Religion in India - Ancient India History answers questions

Religion in India

April 2016 - India has been an important part of three major world religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Buddhism began in India and spread to other places in Asia. Islam came into India from West Asia. The origins of Hinduism are less clear, but are certainly related to the arrival of the Indo-European Aryans from Central Asia.

We don't know very much about the earliest Indian religion, of the Harappa people, but certainly it was polytheistic. Based on the art of that time, possibly Harappan people were already worshipping the same gods that later Hindus prayed to.

When the Aryans reached India about 1500 BC, they brought their Indo-European gods with them. This was the beginning of modern Hinduism. Hinduism was (and is) polytheistic - Hindus believe in many gods. Hindus wrote down stories about these gods in the Rig Veda and other epic poems. In this kind of Hinduism, people believed in reincarnation - that people could be reborn into other bodies after they died.

But in the 600s BC, animal sacrifice began to go out of style all over Asia. Indian people were looking for some other way to get a good rebirth than through sacrifice and the priests. The Bhagavad Gita, written about this time, expresses this interest. So do the teachings of the Buddha in the 500s BC. According to Gautama Buddha, people could get free of the cycle of reincarnation and achieve nirvana by being good people, by learning not to care about the things of the body, and through meditation. Buddhism became very popular in India and quickly spread throughout East Asia and Iran. But even Buddhists still paid attention to the Hindu gods.

About the same time, another Indian religious leader, Mahavira, also encouraged people to try to get out of the cycle of reincarnation. His followers were called Jains. Jains thought that the best way to escape reincarnation was to be good - to be kind to people and animals, and to tell the truth, and not to be greedy.

By the 600s AD, even though Buddhism remained popular in East Asia, many people in India had begun to go back to Hinduism. They still remembered the Buddha, but he became just one of many Hindu gods to them. Jainism continued, but among a small group of people in India. Another small group of people in north-western India were Parsis - Persian Zoroastrians - who moved to India from Iran about 700 AD when most people in Iran converted to Islam.

In the 1100s AD, Indian people also began to convert to Islam as Muslim people from the north conquered India. Islam demanded that people give up worshipping any god but Allah, and so many people did give up their old Hindu gods at this time. But many people, especially in southern India, also stayed Hindus. And the Parsees in north-western India stayed Zoroastrians, even though the Muslims tried to get them to convert to Islam.

Learn by doing: a Ramayana project
More about Hinduism Indian religion under colonialism

Bibliography and further reading about Indian religions:

Indian religion under colonialism
A Ramayana project
More about India home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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