Religion in India – Ancient India

Home » Religion in India – Ancient India
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Lights of a Diwali celebration - Indian religion

Indian religion: Lights of a Diwali celebration

What are the main Indian religions?

Three major world religions – HinduismBuddhism, and Islam – have been important in India. Hinduism started in India in the Stone Age. Buddhism started in India and spread from India to the rest of Asia. Islam went the other way: it started in West Asia and then came to India.

What was the earliest Indian religion?

Nobody knows much about the earliest Indian religion of the Mehrgahr and Harappa people. It was polytheistic – like everyone else in the world at this time, they worshipped a lot of gods. Probably Stone Age and Bronze Age people in India were already worshipping some of the same gods that later Hindus prayed to.

Indo-Europeans and Hinduism

When the Yamnaya came to India from Central Asia about 1500 BC, they brought their Indo-European gods with them. These gods mixed with local gods to produce the Hinduism we know.

(Read more about Hinduism)

Hindus wrote down stories about their gods in the Rig Veda and other epic poems. They believed in reincarnation – that people could be reborn into other bodies after they died. They killed animals as gifts to their gods, as animal sacrifices.

What is the Bhagavad Gita?

Buddha - Indian religion

Indian religion: Buddha

But in the 600s BC, animal sacrifice started to go out of style all over Asia. Indian people looked for some other way to get a good rebirth than through sacrifice and the priests. The Bhagavad Gita, written about this time, shows this new interest. It explains how a person can lead a good life and please the gods.

(Read more about the Bhagavad Gita)

Buddhism and Indian religion

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 their bodies, and by meditating.

(Read more about Buddhism)

Buddhism got very popular in India and quickly spread all over East Asia and Iran. But even Buddhists still prayed to the Hindu gods.

Mahavira and the Jains

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.

(Read more about the Jains)

Quwat ul-Islam, Delhi, 1196 AD - Indian religion

Indian religion: Quwat ul-Islam, Delhi, 1196 AD

By the 600s AD, even though Buddhism was still popular in China and Japan, many people in India started to turn back to Hinduism. They still remembered the Buddha, but he became just one of many Hindu gods to them. Jainism kept going, but only a small group of people in India stuck with it.

The Parsis come to 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.

Islam and Indian religion

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.

(Read more about the Delhi Sultanate)

But many people, especially in southern India, also stayed Hindus. Most Jains kept on being Jains. 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

Religion in India under colonialism

Bibliography and further reading about Indian religions:

Religion in India under colonialism
A Ramayana project
More about India home

By |2018-05-13T22:11:23+00:00July 21st, 2017|India, Religion|6 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Religion in India – Ancient India. Study Guides, July 21, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. Billy October 21, 2018 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    Were they polytheistic?

    • Karen Carr October 26, 2018 at 8:03 am

      Yes, they were!

  2. A Student in need of help May 13, 2018 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    How exactly did this religion affect their daily lives?

    • Karen Carr May 13, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      Which religion? They would all be a bit different. I’d recommend clicking on the links to read about each religion individually.

  3. hey April 17, 2018 at 6:18 am - Reply

    hey hey hey hey hey hey

    • Karen Carr April 17, 2018 at 8:29 am

      Hey yourself! Thanks for stopping by!

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.