India Religion, Religions in India, Indian Religion, Religion

Religion

Hinduism
Jainism
Christianity
Islam
Sikhism
Buddhism


In India, religion is a way of life. It is an integral part of the entire Indian tradition. For the majority of Indians, religion permeates every aspect of life, from common-place daily chores to education and politics. Secular India is home to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other innumerable religious traditions. Hinduism is the dominant faith, practiced by over 80% of the population. Besides Hindus, Muslims are the most prominent religious group and are an integral part of Indian society. In fact India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world after Indonesia.

Common practices have crept into most religious faiths in India and many of the festivals that mark each year with music, dance and feasting are shared by all communities. Each has its own pilgrimage sites, heroes, legends and even culinary specialties, mingling in a unique diversity that is the very pulse of society.

Hinduism

The underlying tenets of Hinduism cannot be easily defined. There is no unique philosophy that forms the basis of the faith of the majority of India's population. Hinduism is perhaps the only religious tradition that is so diversified in its theoretical premises and practical expressions as to be called a "museum of religions". This religion cannot be traced to a specific founder nor does it have a "holy book" as a basic scriptural guide. The Rig Veda, Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita can all be described as the sacred text of the Hindus.

Unlike most other religions, Hinduism does not advocate the worship of one particular deity. One may worship Shiva or Vishnu or Rama or Krishna or some other gods and goddesses or one may believe in the 'Supreme Spirit' or the 'Indestructible Soul' within each individual and still be called a good Hindu. This gives an indication of the kind of contrasts this religion is marked by. At one end of the scale, it is an exploration of the 'Ultimate Reality'; at the other end there are cults that worship spirits, trees and animals.

There are festivals and ceremonies associated not only with gods and goddesses but also with the sun, moon, planets, rivers, oceans, trees and animals. Some of the popular Hindu festivals are Deepawali, Holi, Dussehra, Ganesh Chaturthi, Pongal, Janamasthmi and Shiva Ratri. These innumerable festive occasions lend Hinduism its amazing popular appeal and make the Indian tradition rich and colorful.

Heroes of epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are immortalized and are still alive in the day-to-day existence of the common people. The gods of Hinduism are at once super-human and human and there is distinct feeling of warmth and familiarity towards them.

Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, represents qualities such as honor, courage and valor and is held up as a model of manliness. His wife Sita is the prototypal Indian wife who is carried off by Ravana, the king of Lanka, while Rama and Sita are on exile. Sita's eventual rescue by Rama, his brother Lakshmana, and Rama's faithful monkey-general Hanuman are all woven into this engrossing tale. Stories from this epic have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. Religious fairs, festivals and rituals have kept these legends alive, and there is never an occasion that does not offer an opportunity to retell the old stories.

The stirring verses of the Mahabharata tell the story of the dynastic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were close cousins. Lord Krishna plays a very important role in this Great Epic. He is a friend, philosopher and guide to Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, and he helps Arjuna overcome his hesitation to kill his close relatives in the battlefield. The wise philosophy of Krishna and his teachings have been embodied in the Bhagwad Gita. Although the popular image of Krishna is that of a god who steals butter as a child, and who, as a youth, plays the flute and entices cows and cowherd girls alike; in his mature years he is depicted as the wise philosopher with a more serious side to his nature.

There are numerous gods and goddesses worshipped by Hindus all over India. Among these, the most fundamental to Hinduism, is the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - creator, preserver and destroyer respectively. Brahma has four heads corresponding to the four directions of the compass. He is the creator of life and the entire universe. Vishnu is the preserver who guides the cycle of birth and rebirth. He is also supposed to have taken many incarnations to save the world from evil forces. Both Rama and Krishna are believed to have been incarnations of Vishnu. Shiva, usually seen with a coiled cobra around his neck, destroys all evil and also has many incarnations, not all of which are terrifying.

The invisible deities are represented by a complexity of images and idols symbolizing divine powers. Many of these idols are housed within ornate temples of unparalleled beauty and grandeur. The Hindu gods are very much alive and live in temples, snow-capped peaks, in rivers and oceans and in the very hearts and minds of the Hindus.

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Sikhism

The Sikh religion emerged during the early 16th century in the state of Punjab in North India. The founder of this faith was Guru Nanak, who from his childhood was attracted to both Hindu and Muslim saints. Born a Hindu, but also inspired by the teachings of Islam, he began to preach the message of unity of both religions. According to him, the basic teachings of both faiths were essentially the same. Nanak attracted many followers and came to be known as a Guru or a teacher. His disciples came together to form a new religious tradition called Sikhism.

The Gurus who followed Nanak contributed to the consolidation and spread of Sikhism. The teachings of Guru Nanak were incorporated in the 'Guru Granth Sahib', the Holy Book of the Sikhs which became a symbol of God for Sikhs. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjun built the Golden Temple at Amritsar which became the holiest of Sikh shrines. The tenth Guru, Govind Singh imparted military training to the Sikhs to help them defend themselves.

On Baisakhi day of 1699 at  Anandpur, Guru Govind Singh ordered his Sikhs to assemble before him as was customary and created a new brotherhood of Sikhs called the Khalsa (Pure Ones). Five men selected for their devotion to the Guru were called Panj Pyares and given nectar (amrit) for initiation into the brotherhood of Khalsa. Later the Guru himself received initiation from Panj Payares as did others.

The members of the new brotherhood were instructed to wear the five symbols (the five Ks )- uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist guard, a sword and breeches. The initiated men took the name Singh (Lion) and the women Kaur (Princess). The Guru also decided to terminate the succession of gurus and was thus the last of the Sikh Gurus.

Sikhism propounds monotheism, i.e. worship of one God. It also opposes the caste system and believes that all men are equal. However the ideas of karma and rebirth from Hinduism are accepted. Today, many Sikh practices are common to Hindus. Intermarriages between the two communities are also common. However the Sikh community has its own unmistakable identity. Though the Sikhs constitute less than 2 percent of the Indian population, they have become a distinct element in the configuration of the Indian religious tradition and the Indian society.

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Buddhism

Buddhism originated as an offshoot of Hinduism in India, but eventually it became popular all over Asia. The personality and teachings of Gautam Buddha, the founder of this faith, have illumined the lives of millions of people in Japan, China and Southeast Asia.

There are strong lines of similarity between Buddhism and the basic teachings of Hinduism. Buddhism is based on the principle or the law of impermanence. According to this, everything is subject to change, although some things may last longer than others. The other basic principle of Buddhism is the law of causation, according to which nothing occurs due to pure chance. Besides natural forces, it is the karma which leads to the occurrence of all events. The popular notions of the indestructible soul and the cycle of rebirth emerge from these two basic philosophies.

Buddha advocated the Middle Path, in which he offered a balanced, harmonious way of life, steering between two extremes of self-indulgence and total abstinence. Buddhism rests upon four Noble Truths: (i) suffering is universal, (ii) it is caused by desire and yearning (iii) suffering can be prevented and overcome and (iv) eradication of desires can lead to removal of suffering. To prevent suffering one has to conquer craving and desire and this conquest leads to the attainment of nirvana or complete enlightenment.

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Islam

The Arab traders brought Islam to India in the early 8th century, but it was not until the 12th century that it became a force to reckon with in the Indian sub-continent. Unlike Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism which emerged as offshoots of Hinduism, the concept, customs and religious practices of Islam were unique to this faith which professed universal brotherhood and submission to Allah - the God Almighty.

The Muslim invaders in the 12th century and the Mughal rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries helped in the spread of Islam in India. In its first phase, Islam was aggressive. But the mystics of Islam, or the Sufi saints, helped in spreading the message of peace and universal love.

The spirit of brotherhood propounded by Sufi saints and preachers like Kabir and Nanak helped in loosening the rigidity of the caste system. The interaction of the two faiths led to a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic elements in almost every sphere of life and culture. After an initial period of conflict and confrontation, today the two religions have accommodated and enriched each other.

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Christianity

Christianity first came to India by way of St. Thomas.  He came to Kerala, in southwestern India, and founded the first church.  Ironically, Shankaracharya, a Hindu reformer and seer, was born in Kerala some five hundred years after St. Thomas.  St. Thomas ended up dying in the Chennai region (then known as Madras) of the Tamils.

Most Christians in India are Catholic (over 60 percent) and a majority of them are found in the south, particularly Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu.  Approximately on third of Kerala's population is comprised of Christians and they are involved in all aspects of society.

Contrary to popular belief, British rule had little to do with the growth of Christianity in India.  The missionaries generally tended to turn public opinion, even those of the Indian Christians, against foreign rule.  Bengali Christians in Calcultta were fairly important in their respective areas, whether it was in education, as a leader or an opinion-maker. 

By tradition, Christianity is said to have arrived in India with Saint Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ, who spent some years in South India and possibly died there. However, others believe that the first missionary to arrive in the country was Saint Bartholomew. Historically, Christian missionary activity started with the advent of Saint Francis Xavier in 1544. He was followed by Portuguese missionaries at first and eventually by missionaries from other countries like Denmark, Holland, Germany and Great Britain. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Catholic as well as Protestant missionaries preached Christian doctrines in India and also made important contributions to social improvement and education in India.

Much of the modern influences in the Indian society can be attributed to the role of Christianity in India. Christian missionaries helped in setting up schools and colleges all over India and also spread the message of faith and goodwill in the country. Christianity and its teachings influenced a number of intellectuals and thinkers in India, including Mahatma Gandhi.

Today, the Christians in India number about 30 million and consist of people from every denomination of Christianity.

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Jainism
 

Jainism as a religious tradition was established in India about the same time as Buddhism. Mahavira, one of the jinas (conquerors) preached the Jain philosophy around the same time that Buddhism began.

Like Buddhism, Jainism rose against the corruption in the interpretation of Hinduism prevalent at the time. The underlying philosophy of Jainism is that renunciation of worldly desires and self-conquest leads to perfect wisdom. This faith believes in total abstinence and asceticism as practiced by the Jinas and the Tirthankars ("crossing-makers"). The "crossing refers to the passage from the material to the spiritual realm, from bondage to freedom. Followers of this faith accept the popular gods of Hinduism but they are placed lower than the jinas.

The focus of this religion has been purification of the soul by means of right conduct, right faith and right knowledge. This faith also enunciates complete non-violence and the Jain monks can be seen with their nose and mouth covered by a cloth mask to ensure that they do not kill any germs or insects while breathing. Today, Jainism has more than 3 million adherents in India and finds wide acceptance because of its philosophy of sympathy for all living beings.

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