Name: Swapnali M. Desai
Qualification: B.Com. , pursuing MBA at AMSIMR – Aruna Manharlal Shah Institute Of Management and Research, Ghatkopar West, Mumbai , INDIA


Religions in India – India is a land of diverse religions that exist in harmony and peace. The secularism is one of the most important aspects of the country. The largest section of the population is Hindu that has an established majority in the Nation but this does not deprive followers of other religions from influencing the society. Most of thereligions are divided into different sects. Hindus are divided into four castes – Brahmins or the scholars, Kshatriyas or the warriors and kings, Vaishyas or the businessmen and the clergy class and the Shudras or the servant class. There are untouchables or the casteless too. All these castes are further sub-divided into number of other sub-castes. However, the rigid ness of this system has decreased to a much greater level, with the Herculean efforts of various social reformers.

The next religion that has largest number of followers in India is Islam and its followers are known as Muslims. They are further sub-divided into various sects, the most prominent being Shias and Sunnis. Sikhs were originally Hindus who became followers and disciples of Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind Singh, their tenth Guru gave them their present identity and introduced community service and martial tendencies as their distinctive features so that they can withstand oppression. Christians in India are mainly Catholics and Protestants and follow different Churches as their denominations. The other significant religions of India are Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Buddhists are divided into Digambaras and Shwetambaras, Jains into Mahayana and Hinayana sects and Jews in various communities. The followers of Zoroastrianism are known as Parsis and have distinctive style and Jews are the followers of Judaism.

India is the “land of spirituality and philosophy”. Religious Diversity and tolerance has been established in India by law as well as custom. Some of the world’s important religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism etc originated in India.
According to the Constitution of India, every citizen of India has the right to spread and worship any religion. Freedom of Religion is thus the fundamental right in our country.

Hinduism is often supposed as the world’s oldest religion that can be traced back to the prehistoric times. Later on Buddhism came into existence. Islam originated in the first half of 7th century. Following this, Sikhism came into existence to eradicate the existing beliefs and religious superstitions, thereby alleviating the society from the evils. Although, it is believed that Christianitywas there in India since 1st century, yet, the religion made its presence felt after the European Colonization. Apart from these there are still other religions in India like Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism etc.
Religion has an important role to play in the lives of the Indians. Different religious practices like worship, rituals etc are prominent in Indian social life. Every Indian religion has its own unique rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and pilgrimages in conformity with the exclusive principles of the religions.

Communalism played a major role in shaping the history of religion in India. The divide and rule policy of the British kept India divide into two parts- the Muslims and the Hindus. It also instigated riots in various parts of India, thereby killing a large number of innocent people. The most unfortunate and alarming factor however, is, in recent times, communal tensions and politics in the cover of religion is still making its presence felt although in a different and more deadly form. The pertinent question that still remains unanswered is that can it be truly said “Religions in India: Diversity Meets Harmony”? It is for all of us to think and find it out!

India has been home for centuries to all great religions of the world. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has stated that religious tolerance and the ability to evolve, despite differences, is the basis of India.Swami Vivekananda says that what makes our civilization great is the fact that it is based on the idea of the co-existence of faiths – Sarva Dharma Sambhava. This notion implies that we have equal respect for all Dharmas, for all faiths. Elaborating this idea Swami Vivekananda used the metaphor of many rivers flowing into one mighty ocean. He quoted from an ancient hymn to say:

“As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, sources in different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”According to Manmohan Singh Swami Vivekananda said very aptly, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

India is one of the most diverse places in the world geographically, religiously, culturally, and lingually. Religiously, Hinduism, the largest religion in India accounts for 80% of the population; Islam, the second largest religion, accounts for 13% of the population; Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism taken together account for 3% of the population; and Christianity accounts for 2% of the population.. Other religions such as Zoroastrianism and Judaism, have a centuries long history in India.

Constitutionally, India is a secular and in practice the religious diversity of India extends to highest levels of government. Currently, the Prime Minister of India is a Sikh, the President of India is a Hindu, Vice President of India is a Muslim and the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is a Christian.


Freedom of religion in the Indian subcontinent is exemplified by the reign of King Piyadasi (304 B.C to 232 B.C) (Asoka). One of King Asoka’s main concern was to reform governmental institutes and exercise moral principles in his attempt to create a just and humane society. Later, he promoted the principles of Buddhism and the creation of a just, understanding and fair society was held as an important principle for many ancient rulers of this time in the East.

The importance of freedom of worship in India was encapsulated in an inscription of Asoka:

Religious freedom and the right to worship freely was a practice that had been appreciated and promoted by most ancient India dynasties. This had been the underlying attitude of most rulers of India since this period from before 300 B.C. until 1200 AD. The initial entry of Islam into South Asia came in the first century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. When around 1210 AD the Islamic Sultanates invaded India from the north-east, gradually the principle of freedom of religion deteriorated in this part of the world. They were subsequently replaced by another Islamic invader in the form of Babur. The Mughal empire was founded by the Mongol leader Babur in 1526, when he defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Delhi Sultans at the First Battle of Panipat. The word “Mughal” is the Indo-Iranian version of Mongol.

Indian social structure is very pleural in nature. Religious harmony and amity between different cultures in India has been observed.
India is the place of origin of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. So, co-existence has been a part of faith in India. Hinduism, the largest Indian faith by population, is itself pleuralistic and polytheist which gives each individual enough space to practice ones faith. Also, Buddha has been considered as one of the incarnations of Vishnu and worshipped by Hindus for years.

Parsis from Iran took shelter in India after they were prosecuted in their native land. Many Jews took shelter in India when they were being prosecuted elsewhere.
Islamic sects like Sufism flourished well in India with Saint Kabir.
In India, atheists also lived peacefully as much as belivers of any other religion.
The father of Union of India, Mahatma Gandhi, although a devoted Hindu, stressed on secular constitution to India.

African Siddis have lived and ruled some parts of India with their own faith without being religiously or racially tortured.

“I wish to present the events and their likely repercussions in the light of the overall historical context of India. Many speakers today, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, spoke eloquently about the tradition of tolerance, religious harmony and communal brotherhood in India. I do not need to repeat those sentiments. Suffice it to say that no other country in the world has India’s record of secularism and tolerance. As Smt. Sonia Gandhi noted, only a Hindu majority state could have declared itself secular and remained committed to secular principles. Against this backdrop of history, the attacks against Christians, however heinous they may have been, should not be construed as the beginning of the end of secularism in India. To say that these incidents cast doubts on the values of a nation such as India is to reveal gross ignorance of India’s history and traditions.”

Thus even before advent of Christianity and Islam India was multi-religious in nature. Christianity and Islam added more religious traditions to existing Indian traditions. Thus it would be correct to say that India is bewilderingly diverse country in every respect “religious, cultural, ethnic and casteThere was also tradition of tolerance between religions due to state policies of Ashoka and Akbar. Ashoka’s edicts clearly spell out policy of religious tolerance and Akbar used to hold inter-religious dialogue among followers of different religions and he also followed the policy of tolerance and even withdrew the jizya tax (poll tax on Hindus which was an irritant. Thus both Ashok and Akbar have place of great significance in religious life of India. No doubt they have been designated as “greati.e. they are referred to as Ashoka the Great and Akbar the Great.

Also, India had Sufi and Bhakti traditions in Islam and Hinduism respectively. Both Sufism and Bhakti traditions were based on respect for different religions. The poorer and lower caste Hindus and Muslims were greatly influenced by these traditions. Unlike “ulama and Brahmans the Sufi and Bhakti saints were highly tolerant and open to the truth in other faiths. They never adopted sectarian attitudes and were never involved in power struggles. They kept away from power structures.

Dara Shikoh, was heir apparent to Shajahan, the Moghul Emperor but had sufi bent of mind and was also a great scholar of Islam and Hinduism. He wrote a book Majmau Bahrayn (Co-mingling of Two Oceans Islam and Hinduism) and quoting from Hindu and Islamic scriptures showed both religions had similar teachings. The difference was of languages (Arabic and Sanskrit) and not teachings. Thus Dara Shikoh also contributed richly to inter-religious harmony in India.

In India right from the British period main contradiction was not between religious and secular but it was between secular and communal. In the western world main struggle was between church and state and church and civil society but in India neither Hinduism nor Islam had any church-like structure and hence there never was any such struggle between secular and religious power structure.

There are some rationalists and secularists who reject religion in its entirety but such rationalists or secularists are extremely few. Though there are no census figures available but one can safely say they are less than 0.1% in India. Also, there are extremely orthodox people who exhibit rigidity and intolerance towards other faiths though of course not on communal grounds but on the grounds of religious orthodoxy but they too are in miniscule minority. Tolerance in India among people of all religions is widely prevalent. It is perhaps due to influence of ancient Indian doctrine that truth is one but is manifested in different forms, and on the other hand due to the Sufi doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (Real Being is one) that implies that there is only One Real Being and all of us are mere manifestations of that real being.

As the ancient Hindu doctrine leads to inclusiveness and peaceful coexistence so does the Sufi doctrine. For peaceful co-existence another Sufi doctrine of sulh-i-kul i.e. total peace and peace with all is very important. Sufism left deep influence on Hindu masses as much as on Muslim masses.

Thus the real spirit of secularism in India is all inclusiveness, religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence.

Symbols of religious harmony
*Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut cave monuments dating from the second century BCE, containing paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both “Buddhist religious art” and “universal pictorial art”. The caves are located just outside the village of in Aurangabad District in the Indian state of Maharashtra (N. lat. 20 deg. 30′ by E. long. 75 deg. 40′). Since 1983, the Ajanta Caves have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

National Geographic reads, “The flow between faiths was such that for hundreds of years, almost all Buddhist temples, including the ones at Ajanta, were built under the rule and patronage of Hindu kings.”

*Akshardham temple: Nijanand is a hall devoted to the co-existence of world religions and contains information about the symbols, scriptures and prayers of Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam.Unfortunately terrorists thought it only a Hindu temple and killed several innocent people.
*Kottayil Kovilakam stands as a testimony of religious amity where a church, mosque, temple and a synagogue peacefully co-exist.