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India is an ancient country that is characterized by national, cultural, and religious diversity. Religions with the largest number of followers are Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism. Buddhism and Jainism are also important as ancient religions. There are also world religions with smaller representation and tribal religions. This essay will provide an overview of India’s major religions and their status in modern society.
Hinduism is the oldest surviving religion in the world and the primary religion in India. According to the census of 2011, Hinduism has 79.8 % (up to 970 million people) of adepts in India (Varna et al., 2015).
The sacred texts of Hinduism are The Vedas (1500 BC) and The Upanishads (800-200 BC). The Vedas are collections of hymns dedicated to a pantheon of deities, and The Upanishads provide commentaries to them. The texts introduce the concept of Atman, which is an individual part of impersonal divine force called Brahman. Belief in reincarnation is the heart of Hindu religion. After the person’s death, Atman transmigrates to be reborn in the new body. The rebirth depends on karma, the effect of good and bad actions committed during the life. While Atman strives for liberation, an ignorant soul will travel from body to body in the series of rebirths. Yoga is a practice that disciplines physical, emotional, and spiritual sides of a person to achieve liberation (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).
In everyday life, Hindus practice worshipping gods to whom they feel a special bondage. It consists of rituals, praying, and offerings before the images of deity. The most important gods of the modern Hindu pantheon are “Brahma, the creator of the universe; Vishnu, the preserver of life; and Shiva, the destroyer of ignorance” (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).
Today, for the first time in Indian history, the proportion of Hindu believers dropped under 80 %. Statistics explains such decline with demographic reasons (Varna et al., 2015). However, the millennial support of the caste system, which becomes obsolete and incongruous in modern India, could also play its role.
Islam is the second largest world religion and the largest minority religion in India. There 172 million Muslims (14.2 % of the population) in India, and their amount steadily grows (Varna et al., 2015). About 52 % of all Muslim population in India lives in the states of Bihar, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. However, they are religious majority only in Kashmir and Lakshadweep. The most important denominations of Islam are Shia and Sunni. 90 % of Indian Muslims are Sunni (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).
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Islam is a monotheistic religion that dramatically differs from religions born on the Indian subcontinent. The founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, lived in 570-632 AD in Arabia. He propagated spiritual uplift and service to a single God (Allah). The sacred book of Islam, the Quran, tells the life story of Muhammad and his revelations.
The sense of Islam is obedience to the will of Allah. The simple profession of faith sounds, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”. The “Five Pillars” of Islam are proclaiming the profession of faith praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramazan, almsgiving to the poor, and making the pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca at least once in one’s life (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996). Muslims exercise public worship in the mosque. They attend mosques traditionally on Friday (any other day is also possible). A local imam calls Muslim community to prayer from the top of a minaret. Men and women sit in the mosque separately and must leave their shoes at the entrance (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996). Festivities celebrated by Indian Muslim differ from those marked by Hindus and follow the pattern of the Muslim world. Some of the most popular festivals are Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Zuha, and Muharram (Maps of India, 2015).
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Christianity, like Islam, is not a native religion of India. However, there are nearly 28 million (2.3 % of the population) Christians in India. Comparison of the three last censuses data shows no dynamics in the number of Indian Christians (Varna et al., 2015).
According to legends, Christianity appeared in India around 2000 years ago. Although there are Christians in all parts of the country, most of them live in South India, Northeast, and the Konkan Coast (Maps of India, 2015). The sense of Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was the most respected and well-known Christian in India.
Sikhism is a religion of 1.7 % (up to 21 million people) of the Indian population (Varna et al., 2015). The majority of Sikhs (79 %) live in Punjab, 3.5 million live in the neighboring states, and around 4 million live abroad (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).
The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived in Punjab in 1469-1539. He promoted devotion to God and universal love. He also believed men and women were equal before God. The tradition of guru in Sikhism has not been interrupted ever since. The holy place for all Sikhs is Amritsar where the Throne of Eternal God stands. Khalsa is a Sikh military order. Male members of Khalsa take the name Singh (lion) and female members — Kaur (princess). Khalsa men do not cut their hair or beard (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).
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The influence of Sikhs in India is disproportionately large compared to their number. Despite being a religious minority, Sikhs play an important role in Indian politics and army. They have formed a strong separatist movement in Punjab region and even refer to terrorist methods (Heitzman & Wooden, 1996).