Asia Religion and Languages

By | March 5, 2021


Religiously, Asia occupies a special position, since all the major world religions have emerged there: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the religious conditions of the Ancient Orient, see Ancient Orient’s religions. The role of Christianity in Asia is discussed separately at the end of this section.

Among non-Christian religions, two types can be distinguished: those that have been developed in tribal-based societies and have been communicated for a long time without writing, e.g. the religion of the Lamet people in Laos, and those who belonged to early state education and were trained with the help of scripture, e.g. Buddhism and Confucianism. The first type, which comprises at least about 100 groups, is not dealt with in detail here. For Islam in Middle East, follow Countryaah.

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Country Language
Afghanistan Pashto and Dari are official languages, in addition Turkish languages ​​are spoken as Uzbek, Turkmen and Kyrgyz
Bahrain Arabic is the official language
Bangladesh Bengali is the official language, in addition to which Urdu, English and Tibetan Burmese are spoken
Bhutan dzongkha is the official language, otherwise English and Nepali are spoken
Brunei Malay is the official language while English is used as a commercial language; otherwise Chinese and Filipino are spoken, among others
Burma Burmese is the official language; Arakane, karen, karenni, kachin, chin, naga, mon, palaung, wa are important minority languages
Philippines Filipino (or Tagalog) is the largest language. Other major languages ​​are Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon and Bicolano. Many also speak English
United Arab Emirates Arabic is the official language, English is often used as a commercial language 2
India There are about 300 different languages; Hindi is the state language, English is the official language, 21 other languages ​​(mainly the majority languages ​​in the states) also have official status
Indonesia bahasa indonesia is the official language, in addition about 400 local languages ​​are spoken (of which Javanese and Sundanese are the largest)
Iraq Arabic and Kurdish are official languages
Iran Persian is the official language
Israel Hebrew and Arabic are the main languages
Japan Japanese is the official language
Yemen Arabic is the official language
Jordan Arabic is the official language
Cambodia Khmer is the official language; largest minority languages ​​are vietnamese, chinese and cham
Kazakhstan Kazakh is the national language, Russian is the official language
China Chinese (Putonghua, with several very different dialects)
Kyrgyzstan Kyrgyz and Russian (in some parts) are official languages; Among the minority languages ​​are Uzbek, Ukrainian and Turkish
Kuwait Arabic
Laos Lao is the official language; in addition, Mon-Khmer languages, Tibetan Burmese languages, etc. are spoken
Lebanon Arabic (official language), French, English, Kurdish, Armenian
Malaysia Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) is the official language, Chinese is the largest minority language
Maldives Divehi (Maldivian) is the official language, English is spoken in the capital and in tourist areas
Mongolia Mongolian (Chalcha is the largest dialect), Kazakh, Russian, Chinese, etc. Minority languages
Nepal Nepali is the official language, a lot of minority languages, English is common
North Korea Korean (different from Korean in South Korea)
Oman official language is Upper Arabic
Pakistan official language is Urdu; Other important languages ​​are Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki, Baluchi and English
Qatar Arabic is the official language 10
Saudi Arabia Arabic is the official language 11
Singapore four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Malay has a special status as a national language.
Sri Lanka Sinhalese and Tamil are official languages; English is fluent; in religious contexts Pali, Arabic and Sanskrit are used
South Korea Korean (different from Korean in North Korea)
Syria Arabic is the official language 12
Tajikistan Tajik is the official language, Russian is common, various minority languages
Taiwan Chinese dialects 13
Thailand Thai (Thai) is the official language with four dialects (the national language Central Thai, Northern Thai, Southern Thai, Lao); in addition, Chinese dialects, Malay, Khmer and a number of other minority languages ​​are spoken
Turkmenistan Turkmen is the official language
Uzbekistan Uzbek is the official language; in addition, Russian, Tajik are spoken with several other languages
Vietnam Vietnamese is the official language; at least about 30 minority languages ​​(eg Thai, Thai, Chinese)
East Timor Portuguese and Tetum are official languages

Asian Countries

South Asia

From about 3000 BC In the Indus valleys, there was a chain of early state formations. The linguistic monuments are few and difficult to interpret. However, there seems to be a clear influence from the Mesopotamian cultures and their religions. Vedic religion developed within states in the Ganges Valley from about 1200 BC. During the so-called Aryan immigration across northwestern India, it had come into contact with Indus culture but retained clear features from an Indo-Iranian community. From about the 400s BC the Vedic religion was the most important element of Hinduism. At the same time, Buddhism and Jainism also spread in the North Indian state formations, in opposition to Hinduism but also dependent on it. Buddhism was up to the 7th century AD the dominant religion in India but was then pushed back by Hinduism and from the 9th century also by Islam. In India, where the Muslim empire arose during the Mughal period (1526-1700), Islam took on special Indian forms; they are therefore talking about “Indian Islam”. In the encounter between Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism arose in the 16th century as a religion of its own.

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In the Republic of India, over 3/4 of the population is Hindu. In Nepal, Hinduism is state religion although there is a majority of Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, 1/5 of the population is Hindu. Also in Pakistan and Bangladesh there is a minority of Hindus (1/5 of the population). Of the inhabitants of India, 1/5 are Muslims. Buddhism predominates in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan (mahayana) and in Sri Lanka (hinayana); in India, it constitutes a minority (5.5 million in 1985). Significant minorities in South Asia are the Christians (27 million) and the Sikhs (14 million), fewer are the Jainists (3 million) and the Persians (100,000). Some small groups of Jews have long been in Mumbai (Bombay) and Kochi; however, most have emigrated to Israel.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia was influenced by Indian and Chinese culture from about 100 AD. Already in the 400s, Hinduism and Buddhism were found in states on the mainland and in the island world. Vietnam followed China’s religious development until the 9th century except in the southern parts, where Hindu-pervaded states also emerged. The archipelago was influenced by Islam from the 9th century, without its Indian heritage being completely wiped out. Through a powerful mission in Sri Lanka in the 12th century, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in the 12th-13th centuries became Hinayan countries.

In the present, hinayana (theravada) dominates in Burma and Thailand, and before 1970 it was the majority religion in Cambodia and Laos. In Vietnam, mahayana dominates but, as in China, has a close relationship with Confucian and Daoist traditions. In Vietnam there are also new religious forms, mainly Cao đai, a mixture of French spiritualism and Catholic, Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian elements.

In Malaysia and in Asia.south island world, Sunni Islam is predominant. In Malaysia, all Malays (just over half the population) are considered Muslims; in Indonesia and Brunei, 90% are estimated to be Muslims. Muslim minorities are also represented in Singapore, the Philippines and the mainland, especially in Burma and Thailand. Immigrant Chinese make up just over 1/3 of the population of Malaysia and are a large majority in Singapore; they have brought with them Chinese Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. A small Buddhist minority exists in Indonesia with a concentration to the province of Dian. In Southeast Asia there are also many Hindus, in Indonesia about 2%, in the province of Bali just over 90% of the population. Malaysia has a significant minority of Indian immigrants, mainly Hindus but also Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

East Asia

East Asia, ie China, Japan and Korea are marked by the meeting between domestic religion and Buddhism. In the earliest state formations at Huang He occurred about 1500 BC an archaic culture. Here both Confucianism and Daoism emerged in the 500s BC. Buddhism was brought to northern and southern China from the 10th century AD along the trade routes from Central Asia as well as by sea. Only after severe conflicts was it accepted as part of the Chinese religion along with Confucianism and Daoism. Buddhism in China belongs to Mahayana; its two major directions are the clean country school and the meditation school (chan).

In Japan, there was an ancient cult called shinto, which is often perceived as Japan’s national religion. The second main element of Japanese religion is Mahayana Buddhism, which was brought to Japan via Korea in the 500s AD. and then gradually adapted to the requirements of Japanese culture. Among other things, the Chinese meditation school won entry into Japan and was organized there during the 13th century. Under its Japanese name zen, it has become a significant feature of Japanese culture.

In Japan, religions are classified into four main groups: Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, and “other religions.” The last group includes: Islam. This includes the large number of new religions that emerged as early as the 19th century (eg Tenri-kyo), but especially after the Second World War; they are usually based on Shinto and Buddhism, more recently Christianity and Hinduism..

Korea’s domestic religion came through Chinese influence to be mixed with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism; during the 1300s, shinto also came from Japan to Korea. Korea today exhibits a mix of domestic, Chinese and Japanese religion. There are also new religions here, one of which (the Tongan movement) has also reached the West.

Following the religious persecution of the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic of China today recognizes the practice of Buddhism (which before 1949 was the largest religion there, calculated by the number of monasteries and monks), as well as by Daoism, Islam and Christianity. Confucianism is not considered a religion, which, however, runs counter to older Chinese ways of thinking. The accepted religions are organized into national associations, which operate under the control of the state. While Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians are scattered throughout the country, there is a certain concentration of Muslims in Chinese Central Asia. Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism, is regarded in China as a Chinese religion and has been represented in Beijing by the Panchen lama (death in 1989).

Central Asia

Central Asia was in the first centuries AD a culture-mediating region between Iran, India and China. One result of the contact with South Asia is the rise of Lamaism in Tibet in the 7th century. It is a special Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism with tantric elements. In addition to Tibet, Lamaism is also found in other Central Asian peoples.

At the beginning of the 7th century, Islam spread to Central Asia, to Sogdiana, present-day Uzbekistan, with its two major commercial centers Buchara and Samarkand. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as to some extent the southernmost part of the Russian Federation, are also today fully characterized by Islam. Central Asia can also be counted as Afghanistan, where the population consists of Sunni Muslims.

Present problems

Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in Asia today have several problems to contend with. The first is the internal split. Although the Buddhists have a world organization, the World Fellowship of Buddhists, since 1950, but with its seat in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to get a general hearing. Tibetan Buddhism is strongly associated with Tibetan nationalism, and there are contradictions between mainland Chinese Buddhism and that in Taiwan. Hinduism has a strong nationalism but also an interest in world missions. Within Islam, Sunnis stand against Shiites, with different national interests.

Another problem is the lack of peaceful cohabitation. In Ancient India, Islam and Hinduism represent different ethnic identities, which have been politically exploited to divide this peninsula into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, the conflict between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils has religious overtones. In Malaysia, different ethnic groups are defined by their religious affiliation.

A third problem is to regulate the relationships of these great religions to the “tribes” (whose social organization is kinship-based), which have differing local traditions. In India, Hindus strive to incorporate them, and on the Southeast Asian mainland, the Buddhists and in the Asian island world, Muslims have similar ambitions.

A fourth problem is to find ideal relationships with Christianity, which many people perceive as a threat, and a fifth to reconcile Western ideas of democracy and free societies with traditional ideals. The encounter with the West has led to polarizations such as “modernism”, “traditionalism” and “fundamentalism”.


Christianity spread very early to Central Asia, China and India along the Silk Road and across the Indian Ocean. There were several bishops in India as early as the 300s. Especially the East Syrian (Nestorian) church proved very expansive. It reached China’s capital as early as 635 and flourished there until 845, when the church in China was virtually wiped out. In the 13th century, there were many Nestorians among the Mongols, even within the Genghis Khan family. In Central Asia, ruled by the Muslim caliphate since the 6th century, the church lived relatively securely, before the Crusades destroyed the relations between Christians and Muslims and the massacre of Timur Lenk suffered in the 13th century. In India, the East Syrian Church has survived as a minority, especially in Kerala (Toma Christians). The majority are today Catholics (Syro-Malabars and Syro-Malankars),

In the 13th century, Asia was reached by a Western Catholic mission, especially through the Franciscans, both along the Silk Road to China and across the Persian Gulf to India. But it was not until the beginning of the 16th century, when the sea route was found around Africa, that the mission became extensive. Portugal’s strongholds in Goa, Malacca and Macao became the starting points for the mission. Spain colonized the Philippines, which soon became Christian, and remained Asia’s only Christian country. The Jesuits had great successes in India, Japan and China, but their adaptation to Asian cultures was subjected to church restrictions (see ritual struggle). During the 17th century, the mission was met with a strong reaction. In Japan, the church was crushed under cruel circumstances, and in China its activities became more difficult. By the mid-18th century, the mission of the Jesuits had lost its importance.

The Protestant naval powers of the Netherlands and Britain gained control of the East Asian trade routes. Thus, Protestant churches began to be established in Asia. The missionary movement grew avalanche throughout the 19th century. Everywhere, churches were established that had strong ties with the colonial powers and gained a distinctive Western feel. The Taiping movement, which was also an expression of a domestic form of Christianity in China, was crushed with the help of the British military. After World War II, many of the churches became independent with their own pastorate and native leaders. New Protestant communities are growing strongly. Especially in the big cities, there are para-church organizations, often originating in the United States, that particularly attract young people. The emphasis is thus shifted from the Roman Catholic Church, through the large Protestant communities,

Less known in the West is Christianity in the Asian part of the Russian Federation. During the 15th-16th centuries, the Russian tsar empire expanded eastwards to the Pacific. It was accompanied by a Russian Orthodox mission, especially during the 19th century, and the liturgy was translated into a wide variety of Asian languages. In the Asian part of the Russian Federation, which also had a strong Russian immigration, Christianity is the dominant religion.

Although the number of Christians in Asia (outside the Russian Federation) now reaches 200 million, they are usually in a minority position. However, through education and medical care, they have played a certain role in the general development. In the Philippines, more than 90% of the population is Christian, mainly Roman Catholics. In South Korea, Christianity is growing very fast and already in the 1990s has a closure of close to 40% of the population. In Taiwan and Singapore, too, the number of Christians is increasing. In China, Christianity has again become a permitted and rapidly growing religion. Large Christian groups are found in Indonesia, India and Burma, especially among minority peoples (batak, naga, karen).

As an intellectually and politically conscious minority, in various Asian countries, Christians have rarely had difficulties in their relations with the state. Relations with the western countries also play a role. Dialogue and peaceful coexistence with other religions is a condition of life. In the ecumenical movement, the Asian churches play a prominent role. They have given Christianity some of its greatest leaders during the 20th century.