Major Religions of South Asia


  1. Introduction
  2. Buddhism
  1. Hinduism
  1. Islam/Muslim

5.  References


"Religion is a recognition of the existence of a god or gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service and honor are due; it is a feeling or expression of human love, fear or awe of some superhuman, overruling power; a system of faith and worship," (Webster's Online Dictionary).  Religion has a strong influence on culture and traditions.  Religion has some importance in all cultures throughout the world.  Religion is constantly influencing society and geography.  This sidebar is a short summary of the three major religions of South Asia:  Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.  These three religions are all in the top four religions in the world.  Behind Christianity, Islam is the second largest religion, Hinduism is the third, and Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world by number of adherents.










Buddhism was founded by Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama in northern India. In his late twenty's he left everything behind, including his family and set off on a mission to seek truth. Soon after, he began practicing Brahmanism, which is a branch off Hinduism that focuses on the caste system and the need to materially organize society, but eventually decided that wasn’t for him either.  He then decided that his new mission would be to seek enlightenment. This quest took Siddhartha a long time to achieve. After a long, lonely quest Siddhartha finally reach enlightenment in 535 BCE. After reaching enlightenment Siddhartha acquired the title of "Buddha" or awakened one. Buddha’s next goal was to reach nirvana or ultimate bliss. Over time Buddha began to gather a group of disciples who followed him to the time of his death in 483 BCE at age 80. His large group of disciples continued to follow him even after his death and years later formed the religion now known as Buddhism.

Buddhism is a religion that has a number of beliefs and traditions. Unlike Christianity and other religions, Buddhists do not believe in a god or gods. They also do not believe in prayer, the need for eternal life or salvation. However, they do believe in reincarnation, which is the cycle of rebirth. Buddhists believe they go through many cycles of birth, life and death before they reach their ultimate goal of nirvana. Buddhists believe that reincarnation continues if they are not able to let go of attachment and desires. They will be reborn over again and again until they are able to let go of their attachments and desires. When they are able to succeed in letting go of everything then they will reach nirvana. Buddhists also believe in the four noble truths, which are: suffering is a part of life, suffering is caused be desire and attachments, nirvana is reached when suffering has ended, and you must follow the eight-fold-path to end all suffering. The eight-fold-path is as follows: right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddhism can be divided into three major categories: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. All of the sects of Buddhism practice a combination of Buddha’s teaching and their own rituals, beliefs and customs. According to Peter A. Pardue, (1971) author of Buddhism, the three sects of Buddhism can be divided by their location.

Theravada Buddhism is also known as southern Buddhism because most of its followers are located in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand and some of Vietnam. Buddhism started in many of these countries when missionaries came over from India.

Mahayana Buddhism is also known as eastern Buddhism and is predominantly found in China, Japan, Korea, and some of Vietnam. Mahayana entered East Asia during the Han dynasty (206 to 220 BCE) in China. It was first practiced by the working class and then began to spread to the rulers of China. Missionaries traveled to surrounding countries and where it soon became popular.

Tibetan Buddhism is also known as Northern Buddhism and is widely popular in Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and parts of China. Tibetan Buddhism began in Tibet around 640 CE. In the beginning, there were many conflicts with the native Tibetan religion on Bon. After the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan Buddhism began its revival.

 Today Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, with approximately 360 million adherents.  Approximately 6% of the world’s population is Buddhist.  Kanishka’s military effort helped Buddhism spread across India.  Buddhism became increasingly more popular and it spread throughout the Indian sub-continent over many centuries.  This religion spread rapidly after Buddha’s death and became the religion of Buddhism.  Missionaries spread Buddhism to the lands of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Buddhism entered China during the first century A.D and became popular in Japan soon after.  Buddhism also plays an important role in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaya, India, and the Philippines.  The following is the ten largest Buddhist populations in the world today.  The follow is a chart of the largest Buddhist communities.











Sri Lanka


Tibet *






Japan **







The foundation of Hinduism can be traced back to the Indus River Valley around 4000 to 2200 BCE. Hinduism was influenced by many invasions over thousands of years. Because of this vast time period, there is no exact point in time when Hinduism began. There is no definite beginning and no human founder. One theory of invasion, was the invasion of Northern India around 1500 BCE. This theory states that Arayn-Indo-European tribes from Russia and Central Asia invaded Northern India. These tribes brought the religion of Vedism. Vedism has similar beliefs to Native Indians from the Indus River Valley. Due to the Aryan invasion of India the majority of Hinduisms inhabitants are from India. Over time traditions, customs, and beliefs were created. All these widely practiced traditions developed and form what is now known as Hinduism.

Some people see Hinduism as a polytheistic religion because Hindus worship many gods and goddess. Others feel that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion because Hindus Believe in Brahman, which is the theory of unity and that there is only one divine spirit and only one universe. Hindus believe that certain Gods and Goddesses represent certain aspects of life. For example, Hindus recognize three principle Gods: Brahma (creator of the universe), Vishnu (preserver of the universe) and Shiva (destroyer of the universe). Salvation is achieved through a spiritual oneness of the soul (atman) and the ultimate reality of the universe (Brahma). To obtain this goal, the soul must reach liberation from the cycle of rebirth. As a result, Hindus believe in reincarnation and the caste system.

The two major sects of Hinduism are Shivaite and Vaishnavite. However there are over 50 sub-sects of Hinduism.

Shivaism refers to Shiva as the ultimate deity. People who worship Shiva consider him to be everything: creator, preserver, and destroyer. Overall Shiva is known for being the destroyer, because without destruction there can be no recreation. Shiva is the source of both good and evil who combines many opposing elements. Shiva is also the Lord of the Dance who controls the movement of the universe and he is associated with fertility.

Vaishnaism refers to Vishnu as the ultimate deity. Vishnu is known as the preserver and is believed to be associated with the sun god and is considered by worshipers to be the greatest of all the gods. Vishnu preserves and protects the universe and save human kind from natural disasters and oppression.

Today Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with approximately 900 million adherents.  Approximately 15% of the world’s population is Hindu.  Hinduism came during the ninth to fourteenth centuries in Asia.  Hindu beliefs were combined with elements of Islam and played an important role in South Asia.  Hinduism was much like the Native Indian culture and became popular in Indian cultures such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma.  Missionaries spread Hinduism throughout the Asian continent.  The following is the ten largest Hindu populations in the world today. 

























Trinidad and Tobago



Sri Lanka







There are two theories about the formation of Islam. Historians claim that the prophet Muhammad founded Islam in 622 CE. They believe that it started in the city of Mecca, when according to Muhammad, the angel Gabriel began reading the first revelation. The majority of the Muslims believe that Islam existed before Muhammad was born and Muhammad was one of the last prophets. They believe that Islam was formed closer to the creation of the world.

Islam is a monotheistic religion. They believe in one God and that he is the creator. Muslims also pay their respects to many prophets and their teachings.  They believe that Muhammad is the last of the prophets. Muslims believe that Satan exists and drives people towards sin. Muslims must offer themselves to God completely free of sin. They believe that hell exists only for the sinners and unbelievers, as well as paradise that exists for the people free of sin. Muslims' believe they must pray five times a day. Muslims must also fast during the month of "Ramadan".  At least once in a Muslims' life, they must recite a creed called the "shahadah" and they must make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca if they are physically and economically able to.

In Islam there are three major divisions of schools, which are:

1.     Sunni:  Sunni Muslims are followers of the Hanifa, Shafi, Hanibal and Malik schools.  They make up about 90% of Muslims. They are considered to be more reserved and traditional.

2.     Shi’ite:  Shi’ite Muslims are followers of the Jafri school.  They make up a small percentage of the total Muslim population.  The Qur’an and its teachings are very important.  They also believe in the 12 heavenly Imams (perfect teachers).

3.     Sufism:  These followers seek inner knowledge from God.  They strongly emphasize the importance of meditation, rituals and dances. They are combine teachings of Neoplatonism, Buddhism, and Christianity. They also emphasize union with God.

 Today Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents.  Approximately 22% of the world’s population is Muslim.  From the cities of Makkah and Madinah, in the Arabian dessert, the message of Islam spread rapidly.  Islam spread to Arabia and during later centuries spread throughout the Indian sub-continent.  Today Islam continues to spread throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.  The following is the 10 largest Muslim populations in the world today.


of Muslims




















Humphreys, Christmas.  Buddhism.  Maryland:  Peguin Ltd., (1972).

Klaostermaier, Klaus.  Hinduism: A Short History.  Massachusetts:  Oneworld Publications, (2000).

Pardue, Peter A. Buddhism.  New York:  Macmillan, (1971)

Ruthven, Malise.  Islam: A short Introduction.  New York:  Oxford, (1997).

Ruthven, Malise.  Islam In the World.  New York:  Oxford, (2000).

Leah Yeager, September 25, 2001