The Pew Research Center’s largest study of India explores the intersection of religion and identity politics.
Bounded on the north by the Himalayas, east by the Ganges River and Bay of Bengal, west by the otherworldly salt marshes known as the Rann of Kutch, and south by the spice-scented Cardamom Hills, India’s 1.4 billion citizens revere deities as diverse as their nation’s topography: the elephant-headed Ganesha, Allah of Islam, the protector-god Vishnu, Jesus, the Sikhs’ Waheguru, and many more.
And the great majority of the nation’s adults—84%—regard religion as “very important” in their lives, according to the largest single-country survey ever conducted by the Pew Research Center outside the United States. Even more say religious tolerance is central to what it means to be “truly Indian.”
Nine out of 10 of the nearly 30,000 adults interviewed for the study— “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” released last June—say they feel “very free” to practice their faith, and many borrow from one another’s beliefs in ways that Westerners might find baffling. More than 3 in 4 Indian Muslims subscribe to the Hindu concept of karma, for example. A third of India’s Christians believe in the purifying properties of the Ganges River, and nearly 1 in 5 Jains and Sikhs celebrate Christmas.
Yet the survey also reveals palpable religious differences in the vast, rapidly modernizing nation. The 232-page report notes that significant minorities of Indian adults say they would not be willing to accept people of other faiths in their neighborhoods. Most form close friendship circles within their own faith, and large majorities oppose interfaith marriage.
“People in India’s major religious communities tend to see themselves as very different from others,” according to the study, which was conducted as India’s electoral politics have sharpened tensions between the 81% Hindu majority and the 14% Muslim population. The report found that two-thirds of Hindus view themselves as very different from Muslims, for example, while 64% of Muslims “return the sentiment.”
In light of the controversial policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has been in office since 2014 and is often described as promoting a Hindu nationalist ideology—these attitudes have particular relevance in the public life of modern India. In February 2020, after India’s parliament gave migrants of all South Asia’s major religions—except for Muslims—an expedited path to Indian citizenship, clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Delhi left more than 50 dead.
Hindus “tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined,” the survey found, with nearly two-thirds (64%) saying it is “very important to be Hindu to be ‘truly’ Indian.” Of those who share that view, 80% also say it is equally important to speak Hindi—one of India’s two official languages, but just one of 22 constitutionally recognized languages—to be authentically Indian. And of those who share both views, the survey found that 60% voted with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the last national election in spring of 2019.
The survey was conducted as part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, a Pew partnership with the John Templeton Foundation that analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. Undertaken between late 2019 and early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey was conducted entirely in face-to-face interviews among 29,999 adults in 17 languages and is the Pew Research Center’s most comprehensive, in-depth exploration of India.
“If you’re interested in studying the role of religion in statecraft and building identity around the world, there’s no better place to do it than India,” says Neha Sahgal, associate director of research at the Center. “This is a country where religion and identity politics are hugely important, but there’s hardly been any data informing its very emotional debates—let alone its policymaking. So the opportunity to make an impact was huge because data has the power to ground public debate in a set of facts.
“There’s one very surprising fact in the data, and that’s India’s unique concept of tolerance,” Sahgal continues. “For Indians, being tolerant of others and valuing tolerance is not antithetical to wanting to live a religiously segregated life.” As such, she says, “it couldn’t be more different from the American ‘melting pot’ model of pluralism. Indians instead favor a thali model of pluralism: a humongous plate containing bowls of different flavors that all remain separate.”
Several Indian scholars who helped develop the survey say they take comfort in findings that offer a seemingly contradictory “tolerant but separate” picture of Indian religiosity, noting that it challenges the media’s picture of a deeply divided nation.
“This is very, very interesting—a new idea of India,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, where he researches political Islam and cultural perceptions of Muslims. “When people say that respecting each other’s religion is very important not merely for being a good Indian but a good Hindu, a good Sikh, a good Muslim, it means people have tremendous respect for minorities and want an inclusive society,” says Ahmed. “For me, this is the most important finding of the survey.”
Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology and social anthropology whose work at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi focuses on kinship, migration, social change, and gender, says the findings give her optimism at this time of religious tension in her country. Politically driven Hindu nationalism, or hindutva, “cannot ultimately damage the fabric of our communities,” she predicts, “because our diversity and respect for tolerance are so great.”
Kaur, a Sikh, points to the northern city of Ayodhya, where tensions still simmer over a Hindu mob’s destruction of a centuries-old mosque in 1992. “And yet Hindus and Muslims there are still very intertwined, economically and politically,” she says, in subtle ways that even a detailed survey such as this one would find hard to capture. Ayodhya’s Muslim community, Kaur notes, has long provided much of the religious paraphernalia, such as garlands, that Hindus use in their religious ceremonies. “It’s a coexistence,” she says, “that’s been carrying on forever.”
Nonetheless, the Pew survey found that a sense of differentness is “reflected in traditions and habits that maintain the separation of India’s religious groups.” Religious conversions, and marriages across religious lines, are “exceedingly rare,” for example, with about two-thirds of Hindus and nearly 80% of Muslims saying it is “very important to stop people in their community from marrying into other religious groups.”
Indians also tend to socialize with members of their own religious group. “Hindus overwhelmingly say that most or all of their friends are Hindu,” according to the report, and 36% say they would not be willing to accept Muslims in their neighborhoods. About a quarter of Muslims say they would not accept Christians, Sikhs, or Buddhists as neighbors, and 16% of Muslims said the same of Hindus.
Such pervasive self-segregating seems a measure of the value Indians place on their distinct religious identities, says Ajay Verghese, assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College. “One way to keep religion intact is to not come in contact with outside influences,” he notes—and it seems to be working. The survey found that despite the nation’s growing prosperity, “India’s population so far shows few, if any, signs of losing its religion.”
While one-third of Buddhists do not subscribe to belief in a deity, 97% of all Indians say they believe in God and roughly 80% are “absolutely certain” God exists. Slightly more than half the population (54%) say there is one God with “many manifestations,” a view held by 61% of Hindus and 54% of Jains. Two out of 3 Muslims and Christians, meanwhile, believe in “only one God.”
Westerners seeking to grasp why so many Indians adhere to religion should recognize that “the term ‘religion’ is way more expansive in India than in the West,” says Verghese, who studies Indian politics, ethnicity, religion, and political violence. “It’s much harder to secularize in a country where religion affects every aspect of your life, from what you eat and the clothes you wear to who you marry.”
He points, however, to some tantalizing Pew data that may augur change. The survey found that only 69% of respondents in the nation’s wealthier, better-educated South say religion is “very important” to them, a figure well below the national average of 84%. Whether Indians in other regions will become less religious as they grow more prosperous “is an interesting question,” he says.
But with interreligious marriage so unpopular, and nearly everyone agreeing it’s “highly important” to observe religious ceremonies for birth, marriage, and death, Verghese predicts that “religious identity will likely stay high” in India for the foreseeable future.
For all their religious self-segregating and identity politics, however, many Indians are highly eclectic in their spiritual beliefs and practices. More than half of Christians (54%) believe in karma and 29% believe in reincarnation, for example, and 31% of Christians and 20% of Muslims celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights traditionally celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains.
Roughly 7 in 10 Indians also say they believe in fate; 44% believe that the position of planets and stars can influence events in one’s life, and 39% believe lives can be influenced by magic, sorcery, or witchcraft. Many of these beliefs are highest among the less educated, though 29% of those with college degrees say they believe in the efficacy of magic.
Although focused on religion, the survey explored other important aspects of Indian life. Unemployment tops the list of national concerns, with 84% of all respondents calling it a “very big problem.” About 3 in 4 also cited crime, corruption, and violence against women. Ninety-five percent of Muslims say they are “very proud” to be Indian, and 85% agreed with the statement that “Indian people are not perfect, but Indian culture is superior to others.”
About 30% of Indians identify as belonging to a grouping of higher castes known as “general category” caste, with the rest of the population saying they belong to protected castes that have historically been discriminated against known as “Scheduled Caste,” “Scheduled Tribe,” or “Other Backward Class.” Nearly half (46%) of Muslims and Sikhs identify as belonging to the general caste, as do 76% of Jains. Just 28% of Hindus, however, identify with the general castes.
Nearly two-thirds of all Indians, and about 7 in 10 Muslims, say it is very important to stop people from marrying outside their caste. Only a third of Christians and half of college graduates agreed.
Significantly, the survey found that despite Indians’ acute sense of religious difference, complaints of religious discrimination are relatively low. Only 24% of the nation’s nearly 98 million Muslim adults report facing “a lot” of discrimination, although the numbers are notably higher—about 40%—among Muslims living in the north of the country, which includes the national capital territory of Delhi. Additionally, only about 1 in 5 Indians said there is “a lot” of discrimination against members of the lower castes.
Those relatively low numbers were “a shock” to Verghese, whose research focuses on Hindus, because he had supposed discrimination in India to be more pervasive. “There are two ways to interpret” the survey’s findings on discrimination, he says.
“One is that people don’t want to admit [to survey interviewers] that they’ve been discriminated against,” he says. “The other is that we [social scientists] may be incorrect about the extent of discrimination” in India. “If you work on discrimination questions you have to ask yourself: ‘Why is it lower than we think?’”
That is what makes the findings such a rich starting point for further research about India, its religiosity, and its politics as the nation and its international influence grows.
“We will have to grapple with some of these statistics,” says Verghese. “A survey of this magnitude is something scholars who work on Indian religions have needed for a long time.”
David O’Reilly was the longtime religion reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.