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Indian Religious Thought

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Is Buddhism an offshoot of Hinduism? A reaction to Hinduism? A reformist movement? To answer the question of how Buddhism relates to Hinduism, we need to look at this issue within the larger context of Indian history.

What I am presenting here is not exactly a linear timeline, which would be very misleading, but a basic primer on the development of Indian thought and civilization. There is clearly an evolution of Indian philosophy, rather than a static, revealed Hindu religion, and the rise of Buddhism is situated in a societal complex that is thousands of years old.

Pantheism: a world of natural forces and spirits

Archaic period (6,500 - 2,000 BCE?)

The viewpoint of this essay is that of natural evolution, based on the standard anthropological and scientific view of history. It can be assumed that before any literate cultures emerged in the subcontinent, the earliest inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, a type of social structure in prehistory whose religious forms were typically shamanic and pantheistic/animistic, meaning that there is no distinction made between natural and supernatural. In this worldview, everything that exists is divine, and spirits are just as normal as any earthly phenomena. 

The first dwellings were probably the simple subsistence structures typically found among neolithic societies. About 8,000 years ago the beginnings of an advanced urban civilization on the subcontinent appeared alongside the Indus River called the “Indus-Sarasvati” (Sarasvati was the ancient goddess of rivers, and later the goddess of arts, music, and letters, suggesting a cultural continuity to later times). 

Not much is known about their religion; most likely it involved the worship of deities, as well as animal sacrifice. The first known city was Mehrgarh, located in modern day Balochistan (near the Afghan border). There is evidence of several planned cities, the most well-known being Mahenjo Dharo and Harappa, located in the Sindh and Punjab regions of modern day Pakistan. They traded with neighboring civilizations, such as Sumer in eastern Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of advanced agricultural and architectural feats, such as plowing, irrigation, medicine, baths, and aqueducts. Some unearthed terracotta figurines portray an apparent yogic pose (sitting cross-legged, smiling with eyes half closed). The language symbols have yet to be deciphered, but animal imagery is prominent on the clay tablets, which suggests that they had reverence for the powers of nature.

A few thousand years later there was a sudden disruption of the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly caused by a natural disaster such as an earthquake. There is evidence of war, which makes sense if reliable sources of food and water became scarce. For whatever reason, people shifted eastward towards the plains of the Ganga (Ganges) River, and this area became the center of the Vedic period.

Polytheism: Rituals connect humans, the gods, and nature together

The Vedic period (1,500 – 500 BCE?)

There are two types of sacred texts – the most sacred are called Shruti (“that which is heard”), which are considered revealed and not of human origin, and the rest are Smriti (“that which is remembered”) that are associated with human authors, albeit wise ones. 

Soma – knowledge of which plant has been lost and debated by scholars, but researchers have speculated that it could refer to Ephedra, Hashish, Poppy, or the Fly Agaric mushroom – was used as part of a ceremonial drink with psychotropic properties by rishis (seers) who revealed the holy Vedas (knowledge/visions), and this became part of regular Vedic sacrifices (yajna). Soma was said to confer immortality when drunk. The Vedic texts are a compilation of hymns, prayer-chants, and incantations, from which cosmology, linguistics, mathematics, and astrology have been derived.

The four main books of the Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Artharva) are called “Samhitas.” The “Brahmanas” are an explanation of ritual procedures, based on commentaries of the Vedas.

Breath-control was an important skill in reciting the Vedas, associated with the wind god Vayu. Sacred words (mantra), breath-control, and concentration were developed in later yogas as well.

Vedic religion had 33 basic deities (devas) but not exactly fixed the way that deities on Mt. Olympus in ancient Greece were thought to be, or in the Roman pantheon. Varuna and Mithra, twin gods of heaven (swarga loka) above the mythical Mt. Meru, maintain order and justice (rta). Other heavenly gods include Vishnu (creator, later a sustainer) and Dyaus (sky-god). There are gods of the earth: Soma, both the name of a god and its associated magical plant, Agni the god of fire, and Brhaspati the god of prayer. There are also gods of the atmosphere who are higher than the earth, but available for intercession through sacrifices: Rudra, the god of destruction (later a feature of Shiva, a mahadeva or great god), Vayu, and Indra, a power god of rain, storms, and war, who was perhaps the most important god.

There are several Hindu creation myths mentioned in the Vedas and Puranas (a class of popular, bible-like texts). One story has it that the primordial being Purusha was sacrificed, with his body being split apart into the moon (mind), sun (eyes) and wind (breath). Society itself reflects this body, with a head, limbs, body, and feet that must be kept in alignment. However, only one quarter of Purusha constitutes the manifest universe, the rest is deathless. The idea of a higher, deathless or unmanifest reality became important in later metaphysical developments  (see “Brahman”).

Manu was said to be the first king and the progenitor of the human race, who laid down rules governing Indian society. His laws (Manusmriti) reflected distinctive features of Indian society: dharma (duty), karma (appropriate action), ashramas (life stages), and varna (color). The varna represent three qualities/temperaments (gunas) in human nature. White = sattva, or purity, red = rajas, or passionate action, yellow also = rajas, and blue/black = tamas, dullness or repetitive physical labor.

The term “caste” comes to us from a word used by the Portuguese (casta or unmixed) to denote India’s strict social system based on notions of purity. The Rig-Veda was the first text to mention the four varnas, and they were later associated with the main castes: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (lords/warriors), Vaishyas (farm-owners and merchants), and Shudras (landless peasants and servants). Jati (birth) and gotras (clans) refer to thousands of sub-caste groups, consisting of specialized occupations, guilds, and heredity lines.

It’s worth noting that the original Vedas did not stipulate taboos regarding the social relations of each caste to each other because, initially, it was possible for people to move up and down social levels within their lifetimes, demonstrated in the Dharmashastra texts. 

European scholars in the 19th century theorized that around 3,000 years ago, India experienced a sudden invasion of light-skinned, pastoral-nomadic (i.e. mobile animal-herders) groups called “Aryans” (nobles). They overpowered the militarily weaker, more settled native farming communities with iron-age technology such as the bow & arrow, horse-drawn chariots, and battle axes. The resultant power imbalance accounts for the current caste-system.

Remnants of the original natives, now known as “Dravidians,” still live on the southern tip of India. There is linguistic evidence that the Aryans were descended from proto Indo-European groups, originating from the steppes of modern day southwest Russia (near the Caucasus mountain range, hence the term “Caucasian” for white people) who later spread throughout Europe and Central Asia. DNA evidence also shows that there are distinct ethnic groups in India, one of Indo-European decent, and one of African decent, closely related to Aboriginal Australians.

However, recent geological and archaeological evidence show serious inadequacies with this theory. The Vedas, the first written legacy of the Aryans, may be much older than previously assumed. Indeed, they are likely the oldest known written texts found anywhere in the world. Proto-Aryan groups may have been part of the Indus Valley Civilization, considering that the Vedas accurately mention the position of regional rivers in the past, which satellite photos have confirmed have changed course and now look different. However, this does not necessarily prove that Aryans were there as long as others were.

Between the two positions of the Aryan invasion theory versus the Aryans-were-there-as-long-as-everyone-else theory, I believe it’s likely that there was a gradual Aryan migration. This is not to say that there were never any wars or conquests, but that there isn’t strong evidence that Indian civilization only resulted from the rule of light-skinned, proto Indo-Europeans.

Really, it’s difficult to tell exactly who came to India when. There may have been a lot of ethnic mixing, accounting for the stereotypical Indian look: caucasian features, brown skin/eyes, and black hair. All that should be said here is that India is a very old and rich civilization consisting of several different cultural groups.

The oldest idea of the caste system is that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas are the “twice-born” (dvija) who educate, rule, protect, and supply society, whereas the “first-born” Shudras perform less desirable, but necessary tasks. Shudras, perhaps because they were perceived as inferior, were thought not to reincarnate into higher levels. The Vedas teach a sort of heaven – ancestors live happily on the moon. The purpose of Vedic sacrifices is to obtain immortality in an afterlife. The Puranas mention separate heavens for each major god, and temporary hells to punish those who have not atoned for sins committed during life.

Eventually, by the time of the Upanishads, Hinduism held that all people reincarnate in endless lifetimes – birth into a higher caste was a reward for good behavior in past lives, and birth into a lower caste reflected bad karma. Obviously this ideology was a justification of ascribed status, with its extensive stratification and differentiation. In the vertical sense, there was a hierarchy of cleanliness, spiritual as well as physical, restrictions on intermarriage, inter-dining, and contact between caste members. In the horizontal sense, a complex network of interactions between different occupational guilds arose. Further, dvijas were traditionally expected to follow the ashramas: Brahmacharya (celibate student-hood), Garhasthya (married householder), Vanaprastha (retirement in a forest hermitage), and Sannyasa (homeless asceticism) that correspond to the different needs/goals of people, and of society, mainly kama (sensual pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (righteous/ordered living), and moksha (spiritual liberation).    

Brahmins (from brih - to swell with power) are the highest caste because they function as intermediaries to the gods. Fire, an emanation of Agni, was central to the rituals as food and other items were burned as offerings to the gods.

Brahmins did not always control sacrificial rituals; at first they were performed in households, as well as by professional Brahmins in communal ceremonies. Around the axial age, the Brahmins broke away as a specialized hereditary caste who preformed blessings for hire, so to speak, to the wealthy, and presided over important social rites generally. As they were the most literate, naturally they were also teachers, astrologers, mathematicians, philosophers, and grammarians. Those with a lower status in society have their own rites and cannot study or hear the Vedas.

A fifth caste (Pancama) below the Shudras arose, likely as a way of labeling outlaws (including those who neglected religious rituals), refugees, unclean Sudras, beggars, or others, by choice or otherwise, not ranked within the caste-system. Those who performed undesirable duties in society, such as carcass handlers, leather workers, street sweepers, and sewage workers, were eventually designated “untouchable” (nihshpriya or asprishya), and their presence was considered so polluting that even their shadow was not allowed to touch those of higher castes. One sub-group (Candalas) were said to result from unions of Brahmin women and Sudra males; currently it refers to a specific caste of fishermen, boatmen, and farmers in Bengal. Today outcastes are known by various other names, such as “pariahs,” where we get the modern derogatory name for unproductive misfits, “dhalits,” their currently preferred name, meaning “down-trodden,” and also Gandhi’s “Harijan,” or “children of God.” (While Gandhi is criticized for upholding the caste-system as a whole, he was certainly against untouchability or the degrading treatment of any social group).

Henotheism: Many gods are recognized, but one god is focused on 

Worship during the Vedic era can be characterized as henotheism, rather than genuine polytheism (i.e., a plurality of gods and goddesses worshiped and given equal status). Polytheism and henotheism are essentially the same in the sense that worshipers turn to a certain deity for a specific need, hence the definition of the related term kathenotheism (from scholar Max Muller) as “one god at a time.” A deity is supreme for certain purposes (indeed, as in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, Vedic deities can be interchangeable in that one can have multiple incarnations).

In another definition, henotheism is a religious system in which worshipers recognize the existence of several deities, but worship one consistently throughout their lives, to the exclusion of others (i.e. monolatry).

This is a complex issue because it is difficult to pinpoint definite theological doctrines, as Vedic religion has traditionally focused more on ritual than on beliefs alone. It seems that either all gods/goddesses were perhaps held as different manifestations of one deity, or that, as in Greco-Roman religions, each was subservient to one master god. Today there are different sects based on certain deities (some holding their own as supreme, others like Smarta recognizing several deities as equally worthy of focus and worship).

Zoroastrianism (Mazdayasna) developed in neighboring Persia over two thousand years ago. The prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) taught that there is a supreme God Ahura Mazda (related to the Indic god Varuna) characterized by “Asha”: light, truth, order, and knowledge. Asha is symbolized by fire, which figures prominently in their rituals, leading to the incorrect belief by outsiders that Zoroastrians worship fire primarily. The twin sons of Ahura Mazda represent the battle between good and evil. Spenta Mainyu is the holy spirit who, along with the sparks of divinity (Amesha Spenta), created the world. They are opposed by Angra Mainyu (hostile spirit) who is the principle of The Lie (druj) and is against the natural goodness of creation. Earlier Persian deities were subsumed as demi-gods, either holy (the asuras) or demonic (the deavas) depending who they follow. In Zoroastrianism humans can either follow Ahura Mazda or Angra Mainyu, so there is free will, but it is better to be on the side of good, since Ahura Mazda will eventually reign supreme. Followers of Ahura Mazda must live by good words, good thoughts, and good deeds.

Some of these ideas may have influenced the Jews who were freed by the Persians from their captivity in Babylon and returned to Israel. Thus, those Jews who later became Christian had in all likeliness already adopted basic Zoroastrian eschatology. In Christianity, and later Islam, we see concepts of: divine judgment of souls and a subsequent ascent into heaven, hell, or limbo, hierarchies of holy spirits, guardian angels, hordes of demons, a messianic figure who will return to the earth, and a final battle between good and evil in which good wins, ushering in a completely new era. But many of its rituals also show strong connections to Vedism as well.

At its height, Zoroastrianism found its way to western China and Kashmir (the Kushan Empire). In what is now Afghanistan, northern India, and Pakistan, it existed alongside Buddhism and may have influenced devotional Mahayana sects like Pure Land, particularly with the imagery of the celestial Buddha Amitabha (the Buddha of immeasurable light).

Its important to note too that some dharmic religious ideas spread west.

The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo mentioned an ascetic religious group in Egypt called the “Therapeutae” who lived in coenobitic cells. The modern word “therapy” is possibly a derivative (although some link it to the “Theravada,” as in Buddhist elders). If this group existed, they may have influenced, or even been an offshoot of, the ultra-pious Essene Jews, and later the “desert fathers” of early Christian mysticism in Egypt. Some scholars theorize that the Therapeutae were originally Buddhists, resulting from the confluence of Alexander The Great’s Hellenization of Asia and the missionaries sent west by the Indian Buddhist King Ashoka. Though we know little about the Roman religion of Mithraism, we know that Mitra was the Persian form of Mithra, thus being another example of Indian culture possibly influencing early Christianity via the Sol Invictus cult.

Axial Age (500 BCE – 400 CE?)

Philosophies developed that either elaborated on the Vedas or rejected their authority.

Vaishesheka (atomic theory) was similar to the philosophy of Empedocles, Leucippus and Democritus in Greece, and also like the beliefs of some Jains and Buddhists. Basically, it held that everything is composed of non-divisible, fundamental units of matter which come together and fall apart. Though it holds that atoms are controlled by deities (not the Greek atoms and the void and nothing but), this is one of the earliest attempts to explain the universe in a way that anticipated the natural sciences.

The Carvakas, like modern secular materialists, believed that there is no reality beyond what we can perceive with the five senses. They believed the aim of life was to cultivate sensual pleasure (kama) and financial success (artha) in appropriate ways, sort of like Epicureanism.

Purva Mimamsa held that the Vedas are eternal and unchanging. It focuses on the efficiency of ritual action – the recitation of the Vedas – rather than on the power of the gods. The sounds of the Vedas are not just words, but powerful vibrations that sustain creation. Even the existence of gods depend upon its ritual chanting.

Nyaya was a school of logic that used a similar system of inferences and syllogisms as found in Vaishesheka and Mimamsa. Just as Aristotelian logic has been used in other schools beyond Aristotle’s thought, nyaya is used in other Indian philosophies.

A movement of ascetics called “Sramanas” lived as wanderers on the margins of civilization. Their wisdom was written down in “Aranyakas” (forest texts) intended for those who renounce or retire from worldly life. This represents a shift away from ritual and a focus on inner wisdom. This movement had a major impact on Indian civilization, and may have been the impetus behind the Upanishads, Samkhya, Raja Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Samkhya (enumeration) analyzes how the universe of matter (prakriti) emanates from Spirit (purusha). It is essentially dualistic, as spirit and matter remain completely distinct. This fundamental dyad is expanded into 24 fundamental properties (tattwas) of the universe. Samkhya describes an evolutionary cycle that is everlasting; deities do not create or control this process.

In early Buddhist yoga, the goal is the complete withdrawal from worldly desires (although not a complete withdrawal from the world per se). It was not metaphysical or ontological like Samkhya, but psychological by observing how thirst for sense-pleasure, becoming (having), and non-becoming (getting rid of) leads to suffering. The initiated follow the noble eightfold path to nirvana, a permanent condition that, at death, results in a greater pari-nirvana in which there are no more (mental) ties left to samsara, and thus no more rebirth.

Jainism emerged as a very ascetic religion earlier than Buddhism, and the Buddha himself was acquainted with this path, and may have practiced it himself (the extreme of asceticism he taught later followers to avoid). Like Samkhya, it had a strict division between soul (jiva) and matter (ajiva). Also like Samkhya, it does not focus on personal deities involved in the creation of the universe. In Jainism karma is not only a psychological phenomenon, as in Buddhism, but an actual force that traps the soul in the material world.

Jainism and Buddhism share an important ethos – the caste system is irrelevant. They don’t reject social hierarchy per se, but have different standards for evaluating holy people. Those who can fully understand the Buddha’s teachings were called “savakas” (hearers) while ordinary beings who are not ready for the spiritual path were called “puthujjanas.” A puthujjana can, and should, observe moral precepts, but is not a sotapanna (“stream enterer”) who realizes the four noble truths and the eightfold path, attaining nirvana in seven lifetimes or less.

The Buddha formulated his own simple political idea of a tripartite society consisting of: the rulers, the monastery, and the lay population. In some Buddhist countries people choose to enter monasteries as a bhikkhu (monk) or bhikkuni (nun), in other countries boys are chosen at a young age because they are believed to be reincarnated masters (as in old Tibet). In some countries, monks wander for food during appointed begging rounds once a day. Mahavira Jain similarly believed that his followers (the lineage called “jinas,” or conquerors of the self) were distinct from ordinary people in society, although Jain communities later adopted ashramas (the four stages of Hindu life) and family units.

Classical Yoga, based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is called the Raja (royal) Yoga. It has eight limbs (ashtanga), and teaches similar codes of morality and meditation as Buddhism and Jainism. It differs in that it requires devotion to Ishvara (the divine creator, or Saguna Brahman) and study of the Vedas.

Raja Yoga is a theistic version of Samkhya. While Samkhya looks at how the universe unwinds from purusha to prakriti, Raja Yoga is the path that reverses this process, with the goal being absorption (samadhi) or union (yuj, or yoga). This union first involves isolating the true self (atman) from that which is non-self so that the individual jivatman (soul) becomes Paramatman (the supreme Self). If the yogi (or less commonly a yogini) is successful, at the time of death, his gross body (sthula sharira) and subtle body (sukshma sharira), which carries the seeds of karma, both dissolve, leaving the spirit (purusha) alone in its purity.  

Monism and Panentheism: Godhead is the foundation of the world, and is also beyond it 

From the axial age to the medieval period (500 BCE – 1,500 CE?) non-dualistic philosophies developed.

The Upanishads (“to sit with [masters]”) are philosophical texts that complement the Samhita Vedas. Their major contribution to Indian thought was the notion that Brahman (that which grows/causes to grow, is ever-growing) – a concept vaguely articulated in the earlier Vedas as greatness [of godly power], connected to the expansion of the breath, and the womb from which the manifest universe emanates – as the absolute, all-pervading cosmic force. As nirguna, Brahman is beyond definition and personality. But Brahman is also saguna, or manifest, by creating the material universe through the god Brahma, maintaining the universe through the god Vishnu, and dissolving the universe through the god Shiva. The cycle is everlasting, but one can merge with eternal Brahman and attain liberation from time (samsara).

There is debate over whether the concept of Brahman is outright rejected in Buddhism, or a different way of referring to Nirvana or Shunyata. The concept of the Deathless is common to both Buddhism and esoteric Hinduism.

Uttara Mimamsa, also called Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”) is based on Upanishadic thought. There are several schools; the most influential is the advaita (nondual) form preached by the sage Shankara. This knowledge is not just intellectual, but involves contemplation on the invisible, inner source of awareness (Purusha or Paramatman). It culminates when the yogi fully realizes that only atman is completely real, and is actually the same as Brahman. With this total identification, the cycle of reincarnation, or identification with maya (illusion), ceases, as a shadow disappears under illumination.

The more accessible texts are the Puranas, which contain histories, myths, and lessons. Another important text is the Tirukkural in the southern region of Tamil, written by the sage Tiruvalluvar. Of the sacred literature written at this time, perhaps none has been more influential than the Bhagavad-Gita (“song of God”), a section of the epic Mahabharata. The Gita recognizes different paths to God based on the different gunas – Jnana Yoga (study of sacred texts like the Upanishads) for the wise, Bhakti Yoga (love/surrender) for the devoted, and Karma Yoga (action) for the brave or active. Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is a supreme and salvific god. Another popular epic was the Ramayana; a typical heroic type of epic. Bhakti sects were popular at this time, with Agama sutras dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi (the divine Mother in her limitless incarnations). 

Mahayana Buddhism, rooted in philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Vasabandu, focuses on the enlightened mind that transcends all duality (even the distinction between samsara and nirvana). The Mahayana ideal is the Bodhisattva – “one whose essence is enlightenment” – who spends several lifetimes accumulating karmic merit, and transferring it to others, so he/she or can be a realized Buddha, but postpones leaving the round of existence (samsara) after bodily death until all beings attain nirvana.

The Buddha, for the devotional masses, is more like a savior, akin to Jesus Christ or Krishna, functioning as a bridge between human and divine. Mahayana cosmology includes numerous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who became deity-like savior figures.

Tantric rituals and texts emerged that took non-dualism to its logical conclusion – uniting the spiritual with the physical. Tantricism from Kashmir is called “Kashmir Shaivism,” and from the Bengal region it is known as “Shaktism.” Kundalini Yoga (hatha, laya, kriya) was developed by the Nath lineage of yogis in northern India. Radical paths involve rituals that violate traditional taboos, whereas in more conservative paths these rites are symbolic. Female energy (Shakti - Goddess) is worshipped and integrated with male energy (Shiva - God). Tantra may have been a resurfacing of ancient shamanistic practices from prehistory.

(Note: “Hinduism” as a religious designation originated with Muslim rulers around the time of the Delhi Sultanate. It referred to those in India who were not Muslims, Buddhists, or Jains. Hindu traditions generally respect the Vedas. Prior to these religious connotations, the term Hindu referred to Indian people in general.)

Current age

There are now six recognized orthodox (astika) philosophical systems (darshana) in Hinduism: Nyaya, Mimamsa, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Samkhya, and Vedanta, but the latter three are more relevant in modern Hinduism. The Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and Bhagavad-Gita are still important texts. Buddhism and Jain are heterodox (nastika) systems, as is the physicalist Carvaka.

Though sacrifice is practiced in some places, animals, particularly cattle, are generally revered and treated with “ahimsa” (non-harm). Temple worship and fire rituals are still prominent. Wandering ascetics (Sadhus) have preserved ancient yoga traditions. Even though the caste system was officially banned by the Indian constitution, many Hindus still observe it, and its effects are widely felt in India today. Hatha Yoga is one of the most well-known Hindu practices; interestingly, it was esoteric for most of its history and almost died out until it was revived in the 20th century by Krishnamacharya.

Contemporary sages like independence leader Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophers Sri Auribindo and Vivekananda integrated Indian philosophy with modern ideas. One of the best known Vedanta sages of the 20th century was Sri Ramana Maharshi, who was purportedly self-taught and spontaneously enlightened. Another important modern sage was Sri Ramakrishna. A Vaishnavite Brahmin, he converted to Christianity, and then to Islam. He felt that they are each valid forms of devotion to God (Bhakti Yoga). In that sense, he never strayed from Hinduism but lived in accordance with the vedic insight – ekam satya viprah bahudha vadanti (“The truth is one, but sages know it as many”).

Islam has been influential with some Hindu schools, as seen in the religion of Sikhism and the Radhasoami cults, and there are millions of Muslims in India today, forming the largest religious minority group. Christianity was established from contact with trading Portuguese Catholics and British Protestants, although a much older, Indian version of Christianity may have been present before. Indian Christians, mostly in places like Goa (a former Portuguese colony) and Nagaland, exist as a distinct community.

Buddhism almost died out in India completely about a thousand years ago, but is now making a comeback. Buddhist elements were reabsorbed into Hinduism, whereas Jains have continued to exist as a distinct community. Mahayana Buddhism spread to the rest of Asia, primarily to the north and northeast. Theravada Buddhism moved south to the island of Sri Lanka, as well as to some neighboring countries to the east. However, Buddhist converts and foreign refugees (mainly Tibetans) also live in India. Zoroastrians (referred to as “Parsis,” or Persians) settled in western India and Pakistan following Arab conquests over a thousand years ago and have been quite successful. Prior to the creation of the state of Israel, thousands of Jews lived in India as well.

India has been a secular democracy since 1947, modeled after the constitution created by Gandhi and implemented by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was educated in Britain and influenced by the Western secular tradition. 

India has remained a land of vibrant religious expression. One of the unique features of the subcontinent is its ability to absorb different influences into its own distinctive civilization. Sadly, there is a lot of conflict in the subcontinent right now, and while this is not new to this region, it has been taken to dangerous levels. The partition of the subcontinent with India in the middle, and the Muslim states of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) has been a source of conflict for decades. There are many groups seeking an independent state or autonomous control, such as Sikhs in Punjab, Tamil Hindus in Sinhalese/Buddhist dominated Sri Lanka, Christians in Assam and Nagaland, and Muslims in Indian-occupied Kashmir (this last one being the biggest source of tension between India and Pakistan). This violence is mostly based on ethnic tension and other social factors, so religious identity per se is not necessarily significant in all cases (except, perhaps, in Kashmir, Pakistan, and northwest India).

Still, there is a rich history of diversity and religious creativity in India that has profoundly influenced the spiritual landscape of Asia, as well as the wider world.

Buddhism is its own religion, true, but it can also be considered a sort of unorthodox, portable Hindu yogic path that non-Hindus can rather easily convert to, one that spread beyond the civilization of its birth, not unlike missionary religions like Christianity and Islam.

Further Reading:

Source books:
Hinduism: A Short Introduction
Klaus K. Klostermaier

Hinduism: A Short History
Klaus K. Klostermaier
A Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism
Klaus K. Klostermaier

The Path of Yoga: An Essential Guide to Its Principles and Practices
Georg Feuerstein

Yoga: The Ultimate Spiritual Path
Rajarshi Swami Muni
All About Hinduism
Sri Swami Sivananda

Eyewitness Companions: Mythology
Philip Wilkinson, Neil Philip

The Encyclopedia of World Mythology
Arthur Cotterell