Religion as Mosaic in India

Here in North America we tend to see religion as black or white: there are “liberal” religions and there are “conservative” religions; and religions tend to be seen as monolithic, like Catholicism or Islam. A new survey published by Pew suggests that religion, and “Christianity” in particular is far more colourful in India.

As they point out in their introduction:

India’s massive population is diverse as well as devout. Not only do most of the world’s Hindus, Jains and Sikhs live in India, but it also is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and to millions of Christians and Buddhists. A major new Pew Research Center survey of religion across India, based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic), finds that Indians of all these religious backgrounds overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths.

Yet, despite sharing certain values and religious beliefs – as well as living in the same country, under the same constitution – members of India’s major religious communities often don’t feel they have much in common with one another. The majority of Hindus see themselves as very different from Muslims (66%), and most Muslims return the sentiment, saying they are very different from Hindus (64%). There are a few exceptions: Two-thirds of Jains and about half of Sikhs say they have a lot in common with Hindus. But generally, people in India’s major religious communities tend to see themselves as very different from others.

These perceived differences are reflected in innumerable social protocols that in everyday life tend to keep the religious groups segregated. There is a widespread dislike of inter-marriage, for example:

These social protocols operate within the caste superstructure, each reinforcing the other.

Indians, then, simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres – they live together separately. These two sentiments may seem paradoxical, but for many Indians they are not.

A fascinating analysis that extracts the survey data on India’s millions of Christians illustrates the mosaic of belief systems that fall under the heading of “Christianity” in India.

Most Indian Christians say they believe in karma (54%), which is not rooted in the Christian religion. And many Indian Christians also believe in reincarnation (29%) and that the Ganges River has the power to purify (32%), both of which are core teachings in Hinduism. It is also somewhat common for Indian Christians to observe customs tied to other religions, like celebrating Diwali (31%) or wearing a forehead marking called a bindi (22%), most often worn by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain women.

And much of the divergence in belief can be traced to which caste the Christian considers themselves to be:

I had an uncle who was a professor of sociological statistics in the 1960s and 1970s. I blame him for my interest in this kind of survey.

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