Overview of the Religions
The faith known in the West as "Hinduism" is the most ancient of the historically-recorded world religions. Its origins are older than the written word, and it has no known founding prophet. The Hindu tradition is often referred to by its practitioners as Santana Dharma, or "The Eternal Law". Hinduism encompasses a wide variety of theological beliefs and devotional ceremonies amongst its roughly one billion followers. However, there are a few constants that prevail throughout Hindu philosophy. First is the concept of karma. Individual souls are bound to their actions, both good and bad. In the Hindu system of divine justice, all activity comes back to its doer, either in this life or a future one. Right and just actions lead to higher, more desirable births (human beings themselves being a particularly desirable incarnation). On the other hand, bad actions can lead to a downward spiral of lower incarnations (such as tapeworms or demons).
The highest aim of Hindu practice is moksha, or "liberation" from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. This is achieved when an individual soul, or atman, through right action, meditation, and freedom from desires in the material world, (the material world being known as maya, Sanskrit for "illusion") achieves oneness with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul. In most Hindu scriptures and schools of thought, it is believed that atman and Brahman are actually one. It is only one’s acceptance of the illusion of the material realm and our chains of karma that separate humanity from the Divine.
Hindus are often referred to as "polytheistic", or believing in many gods. However, this is only true on the surface of things. Most Hindus make a distinction between the Devas (literally "shinning ones"), or lesser divine beings, and the Ultimate Divine of Brahman. It may be more accurate to describe Hinduism as "pantheistic". Hinduism teaches that God is everywhere, and the same spark of the Divine Being is found in all the living creatures scattered broad and wide in this realm of illusion.
The Bhagavad Gita ("Song of God") is a dialogue between the archer Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. In the beginning of their discourse, Arjuna refuses to fight in a battle, because his enemies, although cruel and nefarious, are his relatives. Krishna admonishes him to take up arms against these evil doers, saying that it is Arjuna's specific duty, or dharma, to struggle against injustice. Krishna lays out the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism, including two paths to reach oneness with the Divine - the path of right action, and the path of meditative contemplation. Both paths are said to be the same when properly understood. Krishna also reveals to Arjuna, his friend since childhood, that he is actually a human manifestation of the Ultimate Godhead!
The Bhagavad Gita concisely summarizes the teachings of ancient oral Hindu traditions, such as the Vedas and Upanishads. Its seven hundred verses are part of a larger epic, the Mahabharata. Most scholars believe this sacred work dates back to around the third century before Christ. The sage Vyasa is attributed with the authorship of the Gita, as well as being credited with compiling and categorizing the Vedas into four sections. He is regarded by some Hindus as an incarnation of Vishnu.
The teachings of the Buddha take for granted much of the cosmology and philosophy of Hinduism, such as karma and reincarnation. The Buddha himself was born near the modern border between India and Nepal in the fourth century BCE. He was given the name Siddhartha Gautama by his family, and lived a life of sheltered luxury befitting his parent's royal status.
Siddartha first ventured outside the palace walls at the age of twenty-nine, and was greatly distressed by what he saw. The "Four Sights" he encountered were a pauper riddled with disease, an old man, a rotting human corpse, and a Hindu ascetic. After this experience the young prince abandoned his previous materialistic life and sought answers to the mysteries of suffering. He joined a group of itinerant holy men, and lived their life of semi-starvation and self-inflicted pain for a decade and a half. A tradition holds that one day, while undergoing extremes of fasting, he broke down and accepted some milk and rice from a local peasant girl. Siddartha then abandoned the radical practices of his fellow wanderers and decided instead to engage in meditation while following the “Middle Path” between over-consumption and ascetic self-destruction.
Siddhartha Gautama decided to seek Enlightenment by sitting under a bodhi tree. He vowed to himself "I will not leave this spot until I find an end to suffering." After inner trials and temptations, he obtained the title of the Buddha, or “the awakened one" by achieving Nirvana. He then went on to found a monastic order and teach others the path to Nirvana. The fundamental elements of his teachings are these Four Noble Truths:
1) Material existence is inseparably bound to dukkha, or suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire - the natural attachments to pleasure and aversions from pain.
3) Suffering can be overcome by the complete destruction of desire. This complete self-mastery is known as Nirvana.
4) The path to achieving this liberated condition is to follow the teachings of the Englightened One.
Nirvana is the perfect state, the reward granted by the very nature of the universe to the individuals within it who free themselves from desire and thus escape pain and rebirth. All sentient beings can find this eternal refuge within themselves. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, Nirvana literally means "blowing out "- the overcoming of delusion and craving by ultimate knowledge and a destruction of the sense of self. In the Uttaradhyana Sutra the Buddha defines Nirvana as follows:
"There is a safe place in view of all, but difficult of approach, where there is no old age nor death, no pain nor disease. It is what is called Nirvana, or freedom from pain, or perfection, which is in view of all; it is the safe, happy, and quiet place which the great sages reach. That is the eternal place, in view of all, but difficult of approach. Those sages who reach it are free from sorrows, they have put an end to the stream of existence."
Buddhists use a plethora of different holy texts to describe their theology and methods. For the purposes of this work we will be examining the Dhammapada, a collection commonly attributed to the Buddha himself. It contains four hundred twenty three verses, divided into twenty six chapters. The Dhammapada lays out a concise and consistent message teaching the commonly accepted tenets of Buddhism, particularlynNonviolence , compassion, and anti-materialism.
Confucius was born during the Warring States period of China, five hundred fifty one years before Christ. His once politically united and peaceful civilization was a now a unstable and decaying society, united in name only by the ruling Zhou dynasty. Unscrupulous rulers unleashed chaos in their struggles for dominance, as they ruthlessly exploited and terrorized the common people. As a scholar and aspiring societal reformer, Confucius sought to bring about a cohesive social and political order, but he was rejected and often threatened by power-hungry warlords.
Confucius was unsuccessful in his mission of societal reform in his own life, but his teachings were passed on and collected by his disciples. The Analects are a collection of the sayings of Confucius, collected in the generation after his death. These teachings have had tremendous impact in human thought and civilization, and they remain extremely influential in China, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.
The Analects of Confucius record “The Master's” instructions to his students, as well as several dialogues. Throughout this text, Confucius placed great emphasis on human morality and compassion. He rarely alluded to the supernatural order, but nevertheless spoke of the ultimate power of “Heaven.” The twenty chapters of the Analects form the bedrock of Confucian thought and practice.
The focus on Confucianism is on de, most often translated as "virtue". Unlike most of the other traditions this book examines, there is little focus on divine, ultimate realities and more emphasis on societal regulation and reform. The essence of de, when put into practice, is ren, roughly translated as "humaneness" or "benevolence." Most of the followers of the teachings of Confucius see his teachings as entirely compatible with more mystical belief systems, such as Buddhism and Taoism.
Confucianism focuses its moral premises on the distinctions between "superior men" and "mean men." This dichotomy is not based upon the nobility of birth, but rather the nobility of virtue. In Confucian thought, "the superior man" is one who respects his elders and is kind to his subordinates. In the teachings of Confucius, de is to be discovered and promoted by familial piety, social justice, honesty, and universal compassion. Confucian thought strongly emphasizes education, because one can advance from normality to a state of superiority through study and self-control. When a conservative interpretation of Confucian teachings, was adopted as the official philosophy of Imperial China, it justified the strict feudal social order of the time. After the triumph of the Communist Party in the mid-Twentieth Century, Confucianism was widely discredited by the new ruling order, although it is now coming back into vogue in the People's Republic.
The concept of the Tao, or "way", is prevalent throughout Chinese philosophy. Taoism, like the idea of the Tao itself is deeply mystical and difficult to describe or define. The Tao is the primordial force through which all material existence in its various forms is manifested. It is regarded as the self-sufficient original source. All things emerge from the Tao, and into it all forms are again recovered. It is natural, and beyond the scope of complete explanation.
The Tao te Ching, or "the Book of the Way and its Virtue" is attributed to Lao Tzu (literally "Old Man"). According to the classical tradition, Lao Tzu was a scholar in the Zhou dynasty and a contemporary of Confucius. He grew weary of the moral decay in his homeland and headed west to regions unknown. Lao Tzu gave the Tao te Ching to a gatekeeper at the edge of civilization before his disappearance. The work was written around the year six hundred BCE, and contains the fundamental beliefs of Taoism, often in allegory and mysterious language. Its eighty-one sections have exercised untold influence on Chinese spirituality
An inherent monism and optimism are prevalent throughout the teachings Taoism. All creation comes from the Tao, and the Tao is fundamentally good. Thus the best action is no action, because there is no need for change from the natural order. Harmony, both within the individual and in the wider world, is stressed. Balance, as represented by the Ying-Yang symbol, is another essential component of Taoism. Taoist practice focuses on self-control, a reverence for the natural world, and universal benevolence. Through emulating the Tao, one can return to the natural state of perfection.
Both Taoism and Confucianism share the ancient Chinese concept of Tian, or “Heaven”. Heaven is not a place of reward for the righteous among the deceased . Rather, Heaven represents a perfect order, a divine ideal as contrasted to the ugly realities of life on earth. Interestingly however, "the will of Heaven" is analogous to the Western concept of "the will of God.”
Christianity is the most widespread religion in the world, with about two billion followers. It is based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in Judea (at the time a remote province of the Roman Empire). Although split into many sects, all Christians regard Jesus as the Messiah, the promised savior of mankind mentioned in ancient Jewish texts. Jesus is thought to be the Son of God, a perfect divine being, and truly at one with God (similar to Krishna in Hinduism). Most Christians believe that eternal salvation is found when one accepts Jesus as a personal savior.
Jesus' message, like those of most of the founders of religious movements, was met with skepticism and violence. He was born at a time when the once proud Israelites were subjected to occupation by a foreign power. Religion was being misused, with the mystic zeal of Judaism waning and being replaced with the practice of legalistic rites. Jesus was a reformer who sought to bring about religious piety and social justice. The fate of Jesus was to be sentenced to death for spreading his message. Christians believe that Jesus' death was the ultimate victory, because it is through the blood of the Son of God that an inherently sinful humanity can be redeemed.
Poorly received in his own time, Jesus' message was carried on by his disciples, most famously Mark, John, Matthew and Luke. The Gospels complied by these men provide the textual material for examining the basic teachings of Jesus, because they are the closest to the original source of Jesus himself. These four scriptures stress an anti-materialism and complete devotion to nonviolence. Jesus taught his followers to renounce their corporeal cravings and sacrifice their belongings for the sake of the poor.
Muhammad, the founding prophet of Islam, was an illiterate merchant born in the pagan pilgrimage city of Mecca in the fifth century CE. He received his divine inspiration at the age of forty. Muslims believe that Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel while meditating in a cave outside the city. He was told to recite words from God which commanded charity, faith, and universal brotherhood.
Mecca was a rich city, primarily due to the presence of the Kabba, an ancient site of pilgrimage for followers of many different deities. Muhammad began to preach, winning converts amongst his family, his friends, and many others attracted to his egalitarian religion. Muhammad's message of strict monotheism and social equality did not sit well with the political and economic elites of Mecca. They drove him away in a violent campaign during which some of Muhammad’s followers were killed and many others were brutalized for refusing to disavow their new faith.
The young community of Muslims fled north from Mecca to Yathrib, a rival but less powerful city. In Yathrib warring tribes invited Muhammad to unite the inhabitants under the banner of Islam. Yathrib, was renamed Medina, the "City of the Prophet.” A six-year war with Mecca soon ensued. During this conflict between Mecca and Medina, there were many reversals of fortune, shifting tribal alliances, and a two-year truce. The Meccans, although numerically superior to the Muslims, were eventually defeated. Mecca became the site of a new pilgrimage to the One God, and is now the center of the Islam. After Muhammad's death a powerful Islamic empire came to dominate the Middle East and North Africa, before falling apart over the question of who was the rightful "Caliph," or successor, to Muhammad.
The sermons of Muhammad were memorized and collected by his followers, and became the Qur'an (literally "the recitation"). The Qur’an is divided into one hundred and fourteen suras (chapters) of various lengths. Islam teaches the value of universal human fraternity. There is a fundamental respect in Islam for the sincere followers of other prophetic religions. Good Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all promised paradise if they truly believe and do good deeds. It is only those who misuse religion as a mere pastime, and deny the justice of God who are condemned as “Unbelievers”.
Islam literally means "submission" in Arabic. The fundamental goal for all Muslims is to abase themselves before Allah through prayer, fasting, charity, belief, good works, and if able, by making a pilgrimage to Mecca. As in Christianity, divine reward or condemnation is eternal - either reward for the righteous in a wonderful paradise or an inescapable abode in a torturous hell for the wicked. Islam places huge emphasis on the unity and incomparability of Allah (literally "the God"). Allah is referred to by many names in the Qur'an, such as "the Compassionate" (Ar-Rahmaan), "the Merciful" (Ar-Raeem), and "the All-Knowing" (Al-Aleem). Allah interacts with humanity through the use of angelic assistants. These angels are assistants in the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of the material universe. Islam regards all the major Jewish prophets, such as Abraham, Daniel and Solomon as blessed with access divine revelation. Although the Qur'an tells the story of the Virgin Birth, Jesus is not regarded as the Son of God but rather another prophet. Satan, the chief deceiver and enemy of the righteous as spoken of in Christianity and Judaism, is said to be a rebellious angel.