- The survey by a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. found that Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined: Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64 percent) say it is very important to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian.
Most Indians feel they enjoy religious freedom, value religious tolerance, and regard respect for all religions as central to what India stands for as a nation. At the same time, in what might seem like a contradiction, the majority in each of the major religious groups (Hindu, Muslims, Christians) show a marked preference for religious segregation and a desire to “want to live separately,” according to a nation-wide survey on religious attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs conducted by Pew Research Center, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.
In a live virtual Facebook event hosted by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), on June 30, and presented by Research Associate Jonathan Evans and Neha Sehgal, associate director of Research, Pew Research Center, the hosts presented the findings of their survey.
The study found that more than 70 years after India became free from colonial rule, Indians generally feel their country has lived up to one of its post-independence ideals: a society where followers of many religions can live and practice freely.
For instance, the report found that 91 percent of Hindus felt they have religious freedom, while 85 percent of them believed that respecting all religions was very important to be truly Indian. Also, for most Hindus, religious tolerance was not just a civic virtue but also a religious value, with 80 percent of them stating that respecting other religions was an integral aspect of being Hindu. Other religions showed similar numbers for freedom of religion and religious tolerance. While 89 percent of Muslims and Christians said they felt free to practice their religion, the comparative figures for Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains were 82 percent, 93 percent, and 85 percent respectively.
The study also found these shared values are accompanied by several beliefs that cross religious lines. Not only do a majority of Hindus in India (77 percent) believe in karma, but an identical percentage of Muslims do, too. A third of Christians in India (32 percent) – together with 81percent of Hindus – say they believe in the purifying power of the Ganges River, a central belief in Hinduism. In Northern India, 12 percent of Hindus and 10 percent of Sikhs, along with 37 percent of Muslims, identity with Sufism, a mystical tradition most closely associated with Islam. And the vast majority of Indians of all major religious backgrounds say that respecting elders is very important to their faith.
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 percent), and most Muslims return the sentiment, saying they are very different from Hindus (64 percent). 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. This perception of difference is reflected in traditions and habits that maintain the separation of India’s religious groups.
On the question of inter-religious marriage, most Hindus (67 percent), Muslims (80 percent), Sikhs (59 percent), and Jains (66 percent) felt it was ‘very important’ to stop the women in their community from marrying outside their religion. But considerably fewer Christians (37 percent) and Buddhists (46 percent) felt this way. Moreover, Indians generally stick to their own religious group when it comes to their friends. Hindus overwhelmingly say that most or all of their close friends are also Hindu. But even among Sikhs and Jains, a large majority say their friends come mainly or entirely from their small religious community. The majorities in all the religious groups were, hypothetically, willing to accept members of other religious groups as neighbors, but a significant number had reservations.
Interestingly, the survey found that Hindus who voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections tended to be less accepting of religious minorities in their neighborhood. Only about half of the Hindus who voted for the BJP said they would accept a Muslim (51 percent) or a Christian (53 percent) as neighbors, compared with higher shares of those who voted for other parties (64 and 67 percent, respectively).
The study found that geography was a key factor in determining attitudes, with people in the south of India more religiously integrated and less opposed to inter-religious marriages. People in the south “are less likely than those in other regions to say all their close friends share their religion (29 percent),” noted the report.
In recent years, under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP is often described as promoting a Hindu nationalist ideology. Thus, the relationship between India’s Hindu majority and the country’s smaller religious communities – has particular relevance in public life today.
The survey found that Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined: Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64 percent) say it is very important to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian. Most Hindus (59 percent) also link Indian identity with being able to speak Hindi. And these two dimensions of national identity – being able to speak Hindi and being a Hindu – are closely connected. Among Hindus who say it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, fully 80 percent also say it is very important to speak Hindi to be truly Indian.
The BJP’s appeal is greater among Hindus who closely associate their religious identity and the Hindi language with being “truly Indian.” In the 2019 national elections, 60 percent of Hindu voters who think it is very important to be Hindu and to speak Hindi to be truly Indian cast their vote for the BJP, compared with only a third among Hindu voters who feel less strongly about both these aspects of national identity. India’s Muslim community, the second-largest religious group in the country, historically has had a complicated relationship with the Hindu majority.
Significant portions of each religious group also pray daily, with Christians among the most likely to do so – even though Christians are the least likely of the six groups to say religion is very important in their lives. Most Hindus and Jains also pray daily and say they perform puja daily, either at home or at a temple.
Generally, younger and older Indians, those with different educational backgrounds, and men and women are similar in their levels of religious observance. South Indians are the least likely to say religion is very important in their lives and the south is the only region where fewer than half of people report praying daily.
The survey also asked about three rites of passage: religious ceremonies for birth (or infancy), marriage, and death. Members of all of India’s major religious communities tend to see these rites as highly important. Nearly all Indians say they believe in God and roughly 80 percent of people in most religious groups say they are certain that God exists. The main exception is Buddhists, one-third of whom say they do not believe in God. While belief in God is close to universal in India, the survey finds a wide range of views about the type of deity or deities that Indians believe in. The prevailing view is that there is one God “with many manifestations.” But about one-third of the public says simply: “There is only one God.” Far fewer say there are many gods (6 percent).
While there is some mixing of religious celebrations and traditions within India’s diverse population, many Hindus do not approve of this. While 17 percent of the nation’s Hindus say they participate in Christmas celebrations, about half of Hindus say that doing so disqualifies a person from being Hindu. An even greater share of Hindus say a person cannot be Hindu if they celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid – a view that is more widely held in Northern, Central, Eastern, and Northeastern India than the South or West. Hindus are divided on whether beliefs and practices such as believing in God, praying, and going to the temple are necessary to be a Hindu. But one behavior that a clear majority of Indian Hindus feel is incompatible with Hinduism is eating beef: 72 percent of Hindus in India say a person who eats beef cannot be a Hindu.
However, attitudes toward beef appear to be part of a regional and cultural divide among Hindus. Southern Indian Hindus as compared to those in the North and Central regions are considerably less likely than others to disqualify beef eaters from being Hindu.
Muslim Identity in India
Today, India’s Muslims almost unanimously say they are very proud to be Indian (95 percent), and they express great enthusiasm for Indian culture, but a majority agree with the statement that “Indian people are not perfect, but Indian culture is superior to others.” Relatively few Muslims say their community faces “a lot” of discrimination in India (24 percent). The share of Muslims who see widespread discrimination against their community is similar to the share of Hindus who say Hindus face widespread religious discrimination in India (21 percent).
Indian Muslims are slightly more likely than Hindus to consider religion very important in their lives (91 percent vs. 84 percent). Muslims also are modestly more likely than Hindus to say they know a great deal about their own religion (84 percent vs. 75 percent).
Most Muslims in India say a person cannot be Muslim if they never pray or attend a mosque. Similarly, about six-in-ten say that celebrating Diwali or Christmas is incompatible with being a member of the Muslim community. At the same time, a substantial minority express a degree of open-mindedness on who can be a Muslim, with fully one-third saying a person can be Muslim even if they don’t believe in God. Like Hindus, Muslims have dietary restrictions that resonate as powerful markers of identity. Three-quarters of Indian Muslims say that a person cannot be Muslim if they eat pork, which is even higher than the share who say a person cannot be Muslim if they do not believe in God or never attend mosque.
India’s population comprises not only most of the world’s Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, but it also is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim population and millions of Christians and Buddhists. The Pew Research Center survey was based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020, and before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.