Religion seeps into every facet of Indian life. Despite being a secular democracy, India is one of the few countries on earth in which the social and religious structures which define the nation's identity remain intact, and have continued to do so for at least 4000 years despite invasions, persecution, European colonialism and political upheaval. Change is inevitably taking place as modern technology reaches further and further into the fabric of society but essentially rural India remains much the same as it has for thousands of years. So resilient are its social and religious institutions that it has absorbed, ignored or thrown off all attempts to radically change or destroy them.
India's major religion, Hinduism, is practised by approximately 80% of the population. In terms of the number of adherents, it's the largest religion in Asia and one of the world's oldest extant faiths. Hinduism has a vast pantheon of gods, a number of holy books and postulates that everyone goes through a series of births or reincarnations that eventually lead to spiritual salvation. With each birth, you can move closer to or further from eventual enlightenment; the deciding factor is your karma. The Hindu religion has three basic practices. They are puja or worship, the cremation of the dead, and the rules and regulations of the caste system. Hinduism is not a proselytising religion since you cannot be converted: you're either born a Hindu or you're not.
Buddhism was founded in northern India in about 500 BC, spread rapidly when emperor Ashoka embraced it but was gradually reabsorbed into Hinduism. Today Hindus regard the Buddha as another incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. There are now only 6.6 million Buddhists in India, but important Buddhist sites in northern India, such as Bodhgaya, Sarnath (near Varanasi) and Kushinagar (near Gorakhpur) remain important sites of pilgrimage.The Jain religion also began life as an attempt to reform Brahminical Hinduism. It emerged at the same time as Buddhism, and for many of the same reasons. The Jains now number only about 4.5 million and are found predominantly in the west and south-west of India. The religion has never found adherents outside India. Jains believe that the universe is infinite and was not created by a deity. They also believe in reincarnation and eventual spiritual salvation by following the path of the Jain prophets.
There are more than 100 million Muslims in India, making it one of the largest Muslim nations on earth. Islam is the dominant religion in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and there is a Muslim majority in Jammu & Kashmir. Muslim influence in India is particularly strong in the fields of architecture, art and food. The Sikhs in India number 18 million and are predominantly located in the Punjab. The religion was originally intended to bring together the best of Hinduism and Islam. Its basic tenets are similar to those of Hinduism with the important modification that the Sikhs are opposed to caste distinctions. The holiest shrine of the Sikh religion is the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
India is as close as the world comes to Babel. There's no 'Indian' language per se, which is partly why English is still widely spoken almost half a century after the British left India. Eighteen languages are officially recognised by the constitution, but over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed in the 1991 census. Language is a heavily politicised issue, not least because many state boundaries have been drawn on linguistic lines. Major efforts have been made to promote Hindi as the national language and to gradually phase out English. A stumbling block to this plan is that while Hindi is the predominant language in the north, it bears little relation to the Dravidian languages of the south. In the south, very few people speak Hindi. The Indian upper class cling to English as the shared language of the educated elite, championing it as both a badge of their status and as a passport to the world of international business. In truth, only about 3% of Indians have a firm grasp of the language.
Indian art is basically religious in its themes and developments, and its appreciation requires at least some bacground knowledge of the country's faiths. The highlights include classical Indian dance, Hindu temple architecture and sculpture (where one begins and the other ends is often hard to define), the military and urban architecture of the Mughals, miniature painting, and mesmeric Indian music. The latter is difficult for visitors to appreciate since there is no sense of harmony in the Western sense, but don't be put off by this.
Indians love the cinema and the Indian film industry, centred on Bombay, is one of the largest and most glamorous in the world. The vast proportion of films produced are gaudy melodramas based on three vital ingredients: romance, violence and music. You'll know what to expect from the fantastically hand-painted cinema billboards that dominate many streets. Imagine Rambo crossed with The Sound of Music and a Cecil B De Mille biblical epic, and you're halfway there. It's cheap operatic escapism, extremely harsh on the ears, and should not be missed.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Hindus are officially vegetarians. Although you'll find vegetarians everywhere, strict vegetarianism is most prevaslent in the south (which has not been influenced by meat-eating Aryans and Muslims) and in the Gujarati community. There are considerable regional variations from north to south, partly because of climatic conditions and partly because of historical influences. In the north, much more meat is eaten and the cuisine is often 'Mughal style', which bears a closer relationship to food of the Middle East and Central Asia. The emphasis is more on spices and less on chilli; grains and breads are more popular than rice. In the south, more rice is eaten, there is more vegetarian food, and the curries tend to be hotter. Another feature of southern vegetarian food is that you do not use eating utensils; just scoop the food up with your fingers - though not with those of your left hand.