Religion & Caste in India: Democracy, Karma and Hindus' favourite gods

Indians are deeply religious and believe they are respectful of other religions. They also believe it is important to stop inter-faith or inter-caste marriages, reveal a survey by PEW Research Centre

Religion & Caste in India: Democracy, Karma and Hindus' favourite gods

Shalini Sahay

A survey conducted by Pew Research Center among 29,000 Indians over two years in 2019 and 2020 offers to show the mirror to Indians. The findings tend to confirm widely held beliefs and anecdotal evidence and contain few surprises. One is that Lord Ram is far less popular among Hindus than Shiva. But more of that later.

Almost a quarter of the respondents (24%) to the survey by the Washington D.C. based ‘fact tank’ Pew Research Center, admit that all of their close friends belong to their own caste. Not surprisingly, therefore, a majority of the respondents felt it was hugely important to stop men and women of their caste from marrying outside their caste.

But somewhat surprisingly not many respondents belonging to the OBC and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes felt there was much caste discrimination around them. Only 13% of the OBC respondents complained of a lot of discrimination. The percentage among SC and ST is only marginally higher.

Religion & Caste in India: Democracy, Karma and Hindus' favourite gods

The survey stumbled upon a fountain of pride among Indians. Most Indians say they are proud to be Indians; they are proud to be Hindus; they are proud of the Indian culture and they are of course convinced that Indian culture is superior to all other cultures. A majority (72%) agreed with the statement, “Indian people are not perfect, but Indian culture is superior to others.”

The superiority complex is markedly less in the North-East.

A slim majority (56%) said being able to speak Hindi is very important to being truly Indian. And almost a similar percentage of Indian adults (57%), echoed that being Hindu is very important to being truly Indian, seemingly endorsing the ‘Hindi-HinduHindustan’ line. Even among Muslims, 17% of the respondents felt that it was important to be Hindu for being deemed to be a true Indian.

Less than half of Indians surveyed (46%) favoured democracy as best suited to solve the country’s problems. Two percent more (48%) preferred a strong leader. The preference for democracy is the least in central India (arguably more feudal) at just 33% while a much larger percentage—the highest in the North-East (61%) followed by Southern states (53%) and the North (51%)—in other regions favoured democracy.

The ambivalence for democracy is even among Hindus and Muslims while Buddhists (57%) and Sikhs (54%) express a preference for a democratic form of government. Half of the urban respondents (50%) preferred democracy compared with 44% of adults in rural India. Educated Indians, those with a college degree, and those who belonged to upper castes were found to be more inclined towards democracy.

Not surprisingly 97% of the respondents said they believed in God while approximately 80% said they were absolutely certain that God exists. Only one-third of Buddhist respondents said they did not believe in God.

Contrary to the perception that Hindus in southern states are more devout, the survey claims that only 30% of the Hindu respondents in southern states admitted to praying daily. The percentage is significantly higher in the rest of the country at 68%.

The survey confirms that people in the South ‘differ from Indians elsewhere in their views on religion, politics and identity’. People in the South are also less segregated by religion or caste– whether that involves their friend circles, the kind of neighbors they prefer or how they feel about intermarriage, the survey informs.

The Hindu nationalist sentiment also has less of a foothold in the South. This was reflected in the 2019 parliamentary elections, when BJP’s lowest vote share came in the South. In the survey, just 19% of Hindus in the region said they voted for the BJP, compared with roughly two-thirds in the Northern (68%) and Central (65%) parts of the country.

The survey explains the regional differences by pointing out that Southern states have seen stronger economic growth than the Northern and Central parts of the country. Women and people belonging to lower castes in the South have also fared better economically than their counterparts elsewhere. Anti-caste movements in the South are also said to have played a role.

Some other findings of the survey are that although a majority of Indians are non-vegetarians, a majority of Hindus in the Western (57%), Central (61%) and Northern (71%) India follow a vegetarian diet. The percentage in the East, North-East and the South is significantly lower at 18, 19 and 30 percent.

Most of the respondents cutting across religion said they 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. Faith in Karma is found to be uniform among Hindus (77%), Muslims (77%) and Jains (75%).

But only 40% of the Hindu respondents admitted to believe in reincarnation. Christians (29%) and Muslims (27%) were more likely than Sikhs (18%) to hold this belief. Roughly four-in-ten respondents (41%), including nearly half of Christians (48%), said they believed in miracles. Far fewer Sikhs (20%), Jains (15%) and Buddhists (14%) seemed to believe in miracles.

Not surprisingly, again, a majority of the respondents (70%) said they believed in fate, that events in one’s life are largely predestined. The fatalists were the highest among Hindus (73%), followed by Muslims (63%) and Sikhs (59%).

But fewer respondents seemed to believe in astrology (44%) or placed their faith in the position of the planets and the stars having the ability to influence events in people’s lives.

But 83% of the respondents admitted to fixing important events on auspicious dates and time. Respondents among Hindus who said they believed in both fate (73%) and astrology (49%) were higher than among other religious groups.

A large number of the respondents believed in the evil eye (49%) and magic, witchcraft and sorcery (39%).About half of both Hindus and Muslims (51% each) said they believed in the evil eye – the notion that certain people can cast curses or spells that caused bad things to happen to others. Among other religious groups, these beliefs are less common.

While 60% of the respondents said they trusted ayurvedic treatments, close to half said they trusted homeopathy and in religious rituals to treat their or their family’s health problems. The figure is the lowest in the Western states where only one-third of the respondents admitted to trusting religious rituals to treat health problems.

One of the more interesting findings of the survey is that most Hindus among the respondents felt closer to Shiva than Ram. Lord Ram or Rama in fact finds himself at the bottom of the heap with only 17% of the Hindu respondents saying they felt close to the lord. In ascending order they felt closer to Kali (20%), Krishna (21%), Lakshmi (28%), Ganesha (32%), Hanuman (35%) and Shiva being the overwhelming favourite (44%).

Only in northern and central states does Ram score higher than Kali and Krishna. But even in these states Shiva, Hanuman, Ganesha and Lakshmi have more devotees than Ram.

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