Nature of religiosity in India

Print edition : July 30, 2021

A Muslim family offering Ramzan prayers on the terrace of their residence at Mannadi in Chennai. According to the survey, Indians generally said they did not have much in common with members of other religious groups. Photo: The Hindu archives

The ‘bheti koriad’ heading towards the Nagoba (serpent god) temple in Adilabad in Telangana on January 25, 2020, for a ritual that involves introduction of the new daughters-in-law in the Mesram clan of the Gond tribe to Nagoba, making them eligible to offer prayers at the temple. Religion is prominent in the lives of Indians regardless of their socio-economic status. Photo: The Hindu archives

The Pew survey on religion in India finds that regardless of their socio-economic status, Indians claimed a religious identity and their commitment to tolerance is accompanied by a strong preference for keeping religious communities segregated.

FEAR of the mysterious, the unknown, death and defeat is the foundation of religion, declared the British polymath Bertrand Russell in 1927. The statement remains as debatable today as it was then. Whether one agrees with it or not, there is no denying that some preachers effectively employ fear to keep their congregation together.

The concept of political religion, coined under fascism studies, is useful to further understand how evocation of faith in a higher cause plays a role in the expansion of extreme regimes. This term is being increasingly applied by social scientists to understand faith-based extreme ideologies across the world such as the Christian identity movement, Islamic State (IS), American neo-Nazism and Juche in North Korea.

In India, as the Hindu far-right becomes more powerful and entrenched, it is impossible to ignore the role of institutionalised religion in enabling its hold over the masses.

A recent, and first of its kind, study conducted by the Pew Research Centre on ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’, might be a starting point to begin an inquiry into the nature and extent of religiosity in India.

Despite a climate of growing intolerance, India remains a deeply devout country and a home to not only religiously affiliated Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, but also large sections of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists and followers of many minor religions and sects. India is often referred to as a diverse nation but it is also extremely segregationist. According to the Pew report, Indians value religious tolerance but followers of all religions want to be separate and segregated.

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The researchers surveyed nearly 30,000 Indians between late 2019 and early 2020 across the country. Most of the respondents (84 per cent) said that to be “truly Indian” it was important to respect all religions. Indians were united in the view that respecting other religions was an important part of what it meant to be a member of their own religious community (80 per cent). People in all six major religious groups overwhelmingly said they were very free to practice their faiths, and most of them said that people of other faiths were also very free to practice their own religion.

But Indians’ commitment to tolerance was accompanied by a strong preference for keeping religious communities segregated. For example, Indians generally said they did not have much in common with members of other religious groups, and large majorities in the six major groups said their close friends belonged mainly or entirely to their own religious community. This was true not only for 86 per cent of India’s large Hindu population, but also for smaller groups such as Sikhs (80 per cent) and Jains (72 per cent).

Inter-religious marriages

This is maintained by, among other things, opposing inter-religious marriages staunchly. All religious groups are united in opposing inter-religious marriages, which remain highly uncommon in India. An outlier to this fact is south India, where people tend to be more religiously integrated and less opposed to inter-religious marriages. But overall, very few Indians are married to someone who follows a religion other than their own. Indeed, nearly all married people (99 per cent) surveyed said that their spouses shared their religion. This includes nearly universal shares of Hindus (99 per cent), Muslims (98 per cent), Christians (95 per cent), and Sikhs and Buddhists (97 per cent each).

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While inter-religious marriages are rare in India, in recent years some couples marrying outside their communities have experienced severe consequences, including ostracisation and even murder by family members. Inter-caste marriages, by comparison, remain even less acceptable to most Indians. Among those who oppose inter-caste marriages, those who said religion was very important in their lives are significantly more likely to feel it is necessary to stop members of their community from marrying into other castes. Two-thirds of Indian adults who said religion was very important to them (68 per cent) also said it was very important to stop women from marrying into another caste. By contrast, among those who said religion was less important in their lives, 39 per cent expressed a similar view. However, college-educated Indians are less likely than those with less education to say stopping inter-caste marriages is a high priority.

Caste segregation

Caste segregation is further solidified by having fewer friends from other castes. While Indians may be comfortable living in the same neighbourhood as people of different castes, they tend to make close friends within their own caste. About one-quarter (24 per cent) of Indians said all their close friends belonged to their caste, and 46 per cent said most of their friends were from their own caste.

About three-quarters of Muslims and Sikhs said that all or most of their friends shared their caste (76 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively). Christians and Buddhists, who disproportionately belong to lower castes, tend to have somewhat more mixed friend circles. Nearly 4 in 10 Buddhists (39 per cent) and a third of Christians (34 per cent) said “some”, “hardly any” or “none” of their close friends shared their caste background.

Members of other backward classes (OBCs) are also somewhat more likely than other castes to have a mixed friends circle. About one-third of OBCs (32 per cent) said no more than “some” of their friends were members of their caste, compared with roughly one-quarter of all other castes who said this.

Women, Indian adults without a college education and those who said religion was very important in their lives were more likely to say that all their close friends were of the same caste as them. And, regionally, 45 per cent of Indians in the north-eastern region said all their friends were part of their caste, while in southern India, fewer than 1 in 5 (17 per cent) said the same.

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In general, regardless of their religious affiliation, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain, Indians nearly universally identified with a caste.

In recent times, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre in 2014, there has been a lot of controversy around religious conversions. Vigilante mobs have conducted ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes where they reconverted people who left the Hindu fold. But the survey found that religious switching had a minimal impact on the size of religious groups. Across India, 98 per cent of survey respondents gave the same answer when they were asked to identify their current religion and, separately, their childhood religion.

An overall pattern of stability in the share of religious groups was accompanied by little net change from movement into, or out of, most religious groups. Among Hindus, for instance, any conversion out of the group was matched by conversion into the group: 0.7 per cent of respondents said they were raised Hindu but now identified themselves as something else, and roughly the same share (0.8 per cent) said they were not raised Hindu but now identified themselves as Hindu. For Christians, however, there were some net gains from conversion: 0.4 per cent of survey respondents were former Hindus who now identified themselves as Christian, while 0.1 per cent were raised Christian but had since left Christianity.

Dietary laws

Gau Raksha, or cow vigilantism, became prominent after the BJP came to power. Gruesome lynching of Muslim traders, transporters, consumers or others, captured on phone cameras, became the order of the day. The survey confirmed the widely held belief that dietary laws were central to Indians’ religious identity. Nearly three-quarters of Hindus (72 per cent) in India said a person could not be a Hindu if he/she ate beef. That is larger than the share of Hindus who said a person could not be a Hindu if he/she did not believe in God (49 per cent) or never went to a temple (48 per cent).

Similarly, three-quarters of Indian Muslims (77 per cent) said that a person could not be called a Muslim if he/she ate pork, which was greater than the percentage of those who said a person could not be a Muslim if he/she did not believe in God (60 per cent) or never attended mosque (61 per cent).

National identity and politics

Besides, among Hindus, views of national identity went hand-in-hand with politics. Support for the ruling BJP was greater among Hindus who strongly associated their religious identity and the Hindi language with being truly Indian. In the 2019 national election, 60 per cent of Hindu voters who thought it was very important to be Hindu and to speak Hindi to be truly Indian cast their vote for the BJP, compared with 33 per cent among Hindu voters who felt less strongly about both these aspects of national identity. These views also map onto regional support for the BJP, which tends to be much higher in the northern and central parts of the country than in the south.

Also read: 'Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism'

Despite a strong desire for religious segregation, India’s religious groups share patriotic feelings, cultural values and some religious beliefs. For instance, respecting elders, helping the poor and needy are crucial parts of all religious identities. Wearing a bindi on the forehead by a Christian, Sikh or Muslim woman is not a taboo. Muslims in India are just as likely as Hindus to say they believe in karma (77 per cent each), and 54 per cent of Indian Christians share this view. Nearly three in 10 Muslims and Christians said they believed in reincarnation (27 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively). While these may seem like theological contradictions, for many Indians calling oneself a Muslim or a Christian does not preclude believing in karma or reincarnation—beliefs that do not have a traditional, doctrinal basis in Islam or Christianity.

Secularisation theory

A prominent theory in the social sciences propounds that as countries advance economically, their populations tend to become less religious, often leading to wider social change. Known as secularisation theory, it particularly reflects the experience of Western European countries from the end of the Second World War to the present. Despite rapid economic growth, India’s population so far showed few, if any, signs of losing its religion. Both the Indian Census and the Pew survey find virtually no growth in the minuscule share of people who claim no religious identity. And religion is prominent in the lives of Indians regardless of their socio-economic status.

Generally, across the country, there is little difference in personal religious observance between urban and rural residents or between those who are college educated and those who are not. Overwhelming shares among all these groups say that religion is very important in their lives, that they pray regularly and that they believe in God.

Nearly all religious groups show the same patterns. The biggest exception is Christians, among whom those with higher education and those who reside in urban areas show somewhat lower levels of observance. For example, among Christians who have a college degree, 59 per cent say religion is very important in their life, compared with 78 per cent of those who have less education.

The Pew survey does show a slight decline in the perceived importance of religion during the lifetime of respondents, though the vast majority of Indians indicate that religion remains central to their lives, and this is true among both younger and older adults.

Nearly nine in 10 Indian adults said religion was very important to their family when they were growing up (88 per cent), while a slightly lower share said religion was very important to them now (84 per cent). The pattern was identical when looking only at India’s majority Hindu population.

Among Muslims in India, a similar percentage of respondents said religion was very important to their family when growing up and was very important to them now (91 per cent each).

The southern States of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana and the Union Territory of Puducherry, show the biggest downward trend in the perceived importance of religion over respondents’ lifetimes: 76 per cent of Indians who live in the south said religion was very important to their family when growing up, compared with 69 per cent who said religion was personally very important to them now. Slight declines in the importance of religion by this measure were seen in the western part of the country (Goa, Gujarat and Maharashtra) and in the north, although large majorities in all regions said religion was very important in their lives today.

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Most Indians believe in God (97 per cent) and said religion was very important in their lives while roughly 80 per cent of the respondents in most religious groups said they were certain that God exists. The main exception is Buddhists, one-third of whom said they did not believe in God. Belief in God is not central to Buddhist teachings. This means that the real minority in India is that of the non-adherents to any religion. This non-affiliated group of people is disliked by believers from across religious lines and their secular values are posited as pitfalls. Religious leaders frown upon rights assertions by the LGBTQ+ or occasional rejection of marriage as an institution by the young. These diverse expressions by a handful of individuals are exaggerated as major threats that constantly feed into the anxiety and insecurity of the religious minded.

While most Indians believe in God, they do not always agree about the nature of God: Most Hindus said there was one God with many manifestations, while Muslims and Christians were more likely to say, simply, “there is only one God”. But across all major faiths, significant portions of each religious group prayed daily and observed a range of religious rituals.

Hindus, who have a favourable view of the BJP, appeared somewhat more devout: They were slightly more likely than those with an unfavourable view of the ruling party to believe in God with absolute certainty (81 per cent vs 74 per cent). But unlike most other religious beliefs, Indians from General Category castes were slightly more religious in this way. General Category Indians were slightly more likely than lower caste Indians to believe in God with certainty (82 per cent vs 78 per cent), especially among Christians (85 per cent vs 76 per cent).