From the moment you wake on the first morning the religious and spiritual nature of Indians will be apparent to you. You’ll hear the sounds of the morning calls to worship, broadcast over loudspeakers and public address systems. You’ll hear the mosques just before 6 am and the Sikh loudspeakers start shortly afterwards. I’ve grown to love this morning alarm and reminder to say my morning prayers. It brings a smile to my face every time, when I realize I am among the most diverse and spiritual people on Earth. It’s like hearing a church bell ring on Sunday morning. A reminder that there is somewhere I should be or something I should be doing.
India celebrates every religious holiday. They celebrate not only the Hindu holidays and festivals, but also the Islam, Sikh, and Christian. Most people work six days per week, but they have many days off for holidays, weddings, etc. To an Indian, family and faith are the two most important things in life and employers make provisions to allow time off for that.
You will see many variants of these faiths among the population. There are many Swamis and Yogis that teach their pathways to God or enlightenment.
Jains, a branch of Hinduism, believes that God is within every animate and inanimate thing. They will not harm any living creature, even insects. Nudism is also allowed.
Buddhism was also an offshoot of Hinduism. You will see Buddhist stupas (buildings that house the prayer wheels) and brightly colored prayer flags in many areas of India, particularly the area around Khushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, the northeastern states that border China and Nepal, and also in Varanasi. There, on the side of the Ganga River, the monks in their saffron robes mingle with the hordes of Hindus, Jains, Sadhus (reclusive spiritual men), and others.
The Baha’i faith, a religion which began in Persia, has the lovely Lotus Temple in Delhi and other temples, including one I visited in Pushkar. The basis of this religion is belief in one God, a belief that all major religions have the same spiritual source, and a belief that all people are created equal regardless of race or culture.
Christians are also present in the larger cities, with many in the states of Kerala and Goa, which was once ruled by Portugal. The Christians I’ve seen have been mostly Catholic, but there are Protestant Christian missionaries working in all parts of India. Some of these missions have not been viewed favorably by Hindus that are concerned about Hindu Christian conversions.
Most of my visits to India have been during December and January, so I have seen the Christian celebrations for Christmas. On my very first visit, I entered my hotel lobby which was decorated with a large Christmas tree, got my key, and boarded the elevator which was filled with the sounds of Jim Reeves Christmas.
India is so diverse and so integrated that most Hindus know as much as we do about the Bible and the Quran. And most Muslims know a lot about Hinduism as well.
Everyone is entertained by Bollywood, which is fully integrated with all religions. They sing the same songs and know the history and moral stories from all the faiths.
I remember once I was attending a concert of Zakir Hussein, one of India’s most famous tabla players. Even though he is a Muslim, he told the audience many Hindu stories during his performance.
Once once I was at Birla Temple in Jaipur and I saw Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her arms, engraved into the marble pillars along the front of the temple. All of these things came as a surprise to me, since in the West we make so much of our differences, rather than our similarities. Most Christians I know would adamantly refuse to believe that they have any common beliefs with Hindus.
There is every variant of swami or yogi. Some are ascetic and live simply and others have elaborate ashrams and temples. Rishikesh is a good place to go if you want to study yoga under a yogi. Swamis, are also in Rishikesh and all over India. These Hindu holy men teach spiritualism.
One of the most extravagant modern day temples, devoted to a Swami, that I’ve seen is Akshardam Temple in Delhi. This is a must see location and great if you are traveling with children. It has some of the most beautiful sculptures and carvings, an IMAX film about their swami, a Disney-like boat ride of some length that teaches you about Indian history and India’s contributions to mankind, and a dancing water fountain that’s choreographed to music every evening.
Many families have their own swami that helps oversee the spiritual development of the children. I met one of these swamis in Bangalore, who feeds 300 hungry kids every week. I enjoyed that day with the kids and even enjoyed helping wash all those stainless steel plates!
Vegetarianism is also not just a food choice, but a conscious effort not to impose pain on any living creature. It has a spiritual basis. Christians and Muslims eat meat, along with some of the modern day Hindus. You won’t find pork anywhere and beef you will only find in Muslim areas. Most carnivores eat only chicken, goat, and fish. I remember being on a flight to India once that ran out of vegetarian meals. People had forgotten to request a vegetarian meal prior to the flight. That was the closest thing to a riot that I had ever seen! I gave up my vegetarian meal to one of the vegetarians. When I am in India now I always eat vegetables only, mostly because I’ve gotten sick the few times I’ve tried to eat meat due to poor refrigeration of the meat, but also because I think Indian vegetarian food is some of the best in the world.
Some Indians I know don’t understand my attraction to the spiritual side of India. Being immersed in it every day, and not having a contrasting viewpoint of other cultures, they don’t see the pervasive spiritual presence in India. They don’t know that people don’t line up to pay homage to God every morning in the West. I have never seen this, all faith devotion, in any other culture. Indians also don’t know that we don’t normally have spiritual conversations in the West, but it is a common thing there.