In India, Hinduism is the dominant religion, while Muslims are by far the largest of a number of religious minorities. In many places tensions prevail between Hindus and Muslims and periodic violence flames up between the two groups. Violence is often fueled by extremists for political reasons.
According to the Constitution, India is a secular state. There is no state religion and religion should have no significance in political life. But religion permeates the whole of society. It plays an important role for most Indians and is a natural part of everyday life.
In a completely different way than we in the West are used to living in India old and new side by side. Religions, just like culture, are happy to accept things that come from outside. But the new one is never allowed to take over but is just redone to fit into the old. The many religions have also gained an impression from each other. Primarily, Hinduism has influenced the other beliefs.
- Countryaah: Population statistics for 2020 and next 30 years in India, covering demographics, population graphs, and official data for growth rates, population density, and death rates.
Country of origin for Hinduism and Buddhism
All major world religions are represented in India. In addition, Hinduism and Buddhism can be said to have originated right there.
Nearly 80 percent of the population profess Hinduism, which is a religion with roots very far back in time. It has derived impressions from the prehistoric Harappa culture, from the religions of the Dravidians and tribes as well as from the religious conceptions of Indo-Europeans and has also received impetus from outside. There are Vedic ritualists who closely follow the precepts of ancient sacred scriptures, but also fertility worshipers, as well as Hindu modernists inspired by science and social ideals from the West.
Hinduism has evolved into a multi-faceted religion, usually characterized by great flexibility as well as great tolerance and even indifference to dissent. For example, one does not try to actively convert others to Hinduism. In part, this is because Hinduism lacks central authorities such as the Bible or the Pope in Christianity. There is also no equivalent to worship in Hindu temples.
But some basic notions unite all Hindus, for example the belief in the inherent unity of everything and that everything has its origin in a supreme being, the great world soul (Brahman). This can take three different forms: the Creation, called Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), the Preservation, which is called Vishnu, and the Destructive but Reconstruction, which is called Shiva. Hinduism’s innumerable gods and goddesses, in turn, are just different forms of these three (and thus of Brahman).
Birth and ritual purity
Reincarnation or self-transformation / rebirth is central. It is governed by human actions (karma); he who performs good deeds can do better in the next life. The ultimate goal (moksha), however, is to completely liberate oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) to attain in the deity or in a non-existence.
That goal can be achieved through Vedic ritualism, studies and search for wisdom, good social / religious deeds, an ascetic life or meditation. Very popular is the devotional worship of a personal god (bhakti). A common bakhti is Krishna, who is one of the god Vishnu’s ten incarnations on earth and who has also spread in the West (Hare Krishna).
The notion of ritual purity is very important to Hindus. Almost every creature and phenomenon in the world is ranked according to ritual purity. This in turn depends on how close – or far from – the being in question stands to the divine (see the Caste System).
Islam and Sikhism
Nearly 15 percent of Indians are Muslims and a majority of them are Sunnis. India has the world’s largest Muslim population after Indonesia. Already in the 7th century, Muslims began to come to India, but on a large scale they first came to the Turkish and Persian invasions from the 9th century.
When British India was divided in 1947, millions of Muslims sought refuge in the new Muslim state of Pakistan, while the Hindus chose secular India. However, many Muslims remained in India, where some of them reached high positions in society (such as the presidential office).
Sikhism emerged in the 16th century as a reform movement within Hinduism. The founder, Guru Nanak, was strongly inspired by Islam. The almost 2 percent Indians who are Sikhs are found mainly in Punjab, where they are in the majority, as well as in the big cities of Northern India. A straight-legged Sikh does not cut the hair and beard (he usually hides them in a turban) and always wears a saber (but it can be symbolic). However, it is becoming increasingly common for young Sikhs to cut their hair short.
Other religious groups
Various groups of Christians are found mainly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south as well as in northern India. Together, they make up just over 2 percent of India’s population. Christianity came to India around the year 54 AD. The Syrian Orthodox Church was established early in the south and in the middle of the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was established in India. Through the Portuguese, a large Christian community was formed in Goa.
Buddhism and strict Jainism, which have much in common with Buddhism, were both founded in India in the 5th century BC as protest movements. They now have relatively few followers in India (less than 1 percent each). Most Indian Buddhists live in Ladakh and Sikkim in the Himalayas. Jainism is best known for its distinctive view of non-violence (ahimsa). A Jainist strives hard not to harm other living beings, intentionally or unintentionally.
In particular, Bombay (Mumbai) constitutes a small but influential minority, or Zoroastrians. They immigrated to India in the 8th century from Persia, from where they were expelled by the Muslims. The Persians revered the four elements – fire, water, earth and air – and did not want to pollute them by burying or cremating their dead. Instead, they are laid out on a platform at the top of a tower (“the tower of silence,” or dakhma), where they are rotten and eaten by ash birds. The parcels attach great importance to education and have a great influence in the business world. Several of India’s most important business leaders are parsers.
Among the tribes are animism, for example the worship of the ancestors’ spirits and magic of various kinds.
Hindu nationalism is spreading
From time to time, violence flares up, especially among Hindus and Muslims. Most often they are underpowered by extremists who act for their own political gain.
The Hindu Nationalist Party BJP’s 2014 election victory aroused the concern of some Muslims. Then the disputed BJP politician Narendra Modi became prime minister. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had received strong criticism for not trying to prevent religiously motivated riots in 2002, when a thousand people, mostly Muslims, died in the state (see Modern History).
The BJP (which also ruled between 1998 and 2004) has its roots in a conservative, nationalist Hinduism that has become increasingly prevalent since the 1980s. Hindu nationalism links Hinduism with Indian identity, culture and with the Indian state. Its adherents are particularly skeptical of Muslims and Christians who are considered to have a “foreign” religion. One term used is Hindutva, which can be translated roughly with Hinduism. The BJP stands close to the politically influential Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is an independent NGO with a large grassroots network. There are also militant Hindu groups. The US intelligence service classifies two groups as militants: Vishya Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal.
Since 2014, attacks against religious minorities have increased. One example is the crowds that lynch butchers, leather workers and beef traders (mostly Muslims but also Dalits). For a Hindu, the cow is a sacred animal and beef is forbidden as food. The crowds are not infrequently fired on by militant Hindus. Attacks on Christians have also increased, as have advocates for secular society.
As a counterbalance to Hindu nationalists stands more reform-friendly Hindus who want to modernize religion. Sometimes conflicts also arise between these groups. One example is the violent protests that arose when the Supreme Court in 2018 granted women the right to visit a temple in southern India that was previously only available to men.
Similar prohibitions also exist within Islam. In 2016, a Bombay court suspended the ban on women visiting the Sufi mosque Haji Ali in the city, on the grounds that this ban violated the constitution.