Religion in India

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.

Quick Facts

  • 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 a huge amount of diversity in which there are 7 major different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. According to the census, about 80% of the population of India is Hindu, while 14% are Muslim, 2.3% are Christians, 1.7% are Sikh, and 0.7% are Buddhist.

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.

Skip ahead:
1. Hinduism
2. Buddhism
3. Sikhism
4. Islam
5. Christianity

 

Hinduism

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.

Some of the most recurring teachings of these scriptures are the nature of existence, the human condition, the moral order of the universe, and the search for serenity.

The most important Hindu beliefs are the four Purusārthas, or the proper goals of human life. These goals include:

  • Dharma (ethics/duties)
  • Artha (prosperity)
  • Kama (desires)
  • Moksha (freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth)

 

Other important concepts in Hinduism include:

  • Karma—which establishes that every action in this life will have a long-lasting consequence.
  • Samsāra—the cycle of death and rebirth. The soul continues to come back to the world in different incarnations until it reaches moksha.
  • Brahman—the ultimate universal principle which has no form and is omnipresent.
  • Atman—the inner self or spirit of an individual. To attain liberation from the cycles, one must acquire self-knowledge to realize the true self.
  • Yamas and Niyamas—a series of rules about how to live. The Yamas focus on self-restraints, while the Niyamas focus on virtuous behaviors.

Hinduism Deities

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 vast range of Hindu gods and goddesses is best explored through their divine temples and sculptures.

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.

South India contains many beautiful hindu temples such as the Brihadishvara Temple which is also called the Dhakshina Meru (Meru of the south). This is a monumental temple dedicated to Shiva and the finest example of Chola architecture. The temple was built between 1003 and 1010 AD and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Learn more about the Best 9 Hindu Temples.

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.

If you visit Varanasi, India’s holiest Hindu city, you will witness a spiritual legacy that goes back nearly 3,000 years. This is the city of Shiva and has 90 or so ghats, or holy stairs leading down to a body of water, along the Ganges. In the city, visitors will be able to witness the endless cycle of Hindu religious practice.

Thousands come to the Varanasi every day to bathe in the holy river and cleanse themselves of earthly sins. The evening aarti, or ritual, is performed every sunset at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. If you attend the aarti, you will experience the chanting of sacred mantras and see the oil lamps and incense as they are offered to the river.

aarti You will see the oil lamps and incense in the evening aarti
 

Hindu Festivals

Hindu festivals (called Utsava in Sanskrit meaning “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.

Some festivals are linked to the gods and goddesses, such as Ganesh Chaturthi which honors the beloved elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, Durga Puja which celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga, Janmashtami which marks the birth of Krishna, and Mahashivratri which is dedicated to Shiva.

ganesh The highlight of Ganesh Chaturthi festival is the many statues or idols of Ganesh
 

Some Indian festivals celebrate the changing seasons. For example, South India’s Onam celebrates the end of the monsoon season and welcomes the harvest. Pongal celebrates the end of the second harvest season and marks the first day of the sun's return to the northern hemisphere.

pookkalam Make simple shapes with flower petals to create pookkalam designs in Onam Festival
 

Two of the most important celebrations in India are Holi, the festival of colors that celebrates the full moon and arrival of spring, and Diwali, the festival of light that celebrates the new moon and the victory of light over dark. Travelers will have a chance to join in the colored powder fight and feel the contagious joy when visiting during Holi or light your own clay lanterns to illuminate the night during Diwali.

clay lanterns Light your own clay lanterns in Diwali
 

Festivals often celebrate events from Hindu mythology and the celebrations can vary from one region to another. For example, Dussehra honors the victory of Lord Rama over the demon Ravana, from The Ramayana epic.

 

Buddhism

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.

bodhgaya Mahabodhi temple is considered the most sacred sites in Buddhism
 

The Mahaparinirvana Temple is one of the most visited temples in all of India and is famous for housing a six-meter long statue of the sleeping Buddha. This temple is believed to be the location where Gautama Buddha died and is a very holy place. The temple was built in 1956 to commemorate the Buddhist Era of India.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi is one of the oldest stone structures in the country. Its hemispherical shape is believed to represent an upturned alms bowl of a Buddhist monk. To the north of the Great Stupa is the smaller stupa which contains the relics of two of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Sariputra and Mahamoggallana.

the-great-stupa The Great Stupa at Sanchi is one of the oldest stone structures in the country
 

Buddhism Festivals

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).

 

Sikhism

Sikhism originates in the state of Punjab and is one of the youngest religions in the world. The main beliefs of Sikhism include that there is one creator, that humankind is equal, and that every practitioner has to engage in selfless service.

Sikhism believes in a formless and infinite god. They think everything is a part of god and worship him through recitation, prayer, and meditation. Living an honest life is one of the most important concepts for Sikh practitioners. Sikh men are easy to identify with their characteristic turbans and full beards.

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 Sikh temple (gurdwara) is undoubtedly the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple as it is known in English. Located in Amritsar, this temple encircles around a man-made lake and has a striking golden color.

The Golden Temple is the Sikh community’s holiest shrine. This temple is three stories and protects important religious relics including the Sikh holy book which the temple holds during the day. At night, the holy book is transferred to Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, the seat of the supreme governing body of Sikhism.

the-golden-temple The Golden Temple is the Sikh community’s holiest shrine
 

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.

Sikhism Festivals

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

Islam was introduced to India during the 8th century and since then has greatly contributed to the development of the local culture, especially Indian classical music. It was through the many Muslim dynasties that ruled from Delhi from 1206 to 1555 that Islam was spread throughout India.

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.

Edi The exact pattern and number of segments of the prayer are specific to each sect of Islam
 

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.

jama masjid One of the most important mosques in India is the Jama Masjid in Delhi
 

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.

taj mahal The Taj Mahal represents the pinnacle of Mugal architecture
 

Islamic Festivals

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.

Edi prayer On Eid,Muslims gather in the morning in large outdoor locations or in mosques to perform prayers
 

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

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.

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