Based on the title you may think this article will be a discussion about the varying spiritual beliefs in India.
Dividing India up by religion has very little to do with anyone’s beliefs. In fact, more than beliefs, religion in India is first about community and second about behaviors.
First, religion is about community.
When an Indian says she is a Muslim or a Hindu, she is not telling you whether she believes in reincarnation or not. She is telling you where she comes from. Social connections are very strong in India, and belonging to a larger mega-community like a religious group is an important thing (#See1See100). This thought is so pervasive in India that many government forms request you to list your religion. Why? So that they can ask you questions about dharma? No. So that they know what community you come from.
An Indian will know the community another Indian comes from just by the name. If your name is John Prabhu, you are assumed to be Christian. Parminder Singh is a Sikh. Lakshmi Ramanan is a Hindu. Tauseef Khan is a Muslim. There are some tricky exceptions, but for the most part, using someone’s name to place what religion (read: community) they are from is very effective.
Second, religion is about public behaviors.
The popular British variety show, Goodness Gracious Me, featuring a cast of British Indian actors, did a series of skits where a young person asks his parents what it means to be Sikh or Hindu. The parents eventually give the unfulfilling, yet remarkably correct answer that being Sikh means wearing a turban and being Hindu means not eating beef.
As empty as this may sound, there is a lot of truth to it. Each religion has many outward behaviors that help other groups identify them. Hindu women wear a bindi; Muslim men wear a cap; Christians put stars outside their doors on Christmas.
In most of India, religion is first about community, second about behaviors, and later about beliefs.
This definition of religion may be hard for you to accept if you come from a culture where you choose your religion like you choose clothes at a shopping mall. Which of these shirts (religions) best reflects my own personal style and taste?
In these (mostly western) worlds, religion is a private, individual matter. It makes sense for Julia Roberts to convert to Hinduism, or for Dave Chappelle to convert to Islam because they are individuals making individual choices about what religion best matches their beliefs. You should not judge them or expect them to act in a certain way. If two strangers happen to meet and share a meal together, they are unlikely to be able to tell what religion the other follows.
In India (by and large), religion is a public, corporate matter. Due to the name and public behaviors, two Indians meeting together for a meal will know the other’s religion before they sit down, which makes religion a more open topic. They are not assessing each other’s personal beliefs; they are merely getting some background information about each other. Because religion is about community first, for someone to convert to another religion is nearly like someone trying to change their family.
This public/private issue is why many Indians struggle with the idea that religion is a taboo topic for conversation in the West. For Indians, saying what religion you belong to is like saying what state or province you come from and they don’t understand why you are so hesitant to share what community (read: religion) you come from.
Let’s turn our attention to the major blocs of religious groups in India, not from a theological perspective, but a sociological one.
Hindus make up around 80% of the country, or about one billion people, and are the majority religion in all but five states of India.
Hinduism, unlike other religions, has no central governing body, no universally accepted capital, no founder, not even one universally accepted book that guides all their teachings. Many have suggested that Hinduism should not even be considered a religion in the same way other religions are.
In fact, it is much more correct to talk about Hinduisms rather than Hinduism. The spectrum of teaching and belief is as diverse as you can imagine. The one billion Hindus in India include atheists, agnostics, deeply religious, mildly religious, beef-eaters, vegetarians, devotees of Shiva, devotees of Vishnu, devotees of a form of the goddess, and anyone else that more or less fits the mold of being Hindu (usually being born into or marrying into a Hindu family).
These diverse communities within Hinduism may wear different markings on their forehead, frequent different temples, celebrate different festivals, and chant different bhajans and mantras. Different castes and subcastes also create different communities. Most Hindus are happy to participate in the activities of a different community, but it may only happen if they have a friend from that community.
Behaviors vary widely depending on the community and intensity of devotion. The most important behaviors for Hindus are avoiding beef, visiting temples, and participating in festivals with family.
When you think of countries with the largest Muslim populations, which ones come to mind? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Afghanistan?
The top three Muslim nations in the world are 1.) Indonesia, 2.) Pakistan, 3.) India
There are more Muslims in India than any Middle Eastern or North African country. There are more Muslims in India than there are British and French citizens put together. More than 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India.
Muslims make up about 14% of the population. They are a majority of the population in Jammu & Kashmir. They make up more than 20% of the population of Assam, West Bengal, and Kerala. If Uttar Pradesh was its own country, it would have the 13th largest Muslim population in the world.
Larger cities with Muslim populations over 20% are Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Aurangabad, Lucknow, Calicut, and Bhopal.
Muslims have always made up a significant part of the population of the sub-continent since the time of the Moghuls and before. Their influences in Indian culture cannot be separated from India itself. Muslims have had a significant impact on Indian architecture (the Taj Mahal was built by a Mughal emperor), food (seekh kebabs, biriyani, samosa, korma, and tandoori items are all heavily influenced by Muslims), music (Sufi is a very popular form of devotional music, and even Hindustani music has a lot of Islamic influence), and many other cultural elements.
There are many extremely popular Muslims in India. Topping the list would be mega-film stars Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan. Former president APJ Abdul Kalam, Oscar-winner AR Rahman, and cricketer Irfan Pathan are other very well-known Muslims.
While community is still probably the most important thing for Muslims, beliefs and behaviors are equally important, as the beliefs of Islam are more uniform across communities. Common behaviors for most Muslims are headcoverings for women, caps for men, and daily prayers. Variations in behavior among Muslim communities in India are mostly seen in dress or language and are more related to region or urbanization.
Muslims and Hindus
Despite what you may read online and hear from political groups, Muslims and Hindus get along very well on a day-to-day basis. Hindus will often be welcomed for Eid preparations, Muslims come home for Diwali, and everyone eats the haleem in Hyderabad during Ramadan.
Still, issues of community violence in the past and present often show up on the front page and make for periods of tense relationships. There are two large historical issues you should be aware of between Hindus and Muslims.
1.) Pakistan vs. India – While it is incorrect to classify this as a Muslim vs. Hindu conflict, it often gets painted that way. This is a serious issue that relates back to the partition of India in 1947 and continues to affect sentiments. Both Indians and Pakistanis still hold a deep resentment towards each other. Indians will expect you to understand their sensitivities towards Pakistan and are often perplexed or offended when another nation does not treat this issue delicately (#ThinSkinned).
When Pakistan and India play cricket, the majority of the world (literally) is watching with eager expectations. The 2011 World Cup match between the two was the sixth most watched television event in the history of the world. Yet during these matches, when real people are actually mixing together, you often hear stories of friendly relationships transcending any rivalries.
2.) Ayodhya – This is a long history of issues boiled into one. Ayodhya is thought to be the actual birthplace of Lord Rama from the Hindu Epic, the Ramayana. At some point in early history, there was a temple in Ayodhya. Sometime in the 1500s, the Moghuls erected the Babri Mosque in roughly the same location as the temple, prompting some to assume the temple was demolished. This mosque became one of the largest mosques in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India.
In the 1980s and 90s, a Hindu nationalist movement was reaching its peak and some of its leaders were demanding to “reclaim” the land and erect a new temple for Lord Rama. The Babri Mosque was destroyed in 1992, which triggered a string of riots across the country off and on for several years.
In 2010, The Allahabad High Court ruled in a split decision (2 to 1) that the area be divided between the groups. In 2011, The Supreme Court of India upheld this ruling and it will remain the status quo for the foreseeable future. While the issue has calmed down as of late, just the mention of it in small talk may heighten tensions.
Rumor has it that Christianity has been in India longer than it has been in Europe. It is believed the apostle Thomas came to India and spent his last years in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where more than 40% of the nations Christian still live today.
Christians make up around 2-3% of the total population. They are the majority religious group in the northeastern states of Mizoram, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. They make up more than 10% of the population in Manipur, Goa, Kerala, and Arunachal Pradesh.
Christianity’s main contribution to Indian society has been an extensive network of schools and education centers. For several decades, the Christian schools run by priests and nuns were seen as the best educational institutions, and Indians from many different backgrounds studied there.
Communities are also important for Christians, and subgroups have strong subcultures, although beliefs may be similar. Roman Catholics by far make up the largest group followed by the Protestant Church of South India (CSI) and Syrian Christians.
Behaviors among Indian Christians are reflective of the influence of European missionaries. Architecture, church services on Sunday mornings, dress, names, and festivals all have a similar feel to western practices.
Famous Christians in India are boxer Mary Kom and tennis doubles star Mahesh Bhupathi. Two foreign-born Christian women who later became Indian citizens have also had a significant impact on India: Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi and the late Mother Teresa.
There are very few issues of communal violence involving Christians, although there have been some instances in Odisha recently.
Sikhs (pronounced more like sick and less like seek) make up 1-2% of the population. Sikhs are the majority religious group in Punjab with more than 60% of the population. They make up more than 5% of the population in Delhi and Harayana.
Sikh’s presence and influence in India is much stronger than their numbers.
>Sikhs make up 10-15% of all ranks in the military and 20% of officer ranks
>25% of all Air Force pilots are Sikh, and they make up a large proportion of commercial pilots as well.
>Many Indian restaurants outside of India are run by Sikhs and serve Punjabi food.
>Many Sikhs hold top-level positions in multinational companies like Citi Group, MasterCard, Max New York Life Insurance, and Ranbaxy.
>Sikhs are very prominent in sports, especially cricket, field hockey, and track and field. 9 of the 15 Olympic captains of the Indian Field Hockey team have been Sikhs, and 10 out of the 18 current players are Sikhs. In 2008, Abinav Bindra, a professional shooter, became the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics.
Sikh men are perhaps the easiest group to recognize from their outward behaviors. They wear an elegantly wrapped turban, keep their beards unshaven, and wear a thick bracelet on their right hand. Most Sikh men have the surname Singh, and women have the name Kaur.
Sikhs are a proud, fun-loving people. Their “balle balle” dancing and bhangra music are world-famous. A shop in Chandigarh sells a shirt that says “Proud by birth, Sikh by choice” which pretty much summarizes their feelings.
Sikhs get along well other religious groups. The only major event in recent history involving Sikhs and violence happened in 1984 when the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. After this, there was a backlash against Sikh communities. However, many Hindu neighbors hid and protected Sikh families from radicals.
Three other significant groups are Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis.
Buddhism actually started in India, but faced a significant decline in India over the centuries despite finding strong roots outside of India. Dalit leader and author of the Indian constitution B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 and urged other Dalits to do the same.
Jains are officially a separate religious community, but some classify them as a reformed type of Hinduism. The most well-known characteristics of Jains are that they are strict vegetarians. Not only do they not eat meat, fish, or eggs, they also abstain from root vegetables like potato, onion, and garlic. Jains are very well-known in the business world and do a lot of charitable and educational work.
Parsis are an extremely small group based mostly in Mumbai and are part of the Zoroastrian belief system. One can only become a Parsi by being born to both a mother and father who are Parsi, which has led to this group shrinking rapidly. The government has even introduced new programs to encourage more Parsi births. However, they still have a significant business impact as Parsi families lead both the Tata and Godrej brands.
Religion and India go hand in hand, but remember that in India religion first means community and only later means beliefs.
Photo Credit: mckaysavage on Flickr