Religion has had a significant influence on the polity in pre-modern India. The guiding principle of the political tradition in India is secularism, and the country’s unique civilization has accommodated various religious traditions.
While there were differences between religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity, none of them have tried to establish their superiority over the others. Instead, each religion has moral values and talks about one’s duty towards others and society at large, including honesty, humility, selflessness, and compassion for the poor.
In ancient and medieval polity, no distinction was made among subjects along religious lines, although there might have been individual rulers who deviated from this principle. Such deviations were considered aberrations rather than guiding principles of kingship. This secular approach to governance was also evident in the way that various religious traditions were welcomed and respected in pre-modern India.
For instance, during the days of Brahmanical domination, a section of society started looking for alternative ways to realize the ultimate truth, and this search resulted in the emergence of Jainism and Buddhism. Many people, including the rulers, welcomed these new religious traditions.
Similarly, when Islam came to India, there might have been attempts by a few to make it the state religion, but we find that the same period witnessed the growth of Sufism or Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi, which focused on universalism.
The same period was significant for the growth of the Bhakti movement, which preached human equality and dreamt of a society based on justice and equality in which people of all creeds could develop their full moral and spiritual stature. The Sufi orders had an influence on the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, and among the followers of Guru Nanak were both Hindus and Muslims.
There are many references in Indian religious traditions to suggest that the spirit of tolerance, universalism, and compassion for humanity lies at the core of various traditions. These teachings from religious traditions have been the guiding principles of governance and influenced the polity in pre-modern India.