To the unaccustomed eye, the medley of 1.7 billion South Asians spanning across six countries may look very similar. However, many different cultural practices, languages, and even religions make up this region. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism are some of the most widely practiced religions in South Asia.
While India and Nepal make up the majority of the Hindu population in South Asia, there exist many beautiful temples and places of worship in widely Islamic countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Similarly, historic mosques, prominent Buddhist and Jain temples, one-of-a-kind Sikh gurdwaras, and amazing churches exist across all countries in South Asia.
Katas Raj Temple in Pakistan
Shiva Temple in Bangladesh
There are many smaller religions practiced or variations of the major ones outlined above, but most of the population practices the six religions and do so in harmony. Tension and turmoil have always surrounded faith driven political issues, but one fact remains, the countries respect the practice of and protection of its people’s diverse backgrounds.
|Afghanistan||Islam (99%), Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity (1%)|
|Bangladesh||Islam (90%), Hinduism (9%), Buddhism (0.6%), Christianity (0.3%), Others (0.1%)|
|Bhutan||Buddhism (75%), Hinduism (25%)|
|India||Hinduism (79.5%), Islam (14.5%), Christianity (2.3%), Sikhism (1.7%), Buddhism (0.7%), Jainism (0.4%), Others (0.9%)|
|Nepal||Hinduism (82%), Buddhism (9.0%), Islam (4.4%), Kirat (3.1%), Christianity (1.4%), Others (0.8%)|
|Pakistan||Islam (96.28%), Hinduism (2%), Christianity (1.59%), Ahmaddiyya (0.22%)|
|Sri Lanka||Buddhism (70.19%), Hinduism (12.61%), Islam (9.71%), Christianity (7.45%).|
Hinduism is the largest practiced and oldest known religion in South Asia with roots going back as far as 3300 BC. The roots cannot be traced back to any one founder or source, but the religion has influences from many diverse cultural practices and traditions. What began in prehistoric Indus Valley, today it has been dubbed the “oldest living religion” as people living in modern-day South Asia still practice it.
It is believed that that the start of Islam was around 610 BC when Prophet Muhammad was 40 and received the first revelations of the Quran by Gabriel during his retreat in a cave near Mecca. Coming from a noble family and known for his honesty and upright character, he assumes the position of God’s prophet and begins his journey to spread the words of “Allah” which means “the god” in Arabic. The spread of Islam began in the Arabic Peninsula and made its way to South Asia around 700 AD when Arab and Persian traders began settling in Gujarat, India. It has since become the second largest practiced religion in South Asia.
Cheraman Juma Mosque, the first Mosque in India, 629AD. It has since been renovated and updated.
According to old legends, Christianity spread in South Asia by the Apostle Thomas in 52 AD and it was established by 600 AD. Major populations of Christianity exists in South and Northeast India as well as the Konkani Coast. Roman Catholicism was first introduced to India by Portuguese, Italian and Irish Jesuits in the 16th century. Most Christian schools, hospitals, primary care centers originated through the Roman Catholic missions. The British, American, German, and Scottish missionaries were introduced English education in India for the first time when they brought over Protestantism. They also helped create early translations of the Holy Bible in various Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, and Telugu.
St. Aloysius Chapel of Mangalore, India
Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, is the found of Buddhism. He was born in Lumbini, Nepal as a kshatriya or warrior prince around 5th century BC. It believed that after asceticism and meditation, Siddhartha Gautama discovered the Buddhist Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The religion spread first in the northeastern regions of India and at one point was widely practiced across most of Southeast Asia. The great king Asoka of the Maurya Empire converted to Buddhism around 260 BC and promoted the religion by building many stupas or places for meditation.
Paro Taktsang or “Tiger’s Nest” Monastery in Bhutan
Whether Jainism predates Hinduism is certainly a debated subject but many historians date Jainism back to 3000 BC, around the time Hinduism sprouted in the Indus Valley region which is now modern-day India and Pakistan. Historians have been able to confirm the existence of Mahavir, who is the 24th and last Tirthankara or Teaching God who preached the Jain way around 550 BC. While the origins of this religions are obscure, Jains hold it to be eternal and to their first Tirthankara Rishabhanatha who lived many millennia before Mahavir. This religion thrived under the Nanda Empire from 424 BC to 321 BC and is practiced by many to this day in South Asia.
Jain Temple in Nagarparkar, Sindh, Pakistan
Sikhism started with Guru Nanak, the first guru in 15th century AD in the Punjab, India region. It is believed that one morning, when he was 28 years old, Nanak went to the river to bathe and meditate. But this time he was gone for three days. When he came back he was said to have been filled with the spirit of God. He said, “There is no Hindu and no Muslim.” After this, he began his missionary work and the religion of Sikhism was born. The practices were eventually formalized by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.
Sri Harmandir Sahib commonly referred to as the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, Punjab, India.
While these six religions make up the majority of the population in South Asia, there are hundreds of cultural and tribal variations of them and many other religions as well.