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Religious history of India

The religion of the large majority--Brahmanism--has ancient roots.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2004 13:44 IST

Out of a total population of 100 crore, India has about 80 crore (80%) Hindus and 13 crore (13%) Muslims. In the rest seven crore Christians (2.4%), Sikhs (2.0%), Buddhists (0.7%) and Jains (0.5%) are significant.

In India, Brahmanism is the religion of the majority. It has ancient roots and many of its important religious and philosophical texts were written in the first millennium BC. Two new faiths were introduced around the middle of the first millennium, one by Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and the other by Buddha. Under Ashoka, in the third century BC, Buddhism enjoyed the royal patronage of the first great Hindu empire, that of the Maurya dynasty, which ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent. However, Buddhism began to decline from the 4th century AD, with the revival of Hinduism under the Gupta dynasty. Meanwhile, another offshoot of Hinduism had developed in Punjab as the religion of the Sikhs.

Islam was introduced into the Indian subcontinent with the Arab conquest of Sind, in the lower Indus valley, in 712 AD. However, the Muslim conquest of northern India began when Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turkish-Afghan warrior chief, invaded Punjab in 1001. Muhammad Ghuri extended the area under Muslim control during the 12th century, leading to the establishment of the Sultanate at Delhi, in 1206. Five Muslim dynasties then ruled at Delhi before the Mughal emperor Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat, in 1526, and founded a new empire.

The great Mughal emperors Babur (1526-1530 AD), Humayun (1530- 1556 AD), Akbar (1556-1605 AD), Jehangir (1605-1627 AD) and Shah Jahan (1627-1658 AD) created a vast, powerful and wealthy empire across northern India and governed, for the most part, with a policy of tolerance towards the Hindus and in alliance with the powerful Hindu Rajput princes. While a considerable minority of the people converted to Islam, a large majority continued to follow Hinduism.

However, Shah Jahan's successor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707 AD), an orthodox Sunni Muslim, ended his predecessors' policy of treating the Hindus as equals and alienated the Rajputs. He persecuted Sikhs and got killed the Sikh leader, Tegh Bahadur, in 1675 AD. In 1681 AD, he set out to conquer the remaining independent Hindu kingdoms of the Deccan, the southern upland plateau of peninsular India, and his long wars against the Hindu Marathas helped to empty his treasury.

The Mughal empire started declining after the death of Aurengzeb's son, Bahadur Shah I, in 1712 AD. A Sikh revolt was crushed by Muhammad Shah (1712-1748 AD), in 1716 AD, but the Marathas plundered Delhi in 1738 AD. The following year, the capital was occupied by the Persian emperor, Nadir Shah, who also annexed Kabul. By 1750 AD, Maratha power had spread across central India from coast to coast and Mughal rule in Delhi was only saved when the Marathas were defeated by the Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Abdali, at Panipat, in 1761 AD.

Meanwhile, Robert Clive's victory at Plassey, in 1757 AD, enabled the English East India Company to wrest control of the wealthy eastern province of Bengal from the local Mughal nawab.

Given the power vacuum at India's centre, the way was now clear for Britain steadily to extend the Company's rule over all of the sub-continent. The Marathas had been reduced by 1818 AD and the Sikhs of the Punjab by 1849 AD. The British maintained the fiction that they were ruling on behalf of the Mughals in Delhi until the Indian Mutiny, in 1857 AD, after which direct British rule replaced that of the East India Company, in 1858 AD, and the last shadowy Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was removed. In 1876 AD, Queen Victoria was proclaimed empress of India and the formal British take-over of the former Mughal raj was complete.

Under the British rule, a considerable number of Indians were converted to Christianity, which had been introduced into India as early as the 1st century AD. Christianity gained many converts, following the arrival of the Portuguese, in the late 15th century, and this process of conversion continued, particularly in the coastal areas, with the successive arrival of the Dutch, English and French.

Christian missionary activities' often caused resentment among both the Hindus and Muslims alike. The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 AD, partly as a reaction to the British rule in India. The ideas of the European enlightenment and of the French revolution had reached India at the beginning of the nineteenth century, through the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833 AD), as part of a general intellectual revival, and these affected the policy of the Congress from the beginning. Thus it promoted the ideals of a national representative assembly and the eradication of distinctions based on provincial or religious differences.

By 1928 AD, under such leaders as MK Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, the Congress had begun to demand independence for a united, democratic and secular India. However, as the prospects of independence grew, particularly after the provincial elections of 1937, some within the Muslim minority argued that, without British rule, the position of the Muslims would be prejudiced.

Meanwhile, there were also some Hindus, who did not accept the ideal of a fully secular republic after independence, as propagated by the Indian National Congress. They preferred to give Hinduism an official status within the new republic, similar to that enjoyed by Islam in Pakistan. They considered that obtaining independence from Britain was not enough. They would not accept the fact that India's Muslims were as Indian as they were. In 1951, these people set up a political party called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Indian People's Organisation). It was formed from a combination of Hindu traditionalists within the Congress, members of the Hindu Mahasabha and the militant Hindu nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

First Published: Jan 29, 2004 13:44 IST