Change Comes Slowly for Religious Diversity in India

Religious diversity has been a defining characteristic of India’s population for centuries. The country has no official state religion, but religion plays a central role in Indian daily life through its temple ceremonies, festivals, pilgrimages, family religious traditions, and the like. While Hinduism has been the dominant religion for several thousand years, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, and Sikhism have also flourished.

Religion is taken far more seriously in India than it often is in the West and by virtually the entire population. It is often difficult for a foreigner to fully appreciate religion’s importance in this officially secular country. Followers of India’s religions, particularly Hindus and Muslims, have created what Indians call “communities,” groups who largely coexist peacefully but live and worship in separate social circles. Accordingly, when violence does break out between groups, it is referred to as “communal” violence.

Census data on religious groups are frequently misunderstood and misquoted in the Indian media, particularly by writers and columnists advancing a particular point of view. Some non-Muslims, in both national and regional political parties, worry that faster population growth among Muslims will cause a societal imbalance in the Hindu-majority country.1 Thus, it is worthwhile to look at the actual numbers before considering this issue further.

Communities Growing at Different Rates

According to the 2001 Census, 81 percent of the 1,028 million people enumerated in India were Hindu, leaving 200 million people who adhere to other religions (see Table 1). Hindus are the majority in all the larger states, except for Jammu and Kashmir, where they accounted for 30 percent, and Punjab, where Hindus make up 37 percent. In the other states, Hindu majorities ranged from 56 percent in Kerala to 95 percent in Himachal Pradesh.

Nationally, Muslims are the next largest religious group, outnumbering all other religious groups taken together. In 2001, among every 1,000 Indians, there were 134 Muslims but just 23 Christians, 19 Sikhs, eight Buddhists, and four Jains. Unlike Hindus and Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs are concentrated in a few states. The four southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka accounted for half of the Christian population of the country. Sikhs are concentrated in the Punjab, which accounted for 76 percent of the 19.2 million Sikhs in 2001. Buddhists are mostly confined to Maharashtra, where 73 percent of India’s 8.0 million Buddhists live. Many Buddhists are from the Dalit, or Untouchable, Hindu caste who converted to Buddhism (which does not have castes) in the belief this will negate their low caste status.

Table 1
India’s Population by Religious Community, 1961-2001

1961a 1981b 2001
Religion Number (millions) Percent Number (millions) Percent Number (millions) Percent
All Religions 439 100.0 665 100.0 1,029 100.0
Hindus 367 83.4 550 82.6 828 80.5
Muslims 47 10.7 76 11.4 138 13.4
Christians 11 2.4 16 2.4 24 2.3
Sikhs 8 1.8 13 2.0 19 1.9
Buddhists 3 0.7 5 0.7 8 0.8
Jains 2 0.5 3 0.5 4 0.4
Others 1 0.3 3 0.4 7 0.6
Religion not stated c d d d 1 0.1

a Religious breakdown of 297,853 residents of North East Frontier Agency not available.
b Excludes Assam, where 1981 Census was not held.
c Rounds to less than 1 million.
d Less than 0.1 percent.

Sources: Census of India, various years.

Four major states—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan—accounted for 72 percent of the 4.2 million Jains. Jains are the only religious community that is concentrated in cities and towns rather than in rural areas.

Between the 1991 and 2001 censuses, India’s population increased by 21.5 percent, but this growth was not equal among the religious groups (see Table 2). One group, Parsis, actually declined in numbers. (All population-change figures cited here exclude the state of Jammu and Kashmir because the 1991 Census could not be conducted there.) Muslims recorded the most growth over the period—29 percent—while Sikhs (after Parsis) grew the least, 17 percent. In addition to Muslims, three religious communities grew faster than the total population: Jains (26 percent), Buddhists (23 percent), and Christians (22 percent). Like Sikhs, Hindus had a growth rate below the national average.

Table 2
Selected Population Characteristics by Religion, India, 2001

Population Increase  (percent) 1991-2001 Population Ages 0-6 (percent) Urban Percent of Population
Total 22 Total 16 Total 28
Muslim 29 Muslim 19 Jain 76
Jain 26 Hindu 16 Buddhist 39
Buddhist 23 Buddhist 15 Muslim 36
Christian 22 Christian 14 Christian 34
Hindu 20 Sikh 13 Sikh 27
Sikh 17 Jain 11 Hindu 26
Other 111 Other 18 Other 10


Sex Ratio (females per 1,000 males) ages 0-6 Female Literacy Rate (percent) Female Labor Force Participation Rate (percent)
Total 927 Total 54 Total 26
Christian 964 Jain 91 Buddhist 32
Muslim 950 Christian 76 Christian 29
Buddhist 942 Sikh 63 Hindu 26
Hindu 925 Buddhist 62 Sikh 20
Jain 870 Hindu 53 Muslim 14
Sikh 786 Muslim 50 Jain 9
Other 976 Other 33 Other 44

Source: Census of India, 2001.

Differing growth rates can be a cause for alarm but the actual figures show that the changing balance is much less significant than it first appears. Looking at the absolute numbers, Hindus increased by 140 million between 1991 and 2001, while Muslims grew by 37 million. Even over the 40-year span between the 1961 and 2001 censuses, the Hindu proportion of the total population showed a scant decrease, from 84 percent to 81 percent. The Sikh proportion remained unchanged throughout the entire period at 2 percent. Thus, census data show that, decades from now, India’s religious makeup will look very much as it does now. And, with the use of family planning rising among all groups, the prospects for further stabilization are quite real.

Social and Economic Differences

Still, significant social differences remain, as shown in Table 2. Female literacy ranges from 91 percent among Jains to 53 percent among Hindus and 50 percent among Muslims. The Muslim population is slightly younger than other groups because of somewhat higher fertility, with the under-7 age group accounting for 19 percent of the population. Jains are often among India’s most successful businesspeople and their level of urbanization and literacy reflects this.

Finally, the sex ratio of the population ages 0 to 6 sheds light on the degree to which the preference for male children results in sex-selective abortion. A “normal” sex ratio is about 950 girls per 1,000 boys, and it is near that level for Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Others. The below-average ratio for Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs signals a strong preference for male children.2

Some of the social and economic differences among religious communities are reflected in local and national politics and occasionally lead to violence.3 But in general, India’s record on religious toleration for the past 40 years has been remarkable, particularly in view of efforts by some radical groups to upset it. Further, terrorism, often intended to incite communal violence, has done nothing of the sort.4 Census data and population trends suggest that there will be no major upheaval in India’s makeup; and demography, after all, is destiny.


  1. Maseeh Rahman, “Hindus Urged to Curb ‘Muslim Threat’ by Having Big Families,” The Guardian (London), Nov. 20, 2003; and Vinod Kumar, “Indian Census and Muslim Population Growth,” Kashmir Herald 4, no. 4 (October 2004), accessed online at, on March 9, 2009.
  2. O.P. Sharma and Carl Haub, “Sex Ratio at Birth Begins to Improve in India” (2008), accessed online on March 11, 2009.
  3. “Where Invisible Threads Frey,” The Economist, Dec. 13, 2008, accessed through, on March 11, 2009; Rahman, “Hindus Urged to Curb ‘Muslim Threat’ “; and Philip Reeves, “India’s Muslim Population Outpacing Hindus,” National Public Radio, Sept. 18, 2004, accessed online at, on March 9, 2009.
  4. Henry Chu and Mark Magnier, “For Muslims in India, an Uneasy Calm,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 14, 2008, accessed through on March 11, 2009.