India’s religious landscape is remarkably diverse. Roughly 1/3 the size of the United States, India is the birthplace of four world religions.
As of 2001, observers of Hinduism represented 80.5% of the Indian population.
From the archeological evidence, Hinduism seems to be the first major religion to have emerged on the Indian subcontinent. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scripture, were composed. The Vedas are written in Sanskrit and are considered the oldest extant Sanskrit literature. Like the Old and New Testaments for Judaism and Christianity, the Vedas are considered “revealed” texts, the products of divine inspiration. In Sanskrit, they are known as śruti, or “what is heard.”
The Vedas describe the existence of exactly 33 deities. Each is located, or associated, with one of the three “spheres” described in early Vedic-Hinduism’s cosmology: the sky, the earth, and a “middle realm,” the firmament. Most of the Vedic texts are occupied with presenting hymns dedicated to specific deities. In addition, the Vedas describe many historical, or supposedly historical, events, predominantly wars, between believers and non-believers.
Most of the prominent gods from modern-day Hinduism, like Vishnu and Shiva, are present in the Vedas, but as ancillary figures. What we today consider “Orthodox Hinduism” retains the Vedic Scriptures as its central text.
By the 5th century BCE, large urban centers had begun to consolidate in Northern India, along the Ganges River. Two religious movements, born out of this urbanization, would break off from the traditions of Vedic Hinduism and become their own religions.
As of 2001, observers of Buddhism represented 0.8% of the Indian population.
Sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, a man named Siddhartha Guatama lived and taught in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent (now a region in Nepal). Although we have little “sound” historical evidence, the legend of Guatama’s life runs thus: son of a king, Siddhartha Guatama lived an opulent childhood. An astrologer, visiting his father’s court foretold that Siddhartha would either become a great king or give up the material world and become a holy man, depending on whether he witnessed the (assumedly squalid) conditions of life outside the palace. Of course, Siddhartha’s father preferred the latter, and forbade his son from leaving.
On his 29th birthday, and contrary to his father’s wishes, Siddhartha left the palace and experienced what in Buddhism are known as the “Four Sights.” He saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and finally an ascetic holy man. He summarily left his courtly life and began his spiritual quest. After years of seeking, Siddhartha Guatama reached a state of “enlightenment,” freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, or saṃsāra, that is born from a human’s fixation on a particular, ephemeral self and the world of experience.
Buddhist doctrine in general includes a concept of reincarnation, and an ideal of self-negation. Self-negation, though, does not come through any extremity in behavior, neither total self-indulgence or total self-mortification. Rather, Buddhism affirms a “Middle Way” that charts a course between these two ideals: the practice of absolute indifference. It is this radicality that most Western appropriations of Buddhism completely miss.
As of 2001, observers of Jainism represented 0.4% of the Indian Population.
The historical origins of Jainism are murky. Observant Jains believe that it has always existed, but that its doctrine is occasionally forgotten by humanity.
Jainism is a doctrine of extreme asceticism, of a battle against bodily desires. Jainism is staunchly anti-authoritarian, affirming an infinite multiple of viewpoints on truth and valid ethical behavior. It teaches that all beings are spiritually equal, a view that is now known as “flat ontology.” This “flat ontology” carries with it an ethics of absolute non-violence. Interestingly, literacy among Jains is higher than amongst any other Indian religion, at 94.1%.
It’s important to note that both Jainism and Buddhism, which proposed value systems with the renunciation of material wealth at their core, originated at a time when the increasing urbanization of India was making the accumulation of wealth increasingly possible.
As of 2001, observers of Sikhism represented 1.9% of the Indian population.
Of the four major world religions born in India, Sikhism is relatively recent, founded about 500 years ago. Unlike Buddhism, which has no god, and Hinduism, which traditionally has many gods (although certain denominations of Hinduism are technically “henotheistic,” believing in a single God but allowing for the existence and worship of others), Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. Sikhs worship your typical omnipresent, timeless God with infinite power.
Sikhism promotes equality above all other ideals.
The four religions that we’ve covered all ideologically value the spiritual equality of all beings. Not surprisingly, a considerable amount of traditional Indian cuisine is vegetarian. Notably, Hindus, even those who eat meat, almost always abstain from beef because the cow is sacred. To a further extreme, many Buddhist kings throughout history have prohibited the slaughter of any animals for consumption.