Lesser known religions of India: Facts, figures, and practices part-2

A massive detailer outlining India’s less-known religions, their facts, population figures, and the practices and beliefs that they have.

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Zoroastrianism

Origin

  • Zoroastrianism in India began particularly during the Sasanian period (the last period of the Persian Empire under Iran before the sudden rise of Islam in the 7th century period of 633 BCE–654 BCE) when Zoroastrians began moving to India in successive migrations to escape the Muslim conquest of Persia and eventual persecution. It traces its roots to the 2nd millennium BCE when it was the state religion in the pre-Islamic Iranian empires from around 600 BCE to 650 CE (for more than a millennium). They arrived in the Gujarat region of India primarily in the towns of Sanjan, Nausari, and Udvada, before mass migrating to Bombay (Mumbai) in the 19th
  • Zoroastrianism is considered as one of oldest extant religions of the world. It has a blend of eschatological monotheism and cosmogonic dualism based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) who is considered as Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) by his followers. The religion believes in messianism (a messiah who is the chosen savior of humanity by God), heaven and hell, judgment after death (Temple of Silence where bodies are laid in the open after death), and free will of life.

Number of Followers

  • As per estimates, there are roughly 190,000 Zoroastrians worldwide. Of these, only 57,000 or 0.006% of India’s population are Indian Zoroastrians.
  • Mumbai is now is home to over 70% of India’s Parsis and Iranis.
  • Due to mass persecutions of Zoroastrians during the Muslim conquest and forced conversion by Safavids to Shiism, subsequent migrations have now made India home to the largest population of Zoroastrians in the world! Zoroastrians are identified as Parsi or Irani on the basis of the time of their ancestral migration to India.

Beliefs

  • Zoroastrians believe in the religious texts of Avesta that includes poems written by Zoroaster called the Gathas in which the religion’s precepts and scripture are elucidated about. Zoroaster said that there is only one invisible God who is the sustaining force of the Universe and believed that human beings have a right of choice of life in which the consequences of their choices are their own responsibility.
  • The anti-god to Ahura Mazda is known as the Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman who was the devil). To ward off this evil, Zoroastrians worship the six primary Amesha Spentas (divine beings) and Yazatas (angles of God) so that forces born of Akəm Manah (evil thinking) by Angra Mainyu can be countered by meditation.
  • The religion believes in three main tenets: Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds), one path of Truth to follow, and always do the right thing to earn beneficial rewards as per your behavior.
  • Water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, azar) are considered as pure in Zoroastrian cosmogony and it is considered that they are both life-sustaining. In Zoroastrian fire temples, both water and fire are kept to show the balance of life. Fire is considered a medium for gaining wisdom through spiritual insight and water is considered as the one true source of that wisdom.
  • Corpses are considered decaying hosts and according to scripture, they are to be safely disposed of in such a way that they do not pollute the ‘good’ creation in nature. Laying bodies in the open on top of the Towers of Silence are practiced mainly by Zoroastrian communities of the Indian subcontinent whereas other Zoroastrian communities around the world either cremate their dead or bury them in lime mortar graves.
  • Parsees in India are highly opposed to proselytizing (conversion) and Zoroastrians are highly encouraged to marry people of the same faith or they might face social banishment in extreme cases.
  • Parsis and Iranis have been central to the Indian Nationalist movement and considered as the pioneers of modern Indian industry. Parsi families have built iconic institutions of all kinds in India and they have had high participation in India’s armed forces and entertainment industry.

Festivals

  • The Parsi calendar is divided into 12 months of equal length and five festal days. The five festal days are presided over by guardian angels. So are each of the other days of the year. So, loosely, every day of the year could be considered special.
  • The Zoroastrian calendar has six seasons in which a major feast known as Gahambars is celebrated in each season; these feasts are communal, hence non-Parsis are not allowed in them. In these festivals, apart from munificence, charity, temple-worship, and community interaction, Zoroastrians pledge themselves towards a life of justice and charity.
  • Since most of the Zoroastrians in India follow the Shehanshahi (Parsi calendar), their New Year’s Eve (Pateti) and New Year (Jamshed-E-Navroz), is celebrated in August. The Farvardin calendar followed by Iranis celebrates their New Year (Nowruz) in March on the day of the vernal equinox.
  • Other important Zoroastrian festivals are Khordad Sal (birthday of Zarathushtra), Muktad (All Souls’ Day), Zardosht (commemorating the death day of Zarathushtra), Adar roj nu Parab (birthday of fire). There are also festivals for paying respect to rains, fertility, water, birth, initiation (Navjote), Lagan (marriage) and death.

Famous Zoroastrian pilgrimage sites in India include:

  • Udvada Atash Behram housing Iranshah Atash Behram, Udvada village in Gujarat.
  • Navsari Atashbehram in Navsari, Gujarat
  • Modi Atash Bahram in Surat, Gujarat
  • Vakil Atash Bahram in Surat, Gujarat
  • Sanjan town in Valsad, Gujarat

Judaism

Origin

  • Judaism as a religion emerged during the Hellenistic period (323 BCE – 31 BCE) and Israelites have lived on our planet since 1500 BCE as inscribed on the Egyptian Merneptah Stele dated 1213–1203 BCE (more than 3,000 years).
  • Judaism prospered during the Bronze Age in the Middle East and is one of the oldest monotheistic religions of the world. With over 17.4 million followers in the world, it is the tenth largest religion in the world. Judaism is the first foreign religion to arrive in India as per historical facts. They arrived in Kochi (then-Cochin) in Kerala during 562 BCE and later on in 70 CE when they were exiled from Israel due to many anti-Semitism driven acts. Israelites were exiled from Israel during the Assyrian siege of the Israeli Kingdom in 733 BCE, the Babylonian captivity by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 597 BCE and 586 BCE, and the Siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 63 BCE.
  • The Cochin Jews (or Malabar Jews) are probably the oldest known group of Jews in India who trace their roots to the era of King Solomon. They speak Judeo-Malayalam (a dialect of the Malayalam language) and have built many synagogues in Kerala dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Now, there are only 26 Jews in Kochi.
  • Jews are divided into three distinct groups in India based upon the time of their arrival to India: Bene Israel who consider themselves as the descendants of the first Jews who arrives in India 2,000 years ago, the Jews of Malabar whose ancestors arrived 1,000 years ago, and the Iraqi Jews (Baghdadis) who came to India during the 18th century. The Indian Jewish community is a religious minority of India who numbers are considerably shrinking due to emigration.

Number of Followers

  • There are close to 15 million Jewish followers in the world of which 6.5 million Jews are concentrated in Israel and 6.8 million are in the USA. The rest are mostly residents of Europe and South America.
  • At present, there are roughly 6,000 Jews settled across India, and most Indian Jews live either in Thane and Mumbai.

Beliefs

  • Judaism’s central religious belief is that there is only one God (they write it as G-d so as to avoid any risk of the sin of defacing the name of God). When Judaism was born, monotheism was uncommon in the world, but according to the ancient Jews, God revealed it to Abraham that this is the path to follow for the Jews and that God loves the Hebrews (who later became the Jews). This is why he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and showed them the ‘right path’.
  • After the rescue, God revealed the ‘Ten Commandments’ to Moses which are the ethical guidelines or Torah (“the Law”) that Jews need to follow for Mitzvah (ritual purity) and adherence to the “13 Articles of Faith” as outlined by Rabbi Maimonides.
  • In Jew culture, the study of the Torah and other Jewish scriptures is critical to Judaism hence why most Jewish children attend Hebrew schools for reading their holy books in the original language of the Jews.
  • Jews follow the laws of kashrut (eating foods that God has designated ‘kosher’ or pure and natural) and abstain from meats that are not ritually slaughtered, pork, shellfish and other dairy products that may have impurities or are not made in kosher form.

Festivals

  • Jews of all kinds of movements celebrate many special days throughout the year like Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Passover, and Yom Kippur. They also celebrate The Sabbath (day of worship at the synagogue) each Saturday. Since Jews believe that all days begin at sunset, their holidays commence at sundown and end after sundown. Many personal celebrations are also made in Jew culture such as during the first Sabbath after the birth of a child, blessings for the mother and child are recited in the synagogue by the father, and eight days after birth, boys are circumcised for purity. When boys turn 13, a Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Commandment ceremony) and when girls turn 12, a Bat Mitzvah (Daughter of the Commandment ceremony) is held to mark the youth’s first reading of the Torah publically in the synagogue.

Famous Jewish pilgrimage sites in India include:

  • Jewish Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi
  • Keneseth Eliahou Synagogue, Mumbai
  • Gate of Mercy Synagogue or Juni Masjid, Mumbai
  • Ohel David Synagogue, Pune
  • Magen David Synagogue, Byculla
  • Maghen Hassidim, Mumbai
  • Parel synagogue, Mumbai
  • Shaar Hashamaim, Thane
  • Beth-El Parvel Konkan region)
  • Beth-Ha Elohim, Raigad in Konkan region near Mumbai
  • Succath Shelomo Synagogue, Pune
  • Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad
  • Judah Hyam Hall, New Delhi
  • Neveh Shalom Synagogue, Kolkata
  • Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata
  • Beth-El Synagogue, Kolkata
  • Shaare Rasoon Synagogue, Kolkata

Baha’ism

Origin

  • Bahá’í Faith or Baha’ism is a world religion that was established by Bahá’u’lláh in 1863 originally in and around Israel after which it slowly spread over to Iran (Persia) and parts of the Middle East. The religion’s main tenet is that it respects all world religions and considers all people as equals. Globally, it has 5-7 million followers who are known as the Bahá’ís.
  • Initially, the Bahá’í Faith stemmed from the Bábí religion which prophesized that God would someday send a prophet in the guise of Jesus or Muhammad. When Bahá’u’lláh was banished from Iran for voicing his concerns against the Islamic messianic movements of Bábism, he proclaimed that he himself was the prophet that the Bábí religion had prophesized.
  • Upon this declaration, he was exiled in Akka (a prison city) inside the Ottoman province of Syria (which is now Israel) and he breathed his last here in 1892. The place where he was imprisoned is now known as the shrine of Báb. After his death, his son `Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921), and great-grandson Shoghi Effendi (1897–1957) took forward the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the masses.
  • Bahá’ís do not have any clergy in their religion. They annually hold elections to local, regional, and national Spiritual Assemblies around the world to choose people from the faith who can govern the affairs of the religion effectively.
  • These members of all National Spiritual Assemblies also elect the members of the Universal House of Justice (a 9-member supreme institution of the worldwide Bahá’í community) that congregate at Haifa, Israel, close to the shrine of Báb.

Number of Followers

  • In India, as per the 2011 Census, there are only 4572 Bahá’ís, however, the 2016 World Religion Database claims that there are 1,880,700 (under 2 million) Bahá’ís in the country.
  • In recent years, due to massive casteism and religious violence in India, Bahá’í Faith in India is gaining prominence through Bahá’í schools and other Bahá’í educational institutions like the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Indore which is a Bahá’í-inspired vocational training school for women and teaches the Bahá’í way of life to the locals.

Beliefs

  • Bahá’í teachings consider God as singular and all-powerful like all other monotheistic faiths.
  • They believe that God has regularly manifested himself on Earth in the form of various founders of major world religions across the world like Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Guru Nanak, and their own spiritual leader Bahá’u’lláh and proclaim that Baha’ism is basically a unification of all world religions or a unified world order. This unified world order for them is the one solution to culminate all nations, races, creeds, and classes.
  • The main Bahá’í religious scriptures include the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Suriy-i-Mulúk, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and letters written by Bahá’u’lláh to many heads of state compiled by his son `Abdu’l-Bahá into books like ‘Some Answered Questions’ and ‘The Dawn-Breakers’.
  • At its root, Baha’ism according to the Vishnu Purana considers Bahá’u’lláh as the Kalki avatar who is supposed to appear when the Kali Yuga The religion also has many references to Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnu Purana and some historians suggest that according to Arabic and Persian literature Bahá’u’lláh is mentioned as Bhagavan Baha in many poetic images.
  • Bahá’í religion believes that unity of humanity is the key to human life and this is why many people of lower castes convert to the Baha’i Faith en masse.
  • Through their Local Spiritual Assemblies, Baha’is teach people about the message of peace in concurrence with the Neo-Buddhist movement which has helped the Bahá’í ideals reach more people of the country due to which India is now home to the largest Bahá’í community in the world in less than a century!

Festivals

  • Bahá’ís celebrate many festivals across the year like Naw-Rúz (Bahá’í New Year), First day of Riḍván, Ninth day of Riḍván, Twelfth day of Riḍván, Declaration of the Báb, Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, Martyrdom of the Báb, Birth of the Báb (October 20), Birth of Bahá’u’lláh (Nov 12), Day of the Covenant and Ascension of `Abdu’l-Bahá. Naw-Rúz, the Bahá’í New Year is generally celebrated on March 21, the vernal equinox with elaborate feasts and prayer sessions.
  • It is preceded by the Nineteen Day Fast which holds spiritual introspection sessions, reading of scriptures and abstinence from worldly desires. The Festival of Ridván is a massive 12-day period which commemorates the decision of Bahá’u’lláh to declare his religious mission during his departure from Baghdád for Constantinople in 1863.
  • The First Day of Ridván commemorates Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration of forming a new religion upon his arrival in the Najíbíyyih Garden in Baghdad. The Ninth Day of Ridván (April 29) commemorates the day of the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh’s family members into the Najíbíyyih Garden. Twelfth Day of Ridván (May 2) commemorates the final departure of Bahá’u’lláh for Constantinople and is the final day of the Festival of Ridván.
  • The Declaration of the Báb signifies the inception of the Bahá’í era in 1844. Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh is the day when Bahá’u’lláh passed away on May 29, 1892. Martyrdom of the Báb (July 9), is the day when the Báb (Siyyid `Alí Muhammad Shírází, the founder of Bábism) was executed by a firing squad under orders from the Prime Minister of the Persian Empire over apostasy charges.
  • The Day of the Covenant is the celebration of the Declaration of the Báb and celebration of the birthday of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (November 28) commemorates the passing away of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921. On holy days, Bahá’ís do not work and this is considered a sacrifice.

The most famous Bahá’í pilgrimage site in India:

The Mother Temple of the Indian Subcontinent or the Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India, popularly known as the Lotus Temple is one of the six main temples of Bahá’ís in the world. It is also known as the Bahai Mashriqul-Adhkar Temple in the Bahá’í text. It was reported to be the most visited building in the world as of 2015 according to CNN reports. It was designed by an architect from Iran called Fariborz Sahba and took nearly 6 years to complete at a cost of 10 crore rupees.

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