The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Mingled Faiths, Separate Peoples: Pew Research Center’s New Survey of Indian Religious Communities

The study confirms that a figurative marriage between religious concepts does not have to inspire literal marriages between religious groups.

Mingled Faiths, Separate Peoples: Pew Research Center’s New Survey of Indian Religious Communities

People waiting at the entrance gate of Dargah Sharif, the shrine of a great Sufi saint venerated by both Muslims and Hindus, in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India.

Credit: Depositphotos

The new, thorough survey of Indian religious communities by the Pew Research Center, “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” promises to become the basis of many discussions and articles. Its full report is over 230 pages long and the project team interviewed 29,999 respondents (yes, apparently just one short of 30,000). One can thus go in many different directions with its results, picking various aspects of the findings.

In this limited space, I cannot address this multitude of subjects, and will focus on one of its central conclusion, and one that I think to be apt: that Indian religious communities “live together separately.”

Much has been written about Indian diversity, and for good reasons: The country is exceptional in terms of numbers of linguistic, ethnic, and religious communities living side by side. The history of how their beliefs and customs mingled and influenced each other is also notable and fascinating. But it must be stressed – and the survey is a yet another confirmation of this – that the fact that religious beliefs mingle does not necessarily mean that religious communities wish to mingle as well. A marriage between religious concepts does not have to inspire marriages between religious groups.

Let me pick some of the findings of the survey. On one hand, it shows how particular cults and beliefs cut across the borders of broadly defined faiths. “In Northern India,” the survey indicated, “12% of Hindus and 10% of Sikhs, along with 37% of Muslims, identify with Sufism,” a mystical strand of Islam.

Moreover, the report reveals a fascinating spread of Hindu core beliefs across various religious communities, against the diktats of tightly-defined doctrines. For instance, the report declares that 32 percent of Indian Christian and 26 percent Indian Muslim respondents believe that the “Ganges has the power to purify.” Moreover, 27 percent of Indian Muslims respondents stated they believed in reincarnation, and so did 29 percent of Christians. The report also states that as much as 77 percent of Muslims and 64 percent of Christians believe in karma, presented as a concept separate from reincarnation. I think the case of believing in karma while not believing in reincarnation may be a certain misunderstanding here, but this is a subject for another discussion.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is known that most Indian Muslims and Christians are descendants of converts (often from Hinduism), and thus it is true that they had carried many of their customs to the fold of their new religion. But to find that not only Hindu social customs, but principal Hindu religious beliefs (which Islam and Christianity as such reject) are so common among Indian Christians and Muslims is a rather startling revelation, and one that would require more scrutiny.

But at the same time the report does confirm a well-known social truth that Indian religious communities often lead separate lives, in the sense that they seldom intermarry and that a person’s circle of close relations often consists mostly of persons from one’s own community. This is especially true for social divisions between the three largest religious groups: Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Followers of three smaller religions which historically had grown out of Hindu communities – Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists – are not that socially distanced from Hindus, while they remain largely distanced from Muslims and Christians.

As per the survey, most Indian respondents do not want to allow the women of their religious communities to marry men from other communities. This was declared by 67 percent of Hindu respondents but also by as much as 80 percent of the Muslim respondents. Typically for a conservative society, there were respondents who did not want to grant this liberty to the women of their community outnumbered respondents who did not accept the same liberty for men. Incidentally, the report was published at the same time that news broke in India that a Sikh girl who tried to elope with her Muslim partner was brought back by men of her community and then apparently cajoled to accept a rushed marriage with a man from her own religious group.

Similarly, a majority of the survey’s respondents declared that most of their friends come from the same religious group, and a substantial number of respondents did not wish for people of other faiths to be their neighbors. Among Muslims, 25 percent did not want Christians as their neighbors and 26 percent thought the same of Sikhs, but just 16 percent had the same attitude toward Hindus. In case of Hindus, as much as 36 percent did not want Muslims as their neighbors while 31 percent had same reservations about Christians. These findings seem to largely fit with from what we know about housing apartheid in India from other sources.

How can we attempt to explain the coexistence of religious mingling and social segregation? Historically, there were communities in India that functioned on the borders of two faiths and it was not so easy to label them. There were also mystic saints whose cults attracted people from different communities, such as the aforementioned Islamic Sufi mystics, some of whom had followers both among both Muslims and Hindus. Moreover, as stated above, various faiths did influence each other to various degree. But all of this coincided with numerous instances of interreligious conflicts, and at any rate historical mingling in the past does not have to translate to social mingling in the presence.

First, there are not many communities in India today that are liminal – and they were certainly not in the majority in the past either, even though such communities have attracted more academic attention, probably precisely due to their peculiar character. In her excellent “Conversions and Shifting Identities. Ramdev Pir and the Ismailis in Rajasthan,” Dominique-Sila Khan documented such communities living in a foggy zone between Hinduism and Islam, but it must be added that the group she researched is small and little-known.

In other words: It is possible to find a Hindu in today’s northern India who still worships a Muslim Sufi saint, even if rather occasionally. But most probably the same person would still define himself or herself unequivocally as Hindu. At the same time, finding a person who is really in-between, a person who does not define her position as clearly Hindu or Muslim, is very hard.

Second, let us take the instance of Sikhs. It is true that their religion was born out of a mixture of Hindu and Muslim beliefs, and that a large number of initial converts to Sikhism were low-caste Hindus who rejected the social rigidity of their Hindu communities and accepted a religion partially modelled on Islam. Later, however, Sikhs were often persecuted by Muslim rulers (especially of the Mughal dynasty), and this painful history is well-preserved by their community. Thus, the scale of Islam’s religious influence on Sikhism (a relationship between faiths), does not translate to closeness between Sikhs and Muslims, while the history of their conflicts (a relationship between communities) apparently does affect their current social relations.

Third, the instances of cult places jointly worshipped by two separate religious groups are not that numerous in today’s India – though they still are probably more numerous than in most countries of the world. Yoginder Sikand’s “Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faiths in India” is a great tour through some such cult places in that country, but the author does admit that their number is declining and their character changing – usually to be taken over by one or other religious group. For instance, there is some evidence that the first Sai Baba could have been a Muslim and that his initial followers were both Hindus and Muslims. Yet, over time the cult has become overtly Hindu and some of his current followers deny any past connections to Islam.

Thus, it is not only that past mingling on the level of customs and beliefs often fails to convince the people of today to mingle on the social level, but many people may simply not acknowledge such historical influences at all. Some of those beliefs and customs may not be seen as past imports but as a natural part of one’s own faith.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This is probably true for most, if not all, of world’s religious communities. Islam and Christianity come from the roots of Judaism, but the immense similarity of beliefs very often did not help to build social harmony and thwart conflicts. Similarly, Christianity has borrowed much from various pagan roots, but it had mercilessly uprooted such communities as well, instead of the two religious groups living peacefully side by side. Thus, Pew Research Center’s new report does remind us that when we talk of diversity in India we should always clarify what kind of diversity, what kind of relationship we have in mind. Religious diversity does not have to imply religious fluidity or fuzziness, or even harmony between the various groups.