Introduction to World Religions

Welcome to my introduction to world religions. If you are moving forward with Religious Studies or Philosophy of Religion at A-Level or university, having a basic understanding to the 6 main world religions is essential.

Judaism

Judaism was the first to teach the idea of monotheism. They believe in one G-d who not only created the world, but maintains a constant presence and involvement in that world.

Judaism began with Abraham and became a nation and religion with the revelation of the Torah, to the entire nation at Sinai, 3332 years ago. The Torah, written in Hebrew, contains the basis for Jewish law, further codified in the Talmud. It also contains ethical and moral lessons, usually in the form of stories about the forefathers.

Judaism is arguably more of a religion of study and debate than of prayer, however prayer is a central pillar. Jews pray three times a day, facing towards the Temple mount in Jerusalem, meaning they face different directions in different places. The Jewish place of prayer is called a beis knesses – a house of gathering, after the fact that male Jews must pray in groups of 10 men over the age of Bar Mitzvah -13. The beis knesses is today known as a shul, or the anglican term synagogue.

Judasim believes that we were created for a purpose, the purpose being to attain pleasure by basking in G-d’s glory. This is achieved by following the commandments and becoming moral, refined beings who will then receive eternal reward after death. Jewish law is an ongoing process, argued out by Talmudic logic and continuing, via thousands of books on various subsections of the law. Some of the most famous laws include the strict dietary requirements of a kosher diet; separation of milk and meat and all food must be specially prepared in accordance with the law. Observance of the Sabbath, a day of complete and total rest, even use of technology is prohibited, in a display of showing that it is G-d who created and sustains the world, not our own efforts.

Any child of a Jewish woman is a Jew. 

Christianity

Christianity began with the revelations of Jesus who declared himself messiah and delivered messages from G-d. Jesus is known as the son of G-d with a human lady called Mary. He was a Jew who proclaimed himself the messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Rejected by the Jewish people, he established Christianity about 2,000 years ago.

Christianity believes in a form of near monotheism, of a Trinity of powers known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are six main branches of Christianity and 34,000 denominations. Some branches believe in pure monotheism, maintaining that only G-d has power and Jesus was only his prophet. Some angelisize Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Christianity was a persecuted, minority belief for many years following the death of Jesus until 380, when Constantine I converted and made christianite the mandatory religion for the Roman empire.

Christianity believes in the revelation of the old testament (called the Torah by Jews) with the addition of the New Testament based on the teachings of Jesus. They believe in a form of monotheism and the concepts of reward and punishment culminating in life after death. Christianity believes that humans either attain heaven or face eternal damnation in hell.Christianity is based heavily on the faith in a second coming, that Jesus will rise again and complete his messianic mission of bringing the world to the peaceful bliss of the messianic era.

The church is Christianity’s place of worship, being a sacred and holy place.The authority of the Church is recognised as absolute, under the leadership of the pope, the supreme religious authority in Rome.Prayer is a large part of Christianity, being mandatory on Sundays, their holy day. Communion is often performed in church on Sundays. Whether the bread and wine of communion represent the literal or metaphorical blood and flesh of Jesus is hotly debated. 

Christians must be adopted into the faith by being baptised – sprinkled with holy water.

Islam 

Islam was founded by Mohammad around 1,400 years ago.

Mohammad lived in the Arabian peninsula. Muslims believe that Mohammad was a prophet sent by G-d to teach them His law and how to live by it. Muslims believe in the Old Testament and the validity of Abraham, Moses and Jesus.Islamic faith is based on the belief that G-d created this world so that we will come to know Him and that He judges us based on our deeds. Attaining heaven depends solely on deeds not on status. They maintain that G-d revealed Himself to Abraham, Moses and the Jewish people, then sent Jesus to correct Judaism and then Mohammad to correct Christianity.

Muslims have five tenants of faith or five ‘pillars’ of Islam…

  • Faith (Shahada)
  • Prayer five times a day (Salat)
  • Charity (Zakah)
  • Fasting for the duration of the month of Ramadan (Sawm)
  • A pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime (Hajj)

Their holy book is called the Qur’an – anglicized to Koran. They believe it is the word of G-d dictated to Mohammad. The Qur’an is written in Arabic.

Islam believes in pure monotheism, life after death, reward and punishment and submission to G-d and his prophet. Their holy city is Mecca in Iran, which they face whenever they pray. Prayer is conducted in a mosque; their sacred place of worship, in which Muslims cover their heads and remove their shoes. Female Muslims follow strict codes of modesty, covering themselves with a hijab or a burka.

The Sunnah is considered by Muslims to be Mohammad’s practical example of the Qur’an.

Islam split after Mohammad’s death. The Shia felt that Mohammad’s son should lead the people, leaving leadership with the house of prophecy. The Sunni claim that a democratic decision was made to elect Mohammad’s best friend and follower.

Shariah law is the rule of Islam, if someone does not follow the law and believe in the seven tenants of faith, he or she is not considered a Muslim.

Sikhism

The Sikh religion was founded in Northern India, just over 500 years ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The word Sikh means disciple. They believe in pure monotheism, equality, freedom of religion and community service. India’s system was caste, highly restrictive and extremely discriminatory. Guru nanak dispensed with the caste system, declaring all to be equal in the eyes of G-d. 

The tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa which means the five commandments of the beloved people, in front of thousands at Anandpur Sahib.

During the harvest festival of Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh addressed the crowd and challenged any Sikh who was prepared to give his life to come into the tent. Four volunteers disappeared and the guru returned with only a sword dripping in blood. After one more man had entered his tent, five men emerged wearing turbans with the Guru.

These five men are known as the Panj Piare or ‘Beloved Five’.Guru Gobind Singh decided to unify the Sikh into one people by establishing five commandments;

  • Kesh – they do not cut their hair, covering it with a turban.
  • Kara – a steel bracelet symbolising faith in a never-ending G-d and submission to the guru.
  • Kanga – to own a wooden comb, meaning to maintain strict personal hygiene. The body is a gift and a tool, look after it.
  • Kaccha – to wear cotton underwear
  • Kirpan – to always carry a steel sword for self-defense.

The Guru Granth Sahib is their holy book, a collection of the teachings and hymns of the first ten gurus and various holy Sikh’s. The Guru Granth Sahib is worshipped, Sikh’s regard it as a form of eternal guru. It is sometimes referred to as the tenth and last guru. It is read every night, treated as a living being and given it’s own room in the gurdwara, the Sikh temple.

Sikh’s follow the guidance of their gurus and worship regularly in a gurdwara.

Buddhism

Founded almost 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as Budda. He was born a prince but was unfulfilled by his lavish lifestyle and the suffering of the world. So he shunned his wealth and lived in poverty and strict deprivation. He realised this too, did not make him happy so he began to look for a middle path. He felt he had found enlightenment by meditating under a tree and began to spread his findings to help others.

Buddhists do not believe in G-d, though some sects hold Budda to be on the level of a god. Buddhists believe in spirituality, achieving enlightenment and wisdom through meditation and intense spirituality. When they reach enlightenment, they believe they will achieve a state of bliss called Nirvana.

The central tenants of Buddhism are hard to pin down as the nature of Buddhism is to find spirituality, it is constantly debated and evolving. Not everyone considers Buddhism a religion, maintaining it is a discipline. After Buddha’s death, his disciples spread his teachings as a religion but after Islam conquered the world, they were scattered and evolved into zen buddhism and nirvana buddhism with sub sects emerging from them.

Buddhism teaches we should shun self-indulgence but also self-deprecation and deprivation.

Buddhists meditate because they believe it awakens wisdom. They achieve Nirvana by morality and wisdom, hence they meditate regularly.

They follow the principle of Karma, in essence, what goes around, comes around. That the universe will pay us back for our actions. When we do something good, good will happen to us and when we do something bad, something bad will happen to us. They also believe in reincarnation, that we do not die but are reborn in different bodies or even different forms.

Buddhist monks follow a strict moral code including celibacy. 

They have no official holy symbols, but many have evolved, such as statues of buddha or the lotus flower. Buddhists can pray alone, together, at home, or in a temple, whatever makes them feel best. They live by five prohibitions against; killing any living being, taking what is not given, sexual misdeeds, lying and using drugs or drinking alcohol

The Buddhists believe in four noble truths; the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering the truth of the end of suffering, the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. These are achieved through the eightfold path of the right;

  • Understanding, 
  • Thought,
  • Speech,
  • Action,
  • Livelihood,
  • Effort,
  • Mindfulness
  • Concentration

Hinduism

Hinduism is an elusive religion. It has no founders, no official starting date, only wise teachers and their teachings scattered through time. Some refer to it as a way of life or a family of religions under the umbrella of the term Hinduism.

The word Hindu refers to a river in the Sindhu region. Hinduism has been widely practised in India and Nepal for a very long time, though the term Hindu only appears around the same time as Islamic domination. The suggestion is that Hindus used this name to differentiate themselves from other, new religions and ways of life. Hindu became Hinduism under British Colonialism in the 19th century. 

The most agreed upon explanation is that Hinduism is a modern religion with roots and traces from thousands of years earlier. The definition of a Hindu is also hard to pin down with some maintaining that one must be born a Hindu, as in descended from settlers of that region, whilst others say if one follows Hindu beliefs, they are a Hindu.

Hinduism appears to be polytheistic with many gods but followers posit that it is actually monotheistic and that the gods are simply manifestations of one god.

Whether Hinduism believes in an involved god or an “impersonal supreme” is a subject of much controversy among followers. Some define Hinduism as belief in the 4 vedas. The 4 vedas are collections of texts and scripts which are considered authorless, supreme, above human comprehension and very ancient. They contain stories, teachings and wisdom from the various deities. Others define it as being faithful to the “Sanatana Dharma” , an eternal order of conduct that transcends any specific body of sacred literature.

They believe in karma and reincarnation.

Hindus worship in temples by offering and praying to statues of their gods. These statues of gods and goddesses are treated as humans. Some of the Hindu gods are; Brahma – the creator, Ganesh, Shiva — the destroyer , Lakshmi, Vishnu — the preserver. There are thousands of deities, but there are four main ones; Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and Devi or Shakta. 

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