South Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions for different religions. It is the home to roughly millions of people and approximately more than 100 religions. There are also many different types of local religions that are present there in this region. The word “religion” refers to a multitude of beliefs that are often spread by word-of-mouth from a person or an organization to a group of people. Some religions are promoted by groups who have a fixed location or time for their meetings. While others organize around living traditions passed on from one generation to the next.
Characteristics of Religious Organizations and Beliefs
There are some general characteristics common to most religious organizations and beliefs:
1- Belief in a divine creator: Who created us? Why was our creation necessary? What do we do with this life? How did we get here? Should we follow the same path as our parents or should we take our own path?
2- Belief in immortality: Can you be reincarnated into another body and live forever again? If so, at what age will you die and how will you go on living after death?
3- Belief in the afterlife: Is there an afterlife where one lives forever and can return to Earth again? Is there a place where we can live after death (maybe in another Universe not discovered yet)?
4- Belief in God/God’s existence: Which God were they talking about when they used the phrase “god”? What does God mean for them (above life, below life)? Why does it matter if God exists or not for them?
5- Religion between family and community: Religion is equally important for families as well as communities. Since we as humans need to share our faith as well as with non-humans such as animals. So religion is also important for communities since it helps them connect both emotionally and spiritually.
South Asia’s Religious Diversity
South Asia is home to a plethora of religions and diverse traditions. This is often overlooked or underestimated in discussions about the region. Here we’ll look briefly at each of the major religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism — and discuss their place within South Asian society today.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in India as early as the 4th century CE (the Nagapattanavar Mission), but it wasn’t until around the 7th century that they started to convert large numbers of people. The first missionary bishop was established in the 8th century by a man named Thomas Becket. He could not survive for his faith during the reign of King Athelstan.
The next major milestone for Christianity was the arrival of missionaries from China around 630-640 AD. These early missionaries mostly focused on converting the local Hindu community.
Hinduism has been an important part of Indian culture since ancient times primarily. Because it shared many beliefs with other faiths such as Jainism and Buddhism. It also serves as an important part of Hindu cultural identity and identity politics today.
Hinduism in South Asia
To understand the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is useful to know about the ancient Indian Subcontinent that led to their spread through trade and conquest. India has a rich history and culture, dating back over 5,000 years. One of the most important in this history was the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and parts of Iran. In the 3rd millennium BCE, trade routes played an important role between Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and the Indian Subcontinent.
The Indus Valley civilization developed rapidly in this period and reached its peak around 1000 BCE. This period saw a great expansion of south Asian culture as well as gold mining and coin production. Their major cities included Harappa (in modern-day Pakistan) and Mohenjo-Daro (in modern-day Pakistan) are very famous places these days. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment was controlling the flow of goods into their empire from across many highland areas in what is now Afghanistan. The Indus Valley Civilization ultimately eclipsed by the rise of the different Empires of the time.
The Spread of Islam in South Asia
The spread of Islam in South Asia is a very important topic for discussion. It is general fact that Islamic preaching reached the Indian Subcontinent by the Arab traders. This land was very fertile to produce different types of products. Arab traders used to visit this region for a trade where they dealt with the local people. This region divided into the caste system and people used to feel suffocated socially. When they realized that Islam give them equality with respect to their deeds, they start embracing Islam.
But Muslim Sufi saints remained the most important factor for the conversion of local people to Islam. Socially isolated people started to follow the Sufis because of their preaching and spirituality.
The Spread of Christianity in South Asia
Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have had a long history in South Asia. For example, the ancient Indian religion of Buddhism has been around since at least the fourth century BCE (and likely much earlier), while Christianity in India has gone back to at least 1000 BCE and is still very much alive today. The spread of these religions into South Asia, however, took centuries to happen.
When Christianity first arrived in India, some of the local population warmly welcomed them. Despite being a foreign religion from beyond the sea, it wasn’t even a thing before their time. It quickly became part of everyday life as an economic and social force that increased trade relations between east and west.
As time went on, Christianity grew ever more powerful among Indian tribes — who had no experience with it before arriving — with leaders like Alexander the Great converting large numbers of non-Buddhists (who were often assimilated into Hinduism) into following Jesus Christ. British influence on India did not end when they left in 1947. But they maintained their religious presence in different circles.
The religious history of South Asia is quite diverse in its composition. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism gained significant importance before the emergence of Islam in this region. The term “Hinduism” was first used by the British to refer to the native religion of the Indian Hindus. It was originally used as a term for local belief systems of India, with each belief being broken down into communities called “Caste”. The caste system was based on several characteristics such as ancestry and occupation. The role of this caste and class stratification system is still evident today in India such as the rise and dominance of Brahmins/Brahmans.
Whereas Buddhism and Christianity and other local religions had also influenced the local communities. The Muslim era started with the advent of Arab traders and Sufi saints in South Asia. Local communities started embracing Islam because of the basic teachings and principles of Islam where every individual is equal in his rights.