Indian Buddhists may appear uniform on the surface. Nearly 90 percent identify as dalits, the country’s lowest social caste, and half are members of Navayana, the order inspired by Indian founding father and Buddhist convert B.R. Ambedkar.
But according to a new survey of religion in India conducted by the Pew Research Center, Buddhists in the land where the Awakened One taught 2,500 years ago disagree on key practices and ideas, including meditation and nirvana. About 35 percent of Indian Buddhists say they meditate once a week or more, according to the study, a lower percentage than Indian adults in general (48 percent) Jains (61 percent) Sikhs (57 percent) Muslims (52 percent) and Hindus (47 percent).
Likewise, less than 20 percent of Indian Buddhists believe in reincarnation—compared to slightly higher numbers of Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. And about four in 10 Indian Buddhists told Pew researchers they believe in nirvana.
Thirty-five percent said they do not identify with a Buddhist order. Most say they do not face daily discrimination, despite the historical biases against dalits, but 85 percent list unemployment as a major concern, according to the study.
Pew’s study, published on June 29, was conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020. It’s part of the non-profit center’s mission to understand the huge religious changes sweeping across the world, from the rise of evangelicals in Latin America to the fall of Christianity in Europe.
The picture that emerges from the study of India is complex, said Neha Saghal, Pew’s associate director of research. The country is diverse and devout, with the world’s largest numbers of Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, along with nearly 100 million Muslims.
Of the nearly 30,000 Indian adults surveyed by Pew, 719 identified as Buddhists, who make up about 0.7 percent of the country’s overall population, according to a 2011 census. (That comes to about 5.7 million people.)
But Indians see their country as less a melting pot than a patchwork quilt, said Saghal. Conversions are rare, religious intermarriage is largely frowned upon, and few Indians say they make friends outside their religious circles, according to the study.
“Respecting other religions is seen as a key part of being Indian,” said Saghal, “but Indians do not conceive of tolerance as crossing religious lines. They live their lives in segregated religious bubbles.”
But religious ideas are far less respecting of borders, the study found. For example, 77 percent of Indian Muslims believe in karma, the same rate as Hindus, according to the study, and nearly three in ten Muslims and Christians say they believe in reincarnation.
The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 29,999 respondents is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points. More information on how the survey was conducted is available here.
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