Tuesday, November 24, 2009


The Jews of India aren't one singular community. Among themselves they are divided into different communities. Each community has its own different culture, background and origin. Each community claims its arrival in India in different ways and it is not always clear how they really came to India. The three main Jewish communities of India are: Bene Israel, Cochini and Baghdadi. Besides there were Ashkenazi Jews and a community in east India which claim Israeli origin and call themselves Bne Menashe. The first three communities had some social religious connections with each other but most of the social religious connections of each community were within their own community and they regarded the other as ‘outsiders’. 


The largest Jewish community of Indian Jews is that of the Bene Israel. Earlier the Bene Israel lived in the villages of west Maharashtra in the Konkan coast. In the nineteenth century they started moving to the cities, mainly to Bombay (now called Mumbai) and to other cities among them Pune, Ahmadabad and Karachi which is now part of Pakistan. From 1950 onwards they started immigrating to Israel. The Bene Israel community was completely isolated from most of the other Jewish communities of the world. They are known as Bene Israel because that’s how they called themselves. The Bene Israel believe that their forefathers arrived in India before the destruction of the second temple. The accepted version is that their forefathers were sailing in a commercial ship from the Land of Israel to India. The ship wrecked near the coast of Konkan. From the ship survived 14 people, seven men and seven women. They swam towards the land and arrived at the village called Navgaon. All their belongings drowned in the sea. The dead bodies of the others from the ship were buried in the village. The survivors somehow managed to settle in the village and started working in agriculture and oil producing which later on became their main profession. As time passed the descendants of the survivors forgot Hebrew and their religious tradition. But they carried out some of the Israeli tradition. 

The Bene Israels observed Sabbath (Saturday) and abstained on this day from any work. They circumcised their sons on the eighth day after birth. They didn’t eat fish which didn’t had fins and scales. They observed a few Israeli festivals and called them by Indian names, but until their association with other Jewish communities they weren’t aware of the Hanukkah festival and the ninth of Ab fast. These two traditions became part of Jewish tradition after the destruction of the second Temple and therefore the belief that the Bene Israels forefathers arrived in India before the destruction of the second temple. On each religious occasion such as marriage; circumcision or death the Bene Israelis used to recite the ‘Shema’ verse. 

The Bene Israel community grew and they became a guild or an Indian caste with the profession of oil pressers. They left their first village, Navgaon, and dispersed to other villages and towns in the coast of Konkan becoming the oil producers and oil pressers of their respective villages. From the names of the villages and towns; like Roha, Pen, Pali or Ashtam; they derived their surnames like Rohekar; Penkar; Palkar; Ashtamkar and such others. The Bene Israels used to abstain from any work on Saturday (which wasn’t an acceptable feature in India) and were therefore called ‘Shenwar Teli’ meaning ‘Saturday oil pressers’. 

According to Bene Israel tradition, somewhere between 1000 AD to 1400 AD a Jewish merchant, David Rahabi, arrived in west India. The Bene Israels believe that Rahabi was Moses Maimonides (a very respected Jewish scholar also called ‘Rambam’) brother. Rahabi was surprised to find this Bene Israel community which followed some Jewish traditions and festivals. He decided to enlighten them with all the Jewish traditions. He chose three men from the Bene Israel community and taught them Talmud and other Jewish books. These three people became to be known as ‘Kaji’ (meaning judge in Arabic) and were religious and social leaders of the Bene Israel community. And so, it is believed, began the revivification of the Bene Israel Jews towards Judaism. Later on in the eighteenth century Cochini Jews and other Jewish communities also began to associate religiously with the Bene Israel Jews. 

A very important non-Jewish community that had an impact on the Bene Israel was the Christian missionaries. In the eighteenth century many Christian missionaries came to India. Some of them had anthropological interest in India. They began with their own theories about the origins of Bene Israel and other researchers including the Bene Israel themselves also began theorizing the origins of the Bene Israel. Different researchers came to different conclusions. Among the theories there were a few which came to conclusion that the Bene Israel’s forefathers arrived in India before the destruction of the second Temple and this is because the Bene Israel (meaning children of Israel) did not call themselves Jews (In the narrow sense the Jews are descendants only from the two of the twelve tribes of Children Of Israel, Yehuda and Benjamin) . For the same reason others concluded that the Indian Bene Israel are from the ‘Lost Tribes’ which are the ten tribes (of the twelve tribes of the Children Of Israel) whom the Assyrians exiled from the Land Of Israel in 800 BC and what happened of them is not known (and are therefore called Lost Tribes) . Others concluded that the Bene Israel originate from the tribes of Zvulun and Asher and that’s because the Bene Israel engaged in the profession of oil pressing which is believed to be the profession popular among the tribes of Zvulun and Asher. Other reasons that support the theory that the Bene Israel Jews are in India for over 2000 years is the fact that they weren’t aware of the main Jewish tradition which evolved in Judaism between 200 BC to 300 AD. Others concluded that the Bene Israel are Jews who came to India from Arab countries at a much later period, somewhere around the seventh century AD. And there are other theories, among them is that the Bene Israel aren’t at all of Israeli origin. 

With the revival of Judaism among the Bene Israel by David Rahabi, he selected three men to be the religious leaders of the community and called them ‘Kaji’. These Kajis fulfilled all the religious jobs of the community. The Kaji’s profession was hereditary. From the eighteenth century the Bene Israel developed contact and communication with other Jewish communities especially with the ‘Cochini’ Jews who lived in the southern part of India the present state of Kerala and with Jews from Iraq and Yemen. The contacts and communication with the Yemen Jews started when Bene Israels, who were soldiers in the Indian-British army, were posted at Aden in Yemen. The Bene Israel in Aden had their prayer hall in Aden and later on brought Yemenite Jewish cantors to India and so adopting the Yemenite style of praying (Because of the Yemenite way of praying some researchers wrongly presume that the Bene Israel originate from Yemen). In the first synagogues of the Bene Israel Jews the cantors were mainly Yemenite or Iraqi or Cochini. After the cantors, the Bene Israel began to bring to India Jewish circumciser and butchers from Yemen and so the Kajis lost their traditional position as head of the community.

Yemenite cantor listens while a Bene Israel blows the shofar

The Bene Israels have a few Jewish customs almost unique only to them. The community members almost in every thanksgiving ceremony maintain a ritual called ‘Malida’. Malida is a home ritual in which the men sit around a plate full of roasted rice, fruits, spices and flowers. In this ceremony they sing songs praising the Lord. In the main song they also praise Prophet Elijah as the precursor of the Messiah. The Bene Israel legend also narrates of two occasions when Prophet Elijah visited them and returned to heaven. The first occasion occurred immediately after the arrival of Bene Israel to the coast of Konkan. On this occasion he revivified the unconscious Bene Israels who swam to the beach from the sea. The second occasion occurred at a much latter period. At this visit the Bene Israel believe, Prophet Elijah also left a footprint from where he rose to heaven. In this place in the village of Khandala near Alibag (there is also a tourist town by the same name near Pune in Maharashtra and that’s a different place) the Bene Israels used to have religious rituals. Another custom unique to the Bene Israel was abstaining from eating beef. The majority of Indians are Hindus. The Hindus believe that cow is sacred and therefore to maintain good relations with their Hindu neighbors they abstained from eating beef and instead eat mutton. Another custom of the Bene Israel inspired by their Hindu neighbors was, not remarrying of widows and not maintaining the levirate marriage (a Jewish custom which commands marriage between the widow and her dead husband’s brother if the man dies childless) . The Bene Israels were also less strict about the Kosher laws. They didn’t keep two complete sets of kitchen utensils but only two sets of cooking utensils.
The Bene Israels divide their community into two groups. ‘Gora’ and ‘Kala’. Gora (meaning white) are majority in the community and their both parents are of Jewish religion. Kala (meaning black) is the smaller group whose father is of Israeli origin but mother is non-Jewish. These two groups use to pray together but the Goras didn’t accept the Kalas as complete Jews and didn’t mingle with them, nor did they marry with them. The Goras also didn’t allow the Kalas to hold the ‘Sefer’ or to blow the ‘Shofar’. 

The first Bene Israel synagogue built by Samuel Divekar in 1796. Divekar with other Bene Israels served as a soldier of the British in India. In one of the wars against the kingdom of Mysore in south India, he with other British Indian soldiers was captured. The King of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was a Muslim. He used to execute the captured soldiers, but when his mother heard of the Bene Israel captives, she begged her son to spare the Bene Israel soldiers because the Bene Israel are referred to in the holy Muslim Koran as the Chosen People of the Almighty. Many claim that if the Bene Israels had called themselves Yehudi (Jew) and not Bene Israel they would have been executed because the Koran looks negatively at Jews but in more positive way at the Bene Israels. After being spared Samuel Divekar decided to thank the Lord by building a synagogue. Later on more synagogue were build by the Bene Israels in India. There was even a Reform Jewish synagogue built in 1925. Among the synagogues, the synagogue in the town of Panvel (near Mumbai) is considered special and sacred where it is believed, prayers are fulfilled. 

Until the twentieth century the Bene Israels referred to themselves as Bene Israels or Israels and not as Jews. In the twentieth century they slowly began to refer to themselves as Jews but normally they used to refer to themselves as Bene Israel and to the Jews from Arab countries who settled in India (Baghdadi Jews) as ‘Yehudi’. In some of the birth certificates and other legal documents of the early twentieth century their religion was specified as ‘Bene Israel’ and not Jew. Many Indians (non-Jewish) of west Maharashtra even today refer to Jews as Bene Israel or Israel and not as ‘Jew’. 

The Bene Israel as a community weren’t a powerful influential community in their local areas but there were among them some who advanced to high ranks in the armies of local rulers. Some of them also got land from the local rulers as a prize for their services. After the British arrived to India, many Bene Israels joined the British forces in India and fought for the British Empire in their different wars around the world. Later on the Bene Israels adopted the profession of building contractors and other new modern professions that emerged in India such as office clerks, law, modern medicine and other professions. There were some Bene Israels who reach to high positions of judges, lawyers, doctors, institute managers and administrative or other high ranking officers in government services. 

The Bene Israel’s population at their height was perhaps 30000 in India and that was in the 1950s. Proportionally they weren’t even 0.01% of the Indian population. Since the 1950s most of the Bene Israel have immigrated to Israel, and some to English speaking countries like Australia and England. Today in India there are less than 5000 Bene Israels, most of them live in Thana a suburb of Mumbai (Bombay). 


The second Jewish community of India is called ‘Cochini Jews’. They are called Cochini Jews because they lived in the city of Cochin in south India. But actually the first settlement of the Cochini Jews wasn’t in Cochin but a little north from Cochin in the town of Kudungallur (formly Cranganore).
Like the Bene Israels, the arrival time of the first Cochini Jews isn’t clear. But one fact is sure about the Cochini Jews, that they weren’t a single emigration. At different times Jews arrived and settled in south India at Kudungallur. According to one version the first forefathers of the Cochini Jews arrived in India during the King Solomon’s period. King Solomon had commercial business with a kingdom probably existing in the present state of Kerala in south India. Other version claims that the Cochini Jews are from the Lost Tribes. Another version claims that the Cochini Jews arrived in India after they were exiled from Land of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. Later on in the history Jews from Spain, arrived in Cochin. The Spanish Jews lived separately from the veteran Jews and considered them as Indian proselytes to Judaism. The Keralans take pride in the fact that the kingdoms of Kerala were world famous and merchants from around the world frequently visited Kerala, since the times of King Solomon and later on Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese and others. Among the merchants, also arrived in Kerala many Jewish merchants and some of them settled in Kerala. The main center of the Jewish community in Kerala was at Kudungallur (referred to in English as Cranganore). The existence of the Jewish community in south India was known to other Jewish communities outside India and some other Jewish merchants also arrived in India. The Jewish merchants were influential community in their state and outside their state and were main reason for the prosperity in their kingdom. As a gratitude for their contribution to the kingdom, the ruler Sri Parkaran Iravi Vanmar gave to the head of the Jewish community Joseph Rabban the village of Anjuvannam and pronounced him the Prince of this village. These Jewish rulers had all the rights preserved to the ruling families of the Indian kingdoms. But till today there isn’t an agreement among the scholars on the exact date when this ‘Jewish kingdom’ was established. Different scholars give different dates to the establishment of this principality. Some claim it to be in the 4 century A. D. Others claim it to be at a much later period around10 century A. D. According to the Cochini Jews the ‘princely rights’ (written on copper plates and therefore called Copper Plates) were given to them in 379 A. D. 

Another fact not clear is : Which Cochini Jews received the ‘Copper Plates’? The Cochini Jews are divided in three groups. The biggest group is called ‘Meyuhassim’ (meaning ‘privileged’ in Hebrew) or Malabari Jews (Malabar is the name of the coast on which Kerala is situated). These Jews forefathers are considered to have arrived in India as merchants during the period of King Solomon. The second group is called ‘Pardesi’ (meaning ‘foreigner’ in some Indian languages). The Pardesi Jews are Jews who came to Kerala at different periods from different countries namely Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany. These two groups were merchants and had slaves who were converted to Judaism and later on released from their status as slaves and are called ‘Meshuhararim’ (meaning ‘released’ in Hebrew). These groups were sometimes referred to by colors. The ‘Privileged’ Jews were called ‘black’ Jews, the ‘Pardesi’ were called ‘white’ Jews. 

The ‘Pardesi’ Jews looked at the ‘Privileged’ Jews as impure Jews and as Jewish proselyte. Both these communities claim that the ‘prince’ was from their community. The Jewish principality survived till the 16th century A. D. In 1524 the Jews were attacked by Moorish Arabs because of the monopoly Jewish merchants had in some commodities. The Jews who were a principality with no real army deserted their principality and asked for shelter from the king of Cochin. The king received them in his kingdom and so was established the Jewish community of Cochin. The area where they lived and did business is even today called ‘Jew Town’. 

The Cochini Jews knew all of the Jewish traditions and preserved all Jewish traditions. They were particularly strict of Passover and didn’t even allow the non-Jews to touch the cooking utensils during this period. As stated before the Cochini Jews were very influential in their society. Numerically the Cochini Jews at their height were 3000 and that was in the 1940s. Of that the Pardesi were only 200. Today there are about 70 Jews in Cochin. 

In the late 18th century, Jews from Arab countries and Iran arrived in India. And they are called collectively ‘Baghdadi Jews’. Most of ‘Baghdadi’ Jews did arrive from Baghdad but there were among them Jews who arrived from Syria, Iran, Yemen and other places in Iraq. Sometimes these Jews are collectively called ‘Iraqi Jews’. And as stated earlier the Bene Israel Jews were called ‘Israel’ and the ‘Baghdadi’s as ’Yehudi’. 

The ‘Baghdadi’ came to India because of religious persecutions in their countries and also because of commercial reasons. Most of the ‘Baghdadis’ were big merchants and businessmen before they arrived in India. They settled in the main commercial cities of India. First in the city of Surat (in present day Gujarat) and later on as the commercial importance moved to Bombay and Calcutta the ‘Baghdadis’ moved to these two cities and also to Rangoon, now capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma and part of British India). These Jews were successful businessmen and they brought their families and other Arab country Jews to India. 

Some of the Baghdadi Jews had small businesses like clothes shop. But there were also Baghdadi businessmen who were the main figures in the Indian economy. Many Baghdadis owned factories all over India mainly in the textile section. One of the famous rich families of the Baghdadis was the Sasson family. Besides their business activities, the Sasson family contributed many things to India. In many cities of India they built hospitals, schools, libraries, monuments and other things. 

But alongside with their contribution to India the Baghdadi Jews kept themselves aloof from Indian society including the veteran Indian Jews. The rich Baghdadis built synagogues, schools, cemeteries and departments in hospitals where the rights were reserved for the Baghdadi Jews only. The Baghdadis whose mother tongue was Arabic slowly started adopting English as their first language. They also adopted other English customs like dressing. They even began to identify themselves with the British culture. Sometime in the late19th century, the richer Baghdadis began immigrating to England and were very active in the upper classes of the British society. The Baghdadis who remained in India slowly started approaching the Indian society and culture and also to other Indian Jews. In some sense the Baghdadis who emigrated from India, became more Indianized outside India than they were in India. The Baghdadis at their height numbered about 7000 and that was in the 1940s. Today there are less than 50 Baghdadis in India. 


In east India in the States of Manipur and Mizoram exists a community which sees itself as descendants of the Menashe Tribe (which is one of the 10 lost tribes). These people have Chinese appearance and they claim that after their forefathers were exiled and enslaved by the Assyrians they somehow escaped from slavery and arrived in China. Later on they moved to the Chinese-Burmese border and much later on to the neighboring east India. Most of the residents of Mizoram and Manipur are Christians. Among the Manipur Jews there are some who believe that all the Manipur and Mizoram residents (about 2 million people) are originally from the Menashe tribe. The Manipur Jews believe that the Christian missionaries in the 19th century, forced these Jews to abolish their Jewish identity and adopt Christianity.
From 1951 after a local chief, named Tchalah revealed to his people that God had told him that his people should return to their original religion and land (Judaism and Israel), there is a movement to return to Judaism and immigration to Israel. Some of them contacted with Israeli rabbis and started learning Judaism. Some of the Israeli rabbis accept their Judaism and others don’t see them as original Jews. Many of the immigrating Manipuri Jews to Israel have converted to Judaism through strict Jewish laws.

In the 1930s and the 1940s some 2000 Jewish refugees escaped from European Anti-Semite countries and arrived in India. These Jews had liberal professions like doctors and they worked in their profession at different places in India. Before 1950 most of these Jews left India and immigrated to west Europe and United States. There were also Jewish people in the British services in India. Between 1921-26 the Viceroy of India was Lord Reading who was born to Jewish parents. 


As already stated the Jews in India are not a single community and each community considers the other communities as outsiders. Beyond that in each community there were divisions. There was also tension between the communities especially between the Bene Israels and the Baghdadis. There were many reasons for the tensions between these communities. The Baghdadis came from Arab countries and their culture was Arabic originated. The Bene Israels culture was Indian originated. The Baghdadis strictly followed the Jewish ‘Halachah’ and were very strict on ‘kosher’ laws and ‘levirate’ marriages. The Bene Israels were more secular and didn’t keep at home two complete sets of utensils. One can claim from this that the Bene Israel were secular Jews but the Baghdadis preferred to regard the Bene Israel as impure or non Jews. The Baghdadis didn’t marry the Bene Israel. They also built their own synagogues and cemeteries or a wall in the cemetery separating their section from the Bene Israels. In their synagogues they prevented Bene Israels from holding the holy scrolls or blowing the ‘shofar’. They also didn’t count the Bene Israels as part of the ‘minyan’ (minimum ten required for the prayers). The Baghdadis also rejected the ‘Meyuhassim’ Cochini Jews but they intermingled with the ‘Pardesi’ Jews of Cochin and with European Jews who came to India. It must be noted that some Baghdadis had Indian non-Jewish wives whom they converted to Judaism. The Baghdadis even helped some high class Hindus to convert to Judaism. For these reasons there are some who believe that the real reason the Baghdadis didn’t accept the Bene Israels and Malabari Jews wasn’t because of the Jewish religious laws but for some specific reason. 

One theory is that the richer Baghdadi Jews (who were international businessmen and also the leaders of the Baghdadi community) wanted to show the British that they don’t intermingle with ‘Indians’ (then considered by the British as low class) in order to get closer to the British aristocracy. Another reason was maybe the fear of the Baghdadi Jews that another Jewish community (Bene Israel) might take their place as the British ancillary around the world. The Iraqi Jews operated to some extent as ancillary of the British in many countries around the world. Many international deals for the British were done through the help of Iraqi Jews. On the other hand the Bene Israel claim that they also had close relations with the British. They were among the first Indian communities who served the British Empire and fought in many wars for them around the world. Therefore maybe the Iraqi Jews of India decided to neutralize somehow the Bene Israels and attacked their Jewishness causing them to engage in proving their Jewishness instead of engaging in developing close relations with the British. 

In the Cochini Jews section, it is mentioned that there were tensions between the ‘Malabari’ and the ‘Pardesi’. According to the ‘Pardesi’ the ‘Malabaris’ weren’t pure Jews. Some claim that the real reasons for these divisions occurred are the same as those in the case of Baghdadi/Bene Israel. But in the case of Cochini Jews the ‘white’ Jews ( the ‘Pardesi’ Jews) wanted to show to the Dutch and the Portuguese (who had strong business holds in India before the British) that they are whites and not Indians, in order to get closer to them. These tensions and the doubt that maybe the ‘Meyuhassim’ aren’t Jews also affected the Bene Israel community and so they preferred cantors of ‘Pardesi’ origin. 

Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century the different Jewish communities of India (except for the Manipur Jews) slowly started accepting each other as Jews. They started praying together. There were also a few marriages between the communities. In the synagogues built by the Baghdadi Jews there are now Bene Israel cantors. But not all the tensions that were between the communities are today completely forgotten.

In modern India the caste system has lost most of its features. The Jews do not see themselves as part of the Hindu caste system, but in the past the Hindus did treat the Jews according to their traditions.

According to orthodox Hindu rules any one who does not belong to the four Varnas (castes) is an outcast and untouchable. It means, all foreigners and non-Hindus are all supposed to be untouchables. But in reality neither all foreigners nor non-Hindus were treated as untouchables. Different religion followers got different status in different parts of India.
The Bene Israels had a different status from the Cochini Jews. The Bene Israels professed oil pressing and they had a status equal to a Hindu caste called Somvar Teli, which also professed oil pressing and were part of Sudra level (see caste system). Some orthodox Hindus treated anyone who wasn't one of them as untouchable and therefore treated the Jews also as untouchables. But even though the Jews in west India had low status there were among them some who were landlords, businessmen and high rank officers in local armies.

The Cochini Jews had higher status. The Jews in Kerala were the business community of Kerala. They even ruled a small principality. They had aristocratic rights, such as use of elephants and sedans. They even had servants whose job was to announce their coming to the streets so that the low castes could move away from their way.

The relations between the Jewish communities of India are sometimes explained as affected by the Indian caste system but these relations can also be explained according to Jewish religious laws. The Baghdadi Jews were much strict about religious laws than the Bene Israel Jews. The Baghdadis did not mingle with Bene Israel Jews. The Baghdadis did not allow marriages between their children and the children of Bene Israel. They did not eat food prepared by Bene Israel and they refused to count the Bene Israel as part of the Minyan (the ten necessary to start a Jewish prayer). Many explain these relations as an influence of the Indian caste system on the Jewish communities. According to this explanation, the Baghdadi Jews referred to themselves as higher caste than the Bene Israel Jews and therefore did not mingle with them. But these relations between the Jewish communities can also be explained according to the Jewish Halacha laws. The Baghdadi Jews who were much strict about Jewish laws and diet did not mingle with the Bene Israels because the Bene Israels were secular Jews and they perceived in Bene Israel Jews as impure Jews.

Books on Jews in India

Studies of Indian Jewish Identity :Comparatively a new book with essays about the different Jewish communities in India giving some new aspects about the Indian Jewish communities

Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish 
Woman Remembers :As the name says, book written by a Cochini Jewish woman
India's Bene Israel by Shirley Isenberg. A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook:-Even though this book isn't always available at Amazon.This is the book for those interested in the Bene Israel community. This book has lot of information about the Bene Israel community and also about Jewish culture and history. In this book you will also find information about Indian society. 


The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovering of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India

Arrival of Non-Indian religions into India

India, well known as the land of spirituality and philosophy, was the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism among other religions. Along with the religions that developed in India, there are also followers of religions of non- Indian origins. Among these religions are Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahaism and Judaism. The followers of these different religions arrived in India at different times. 

The largest religion of non-Indian origin is Islam. They are about 12% of India's population. Muslims who arrived in India converted Indians to Islam. Islam was spread in India through two means, peaceful and sword. The first spreaders of Islam in India were individuals who saw in spreading Islam a holy precept. They used peaceful means to convert to Islam. But most of Indians are believed to have converted to Islam through the sword, which means the Muslim invaders gave the Indians an option to choose between death and Islam. The different Muslim rulers of India also brought into their kingdoms Muslim mercenaries, businessmen and slaves from different parts of the world like Russia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Arab countries and Africa. These people remained in India, married local Indians and converted them to Islam.

Like the Muslims, the Christians, who arrived to India also converted Indians to their religion, Christianity. Christians are about 2.5% of India's population. Most of the Indians were converted to Christianity by the missionaries who arrived in India with the European powers from 15th century. Of the European powers, the Portuguese were most enthusiast to baptize Indians. But Christianity did not arrive in India with the arrival of European missionaries. It reached India almost 2000 years ago. 

Christianity originates in Israel. One of the Apostles (the 12 chief disciples of Jesus), St. Judas Thomas, was a carpenter. He was brought to India by a merchant to build a temple. St. Thomas arrived in Kerala, in south India in 52 AD. He succeeded in converting local Indians to Christianity. His converts were called Syrian Christians. One assumption says that some of the Syrian Christians were actually local Jews converted by St. Judas Thomas to Christianity. The disciples of Jesus at first intended to convince the Jews to adopt the philosophy of Jesus as new Judaism. Therefore they arrived to regions where Jews had settled in the world. Among these regions where Jews had settled was India. Two Apostles are believed to have arrived in India for this purpose. St. Judas Thomas arrived in Kerala in south India and St. Bartholomew in western Maharashtra in west India. 

Judaism is probably the oldest religion of non-Indian origin to arrive in India. Today there are also a few thousand Jews in India. Judaism and Christianity might have arrived in India before they reached Europe.

The different Jewish communities of India, Bene Israel, Cochini, Baghdadi and Bne Menashe claims their arrival in India in different ways and it is not always clear how they really came to India. The Bene Israel, which is the largest Jewish community of India, lived earlier in the villages of west Maharashtra. They are believed to exist in India for over 2000 years. The Cochini Jews in south India also claim that their first forefathers arrived in India over 2000 years ago during King Solomon's rule. The Bne Menashe of East India who claim to origin from the 'Lost Tribes' arrived much later in India. The Bne Menashes arrived in east India from China and Myanmar (Burma). In the late 18th century, Jews from Arab countries and Iran arrived in India because of religious persecutions in their countries. They were called collectively as Baghdadi Jews.
Two other religions that arrived in India because of religious persecutions in their countries were Zoroastrianism and Bahaism. Both of them arrived from Iran. 

Zoroastrians, who even though make less then 0.01% of India's population, are well known around India. The followers of this religion are called Parsis because they arrived from Persia (Iran). The followers of this religion exiled from Iran in the 7th century AD. They arrived in Gujarat in west India. In the 20th century followers of the Bahai religion arrived in India because of religious persecution in Iran.

Religions-Names and meanings

Different religions have derived their names from different sources. Some religions derived their names from the name or title of the founder, while other religions have their names derived from certain words or names.

Name of religion
Source of the name
Meaning of the source
The title of the religion's founder, meaning glory of God in Arabic.
The title of the religion's founder, meaning enlightened in Sanskrit.
Khristos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning the anointed.
Kung Fu Tzu
Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was a Chinese philosopher.
One of the first three founders of the Druze sect.
In many Asian languages, Hind is the name of the region between the Himalayas and the Indus river.
In Arabic, Salema is root to words like peace, submission and obedience.
Sanskrit word meaning victorious or overcome.
One of the Tribes of Israel.
Shin Tao
In Chinese, way of the gods.
Punjabi word meaning learner or pupil.
Chinese word meaning way or path.
An ancient Persian philosopher. In India the Zoroastrians are known as Parsis, meaning people of Persia.


A small religious community, which exists mostly in Mumbai, is Zoroastrianism. The follower is called Parsi because the religion arrived in India from Persia. This religion was established by Zarathustra in 6th or 7th century BC. The followers of this religion exiled from Iran in the 7th century AD. because of religious persecutions by the Muslims. They arrived in Gujarat region of India. 

The Parsis believe in the existence of one invisible God. They believe that there is a continuous war between the good forces (forces of light) and the evil forces (forces of darkness). The good forces will win if people will do good deeds think good and speak well. God is represented in their temples through fire, which symbolizes light. The holiest place for them is the village of Udvada in Gujarat, India. The holy language of the Parsis is an ancient language spoken in Iran, Avesta. The Parsis believe that fire, water, air and earth are pure element to be preserved and therefore they do not cremate or bury their dead ones but leave them on high towers, specially built for this purpose, to be eaten by hawks and crows. 

The Parsis are less then 0.02% of India's population but their contribution to India is much more than their proportion in India's population. Some Parsis were main figures in establishing the Indian Nationalist movement. They were the pioneers in establishing the modern Indian industry. The rich Parsi families contributed enormously to establish institutions of all kinds in India. Even today some of the bigger finance houses in India belong to followers of this religion.


Jainism was born in India about the same period as Buddhism. It was established by Mahavira in about 500 B. C. Mahavira like Buddha belonged to the warrior caste. Mahavira was called ‘Jina’ meaning the big winner and from this name was derived the name of the religion.

In many senses Jainism is similar to Buddhism. Jainism like Buddhism, developed as a dissention to the Brahmanic philosophy that was dominant during that period in north- east India. Mahavira just like Buddha isn’t the first prophet of his religion. In Jainism like Buddhism there is a belief in reincarnation which eventually leads to liberation. Both these religions don’t center in religious philosophy around Almighty worship. But Jainism is different than Buddhism in its ascetic beliefs. Both these religions emphasis on non-violence, but in Jainism non-violence is its main core.

Jains believe that every thing has life and this also includes stones, sand, trees and every other thing. The fact that trees breath came to be known to the science world only from the 20th century. Mahavira who believed that every thing has life and also believed in non-violence practically didn’t eat anything causing his self- starvation to death. Mahavira was also extremely ascetic and walked around completely naked because of his renouncement of life.

Mahavira’s religion followers are less extreme than him in diets. They are vegetarians. But the religious Jains will do everything possible to prevent hurting any being. They won’t walk in fields where there are insects to prevent the possibility of stepping on them. They also cover their mouth to prevent the possibility of swallowing small invisible microbes. 

They mostly do not work in professions where there is a possibility of killing any living being like in agriculture instead professions like banking and business. But it is not clear what came first, businessmen who adopted Jain philosophy because it was easy for them to follow or Jainish philosophy which convinced the Jains to adopt non violent professions.
There are two Jain philosophies. Shvetember and Digamber. Digamber monks like Mahavira don’t wear any clothes, but normally they don’t walk like that outside their temples. The Digambers include among them only men. The Shvetembers monks wear white clothes and they include women.


Buddhism evolved in India. There were periods in India's past when Buddhism was dominant in India. Today less then 1% of India's population is Buddhist. Buddhism has more followers in countries east of India.

Buddhism was established in about 500 BC. Buddhism began with a prince called Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha belonged to an aristocratic family. As a prince he had lot of wealth. He never left his palace. At some point Siddharta began to leave his palace and behold for the first time poverty, sickness and misery. After seeing this Siddharta lost interest in his spoiled life and left his palace forever and gave his rich personal belongings to the needy. He joined a group of ascetics who were searching for enlightenment. In those days people searching for enlightenment believed that this could be gained only by people who were capable of resisting their basic needs. These people almost did not eat anything and almost starved themselves to death. Siddharta also adopted this path of searching enlightenment. But at some point he came to a conclusion that this was neither the way towards enlightenment nor the spoiled life he had as a prince was the right path towards enlightenment. According to him the right path was somewhere in the middle and he called it the 'middle path'.

In order to focus on his enlightenment search, Buddha sat under a fig tree and after fighting many temptations he got his enlightenment. In his region 'enlightened' people were called Buddha. And so Siddharta was named Buddha. According to Buddha's theory life is a long suffering. The suffering is caused because of the passions people desire to accomplish. The more one desires and the less he accomplishes the more he suffers. People who do not accomplish their desirable passions in their lives will be born again to this life circle which is full of suffering and so will distant themselves from the world of no suffering - Nirvana.
To get Nirvana, one has to follow the eight-fold path which are to believe right, desire right, think right, live right, do the right efforts, think the right thoughts, behave right and to do the right meditation.

Buddhism emphasis non- violence. Buddha attacked the Brahmanic custom of animal slaughtering during religious ceremonies. Religiously the Buddhists are vegetarians. But a strong narrative in India claims that Buddha, died because he ate a sick animal. Buddhism does not have a God, nor is it atheistic. Many Buddhists keep images of Buddha. Buddha is not seen as the first prophet of the religion, but as the fourth prophet of the religion.

There are two main doctrines in Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana. Mahayana Buddhist believe that the right path of a follower will lead to the redemption of all human beings. The Hinayana believe that each person is responsible for his own fate. Along with these doctrines there are other Buddhist beliefs like 'Zen Buddhism' from Japan and the 'Hindu Tantric Buddhism' from Tibet. Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Buddhism as it arrived from India to Japan and original Japanese beliefs. The Hindu Tantric Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Buddhism and original Tibetian beliefs which existed among the Tibetians before the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, among it magic, ghosts and tantras (meaningless mystical sentences).


About 2% of India's population are Sikhs. Even so, the Sikhs, because of their unique appearance sometimes stand for India. Traditionally the men keep their hair and do not shave their beard or moustache. They gather their head hair in a turban.

Sikhism is comparatively a new religion in India. This religion was established by Guru Nanak. Nanak was born into a Hindu family in 1469 in the Punjab region. Since childhood he loved to travel, learn and preach humanity. In those days people who taught and preached were titled Guru meaning teacher, his followers became to be known as Sikhs meaning learners. And so Guru Nanak developed a new religion and it also included beliefs from the two dominant religions in the Punjab region, Hinduism and Islam. Some claim that Guru Nanak tried to developed a new religion and included in it what he thought were the good beliefs of these two religions. Like in Islam the belief in the existence of one invisible God. Like in Hinduism the belief in Karma and reincarnation, meaning your actions in this life will decide your fate in the next incarnation. The Sikhs also cremate their dead ones as is done in Hinduism.

The creators of Sikhism tried to abolish some of the Indian customs such as the caste system and Sati - burning of the widow. In Sikhism everyone has equal rights irrespective of caste, creed, color, race, sex or religion. Sikhism rejects pilgrimage, fasting, superstitions and other such rituals. Sikhism does not have a clergy class as it considers this as a gateway to corruption. However they have readers and singers in their temples.

A Sikh place of worship is called Gurdwara. Sikhism does not support pilgrimage to holy sites because according to Sikhism, God is everywhere and not in any certain place. But Sikhism has a few important sites, of which, the Hari Mandir, also known as the 'Golden Temple' in Amritsar in Punjab is the most important site and is considered the holiest shrine of Sikhism.

Sikhism emphasis community services and helping the needy. One of the distinct features of Sikhism is the common kitchen called Langar. In every Gurdwara there is a Langar. Every Sikh is supposed to contribute in preparing the meals in the free kitchen. The meals are served to all and are eaten sitting on the floor and this is to emphasis the point that all are equals. Sikhism does not believe in holding fasts for body is God's present to human being and therefore humans must foster, maintain and preserve it in good sound condition, unless fasting is done to foster the human body like healthy diets.
Guru Nanak who established Sikhism was its first Guru. After him there were nine more Gurus who were the highest religious authority. The last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, proclaimed that after him the Guru of the Sikhs would be the holy book of Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib.

Guru Granth Sahib is written in Gurumukhi script. It includes the writings of the Sikh Gurus and the writings of Hindu and Muslims saints. But out of humility Guru Gobind Singh did not include his own writings in the book he had proclaimed as the permanent Guru of the Sikhs. His writings appear in a separate book called Dasam Granth. Guru Gobind Singh is also the Guru behind the unique appearance of Sikh men.

During Guru Gobind's term as the Guru of the Sikhs and also before him, the ruling empire of Punjab region was the Moghul Empire. The Moghuls were Muslims. Some of the Moghul emperors, like Aurangazeb were fanatic Muslims who harassed the non- Muslims, including the Sikhs. Some of the Sikh Gurus were even executed by the Moghul emperors. In order to stop their persecutions, Guru Gobind decided to make his followers, the Sikhs (meaning learners), a community of fighters. He changed his surname to Singh, which means lion. His followers also changed their surname to Singh. Since then a ceremony of baptizing was established among the Sikhs in which the boys were given the title Singh and the girls were titled Kaur meaning princess. In those days "Singh" as a surname was very popular among a famous warrior caste of north India, the Rajputs. Some of the first Sikhs were also Rajputs.

In order to make it easier for his followers to recognize each other, Gobind Singh, chose five marks, some of which even today symbolize the Sikhs. The five signs were, uncut hair; comb; sword or dagger; bracelet on the right wrist and shorts. The religious Sikhs dress according to Guru Gobind Singh's order, carrying a sword. Most of the Sikhs even today have uncut hair and gather it in a turban. But some easygoing Sikhs cut their hair or they do not gather their uncut hair in a turban.

The emphasis on militant tradition and community service in Sikhism continues even today and many Sikhs serve in the Indian army or police. The Sikhs also have a reputation as experts in steering, from cars to airplanes.They were among the first communities in India who dared to drive vehicles specially lorries. India being a vast country needed drivers who could also travel at nights. But many Indians believed in superstitions like ghosts and haunted places, while the Sikhs rejected these kinds of beliefs and therefore traveled at nights, since then their reputation as steering masters of India.