About 85 per cent of the Indian people are Hindus, and about 11 per cent are Muslims. The next largest religious groups, in order of size, are Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. Religion plays a vital role in the Indian way of life. Religious laws of the various religions govern the people's clothing, food, and marriage. They also strongly influence the type of occupation among people who strictly follow the laws.
Hinduism is the world's oldest major religion. It has no single founder or head. Hindus believe that the soul never dies. After the body dies, the soul is reborn in another life form. This process is repeated until the soul reaches spiritual perfection, or salvation. Then, the soul enters a higher state of existence from which it never returns. Hindus follow the principle of ahimsa, noninjury to living creatures. This principle especially applies to cows, which Hindus believe are sacred animals. As a result, hardly any Hindu eats beef, and many do not eat any kind of meat.
Hindus are divided into thousands of social groups called castes. The castes are grouped into four main categories. These categories, from the highest to the lowest, are Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. Each caste has a traditional occupation, such as priest, artist, or farmer. A Hindu is born into a caste and finds it impossible or extremely difficult to become a member of a higher caste. Within a community, a person's social status usually depends on his or her caste.
Sikhism began in about 1500 as a bhakti movement. But it later developed into a military campaign to combat Islam and preserve Hinduism. Sikhs make up about 2 per cent of India's population. Most live in the north. They are the country's leading wheat farmers. Sikhs also form one of the largest groups in the army.
Buddhism ranked as India's chief religion in ancient times. Today, less than 1 per cent of the people practise Buddhism.
Jainism developed during the 500's B.C. Jains consider all life sacred and eat no meat. Some Jain priests wear cloths over their mouths to keep from breathing in an insect and killing it. About half of 1 per cent of all Indians practise Jainism. Most Jains live on the western coast. Many hold high positions in business and industry.
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