When we talk about Indian religions, we talk about all those religions who originated in the Indian subcontinent: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
The history of Indian religion began with the Vedic religion, with its philosophy being summarized in the Upanishads, now a sacred text of Hinduism. Centuries later, around the 6th century CE, India saw the birth of Buddhism and Jainism. Lastly, Sikhism was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak.
- India is home to the world’s most impressive religious diversity
- About 80% of the population practices Hinduism, with Islam being the second most practiced religion
- Four of the word’s major religions were born in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism
- This melting-pot of religions created a unique culture that will leave you amazed…
- …with tons of religious places and festivals that create a unique environment
Religion in India
India has a population of 1.3 billion people, and inside this huge human variety are represented 7 major different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Of course, about 80% of the population is Hindu, while 14% practices Islam and 2.3% Christianity.
Religion, as it is easy to see, has always been a fundamental part of Indian culture, and the law and customs of the country establish religious tolerance: the freedom of religion, according to the Constitution of India, is a fundamental right.
If we want to understand this complex scenario, it is important to distinguish between indigenous religions and foreign religions.
Hinduism (the world’s third largest religion) is a religion and a way of life, and the most important religion practiced in India. It is believed to be the oldest religion in the world, and its complex philosophy, cosmology and mythology never cease to amaze.
There are various scriptures considered sacred by Hindus, and some of the most important ones are the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Ramayana. These texts play a fundamental part in the daily life of every practitioner, as they are a source of wisdom and authority.
The most important Hindu beliefs are the four Purusārthas, the proper goals of human life:
- Dharma (ethics/duties)
- Artha (prosperity)
- Kama (desires)
- Moksha (freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth)
Other important concepts are the karma – which establish that every action in this life will have a long-lasting consequence; and Samsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth.
The concept of God in Hinduism is extremely complex, and it would be hard to summarize it here. However, it is possible to define Hinduism as henoteistic, i.e. worship a single god while accepting the existence of others.
The texts accept the existence of numerous gods, or Devas. Some of the most important ones are: Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Shiva. They are celestial beings that should be distinguished from the Ishvara, the personal god of many Hindu worshippers.
Worship places for Hinduism
Every Hindu temple is a house of god(s), and its structure presents elements of Hindu cosmology: the dome represents Mount Meru – the center of the universe – and the carvings represent the Purusārthas.
The temples are built according to various styles that are often adapted to the various local beliefs. One of the holiest temples in India is Kashi Vishwanath, located in Varanasi and dedicated to Shiva.
Another notable temple is the Lord Jagannath Temple, house to 120 shrines and one of the oldest temples of the whole country. It was built during the 12th century and it is famous for the annual Rath Yatra.
Daily practices of Hinduism
Hindu practitioners engage every day in religious rituals, in order to worship the deities and purify themselves. Some of the most common daily practices are: worshiping puja (a ritual prayer in order to honor the gods), bathing, fire sacrifices, recitation from the Vedas, hymns singing, etc.
As said, the purpose of these practices is to honor the gods and purify themselves, as purity and pollution are two pivotal concepts of Hinduism. Hindus must neutralize impurity and gain merit, that will help them lead a good life in the next world.
Hindu festivals (called in Sanskrit Utsava, “to lift higher”) are ceremonies aimed to connect the social life to dharma. There are numerous festivals during the year, each one set according to the Hindu calendar. Two of the most important ones are Holi, to celebrate the full moon; and Diwali, to celebrate the new moon.
Festivals often celebrate events from Hinduism, but the celebrations can vary from one region to another.
With 520 million worshippers, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion. Buddhism stems from the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a noble man born in India who became the Buddha. Nowadays it incorporates a huge variety of beliefs, traditions and practices.
The main goal of Buddhist practices is to attain the Nirvana and overcome the Samasāra, the cycle of birth and death. Different schools see the path to this liberation in many different ways, however, there are some practices that are fundamental to all of them: refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the adherence to moral precepts.
Worship places for Buddhism
Buddhists practice their religion in a temple, which always include the same structures: vihara, chaitya stupa, wat, and pagoda, even if the structure and the architecture varies according to the different places. A temple represents the pure land of a Buddha, and they are designed to inspire inner peace.
When in India, be sure to visit the Mahabodhi temple, considered the most sacred sites in Buddhism. The main temple is shaped as a pyramid, with motifs engraved to give a reflection of the teachings and the beliefs of Buddhism. This is where the Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree, still present today.
The Mahaparinirvana temple is the most visited temple of all India, and it is famous for housing a six meter long statue of a sleeping Buddha.
The most important festival in Buddhism is Buddha Purnima, that commemorate the three most significant events in the life of the Buddha (in 2019, this is celebrated on the 12th of May).
At the same time, the most popular of all Buddhist festivals is the Ullambana, the Ghost Festival: Buddhists believe that, on this day, the gates of hell are opened so that the dead can visit their loved ones.
Losar is an important holiday for Tibetan Buddhists and that is happily celebrated in various parts of India. Practitioners dress up well, visit their families, and go to temples to bring offerings.
Sikhism originates in Punjab, and it is one of the youngest religions in the world. Sikhism believes that there is one creator that must be worshipped, that humankind is all equal, and that every practitioner has to engage in selfless service.
Living an honest life is one of the most important concepts for Sikh practitioners.
Concept of God
All these beliefs are based on the teachings of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak taught that God is shapeless, timeless, and invisible, and it is known as Ik Onkar, the One Supreme Reality. Sikhs call their god Waheguru, a name composed of three different words: vāhe (wondrous), gu (darkness), rū (light).
Worship places for Sikhism
The worship place of Sikhism is called gurdwara, where people from all faiths are welcomed to join. Each gurdwara has a Darbar Sahib, where the Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of Sikhism, is kept. There is also a community kitchen (a langar) where people can enjoy vegetarian food served by volunteers.
Usually, a gurdwara will also have some other facilities, like classrooms, nursey, meeting rooms, playground, a gift shop, a medical facility room, etc.
The most beautiful and the most famous gurdwara is undoubtedly the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple. Located in the North of India, this gurdwara is built around a man-made pool, and its most striking feature is, as the name says, its golden color.
Daily practices for Sikhism
When a child is born, Sikhs open the Guru Granth Sahib randomly and the child’s name is chosen according to the first letter on the top left-hand corner of the left page. All the boys have Singh as last name, while the girls have Kaur.
Marriage ceremony is held in front of the Guru Granth Sahib following the anand karaj ceremony: a joyous event where families from both sides are heavily involved.
When a Sikh dies, his/her body is usually cremated. When this is not possible, the body is disposed in another respectful way.
One of the most important festivals of Sikhs is Vaisakhi, wherein Sikhs are asked to gather and celebrate as a community. Celebrations are held on April 13 and 14. It is a holiday because in 1699 the tenth Guru inaugurate the Khalsa, the 11th body of Guru Granth Sahib, leader of Sikhs till the end of time.
On these days, Sikhs bathe in lakes or rivers before visiting the local Gurdwaras and community fairs. There are numerous processions, people share food and socialize. The festival is celebrated also by Hindus, as it is their traditional solar new year.
Islam was introduced in India during the 8th century, and since then has greatly contributed to the development of the local cultures, especially Indian classical music.
Nowadays, there are over 200 million (14.2% of the population) Muslims living in India (the largest Muslim population outside Arabic countries). They are mostly concentrated in the Northern and Western part of India, where most of them converted during the Mughal period.
Daily practices of Muslim
The day of a Muslim is dictated by the five daily prayers. They occur at specific times of the day and are indicated by the call to prayer (adhan). Before praying, Muslims have to wash themselves.
Worship places for Muslim
There are about 300,000 mosques in India, and each one of them is basically an open courtyard surrounded by a pillared verandah, with a dome on top.
One of the most important mosques in India is the Jama Masjid in Delhi, built between 1644 and 1656. The impressive structure has three gates, four towers and two 40 meter tall minarets. Its courtyard can host about 25, 000 people.
Islam had a huge impact on Indian architecture: its most notable example is of course the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum hosting the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor.
Islamic festivals are widely celebrated in India, and sometimes they are influenced by local customs. One of the most important holidays is Eid-al-Fitrs (aka Ramzan-Eid), that marks the end of the month of fasting and it is celebrated by wearing new clothes, visiting family and friends, and exchanging gifts.
Eid-al-Adha, also known as the Greater Eid (or the Feast of the Sacrifice) is directly connected with biryani. It commemorates the willingness of Ibraham to sacrifice his son Ishamel. Lots of animals get slaughtered, and the meat is consumed by the families and the people in need.
Lastly, the Islamic New Year, that commences with the month of Muharram, the second holiest month after Ramadan. It is a month of mourning – commemorating the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson – and it is not an event to be blatantly celebrated.
Christianity came to India around the 1st century, when the missionary Saint Thomas reached India and converted many people in the south of the country. Roman Catholicism arrived with Vasco da Gama in 1498.
Nowadays, thanks to the activity of the many missionaries that reached the subcontinent during the 19th century, Christianity is a widespread religion, that accounts for about the 28 million followers.
The Manarcard Cathedral is one of the most famous pilgrim sites in India; while the St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica contains the tomb of Saint Thomas, one of the original twelve apostle of Jesus.
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