A Guide To Religions

new internationalist
issue 155 | January 1986

RELIGION[image, unknown] A guide to religions
[image, unknown]

A guide to religions
Because the major world religions are the product of thousands of years of thought about the human relationship with the divine, they tend to be complex, sophisticated and multi-faceted. Every religion offers insights into the nature of existence and most offer prescriptions for salvation: a formula for perfection in this life and peace and contentment in whatever life may come afterwards.

Most major religions are universalistic in the sense that they deal with all aspects of life and afterlife. To a believer, there are no questions that cannot be answered by religion. The answers may be vague, imprecise or open to interpretation ir they may be mere guidelines for formulating you own answers. In that sense most people take from religion what they need and let the professional theologians wrestle with issues of doctrine and dogma.

We have broken down each religion into three broad categories: origins - which deals with the historical roots of each faith: beginnings and endings - which looks at attitudes to birth, death and the creation of the universe; and life on earth - which examines what each religion has to say about individual and social relationships.

Encapsulating the essence of a religion in just a few hundred words is impossible. But even if this guide does not do your particular faith justice, it may at least afford you a glimpse of other more unfamiliar beliefs.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: 648 million
Share of world population: 15.4%
Major texts: The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabarata (including the Bhagavad Gita and the Laws of Manu), the Ramayana.
Main locations: India, Nepal
Main branches: Vishnuites, Shivites

ORIGINS The oldest of the world's major religions has been developing for nearly 5,000 years in the Indian sub-continent. Hinduism is as much a way of life as a religion, one that is specifically tied to Indian culture and history. The word Hindu is derived from the Persian word for the early civilization that lived along the Indus River Valley. Hinduism has no founder or prophet and no single sacred book like the Bible or Quran. It is an all-encompassing religion that relates to the needs of diverse peoples in a huge and isolated land. There are literally thousands of Hindu gods and goddesses, each of whom plays a part in a vast web of mythic stories which contain rules for living and an explanation of existence. Though there are many aspects of the divine, each is a single facet of the Supreme Life Force. Hinduism is a kind of umbrella that brings together a family of religious beliefs, each of which complement and reinforce the others.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Many Hindu stories attempt to explain symbolically the creation of the earth. In one, Vishnu, the controller of human fate and one of the three key Hindu gods, sleeps on a serpent floating in the sea of eternity. The Lord Brahma, the Creator who is beyond worship, emerges from a lotus flower in Vishnu's navel and creates the world. Vishnu then awakes to reign over it. Hinduism is a religion of cycles, timeless movement and regeneration. At its core is a belief in a primary essence that precedes the gods. Basic to Hinduism (as to Buddhism) is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Human action determines the conditions of the next life. The body dies but the soul (Atman), the life essence of each person, is reborn in another person or living thing. The goal of Hinduism is to gain release from this chain of rebirth and merge with the World Soul - Brahmin. Thus death is not to be feared; it is a natural event and part of the great journey towards perfect knowledge and peace.

LIFE ON EARTH The social conditions of people are, it is said, irrelevant to the core of Hindu belief. The Hindu world is an ordered, pre-ordained, interlocking community. The division of society into castes is a ritualized form of social organization with thousands of years of history behind it. According to this vision, people have little to do with the social or economic conditions of their fellow citizens. The object of life is to escape from the world of things, not to try and change it. This underlying satisfaction with the status quo is a major psychological barrier to social change in present-day India.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: 816 million
Share of world population: 19%
Major texts: The Quran
Main locations: Middle East North Africa, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia
Main branches: Sunni, Shi'ite

Photo: Camera Press ORIGINS The newest of the major religions began in Saudi Arabia around 600 AD when God spoke to the Prophet Muhammad in the mountains near Mecca. Muhammad received a series of divine revelations which he then transcribed into the Quran. After the Prophet's death a final version of the Quran became God's last and complete message to humankind. Islam is an Arabic word meaning 'submit' - a Muslim is thus a believer who submits to God's laws as revealed in Islamic scripture. Unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Muhammad, though they do see him as the last and greatest in a series of prophets which included Jewish patriarchs like Abraham and New Testament prophets like Jesus Christ and John the Baptist.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Muslims believe in one God, Allah, who created the universe out of nothing and now sustains and judges it. According to the Quran, 'God created man of a sperm drop'. In the end if we follow God's will and commit ourselves to living out the divine purpose for which we were intended, we will enter Paradise after death, God's purpose may not be understood but the human duty is to serve God without question.

LIFE ON EARTH Muslims believe the human race is the height of creation and Muhammad's life is recognized as the ideal human response to God, A Muslim's life must follow the 'five pillars of Islam': Shahadah (public profession of faith); Salah (ritual prayer five times daily); Saum (fasting during the 'Ramadan' holy month); Zakat (giving alms to the needy); Hajj (making the pilgrimage to Mecca). Because of its tribal origins Islam places a premium on community solidarity, hospitality, generosity and kindness. Early Islamic government following the Prophet's death showed democratic tendencies but these were often ignored in subsequent centuries, In recent years these traditions have again emerged as a reaction against autocratic rulers who deny earthly justice. Because of the Muslim claim to possess the sole truth their urge to spread the faith has led sometimes to brutal actions against 'unbelievers'.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: 296 million
Share of world population: 6.8%
Major texts: Sutra Pitaka (Buddha's teachings), Vinaya Pitaka (Monastic rules)
Main locations: Sri Lanka, China, S E Asia
Main branches: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism

Photo: Camera Press ORIGINS Prince Siddhartha Gautama lived near the India/Nepal border around 560 BC. He was born into a wealthy family and was sheltered from the physical suffering of the world during his childhood and youth. Eventually, he became disgruntled and left his family to search for spiritual truth and understanding. Rejecting wealth and later temptation he finally achieved the ultimate vision of human purpose to become the Buddha - the enlightened one. He then set out to preach the Dharma - the way to absolute knowledge. After his death his followers studied his life and teachings in order to achieve nirvana, a state of absolute bliss or pure being.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Buddhism shares with Hinduism a belief in reincarnation and the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Each soul is part of one World Soul which has existed beyond time and therefore beyond human comprehension. Our rebirth from one body to the next is influenced by karma - the collective sum of good and evil thoughts, words and deeds in our previous lives. Thus there is an inherent moral order in the world which no one can escape. To break out of the cycle of rebirth is the Buddhist's ultimate goal. Souls are not immortal in the Christian sense; only karma survives from one rebirth to the next.

LIFE ON EARTH According to the Buddha the cause of spiritual suffering is not sin, but ignorance. Buddhist faith stresses calm, peace and serenity. The Buddha is not a god or a god-sent prophet; he is instead a teacher whose knowledge contains the greatest truth humans can know - but this truth can only be reached through one's own thought and action. Because the aim of life is beyond this earthly material world, Buddhism has often been accused of lacking any prescription for justice on earth. The second of Buddha's four noble truths says nothing in the material world is worth ultimate reverence. Human suffering, he says, is caused by craving for the wrong things: people become too attached to things or to other people and so block their path to nirvana.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: N/A
Share of world population: N/A
Major texts: Yi Jing (Book of Changes), Dao De Jing (Confucian Analects)
Main locations: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong
Main branches: Confucianism, Taoism

ORIGINS Like Hinduism, Chinese religions have no clear beginnings, holy text or historically revealed god. The roots of Chinese faith are ancient and the beliefs and practices vary widely, Perhaps the greatest Chinese religious philosopher was Confucius, a scholar and writer who lived around 500 BC. Confucius stressed the importance of ethical conduct in human affairs and government. His teachings emphasized ordered social relationships and an attitude of religious reverence to the affairs of life. The other major Chinese faith is Taoism which developed from the thought of Lao-Zi around the 3rd century BC. Lao-Zi favoured a direct relationship between the individual and the Dao, a kind of primitive, unspoiled harmony between the person and the universe.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Chinese religions share a belief in the need for ultimate harmony. The familiar symbol of 'Yin Yang' at the top of this page is the archetype of this balance - a world view which simultaneously holds opposites in tension. The drive for harmony is present in the Chinese attitude to birth and death. Both are part of a harmonious universe; the two exist together to make one complete whole. However, the dead are revered as spirits because of their knowledge of life and the power they gain by being closer to the Dao.

LIFE ON EARTH Chinese religions share the common belief of a pre-ordained correct pattern of behaviour in the universe. Part of this behaviour involves respect for power and wealth, The Confucian view of society is neither democratic nor egalitarian, reinforcing instead a strict hierarchy. Taoism also invests great authority in the family and the state as both secular and religious institutions.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: 17 million
Share of world population: 0.4%
Major texts: The Torah, The Talmud
Main locations: Israel, USA, Europe, USSR
Main branches: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform

ORIGINS Hebrew belief in one God is the cornerstone of both Christian and Muslim monotheism. Judaism began over 4,000 years ago in the ancient Middle East. The Hebrews were a group of tribal nomads who saw their god as the creator of the universe, demanding loyalty from his people. Yahweh (translated as Jehovah in the Bible) took an active role in history, demanding he be worshipped and his laws followed. God's relation to his chosen people was through the Torah, which detailed the ways in which believers must act, With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jewish people lost their symbolic centre. The growing power of other tribes led to the diaspora when Jews scattered throughout Europe and eventually to North America.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Jewish folk tales and stories which explain the origin and the creation of the human race are familiar to most Westerners. God's seven-day creation of the universe out of a void is common to both Christianity and Judaism. As is the story of Adam and Eve and humankind's fall from perfection and grace. The ancient Hebrews offered no assurance of immortality or afterlife. Nevertheless, the Torah refers to life after death and to a day of reward for the righteous and reckoning for the wicked.

LIFE ON EARTH Judaism is a religion grounded in the earthly struggles of the Jewish people. Because the Jewish god acts in history and human beings are free to make the world according to his will, there is a strong current of social reform in Judaism - a desire to bring justice to human relationships.

[image, unknown]

Number of believers: 1,54 billion
Share of world population: 36%
Major texts: The Bible
Main location: North and South America, Europe, USSR
Main branches: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Coptics

ORIGINS Based on the ideas, sayings, teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth, called 'the Christ' (literally 'the King') by his Jewish followers. After Jesus was executed by the Romans as a political criminal around AD3O. a number of his followers formed communities in and around Palestine to spread his teachings, Jesus' followers believed he was the Jewish messiah appointed by God to restore his people's pact with God, Christians understand Jesus as 'the spirit made flesh', not merely a prophet but God revealing himself in human experience and history.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS Christians believe in a divine trinity (God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit) which together form one supreme godhead. Christian beliefs about the origins of the universe and humankind closely follow Jewish traditions - except that Christians believe following the example of Jesus will lead to everlasting life and peace with God. Jesus was sent to redeem a sinful humanity by his sacrificial death. By accepting Jesus as God, Christians can overcome their fallen state and achieve a state of grace.

LIFE ON EARTH Jesus' teachings had a strong social message. His ministry on earth was with the poor and he taught that the kingdom of heaven would be a new order where love of God and love of man (including the poor, the sinful and the outcast) would rule, Jesus stressed love and concern as the watchwords of human relationships. But the act of spreading Christ's 'good news' to others has often taken precedence over the substance of his teachings.

Sources: Religions of the World, Eerdman's Guide to World Religions,
The Muslim World, The Hindu World, World Christian Encyclopaedia.

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.