Religion and India

India is a very religious country. Almost every one of the 1.2 billion people to be counted in next year’s census will fill in a religion. Indians find it very hard to understand that many people in the West have no religion, because in India, your religion defines your way of life – where you go and when, what you eat, who you marry, and even burial customs.

For example, Hindus consider Tuesday to be unlucky, and there are many restrictions on what can and can’t be done on that day of the week. One time I hired a young Hindu girl on a Monday, expecting her to start on Tuesday. After a frustrating day waiting for her to show up, I was ready to withdraw my job offer. When she came on Wednesday, though, her explanation was simple: there was no way she could start a new job on such an unlucky day.

Food and religion Hinduism contains many elaborate restrictions concerning food, from production through to preparation and consumption. These restrictions are intended to protect kinship, purity, ritual, ethical values, and social stratification, each of which plays a huge part in Hindu society. If you visit a Hindu home in India, you will rarely get to see, let alone help in, the kitchen, because of the fear you will contaminate the food. Other Hindu food laws vary according to caste: Brahmins are strict vegetarians, but other castes will eat meat. However, all will be adamant about not eating beef, as cows and bulls are very sacred and must not be killed.

In Islam, in which food is divided into two categories – halāl (lawful) and harām (unlawful) – the laws surrounding food are much less restrictive. However, eating pork is expressly forbidden. Many of the butchers in India are Muslim.

Jainism, an ancient religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings, has some of the strictest food laws. Jains do not eat meat, fish, eggs, figs, honey, onion, garlic or root vegetables – the latter four partly from the fear that insects could be killed in the gathering of these foods.

For most Christians in India food laws are not a big issue. Some take advantage of their freedom to eat any food, to emphasise their difference, but others choose not to eat particular foods so as not to offend the people they live and work amongst.

Shrines Nazia had been married for over a year and was still not pregnant, so she made a pilgrimage to the shrine of a Muslim saint. She hoped that the prayers she offered to the saint would soon bring the child her family was expecting her to produce.

Many Indian Muslims follow Folk Islamic practices such as visiting shrines – sacred places which are dedicated to the worship of a specific deity or saint. Hindus also often make pilgrimages to temples and shrines in pursuit of miracles and cures, to pray and bring offerings, or seek advice from gurus (Hindu ‘holy men’).

Giving to the poor In Islam, one of the five pillars of faith is giving. Generally money is given to a local Islamic organisation which then shares it with the poor in that community. Many Sikh gurdwaras will regularly host community meals which all, including the poor, are invited to attend. Some of these gurdwaras also provide medical facilities for the poor. These days there are also many Hindu health and development programmes which care for the sick and the poor.

For both Muslims and Hindus, giving is seen as a means of attaining merit towards salvation. This is in contrast to the Christian teaching on giving to the poor: giving is not a way of earning salvation, but rather reflects the character and nature of God and His concern for the poor.

Marriage Vishu had reached the right age to get married. His parents and extended family searched for a suitable wife, and found a girl of the right age, the right education, the right caste, and from a good Hindu family. The next step was to take the date and time of birth for both to an astrologer to see whether they were a suitable match. If they were, the astrologer would look at the stars some more and tell them exactly when the wedding would need to take place for the marriage to be successful.

Marriages are a big event in every religion of India, but for a Hindu, caste and matching the stars of the couple are most significant parts of the procedure. Usually people marry within their own religious circles: marrying someone from another religious conviction – or even just from a different caste – causes major conflicts within families and can sometimes lead to death.

Burial customs Even in death, what happens to the body is determined by religion. If you are a Hindu, your body is cremated and the ashes may be sprinkled into a river; if your family can afford it, the ashes are taken to one of India’s holy rivers such as the Ganges. Sikhs and Jains also practise cremation, but Muslims bury their dead in a shroud (not a coffin), always facing towards Mecca. The Parsees (followers of Zoroaster) have the most unusual custom: their dead bodies are placed on high platforms within a secluded compound where they are devoured by vultures.

In the West, the separation of sacred and secular has left a heritage where faith is often practised in a very private manner, and does not affect the whole of life. But in India your faith is public: your actions, your way of dressing, what you eat, and even your name broadcasts which religion you follow. To live as a follower of Jesus in India – to model Him in our everyday life – is a great privilege, and presents a challenging message to all those around us.

The author, a Partner from Australia, has been working in Health and Research in South Asia for seven years.