Religions of India

Hinduism: Eighty-two percent of the population. Hinduism came to India around 1500 B.C.E. with the Aryan Migration. Important texts are Vedas and Upanishads. Modern Hinduism can be characterized as a vast collection of different practices and beliefs that have developed for more than 3,000 years across the Indian sub-continent. Relevant concepts include Dharma, Karma and reincarnation. Trimurti (which roughly means, “having three forms”) refers to the most prominent deities of Hinduism: Brahman, Vishnu and Siva.

Islam: Twelve percent of the population. Islam came to India around the turn of the first millennium. The important text is the Quran. In India, Sufi saints have formed a unique blend of spirituality and tradition. The five pillars of Islam are: 1) Acknowledge Allah as the only God; 2) Pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca; 3) Practice charity; 4) Fast during the holy month of Ramadan; and 5) Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Sikhism: Two percent of the population. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1538) in the Punjab area that is now split between India and Pakistan. Its important text is The Shri Guru Granth. A synthesis of Hinduism and Islam, Sikhs believe in a formless God that goes by many names (as in Islam), while also believing in reincarnation and karma (as in Hinduism). The goal of Sikhism is to build a close and loving relationship with God.

Christianity: Two percent of the population. First introduced to India by St. Thomas the Apostle in 52, large-scale conversions came with Portuguese in 1500s. Its important text is the Bible. Through compassion and charity, as exemplified by Christ, the work of God is done. Traditionally, the institutional church characterizes Catholicism, while a personal relationship and understanding of God defines much of the Protestant movement.

Buddhism: Less than 2 percent of the population. Buddhism was founded by the Buddha, “one who has awakened,” Siddhartha Gautama, between 600 and 500 B.C.E. Its important text is the Tripitaka, a collection of teachings and ideas written about two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. There are different sects of Buddhism. Generally the “middle way” is encouraged, which entails rejection of the two extremes: deprivation and hedonism.

Jainism: Less than 2 percent of the population. Jainism was founded by Mahavira, born between 600 and 500 B.C.E. Jainism has many ideas in common with Buddhism and Hinduism, such as reincarnation, karma and moksha (liberation). It has five Great Vows, which are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity and non-possession/non-attachment. Jains claim their religion is older than Hinduism, and Mahavira is only the most recent tirthankara (great leader).

Zoroastrianism: Less than 2 percent of population. It is the ancient religion of Persia, of which many followers fled to India in the face of religious persecution. These Zoroastrians now living in India are called Parsis and reside mostly in and around the city of Mumbai. The Parsi population of India stands at about 60,000 and is dropping rapidly.