Part II of II
This article is Part II of my earlier post titled, Brief Introduction to Hinduism.
There are four intersecting areas that are present in all religions. They are: an Ultimate Reality which some call God or Truth or Enlightenment, the human condition, salvation, and the nature of evil. In all religions there is a sense of doing the right thing. People are instructed to do several things: Keep promises, don’t lie, don’t steal, help others, take care of yourself, don’t hurt people, attend a place of worship regularly, or worship regularly.
Rather than a religion, Confucius (6th century, BC) founded an ethical system in order to bring out good social relations in the Chinese state. Although Confucius respected the religious traditions of his time, he gave them a mere ethical interpretation. The supreme principle in the universe according to him is the moral law – a universal principle, omnipresent, hidden, and eternal. His main concern was social life and the principles that should govern it for the welfare of society, family, and personal life. Human perfection cannot be attained by religious rituals or meditations, but only by proper education and by respecting moral values. Therefore, religious traditions have value only as the means to moral living. The most important ethical principle emphasized by Confucius was reciprocity. He stressed three basic principles of living: “What you do not want others to do to you, don’t do to them; do good for the benefit of others; and love and respect your parents.” Confucius was interested in solving human problems so that his main concern was not the worship of gods but guides for good behavior.
Buddha believed that gods exist, but that they are only temporary beings that attained heaven using the same virtues as any human disciple. Gods are not worshiped, do not represent morality, and happiness is not found in them. The Ultimate Reality is a transcendent truth which governs the universe and human life. Life itself is suffering. There is no grace from a personal god. Karma passes from one life to another so that one is reborn without transferring to another body. According to the Buddha, one can stop the suffering if four noble truths are accepted and lived: (1) The nature of existence is suffering; (2) Suffering is caused by desire, or thirst (tanha) to experience existence; (3) The complete cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering; and (4) Follow the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of the eight practices of self-training (Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). Buddha saw evil as ignorance which can only be overcome by karma and reincarnation. Once man knows the true nature of things he can escape from ignorance and suffering.
All Christians believe that Jesus Christ, a Jewish carpenter, who was both God and man, died in 33 A. D. and rose from the dead. There are many different sects that believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the basic belief of Christians. However, not all denominations believe the same things. All Christians hold the Bible as a sacred book. Catholics believe in praying to saints to intercede to God. Jesus was a spiritual, but not a political leader, and today most dominantly Christian countries practice a separation of church and state. According to Christianity, sin has thoroughly affected human nature, conferring a hereditary status. This is called “the sinful nature” or “original sin.” According to Christianity, salvation is only through belief in Jesus Christ as Savior.
Judaism, the earliest monotheistic religion, centers around the personal God who revealed himself through the story of the Jewish people. About 4,000 years ago, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The emphasis of this religion is on practice than beliefs. We find it in the scriptures called the Torah by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. In the very beginning of the Old Testament, God is presented creating the universe out of nothing.
Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the sixth century AD. The god of Islam, Allah, is presented in the Quran as an eternal being, transcendent and almighty. The Quran presents the creation and fall in a way similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Humans and angels were created to worship Allah. However, there is a major difference from the Biblical account. Allah created Adam and commanded that he be worshiped by all angels. Satan (Iblis) opposed this command and only then was he banished from heaven. However, in Islam there is no such thing as original sin. Although Adam and Eve sinned, they repented and were forgiven, so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race. Muslims believe that God is only one person, and that the Trinity is the belief in three Gods. Muhammad is the founder of Islam. He, like all other Muslim prophets is believed by Muslims to be infallible and sinless. He was not only a religious leader, but also a political leader, which explains the common practice of integrated church and state in many Muslim countries.
Similarities and Differences
In all religions except Confucianism, there is a singular being or many beings that are superior to mankind. In the case of a religion having more than a dozen deities, there will be one that is dominant in some way, or there will be a hierarchy. In the Eastern religions, superiority to the human race is represented as: The Truth, Enlightenment, Oneness, Ultimate Reality, The Universe, Completion, Absolution, or Perfection. In the case of a god, this god is often merciful, forgiving, righteous, perfect, etc., but he, she, or they will damn you to burn in hell, die, suffer for all eternity, suffer temporarily, give bad karma, or something similar. If you ask for forgiveness, or complete a purification ritual of some sort, you will be forgiven.
The concept of evil is present in all of the religions although they are manifested differently. The Eastern religions consider evil as the effect of spiritual ignorance. The first noble truth proclaimed by the Buddha states that the only reality of human existence is the all-pervading reality of suffering. The only possibility of escaping suffering is to know the true nature of things and thus escape from the dominion of ignorance, karma, and reincarnation. In the dualistic religions, evil is co-eternal with good. Matter and embodied existence are evil, and our ignorance keeps us from attaining perfection as angelic beings. According to Christianity, evil is neither created nor a natural element. It is a state that perpetuates itself when individuals sin and inexperience an absence of God.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not regard salvation as an impersonal merging with the Absolute or God, but as liberation from the bondage of sin and re-establishing a personal communion with the creator. In Hinduism and Buddhism hell is analogous to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. It is not an eternal damnation, but only a place to expiate bad karma in order that the purified soul can continue its advance toward liberation. The Western religions do not believe in reincarnation.
Paden in his book entitled, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion mentions that there is a second dimension in studying the structures of religion. Each religion is similar because they have events of human activity that have typical expressive forms such as initiation rites, passage rites, and marriage rites. All religions have stories that are myths or legends that describe gods, rituals, and sacrifices made by humans. For instance, the Quran is a book of mostly sayings and injunctions. The Hindu Vedas are a collection of hymns, chants, rituals, and teaching dialogue. Confucius’ writings are quoted at every opportunity and discussion on the discourses of life. The Holy Bible tells stories, but also lists laws, proverbs, psalms, genealogies, and prophecies. The Jewish Torah surrounds every syllable with commentary and interpretation. The holiness of all these words are memorized, traditional education is based on them and every major event includes mention of them. Christians say “Our Father,” Buddhists say nembutsu, and Hindus say Om (pronounced A-U-M).
Many writers have described Om as the real name of the Almighty. This word does not belong to any particular religion or language. It is nature’s word, nature’s mantra. Om occupies a very prominent place in all languages of the world. Omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent are the highest names for god. Hindu prayers usually end with Om, English prayers with Amen, and Arabic, Persian and Hindustani prayers with Amin.
- I Bloom, J Martin, & W Proudfoot (Eds), Religious Diversity and Human Rights, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.
- John Bowker (Ed), Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- William Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion, Beacon, 1994.
- Subhash Kak, The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise of India, iUniverse, 2008.