Indian Religions

India is most certainly the most diverse nation on earth. Among the most prominent examples of its cultural variety are its many religions. India was the birthplace of two of the world’s major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, is home to 140 million Muslims, and also hosts Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. India is home to the world’s largest Hindu temple, the mother temple of the Sikhs and Jains, one of the largest mosques in the world, and several of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. Religion remains a vital part of Indian culture today. A vast majority of Indians are active participants and religious tolerance is enshrined in law and practiced by custom. On Imprint Tours’ Northern India tour we’ll have opportunity to engage five of India’s major religions in significant ways. We’ll learn about Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For those of our readers not familiar with them, we think a short primer is in order. It seems most natural to begin with Hinduism, the religion we in the west most identify with Indian culture and the faith of 80% of the population. Widely regarded as the planet’s oldest active religion, Hinduism is not easily defined. Unlike other great religions it does not trace its origins to a single leader, does not have a holy book, and does not proselytize. Nor does it advocate the worship of a particular deity. Hindus believe in Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma below) the eternal, uncreated, infinite divine essence. The many gods of the Hindu pantheon are merely knowable manifestations of Brahman. Hindus believe that earthly life is cyclical. Humans are born and reborn (samsara) with the circumstances of rebirth determined by karma (conduct). Eventually an individual can gain enough self-knowledge to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve liberation (maksha). This tenet of Hinduism, which suggests one’s lot in life is determined by past action, has justified and reinforced India’s social caste system. Hinduism boasts a long tradition of extreme tolerance. Intolerance has never been widely supported and historical incidents were always politically motivated.

Although Hindus worship a vast pantheon of deities, the most widely worshiped are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma, the creator, created the universe and all life. Vishnu, the preserver, oversees the cycle of birth and rebirth and takes many forms. Famous incarnations include Rama and Krishna. Shiva, the destroyer, is the destroyer of evil in the world and has many faces, some of which are terrible. These and the other deities are represented by a huge variety of images and idols which symbolize varying aspects of the divine presence. With devotion to so many deities the Indian calendar is rife with a huge spectrum of Hindu festivals. These festive occasions keep Hinduism grounded in the emotional consciousness of the nation and make Indian culture rich and colorful - especially for visitors. One of the biggest and most colorful celebrations is Diwali, the Festival of Light. The timing of Diwali is determined by the lunar calendar and this year falls in early November, a perfect time for us to begin our November tour.

Despite the religious partition following independence in 1947, Islam remains a significant force in Indian life. The attempted segregation of the subcontinent was not completely successful and Islam remains India’s second largest religion. Moreover, so much of India’s history was determined or influenced by the Mughals (Muslim dynasty) that the Islamic impact on the fundamental fabric of Indian society cannot be underestimated. Unlike the other religions to be discussed below, Islam was not an offshoot of Hinduism. Islam proclaimed the brotherhood of mankind and the required submission to a single god, a novel religious vision for the subcontinent. Muslim invaders in the 12th century and Mughal rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries spread the concepts of Islam across India. Early on Islam was a militant, conquering religion but later mystics tempered its outlook and many Hindus were converted with a message of peace and universal love and a rejection of the caste system. During the golden age of the Mughal dynasties, a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim elements was promulgated and the flowering of a great society ensued as each side accommodated and enriched the other.

Muslims believe in the one god, Allah. They attempt to surrender their own wills to the will of Allah, which has been revealed by the prophet Mohammed and recorded in the Quran. Religious practice is based on Five Pillars: shahada (declaration of faith); prayer (5 times per day); zakat (alms giving); fasting (during Ramadan); and the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). On the tour we will visit Jama Mosque and the great Mughal architecture of Delhi and Agra.

Sikkhism evolved in northern India in the early 16th century and is a great example of the Indian capacity for accommodation and tolerance. Sikkhism was founded by Guru Nanak who was born a Hindu but was inspired by Islam. He preached a message of synergy between the two faiths, suggesting the basic teachings of the two creeds were compatible. Nanak’s teachings were eventually consolidated into the Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikkhism. Sikhs are monotheists, believe in karma and rebirth, but oppose castes and advocate universal equality. Devout Sikhs wear five symbols of their faith: uncut hair, a special comb, wrist guard, breeches, and a sword (or dagger, which has created some difficulties for Sikhs in our age of strict security controls). During the tour we will be staying in a Sikh-owned hotel and hope to have a “tea time’ chat with our host.

A fourth Indian religion we’ll encounter is Jainism. The foundational philosophy of Jainism is that the rejection of worldly desires and self-conquest leads to perfect wisdom. They practice the purification of the soul via right conduct, right faith, and right knowledge. They advocate complete non-violence and sympathy for all living beings which has gained them widespread acceptance. Devout followers cover their noses and mouths to prevent the killing of even insects while breathing. We’ll visit the spectacularly carved Jain temple of Ranakpur in Rajasthan.

The final religion we’ll encounter has mostly died out in India, but had its birth here centuries ago. Buddhism, still practice throughout the rest of Asia, was started by Guatam Buddha as yet another offshoot of Hinduism. According to Buddhism, life is ruled by the laws of impermanence and causation. Everything is subject to change and nothing occurs by chance. The concepts of an immortal soul and rebirth follow from these two basic ideas and Karma is the driving force behind the occurrence of life’s events. The Buddha suggested the middle path, a balanced way of life between the extremes of self-indulgence and abstinence. Buddhism is founded on four Noble Truths: suffering is universal; it is caused by desire; it can be prevented by eliminating desire; and desire can be eliminated by following the Nobel Eightfold Path. The Path consists of living a life of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration. Successfully acting on these doctrines allows a soul to achieve Nirvana. We will have the great opportunity to visit Sarnath, a significant Buddhist pilgrimage site and the location of the Buddha’s first public sermon.