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India, home to more than one billion people, has been a land of religious diversity for thousands of years. It is the birthplace of four religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and has also assimilated two major faiths that were imported to its shores, Islam and Christianity. It is also home to the Parsees (Zoroastrians) who came from Persia a thousand years ago, and a small Jewish community has lived in Kerala since Roman times.
Today, the majority of India's population is Hindu, but with 156 million Muslims, it is also the second largest Muslim country in the world. In addition, 24 million Christians, 19 million Sikhs, 8 million Buddhists, and 4 million Jains, along with members of many other lesser-known faiths and sects, are a vital part of the nation's multicultural fabric. The complexities of maintaining cohesion within such a pluralist society has been grappled with throughout India's history, from the Buddhist Mauryan emperor Ashoka to the Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire, the Christian viceroys of the British Empire and today's democratically elected leaders.
Since independence, India's commitment to secularism has remained resolute; its constitution does not recognize a specific religion, but faith remains an crucial part of everyday life as evidenced by the abundance of flourishing temples, mosques, churches, shrines, and pilgrimage sites found all over the country.
Practiced primarily in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Hinduism is considered the world's oldest religion, with traditions originating in and before the Neolithic era, around 8,000 years ago. Hinduism may have had its beginnings in the Indus River Valley in modern Pakistan, and the word hindu comes from the Persian name for that river.
A heterogeneous philosophy, Hinduism has no one founder and includes many sacred texts, the most ancient being the Vedas. Among the variety of genres included in the Vedic texts, composed 1500 – 1100 BCE, are hymns to gods, descriptions of rituals and philosophical writings. Commentaries on the Vedic books, written between 800 and 100 BCE, discuss the transcendent principal of Brahman, the source of the universe. Also influential are the great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana written between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among these epics, the Bhagavad Gita describes the central idea of moksha, or liberation of the soul from the cycle of perpetual death and rebirth. The primary principle of karma determines the character of the soul in this cycle.
Although Hinduism contains elements of polytheism, monotheism and monism, all gods within Hinduism are today considered manifestations of Brahman. Many Hindus practice devotion to one of three main deities: Brahma, the creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver of the cosmos; and Shiva, destroyer of the cosmos.
In Hinduism, the nature of the universe and the structure of society are closely linked. Brahman is the ultimate reality and also the name given to the highest (priestly) caste. The concept of dharma describes both cosmic law and the conduct of individuals in society, including adherence to the social order. Castes in orthodox Hindu society distinguished among people of priestly, military, merchant, peasant, and untouchable (individuals with no social standing) castes—now known as dalits and the focus of positive discrimination legislation and job quotas in today's democratic India.
Approximately 80% of India's population today practices Hinduism.
Buddhism is a religion or philosophy founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, born a prince of the Shakya clan in northern India. Much controversy surrounds the Buddha's birth and death, or parinirvana (the reaching of nirvana); the traditional date of his death is 486 BCE but some believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century BCE and died at Kushinagar between 400 and 350 BCE. The Buddha, the Buddhist community, and dharma (or religious law), are considered the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
The first of Four Noble Truths that Buddhism teaches is that all life is suffering (dhukka). Siddhartha arrived at this truth by observing disease, illness, suffering, and death in the forms of an old man, a blind man, a dying man, and a corpse. On a quest to find a way to break free from this suffering, Siddhartha left his wife and child to become an ascetic, traveling across the Magadha kingdom in northeast India and studying under a number of teachers. How to liberate the self from a constant cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara, was his principle question. After six years of wandering, he found his answer and attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree in Boghgaya.
The Buddha's insights are crystallized in the remaining noble truth—that suffering is caused by desire (trishna); that suffering can be overcome; that by following the Eightfold Path (imagined as a cyclic Wheel of Dharma), individuals can become free of attachment and reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path includes living with right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. He also advocated living according to the "Middle Way," a path between severe asceticism and heady indulgence. The Buddha lived the remaining 45 years of his life after enlightenment as a wandering ascetic, delivering discourses and gaining followers, among them Magadha's king Bimbisara, who became a patron and provided generous donations including a monastery at his capital, Rajagaha (found in what is now the Indian state of Bihar).
Buddhists currently number around 400 million worldwide, and the philosophy's two major traditions are Theraveda—practiced primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos—and Mahayana—practiced chiefly in China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. Wesak, the celebration that marks the Buddha's birth in May, is the most important Buddhist festival.
Derived from the Sanskrit word "jina," meaning "to conquer," Jainism teaches that all life forms have an eternal soul bound by karma in a never-ending cycle of rebirth. Through nonviolence or ahimsa, the soul can break free of this cycle and achieve kaivalya. Traditions and ideas central to Jainism can be traced to the 7th century BCE, but Mahavira, the last of Jainism's 24 great spiritual teachers, formalized them into the Jain religion in the 6th century. Some scholars see the roots of the faith as far back as the Indus civilization in Gujarat.
Central to Jainism are five vows: nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and non-possession or non-attachment (aparigraha). As a manifestation of ahimsa, Jain monks wear nets over their mouths and sweep the street with their clothing so as to avoid harming insects, thereby accruing karma from not injuring even the smallest life forms. Mahavira, whose teachings are recorded in the Agamas texts, taught liberation through the three principles of right faith (samyak darshana), right knowledge (samyak jnana), and right conduct (samyak charitra).
Between the first and second centuries BCE, the Jains divided into an orthodox sect Digambara ("sky–clad") in which followers claimed adherence to Mahavira's philosophy by going without clothes, and the Shvetambara ("white–clad") sect. Approximately four million Jains practice the religion worldwide, and important places of pilgrimage among observers include Mt. Abu in Rajasthan, site of five ornate Jain temples, and Sravanabelagola, site of a 57.5 foot statue of Gomateshvara (Bahubali), Jainism's first spiritual leader or tirthankara. Today Sravanabelagola is the site of the Mahamastak Abhishek, the biggest Jain religious festival which takes place every 12 years, the last one in 2007.
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that originated in India during the 15th century. Today, it has roughly 20 million adherents worldwide, the majority of whom live in the Punjab, in northwest India. It was founded by Guru Nanak, the first in a line of ten gurus (spiritual leaders) who developed and promulgated the faith. In Punjabi, the word "Sikh" means "disciple" and the faithful are those who follow the writings and teachings of the Ten Gurus, which are set down in the holy book, the "Adi Granth."
Sikhism synthesizes elements of both Islam and Hinduism into a distinct religious tradition. Like Islam, it emphasizes belief in only one God and similar to Hinduism, teaches that the karmic cycle of rebirths cannot be overcome unless you achieve oneness with God. For Sikhs, everyone is equal before God and a good life is achieved by remembering God at all times, being part of a community, serving others, living honestly, and rejecting blind rituals and superstitions.
In the late 17th century the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, established a military brotherhood within Sikhism called the Khalsa (fraternity of the pure). Although not all Sikhs belong to the Khalsa, many obey its edict of wearing the five symbols of faith, the Five Ks: uncut hair (kesh), a wooden comb (kanga), a steel bracelet (kara), cotton undergarments (kachera), and a sword (kirpan). The turban worn by Sikh men is the most visible manifestation of their adherence to these principles.
Islam is a monotheistic religion founded by the prophet Muhammad in Mecca in the early seventh century CE. Adherents of the faith, called Muslims, revere the God of the Old Testament, in Arabic, Allah, and the Koran, a sacred text that followers believe is Allah's word revealed to the prophet Muhammad.
All Muslims are expected to fulfill five major duties, the pillars of Islam, or Arkan al-Islam. The pillars include shahada, profession of Muslim faith; salat, ritual prayer performed five times a day in a prescribed manner; zakat, almsgiving; sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the hajj, pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca.
By the eighth century CE, Islam had spread to Europe, across Central Asia, and to India, where Muslim traders settled along the southwest coast in the seventh century CE. The Cheraman Juma Masjid in Cranganore (in Kodungallur, Kerala) is believed to be the first mosque in India and dates to this period. Beginning in the eleventh century CE, Turkic and Afghan armies spread Islam into northern India. During the first half of the 10th century CE, Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the Punjab region and two centuries later, Muhammad of Ghor invaded Delhi and established the Delhi Sultanate.
Islam in India continued to flourish under the Mughal Empire, which succeeded the Delhi Sultanate and reached its height in the 16th century under the Emperor Akbar the Great, who promoted religious tolerance. Under the Mughals, Islamic culture and religion mixed with Indian and Hindu traditions, leaving an enduring legacy in art and architecture, including the Taj Mahal.
In 1947, differences between Hindus and Muslims led to the partition of India by the departing British colonialists into the countries of India and Pakistan. The division sparked mass migrations across the borders of both countries, with Muslims heading north to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs south into India. Violence between both groups resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. A secular nation, India's constitution guarantees freedom of religion to its citizens, the majority of whom are Hindu.
Islam is the second most practiced religion in India; in 2008, over 13% of Indians identify themselves as Muslim and India has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world. Pakistan today is an Islamic republic, with a population of approximately 170 million, of which only 3 million are Hindus. After Indonesia, Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world, closely followed by India (156 million) and Bangladesh (132 million out of 150 million and approximately 15 million Hindus).
Although a tiny minority in modern India, Jews have a long history on the subcontinent, and in fact, it is home to several distinct Jewish communities.
The first to arrive, possibly in the last centuries BCE, were the Jews who settled in Cochin (now called Kochi), in south India. They remain a small but important presence in Kochi, a trading hub on the Kerala coast since ancient times. Also existent are the Bene Israel, believed to have arrived some 2,100 years ago; they settled in and around Mumbai and in present day Pakistan. More recent arrivals were the Baghdadi Jews, so called because they are chiefly descended from Iraqi Jews who migrated to India during the British Raj, between 150 - 250 years ago.
India's most prominent Jewish community—considered one of the oldest in the world east of Iran—remains the one in Kochi. Although very few members of the community remain, most having long since emigrated to Israel, the Kochin Jews were and are an important part of the Kerala coast's spice trade, with huge warehouses containing mountains of turmeric, chillies, and pepper located directly below their family living quarters.
India's largest Jewish community, however, is the Bene Israel in Mumbai. Although their arrival in India is something of a mystery (some claim to have arrived in India in the 2nd century BCE), members of this community adopted the occupation of oil pressing and became known as "shanwar telis" or "Sabbath-observing oilmen" because they didn't work on the Sabbath. They were physically and linguistically indistinguishable to outsiders from the local population but had their own traditions, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their sons, and performed other rituals associated with Judaism.
Without exception, all Jewish communities have been accepted and assimilated into Indian society. In fact, Indians tend to take pride in the fact that Jews in India have rarely had to deal with anti-Semitism from either Hindus or Muslims. When anti-Semitism did raise its head, it was perpetrated by Dutch colonialists. The recent attack (November 2008) on the Mumbai Chabad House Jewish Centre is believed to have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists from outside India. India is also the only place in the world where Jews are comfortable with using Swastikas in their signs—because it's an ancient Hindu symbol and has none of the negative connotations that is found in the West.
Ashoka (Asoka), the third emperor of the Mauryan Empire, reigned from c. 269-233 BCE, and his exemplary story remains popular in folk plays and legends across southern Asia. The emperor ruled a vast territory that stretched from the Bay of Bengal to Kandahar and from the North-West Frontier of Pakistan to below the Krishna River in southern India. The year 261 BCE marks a turning point in Ashoka's reign when, in part to increase access to the Ganges River, he conquered the east coast kingdom of Kalinga. By Ashoka's account, more than 250,000 people were killed, made captive or later died of starvation. Feeling remorseful about this massive suffering and loss, the emperor converted to Buddhism and made dharma, or dhamma, the central foundation of his personal and political life.
Throughout his kingdom, the emperor inscribed laws and injunctions inspired by dharma on rocks and pillars, some of them crowned with elaborate sculptures. Many of these edicts begin "Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi [Beloved of the Gods]" and counsel good behavior including decency, piety, honoring parents and teachers and protection of the environment and natural world. Guided by this principle, Ashoka abolished practices that caused unnecessary suffering to men and animals and advanced religious toleration. To further the influence of dharma, he sent his son, a Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, and emissaries to countries including Greece and Syria. To some historians, the edicts unified an extended empire, one that was organized into five parts governed by Ashoka and four governors. After his reign, Ashoka has become an enduring symbol of enlightened rule, non-violence, and religious tolerance. In 1950, the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sandstone sculpture erected in 250 BCE, was adopted as India's official emblem by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The British Raj (Hindi for rule) under England's Queen Victoria began in 1858 after the Great Rebellion of 1857 and subsequent transfer, through an act of Parliament, of administrative power from the British East India Company to the Crown. British rule extended over present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together about a fifth of the world's population. Under the new administration, a governor-general with a five-member council governed in India, while a secretary of state and 15-member council oversaw Indian affairs in Britain. Provincial governments included executive and legislative councils and were divided into districts, each overseen by a commissioner. The Indian Civil Service, composed of magistrates, revenue officials, commissioners, and other bureaucratic positions, formed a fundamental segment of the new government. After 1923, examinations required for entry into the civil service were held in India, not only Britain, and by 1947, most Civil Service officials were Indian.
Policies of nonintervention in religion and recognition of regional princes—numbering approximately 675—were among the first issued under the British administration, perhaps reflecting the religious causes of the Great Rebellion of 1857. A newly restructured army that included more British officers had the foreign policy responsibility of keeping Russia out of Central Asia, leading to the Anglo-Afghan Wars during much of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
By 1910, India had the fourth largest railway system in the world, one that unified the country geographically and economically. However, under British rule, the generally positive advances of social reforms, public works, and unification of the India's disparate regions were coupled with racism and economic exploitation. Lack of Indian representation in government and an economic system that was perceived as a drain on India's wealth were the primary causes of agitation against British rule in India.
In 1885, the first meeting of the Indian National Congress, composed of 73 self-appointed delegates, was held in Bombay. Nationalist opposition increased following World War I and World War II, and in 1946/7, the Congress, guided by its leader Mahatma Gandhi, negotiated Indian independence from Britain.
Krishna and Radha
The eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, Krishna is one of the most important and widely worshipped gods in India. In addition to being venerated as an avatar (human manifestation) of Vishnu, some traditions within Hinduism also acknowledge Krishna as the supreme being. Among the common representations of him is as a young man playing the flute and a baby stealing butter. These iconic images derive from the stories of his early life included in the ancient religious text the Bhagavata Purana.
Krishna grew up among the cowherds and milkmaids (gopis) of a village in the kingdom of Mathura and became the darling of the gopis as a young man, seducing them with his flute playing and dancing with them in the moonlit woods. From these events, Krishna is commonly depicted as a handsome, dark or blue skinned youth standing with one leg bent in front of the other holding a flute to his lips. The lower half of his body is covered in a dhoti, often yellow in color, and he is adorned with jewels and a peacock feather. By Krishna's side is his favorite gopi, Radha, who is typically shown only in conjunction with him.
In the middle ages the love between Krishna and the cowgirl Radha inspired a rich devotional literature still treasured by people of all communities in all walks of life. In a tale which glorifies the ideal of love between the sexes, Radha for many symbolizes the individual's surrender to the love of God.
Related Web Sites:
Seattle Art Museum: "Stories of Krishna: The Adventures of a Hindu God"
The monkey king, Hanuman, is the son of the Vedic wind god, Vayu, and the supreme embodiment of fealty. He has the head of a monkey and the body of a human, along with the power to fly and change size and shape. Representations of Hanuman often show him flying through the air while supporting a mountain in his left hand, a reference to one of his daring feats in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. After locating and rescuing Sita, the wife of Hindu diety Rama, from Ravana, the demon king who had abducted her, Hanuman and his army fight alongside Rama and his brother, Lakshman, in the great battle against Ravana in Lanka. When Lakshman is wounded in the battle, Hanuman is tasked with finding the herb that will save him. Hanuman flies to the Himalayas, but when he can't identify the correct herb, he returns to Lanka with an entire mountain and helps to save Lakshman's life. For his numerous services and loyalty to Rama, Hanuman has come to be revered as a symbol of strength and devotion.
Shiva, known as the destroyer, is the third of the principal gods of the Hindu. The triad's two other gods are Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. Hindus believe that Shiva periodically destroys the world in order to recreate it and is the source of both good and evil.
Shiva is depicted in many forms and known by 1,008 names, which are detailed in the Shiva Purana. He is often presented with a blue face and throat; long, dark matted hair; and holds a trident, which corresponds to the functions of the Hindu triumvirate. His forehead is anointed with three horizontal lines in white ash and may also feature a third eye, a symbol of wisdom and untamed energy. Among the most ancient representations of Shiva is as a lingum, a phallic statue that symbolizes his progenitive powers, and as a yogi, seated cross-legged in meditation dressed in a loincloth or simple animal skin.
Figures of a dancing shaman/deity with trident bangles and an animal headdress has been found on prehistoric wall paintings in Central India and though this is disputed, many scholars see a proto-Shiva as depicted on seals from the Indus Valley civilization. When depicted in the pose of the cosmic dancer, Nataraja (or Lord of the Dance), Shiva's dual nature is manifest in a single image, for his dance is believed to both destroy and restore the universe. He is also the ideal family man and husband when shown with his wife, the goddess Parvati, and his two sons, Ganesha and Skanda.
Many Hindus worship Shiva as the supreme and all-powerful deity and are part of the Shaivism sect. As a mark of their devotion, Shaivite ascetics smear their bodies with ash, keep their hair uncut, and carry a trident.
The Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. Saraswati first appears in the Rig Veda as the celestial river of the same name, but over time, she has come to be inextricably linked to learning and the creative arts, most notably music. Although regarded as the consort of Brahma, the god of creation, Saraswati is worshipped independently of him as the deity who can bestow wisdom and drive out ignorance. Even today, students pray to her to achieve success in their studies and exams.
Saraswati is traditionally shown as a fair young woman dressed in a white sari, seated on a lotus, with four arms. In her front two arms, Saraswati holds or plays a veena, a multi-stringed Indian musical instrument, while in her back two hands, she may carry other objects, such as prayer beads, a manuscript, vessel of water, or lotus blossom, that are symbols of meditation, knowledge, purification, and purity respectively. Her mount, a swan, is often situated near her feet.
The Hindu goddess of beauty, wealth, and prosperity who is the consort of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. She is often represented as a beautiful young women with four arms sitting or standing on a lotus bud. Her four arms symbolize the four goals of human life: artha (worldly wealth and success), kama (pleasure and desire), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (knowledge and liberation from the cycle of birth and death). She is usually shown clasping a lotus flower, a symbol of purity and fertility, in her two back hands, while gold coins, signs of wealth, tumble from one or both of her front hands. Lakshmi’s association with prosperity is also emphasized by her dress, an elaborate sari often red with gold embroidery, and the fine jewelry that adorns her. Since Hindus believe Lakshmi can bestow good fortune and well-being on the family, she is a common household deity and the focus of worship during the festival of Diwali.
The elephant-headed Hindu god, also known as Ganapati, is considered to be the lord of beginnings and the remover of obstacles. One of the most beloved deities of the Hindu pantheon, individuals pray to him before embarking on a new endeavor or journey to ensure its success. The son of the god Shiva and his wife, the goddess Parvati, Ganesha is represented with the head of an elephant (a symbol of strength and wisdom) over a plump, potbellied human body with four arms. Typically, he is shown holding a goad or ax and a noose in his two back hands. The goad, in his back-right hand, helps to push humans toward the righteousness path and can also strike and remove obstacles, while the noose in his back-left hand harnesses impediments. Ganesha is said to have a sweet tooth and is often shown holding a tray of laddu (Indian sweets) in one of his front hands or with a bowl of it near his feet, where his mount, a rat, is found. His front right-hand may be presented in the abhaya pose, with the palm facing out and the fingers pointing up, a gesture that confers protection on the devotee.
Among the popular depictions of the Hindu god Krishna is of him as a baby purloining butter from a pot. His name means the 'dark one' and some scholars think he was a pre-Aryan aborginal deity worshipped by the people of the ancient city of Mathura, south of Delhi. His birth and childhood exploits in a village of cowherds are described in the ancient Sanskrit text the Bhagavata Purana. As the eighth child of Devaki and Vasudeva, it was prophesized that Krishna—the eighth avatar (human manifestation) of the god Vishnu—would grow up to kill King Kansa, the tyrannical ruler of the kingdom where he was born. His father, Vasudeva, was able to save Krishna by switching him with a baby born to one of the cowherds in a local village, Vrindavan. It was here that he gained a reputation as a lovable mischief-maker by stealing butter, his favorite food, from the gopis (milkmaids) and playing pranks on them. These playful episodes from his life have made Krishna an endearing figure, who's fondly referred to as the "butter thief," and has been immortalized through the representations of him as a smiling young child with his hands in a pot of butter.
Related Web Sites:
Seattle Art Museum: "Stories of Krishna: The Adventures of a Hindu God"
- Why is a secular constitution important to the stability of India? Do you think that Indian stability would have been threatened with a religion-based government?
- Hinduism includes thousands of different gods, each playing a different role. What does this tell us about the nature of Hinduism?
- Which Hindu god fascinates you the most? Why?
- Why are the stories of the gods so important? How do these stories compare to stories from the New and Old Testaments?