A collection of articles about past and living Religions of the World. These are simple overviews to help us understand the similarities in all faiths and beliefs.
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Religion is the organized search for the meaning of life. Humans have been searching for the meaning of life since the dawning of awareness. At one time, even the natural sciences were considered a part of the religious search for meaning. Only in the last 300 years have science and religion split as separate paths of exploration. Religions today are communities of people who share the same practices and beliefs in a Creator. More than three-quarters of the people of the world consider themselves religious.
There is a great movement in modern times to move away from organized religions to a more personal search for meaning. This is called the spiritual path and many people in today’s world claim to be spiritual rather than religious. But it is still important for us to understand the beliefs of the religions of the world and realize that we are all searching for the answers to the same questions and that the basic foundation of each and every religion is called "The Golden Rule" (treat others as you wish to be treated). The customs, rituals, way of living, or culture may be different, but we are all human beings searching for the same answers and desiring to live in peace with each other and Mother Earth. Religion binds people together or separates them in often violent ways. Most wars have been fought because of the differences in religious beliefs.
It is time to change and make a shift to tolerance and respect. With more understanding of World Religions we can see that we are at heart one people searching for the same answers to life's important questions. It is our diversity that allows us to find the more complete answers. Each religion is a particular path that speaks to the heart of the individual and that connection should be honored and respected. All paths lead to God, the Divine, the Creator. My path may not be your path, but it is still a sacred path. Peace will only come when we realize that each path is to be honored and respected.
Rev. Arlyn Macdonald
The ancient Celtic people had a rich oral tradition with many stories of their gods. They were connected in a unique and passionate way to the natural world and believed there was a thin boundary between the sacred and the mundane. They believed in a "soul-friend" who helped them with spiritual direction. There was an emphasis on family and kinship ties and a mandate for hospitality. Women had an equal status with men in the early nomadic society of the Celts. Early legends tell of the time when mortals took over the world from the gods, a time when life revolved around the struggle between light and darkness, summer and winter, day and night, with the powerful sun god serving as the primary hero and the underworld serving as the principle battlefield where the fate of the Celts was determined. Saint Patrick was a compelling force in converting the Irish Celts to Christianity. Because there were originally no towns, just nomadic settlements, the Christian church was more monastic rather than diocesan.
Monasteries were often huge theocratic villages often associated with a clan with the same kinship ties, along with slaves, freemen, celibate monks, married clergy, professed lay people, men and women living side by side. The early Celts developed a sense of the Christian God and the saints as a continuing, personal, helpful presence as they had with their other gods. The Celts invented the personal confession that the early Christian church integrated (for example the story of King Arthur). He was originally an ancient Celtic god who searched for the sacred cauldron (Holy Grail) in the underworld. From this legend the English story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table evolved. We honor the Celts at this time of year for teaching us the value of nature, personal confession, and the importance of legends.
Buddhism is one of the three religions that came out of China. There are different branches of Buddhism and the most familiar are Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, which came out of Japan. It was the study of Zen Buddhism by Westerners that brought the principles and teachings to the consciousness of the Western World. The man who became the Buddha was born a prince and the astrologers foretold he would be famous, either a great king or a great monk. His father wanted him to be a great king and so kept him isolated from the rest of the world and surrounded him with luxury and everything his heart desired. The story of how Buddha became a monk isone to read.
Buddha discovered enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree and being tempted. He discovered that all humans suffer and that this suffering is brought about by desire and attachment. When we give up our desires and attachments, we no longer suffer. Meditation is a way to quiet the desires and attachments. Another point of Buddha's enlightenment was to realize that every other person was suffering just like us and that we could have compassion for them. Buddhism is about finding peace within so you can practice peace in the world.
The most famous modern Buddhist is the Dalai Lama of Tibet. He became the Dalai Lama as a child when he was discovered as the reincarnation of the previous lama. He escaped from Tibet when the Chinese invaded the country. He now lives in India and travels around the world teaching compassion and cooperation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the United States Medal of Honor, among other world rewards. He lives like a simple monk and works tirelessly to bring about peace between Tibet and China.
Of all the Living Religions, Christianity is the most widespread, but often the most complex. There are three major branches of Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Prostestantism. The Christian faith centers around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, known as the "Christ." He was born in Palestine (where Bethlehem was located) in about 4 B.C.E. and grew up in Nazareth. Not much is known of his life until age thirty when he began his ministry. His teaching-healing career lasted about three years. His life was ended in a terrible way by the Romans. And yet, his understanding of the concept of God and how God resides in the heart of every human, has lasted over 2000 years. There is little Historical evidence to prove that Jesus ever existed, but the Biblical evidence is overwhelming and it is on this evidence that the Christian religion was founded.
What makes Jesus' teachings so different was that he spoke of God as "Father," a closer personal relationship than the Jewish and Islamic view of God as an outside and more powerful force. Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and thereby performed miracles. Jesus advocated peacemaking and talked of God's compassion and love even though he lived in a world of war and terror as the Romans had occupied his land for a long time. Jesus also believed that there was no difference in cultures or beliefs, that all humans were equal, including men and women. No one was holier than another. Jesus was a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order in his time and showing people there was another way to live. It wasn't Jesus' teachings that brought his disciples to him. It was the experience of living in the presence of someone in whom love, joy and power intersected in a way his disciples came to believe was divine. It is out of this phenomenon that the Christian theology was born. For over 2000 years, people have tried to understand and practice what Jesus knew and taught.
Hinduism has always held that there are many paths to the same God. "Truth is one; sages call it by different names," says the "Vedas," the Hindu sacred scriptures. "There are many paths to God, but a path is by no means means God. Bow down and worship where others kneel, for where so many have adored, the kind Lord must manifest himself, for he is all mercy."
Hinduism arose from the ancient civilizationthat developed in northwestern India in the Indus Valley in 6000 BCE. Today there are 850 million followers of Hinduism all over the world. In India, Hinduism is called "Sanatana Dharma" which means "eternal teaching." God, or the eternal spirit is called Brahman. The various Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu faith are different aspects of the one God. Lord Krishna is the most popular of these aspects. He is said to be the author of "The Bhagavad Gita," which is a guide to Hindu moral behavior. There are four paths to the goal for actualizing human potential for Hindus. The first is the path of knowledge, which has three stages: hearing, listening to sages and scriptures; thinking, intensive reflection; and, shifting self-identification to one's abiding part. The second path is through Love, to direct toward God the love that lies at the base of every heart. "Keep the name of the Lord spinning in the midst of all your activitie," brings the love of God into being. The third path is through work. All you need to do is learn how to work in ways that carry you toward God, not away from God. The fourth path is through psychophysical exercises. These exercises bring us through the four layers of self: the body, the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and Being Itself. This path requires the student to have one's personal life in reasonable order and one's relationships harmonious. Working through the body to the mind through the breath one unplugs from this world and embraces the spiritual world.
This is the Season for Interfaith Celebration and a great time to review some of the faiths from around the world. Each faith asks the same questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What is our purpose? We begin with the indigenous traditions. These were the first spiritual beliefs of our ancestor. Indigenous people are descendants of the orignal people of the lands. The Aborgine faith of Australia, for example, has been practiced for the last 3 million years. All these traditions honor unity, an intimate and interrelated sacred circle of the cosmos. Right relationship is most important. Time is circular, not linear. Many traditions worhip a Supreme Being, who they believed created the universe. This Creator is all-powerful. Early traditions looked upon the Goddess as the Creator. Early people believed they were kin to all creation and family became all important. Family did not just include humans, but also included animals or plants, birds and fishes, those in the body and those without a body. The land was considered sacred. Mother Earth provided everything that was necessary for life and was honored at all times. These traditions were also concerned with their relationship with power. Power is energy and our ancestors honored that power.
Now science has discovered electromagnetic power which the ancients knew about and used. It is believed by some scientists and many older traditions that there are four focal points created within the energy structure of the earth and the electromagnetic balance at these points is particularly critical to the well-being of the earth system as a whole. These four places are Tibet, Arizona, Hawaii, and Jerusalem. The purpose of the indigenous traditions was to sustain harmony and balance in a sacred way. The high priests of these traditions were known as "medicine men" and have collectively come to be called "shamans," a generic word from Siberia. Shamans are helpers to their tribes and hold the place of healer of physical, psychological and spiritual problems. They were herbalists and prescribed many treatments which scientists are looking at today with new eyes. They were also not only healers of individuals, but also of groups, for what happens to one affects the whole. Training to become a shaman was very rigorous. These are the roots of all religions.
Islam is one of the three religions claiming Father Abraham as its Patriarch. Those religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The root of the word Islam means "peace." In the 6th century, a time of ignorance, poverty and scarcity in the deserts of the Middle East, Muhammad, the founder of Islam was born. He came to be known as the Seal of the Prophets, and is believed to be the final prophet of the world.
In a mountain cave near Mecca, now the Islamic holy city, Muhammad held many vigils. He came to believe that Allah was the One God. During his vigils Muhammad was taken up to heaven and visited by the Angel Gabriel who instructed him to "Proclaim" the great teachings of the Lord. These teachings became the Qu'ran (Koran), the Islamic Holy Book.
In Islam, since life is a gift from the Creator, there are two obligations: gratitude for life received and surrender to Allah or freedom for the soul. Each soul will be held accountable for its actions on earth and how well it observed God's commandments. The word "infidel" in Arabic really means one who lacks thankfulness rather than a disbeliever.
Islam has Five Pillars of beliefs: (1) There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet; (2) Prayer to voice gratitude and to keep human life in perspective; (3) Charity, annually two and one-half percent of one's holdings should be given to the poor; (4) Observance of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, a time of fasting from food and drink; and, (5) Pilgrimage. Once during a person's lifetime, he or she is expected to journey to Mecca to heighten the pilgrim's commitment to God. Islam also has social laws which guide Islamic society. There was a split in Islam between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites based on the disagreement of who should succeed Muhammad after his death. The factions are still fighting today.
The mystical branch of Islam is the Sufi. The Sufis follow the mystical teachings of the Qu'ran. The Sufis strive to discover the divine side of Allah through love, ecstasy and intuitive discernment. The Whirling Dervishes are a branch of Sufism. Rumi is the greatest of the Sufi poets and translations of his poems are still number one on the best seller list today.
Jainism and Buddhism developed simultaneously in the 6th century. Jainism came out of India and until recently was not well known outside the country. There are only about 4-5 million Jains. Yet its gentle ascetic teachings offer valuable clues to our global survival. It is a complete and fruitful path with the potential for uplifting human awareness and inculcating high standards of personal ethics. Jainism never condone war, the caste system, or the killing of animals for any reason.
Jainism's great teacher is Mahavira (The Great Hero) who was a contemporary of the Buddha. Like the Buddha he was a prince and renounced his position at age 30 to wander as a spiritual seeker. He wandered around the villages and endured much pain and affliction. After 12 years of meditation, silence and fasting he achieved liberation and perfection. For the next 30 years he spread his teachings. Mahavira was the last of 24 teachers who came before him, but is considered to be the founder of the present form of Jainism, which has lasted 2,000 years.
Some of the Jain teachings are: the universe is without beginning or end. It passes eternally through long cycles of progress and decline. At the beginning of each downward cycle, humans are happy, long-lived and virtuous; they have no need for religion. As these qualities decline, humans look first to patriarchs for guidance but as things get worse, great teachers must create religion in order to steer people away from the growing evilness of the world.
The individual's higher consciousness or soul (the Jiva) can save itself by discovering its own perfect, unchanging nature and thus transcend the miseries of earthly life. Reincarnation is part of this process. Purifying one's ethical life is part of this process. Karma is also one of the teachings. Our actions influence the future course of our current life and of those lives to come. But in Jain belief, karma is actually subtle matter - minute particles that we accumulate as we act and think. Mahavira likened karma to coats of clay that weigh down the soul. Jains are very careful to avoid accumulating karma. They practice non-violence, non-possessiveness, and non-absolutism (open-mindedness).
Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violence as practiced by the Jains, but they take it further. They believe that every centimeter of the universe is filled with living beings, some of them minute. All of them want to live. Humans have no special right to supremacy: all things deserve to live and evolve as they can. To kill any living being has negative karmic effects. Jains often wear mouth cloths to prevent injury to inhaled minute beings and are very careful where they walk. They try to do the least damage possible. They are also strict vegetarians. This idea of non-violence carries over to speaking and thinking. One's profession must also not injure beings. Agricultural is considered harmful, for in digging in the soil one harms minute organisms.
Non-attachment to things and people is considered the way to inner peace as well as living a life of simplicity. Limiting consumption offers a way out of the global poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. Being open minded means to understand the fullness of truth has many facets. There is no point in finding fault with others; our attention must be directed to cleansing and opening our own vision.
Judaism began over 4,000 years ago in the ancient land of Ur, in what is now Iraq. Abraham was a shepherd who wrestled with the idea of one God. God made a covenant with Abraham and promised to bless him and his wife, Sarah. God led them to a faraway land called Canaan and from that day forward Abraham and his descendants believed in only one God, a God who enters every human life in a personal way. This was a new idea and made Judaism different from all other religions of the time. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the Israelistes, had to flee to Egypt during the famine.
Moses was another leader of the Israelites and led them out of Egypt back to Canaan, the Promised Land. You may recall how Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea so the people could cross safely. The Children of Israel traveled for 40 years in the desert, during which time God gave Moses the Ten Commandants, which became the core of Judaism's holy book called the Tanach (Bible). The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, which means "teaching." The Torah contains some of humanity's greatest stories, including the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. The nation of Israel was founded in 1948 amid great conflict from its neighbors. Many Jews from around the world came to this new country to make it their home.
The beliefs of Judaism have not changed for 4,000 years. Since the 1800's Judaism has branched into three large groups: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism. Saturday is the day of worship for the Jews and the temple and religious holidays are very important. The Jewish lineage comes down from the mother. When a young person comes of age at thirteen, he or she has a special ceremony to celebrate the rite of passage into adulthood. People of Judaism feel they are all one family no matter where they may go. They are connected to God and to their history.
Another spiritual path rooted in the natural world is the Native American path. For indigenous peoples, everything in the cosmos ins intimately interrelated. The symbol of unity is the sacred circle. Time is circular instead of linear. A major belief is that we must develop and keep right relationship with all beings in order to keep the world in balance and harmony. The animals and plants are our brothers and sisters and our teachers as are all natural things. A reverence for Mother Earth and a sense of being caretakers for the earth is an important part of Native American beliefs. The holy men for Native Americans are the shamans or Medicine men and women, who keep the sacred ways and facilitate healing.
In 1643, in England, a young man left home on a four year search seeking answers to questions which had troubled him since childhood. These were religious questions and so he sought out the religious leaders of his time. He became disillusioned with the existing Christian denominations. At age 23, he heard a voice saying "…there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition." This young man was George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends. George felt he had received a direct call from God and became an itinerant preacher and began to promote the concept of "Inward Light" or "Inner Voice." He believed there is a "seed of Light" in each person; every person has direct access to God; no priestly class or churches were needed; there is no need for elaborate ceremonies, rituals, creeds or dogma; every person is of equal worth; following the inward light will lead to spiritual understanding and thus to individual perfection.
He taught his followers to worship in silence. People were encouraged to speak only when they were moved by the Holy Spirit. His followers lived a simple life, drink no alcohol, and celebrate no holidays. They did not participate or attend sports, theaters, wear wigs or jewelry, etc. They referred to themselves as "Friends of Truth."
The Friends became into being about the time that the Puritans influenced Cromwell's government and Charles II was restored to the monarchy. The Puritans were the opposite of the Friends and so a great conflict developed. The Friends refused to pay any tithes to the State Church; to take an oath in court; to take off their hats to the king or other persons in power (called hat honor); or engage in a combat role during wartime. Plus they developed an intense concern for disadvantaged people of the day, including slaves, prisoners and inmates of asylums. They worked very hard to end slavery and for improvements in the prison and mental institution systems.
The Quakers were among those faiths that came to the New World to seek religious freedom. They found a sanctuary in the Rhode Island colony, which had been founded on the principle of religious tolerance. Many of the other colonies viewed them as dangerous heretics and they were deported as witches, imprisoned or hanged.
There are about 300,000 members worldwide, including a large group in Kenya. In fact, the greatest concentration of Quakers lives in Kenya, where they follow an evangelical interpretation of Quakerism. There are 125,000 in North America. In the United States, they are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. Although many had settled in the South during the 19th century, almost all later left in protest over slavery.