Ever since Karl Marx proclaimed religion to be the opium of the masses, religiosity has come to be viewed as an attribute of the poor and the indigent. It is not surprising that one commentator recently argued that the millions of people thronging the Maha Kumbh at Prayagraj this year provide evidence of growing unemployment in the country, drawing a direct link between religiosity and deprivation.
However, survey data on religiosity in India contradicts such claims.
An analysis of a nationally representative survey on religious practices in India carried out by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that participation in religious events and festivals cuts across class divides in Asia’s third-largest economy.
In the survey, respondents were asked if they considered themselves to be very religious, somewhat religious, or not religious at all.
Almost one-third of Hindu respondents (31%) said that they were very religious while most (60%) considered themselves to be somewhat religious. Merely 5% said that they were not religious at all. Reported religiosity in the survey was similar among other major religious groups as well.
In the same survey, respondents were asked if they had attended public religious gatherings, processions (jaloos), or functions in the past one to two years. Around half of the Hindu respondents (51%) said that they had participated in religious gatherings in this recall period.
Analysis of the disaggregated data shows that there is absolutely no link between affluence and participation in religious events.
Participation is also not restricted to any particular social/caste group within Hindus either. For instance, there was just a four percentage points difference in the proportion of upper caste (51%) and Dalit (47%) respondents attending such events. The data does not allow us to identify whether various social groups were attending similar events or going to different gatherings .
Further, the survey reveals that religious gatherings and functions draw participation in both urban and rural areas. Almost an equal proportion of respondents in urban (47%) and rural areas (50%) said they had participated in public events.
Gender and age seem to be the only salient cleavages in participation in religious gatherings.
There is a significant gender difference in participation between men (54%) and women (45%).
Expectedly, age also seems to determine the likelihood of participation in religious gatherings and processions. Attendance is almost similar among all age groups except those aged 56 and above who tend to be slightly less active (44%).
Among the youth (18 – 25 years), 52% had participated in an event.
Religious gatherings, processions and public events also seem to transcend regional divides, with a large proportion of respondents participating in these across the country .
Participation is slightly higher in north-central (53%) and western India (52%) compared with the eastern (43%) and southern parts (44%).
Overall, these trends should not be surprising as they reaffirm a consistent finding in scholarly work on religious practice in India—participation in religious activities is ubiquitous. Further, survey data shows that religiosity has been on the rise in India .
It is these trends, rather than joblessness, that explain the high footfall at Kumbh. Given rising religiosity, attendance at such mega-events could only increase in the coming years.
Pranav Gupta is a PhD student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.