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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.