India is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, with religion playing a central role in the lives of most Indians.
80% of the people in India are Hindu, considered one of the oldest religious and philosophical systems in the world. Islam is practiced by 13.4% of all Indians, Christianity by 2.4%, and Sikhism by 1.75%. Buddhism and Jainism both arose on the Indian subcontinent and have a world-wide presence; in addition, Zoroastrianism and Judaism have a long history in India, but their present-day numbers are small.
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Hinduism is the largest religion in India, counting approximately 900 million adherents, comprising 80.4% of the population. Often considered a “way of life” rather than a religion, it arose in the Indian subcontinent during the period 2000-1500 BCE. The word Hindu, originally a geographical description, derives from the Sanskrit, Sindhu, (the historical appellation for the river Indus), and refers to a person from the land of the river Sindhu. Hinduism differs from many religions in not having a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization. The religion is ideologically tolerant and inclusive—qualities which have enabled it to co-exist with other religions over its long history. The main holy books of Hinduism are the Vedas and the Upanishads.
It is believed by some that Hinduism is the mother of all religions. Now it has been revealed that the story of Jesus Christ is very similar to the Vedic Mithraism.
Buddhism, also known as Buddha Dharma, originated in northern India in the 6th century BCE, and rapidly gained adherents during the Buddha’s lifetime. Since, the religion was adopted mostly by the upper classes, its numbers in India remained small—in the hundreds of thousands. While the exact cause of the decline of Buddhism in India after the 9th century CE is not known, Vedanta reform movements, which incorporated Buddhist elements into Hinduism, are thought to have contributed to it, as did Islamic invasions of India, which devastated Buddhist monasteries, libraries, and statuary.
The 20th century saw a resurgence of Buddhism in India. In 1956, B. R. Ambedkar, the main architect of the Indian constitution, and thousands of his Dalit followers converted to Buddhism to protest the Hindu caste system. Buddhists form majority populations in the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir. In all, around 8 million Buddhists live in India today.
Jainism, along with Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, is one of the four major Dharmic religions originating in India. Dating back to the first millennium BCE, the religion was well in place during the lifetime of its 24th tirthankar, Mahavira. Today, Jains are extremely well-represented in the major professions, despite comprising only 0.4% (around 4.2 million) of India’s population. According to the 2001 Census of India, Jains have the highest literacy rate of any religious group—94.1%, in contrast to the national average of 64.8%.
Christianity, according to tradition arrived in India in the first century (c.52-85AD) through the apostle Thomas. The chronicle of his mission in India is recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and the lesser-known Apocalypse of Thomas. In these books, Judas Thomas is regarded as the “Twin” of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, alleging that since this Thomas was identical in look to Christ, he was equal in piety. The apostle completed the conversion of a Malabar prince, and founded a church on the prince’s grounds. According to the Gospel of Thomas, he later was buried in the foundation of that building, located by tradition near Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
Christianity was later consolidated in India, by the arrival of Syriac Jewish-Christians now known as Knanaya people in the second century A.D. This ancient ethnic Christian community of Kerala is known as Nasrani or Syrian Christian. The Nasrani people and especially the Knanaya people within the Nasranis have strong Jewish historical ties. Their form of Christianity is one of the most ancient: Syriac Christianity which is also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and referred to in India as Saint Thomas Christians. It should be noted that the term “Saint Thomas Christians” is a loose term that many non-Nasranis Christians in Kerala are often labelled.
Roman Catholicism reached India during the period of European colonization, which began in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar coast. There are over 17 million Catholics in India, which represents 1.5% of the total population. Christian missionary activity increased in the early 1800s. Today Christianity is the third largest religion of India making up 2 – 2.9% of the population. Christianity is prevalent in South & North-east India. Christians make up majority population in the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. All these states are tribal and have extremely low population when compared to the larger states in India.
Trade contacts between the Mediterranean region and the west coast of India probably led to the presence of small Jewish settlements in India as long ago as the early first millennium B.C. In Kerala a community of Jews tracing its origin to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has remained associated with the cities of Kodungallur (formerly known as Cranganore) and Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) for at least 1,000 years. The Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, rebuilt in 1568, is in the architectural style of Kerala but preserves the ritual style of the Sephardic rite, with Babylonian and Yemenite influence as well. The Jews of Kochi, concentrated mostly in the old “Jew Town,” were completely integrated into local culture, speaking Malayalam and taking local names while preserving their knowledge of Hebrew and contacts with Southwest Asia. A separate community of Jews, called the Bene Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad for almost 2,000 years. Unlike the Kochi Jews, they became a village-based society and maintained little contact with other Jewish communities. They always remained within the Orthodox Jewish fold, practising the Sephardi rite without rabbis, with the synagogue as the centre of religious and cultural life. Following trade routes established by the expansion of the British Empire, a third group of Jews, the Baghdadi Jews immigrated to India, settling primarily in Bombay and Calcutta. Many of the Baghdadi traders became wealthy and participated prominently in the economic leadership of these growing cities. As a result of religious pressure elsewhere, including the forced conversions of Mashhad (see Muslim Jew), their numbers were increased by religious refugees. The Baghdadis came mostly from the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Afghanistan.
The population of the Kochi Jews, always small, had decreased from 5,000 in 1951 to about fifty in the early 1990s. During the same period, the Bene Israel decreased from about 20,000 to 5,000, while the Baghdadi Jews declined from 5,000 to 250. Emigration to Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom, and North America accounts for most of this decline. According to the 1981 Indian census, there were 5,618 Jews in India, down from 5,825 in 1971. The 1991 census showed a further decline to 5,271, most of whom lived in Maharashtra and Kerala.
The Knanaya and Nasrani Christian groups also have strong historical ties to Judaism.
Islam arrived in India as early as the 8th century A.D. During the following years, Islam contributed greatly to the cultural enhancement of an already rich Indian culture, shaping not only the shape of Northern Indian classical music (Hindustani, a melding of Indian and Middle Eastern elements) but encouraging a grand tradition of Urdu (a melding of Hindi, Arabic and Persian languages) literature, both religious and secular. As of 2001, there were about 160 million Muslims in India (the second largest population in the world, after Indonesia), who are scattered throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and parts of the Gangetic plain. Uttar Pradesh, in the Gangetic plain, has the highest population of Muslims in one state. Muslims make up majority population in the state of Jammu & Kashmir and the union territory of Lakshadweep Islands. There are about 75 sects of Islam followed in India. Sunni Islam is the denomination practiced by the majority of Indian Muslims, followed by Shia Islam. Sufism is also followed by many Indian muslims, the majority of whom live in Kashmir.
Zoroastrianism was founded by the Magi known as Zoroaster. His religion was popular on the Greater Iran.
Subsequent to the fall of the Persian Empire, after which Zoroastrianism was gradually supplanted by Islam, many Zoroastrians fled to other regions in the hope of preserving their religious tradition. Among them were several groups who migrated to Gujarat, on the western shores of the Indian subcontinent, where they finally settled. The descendants of those refugees are today known as the Parsis.
In contrast to their co-religionists elsewhere, in India the Zoroastrians enjoyed tolerance and even admiration from other religious communities. From the 19th century onward, the Parsis gained a reputation for their education and widespread influence in all aspects of society, partly due to the divisive strategy of British colonialism which favored certain minorities. As such, Parsis are generally more affluent than other Indians and are stereotypically viewed as among the most Anglicised and “Westernised” of Indian minority groups. They have also played an instrumental role in the economic development of the country over many decades; several of the best-known business conglomerates of India are run by Parsi-Zoroastrians, including the Tata, Godrej, and Wadia families.
As of the census of 2001, the Parsis represent approximately 0.06% of the total population of India, with a concentration in and around the city of Mumbai (previously known as Bombay).
Sikhism, was founded in India’s northwestern Punjab region about 400 years ago and Sikhs form the majority population in the state of Punjab. As of 2001 there were 19.3 million Sikhs in India. Many of today’s Sikhs are situated in Punjab, the largest Sikh province in the world and the ancestral home of Sikhs. There are also significant populations of Sikhs in the neighboring states of Haryana and New Delhi. The most famous Sikh temple is the Golden Temple, located in Amritsar, Punjab. Many Sikhs serve in the Indian Army. The current prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh. Punjab is the spiritual home of Sikhs and is the only state in India where Sikhs form a majority.
The Bahai Faith is a religion founded by Bahaullah in 19th-century Persia, emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind. There are about six million Bahais in more than 200 countries and territories around the world.
According to Bahá’í teachings, religious history has unfolded through a series of God’s messengers who brought teachings suited for the capacity of the people at their time, and whose fundamental purpose is the same. Bahá’u’lláh is regarded as the most recent, but not final, in a line of messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad and others. Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to fulfill the eschatological promises of previous scriptures coincides with his mission to establish a firm basis for unity throughout the world, and inaugurate an age of peace and justice, which Bahá’ís expect will inevitably arise.
The Bahai teachings are often summarized by referring to three core principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of mankind. Many Bahá’í beliefs and practices are rooted in these priorities; but taken alone these would be an over-simplification of Bahai teachings.
There are various tribal religions in India followed by many people. Many of these tribals practice Hinduism as well to achieve Moksha or Mukti. However, they have some traditions separate from Hinduism. Generally the number is either quite small or the people are found in the remotest area thus they are overlooked during census-taking. However, there are a number of traditional religions praciced in India, including Donyi-Polo and Rangfrah. These religions are mainly followed in Arunachal Pradesh. Animism is also followed by many tribes in southern India and Bihar.
Mahima is another religion followed in India. This religion is not very common but is unknown to most of the people in India. It is mainly followed by the tribal people of Orissa. The full name of the religion is Satya Mahima Alekha Dharma, which means the true path of indescribable grace. The religion is essentially monotheistic in nature. Mahimaa religion strictly prescribes the caste system, idol worship and, in its initial stages at least, was virulently anti-Hindu and anti-Vedas. The religion strictly forbids adultery, the consumption of any intoxicants, violence, and the consumption of any flesh apart from fish. Eating of food after the sunset is also a taboo. In its essence it is essentially anti-hierarchical and is anarchistic in its criticism of the existing state system of late nineteenth/early twentieth century tribal dominated Western Orissa. The religion has a monastic order. But the members of the monastic order, like Buddhist monks, do not constitute a priestly class and have no control over the lay practitioners. They have to lead a life of poverty, celibacy, piety and constant movement, as the monks are not allowed to sleep in the same place on two consecutive nights.