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Religion and Identity in India Research Paper


Following the ancient maxim sarva dharma same bhava (all are equal) from the epic Mahabharata, Indian leaders adopted a secular and democratic constitution to govern the country in 1947 when it gained independence from the British rule. Though India pledges to remain a secular country, the surging serpent of religious communalism has spread its venom throughout the country. Thousands of lives have been claimed in communal violence since independence. In recent years, representatives of minority religions of the country have faced violence and persecution at the hands of the rising communal sentiments. India is a country of many religions and millions of people. There are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Judaists, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, and Buddhists. However, the Hindus are a major religion followed by Muslims and Christians.

I believe the rising communal violence intolerance is due to the inability of the government, the political leadership, and the masses to separate politics and religion. The differences in religious sentiments have been rooted so deep in the people’s identity that they fail to differentiate it from the national identity even when the country has modernized and remains secular. On the contrary, the Indian scenario shows that religious insight drives political wisdom. In this essay, I will try to describe the process of secularization in India and how it further contributed to the religious separatist identity. However, before doing this, I will try to understand the present religious landscape of the country and what elements of religious life become apparent to bystanders.

India is a melting pot of religions. Religion in India began with Aryans, who created the caste system, which gradually became the pillars of Hinduism. Religions like Buddhism and Jainism evolved from Hinduism in ancient times. Islam came to India with the Persian traders and invaders. Similarly, European missionaries brought Christianity. Other minority religious groups were the settlers who arrived from different parts of the world to settle in India because it was a truly cosmopolitan state from time immemorial. The 2011 census data shows that Hinduism is practiced by the majority of the Indian population (just below 80%), Muslims are second in rank (14.2%), Christians being third (2.3%), and Sikhs – fourth (1.7%) (Government of India). The growth of the Muslim population is the highest, which is growing at a rate of over 24%, higher than the population growth rate of 19.9% (Government of India).

As the Hindus and Muslims form the majority of the country’s population, the growing unrest between the two religions is the area of concern. However, before we undertake a study of the present situation of religions in India, it is advisable to get a brief understanding of how so many religions came to India and why there is this rising difference between them. Further, the religions are spread throughout the country with certain states with higher concentration. For instance, even though Muslims are the second biggest religious group in India, they form a majority of the population in only two states – Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Lakshadweep (Government of India).

Further, Christians form the majority of the population in certain North Eastern states like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. Sikhism is the major religion in Punjab. In 28 other states, Hinduism is a major religion. Therefore, a definite geographical distribution of the population is observed in the country. Apart from this, there are certain states that have a markedly higher population of minority religions. For instance, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have a high percentage of the Muslim population, and Goa and Kerala have a significantly high Christian population. Thus, the geographical distribution of religious groups might be an indication of the historical reason for the high concentration of certain representatives of different religious groups in those regions.

Hinduism, the major religion in India, began in the traditional society when the Aryans settled in the country during ancient times. The Aryan settlement was in the Doab region along the bank of the river Ganges in Northern India. The Hindu religion developed out of the caste system practiced at the time. In traditional societies, priests who performed religious rites gained a lot of importance and started showing their superiority over the other castes. Hinduism spread during the Vedic Age around 1500 BCE. The religion spread all across India. However, the growing stress on the caste system and the predominance of the Brahmins (the scholars and priests) caused unrest among the other castes (Hardy 47).

This gave birth to Jainism in 8th century BCE and Buddhism in 5th century BCE as reformist movements and later religions, which were adopted by influential rulers of Northern India and spread across the country (Hardy 56-60). However, these religions were not long lived and soon there the Hindu religion revived in the country, spreading across North and South India. It was after the invasion of Persian rulers and establishment of the Mughals as the Sultans of India, Hindus belonging to the lower castes started converting to Islam. Similar, during the colonial rule, missionaries from Europe came to India and again many Hindus converted to Christianity. Small tribes have always dominated the northeastern belt of the country. Christian missionaries started building their camps in these parts of India and have successfully converted a large section of the population to Christianity.

The regional spread of the religion was directly related to the colonizer’s settlement. Therefore, we see that a large part of present Northern India and Pakistan, Utter Pradesh, West Bengal and Bangladesh, and Andhra Pradesh have a large Muslim population and were controlled by Muslim leaders. Moreover, Northeastern states of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Nagaland have a large section of Christian population owing to strong missionary work in these regions. Again Goa, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu have a significant Christian population percentage, as these states that had developed seaports attracted many European settlers. Therefore, India became a cosmopolitan melting pot of various religions that came and thrived in the country.

Religion is the heart of the community in India and a major source of identity formation for many people (Bandyopadhyay, Morais and Chick 790). India has become a land of fractured identities, where religion and communal sentiments thrive over the absence of national identity creation (Anand 211). The rise of Hindu nationalism and communal violence has created a rift between the Hindus and the Muslims (Howard 36). The bloodbath during the partition of India in 1947 based on religious differences planted the permanent seed for religious animosity among the Hindus and the Muslims. The political scenario, especially Islamic militancy in J&K, the dispute over Ram Janmabhumi (birthplace of Lord Rama, a deity) and the Gujarat and Mumbai riots have created a larger fissure in the political and religious life of the country (Llewellyn 80). In a secularized country, the mingling of politics and religion is one of the major problems and that is what India faces today (Llewellyn 82).

Religion has a strong emotional appeal to the Indian masses and therefore, gets easily dragged into the political scenario. For instance, the Khalistan movement in the 1980s resulted in butchering of thousands of Sikhs and a bloody riot in Delhi (Capoccia, Sáez and Rooij 1016). The Sikhs of Punjab wanted a separate nation. Religion and territorial demands have been observed in the case of Punjab and J&K. The formation of political organizations with religious ideologies in India has given rise of Hindu fundamentalists. On the other hand, the Muslims as religious minorities want their rights to be safeguarded in a country where the majority of the population is Hindus. They argue that they are discriminated against and marginalized by the Hindu population. There exists an environment of distrust and clash between the two religions, which are aggravated due to the ongoing militant activities in J&K, predominantly aided by Pakistan.

Religions in India are not just a way of life but an emotional bonding that creates the identity of religious groups. The absence of a unified national identity creates a vacuum in the psyche of the Indians, which are filled with religious sentiments and communal feelings. With the growth of Islamic fundamentalists who continually ravage the state of J&K in the North, militancy making inroads to South India has caused an upsurge of Hindu fundamentalists who feel that they must safeguard India that was formerly a Hindu state. Indian religions are varied and have various layers that help create the identity of the people belonging to that particular group.

Works Cited

Anand, Dibyesh. “The violence of security: Hindu nationalism and the politics of representing ‘the Muslim’as a danger.” The Round Table, vol. 94, no. 379, 2005, pp. 203-215.

Bandyopadhyay, Ranjan, Duarte B. Morais and Garry Chick. “Religion and Identity in India’s Heritage Tourism.” Annals of Tourism, vol. 35, no. 3, 2008, pp. 790-808.

Capoccia, Giovanni, Lawrence Sáez and Eline De Rooij. “When state responses fail: religion and secessionism in India 1952–2002.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 74, no. 4, 2010, pp. 1010-1022.

Government of India. Census of India: Religion, 2011, Web.

Hardy, Friedhelm. “The Classical Religions of India.” The World’s Religions: The Religions of Asia, Edited by Friedhelm Hardy, Routledge, 2010, pp. 20-116.

Howard, Thomas Albert. “The Dangers of Hindu Nationalism.” First Things, vol. 261, 2016, pp. 35-40.

Llewellyn, J. E. “Caste: Religion and Society in India.” Religion Compass, vol. 9, no. 3, 2015, pp. 77-85.

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