Religion has historically influenced Indian society on a personal, social and national level. The traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism all emerged out of India, and often there is a sense of pride associated with the country’s rich religious history. Moreover, while a majority of people in India identify as Hindu (see below), the medley of religions that exist within the country continually impact contemporary society. Religion is also considered to be much more of a public affair than it is in most Western countries. This becomes evident when considering the numerous spaces that are thought to be sacred and holy. Examples include the ashrams (similar to a monastery or congregation sites) of large communities of holy men (‘sādhus’), as well as the sacredness of the Ganges River particularly as a pilgrimage site. Indeed, there is a longstanding history of constructing religious architecture.
The Indian government is currently secular and aims to promote tolerance towards all religious orientations and persuasions. The 2011 Indian census indicated that 79.8% of Indians identified as Hindu, 14.2% identified as Muslim and 2.3% identified as Christian. A further 1.7% of the population identified as Sikh, 0.7% identified as Buddhist and 0.37% identified as Jain. Because of India’s huge population, even religious minorities still represent a significant number of people. For example, that only 0.37% of India may identify with Jainism, that still equates to over 4 million people.
Among the Indian-born residing in Australia, the 2011 Australian Census indicated that 47.3% identified as Hindu, 18.7% identified as Sikhs, 16.3% identified as Catholic Christians and 3.4% identified as Muslim. A further 14.2% identified with 'other', and 2.7% did not affiliate with a religion.
Hinduism – the most widely followed religion in India – can be interpreted diversely. Pinpointing what constitutes Hinduism is difficult, with some contending that the religion is rather an umbrella term that encompasses various religions and traditions within it. Nonetheless, Hinduism in all its forms has been particularly influential in Indian society.
One of the most notable examples is the ‘varṇa’ ('caste') system, which divided people into four social classes. The caste system was a normative ideal of how society ought to be structured, but in practice, this was complicated by various factors. Stigma was attached to those within particular castes, and interactions between castes were limited, particularly with those on the bottom tier. The idea of the ‘Dalits’ (‘Untouchables’) was a modern addition, popularised by B.R. Ambedkar who was himself an untouchable. This category, thought to be outside of the caste system, was understood as the lowest rank in Indian society. Today, discrimination based on one’s caste is outlawed and Hindus rarely behave explicitly in adherence to the caste system. However, prejudices based on caste do exist, even if implicit.
Hinduism continues to thrive in modern-day India. The religion permeates daily life and social interactions among people through the many Hindu-inspired festivities, artistic works and temples. There is also a continuing revival of classical ‘epic’ narratives (such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana) through the medium of film and television.
Islam is the second most followed religion in India, and Muslims have also been experiencing ongoing tensions with the Indian state since the Partition of India and Pakistan. Nonetheless, Islam has played a considerable role in the development of the country. For example, the Muslim community in India have contributed to theological research and the establishment of religious facilities, institutes and universities.
Christianity is the third most followed religion in India. Caste distinctions exist among those who identify as Christian, often being divided into groups geographically and according to denomination. Different Christian caste groups may dine and worship together, but generally they do not intermarry. However, the caste structure among Christians is continually breaking down. Indeed, Christianity tends to be understood in a broad sense, with those who identify with the religion identifying with Christianity as a general category rather than specific denominations and groups.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that promotes devotion to a formless God and rejects the concept of the varṇa system. The religion is centred on a tenet of service, humility and equality, and encourages its followers to seek to help those less fortunate or in need. Since the Partition of India and Pakistan (1947), most Sikhs in India have resided in the Punjab region, and they continue to experience tensions with Indian governmental authorities.
Buddhism originated as a countermovement to early Hinduism by presenting a universal ethic rather than basing ethical codes on an individual’s caste. The core doctrine of the religion, known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’, teaches that one can be liberated from the suffering that underpins the cycle of death and rebirth by practising the ‘The Eightfold Path’. Buddhism has risen in India over the last 30 years on two fronts: due to the increased migration of exiled Buddhist monks from Tibet, and being perceived as a viable alternative for many Dalits (untouchables) in contemporary Indian society.
Jainism also originated as a countermovement that opposed some of the teachings and doctrines of early Hinduism, such as the varṇa system. In modern-day India, layperson Jains continue the tradition of daily meditation (sāmāyika) and regular fasting. Moreover, one of the core principles of Jainism is ‘ahimsā’ (nonviolence) and, as such, Jains tend to promote vegetarianism and animal welfare.