General Essay on the Religions of India

The construction of a chronological chart of religion in India presents notable problems, particularly with regard to Hinduism. Over the last four millenia, the Hindu tradition has evolved and developed along several diffferent lines and in the process given rise to a large number of tendencies and specific sects. To trace the history of all these is clearly an enormous task far beyond the scope of the present endeavour. For this reason different groups within Hinduism which share certain common features have been brought together under general headings such as Vaisnavism or Vedantic Hinduism.

Vedic Hinduism refers to the ancient religion of the Aryans who entered India probably around 1600 BCE, although the dating of events in such remote times is inevitably imprecise. Though the Vedic gods such as Varuna and Indra are no longer worshipped by Hindus, the ancient practice of fire offerings has persisted down to the present day and is still performed by brahmanas on specific occasions.

Vedanta is an ancient system of philosophy which teaches that the Absolute exists not as a Deity beyond this world but as brahman, the all-pervasive spirit that can be realised by contemplation of the self within each being. Mystical speculations of various types, including early Buddhism, appear to have been widespread in Northern India in the late Vedic period between 600 and 300 BCE. During this period the Upanishads were composed containing within them the earliest expressions of Vedanta. This philosophical perspective has influenced much of Hindu religious thought and remains a significant factor in contemporary Hinduism.

The practice of Yoga is closely linked to the Hindu search for the divine within. Originally Yoga appears to have had two functions: one was the acquiring of supernatural or magical powers and the other was to gain direct experience of the divine presence within. These goals were attained through various techniques, including breath control, sitting postures and meditation. Yoga is referred to in the Upanishads, from around 500 BCE, but discoveries in the Indus Valley suggest that it might have been practised in remote antiquity by the pre-Aryan inhabitants of India. today Yoga remains a significant if not universally practised feature of Hinduism and has gained popularity in the West as well, though with some inevitable dilution of its original spiritual purpose.

For many Hindus, however, the focus of religious activity remains very much in this world, and across the subcontinent a variety of different gods, godesses. spirits and semi-divine beings are propitiated with the aim of easing the worshippers plight here and now. This major strand of Hinduism is frequently underestimated in the West as it is not represented in written texts, but for many millions of Hindus it is at the heart of their day to day religious life. Under this heading of 'popular Hinduism' are included various rituals to ensure the success of agricultural endeavours, good health, appropriate rainfall and similar goals. There can be little doubt that such practices have existed in India from remote antiquity, though the objects of veneration may change over the years.

Anthropologists believe that the tribal peoples of India are descendants of the original inhabitants whose existence in the region predates not only the Aryans but the Dravidians as well. These Adivasis, who number upwards of 20 million persons, have their own tribal religions which have probably existed from the very earliest period of human occupation of India. Today these cults persist, though for many centuries they have been subject to a process of assimilation into the pervasive Hindu culture.

The worship of Vishnu and Shiva can be traced back to the Vedic era, but the sects who worship these gods as the Supreme Deity appear to have emerged at a later date. probably around 400 BCE. Over the centuries numerous Vaishnava and Shaivite sects have come into being, often following a specific teacher of devotional philosophy, some persisting down to the present day while others have vanished or have become incorporated into later groups. The worship of the goddess, usually designated as Kali, Durga, or Uma, is probably a very ancient pre-Aryan practice. Hindu sectsdevoted to the worship appear, however, to have arisen somewhat later than those venerating Vishnu or Shiva, probably in the first centuries CE. Today many Hindus, especially in Bengal, find their primay expression of religious commitment in worshipping the Goddess, but the sectarian nature of such worship has now all but vanished.

Buddhism was originally an Indian religion arising out of the same milieu as the mystical forms of Hinduism represented in the teachings of the Upanishads. The Buddha himself was an Inidan prince who began his preaching work in North India some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE (the exact date of the birth of the Buddha is a subject of scholarly debate). For many centuries after the death of its founder, Buddhism remained a major religious force in India receiving patronage from many prominent rulers. The medieval period, however, witnessed a Hindu revival and a decline in Buddhism, a process that was hastened by the Muslim invasions of the 13th century CE. Consequently Buddhism today is very much a minority religion, although it remains prominent in Sri Lanka.

The history of Jainism in India shows many parallels with that of Buddhism, for Jainism arose in the same era and bases its ideas on the teachings of a prominent religious leader of the time, Mahavira, who died in 526 BCE. Over the ensuing centuries, Jainism became a major religious force in South Asia, especially in the Northwest and South of India where a number of kings embraced Jain teachings. A decline in Jainism set in alongside that of Buddhism in India during the medieval period, but the religion has survived in a number of areas in the subcontinent and today there remain between two and three million adherents.

Islam, as is widely known, has its roots in the Middle East and is doctrinally closer to Christianity and Judaism than it is to the indigenous faiths of India. The rapid expansion of Islam and Arab culture following the death of Muhammad brought the Muslim empire to the borders of India as early as the 8th century CE. Arab invaders conquered Sind in 711 CE and there were Muslim merchants in many of the major Indian cities and ports from this time onwards. Major Islamic incursions into Northern and Central India began in the 11th century with invaders from Central Asia entering the subcontinent from the Northwest and gradually spreading their dominion over most of Northern and Central India. Islamic political power in India reached its apogee at the end of the 17th century CE in the reign of Aurangzeb (d.1708 CE), the last of the great Moghul Emperors.

Alongside the warriors and traders came Muslim religious teachers who sought to convert the people of India to Islam, a process facilitated by the 'Hindu tax' imposed on those who refused to embrace the new faith. Conversion to Islam took place throughout India wherever Muslimn rulers held sway, but it was only in the Northwest and in parts of Bengal that a majority of the population became Muslims. Today about 25% of people in the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) profess Islam and almost 10% of the population of the modern state of India.

According to legend, Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, established the first Christian Church in India before being martyred at a site close to the modern city of Madras. Most scholars, however, datethe establishment of Christianity in India to the 4th century CE, though it is impossible to establish a definite date. Certainly the Portuguese, who arrived in 1498, found a flourishing Christian community which was persuaded to unite with the Roman Catholic Church in 1599. Disputes arose, however, and fifty years later about a third of the converts and their descendants reverted to their original practices and remain today as the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

Portuguese dominion over the coastal settlements of Goa, Diu and Daman led to the conversion of a mjority of the populations of these regions to Roman Catholicism during the sixteenth century. Subsequent missionary activity has added to the Catholic population of India, but it is only in the old Portuguese colonies that Roman Catholicism is the religion of anything but a small minority.

Protestantism was introduced to India early in the 18th century by Danish missionaries, and under British imperial rule further evangelical efforts were exerted to bring the population to Christianity. Some conversions were gained, most notably among Hindus discriminated against by the caste system and amongst the tribal peoples of the Northeast, but the mass conversion of the Indian people that was hoped for did not materialise and the Christian population of India remains at around 3%.

A small Jewish community has existed on the west coast of India from a vey early date, possibly as far back as the second or third century CE, where they remained unmolested and protected by Hindu rulers until the arrival of Christianity with the Portuguese, and the European traditions of religious persecution were transplanted to South Asia. In recent years the size of the Jewish community in India has diminished, mainly as a result of emigration to Israel, but several thousand Jews remain in Bombay, Calcutta, and in the Cochin area on the Southwest coast.

The Zoroastrian community in India, more commonly known as the Parsis, developed as a result of migrations from Iran (the name Parsi refers to the Persian origin of the community) in the early medieval period. When Iran was overrun by the Muslim Arabs, Zoroastrianism was suppressed and subject to sporadic persecutions. Parsi tradition tells of one migration directly following the Muslim conquest, but it is likely that Persian refugees entered India on a gradual basis from around 900 CE onwards. The Zoroastrians settled in the state of Gujerat under the protection of the local Hindu rulers. Under British rule many Parsis moved to the commercial centre of Bombay where they found ample outlet for their business acumen. Today there are around 120,000 Parsis in India, still mainly in Gujerat and Bombay, though emigration, conversion, and marriage out of the community have led to a decline in numbers in recent decades.

Sikhism is an indigenous religion of India that dates back to the preaching work of its founder, Nanak, who was the first of ten Sikh gurus or spiritual leaders. Nanak accepted many aspects of Hindu belief, but stressed faith above ritual, rejected caste as a religious notion, preached monotheistic doctrines and condemned idolatry. Nanak's teachings took root in his homeland of the Punjab, in the Northwest of India, and Sikhism has remained primarily a Punjabi religion. Nanak's preaching began in 1498 CE, and after his death in 1539 he was succeeded by nine other gurus, the last of whom, Gobind Singh (d. 1708), established the Khalsa, the Sikh military order, to defend the community from Muslim oppression. It was Gobind Singh who instituted the familiar conventions of Sikhism including the wearing of the turban, keeping the hair uncut, and carrying the ceremonial comb, bracelet and dagger. Today Sikhism remains a thriving religious tradition, with around 17 million adherents, 85% of whom live in the Punjab. The partition of India in 1947 was particularly painful for the Sikhs, with several million feeling compelled to emigrate from the part of Punjab allocated to Pakistan, a region that contained the birthplace of Nanak and other Sikh shrines.


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