attains perfection through intense meditation.
One of the greatest philosophers of India, Adi Shankaracharya founded the Advaita Vedanta, which is one of the sub-schools of Vedanta. Adi Shankaracharya whole-heartedly believed in the concept of the Vedas but at the same time advocated against the rituals and religious practices that were over exaggerated.