Religious life in India is rich and diverse1, with traditions dating back into prehistory2. The population of India is Hindu (79.5%), Muslim (14.4%) and Christian (2.5%)3 and 80% of the population say that religion is important to them4. Just 3% don't believe in god(s)4. Belief in heaven and hell is at 20%5. Hinduism was originally a wildly varied mix of traditional local beliefs and practices which only became grouped as "Hinduism" due to Western powers' simplistic descriptions6. In addition to Hinduism, a number of religions and movements have begun in India, including Buddhism and Sikhism7. From the 1960s, Western spiritualists took home some interpretations of Hindu beliefs and the result was the range of small movements called the New Age.
Religion in India is no longer a peaceful affair. The Hindutva movement has seen the rise of intolerant right-wing Hinduism-first parties encourage and instigate a long and bloody series of mob conflicts with Christian and Muslim communities8,9,10, which has seen many hundreds of churches and mosques destroyed, and a great number killed and displaced. Incompatibility between Hinduism and Islam lead to the breakoff of Pakistan amidst fighting that saw over a million people lose their lives11, and, three subsequent wars and a nuclear arms race, with the disputed territory of Kashmir as the flashpoint. During this cultural and religious conflict, Hindu extremism has become "an impediment to... human rights"9.
|Pos.||Lower is better|
|Disbelief In God (2007)4|
|Pos.||Higher is better|
Data from the Pew Forum, a professional polling outfit, states that in 2010 the religious makeup of this country was as follows in the table below3:
In the 50 years since 1961, the religious balance has only slightly changed, with a 3% drop in Hinduism, and a 3% increase in Islam7. Between 2001 and 2010, the same trend continued by another one percent3.
It appears that when asked "What religion are you" many give pollsters the 'correct' answer despite how they actually feel, and despite what they actually believe. Although 97.8% of the populace say they belong to a religion, only 80% say that they are religious when the question is phrased as "Is religion an important part of your daily life?".
For more on this phenomenon, see:
The CIA World Factbook has slightly different data, and states: Hindu 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, other 1.8%, unspecified 0.1% (2001 census)13.
The Afterlife: Ipsos-NA in 2011 gathered some statistics on India5. Belief in heaven and hell is at just 20%. More people don't know what to believe (22%). Some believe that upon death, you simply cease to exist (20%). Also, 3% specifically believe in heaven but not in hell (which is nice - making them possible "universalists"). 5% believe in reincarnation, which seems very low compared to the numbers of Hindus.
India's constitution gives some protections for freedom of belief and religion14,15, however, some states and some laws create restrictions that create unfair legal prejudices towards, or against, certain religious groups14,15. The 'Hindutva' movement seeks to place "Hinduism first" and is responsible for stoking intolerance and Hindu extremism16. There is a steady stream of violent events between Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. In 2017, vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government–often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–became an increasing threat"17. Section 295 of Indian Penal Code allows convictions for intentionally causing offense, which is frequently abused by religious communities in a way that prevents free speech and intellectual criticism, in the same manner that blasphemy laws come to be used elsewhere too.14. Hindu extremism has become 'an impediment to the exercise and enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights'9.
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“Spirituality is the common thread that weaves its way through the complex tapestry that is contemporary India. The multitude of sacred sites and time-honoured rituals are testament to the country's long, colourful and sometimes tumultuous religious history. And then there are the festivals! India hosts some of the world's most spectacular devotional celebrations - from city parades celebrating auspicious events on the religious calendar to simple harvest fairs that pay homage to a locally worshipped deity.”
The cultural practices and beliefs of ancient India were historically decentralized and disparate rather than comprising a single belief system, with no differentiation between cultural practices and religious ones, and "no sharp dividing lines between religion, social structure, and political power"6. Before Western powers arrived on the scene, a gradual process of homogenisation had began due to the development of "shrines and pilgrimage centers [which] created a continent-wide network of transport and communication, over which people, goods, and ideas continuously flowed"18. Also, Muslim encroachment had already stimulated a more self-organized approach especially for military defence10. But real change came under the influence of Western categorisers from the 18th century, who simplified all of India's culture under the single title of "Hinduism", an identity which Hindus now accept19.
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During the early 20th century, Muslim communities grew in strength especially in the north-west, and north-east, edges of India. Mass intolerance and misunderstandings borne from religious differences caused gradually worsening relations between Hindus and Muslims. The CIA World Factbook describes the 1940s as a period where 'large-scale communal violence took place'20. After India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, violent demands for Hindu and Muslim states led to the breakoff of Pakistan as an Islamic state in the north-west of India20,11, and "East Pakistan" in the north-east, which became Bangladesh.7
The division led to a flood of 'left-behind' Hindu and Sikh migrants into India, and of Muslim migrants into Pakistan. Approximately 15 million such people moved, and 'many engaged in a vengeful bloodletting'11 as they went, with the estimates of the total lives lost starting at one million11. Some regions did not clearly fall into either Pakistan nor India; there are have been three wars and enduring conflicts, especially over the Kashmir region.
Through the 1990s the spectre of inter-communal religious violence continued, with 1995 being a particularly bloody year in many Indian towns and cities "in which people have been brutally killed simply for belonging to the 'wrong' religious community"6. These attacks have been encouraged by political parties such as the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena, who "have been complicit in attacks on religious minorities"6.
“India's nuclear weapons tests in 1998 emboldened Pakistan to conduct its own tests that same year. In November 2008, terrorists originating from Pakistan conducted a series of coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India's financial capital.”
CIA's The World Factbook (2013)20
Hinduism dominates India. Here is an introduction to that religion: Hinduism is the name given to the cultural religions22 of India and encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices23 which are similar to those of other Vedic Faiths. It is polytheist, with many gods taking many forms23, and represented by many names in a kaleidoscope of symbolism and meaning. All living creatures embody a spark of the divine ('atman') which is carried into a new body after death23. There are many shrines, points of pilgrimage and places of reverence, such as the river Ganges, "especially where it flows through the city of Varanasi (Benares)"23. There are also many texts and scripts that are considered sacred, mostly written in Sanskrit23, one of the oldest written languages of mankind. In fact, most things about Indian religion are sourced from pre-history, and thus it represents one of the oldest traditions of belief that humanity possesses. Hinduism is counted as one of the great world religions24,25,26.
Historically, religion in India was decentralized and disparate rather than a single belief system, with no differential between cultural practices and 'religious' ones6. A process of cultural homogenisation had already centered along trade and pilgrimage routes18 but real change came under the influence of Western categorisers from the 18th century, who simplified all of India's culture under the single title of "Hinduism", an identity which Hindus now accept19. During the period of colonial rule Christian powers at first tolerated Hinduism but over time used harsher and harsher language towards it, labelling it as heretical10. Over the last decade or two a "Hindu-ness" movement, Hindutva, has seen a rise in intolerance of non-Hindu culture10 including physical attacks on Muslims and Christians27,9,28.
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Hindu extremism has somewhat increased over the past few decades8 by right-wing Hindu nationalists9, with the popularist Hindutva movement wanting to make India a more exclusively Hindu nation10. There are thousands of attacks against religious minorities every year. Violence nearly always involves anti-Muslim attacks, in India, with any reaction by their victims then stimulating Hindu mobs to enact further property damage and murder. For example, when the Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992, thousands of protesting Muslims lost their lives in a very one-sided series of mob fights28,29. Hindu nationalists also sometimes target Christians27,30,31, for example, over Christmas 2007 in one state, a hundred churches were damaged and 700 Christian homes destroyed7.
Complicit in the discord are political parties that use race and religion to divide people and stoke hatred; since 1999 the most popular of these are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who have orchestrated and encouraged some of the worst scenes of violence and destruction32, and are most involved in states where persecution by Hindus is highest7, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)33 and Shiv Sena32. Hindu extremism has become "an impediment to the exercise and enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights"9.
The Bhagavad Gita can easily be searched for content that condones the righteous murder of enemies, right from its second chapter34. Despite all this, a common argument of Hindu academics is to point out, quite correctly, that Hinduism has a per-capital rate of violence far lower than Christianity or Islam, and that polytheism is more naturally inclined to be tolerant and accepting of others' beliefs35.
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