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Religion & Beliefs

 



Religion & Beliefs

AMAJOR AND HIGHLY VISIBLE aspect of life is religion. Even today, it governs every thought, controls every action and defines the identity of almost all Indians. The majority, about 80 percent, are Hindu, about 10 per cent are Muslim, 5 per cent Christian and Sikh, Parsees, Buddhist, Jains, and other small communities complete the numbers.

Hinduism, the oldest living religion in the world today, has flourished down the ages with no one founder and no single sacred text. As a philosophy and a way of life, it absorbed and assimilated with a fluid tolerance, creating a pantheon of deities to choose from. All of these come together in the trin­ity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, the three physical manifestations of the Supreme Being.
There are manifold paths towards attaining moksha or absolute freedom from worldly exsistence. Renunciation, meditation, rituals and ceremonies are all means to the same end. The gods are approachable, even full of fun and mischief. They can be found on almost any street, clad in vermilion at the base of a banyan or peepal tree, or in little corners of homes, from where they keep an eye on things.

Buddhism and Jainism are both beliefs that emerged as a reaction to the increasingly rigid stratification of society being justified by the priests in the 6th century. Both extolled non­violence and equality based on respect for all life forms.

Jainism traces its roots to a succession of 24 Tirthankaras in ancient East India. Mahavir, born in 599BC as a prince in Bihar, was the twenty-fourth and the last Tirthankara of the Jain religion and the founder of the Jain community. According to Jain philosophy, all Tirthankaras are born as human beings but they attain a state of perfection or enlightenment through meditation and self realisation. As representations of the qual­ity and virtues of a Tirthankaras, their idols are all identical. Individuals can be identified only by the symbol at the base of each idol. Lord Mahavir’s idol has a lion.

Buddhism also has its roots in India, emerging 500 years before the birth of Christ, in the enlightenment of Siddartha Gautama. Born in 480BC, Gautama was prince of a small kingdom in what is today the Indo-Nepal border but renounced the world in search of nirvana or salva­tion. Key to an understanding of Buddhism and the Buddha’s teaching are the Four Noble Truths: suffering, is something all living beings experience in various forms; it is caused by crav­ing or selfish desire; the state of nirvana transcends desire; nirvana can be attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha teaches.

Islam came to the country around the eighth century with traders from the Arab world, but it was from the 13th to the 18 the century, as the religion of the rulers, that it flourished. Its interaction with Indian culture gave rise to magnificent architecture, music, painting, costumes and cuisine. Sufism in particular, in its exaltation of divine love, its surrender to God, and in the belief that it is possible to come close to God and to experience this closeness by means of love and devotion, struck a chord in the hearts of Hindus as well. Indeed, the tombs of Sufi saints are, even today, revered as much by Hindus as they are by Muslims in India.

It also influenced the emergence of the fourth of the world religions to be born in the country. Sikhism is a monotheistic faith taught by Guru Nanak (1469–1539) who tried to combine the best of Hinduism and Islam. His teachings, and those of the Gurus who fol­lowed him, are compiled in the Guru Granth Sahib which is the Sikh scripture. Sikhism emphasises social and sexual equality. It is against ritualism and stresses on good actions.

The Syrian Christian Church founded in Kerala in AD54 by St Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, is the second oldest Christian church in the world after that in ancient Palestine. The Christian community in India, however, remained a small one till the arrival of missionaries who came with the European trading companies in the 17th century. Kerala also has, in Cochin, an ancient Jewish settle­ment that goes back to the sixth century BC.

The Parsees follow the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. Founded in Persia around 800BC Zoroasterism is one of the oldest religions known. The ancestors of the community in India fled an invasion of their native Persia by Muslims in the eighth century and found refuge in India. Today, the community is concentrated largely in and around Mumbai, where it is highly respected in industry and trade.

 

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