Unlike other great religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; Hinduism has not as yet taken root in a natural way outside the land of its origins. This geographical immobility is due in part to Hinduism’s decided lack of proselytizing impulses. In part is also due to the importance of India itself for the Hindu traditions.
India as a Western Construct
What do we mean when we use the term India? Winston Churchill once said that India wasn’t a nation but an abstraction. I’m not sure wether Churchill intended that comment as a criticism but it certainly calls attention to the fact that India is an idea. Perhaps a problematic one.
Historically, India was an idea in the Western mind long before it was an idea in the Indian mind. The name India was first used by outsiders to refer to the land surrounding the Indus river. Although the name India has gained wide currency among the English speaking population of the subcontinent, the older indigenous term for India, Bharat, is still very common.
As a Western concept, India has meant many things. It is interesting to recall that the Americas were discovered by Europeans in their search for India. Even today the indigenous people of the Americas are referred to by many as Indians.
The Exotic and Mystical India
In the Western construction, India has been seen as exotic, rich and different. It was the land the land of great resources and fabulous things not found in the West. For many it has also been a place of deep spirituality and mysticism.
India has drawn many Westerners in search of the meaning of life. In the 1960’s India was a magnet for hippies from the West, seeking mystical experience as well as substances.
In my first trip to India I had my head full with romantic notions. I was astounded with how different India was from the image that I carried in my mind.
What makes the concept of India problematic? It might suggest greater cohesiveness and unity than actually exists. India is a land of great diversity, socially, economically and geographically.
India is one of the few places on Earth were diversity is preserved and appreciated. It has been said that the only thing Indians have in common is their diversity. John Kenneth Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to India once called it a functioning anarchy.
With over one billion people, India is the second most populous country in the world next to China. Indians derive from a host of racial and ethnic stocks. Accordingly, there isn’t an standard of Indian appearance. Indian manifest many different colors of skin and different physical characteristics.
There are also many different languages spoken in India. There are over sixteen major languages and hundreds of dialects. Languages do not always derive from the same language groups. Consequently, simple communication between Indians from different regions is often difficult at best. Increasingly, English is used as the lingua franca among the educated.
The Religions of India
When it comes to religion itself, India is one of the most pluralistic places in the world. Besides Hindus that make up the great majority, Indians profess a wide variety of religious traditions and practices. Each of these non-Hindu traditions has a historical relationship with Hinduism. Sometimes that relationship involves tension and conflict. Sometimes it is one of competition. Sometimes it is a relationship of mutual enrichment.
Muslims make up about 10% of the Indian population. In many ways Islam is diametrically opposed to Hinduism. This difference has been the source of much conflict. Most Muslims live in Northern India.
Many persons are unaware that Christianity has a long established tradition in India, specially in the South. Legend has it that the Christian faith was brought to India by doubting Thomas, one of Jesus twelve apostles. He was murdered and buried near Madras.
Other legends suggest that Jesus himself studied in India with Hindu and Buddhist sages before his public ministry in Palestine. After his crucifixion Jesus returned to India with his mother Mary and died there.
Presently Christians comprise about 2% of the total Indian population.
Although founded in India, Buddhism has only a small following there today. However, in the Medieval period of India Buddhism flourished and even threatened to eclipse Hinduism as the dominant religion of the country.
With the advent of Islam, Buddhism’s presence on the subcontinent was greatly diminished. Although Indian Buddhists today number around two or three million, there has been always a strong relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, such as distinguishing the two is not always easy. Many Buddhist in Asia pray to Hindu gods. Many Hindus see the Buddha as a manifestation of god.
Jainism is not as widely known as Buddhism in the Western world but it has much in common with it and Hinduism. Buddhism and Jainism began about at the same time in Northern India and they share some features.
Although numerically small, around two million, the Jains have had a profound influence on the life of India in general, and on Hindus in particular. The Jain practice of absolute non-violence gave rise to the custom of vegetarianism in Hinduism. It also had a profound effect on Gandhi’s philosophy.
To round up this picture of religious diversity in India let me mention the presence of the Jews and the Parsis, who are the practitioners of the ancient Persian religion Zoroastranicism. There are a few hundred thousand Indians who belong to these communities.
My intention in outlined these varied religions is to call attention to the deeply pluralistic context in which Hinduism is rooted. India is not an easy concept to grasp. Even this sketch is over-simplified. I’ve said very little about the tremendous diversity within Hinduism itself.
To conclude, let’s return to the meaning of the word India. This word is a Western construction that tries to name a reality far more diverse and complex than we might assume. At times, it might even be difficult to say what these realities have in common beyond a simple concept that holds them together in our minds.