Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Religions of South Asia

Statue of Buddha in India

Statue of Buddha in India



The Introduction of Islam
Not all the important religions of South Asia were born in the region. Adherents of Zoroastrianism (now known as Parsis) came to India in the early eighth century C.E. from Persia, to the west. Islam began to shape the culture and history of South Asia from the end of the first millennium C.E., when Arab traders first came to the shores of Gujarat. In considering South Asian society, we must remember not only to look to the eastern lands where Hinduism and Buddhism and the South Asian languages and cultures associated with them took hold, but also to the west, from where other models of religion, culture, and language were brought into the South Asian world.

Although the first interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia took place through trade, the presence of Islam was also strongly shaped by the military campaigns that first brought large numbers of Muslims into the region, establishing Muslim powers in the north and center. Certain elements of Islamic belief, such as its radical monotheism and eschewal of images in worship, brought about religious conflict in the region. However, although this conflict formed a part of the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims in South Asia, there was great complexity to the interaction among Muslim rulers and their mostly non-Muslim subjects, as well as between those who converted to Islam and those who did not. Indian art of the period, for example, provides vivid testimony to the way in which West Asian influences were integrated with South Asian styles and techniques, giving birth to a vibrant and unique tradition.

Religiously, the situation was also complex. Law is a central feature of Islamic thought, and Muslim legal representatives became a feature of life in most areas where Islam exerted influence. Scholars of the Islamic tradition wielded considerable influence, but not exclusively; the Mughal emperor Akbar was famous for his interest in all religious traditions, and he encouraged cross-religious dialogue and understanding. Many rulers chose to provide patronage to all religious traditions present within their area of influence. Conversions did not take place on a large scale in all regions, and cannot be attributed to force. Most conversions took place in the outer areas of Bengal and Punjab and were associated with the Muslim mystical movement called Sufism.

Sufis, Saints, and Holy Men
Sufi saints shaped the development of popular Islam, just as bhakti saints shaped religious belief and practice among those we now call by the general term “Hindu.” Like bhakti poets, Sufis (many of them poets as well) spoke of their direct experience of god and the need to get beyond just formal religious observance to a true and immediate religious engagement. Such religious leaders used similar strategies—the establishment of regional centers open to wide audiences, the appeal to direct and unmediated experience of god, and the validation of aspects of local culture through the establishment of local economic and social imagery in poems. Popular religious leaders and practices also interacted with more orthodox and established forms as theological speculation and advanced learning in the elite languages of Sanskrit and Arabic continued. Muslim centers—mosques and madrasas (religious schools)—proliferated, but so too did Hindu sites, although great temple centers were for the most part a thing of the past in the north. The cult of Krishna grew enormously in popularity, and its center south of Delhi became an important pilgrimage site even in the shadow of the Mughal capital. In the fifteenth century, the famous poet and holy man Kabir was known for his critique of the hollow religiosity of both the Muslim cleric and Hindu brahmin. He mocked them both and sang of his own direct access to a formless god. It is notable that Kabir’s name is Muslim, but his poetry reveals the influence of Shaivite yogic practices—boundaries between religious groups were not absolute.

The central role of saints and holy men was closely connected to the relationship between guru (teacher) and sh’isya (student), or in Muslim contexts, pir and murshid. The teacher/student relationship remains important in the religions of South Asia, as well as in life in general, such as in the classical music traditions.

Building a community around the guru-student relationship was fundamental to the development of the Sikh tradition, one of the world’s newer faiths. Guru Nanak (1469 1539) formed a community of disciples (sikhs) after he had a revelation of the formless and inexplicable nature of god. His songs and those of later gurus were recorded in the text known as the Adi Granth, or “First Collection.” His monotheistic vision of god is seen by many as a compromise between Hindu and Muslim ideas, but such a self-conscious rapprochement between the two traditions was apparently not Nanak’s intention. Like other religious speakers of his time, he experienced a religious vision in keeping with the many cultural influences that formed him, but in his own distinctive and unique mode. The community that grew up around him has become a prominent minority in India and around the world.