In India, religion is a way of life, an integral part of the country's tradition. For majority of Indians, religion runs through every facet of life, from education to politics. Secular India is home to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other myriad religious traditions. Hinduism is the dominant faith, practiced by over 80% of the population. Among minority communities, Muslim is prominent . The country has the second largest Muslims population in the world after Indonesia.

Many religious sects here have imbibed regional culture and tradition in their ritualistic practices. Regardless of community stream barriers, people fervently indulge in religious festivals. Each sect has its own pilgrim centres, legends and even culinary specialties. 


The philosophical substratum of Hinduism is so composite to be defined. Billed as museum of religions, Hindu tradition diversified in its theoretical premises and practical expressions. The  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. Gods and Goddesses are umpteen. One may worship Shiva or Vishnu or Rama or Krishna or other god of ones' choice and faith. 

Hindu festivals and ceremonies are associated not only with otherworldly beings but also with terrestrial powers such as sun, moon, planets, rivers, oceans, trees and animals. Popular Hindu festivals are Deepawali, Holi, Dussehra, Ganesh Chaturthi, Pongal, Janamasthmi and Shiva Ratri. These festivals are woven into Indian tradition making it rich and colorful.

Hindu Mythology and Gods

Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two epics, are immortalized and the heroes portrayed in them are still part of Hindu life. Hindu gods have qualities divine and human which gives the devotees a distinct feeling of warmth and familiarity toward these Gods. 

Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, represents qualities such as honour, courage and valour and is reckoned a model of manliness. His wife Sita is the prototypal Indian wife. Theepic says  Sita was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka, when Rama  was away.  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.



The stirring verses of the Mahabharata tell the dynastic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were close cousins. Lord Krishna plays a crucial role in this.  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 philosophy  and teachings of Krishna have been embodied in the Bhagwad Gita.  God Krishna, in all his images is being worshipped. 

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 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. 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.

Hindu  deities are represented by images and idols . Many of them are bedecked with ornaments and  housed in temples of unparalleled beauty and grandeur. Hindus perceive divine presence even in  snow-capped peaks, rivers and oceans.


A religion of 16th century origin in Punjab, North India. Founded by Guru Nanak, a Hindu by birth who  was enlightened by the teachings of Islam and preached the catholicity of Hinduism and Islam. In his childhood, little Nanak  was attracted to the preachings of  Hindu and Muslim saints. To him, the basic teachings of both faiths were essentially the same. Nanak exerted a pull on many  who bestowed him the title Guru. He along with supporters formed 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 zeal 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 and so did followers. 

The Khalsa members were to sport five symbols (the five Ks )- uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist guard, a sword and breeches. Khalsa men embraced Singh (Lion) as the last name and  women Kaur (Princess). Govind Singh also decided to terminate the succession of gurus and hence himself was  the last Sikh Guru.

Sikhism promulgates monotheism, i.e. worship of one God, opposes caste system, believes in equality of  men. However the Hindu concepts of karma and rebirth are accepted. Today, many Sikh practices are common to Hindus. Inter-caste marriages between members of Hindu, Sikh communities are common. However, the Sikh 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. 



Christianity 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.


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 religiouspractices of Islam were unique to this faith which professed universalbrotherhood 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.

Buddhism and Jainism

The sixth century B.C. witnessed a cluster of reform movements in India. Around 62 religious sects arose in the middle Gangetic plains at that time.  Many of these sects were based on regional customs and rituals practiced by different peoples living in north-east India. Most of these religious sects are reform movements. Of these sects Jainism and Buddhism were the most important, and the most potent religious reform movements.

 Causes of Origin

The Vedic Indian society became more and more religious, and a new form of societal division came into existence. In post-Vedic times society was explicitly divided into four varnas (colours): brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. Each varna had its own well-defined functions, although it was emphasised that varna was based on birth and the two higher varnas were given some privileges. The brahmanas, became more powerful as they gor the job of priests and teachers, claimed the highest status in society. They became the privileged class in the society, and got permission to  receiving gifts and exemption from taxation and punishment.  Post-Vedic texts give enough information about such privileges enjoyed by brahmins. The kshatriyas ranked second in the varna hierarchy.  They were the clan destined to fight for the entire community and govern the territory. They also enjoyed a privilege to collect taxes from the peasants. The vaishyas were engaged in agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade.  They appear as principal taxpayers.

However, along with the two higher varnas they were placed in the category of dvija or the twice-born. A dvija was entitled to wearing the sacred thread and studying the Vedas from which the shudras were kept out. The shudras were forced to do the petty jobs and meant for serving the three higher vamas, and along with women were barred from taking to Vedic studies. They worked as domestic slaves, agricultural slaves, craftsmen and hired labourers in post-Vedic times.

The division of society based on varnas caused skirmishes in society. No evidences are available to give an elaborate account of the reactions of the vaishyas and the shudras. But the kshatriyas, the rulering class, harshly reacted against the ritualistic domination of the brahmanas, and seem to have led a kind of protest movement against the importance attached to birth in the varna system. The kshatriya reaction contributed to the origin of religious sects in ancient India. Vardhamana Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism were kshathriyas. And both disputed the  brahmana domination in society.

But the real cause of the rise of these new religions lay in the introduction of a new agricultural economy in north-east India, including the regions of eastern Uttar Pradesh and northern and southern provinces.  

Gautama Buddha and Buddhism

Gautama Buddha or Siddhartha was a Contemporary of Mahavira. Like Mahavira, Gautama also belonged to a noble family. He was born in 563 B.c. in a Shakya kshatriya family in Kapilavastu, which is situated in the foothills of Nepal. Gautama's father seems to have been the elected ruler of Kapilavastu, and headed the republican clan of the Shakyas. His mother was a princess from the Koshalan dynasty.

Since his early childhood Gautama showed a meditative bent of mind. He was married early, but married life hardly interested him. He was deeply moved by the misery which people suffered in the material world, and tried to derive a tangible solution. Like Mahavira, he left home at the age of 29. He wandered for seven years finding out the absolute truth and attained knowledge at the age of 35 at Bodh Gaya under a pipal tree. From this time onwards he began to be called the 'Buddha' or the enlightened.

Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermons at Samath in Banaras. He undertook long journeys and took his message far and wide. He had a very strong physique, which enabled him to walk 20 to 30 km a day. He kept on wandering, preaching and meditating continuously for 40 years, resting only in the rainy season every year. During this long period he encountered, many staunch supporters of rival sects including the brahmanas, but defeated them in debates. His missionary activities did not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the high and the low, and man and woman. Gautama Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in 483 B.C. at a place called Kusinagar, identical with the village called Kasia in the district of Deoria in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

 Doctrines of Buddhism

Gautame Buddha developed a deep understanding of the nuances of his society and changed himself into be a practical reformer of the society. He kept himself  away from fruitless controversies regarding the soul (atman) and the Brahma which was the topics of importance in his time; he addressed himself to the worldly problems. He preached, people suffer on account of desires. If desires are conquered, nirvana will be attained, that is, man will be free from the cycle of birth and death.

An eight-fold path (ashtangika rnarga) was recommended by Gautama Buddha for the elimination of human misery.  It comprised right observation, right determination, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right exercise, right memory and right meditation. If a person follows this eight-fold path he would not depend on the machinations of the priests, and will be able to reach his destination. Gautama taught that a person should avoid the excess of both luxury and austerity. He prescribed the middle path.

The Buddha also laid down a code of conduct for his followers on the same lines as was done by the Jaina teachers. The main items in this social conduct are: (i) do not covet the property of others, (ii) do not commit violence, (iii) do not use intoxicants, (iv) do not speak a lie, and (v) do not indulge in corrupt practices.

Vardhamana Mahavira and Jainism

Mahavira the most important religious teacher of the Jainas had twenty-three predecessors called tirthankaras, If Mahavira is taken as the last or the twenty fourth tirthankara, the origin of Jainism would be taken back to the ninth century B.C. The earliest important teachings of Jainism are attributed to Parshvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, who belonged to a royal family of  Banaras gave up royal life and became an ascetic. But his spiritual successor Vardhamana Mahavira was the real founder of Jainism.

Vardhamana Mahavira was bom in 540 B.C. in a village near Vaishali, which is identical with Basarh in the district of Vaishali, in north Bihar. His father Siddhartha was the head of a famous kshatriya clan, and his mother was named Trishala, sister of the Lichchhavi chief Chetaka, whose daughter was wedded to Bimbisara. Thus Mahavira's family was connected with the royal family of Magadha.

In the beginning, Mahavira led the life of a householder, but in his search for truth, he abandoned worldly life at the age of 30 and became a saint. He wandered for 12 years in search of truth. He used not to stay for more than a day in a village and for more than five days in a town. During the course of his long journey, it is said, he never changed his clothes for 12 years, and abandoned them altogether at the age of 42 when he attained omniscience (kaivalya). Through kaivalya he conquered misery and happiness. Because of this conquest he is known as Mahavira or the great hero or  jina, i.e. the conqueror, and his followers are known as Jainas. He preached his religious doctrine for a long period of 30 years, and this strenuous mission took him to Koshala, Magadha, Mithila, Champa, etc. He passed away at the age of 72 in 468 B.C. at a place called Pavapuri near modern Rajgir.   

Doctrines of Jainism

Jainism taught five doctrines: (i) do not commit violence, (ii) do not speak a lie, (iii) do not steal, (iv) do not acquire property and (v) observe continence (brahmacharya). It is said that only the fifth doctrine was added by Mahavira: the other four were taken over by him from previous thirthankaras. Jainism emphasizes ahimsa or non-injury to living beings. 

After the demise of Mahavira,  Jainism was divided into two sects: shvetambaras or those who put on white dress, and digambaras or those who keep themselves naked. Jainism recognized the existence of the gods but placed them lower than the jina. It did not condemn the varna system, as Buddhism did. According to .Mahavira, a person is born in a high or in a lower varna in consequence of the sins or the virtues acquired by him in the previous birth. Mahavira looks for human values even in a chandala. In his opinion, through pure and meritorious life members of the lower castes can attain liberation. Jainism mainly aims at the attainment of freedom from worldly bonds. No ritual is required for acquiring such liberation. It-can be obtained through knowledge,right faith and right action. These three are considered to be the Three Jewels or triratna of Jainism


Copyright | Powered by Richsoft