June 29, 2021

Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation

11. Religious beliefs

India is home to a wide range of religious traditions, which is evident in the blend of beliefs held by its people – some of which cross religious lines.

For instance, not only do most Hindus and Jains believe the Ganges River has the power to purify – a belief with roots in Hindu scripture – but substantial minorities of Indian Christians and Muslims believe this as well. And Muslims are just as likely as Hindus (77% each) to believe in the concept of karma, which is not inherent to Islam. Meanwhile, a majority of Hindus, Muslims and Christians all believe in some form of heaven.

At the same time, some beliefs that may seem mainstream for a certain group are not held by most members of that group. Although many people might consider reincarnation a core teaching in several religions native to South Asia, in no religious community does a majority express belief in reincarnation. Just 40% of Hindus, 23% of Jains and 18% of both Buddhists and Sikhs in India say they believe in reincarnation. Similarly, although miracles are central to the story of Jesus in Christian scripture, only about half of India’s Christians (48%) say they believe in miracles.

On a variety of religious beliefs measured by the survey, there are consistent patterns. In general, men, younger adults (ages 18 to 34) and those who have a college education are less likely to hold these beliefs. For instance, while a minority of men say they believe in the evil eye – the idea that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to others – most Indian women believe this (44% vs. 55%). And college-educated Hindus are less likely than other Hindus to believe the Ganges has the power to purify (73% vs. 82%).

Politics plays a role as well. Hindu supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are more likely than Hindus who have an unfavorable view of the party to express devotion to various tenets of their religion. For example, Hindus who hold a favorable view of the BJP are more likely than other Hindus to say they believe in reincarnation, karma and the purifying power of the Ganges.

In addition, members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes are more likely than members of General Category castes to hold a variety of religious beliefs, with a particularly notable gap among Christians (see “Lower-caste Christians much more likely than General Category Christians to hold both Christian and non-Christian beliefs” below). And those who have faced a financial hardship in the previous year – that is, those who did not have enough money to pay for food, medical care or housing – are more often believers than other Indians.

The rest of this chapter looks in more detail at individual religious beliefs, including what types of treatments people trust for their and their family’s health problems. For information about the nuances of Indians’ belief in God, including whether God can be manifest in people, see Chapter 12.

More Hindus say there are multiple ways to interpret Hinduism than say there is only one true way

Most Indian Muslims say there is only one true way to interpret IslamThe survey asked respondents whether there is “only one true way” or “more than one true way” to interpret the teachings of their religion.

Most of India’s Muslims (63%) say there is only one true way of interpreting Islam, while fewer (28%) feel there are multiple ways of interpreting their religion. Christians also lean toward the view that there is one true way to interpret their faith.

Hindus are the sole religious group in India whose followers are more likely to say there are multiple ways of interpreting their religion (47%) than that there is only one correct interpretation (38%).

At least one-in-ten Indians in all religions do not offer a clear answer to this question. For example, among Sikhs, 44% say there is only one true way to interpret Sikh teachings, 35% say there are multiple ways, and roughly one-in-five do not take either position (21%).

Hindus differ regionally in their views on this theological question. In the South, a majority of Hindus (56%) say there are multiple ways to interpret the teachings of the religion. By comparison, Hindus in the Northern and Central parts of the country are more evenly divided: 44% of Hindus in the North say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of Hinduism, and a nearly identical share (45%) say there can be multiple understandings of the religion.

Hindu college graduates are somewhat less inclined than other Hindus to say there is only one true interpretation of Hinduism (31% vs. 39%). And Hindus who say religion is very important in their lives are significantly more likely than others to express this view (41% vs. 23%). Similarly, Sikhs who say religion is very important also are more likely to say there is only one true interpretation of Sikh teachings (46% vs. 30%).

Among Hindus, partisanship makes a difference as well. A majority of those who have an unfavorable view of the BJP (54%) say there are multiple ways to interpret Hinduism, while those with a favorable view of the party are more evenly divided on the question: 43% say there is only one true interpretation of the religion, compared with 46% who see multiple understandings.

Majorities of Muslims across different regions say there is only one true way to interpret Islam. And older Muslims (i.e., those ages 35 and older) are slightly more likely than younger Muslim adults to see a singular interpretation of their religion (65% vs. 60%). Muslim men are also slightly more inclined than women to say that there is only one true interpretation of Islam (65% vs. 60%). Among Christians, the gender pattern is reversed: Christian men are less likely than Christian women to say Christianity has only one true interpretation (49% vs. 56%).

Most Indians across different religious groups believe in karma

Equal shares of Hindus, Muslims believe in karmaMost Indians of all religions surveyed believe in karma, the idea that people will reap the benefits of their good deeds, and pay the price for their bad deeds, often in their next life. This includes roughly three-quarters of Hindus (77%), Muslims (77%) and Jains (75%) who share this belief.

Indian adults of different ages and educational backgrounds generally believe in karma. The one exception to the widespread belief in karma is the Southern region: About half of Southern Indians say they believe in karma (51%), compared with much higher percentages in other parts of the country (72% or more). This regional pattern holds true for Hindus as well as Muslims.

Among Hindus, those who have a favorable view of the BJP are slightly more likely than those who have an unfavorable view of the party to believe in karma (79% vs. 70%). And among Indians overall and Hindus specifically, those who pray daily are more inclined to believe in karma. But the opposite is true among Muslims: Those who pray daily are less likely than other Muslims to believe in karma (75% vs. 83%).

Most Hindus, Jains believe in Ganges’ power to purify

About one-third of Christians, quarter of Muslims in India say Ganges can purifyThe Ganges River originates in the Himalayan mountains, crosses the Northern, Central and Eastern parts of India, and has special significance in Hinduism. Indeed, the vast majority of Indian Hindus (81%) say that the Ganges has the power to purify, and most Jains (66%) share this view. This belief is considerably less common among other religious groups in India, but, still, about one-third of Christians (32%) and Sikhs (32%) and roughly a quarter of Muslims (26%) feel that the Ganges has the power to purify.

Large majorities of Hindus across all regions of India believe that the Ganges River can purify. Hindus in the Central region, which includes some of the Ganges’ most sacred cities, such as Varanasi, are especially inclined to hold this belief (90%). Rural Hindus also are somewhat more likely than those who live in urban locations to believe the Ganges can purify (83% vs. 76%), while college-educated Hindus are somewhat less inclined than other Hindus to believe in the Ganges’ purifying properties (73% vs. 82%).

Hindus who have a favorable opinion of the BJP are more likely than Hindus who have an unfavorable view of the party to believe the Ganges can purify (84% vs. 74%). Similarly, among Muslims, BJP supporters are more likely than BJP detractors to say the Ganges purifies (34% vs. 24%). And while just under half of Christian BJP supporters say the Ganges purifies (46%), fewer than one-quarter of Christians who view the ruling party unfavorably believe this (21%).

Belief in reincarnation is not widespread in India

Roughly a quarter of Muslims believe in reincarnationReincarnation is a mainstream teaching in Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. But fewer than half of Indians in each of these groups say they believe in reincarnation.22 For example, 40% of India’s Hindus believe in reincarnation. And Christians (29%) and Muslims (27%) are more likely than Sikhs (18%) to hold this belief.

Personal religious observance makes little difference: 38% of both Indians who pray daily and those who pray less often believe in reincarnation. Among Hindus, those who say religion is very important in their personal lives are only slightly more likely than other Hindus to hold this belief (41% vs. 37%).

Older Indians are a bit more inclined than younger Indians to believe in reincarnation: 40% of Indians ages 35 and older believe in reincarnation, compared with 35% of those 18 to 34. Conversely, older Buddhists are less likely than younger Buddhists to believe in reincarnation (13% vs. 22%).

College-educated Indians are slightly less likely than others to say they believe in reincarnation (32% vs. 38%). While people in different caste categories do not vary much in their belief in reincarnation, there are bigger differences within the Christian community (see “Lower-caste Christians much more likely than General Category Christians to hold both Christian and non-Christian beliefs” below).

Among Hindus, those who favor the BJP are somewhat more likely than those who hold an unfavorable view of India’s ruling party to believe in reincarnation (42% vs. 34%). Muslim supporters of the BJP also are slightly more likely than other Muslims to hold this belief (29% vs. 22%).

More Hindus and Jains than Sikhs believe in moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth)

More Jains, Hindus believe in moksha than kaivalyaDifferent religions or traditions teach that people can escape reincarnation’s cycle of rebirth through various means. Achieving this liberation is often referred to as moksha, or the related concept of kaivalya. The survey asked Hindus, Sikhs and Jains if they believe in moksha and kaivalya; Buddhists were asked if they believe in nirvana, a term more often used in Buddhist teachings to refer to the state of liberation from the cycle of rebirth (see below).

Nearly half of Hindus (47%) and a majority of Jains (56%) say they believe in moksha. And among both groups, much larger shares believe in moksha than kaivalya. Sikhs are the least likely of the three groups to believe in both moksha (17%) and kaivalya (5%).

The concept of kaivalya is more closely associated with Jain teachings. And the survey finds that nearly a quarter of Jains (23%) believe in the concept. Jains also are the most likely to answer the question at all when asked about their belief in kaivalya, suggesting a higher level of familiarity with the term. Only about one-in-ten Jains do not answer this question (11%), compared with about three-in-ten Hindus (31%) and Sikhs (28%).

Older Hindus are somewhat more likely than younger Hindus to believe in moksha and kaivalya. For example, nearly half of older Hindus (ages 35 and older) believe in moksha, while closer to four-in-ten younger Hindu adults (ages 18 to 34) hold this belief (49% vs. 43%).

Nearly four-in-ten Buddhists believe in nirvanaAbout four-in-ten Indian Buddhists believe in nirvana (39%).

Buddhist women are significantly more likely than men to believe in nirvana (45% vs. 34%). And Buddhists with a favorable view of the BJP are more inclined than other Buddhists to say they believe (46% vs. 31%).

Most Hindus, Muslims, Christians believe in heaven

Nearly two-thirds of Christians believe in heavenMost Indians say they believe in heaven (55%), though teachings about heaven vary widely across India’s religions. Some religions teach that heaven is the final destination for those who have lived a good life, others teach that it is a temporary home between rebirths, and still others teach that heaven is a state of being that people can aspire to experience during this life.

Majorities of Christians (64%), Muslims (58%) and Hindus (56%) believe in heaven. Among other religious groups, belief in heaven is less common, particularly among Buddhists (24%).

As with many other religious beliefs, those with more education are less likely to believe in heaven: 47% of Indians with a college degree say they believe in heaven, compared with 56% of those with less education.

Among the Muslim community, members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes are significantly more likely than General Category Muslims to believe in heaven (63% vs. 51%).

Belief in angels more prevalent than belief in demons

About half of Indians (49%) believe in angels or benevolent spirits. This includes roughly two-thirds of Christians (68%), about half of Muslims (53%) and Hindus (49%), and far fewer among Jains (25%), Buddhists (24%) and Sikhs (17%).

Across religious groups, Indians are generally less likely to believe in demons or evil spirits (37%). For instance, just four-in-ten Christians (41%) say they believe in demons, far lower than the share who believe in angels.

Christians most likely to believe in angels

Indian women are slightly more likely than men to believe in both angels and demons. And among Buddhists, women are twice as likely as men to believe in angels (32% vs. 16%).

A majority of Indians who have recently faced financial hardship believe in angels, compared with fewer than half of those who have not faced such challenges in the past year (56% vs. 43%). And Indians who pray daily are more likely than others to believe in angels or benevolent spirits (52% vs. 44%); this contrast is especially strong within the Christian community (71% vs. 57%). At the same time, Muslims who pray daily are slightly less likely than other Muslims to believe in demons or evil spirits (43% vs. 50%).

Nearly half of Indian Christians believe in miracles

Roughly four-in-ten Indians (41%), including nearly half of Christians (48%), say they believe in miracles. Among Hindus and Muslims, about four-in-ten hold this belief (42% and 38%, respectively). Similar to belief in angels and demons, far fewer Sikhs (20%), Jains (15%) and Buddhists (14%) believe in miracles.

Across India, women are slightly more likely than men to profess belief in miracles (43% vs. 39%), with gender differences particularly pronounced among Christians (53% vs. 43%).

Relatively few Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains believe in miracles

Different caste groups generally believe in miracles at similar rates. Among Muslims, however, members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes are significantly more likely than other Muslims to believe in miracles (42% vs. 32%).

Hindus with a favorable view of the BJP are more likely than other Hindus to believe in miracles (45% vs. 34%).

Most Muslims in India believe in Judgment Day

About half of India’s Christians believe in Judgment DayOften considered a core doctrine of both Islam and Christianity, Judgment Day refers to an end-of-time belief that the dead shall rise and be judged for their life’s works. A majority of Indian Muslims (71%) say they believe in Judgment Day, as do about half of Christians (49%).

Across a wide range of personal characteristics, including age group, education level and gender, majorities of Muslims believe in Judgment Day. And the Northeast is the only region where fewer than half of Muslims believe in Judgment Day (46%).

Among Christians, women are more likely than men to believe in Judgment Day (53% vs. 44%). And Christians who say religion is very important in their lives are more likely than other Christians to say they hold this end-times belief (52% vs. 40%).

Most Indians believe in fate, fewer believe in astrology

Hindus more likely than other religious groups to believe in fate, astrologyIndians generally (70%) say they believe in fate, the idea that events in one’s life are largely predestined. Majorities of Hindus (73%), Muslims (63%) and Sikhs (59%) say they believe in fate.

Fewer Indians believe in astrology (44%), or the idea that the position of the planets and the stars can influence events in people’s lives. (Still, 83% of Indians say they fix important dates based on auspicious dates or times. See Chapter 7.)

Hindus are the most likely of India’s six major religious groups to say they believe in both fate (73%) and astrology (49%).

Both beliefs are more common among those who are older. For example, roughly two-thirds of Indians ages 18 to 25 (65%) believe in fate, compared with nearly three-quarters of those ages 35 and older (73%).

The Northeast is the only region where fewer than half believe in fate (40%), and Western Indians are the least likely to believe in astrology (32%).

Many Hindus and Muslims say magic, witchcraft or sorcery can influence people’s lives

Many Indians say people’s lives can be influenced through the evil eye (49%) or through magic, witchcraft and sorcery (39%).

About half of both Hindus and Muslims (51% each) say they believe in the evil eye – the notion that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to others. And roughly four-in-ten among both Hindus (40%) and Muslims (43%) say that magic, sorcery or witchcraft can influence people’s lives. Among other religious groups, these beliefs are less common. For example, 27% of Sikhs say they believe in the evil eye, and 15% say they believe in the influence of magic, witchcraft or sorcery.

Most Indian women believe in evil eyeWomen are more likely than men to hold both beliefs: A majority of Indian women say they believe in the evil eye, compared with fewer than half of men (55% vs. 44%). And those with less education are much more likely than other Indians to say they believe in both magic and the evil eye. For example, just under half of those who did not receive any formal education believe in magic’s influence on people’s lives, but fewer than a third of college graduates share this view (46% vs. 29%).

Members of General Category castes are less likely than Indians in Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes to say they believe that magic can influence people’s lives (33% vs. 42%). Caste differences are particularly pronounced among Christians (see “Lower-caste Christians much more likely than General Category Christians to hold both Christian and non-Christian beliefs” below for full analysis).

Roughly half of Indians trust religious ritual to treat health problems

Indians far more likely to trust medical science than ayurveda, homeopathy, religious ritual to treat health problemsThe survey asked the Indian public how much they trust different types of treatments for their own health or their family’s health – medical science, ayurveda or home remedies, homeopathy, or religious rituals.

Nearly all Indians (94%) trust medical science at least to some degree, including 81% who say they trust medical science “a lot.” A majority of Indians (60%) also trust ayurvedic treatments. Meanwhile, roughly half say they trust homeopathy or religious rituals at least somewhat (47% each) to treat their or their family’s health problems.

An overwhelming 98% of Buddhists trust medical science, but they are much less inclined than members of other religious communities to trust religious ritual to treat health problems (22%).

As might be expected, Indians who say religion is very important or who pray daily tend to trust religious ritual more than other Indians. But these highly religious individuals are also more likely than other Indians to trust the other forms of treatment.

Similarly, people who invite religious leaders to their home to conduct religious rites are more likely than other Indians to trust religious rituals and other treatments to manage their family members’ health problems.

Indians in North and Northeast most trusting of religious ritual to treat health problemsMembers of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes are slightly more likely than those in General Category castes to trust religious rituals to treat health conditions (48% vs. 44%). And Indians who have received less education are more likely than college-educated adults to trust religious rituals (47% vs. 39%).

Trust in religious rituals also varies widely by region. While majorities in the North (57%) and Northeast (64%) trust religious ritual to some degree, only about one-third of Indians in the West say they trust religious rituals to treat health problems (31%).

Those who have faced financial hardship in the last year are more inclined than other Indians to trust religious ritual for health care needs (52% vs. 42%).

Lower-caste Christians much more likely than General Category Christians to hold both Christian and non-Christian beliefs

Lower-caste Hindus, Christians more likely to believe in demons, magicMembers of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes are more likely than others to hold a variety of religious beliefs. For example, about half of lower-caste Indians believe in angels or benevolent spirits (52%), while roughly four-in-ten of those in General Category castes share this belief (41%).

This pattern certainly applies to the Hindu majority. For instance, 43% of lower-caste Hindus believe that magic, sorcery or witchcraft can influence people’s lives, compared with 33% of General Category Hindus.

But the belief gap between lower and upper castes is considerably larger among Christians – and this applies to beliefs that are typically associated with Christianity as well as with those that are not.

For example, a majority of Christian members of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other lower castes say they believe in karma (58%), compared with 44% among upper-caste Christians – a gap of 14 percentage points. And about half (51%) of lower-caste Christians believe in demons or evil spirits, while just 12% of upper-caste Christians do. In both cases, these gaps in belief are much less pronounced among Hindus.

The vast majority of Christians in India identify with either Scheduled Castes (33%), Scheduled Tribes (24%) or Other Backward Classes (17%); see Chapter 4 for details.

  1. While reincarnation broadly is understood as a belief that after physical death, the essence of a being will be reborn into another physical body, there are many interpretations of how this occurs.