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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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