the origins of Hinduism and Buddhism in India, religion is
considered to be extremely important. Of the two
religions, Hinduism is infinitely more popular, with an
incredible 82 percent of the population practicing it.
Within this majority, there are significant differences in
the belief systems and caste divisions. Although
there is division in some areas of Hinduism, there are many
areas in common. They will all go to the
pilgrimage sites, coming from all over India and will- if
they go to a Brahman priest for birth, marriage and/or death
rituals- hear the same Sanskrit verses from hundreds of
the shadow of Hindu dominance, there are a few followers of
other beliefs such as Christianity, Sikh and 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
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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.
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Hindu Mythology and the Living Gods
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
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
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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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
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
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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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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
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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 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
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The first Zoroastrians to enter India arrived on the Gujarati coast in the
10th century, soon after the Arabian conquest of Iran and by the 17th century,
most of them had settled in Bombay. Zoroastrian practice is based on the
responsibility of every man and woman to choose between good and evil, and to
respect God's creations. The religion's founder, Zarathustra, who lived in Iran
in 6000 BC was the first religious prophet to expound a dualistic philosophy,
based on the opposing powers of good and evil.
Most Zoroastrians can be seen in Bombay today where they are known as
Parsees. They have no distinctive dress and few houses of worship. Five daily
prayers, usually hymns uttered by Zarathustra and standardized in the religious
text Zenda Avesta, are said in the home or the temple, before a fire, which
symbolizes the realm of truth, righteousness and order.
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