India’s major religion, Hinduism, is prac­tised by approximately 82% of the popula­tion and has the largest number of adherents of any religion in Asia. It is also (along with Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism) one of the oldest extant religions and has firm roots extending back beyond 1000 BC. The Indus Valley civilisation seems to have developed a religion closely related to Hin­duism, but it was the Veda scriptures that gave Hinduism its framework.

Buddhism and Jainism arose contempo­raneously in the 6th century BC at a time of social and religious ferment. Both were re­actions against the strictures of Brahminical Hinduism. Although more recent, Sikhism too has its roots in a protest movement, the bhakti (devotional) tradition of southern India. Islam swept into India from the north and was introduced to the south by Arab traders. Today it’s India’s largest minority religion. Christianity arrived in southern India with Syrian immigrants long before the first European ever dropped anchor in that part of the world. India is also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.


Hinduism defies attempts to define it. It has no founder, central authority or hierarchy. It is not a proselytising religion.

Essentially, Hindus believe in Brahman. Brahman is eternal, uncreated and infinite; everything that exists emanates from Brah­man and will ultimately return to it. The multitude of gods and goddesses are merely manifestations – knowable aspects of this formless phenomenon – and the devotee may freely pick and choose among them.

Although beliefs and practices vary widely from region to region, there are sev­eral unifying factors.

Hindus believe that earthly life is cycli­cal; you are born again and again (a process known as samsara), the quality of these re­births being dependent upon your karma (conduct or action) in previous lives. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (appropriate behavior for one’s station in life) will enhance your chances of being born into a higher caste and better circum­stances. Alternatively, if enough bad karma has accumulated, rebirth may take animal form. But it’s only as a human that you can gain sufficient self-knowledge to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha (liberation).

Essentially there are three stages in life recognised under this ashrama system: hruhmachari (chaste student); grihastha (householder who discharges their duty to their ancestors by having sons and making sacrifices to the gods); and sanvusin (wan­dering ascetic who has renounced worldly things). The disinterested discharge of ritual and social obligations is known as karma­nuu);a and is one path to liberation. Other paths include jnanu-margn, or the way of knowledge (the study and practice of yoga and meditation) and 6hakri-mcrrgn, devotion to a personal god. The latter path is open to women and Sudras (caste of laborers).

While in India, you’re likely to come across sadhus. A sadhu is someone who has Surrendered all family and social responsi­bilities and material possessions in order to totally pursue a spiritual search by medita­tion, devotion, the study of sacred texts, self-mortification and pilgrimage.

Gods & Goddesses

The scriptures say there are around 330 million deities in the Hindu pantheon. All are regarded as a mani­festation of Brahman: the particular object of veneration and supplication is often a matter of personal choice or tradition at a local or caste level. Brahman is often described as having three main representations, the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.


The One: the ultimate reality. Brahman is formless, eternal and the source of all existence. Brahman is nirgunu (with­out attributes), as opposed to all the other gods which are manifestations of Brahman and therefore sugirna (with attributes).

Brahma Only during the creation of the universe does Brahma play an active role. The rest of the time he is in meditation and is therefore regarded as an aloof figure, un­like the two other members of the Trimurti, Shiva and Vishnu. His consort is Saraswati, goddess of learning, and his vehicle is a swan. He is sometimes shown sitting on a lotus which rises from Vishnu’s navel, sym­bolising the interdependence of the gods. He is generally depicted with four (crowned and bearded) heads, each turned towards the four points of the compass.


The preserver or sustainer, Vishnu is associated with ‘right action’. He protects and sustains all that is good in the world. He is usually depicted with four anns, holding a lotus (the petals are symbolic of the unfold­ing of the universe), a conch shell (as it can be blown like a trumpet it symbolises the cosmic vibration from which all existence emanates), a discus and a mace (a reward for conquering Indra, the god of battle). His con­sort is Laksluni, the goddess of wealth. His vehicle is Garuda, a half-bird, half-beast creature, and he dwells in a heaven called Vaikuntha. The Ganges is said to flow from his feet. Vishnu has 22 incarnations includ­ing Rama. Krishna and Buddha. He and Lak­shmi are also known as Narayan and Mohini.


He is the destroyer, but without whom creation could not occur. Shiva’s cre­ative role is phallically symbolised by his representation as the frequently worshipped lingam. With 1008 names, Shiva takes many forms including Pashupati, champion of the animals, and Nataraja, lord of the tandava (cosmic dance), who paces out the cosmos’ creation and destruction.

Shiva is also characterised as the lord of yoga, a Himalaya-dwelling ascetic with mat­ted hair and a naked, ash-smeared body; a third eye in his forehead symbolises wisdom. Sometimes Shiva has snakes draped around his neck and is shown holding a trident (rep­resentative of the Trimurti) as a weapon while riding Nandi, his bull. Nandi (literally, enjoyment) symbolises power and potency, justice and moral order. Shiva’s consort, Parvati, is capable of taking many forms. Be­cause of his generosity and reverence towards Parvati, women consider Shiva to be an ideal role model for a husband.

Other Gods

The elephant-headed Ganesh is held in great affection and is especially popular in Mumbai. See the boxed text ‘Ganesh’, later. Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu sent to earth to fight for good and combat evil. He is tremendously popular. His alliances with the gopis (milkmaids) and his love for Radha (a married woman) have inspired countless paintings and songs. Krishna is depicted as being dark blue and usually carrying a flute.

Hanuman is the hero of the Ramayana and loyal ally of Rama; he embodies the concept of bhakti (devotion). Images of Rama and Sita are said to be emblazoned upon his heart. He is king of the monkeys, therefore assuring them refuge at temples across the country, but he is capable of tak­ing on any form he chooses.

Murugan is the son of Shiva and brother of Skanda. God of war, he is popular in South India, especially Tamil Nadu. Some say Mu­rugan and Skanda are one and the same. He is usually shown carrying a spear or trident.

Goddesses Among the Shaivite (followers of the Shiva movement), Shakti — the god­dess as mother and creator – is worshipped as a force in her own right. Those who fol­low her are known as shakus.

The concept of shakti is embodied in the ancient goddess Devi (mother and fierce de­stroyer). In West Bengal she is known as Durga (a manifestation of Devi) and the Durga puja (commemorating Parvati’s re­turn to Shiva, Parvati being the benign aspect of Devi) is popular there. Durga’s slaughter of the buffalo demon Mahishasura is a well-known Hindu myth and is fre­quently depicted in Hindu art as well as being the focus of the Dussehra festival held across India (see Public Holidays & Special Events in the Facts for the Visitor chapter).

Kali, the ‘Black One’ with the red tongue, is the most fearsome of the Hindu deities. She is often depicted dancing on Shiva’s ‘corpse’ garlanded with human heads. She is bloodthirsty, hankering after battle and carnage and, until the practice was out­lawed in the early 19th century, was ap­peased with human sacrifice.

Saraswati, goddess of learning, is the porcelain skinned consort of Brahma, widely considered to be the most beautiful goddess.

Sacred Texts Hindu sacred texts fall into two categories: those believed to be the word of god (shruti meaning heard) and those produced by people (smriti meaning remembered).

The Vedas are regarded as shruti know­ledge and are considered the authoritative basis for Hinduism. The oldest of the Vedic texts, the Rig-Veda, was compiled more than 3000 years ago. Within its 1028 verses are prayers for prosperity and longevity as well as an explanation of the origins of the uni­verse. The Upanishads, the last parts of the Vedas, reflect on the mystery of death and emphasise the oneness of the universe.

The oldest of the Vedic texts were writ­ten in Vedic Sanskrit, which is related to Old Persian. Later texts were composed in classical Sanskrit, but many have been translated into the vernacular.

The smriti texts comprise a large collec­tion of literature spanning many centuries and include expositions on the proper per­lonnance of domestic ceremonies as well as proper pursuit of government, economics and religious law. Among the better-known works contained within this body of litera­ture are the Kamasutra, Ramayana, Mahab­harata and Puranas, which expand on the epics and promote the notion of the Trimurti. Unlike the Vedas, the Puranas are not limited to initiated males of the higher castes; they therefore have wider popular appeal. Also highly popular today are the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which drew an estimated audience of 80 million when they were seri­alised by Indian state television in the 1980s.

The Mahabharata
Thought to have been composed some time around the 1st millen­nium BC, the Mahabharata focuses on the exploits of Krishna. By about 500 BC the Mahabharata had evolved into a far more complex creation, with substantial additions, including the Bhagavad Gita (where Krishna gives advice to Arjuna before a great battle). It is in fact the world’s longest work of liter­ature; eight times longer than the Greek epics the Iliad and the Och’sser combined.

The story centres on conflict between the heroic gods (Pandavas) and the demons (Kauravas). Overseeing events is Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) who has taken on human form. Krishna acts as charioteer for the Pandava hero, Arjuna, who eventually triumphs in a great battle with the Kauravas.

The Ramayana 
Composed around the 3rd or 2nd century BC, the Ramayana is believed to be largely the work of one person, the poet Valmiki. Like the Mahabharata, it centres on conflict between the gods and demons.

The story goes that the childless King of Ayodhya called upon the gods to provide him with a son. His wife duly gave birth to a boy. But this child, named Rama, was in fact an incarnation of Vishnu who had assumed human form to overthrow the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. The adult Rama, who won the hand of the princess Sita in a competi­tion, was chosen by his father to inherit his kingdom. But at the last minute Rama’s step­mother intervened and demanded her son take Rama’s place. Rama, Sita and Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, were duly exiled and went off to the forests where Rama and Lak­shmana battled demons and dark forces. Ra­vana’s sister attempted to seduce Rama. She was rejected and in revenge, Ravana cap­tured Sita and spirited her away to his palace in Lanka. Rama, assisted by an army of mon­keys led by the loyal monkey god, Hanuman, eventually found the palace, killed Ravana and rescued Sita. All returned victorious to Ayodhya where Rama was crowned king.

Sacred Places

The number seven has spe­cial significance in Hinduism. There are seven especially sacred cities that are major pilgrimage centres: Varanasi (associated with Shiva), Haridwar (where the Ganges enters the plains from the Himalaya ), Ayodhya (birthplace of Rama). Dwarka (legendary capital of Krishna thought to be off the Gu­jarat coast), Mathura (birthplace of Krishna ), Kanchipuram (the great Shiva temple) and Ujjain (site, every 12 years, of the Kumbh Mela). There are also seven sacred rivers: Ganges ( Ganga ), Saraswati (thought to be underground), Yamuna, Indus, Narmada, Go­davari and Cauvery.

Of course India also has thousands of other sacred sites that can include groves, caves, mountains and other natural phenom­ena, or anything associated with the epics.


There is a saying that if the meas­urement of the temple is perfect, there will be perfection in the universe. For Hindus the square is the perfect shape and complex rules go,, em the location, design and building of each temple, based on numerology, astrol­ogy, astronomy and religious law. These are so important that it’s customary for each tem­ple to harbour its own particular set of calcu­lations as though they were religious texts.

Essentially, a temple is a map of the uni­verse. At the centre is an unadorned space, the gnr-bhagriha (inner shrine), which is symbolic of the ‘womb-cave’ from which the universe emerged. This provides a resi­dence for the deity to which the temple is dedicated. Above the shrine rises a super­structure known as a 0mana in South India and a sikhara in North India, which is rep­resentative of Mt Meru, the cosmic moun­tain that supports the heavens. Cave and mountain are linked by an axis that rises vertically from the shrine’s icon to the finial atop the towering vimana.

Because a temple provides a shelter for a deity it is sacred. Devotees acknowledge this by performing a parkrama (clockwise cir­cumambulation) of it, a ritual that finds archi­tectural expression in the passageways that track around the main shrine. Some temples also have a mandapa (forechamber of a tem­ple) connected to the sanctum by vestibules. These mandapas may also contain vimanas or sikharas. Devotees ring brass bells upon en­tering the temple to get the deity’s attention.


Islam is the country’s largest minority reli­gion (around 12% of the population is Mus­lim). It was introduced to the north by invading armies (in the 16th century the Mughal empire controlled much of North India ) and to the south by Arab traders.

Islam as a religion was founded in Ara­bia by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century AD. The Arabic term islam means to surrender and believers (Muslims) un­dertake to surrender to the will of Allah (God). The will of Allah is revealed in the scriptures, the Quran (also spelt Koran). God revealed his will to Mohammed, who acted as his messenger.

Islam is monotheistic; God is unique and has no equal or partner. Everything is be­lieved to be created by God and is deemed to have its own place and purpose within the universe. Only God is unlimited and self-sufficient. The purpose of all living things is submission to the divine will. Al­though God himself never speaks to hu­mans directly, his word is conveyed through messengers called prophets, who are charged with calling people back to God. Prophets are never themselves divine. Mohammed is the most recent prophet.

In the years after Mohammed’s death a succession dispute split the movement and the legacy today is the Sunnis and the Shi­ites. The Sunnis, the majority, emphasise the ‘well-trodden’ path or the orthodox way. They look to tradition and the customs and views of the greater community. Shiites be­lieve that only imams (exemplary leaders) are able to reveal the hidden and true mean­ing of the Quran. The orthodox view is that there have been 12 imams, the last of them being Mohammed. However, since then rrnytahids (divines) have interpreted law and doctrine under the guidance of the imam, who will return at the end of time to spread truth and justice throughout the world. Most Muslims in India are Sunnis.

All Muslims, however, share a belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: the shahada, or de­claration of faith (‘There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his prophet’), which must be recited aloud with conviction and true understanding at least once in a be­liever’s lifetime; prayer (ideally five times a day and on one’s own if one can’t make it to a mosque); the zakat (tax), in the form of a voluntary donation to a charity; fasting (during the holy month of Ramadan) for all except the sick, the very young, the elderly and those undertaking arduous journeys; and the haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which every Muslim aspires to do at least once.

One of the most striking differences be­tween Hinduism and Islam is religious im­agery. While Islamic art eschews any hint of idolatry or portrayal of God, it has evolved a rich heritage of calligraphic and decora­tive designs.

The basic elements of a typical mosque are essentially the same worldwide. A large space or hall is dedicated to communal prayer. In the hall is a mihrab (niche), which indicates the direction of Mecca. Outside the hall there is usually some sort of courtyard that has places where devotees may wash their feet and hands before prayers. Minarets are placed at the cardinal points and it’s from here that the faithful are called to prayer.


There are some 18 million Sikhs in India. mostly from Punjab, where the Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak in the late 15th century. Sikhism began as a reaction against the caste system and the Brahmin domina­tion of ritual. It was aimed at fusing the best of Islam and Hinduism. The Sikh’s holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains the teach­ings of the 10 Sikh gurus, among others.

Sikhs believe in one god and reject the wor­ship of idols. However, some have pictures of the 10 gurus in their homes as a point of focus. Like Hindus and Buddhists. they accept the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and karma, as well as the notion that only a human birth of­fers the chance for salvation. There is no as­cetic or monastic tradition ending the eternal cycles of death and rebirth in Sikhism.

Fundamental to Sikhs is the concept of khalsa, or belief in a chosen race of soldier­saints who abide by strict codes of moral conduct (abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and drugs) and engage in a crusade for dharrnai°udha (righteousness). There are five kakkars (emblems) denoting the Khalsa brotherhood: kesh (the unshaven beard and uncut hair that symbolises saintliness); kangha (comb to maintain the ritually uncut hair); kaccha (loose underpants that sym­bolise modesty): kirpan (sabre or sword which symbolises power and dignity); and karra (steel bangle usually worn on the right wrist which symbolises fearlessness and strength). Singh, literally ‘lion’, is the name adopted by Sikhs and Rajputs.

Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) usually have a nishan sahib (flagpole) flying a triangular flag with the Sikh insignia. The Golden Temple in Amritsar ( Punjab ) is Sikhism’s holiest shrine.


Some seven million people practise Bud­dhism in India, fewer than either Christian­ity or Sikhism. The Buddha (Awakened One) was a historical figure who is believed to have lived from about 563 to 483 BC. For­merly a prince (Siddhartha Gautama), the Buddha, at the age of 29, embarked on a quest for enlightenment and relief from the world of suffering. He finally achieved nir­vana (the state of full awareness) at Bodhgaya( Bihar ), aged 35. Critical of the caste system, dependence on Brahmin priests and the unthinking worship of gods, the Buddha urged his disciples to seek truth within their own experiences. His teachings were oral, but were recorded by his disciples.

The Buddha taught that existence is based on Four Noble Truths – that life is rooted in suffering, that suffering is caused by craving for worldly things, that one can find release from suffering by eliminating craving and that the way to eliminate craving is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path consists of right understanding, right inten­tion, right speech, right action, right liveli­hood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. By successfully complying with these things one can attain nirvana.

Buddhism had virtually died out in most of India by the turn of the 20th century. However, it enjoyed something of a revival from the 1950s onward among intellectuals and Dalits, who were disillusioned with the caste system. The number of followers has been further boosted with the influx of Tibetan refugees and the 1975 annexation of the previously independent kingdom of Sikkim. Ladakhi Buddhists follow trad­itions similar to those found in Tibet.

Stupas, which characterise Buddhist places of worship, essentially evolved from burial mounds. They were never designed to hold congregations, but were to serve as repositories for relics of the Buddha and, later, other venerated souls. A relatively re­cent innovation is the addition of a chaitva (hall) leading up to the stupa itself. Devotees walk clockwise around the stupa. Bodhgaya in Bihar, where the Buddha attained enlight­enment, is an important centre of pilgrimage.

The Tibetan gompas found in Ladakh and Dharamsala are unlike anything else on the subcontinent, embellished as they are with colourful, distinctly Tibetan motifs dedi­cated to the propagation of Mahayana Bud­dhist beliefs. See the boxed text ‘Visiting Gompas’ in the Jammu & Kashmir chapter.


Jainism, which today has at least four million followers in India, was founded in the 6th century BC by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha. Jams believe that one can attain liberation only by achieving complete purity of the soul. Purity means shedding all karman, matter generated by one’s actions that binds itself to the soul. By following various austerities (eg, fasting, meditation, retreating to lonely places) one can shed karman and purify the soul. Right conduct is essential, and can really only be fully realised by monks as opposed to ordinary people. Fun­damental to the right mode of conduct is ahimsa (nonviolence) in thought and deed.

The religious disciplines of the laity are less severe than for monks. Some Jain monks go naked and use the palms of their hands as begging bowls. Others maintain a bare min­imum of possessions including a broom, with which they sweep the path before them to avoid stepping on any living thing, and a piece of cloth that is tied over their mouth to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects.

From the outside Jain temples can re­semble Hindu temples, but inside Jain tem­ples are a riot of sculptural ornamentation, the very opposite of ascetic austerity. This is partly explained by the Jain notion that beauty is found within. The Jain community is wealthy and believes in spending money to keep temples in immaculate condition.


When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama dropped anchor at Cal icut (in present­day Kerala) in 1498 he claimed to be seek­ing Christians and spices. He found both.

Christianity is said to have arrived in South India with St Thomas the Apostle in AD 52. However, scholars say that it’s more likely Christianity arrived around the 4th century with a Syrian merchant, Thomas Cana, who set out for Kerala with 400 fam­ilies. Catholicism established a strong pres­ence in South India in the wake of Vasco da Gama’s visit and orders that have been ac­tive in the region include the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Protestantism ar­rived with the English, Dutch and Danish.

Today India has about 19 million Chris­tians, around three-quarters of whom live in South India.

Churches in India reflect the fashions and trends of typically European ecclesiastical architecture. Many churches have Hindu decorative qualities added by local artisans.

The Portuguese and others made impres­sive attempts to replicate the great churches and cathedrals of their day. The St Francis Church at Fort Cochin was built in 1503 by Franciscan friars: for 14 years it housed the remains of Vasco da Gama, the first recorded European to cross the Indian Ocean.


There are less than 17,000 Jews left in India (mainly living in South India ), but the community is an ancient one. Over the years, more and more Jews have emigrated to Israel and other countries. Jews claim to have first arrived in the region from the Middle East as far back as the 1st century AD. They became established at Kochi and their legacy contin­ues in the still-standing synagogues and trad­ing houses.


Zoroastrianism had its inception in Persia, was known to the ancient Greeks and influ­enced the evolution of Judaism and Chris­tianity. Founder Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was a priest about whom little is known except that he lived in eastern Persia. The religion that bears his name, however, became the state religion of the region now encompassed by Iran and remained so for some 1200 years.

Zoroastrianism has a dualistic nature whereby good and evil are locked in contin­uous battle, with good always triumphing. While Zoroastrianism leans towards mono­theism, it isn’t quite: good and evil entities coexist, although believers are enjoined to honor only the good. Humanity therefore has a choice; purity is achieved by avoiding contamination with dead matter and things pertaining to death. Unlike Christianity, there is no conflict between body and soul: both are united in the good versus evil strug­gle. Zoroastrianism therefore rejects such practices as fasting and celibacy except in purely ritualistic circumstances. Humanity, although mortal, has components such as the soul, which are timeless. One’s prospects for a pleasant afterlife depend on one’s deeds, words, and thoughts during one’s earthly ex­istence. But not every lapse is entered on the balance sheet and the errant soul is not called to account on the day of judgment for each and every misdemeanour.

Zoroastrianism was eclipsed in Persia by the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its followers, many of whom openly resisted this, suffered persecution. In the l 0th cen­tury some emigrated to India, where they became known as Parsis (Persians). These Parsis settled in Gujarat, becoming farmers and adopting the Gujarati language. When the British ruled India the Parsis moved into commerce and industry, forming a prosper­ous community in Mumbai (the Tata family is one example). They adopted many British customs and banned child marriages.

Sacred fire and sacrifice still play a funda­mental role in Zoroastrian ritual. But perhaps the most famous practice involves the ‘Tow­ers of Silence’. The tower plays an important role in the rituals surrounding death. It is composed of three concentric circles (one each for men, women and children). The corpse is placed within, naked, and exposed to vultures, who pick the bones clean. The bones, once dried by the sun, are swept into a central well. The fourth day of the death rites is the most important; on this day the de­ceased’s soul reaches the next world and pre­sents itself before the deities for judgment.

Parsis only marry other Parsis; there are an estimated 90.000 or so left in India to­day. They remain economically and politi­cally influential.

Tribal Religions

Tribal religions have so merged with Hin­duism and other mainstream religions that very few are now clearly identifiable. It is believed that some basic tenets of Hinduism may have originated in tribal culture.

In the Nilgiri Hills of South India, the Toda people cling to their beliefs even though they have adopted some Hindu and Christian cus­toms. Vegetarians, they venerate the buffalo upon which they depend for milk, butter and ghee. This relationship extends to the after­life: when a Toda dies. a buffalo is killed to accompany them into the next world where it will continue to provide milk and its by­ products for sustenance and ritual purposes.