Religion seeps into every facet of Indian life. Despite being a secular democracy, India is one of the few countries in which the social and religious structures that define the nation's identity remain intact, and have continued to do so for at least 4000 years despite invasions, persecution, European colonialism and political upheaval. Change is inevitably taking place as modern technology reaches further and further into the fabric of society but essentially rural India remains much the same as it has for thousands of years. So resilient are its social and religious institutions that it has absorbed, ignored or thrown off all attempts to radically change or destroy them.
India's major religion, Hinduism, is practiced by approximately 82% of the population. In terms of the number of adherents, it's the largest religion in Asia and one of the world's oldest extant faiths. Hinduism has a vast pantheon of gods, a number of holy books and postulates that everyone goes through a series of births or reincarnations that eventually lead to spiritual salvation. With each birth, you can move closer to or further from eventual enlightenment; the deciding factor is your karma. The Hindu religion has three basic practices. They are puja or worship, the cremation of the dead, and the rules and regulations of the caste system. Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion since you cannot be converted: you're either born a Hindu or you're not. 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.
There are more than 100 million Muslims in India (approximately 12% of the population), making it one of the largest Muslim nations on earth. Muslims are a more urban community than Hindus. There are many towns and cities in northern India where Muslims are one-third or more of the population. In addition to Jammu and Kashmîr 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. Muslim influence in India is particularly strong in the fields of architecture, art and food.
Buddhism was founded in northern India in about 500 BC, spread rapidly when emperor Ashoka embraced it but was gradually reabsorbed into Hinduism. Today Hindus regard the Buddha as another incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. There are now only 6.6 million Buddhists in India, but important Buddhist sites in northern India, such as Bodhgaya, Sarnath (near Varanasi) and Kushinagar (near Gorakhpur) remain important sites of pilgrimage.
The Jain religion also began life as an attempt to reform Brahminical Hinduism. It emerged at the same time as Buddhism, and for many of the same reasons. The Jains now number only about 4.5 million and are found predominantly in the west and southwest of India. The religion has never found adherents outside India. Jains believe that the universe is infinite and was not created by a deity. They also believe in reincarnation and eventual spiritual salvation by following the path of the Jain prophets.
The Sikhs in India number 18 million and are predominantly located in the Punjab. The religion was originally intended to bring together the best of Hinduism and Islam. Its basic tenets are similar to those of Hinduism with the important modification that the Sikhs are opposed to caste distinctions. The holiest shrine of the Sikh religion is the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Approximately 2% of the population is Christian and there are also a few small Jewish communities in ex-colonial enclaves.