Religion in India:Hinduism, Culture, and Conflict
Background of Lesson: Students will learn the basic tenets and features of Hinduism,
including its focus on multiple-god worship, the concept of reincarnation, and the
historical caste system. Students will then relate this to the formation of India and the
circumstances that have created religion-based conflict in recent years.
Students will be able to:
o Identify and understand the basic principles of Hinduism, including the system
of worship and the central concept of reincarnation.
o Understand various connections between Hinduism and general Indian culture,
including its history with a caste system.
o Incorporate basic knowledge of India’s history into their understanding of
religious conflict, especially the conflict over Kashmir, that persists in India
today, centuries later.
o Relate the Hindu-Muslim conflict to other instances of religious rifts across
other countries and periods.
Lesson Plan: Day One
The Basic Tenets of Hinduism
Note: This lesson can be extended to two days with the implementation of a small
research project and a more in-depth look at various facets of Hinduism. See numbers 4
and 5 for details.
1. (10 minutes) - Brainstorm what students know about India. What images,
names, places, ideas, etc. come to mind when you mention the word “India”?
Write their ideas on the board.
Explain that 86% of Indians are Hindu and that Hinduism has had a profound
effect on shaping the country and the way Indians live their lives.
Ask students the following: Which of the things on this list do you think are
related to Hinduism? (For example, if students mention anything about castes,
cows, the Ganges, etc., these can all be related to Hinduism.) Transfer their
ideas to a new list about Hinduism. Ask them what else they know about
Hinduism, if anything.
2. (15 minutes) - Provide students with background information on Hinduism by
giving them the handout “Basic Beliefs of Hinduism” (Appendix 1). Read the
two introductory paragraphs together and the section entitled “Gods and
Goddesses.” Then stop and ask the following questions:
o In what ways is Hinduism similar to other religions you know about? In
what ways is it different?
o What’s the significance of water in Hinduism? How is water regarded in
other religions, either in similar or different ways?
o How do Hindus worship? How does worship fit into their everyday lives?
3. (15 minutes) - Now read, individually or as a class, the second part of the
handout, “Reincarnation and Castes.” Following the reading, have another
o How does the concept of reincarnation fit in with India’s caste system?
o What do you think of the caste system? What would it be like to be an
“untouchable”? A Brahmin?
o What do you think is happening to the caste system now in India in the
wake of modern influences and globalization?
o Why are some traditions so difficult to let go?
Now turn the discussion toward individual students’ experiences that relate to
the concept of a caste system. Ask the following questions:
o Have you ever felt like you were part of a distinct class?
o In what ways do you identify yourself? In other words, what labels do
you use to describe yourself? Encourage students to come up with
identities related to gender, ethnicity, skin color, religion, sexual
orientation, activities, class, and anything else they suggest.
o Ask students to think about the ways in which their own identity factors
are different from or similar to others’ labels. How and when do these
4. (10 minutes or longer if you extend it to Day Two) - Share pictorial
representations of the various gods (see Appendix 2). Gather students’
impressions and talk about the characteristics of each god based on his or her
appearance. If you have extra time and access to the Internet, have students,
either individually or in small groups, research different Hindu gods and their
roles in the faith as a whole. Have them look for pictures, descriptions, and
functions and share their findings with the class.
5. (15 minutes or more, best for Day Two) - Read the handout on food in India as
it relates to Hinduism (see Appendix 3).
o What’s the role of the cow in Hinduism?
o Are there any other religions that hold certain animals in high esteem?
o How are Hindus’ diets affected by their faith?
o What are some other food restrictions you know of that are based on
o Have you ever changed your diet because of your belief system?
Lesson Plan: Day Two
The Birth of India and Religious Conflict
1. (15 minutes) - Brief students on the history of India (see Appendix 4),
including the nature of Hindu-Muslim relations and the conflict over Kashmir.
Share with students the timeline of India’s history (see first link in Appendix 5);
to avoid overwhelming students with details, you might want to make the
timeline into a transparency and point out key dates.
Focus your subsequent discussion on the conflict over Kashmir:
o What’s the basis for the conflict in Kashmir? (Feel free to supplement
this talk with other articles. See Appendix 5 for links.)
o What other states can you think of that have been created on the basis
of religion? What kinds of problems persist in these countries, either
within the country or surrounding it (problems with their neighbors)?
o Within our own country, what kinds of religious division do you
experience or witness?
2. (35 minutes) - Explain to students that the conflict between Muslims and
Hindus in India and Pakistan is not limited to the fight over Kashmir. In recent
years, various holy sites in India have been the source of much dispute, given
that they have been places of religious importance for both religions. Have
students read the article “Religious tension hangs heavy in sacred Hindu city”
In small groups, have students discuss answers to the following questions:
o What are some of the major reasons for the violence and tension in these
parts of India?
o How must it feel to live in that kind of environment? In what ways
have you experienced similar tension, even if on a smaller scale?
o In what ways is this tension similar to other religious conflicts around
o How is the situation different for Hindus and Muslims? What reasons to
both groups have for wanting control of the holy sites?
o Do you think religion is ever a justification for fighting? Explain.
o Think back to our discussion yesterday on identities. In what ways is
religion an important part of your identity?
o How can you effectively ease tension in religion in your community?
Outside of your community?
o Have you ever been in a situation where your differences have created
conflict? What happened? Specifically, have you ever experienced or
witnessed conflict (of any scale) over religion or ethnicity? (If students
have trouble with this question, you may want to remind them of the
violence and discrimination against Muslims after the 9/11 attacks and
gather their comparisons.) Ask students to think about derisive
comments and jokes they hear about various groups of ethnicity,
religion, gender, etc.
As a class, have students share some of the ideas they expressed in their smaller
discussions. Explain to students that while violence between Hindus and
Muslims in India reached an apex in 2002, tensions are still simmering, and fear
of another major outbreak of violence is very present. Pose these questions to
o Why are disputes of a religious nature so difficult to resolve?
o What kinds of solutions have you seen work or not work with other
religious conflicts? What do you think can be done to reduce the
tension, and in many cases, violence in India between Hindus and
Muslims? What will both parties have to do?
o When have you seen violence, discrimination, or hate in your
community, what caused it? How was the conflict resolved? What kinds
of problems still persist based on the idea of ‘otherness’ (differences
regarding ethnicity, religion, gender, skin color, etc.)?
Hinduism: The Basics
Hinduism is considered the world's oldest living religion. It originated in India
approximately 4,000 years ago. Most Hindus live in India, with approximately 83% of
Indians belonging to this faith. The Immigration Act of 1965 has increased migration
of Hindus to the United States. The USA census of the year 2000 is expected to report
1,000,000 people with Indian ancestry.
Hinduism is different from most religions. There is no prophet, no book, no dogma.
They use poetic phrases passed down thousands of years to express their philosophy of
life. Writings such as the Bhagwad Gita (BUHG un vvhd GEE tah) contain statements
such as, "Truth is one, the wise perceive it in many ways". Statements such as this
recognize the possible limitations of their viewpoint. They are receptive to the opinion
of others. They refuse to condemn society to a single interpretation of reality.
Gods & Goddesses
Hindus have numerous gods and goddesses; but they are all manifestations of one
supreme being, Brahmam or the Universal Spirit. Hindus believe that everything is
cyclic. The universe has been created, sustained, and destroyed many times. There are
three major expressions of Brahman who rule over these manifestations of the universe:
1. Brahman, who created the world
2. Vishnu, who sustains the universe for 432 million human years
3. Shiva, who destroys the universe. This begins the cycle again.
Brahman is not generally worshipped by the individual. Vishnu and Shiva are the two
main gods of Hinduism that are worshipped by the masses. Vishnu has a kindly nature
and is thought to try to insure the welfare of humanity. He descends from heaven to
earth in one of his avatars (physical forms) whenever a catastrophe faces the universe
or if humanity needs comfort and guidance. While Vishnu is very involved with
humanity, Shiva is aloof from people. He is sometimes pictured meditating alone. Shiva
has a third eye of higher consciousness or wisdom located in his forehead. He has great
power and is beyond the distinctions of good and evil. He can be loving. He saves man
by "drinking" (removing) man's sins, hence Shiva's throat is blue.
Water is used in all rituals; it is an element of purification. The faithful offer water to
the Gods, to the Wise Ones, and to the souls of the departed. To the water itself, is
offered milk, as a symbol of fertility and plenty. In India, the river is considered a
loving mother dispensing bounty, fertility, and prosperity. The Ganges (GAN jeez) River,
the greatest waterway in India is also considered the most sacred. It is called Mother
Ganges by millions of Hindus. Each year millions visit it, bathe in it, and take samples
home. Those that are ill hope to be cured by the water. If not cured, at least to die in
its comforting waters, since it is thought that they will go straight to Paradise.
Great Temples exist throughout India; they honor different gods. Hindus go to the
Temple to worship as individuals. They do not worship as a congregation nor is there
any day set aside for worship. The Temples are spread over acres and are like little
towns. In the outer areas one will find tanks for ritualistic bathing, shrines, halls, and
bazaars. Artists and sculptors practice their professions and sell their wares. Vendors
hawk flowers, sandalwood, and souvenirs. The inner part of the Temple is where the
image of the deity is kept. As one prays in this cool, darkened prayer hall; it is believed
that the soul unites with the three forms of Brahman.
Devout Hindus also start their mornings with personal prayer and religious rituals
(puja). The worship can not begin until he visits a stream to touch the purifying
waters. Before eating, puja is also performed.
Reincarnation & Castes
Hindus believe nothing that once existed is ever completely destroyed, it merely
undergoes a change in its form. Reincarnation is the rebirth of the soul after death into
the body of another. This belief in reincarnation has resulted in a caste system. The
castes divide the people into lifelong social positions. They are born into a caste. It is
felt that the way one has lived in a previous life dictates into which caste you are born.
If you have been a good person you are awarded by being born into a higher caste. The
person who has been evil is punished by having to live his life as part of a lower caste.
The original castes or orders were based on the different parts of the body of a god,
o Mouth - priests and teachers called Brahmins
o Arms - warriors and rulers, the Ksatriyas
o Thigh - farmers and traders, Vaisyas
o Feet - menial laborers, the Sudras
Today these four original divisions have been divided into thousands of different
castes. For each caste there are definite rules and regulations that dictate with whom
they could marry, with whom they could socialize, and what they could eat.
Those that did not belong to any caste were thought to be created from darkness that
Brahma discarded when he was creating the universe. These are known as outcasts or
untouchables. The government has tried to outlaw the caste system, especially
untouchables, but it has been difficult in the small villages.
o Brahmins are the privileged or highest caste. Originally they were not
permitted to engage in any type of work other than study and religious
teachings. Now they can become lawyers, doctors, businessmen,
government employees or university professors. Being a member of this
caste still retains an esteemed social position. Originally, those from
other castes were expected to support and sustain the Brahmins with
gifts of food or money. The gifts provided the donator great benefits or
merit. Brahmins are expected to be lacto-vegetarians.
o Ksatriyas as the warriors and rulers were originally obligated to protect
the community. They had to be willing to give their lives to protect the
Brahmins and the sacred animals. Since they were warriors they were
permitted to kill animals, other than the sacred cow, to eat.
o The Vaisyas as farmers and traders were supposed to make money to
improve the economic conditions of the country. They were encouraged
to give gifts to the Brahmins and money to build Temples.
o The Sudras serve the three higher classes with diligence and
humbleness. Some of the subdivisions created out of this class are the
weavers and the carpenters.
o The outcasts or untouchables are not allowed to enter the villages and
towns except to do the most menial labor. They are not allowed to own
land or to build houses. They live in wretched conditions.
Ganesha – deity of intellect & wisdom Vishnu – deity of creation
Shiva – deity of destruction Krishna – origin of all
Hinduism & Food
Hindus believe that all living things contain a part of the divine spirit. Therefore, all
life is sacred. If you take the life of even the smallest creature it is as if you harm part
of Brahman. Most pious Hindus, especially Brahmins, are lacto-vegetarians. This means
that the only animal foods that they eat are dairy foods. The pious do not eat eggs
since they are the beginning of life. As vegetarianism is considered the most desired
method of eating, non-vegetarians eat vegetarian meals on auspicious or religious
occasions. Avoiding meat is thought to contribute to inner self-improvement and
physical well-being. Even some vegetables are considered taboo by Orthodox Hindus
who do not eat onion, garlic, turnips, or mushrooms.
Meats Eaten: Those that do eat meat, eat it in small amounts with starches such as rice
or bread. The main meat consumed by Hindu non-vegetarians is goat while some enjoy
lamb or buffalo. Chicken and pork are sometimes avoided since these two animals are
scavengers and they are considered unclean. Hindus who live in the area of Bengal
(Eastern India) and on the Western coastal area eat fish.
All Hindus avoid eating beef since they venerate the cow. The cows appear to know
that they are sacred. It is estimated that 40,000 cows wander the streets of New Delhi
being patted by each person they meet. They amble slowly crossing highways or relax in
the middle of the road if they feel so inclined. While all animals are considered sacred,
the cow has been singled out as particularly sacred because they:
o Have given years of faithful service in helping man till the soil
and pull the carts.
o Provide man with food, milk.
o Provide man with fuel, in form of cow dung, to heat his home
and cook his food.
o In Hindu mythology the cow was created by Brahman on the same
day as the Brahmins thus it is an animal venerated above all others.
o Symbol of motherhood.
Hindus believe that there is a connection between foods, moods, fitness and longevity.
Foods are divided into three major categories depending upon how they are believed to
effect the body.
o Sattvic foods are thought to contribute to making a person serene,
enlightened, healthy, and long-lived. It is considered very
complimentary to say that at a person is sattvic. Sattvic foods include
rice, wheat, ghee, most legumes, some other vegetables, milk and milk
products (except cheeses made from rennet). Rennet comes from the
stomach of animals; to obtain it, the animal would have to be
o Rajasic foods are believed to contribute to a person becoming
aggressive, greedy, passionate and desiring of power. Warriors were
encouraged to eat these foods. Rajasic foods are some meats, eggs, and
foods that are very bitter, sour, salty, rich and/or spicy.
o Tamasic foods when used for pleasure and in excess can contribute to
lust, malice, confusion, slothfulness, and dullness. These foods are
garlic, pickled, preserved, stale, or rotten foods and alcohol or drugs.
The classic system of Indian medicine called Ayurveda (the Code of Life and Longevity)
involves the interaction of "humors" in the body and foods. If they are in balance the
body will be healthy, out of balance the body will become ill.
o Kapha foods like white sugar, millet and buttermilk are thought to be
heavy, dense, and mucus-producing. They should be avoided when one
suffers from respiratory ailments.
o Vata or vayu are the "wind" or gas producing foods such as some
legumes. They are thought to be "unpredictable" and should be avoided
when the stomach is bloated.
o "Hot" or ushna foods include mungo bean, cowpea, ripe eggplant, and
papaya. These foods are thought to promote digestion.
o "Cool" or seeta foods consist of the "typical" foods eaten by a lactovegetarian;
many cereals, like rice, wheat, mung beans, kidney beans,
most fruits and vegetables, milk from most animals except goats, butter
and ghee. These foods are thought to impart strength and nourishment.
Even when one is eating proper foods, moderation is advocated since obesity is not
approved. The laws of food consumption dictate that solid food should fill half the
stomach, liquid one-fourth, and the remainder should be left empty for smooth
Fasting is practiced by many Hindus on days particular to the god that they worship.
There is no "formula" for fasting as in other religions. It can be for one meal, part of
the day, or for a few days, or can just involve eating a sparse diet or avoiding a
particular food group. Fasting is thought to cleanse the body and uplift the spirit.
In the Hindu home the kitchen is considered sacred. Proper reference must be observed
when preparing and consuming food. Those who prepare, and those who eat, must
purify themselves first by ritual bathing of the entire body.
A Brahmin will not accept cooked food from a member of a lower caste, but will accept
uncooked food. The shadow of a lower caste person can render the food unfit to eat.
There are vast differences between North and South India, not only in culture,
language, and climate, but also in cuisine.
India - History
Indian history can be traced back over some 5,000 years. The country’s rich natural
resources - spices, indigo, sugar, cotton, silk, sandalwood, and ivory - made it a target
for invasion and colonization by European powers from the fifteenth century onwards.
The history of the British in India begins in 1600,
with the setting up of the East India Company, a
trading company designed to exploit India’s rich
natural resources. The company gradually extended
its rule through India, and in 1858 the British
crown took over from the East India Company as
the ruler of India. Britain then ruled India as part
of the British Empire until the independence
movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi and others,
succeeded in gaining Indian independence in
Following independence India was divided up in a
process called partition, to create Pakistan as a
Muslim state. This was a difficult process; many millions of people had to travel
between the new states, and in the unrest, people were killed. Mahatma Gandhi
opposed partition; he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist.
Newly independent, India worked to establish strong institutions of justice, media and
bureaucracy. It is now the largest democracy in the world and reviving the traditional
Panchayat (village council) system makes sure people can take part in democracy. Fast
economic reform has also made India the world’s tenth most industrialised country,
with a globally competitive computer market and its own space programme. But border
disputes continue to be an issue. In 1962, war broke out with China over the India-
China border and in 1971, war with Pakistan led to India recognising the new state of
Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.
The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir began at independence and has
rumbled on ever since with periodic outbreaks of cross-border skirmishing. The
potential dangers of conflict over Kashmir were underlined when both countries tested
nuclear weapons within weeks of each other in May 1998 and for several months in
2002 there seemed to be a real risk of war.
Photo: Rajendra Shaw/Oxfam
Timeline of India’s History:
http:/ / w w w.kamat.com/kalranga/timeline/timeline.ht m
Resources for the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir:
Great resource on entire Kashmir conflict:
Religion and Conflict: Hindus and Muslims in India:
http:/ / w w w.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/classroom/lp5.htm l
PBS overview of conflict:
http:/ / w w w.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/india/index.htm l
World>Asia: South & Central from the May 22, 2002 edition
Religious tension hangs heavy in sacred Hindu city
In the Indian city of Mathura, Hindus and Muslims hold on to a shaky peace at a holy
By Diana Coulter | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
MATHURA, INDIA – Sharafat Khan's husky baritone, well-tuned for bartering in this
noisy Indian marketplace, lowers to a whisper when he discusses Gujarat, a violencetorn
region far from his hometown.
"Yes, we are watching the murder of our Muslim brothers there, and we are worrying.
Maybe we are next," says the burly iron fabricator, as he huddles close to his son. "I
was born in Mathura. I have friends here who are both Hindu and Muslim, but I know
that could change, if only someone decides to play more political games."
Gujarat and its communal violence may be hundreds of miles away, but many in
Mathura, such as Mr. Khan, are nervously watching the region's rising death count, now
close to one thousand.
Violence in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya escalated Feb. 27 after a Muslim mob
firebombed a train carrying Hindus who wanted a temple re-built on a mosque site
there. The incident sparked India's worst religious violence in a decade.
Residents of Mathura worry that a similar scenario awaits them, because their city, like
Ayodhya, is home to a highly significant religious site being fought over by Hindus and
Some 3,000 holy places are scattered across India, where hundreds of years ago Muslim
rulers are said to have destroyed sacred Hindu temples to build mosques. But Mathura,
Ayodhya, and Varanasi are three that were singled out for dispute in the early 1990s by
Hindu extremists because of their religious importance.
At Mathura, citizens are trying to stay calm. But around the corner from Khan's sidewalk
stall, sweets shop owner Laxmandass Maheshwori admits he is concerned.
"We are Hindu, but we live in a Muslim area and are very happy together. And now my
business is just six months old, and it is good...," says Mr. Maheshwori before adding in
a hushed tone: "If something happens here, then everything will be lost."
To most foreign tourists, Mathura would seem a nondescript, semi-industrial city to be
rushed past enroute to a viewing of the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra.
But at the city's heart, not far from the sacred bathing ghats that lead down to the
Yamuna River, lies the disputed land where Hindu pilgrims flock to find the birthplace
of Krishna – and, right next door, Muslims regularly turn to face Mecca at a red
Mathura is recognized as one of Hinduism's seven sacred cities. Hindus believe that
Krishna was born here 3,500 years ago in a prison cell where his parents were held
captive by a tyrannical king.
A series of Muslim invaders – concluding with Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century –
razed the site, then built a mosque in its place. Now, a more recent Krishna temple also
stands cheek by jowl beside it, blaring Hindu bhajans (hymns) across the mosque's
The tension at the site is palpable. At the Hindu temple, so-called "Black Cat" elite
commandos accompanied by city, regional, and intelligence bureau officers patrol the
grounds. To enter the complex, visitors must go through airport-style electronic arches,
then be patted down. A two-story-high, barbed-wire fence circles and divides the
temple and mosque.
At the mosque, security isn't as tight. Muslim families, goats, and bulls live on the
A Hindu soldier on the mosque's perimeter was blunt about his view of the future.
"These Muslims don't like us here. We will wait some time, then they will be meat," says
the soldier, making a swift chopping motion with his hand.
In his concrete room at the mosque, the Muslim cleric, Imam Abdul Wazid says he
continues to preach "about living together like brothers and good neighbors, always
trying to get along."
But he still hears the worry in peoples' voices. "People talk about Gujarat and wonder if
this trouble will come here," the Imam says.
A high-ranking district official has said that the government is spending 400,000
rupees (more than $8,000) per day to protect both monuments.
"[Government officials] are worried that if trouble erupts here, it will just keep
spreading until we have a massive conflict across India and maybe with (mostly
Muslim) Pakistan," says Mohini Giri, chairperson of the Guild of Service, a women's
charitable group who has interviewed officials about the issue.
In addition, India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has "a bloody nose because
of the Gujarat crisis, and they are very keen to stabilize," before upcoming state
elections and the 2004 general election, says Vinod Mehta, editor in chief of Outlook, a
respected Indian newsmagazine. "I don't think they want to be further marginalized."
Mr. Mehta says hopefully, the government is learning lessons from Gujarat.
Police in Gujarat now, for example, gather elders from both Hindu and Muslim
communities to sort out problems and talk peace so that no future flare-ups occur.
Mehta says the future of Mathura will depend on how the Gujarat conflict develops.
"The people who would be behind any Mathura agitation are the same people as the
perpetrators of the carnage in Gujarat, and right now, I don't think they have the
capacity to spread their activities so far out and have two or three things going at
once," says Mr. Mehta.
At his sweets stall, Maheshwori believes there is still room for hope in this city.
"Hindus and Muslims live