Footprints

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WORLD RELIGIONS

26 September 2020

Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. This is because, he reasons, humans are basically religious creatures. We see religious rituals since the dawn of humanity preserved in drawings in the caves of Germany, France, and Spain. Likewise, most archeologists include organised religion as one of the hallmarks of ancient civilisations.

Perhaps, the idea of God is even embedded in our DNA. Dean Hamer, a prominent geneticist, has identified what he calls the “God” gene amongst those who call themselves religious or spiritual./1/ Whether we create religion from divine messages or as part of the natural process of societal survival, we find God appearing in all human cultures, even in the most isolated ones.

Historians have identified a particular era of great transformations in the world’s religions. The so-called Axial Age between 900 and 200 BC was a pivotal time in the development of humanity’s spirituality. It occurred in different regions of the world at about the same time—along with the rational philosophies of ancient Greece, there were the flowering of Hinduism and Buddhism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China; and in the Levant, Judaism—a monotheistic religion that would give birth to Christianity and Islam in later years. This was the time of the great Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the mystics of the Upanishads./2/

The following are short historical notes on four of the great world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. Christianity has already been discussed in my previous uploads.

 

HINDUISM: The oldest among these four religions, HINDUISM was brought to India by the migrating Aryans around 2000BC. The basic tenets revolve around their major beliefs. Karma or the law of the deed describes how one act came from a previous one and will lead to another. Based on how you are living your current life, reincarnation will be the journey of your spirit from past lives into more lives in future--for better or worse--through a process called samsara or wandering through, until you escape and achieve moksha or release from existence. Salvation or release from existence—which is illusory as we are all aspects of the Universal Soul--is the ultimate purpose of the Hindu religion.

The Aryans also brought with them their religious literature, the Vedas, which mean knowledge.  The part in the Vedas that expresses their religion’s inner beliefs is found in the Upanishads written during the Axial Age. They believed in the Universal Soul called Brahman. Brahman created the gods--millions of them—the most important are the triad of Shiva the Destroyer, Vishnu the Preserver, and Brahma the Creator. Brahman relegated the creation of the world to Brahma who then created human beings, dividing them into four castes: on top are the Brahmins and at the bottom are the Untouchables. People can of course always hope that by living well they might improve their caste in the next life.

 

BUDDHISM: In around 500BC, a young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama (later called the Buddha or the Enlightened One), wondered what it was that tied souls to the endless wheel of samsara. He had observed how life was so full of suffering: sickness, old age, death. Finally, he left his palace in search of release from these suffering. Desire, he ultimately realised, was the cause of suffering. It is our cravings that have chained us to the wheels of samsara. The way out is not through the path of yet another active desire to kill all desires, but rather through moderation. It is the Middle Path that leads to calmness and happiness, thus the Four Noble Truths. All life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. Desire can be eliminated. The way to eliminate desire is through the practice of the Eightfold Path--right belief, resolve, speech, behaviour, occupation, effort, contemplation, and concentration.

Further, the key to control the restlessness of the mind is through meditation—to sit still and empty oneself of the ego. Buddhists practice meditation through concentrating on one’s breathing and focusing on a word or a mantra. This way can one move on to higher levels of consciousness that diminish desire until one achieves Nirvana or Enlightenment—the state of perfect peace. Buddhism is therefore not so much a religion of creeds but rather a religion of practice.

 

JUDAISM: In the land of Ur (modern day Iraq) about 1800 BC, there lived a man called Abraham. He was furious over how his community worshipped their many idols of nature gods. He challenged the orthodoxy and was forced to leave town to wander in the desert until he came to the land of Canaan (modern day Palestine and surrounding areas). It was there that the One God spoke to his heart and monotheism was born, an event that would revolutionise the religions of the world. Abraham made a covenant with his God Jehovah. In return for obeying God’s laws, he will be made the father of a great nation and God will lead his descendants to the promised land of Israel. This forms the basis behind the Jewish belief that they are God’s chosen people.

It remained to Abraham’s descendant Moses half a millennium later, to found the religion of Judaism. From a burning bush in Mt Sinai, Jehovah or Yahweh reinforced His covenant with the Jewish people--represented in the Ten Commandments inscribed by fire on two stone tablets. Kept in an ark, it resided in the Holy of Holies, in the temple or House of God built by King Solomon around 1000BC. However, with the destruction of the temple first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, and the ark lost, the Jews were once again separated from their God, and this brought a dramatic change in Judaism itself—the Jewish sense of exile.

Today, there are about 14 million Jews worldwide, most of whom live in the United States and in Israel. Traditionally, a person is considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish (matrilineal descent). God’s laws are preserved in the Torah, sometimes also called Pentateuch. How about those who don’t believe in the Torah or who even don’t believe in God? There are ongoing discussions as to whether Judaism is based on religion, ethnicity, or culture.

 

ISLAM: After Christianity, the second largest religion is ISLAM, which means submission to the will of God. With adherents of around 1.8 billion, it is the belief system of almost 25% of the world population. Islam’s founder, the 7th Century prophet Muhammad thought that, what started with Abraham evolved into Judaism, which later again evolved into Christianity. Now, God Allah had dictated through His messenger Muhammad the Qur’an—His sacred scripture—which is the culmination of the Abrahamic faiths. The Qur’an is the perfection of Judaism and Christianity.

Muhammad was frustrated that his views were not shared by either the Jews or the Christians. Even his own people persecuted him, so he fled from his hometown in Mecca to Medina where he died in 632 after having led and won battles in the holy warfare against the infidels.

Muslims must fulfill the Five Pillars of Islam. First is the profession of faith; second is the obligation to pray five times a day facing the direction of Mecca; third is the giving of alms; fourth is the month-long fast of Ramadan; and fifth is the pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Some Muslims add a sixth pillar, i.e., jihad or struggle, whether it is a struggle to keep the faith, to build a just society, or to defend Islam against its enemies./3/

Islam is a missionary faith whose aim is to unite the world under its own vision. In practice, this has sometimes involved violence, but this was true of Christianity as well. During the Middle Ages, the Christian religion in Europe was politicised, and together with other factors, it led to internecine wars.

 

This begs the question of whether the belief and practice of institutional religion is a civilising force or does it have a more detrimental influence. 

Spirituality is intuitive and religious impulses have no form. Consequently, they have to be harnessed and organised in order to make them more tangible, more comprehensible, more enduring. With its institutionalisation, however, religious impluses become integrated into a society’s culture, becoming partly secular. Institutional religions create forms through dogmas and rituals, and dogmas in the wrong hands can be risky. We have seen how politicised dogmas have exploded into violence.

Personally, I believe that spirituality or religion is a gift, but like all gifts, we can use it for good or for ill. I think that although unrelenting dogmatism amongst the powerful has led to unchecked brutality, there are many millions more who have used this gift in numerous ways that are uplifting, as a source of empathy and kindness, giving us a moral compass to live by.

 

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SOURCES: /1/Dean Hamer. THE GOD GENE: HOW FAITH IS HARDWIRED INTO OUR GENES. New York: Random House, 2005; /2/Karen Armstrong. THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION. London: Atlantic Books, 2007; /3/Richard Holloway. A LITTLE HISTORY OF RELIGION. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.