India is a country of religious diversity and religious tolerance is established in both law and custom. Throughout the history of India, religion has been an important part of the country’s culture. A vast majority of Indians associate themselves with a religion.
Indian census has established that Hinduism accounts for 80.5% of the population of India. The second largest religion is Islam, at about 13.4% of the population. The third largest religion is Christianity at 2.3%.The fourth largest religion is Sikhism at about 1.9% of India’s population. This diversity of religious belief systems exiting in India today is a result of, besides the existence and birth of native religions, assimilation and social integration of religions brought to the region by traders, travelers, immigrants, and even invaders and conquerors. Stating the hospitality of Hinduism towards all other religions, John Hardon writes, “However, the most significant feature of current Hinduism is its creation of a non-Hindu State, in which all religions are equal.
India’s religious tolerance extends to the highest levels of government. The Constitution of India declares the nation to be a secular republic that it must uphold the right of citizens to freely worship and propagate any religion or faith (with activities subject to reasonable restrictions for the sake of morality, law and order, etc).. The Constitution of India also declares the right to freedom of religion as a fundamental right.
Citizens of India are generally tolerant of each other’s religions and retain a secular outlook, although inter-religious marriage is not widely practiced. Inter-community clashes have found little support in the social mainstream, and it is generally perceived that the causes of religious conflicts are political rather than ideological in nature.
Hinduism is often regarded as the oldest religion in the world, with roots tracing back to prehistoric times, or 5000 years. Evidence attesting to prehistoric religion in the Indian subcontinent derives from scattered Mesolithic rock paintings depicting dances and rituals.
Birth of Shramana Religions
Gautama Buddha, who founded Buddhism, was born to the Shakya clan just before Magadha rose to power. His family was native to the plains of Lumbini, in what is now southern Nepal. Indian Buddhism peaked during the reign of Asoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire, who patronized Buddhism following his conversion and unified the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BCE. He sent missionaries abroad, allowing Buddhism to spread across Asia. Indian Buddhism declined following the loss of royal patronage offered by the Kushan Empire and such kingdoms as Magadha and Kosala.
Hinduism is a henotheistic religion and the largest in India; its 828 million adherents (2001) compose 80.5% of the population. The term Hindu, originally a geographical description, derives from the Sanskrit, Sindhu, (the historical appellation for the Indus River), and refers to a person from the land of the river Sindhu.
Islam is a monotheistic religion centred around the belief in one God and following the example of Muhammad. It is the largest minority religion in India.
Religion plays a major role in the Indian way of life. Rituals, worship, and other religious activities are very prominent in an individual’s daily life; it is also a principal organiser of social life.
The vast majority of Indians engage in religious rituals on a daily basis. Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home. However, observation of rituals greatly vary among regions, villages, and individuals.
Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Other characteristics include a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world.
Before offering prayers, they must ritually clean themselves by performing wudu, which involves washing parts of the body that are generally exposed to dirt or dust.
Occasions like birth, marriage, and death involve what are often elaborate sets of religious customs.
Muslims practice a series of life-cycle rituals that differ from those of Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Several rituals mark the first days of life—including whispering call to prayer, first bath, and shaving of the head.
The Kumbh Mela (the “pitcher festival”) is one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages that is held every four years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain.
Among the Eight Great Places of Buddhism, seven are in India. Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar are the places where important events in the life of Gautama Buddha took place.
Religious festivals are widely observed and hold great importance for Indians. In keeping with India’s secular governance, no religious festival has been accorded the status of a national holiday. Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi, Holi, Durga puja, Ugadi, Dussehra, and Sankranthi/Pongal are the most popular Hindu festivals in India.
Muharram is a unique festival in the sense that it is not celebrated; it is a mournful commemoration of the death of Muhammad’s grandson Imam Husain in 680 CE. Muharram is observed with great passion in Lucknow, the centre of Indian Shia Islam.