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The People of India, Religion

important religions, Gujarat coast, Lakshadweep islands, god Shiva, Arya Samaj

Religion is very important in India, with deep historical roots; Hinduism and Buddhism both originated here. Most people in India practice Hinduism with Islam a distant second. Other important religions include Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

About 75 percent of Indians are Hindus. Significant differences exist within this Hindu majority, arising not only out of divisions of caste, but also out of differing religious beliefs. One great divide is between devotees of the god Vishnu and devotees of the god Shiva. There are also Hindus who are members of reform movements that began in the 19th century. The most significant of these is perhaps the Arya Samaj, which rejects divisions of caste and idol worship. Hindus may come together also as devotees of a guru, such as Sai Baba. Despite its differences, the Hindu community shares many things in common. All Hindus who go to Brahman priests for the rituals connected with birth, marriage, and death will hear the same Sanskrit verses that have been memorized and repeated for hundreds of generations. Hindus also come from all parts of the country to visit pilgrimage sites. Four of the most sacred are at the four corners of India: Badrinath in the Himalayas; Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu state; Dwarka on the Gujarat coast, and Puri in Orissa. Varanasi is also a significant holy city for Hindus.

About 12 percent of the of the Indian population practices Islam, which also is divided into several different communities. The major division in the Muslim population is between Sunni and Shia branches. The Shia community has a significant presence in several areas, most notably in the cities of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

Muslim communities in India are generally more urban than rural. In many towns and cities in northern India, Muslims are one-third or more of the population. In addition to Jammu and Kashmir and the Lakshadweep islands, where more than two-thirds of the population is Muslim, major concentrations of Muslims live in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala states. About one-quarter of all Muslims living in India live in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

India’s other major religious groups include Christians (6 percent of the population), Sikhs (2 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), Jains (0.4 percent), a small number of Zoroastrians (or Parsis), and a few thousand Jews. Christians live primarily in urban areas throughout India, with major concentrations in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Christians are a majority in three small states in the northeast: Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, generally in rural areas.

Buddhists live in small numbers in the Himalayas from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh; many converts also live in Maharashtra. The Jains live mainly in the belt of western states, from Rajasthan through Gujarat and Maharashtra to Karnataka. This region has many magnificent Jain temples, supported substantially by prosperous Jain traders. Parsis live mainly in Mumbai and in cities in Gujarat, and Jews have small communities in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Cochin.

Local communities of all these religions maintain institutions such as places of worship, schools, clubs, and charitable trusts that bring them together. Larger associations of religious groups also exist, including political parties. Such groups sometimes lobby the government in regard to legislation touching religious or social issues, such as the inheritance rights of women.

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