Religious Diversity in India


Religion plays a major role in the lives of most Indians. Those who are considered Hindu make up more than 80% of the population. However, rather than being a single religion, Hinduism actually encompasses myriad different religions, all of which have their roots in the ancient Vedic tradition—as also do, to varying degrees, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism – for which reason India has been called the "Land of the Veda."

Although the words Hindu and Hinduism have come into common use, they are not indigenous. The English were confused by the religious practices they saw and simply lumped many different religions under the single category, Hindu. Those who we call Hindus refer to their religion not as Hinduism but as Sanatana Dharma, which means "eternal law" or "eternal way of life." Of the rest of the population, Muslims make up about 12%, while Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians each comprise 2-3%. Jews and Parsis together account for less than 1% of the population. In addition, India is also home to numerous tribal religions.

In order to feel most comfortable in a country with such immense religious diversity, it is necessary to be tolerant of all religions, no matter what your private feelings about them may be. Spending time in other cultures gives you a superb opportunity to realize that people naturally don't all think alike and that forcing them to do so is impossible. But instead of focusing on the differences, try focusing on the similarities. You may be surprised at how many parallels there are between all religions.

In India, there are literally thousands of names for God, many of which are shared by more than one religion. As Mark Twain so delightfully put it, "India has 2,000,000 gods and worships them all. In religion, other countries are paupers; India is the only millionnaire."7 However, the "2,000,000 gods" of which he speaks are actually different names for different personified aspects of the one supreme God, rather than different gods. Hindus (as well as Jains and Buddhists) generally understand that one ultimate Reality, one supreme God, underlies all these diverse aspects. Although some may be vehemently attached to a particular aspect that they consider primary, most people revere them all.

There is God (with many names) and there are devas, who are gods with a small g. Devas are merely the personifications of the forces of Nature, which are seen as aspects of God. God, on the other hand is One, Unbounded, Eternal, without a second and without a form. This is stated beautifully in the Veda: "Truth is One, but the wise call it by many names."8 However, as it is difficult to worship the formless God, Brahman, people take whatever aspect they like and worship that as a means to approach God. "For Hindus, God is effectively in every living thing, in every drop of the Ganges [India's holiest river] and every molecule of the atmosphere. For them, Divinity pervades everything and can be seen in daily life—if you only know where (and how) to look." Hindus generally recognize that different people have different spiritual needs that can change as they grows older. Although traditionally one inherits the religion of one's father, it is commonly acceptable for any family member to favor a different aspect of God according to his or her own inclinations. Religion is a pers thing for People who Hindus. It is not canonized in any way.

People who have attained the state of enlightenment see God as infinite and unbounded, and they recognize that boundaries belong to humans. Through the enlightened necessarily have certain boundaries (i.e., a physical body etc.), since living in the world is impossible otherwise, on the level of their consciousness they are free and unbounded. The more limited a person's consciousness, the more the boundaries predominate.

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