10 Books on Religion in the Subcontinent

India is home to 1.4 billion people, who belong to a variety of ethnicities and religions. There are substantial populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and adherents of folk religions that reside in this subcontinent. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, eight-in-ten Indians said religion is very important in their lives. To live in harmony then, it is important to believe in a pluralistic image of the nation and respect each other’s religious autonomy. Here are a couple of books to start your journey in understanding the multitude of religious identities in India:

1. The Buddha and His Dhamma

by B. R. Ambedkar

The volume deals with Ambedkar’s interpretation of the concepts of Buddhism and the possibilities the religion offered for the liberation and upliftment of the Dalits. It offers Ambedkar’s reflections and interpretations on the life of Siddharth Gautama, the Buddha, his teachings, and the proliferation of Buddhism in India through series of anecdotes and narratives that details the life of Buddha and the spread of his Dhamma.

Image credit: Oxford Scholarship Online

2. Being the Other: The Muslim in India

by Saeed Naqvi

In this remarkable book, which is partly a memoir and partly an exploration of the various deliberate and inadvertent acts that have contributed to the othering of the 180 million Muslims in India, Saeed Naqvi looks at how the divisions between Muslims and Hindus began in the modern era.

3. Who Are the Jews of India?

by Nathan Katz

Of all the Diaspora communities, the Jews of India are among the least known and most interesting. This readable study, full of vivid details of everyday life, looks in depth at the religious life of the Jewish community in Cochin, the Bene Israel from the remote Konkan coast near Bombay, and the Baghdadi Jews, who migrated to Indian port cities and flourished under the British Raj.

4. Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy

by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd writes with passionate anger, laced with sarcasm, on the caste system and Indian society. He looks at the socioeconomic and cultural differences between the Dalit bahujans and Hindus in the contexts of childhood, family life, market relations, power relations, Gods and Goddesses, death and, not the least, Hindutva. Synthesizing many of the ideas of Bahujans, he presents their vision of a more just society. 

Image Credit: SAGE Publishing

5. A History of the Sikhs Vol 1 & Vol 2

by Khushwant Singh

Written in Khushwant Singh’s trademark style to be accessible to a general, non-scholarly audience, the book is based on scholarly archival research. Basing his account on original documents in Persian, Gurmukhi and English, the author traces the growth of Sikhism and tells of the compilation of its sacred scriptures in the Granth Sahib. The transformation of the Sikhs from a pacifist sect to a militant group called the Khasla led by Guru Gobind Singh is portrayed in detail, as is the relationship of the Sikhs with the Mughals and the Afghans, until the consolidation of Sikh power under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Volume 2 takes up the thread at the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839, focusing on the continuing Sikh struggle for survival as a separate community.

6. Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India

by Siddhartha Sarma

This is an account of how global events, including the Crusades and the Mongol conquests, came together to bring Western Christianity to India. A gripping narrative of two diagonally opposite impulses in Christianity: of humble scholars trying to live the Christian ideal, and of ambitious ecclesiastical empire-builders with more earthly goals. Carpenters and Kings is a tale of Christianity, and, equally, a glimpse of the India which has always existed: a multicultural land where every faith has found a home through the centuries.

Image Credits: Penguin India

7. Women and Monastic Buddhism in Early South Asia: Rediscovering the invisible believers

by Garima Kaushik

This book uses gender as a framework to offer unique insights into the socio-cultural foundations of Buddhism. Moving away from dominant discourses that discuss women as a single monolithic, homogenous category—thus rendering them invisible within the broader religious discourse—this monograph examines their sustained role in the larger context of South Asian Buddhism and reaffirms their agency. It highlights the multiple roles played by women as patrons, practitioners, lay and monastic members, etc. within Buddhism. The volume also investigates the individual experiences of the members, and their equations and relationships at different levels.

8. Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India

by Ghazala Wahab

Born a Muslim goes beyond stereotypes and news headlines to present an extraordinarily compelling and illuminating portrait of one of the largest and most diverse communities in India. Weaving together personal memoir, history, reportage, scholarship, and interviews with a wide variety of people, the author highlights how an apathetic and sometimes hostile government attitude and prejudice at all levels of society have contributed to Muslim vulnerability and insecurity.

Image credits: Aleph Books

9. Jains in India: Historical Essays

By Surendra Gopal

The Jain community in India, though small in number, is very important in the economic and social life of the country. Jain history becomes more important when we find that the community anticipated new commercial practices adopted by European trading countries from the sixteenth century onwards. This volume contributes significantly to the study of merchant communities and colonial history in South Asia.

10. The Economics of Religion in India

by Sriya Iyer

Iyer explores how growth, inequality, education, technology, and social trends both affect and are affected by religious groups. Her exceptionally rich data―drawn from ten years of research, including a survey of almost 600 religious organizations in seven states―reveal the many ways religions interact with social welfare and political conflict.

Image Credits: Amazon India

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