Hindu sadhu (holy man)

Religions in India: 1) Hindu (80.5 percent); 2) Muslim (13.4 percent); 3) Christian (2.3 percent); 4) Sikh (1.9 percent); 5) Buddhists (0.5 percent); and 6) Jain (0.4 percent). Another 0.6 percent belongs to other faiths, such as Zoroastrianism and numerous religions associated with tribal groups. There are about 200 million Muslims in India. Only Indonesia has more. There are few members of the Baha’i faith. [Source: 2001 Indian census, Library of Congress, 2005. BBC 2021]

The above percentages have changed little since the 1961 census. In spite of Hinduism’s inherent pantheism, adherents often focus much of their devotion on a specific deity—such as Vaishnivites (those primarily devoted to Vishnu and related deities) and Shaivites (Shiva and related deities)—but these denominations rarely have notable social, economic, or political consequences. The Indian constitution confers religious freedom for individuals and prohibits religious discrimination, but in spite of this, there have been enduring tensions—and occasional conflict—among religious communities, most notably between Hindus and Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress 2005]

Although Hinduism is the dominant religion, there is no official religion in India. As a secular state, in theory anyway, India guarantees freedom of worship and discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited. India has long experienced religious tensions and sometimes violence. In 1947, when India and Pakistan were divided along religious lines, hundreds of thousands were killed in sectarian violnce and Muslims in Kashmir and Sikhs in the Punjab have fought for decades to secede from India. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Religion and Life in India

It is impossible to know India without understanding its religious beliefs and practices, which have a large impact on the personal lives of most Indians and influence public life on a daily basis. Indian religions have deep historical roots that are recollected by contemporary Indians. The ancient culture of South Asia, going back at least 4,500 years, has come down to India primarily in the form of religious texts. The artistic heritage, as well as intellectual and philosophical contributions, has always owed much to religious thought and symbolism. Contacts between India and other cultures have led to the spread of Indian religions throughout the world, resulting in the extensive influence of Indian thought and practice on Southeast and East Asia in ancient times and, more recently, in the diffusion of Indian religions to Europe and North America. Within India, on a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of people engage in ritual actions that are motivated by religious systems that owe much to the past but are continuously evolving. Religion, then, is one of the most important facets of Indian history and contemporary life. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

Mumbai has Hindu temples, mosques, Christian churches, and Jewish synagogues. Muslims worship in Arabic in mosques ("Masjid") all over Delhi. The Jewish Synagogue in Kolkata is located near the Calcutta Cathedral. Sikh temples ("gurdwara") are plentiful in the Punjab and can be found elsewhere.

In India, religions and beliefs are often borrowed and fused together. There, sin is often associated with bad karma. Some Indiam Christians view Jesus’s self-sacrifice on the cross as a from of liberating humanity from its bad karma and future rebirths.

The richness of India's religious life is evident every morning in Delhi. The dawn is greeted with the chanting of the Sikh guards, bells and prayers from Hindu temples, and the sound of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Before the partition of India and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree today, there has traditionally been a certain amount of intermingling of faiths on the Indian subcontinent—Hindus praying at the tombs of Muslim saints; Muslims warding off disease by offering coconuts to the Hindu goddess Shitala; Sikhs participating in the Hindu Festival of Lights. The poet-saint Kabir is revered by Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs.

Different Religions in India

Muslim Sufi saint and poet

Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Sikhs—as well as small communities of Zoroastrians, Jews, and Bahais—lend a distinctive flavor to the religious composition of India. Christianity in India dates back nearly 2000 years. Most Christian churches have services conducted in regional languages, as well as in English. “With slightly more than 1.5 million members, India's Bahai community is the largest in the world. The Lotus Temple in Delhi is a popular pilgrimage site for Bahais throughout the country. The Bahais are strong believers in education and have established many educational institutions in India. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

A number of world religions originated in India, and others that started elsewhere found fertile ground for growth there. Hinduism is a varied grouping of philosophical and devotional traditions. Buddhism and Jainism, ancient monastic traditions, have had a major influence on Indian art, philosophy, and society and remain important minority religions. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Islam spread from the West throughout South Asia, from the early eighth century, to become the largest minority religion in India. In fact India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, but ahead of largely-Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh). Sikhism, which started in Punjab in the sixteenth century, has spread throughout India and the world since the mid-nineteenth century. *

Christianity, represented by almost all denominations, traces its history in India back to the time of the apostles and counted 19.6 million members in India in 1991. Judaism and Zoroastrianism, arriving originally with traders and exiles from the West, are represented by small populations, mostly concentrated on India's west coast. A variety of independent tribal religious groups also are lively carriers of unique ethnic traditions. *

History of Religion in India

Hinduism generally is regarded as the oldest formal religion in the world. The origins of Hinduism go back to the pastoral Aryan tribes, spilling over the Hindu Kush from Inner Asia, and mixing with the urban civilization of the Indus Valley and with the tribal cultures of hunting and gathering peoples in the area. Unlike other world religions, Hinduism had no single founder and has never been missionary in orientation. It is believed that about 1200 B.C., or even earlier by some accounts, the Vedas, a body of hymns originating in northern India were produced; these texts form the theological and philosophical precepts of Hinduism.[Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Leona Anderson wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Indo-Gangetic plain and the Himalayas are the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Hinduism is by far the most widely practiced religion in India. Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C. in North India. Buddhism spread first to Sri Lanka and then by various routes to Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, and today the majority of Buddhists live outside of India. Sikhism originated in northwestern India in the late fifteenth century. [Source: Leona Anderson, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Islam arrived in waves from the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, beginning in the eighth century. The earliest Muslims to arrive in India came via the Arabian Sea. From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries Islamic peoples crossed the Himalayas from the northwest (primarily through the Khyber Pass) into North India. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries Muslims established empires that dominated North India, and Hindu kingdoms were overthrown with varying degrees of intensity by their Muslim conquerors. Many Muslims who found their way into the Indian subcontinent throughout this period settled there, and Islamic traditions and tastes became mixed with those of the Hindu population. Although Islam has always been a minority religion in India, its impact on Indian history and culture has been immense. Today India has the second-largest population of Muslims of any country in the world. Other religions transported to India include Judaism, whose origins there date to the first century c.e.; Zoroastrianism, which arrived in the eighth century; and Christianity.

“The Portuguese, French, and British arrived in India by sea, beginning in the seventeenth century. Eventually, the British East India Company, a trading company, came to dominate the subcontinent. Tensions between British interests and the indigenous population erupted in 1857 in what is known as the Sepoy Mutiny or the First Indian War of Independence. Many lives on both sides were lost. From 1858 to 1947, when it gained its independence, India was ruled by the British crown. In 1947 the subcontinent was partitioned, and the two nations of India and Pakistan were born.

rock paintings in Bhimbetka, rock shelters that date back to 100,000 years ago

Great Traditional and Little Tradition in Indian Religion

A distinction has sometimes been made between the religion of the "great tradition" and the popular religion of the "little tradition." The great (or Sanskritic) tradition, sometimes called Brahmanism, developed under the leadership of Hinduism's highest caste group, the Brahmans, who as the traditional priests, teachers, and astrologers enjoy numerous social privileges. The great tradition preserves refined and abstract philosophical concepts that exhibit very little regional variation. At this level, there is emphasis on unity in diversity and a pervasive attitude of relativism. New York Times Library of Congress]

On the level of the little tradition, Hinduism admits worship of spirits and godlings of rivers, mountains, vegetation, animals, stones, or disease. Ritual bathing, vows, and pilgrimages to sacred rivers, mountains, shrines, and cities are important practices. An ordinary Hindu will worship at the shrines of Muslim pirs, without being concerned with the religion to which that place is supposed to be affiliated. Hindus revere many holy men and ascetics conspicuous for their bodily mortifications. Some people believe they attain spiritual benefit merely by looking at a great holy man.*

India's Religious Demographics Have Changed Little in 70 Years According to Pew Study

All religious groups in India have shown major declines in fertility rates, a study from Pew Research Center has found. The BBC reports: “As a result there have been only "modest changes" in the religious make-up of the people since 1951. “The two largest groups, Hindus and Muslims, make up 94 percent of India's 1.2 billion people. “Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains together make up the remaining 6 percent of the population. [Source: Soutik Biswas, BBC, September 21, 2021]

“Based on data available in India's decennial census and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the Pew study examines how the country's religious composition has changed, and the main reasons behind the changes. India's population has more than trebled following the 1947 division of a colonial state into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — from 361 million people in 1951, to more than 1.2 billion people in 2011. (Independent India held its first census in 1951, and the last one was conducted in 2011.)

“During this period, every major religion in India saw its numbers rise, the study found. The number of Hindus increased from 304 million to 966 million; Muslims grew from 35 million to 172 million; and the number of Indians who say they are Christian rose from 8 million to 28 million.

“Hindus make up 79.8 percent of India's 1.2 billion people in the 2021 census. 94 percent of the world's Hindus live in India. India is home to 200 million Muslims Muslims comprise 14.2 percent of Indians. India is home to one of the world's largest Muslim populations, surpassed only by Indonesia Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains together make up 6 percent of the population Only about 30,000 Indians described themselves as atheists in 2011 Around 8 million people said that they did not belong to any of the six largest groups There were 83 smaller religious groups and each had at least 100 adherents

Fertility and India's Religious Demographics

Fertility has been by far the "biggest driver" of the modest amount of religious change in India. India gains roughly 1 million inhabitants every month and is now the world's most populous country. According to the BBC and the Pew study: “Muslims still have the highest fertility rate (2.6 children per woman in 2015) among the major religious groups, followed by Hindus (2.1). Jains have the lowest fertility rate at 1.2. The study says the general pattern is largely the same as it was in 1992, when Muslims had the highest fertility rate (4.4), followed by Hindus (3.3). "But the gaps in childbearing between India's religious groups are generally much smaller than they used to be," the study said. [Source: Soutik Biswas, BBC, September 21, 2021]

Jains have lowest fertility rate among India's religions

“And the slowdown in population growth has been more pronounced among India's minority groups who outpaced Hindus in earlier decades. What is striking is a fertility decline of nearly two children per woman under 25 years in a single generation among Muslims, according to Stephanie Kramer, a senior Pew researcher specialising in religion.

“As the number of children Indian women had declined from an average of 3.4 per woman in the early 1990s to 2.2 in 2015, the rate among Muslims fell even more steeply from 4.4 to 2.6. Over a period of 60 years, the Muslim share of India's population grew by 4 percent, while the Hindu share declined by about the same amount. The other groups held fairly steady. "The modest amount of demographic change can be explained by the fact that Muslim women have had more children, on average, than other Indian women, at least until fairly recently," Ms Kramer told the BBC.

“Family sizes are influenced by a host of factors, making it "impossible to pinpoint exactly how much religious affiliation alone impacts fertility", the study says. Unlike in many countries, the impact of migration or religious conversion on demographic change in India is "negligible". Population growth was driven also by the fact that groups with younger population have more women "entering their prime childbearing years and, as a result, tend to grow faster than the older populations". As of 2020, the study says, Hindus have a median age of 29, compared with 24 for Muslims and 31 for Christians.

“The other drivers of population growth in India include education levels of women (highly educated women often marry later and have their first child later than less educated women) and wealth (poorer women tend to have more children so that they can contribute to household work and incomes). The findings are not entirely surprising because India's overall fertility rate has been declining steeply in recent decades — an average Indian woman is expected to have 2.2 children in her lifetime. That's higher than rates in countries such as the US (1.6), but lower than India's in 1992 (3.4) or 1950 (5.9).

Religious Diversity, Tolerance and Intolerance in India

The listing of the major belief systems only scratches the surface of the remarkable diversity in Indian religious life. The complex doctrines and institutions of the great traditions, preserved through written documents, are divided into numerous schools of thought, sects, and paths of devotion. In many cases, these divisions stem from the teachings of great masters, who arise continually to lead bands of followers with a new revelation or path to salvation. [Source: Library of Congress *] In contemporary India, the migration of large numbers of people to urban centers and the impact of modernization have led to the emergence of new religions, revivals, and reforms within the great traditions that create original bodies of teaching and kinds of practice. In other cases, diversity appears through the integration or acculturation of entire social groups--each with its own vision of the divine--within the world of village farming communities that base their culture on literary and ritual traditions preserved in Sanskrit or in regional languages. The local interaction between great traditions and local forms of worship and belief, based on village, caste, tribal, and linguistic differences, creates a range of ritual forms and mythology that varies widely throughout the country. Within this range of differences, Indian religions have demonstrated for many centuries a considerable degree of tolerance for alternate visions of the divine and of salvation. *

Religious tolerance in India finds expression in the definition of the nation as a secular state, within which the government since independence has officially remained separate from any one religion, allowing all forms of belief equal status before the law. In practice it has proven difficult to divide religious affiliation from public life. In states where the majority of the population embrace one religion, the boundary between government and religion becomes permeable; in Tamil Nadu, for example, the state government manages Hindu temples, while in Punjab an avowedly Sikh political party usually controls the state assembly. One of the most notable features of Indian politics, particularly since the 1960s, has been the steady growth of militant ideologies that see in only one religious tradition the way toward salvation and demand that public institutions conform to their interpretations of scripture. The vitality of religious fundamentalism and its impact on public life in the form of riots and religion-based political parties have been among the greatest challenges to Indian political institutions in the 1990s.

In rural India, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs generally coexist peacefully and often live together side by side. But often though they live in separate neighborhoods as different castes do. Tensions between members of different religious communities are often most intense in the cities, where politicians ruthlessly fan fears and animosities.

India's Spiritual Market Valued at Over $30 Billion

Sikh praying at the Golden Temple

India's spiritual and religious market has been valued to be worth tens of billions of dollars. In the mid 2010s, The Times of India said that this market was worth around $30 billion. According to Fortune, “they remain one of the most cited authorities on this figure; though newer estimates put that figure closer to $40 billion and entrepreneur Saumya Vardhan says her calculations place the market value at around $48 billion in 2016. [Source: Ambika Behal, Forbes, August 20, 2016]

“Around 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu — many continue to follow ancient traditions that have evolved little since around 500 BC. These play a huge part in daily life. Families contact priests to perform everything from astrological chart readings for the entire family to rituals for naming children to fixing financial problems, warding off evil spirits, wedding ceremonies, last rites — you name it.

Temple donations, the purchase of offerings, spiritual tourism, payments for ritual services, astrology services, traditional home décor services — the money being spent in India alone easily rockets into the billions of dollars. Priests typically specialize in an aspect of the religious practice; some are experts in career astrology, others may have stronger experience with wedding rituals, and so on. Vardhan says by utilizing the individual expertise of priests they are able to provide a better experience for customers participating in the ceremonies. “There are so many scams and scandals with spirituality, we want to make people aware of the science and facts behind these rituals,” says Vardhan, “no one is talking about the science behind it — it all has some significance, some science.”

Illegal Religious Structures in India

There are tons of illegal religious structures such as temples and mosqued in India, with tens of thousands of them in Delhi alone. They can be found on sidewalks, schools and roads, even prisons, despite court orders to stop them. Devotees go out of their way to make sure the structures are hard to tear down once they are built. Religious passions can run high in India and communal riots have broken out over what seem to outsiders as trivial matters. "Governments find it difficult to touch anything to do with religion," Gautam Bhatia, an architect and author, told the Los Angeles Times. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2011]

The Times’s Mark Magnier wrote: The exact number of illegal religious structures in India is unknown, but an estimated 60,000 exist in New Delhi, up from 560 in 1980, while a recent survey found 250,000 more in five of India's 28 states. Built on public land without permission, building permits or much thought to traffic safety or crowd control, they range from makeshift to the decidedly elaborate. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2011]

Most start small. An illegal shrine may begin its life as a few ornaments and a candle in a tree. Then a bench is added. Then concrete floors, a roof, a sleeping alcove. New Delhi's "ancient" Shiv Shakti Mochan Temple near Parliament is a case in point. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it started in 1968 as a bird-house-sized structure, said longtime neighbor Tara Singh, pointing out a backlit box wedged into the adjoining banyan tree. In defiance of a Supreme Court order against expansion, it's now 20 feet by 60 feet with walls, columns, marble floors, twinkling lights, a sink and life-size statues in glass cases, completely blocking the sidewalk. Each time city workers try to raze it, supporters quickly mobilize to fend them off, alerted by a subaltern keeping watch 24/7.

Its keepers say it's only growing as fast as the banyan tree, the manifestation, they say, of a sacred mythical snake that fights evil. "The power of this blessed tree will defeat any bulldozer," said the priest, identified as Panderji, as several pedestrians handed him donations. "A few months back, they wanted to tear us down and restore the sidewalk. They're always trying something."

Many of the buildings are inspired by strong religious beliefs in a country with the world's third-largest Muslim population and where divinities of the majority Hindu religion are plaintiffs in court cases. But with land at a premium and religious donations sizable, activists cite another reason. "Religion is good business," said a Hindustan Times editorial condemning encroachments. "Like any other business, there are legit as well as not-so-legit practitioners."

Blowback from Leveling Illegal Religious Structures in India

Reporting from New Delhi, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, They struck shortly after dawn on a weekday morning, taking bulldozers, backhoes and sledgehammers to the Noor Masjid mosque. But the stealth tactics by municipal workers fell short: Well before they finished razing the building, 1,000 Muslim protesters had gathered, and things got ugly. Across town a few hours later, the city's public works department was busy again, this time leveling the Hindu Pushp Vihar temple. Followers clashed with police, devotees sang to the gods and protesters blocked a main road, sparking massive traffic jams. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2011]

For days after the mosque razing, protests raged. The most intense confrontation came during Friday prayers when thousands of young Muslims sporting skullcaps battered down police barricades, yelling, "God is great!" "If we don't stand up, they'll walk all over us," Bashir Ahmed said. "They have no right to demolish our mosques."

Faced with protracted opposition, city officials eventually announced that they'd consider rebuilding the mosque. "People in India who are religious-minded see gods in the stones, in flower pots, anywhere," said Bhagwanji Raiyani, whose public-interest filing in a Mumbai court led to the razing of 1,300 illegal structures. "Unscrupulous people who don't want to work hard just put a sign up and people pray and give them money. Sometimes 'temples' then turn into telecom shops."

Although Raiyani achieved a rare victory, the battle to take back the streets is complicated by public apathy, a creaky legal system, corruption, poor land records and politicians who back encroachers for votes. "People think twice about giving to a beggar," said Nira Punj, founder of Mumbai's Citispace civic group dedicated to protecting public spaces. "They don't to a shrine. This encroachment, it's like terror tactics."

Nor are people above using unorthodox construction to manipulate policy, frustrate rivals or divert projects. Labor leader Shashi Bhushan Pandit says his neighbor in Jogta, central Bihar state, didn't want a road through his property so he built a temple on it, which worked like a charm. "The government rerouted the road," he said.

Adding to the inertia is a public tendency to believe a building's been there much longer than it has. "It's been here 50 to 100 years," demonstrator Kamal Hassan said of the razed Noor Masjid mosque, although in fact it was only 11 years old. "They pick on Muslims more than Hindus." Such misconceptions are easily fueled by politicians and religious leaders making political hay, said Monu Chadha, head of the neighborhood group that sued to raze the mosque. Even when government bulldozers prevail, there's no guarantee that the land will remain temple- or mosque-free. In 2003, Mumbai demolished 1,100 illegal shrines, temples, mosques and churches. But a survey last year discovered that 200 had reappeared and 1,500 new ones had been built.

Religious Tourism in India

In the early 2000s, Sudip Mazumdar wrote in Newsweek: Not since the hippie invasion of the 1960s has India seen such a flood of foreigners seeking enlightenment—or at least a bit of peace. In the holy town of Rishikesh, nestled in the Himalayan foothills, some 50 ashrams now cater to Western visitors. More than 30 "spiritual tour" operators in northern India say their programs are fully booked, some two years in advance. [Source: Sudip Mazumdar, Newsweek, July 2001]

The new breed of pilgrims differ markedly from previous ones. They come from all economic backgrounds and age groups, not only the young“The younger people who came to India in the late 1969s abd 70s in search if elightenmnet, hashish or simple Indian exotics belonged to a counterculture movement,” Dipankar Gupta a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Today;s travellers have a more cnservative mentality. They are not iconoclasts. They are seeking some kind of spiritual experience without forsaking their own spiritual or cultural heritage.”

As such, this wave of tourism is fueled largely by the rise in nontraditional spirituality in the United States and Europe. No longer do most would-be disciples seek out individual gurus and exotic forms of worship....Interestingly, the boom coincides with a massive surge of faith among Indians themselves. At least 100 Indian religious portals have sprung up on the Net....As their society—and their problems—become more Western, middle-class Indians are discovering what many Westerners have already found: a destination in their own backyard.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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