The major religions of the world are organized systems which are properly structured and have well-codified theological beliefs.
These include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus, who belonged to Galilee, a district on the borders of the Judaic State of the time. He explained the meaning of God and propounded ethical teachings. Christianity, as propounded by Jesus and interpreted and organised by his followers, spread among the Greco-Roman cultures.
It absorbed new ideas of mysticism and popular beliefs from different environments in the process. The adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD made it a State religion for the first time. Proselytisation spread it in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The three patriarchs of the church, namely, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, emerged by the late fourth century, and later the Bishops of Jerusalem and Constantinople were added. Rising acrimony between the Churches led to the split in the form of Eastern (orthodox) Churches and Western Churches, signifying areas east and west of Poland. Unlike the Eastern Churches which were in their own national territories and enjoyed great autonomy, the Roman Catholic Church developed as a close-knit unit under the authority of the Pope.
The conversion of the huge Slavic immigrants into the Balkan Peninsula (3rd to 7th century BC) made the stretch from Serbia and Macedonia to Romania and Bulgaria a Christian belt. It paved the way for the entry of Christianity into Russia.
However, two factors affected the spread of Christianity in the early medieval and later periods—the spread of Islam and the Russian Revolution. After the end of the West Roman Empire, the Pope became the religious head and maintained law and order through ecclesiastical organisation. The Roman Catholic Church spread from Poland to Ireland through conversion of Germanic and other tribes.
The Renaissance in Western Europe in the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries led to a separation between the Church and the State in that region. The strife between authority and private interpretation of religion in the sixteenth century had been snowballing since four hundred years with cries of reform in Roman Catholic countries.
The reformists or Protestants in North-Western Europe (beyond the Rhine-Danube in West Roman Empire) launched a movement that led to the countries breaking with Rome in a religious sense and setting up national Protestant churches.
The Protestants were all for the spirit of free inquiry, material progress and scientific and technological growth. Their approach gave a great thrust to revolutionary developments in these areas from the sixteenth century onwards.
However, sects within the Protestants emerged like Calvinism which strengthened itself in the Netherlands, Scotland and Switzerland, the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and Congregationalists. The Puritans in England vowed by the Church of England which retained its Catholic character.
By the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had become active in Africa and South-east and East Asia. The Spanish and the Portuguese spread Christianity in the new world, mainly central and South America. Migrations of the British, the Dutch and others gave their colonies in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand a Protestant character.
The 1917 October Revolution led to a split in Russia. With the arrival of State socialism, religion got restricted through restrictions imposed on religious worship, religious education and so on.
As Soviet control increased over East Europe, that region saw religious restrictions as well that relegated religion to the private sphere. The Church of Greece is the largest orthodox Church outside Slavic countries. In the nineteenth century, widespread Christian missionary activities of the colonisers led to large-scale conversions in Asia and Africa.
Islam originated in the deserts of Arabia around AD 600 when Prophet Muhammad began preaching submission to God and monotheism. The Quran is the scripture of Muslims which mentions the major pillars of Islam and rules of worship and contains rules of conduct in worldly matters and moral and ethical behaviour.
It was in AD 622 that Islam began its spread with Prophet Muhammad moving to Medina. Within a span of one hundred years, the Arab- Muslims had conquered lands from Spain (Atlantic Ocean) to the Indian subcontinent and including countries of North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia.
The expansion of political control led to the people in the new areas getting converted to Islam on a large scale. In the centuries that followed, Islam swept into the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, South-east Asia and East Africa. Invaders from central Asia conquered territories in the Indian subcontinent and established Islam here.
The trade routes of the time reveal a lot about the spread of Islam. The land routes enabled Muslims to reach central Asia and North China from the West Asian region and to spread across the Sahara desert into North Africa.
The overseas routes helped Islam reach the east coast of the African continent, Indonesia, Malaysia (in around AD 1300) and other areas. It is necessary to emphasise the role of the Arab and Muslim traders in spreading their religion to new areas—as in South India and East Asia.
Internal disputes within Islam resulted in emergence of sects within Islam, mainly the Sunnis and the Shias, the former claiming that the head of the community (the successor of the i Prophet) should be an elected officer but the latter wanting it to be held by the direct descendants of the Prophet. Sunnis are five times more in number than the Shias. While the Sunnis are spread across the world, the Shias are mainly in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attempts have been made to forge a movement against Western aggression. The creation of Israel in the Palestinian region after the Second World War further aggravated the conflicts between the Jews and the Western Christian nations on the one hand and the Muslims of the region on the other. This conflict has snowballed in recent times to what is termed an open ‘war of civilisation’ between the two.
It has been fed by Western aggression in the form of invasions and other imperialistic tendencies (the US War on Afghanistan, US invasion of Iraq) and Islamic terrorism that has shaken the entire world. However, unification of the Islamic world has been hampered by national and economic interests of the countries and the contradictions between the Shias and the Sunnis.
Judaism is traced to the Middle East deserts about 3800 years ago. The Jews emerged as a closely knit religious community which believed in one God, teachings of the Talmud, ethical and civil laws and rituals. They became distinguished from other Semitic tribes of the region due to their strong identity and organisation into a distinct community. They felt constantly threatened by the other existing tribes. In 584 BC, Roman conquerors from Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem and the Jews were exiled.
They were allowed to come back but the region was ruled by other powers. The Jews revolted against the Romans in AD 70. With the emergence of Christianity, the Jews felt themselves threatened. They were discriminated against and expelled from time to time. They were not allowed to own land in places where they migrated and so they ended up as traders, artisans and middlemen between the ruling landlords and the farmers. In such a position, they are known to have been ruthless.
The Jews were driven out from England in the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries and were confined to ghettos when they returned. They were persecuted in Germany in the fourteenth century and they fled to Poland as refugees. They did have some liberty in the Islamic countries to begin with. The return of Christianity to Spain (1492) led to their expulsion to Turkey and North America.
With the rise of rationalism, France emerged as the first country to give Jews equal rights. Other Western countries followed. But in the twentieth century, Jews were suppressed and attacked in East Europe. Though post-World War I treaties sought to provide equal rights to all minorities, hatred against them got expressed in a most violent manner during Hitler’s rule in Germany. Under the Nazis (1936-46), they were mercilessly killed. Many fled from Germany and East Europe to the USA for refuge.
Political Zionism strongly established itself in the first half of the twentieth century and was responsible for the carving out of Israel in Palestine (Argentina and Uganda were other sites considered for the location of Israel). Israel was proclaimed as a Jewish State in 1948. Jews poured into Israel from all over the world soon after its creation.
The Jews have wandered and shifted base in groups across the world since the ancient times and so they have been influenced by various social and cultural modes of life. As stated, in East Europe, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they emerged as traders and middlemen and populated towns and villages; in west Europe, they moved to cities.
They have assumed positions of power and privilege in the West European nations and in USA over the decades. The Jewish lobby is very powerful in the USA and it is responsible for the continued support of the USA to Israel and its Jewish population against the Arabs and Muslims of West Asia. However, there has been continuous instability and political tensions in West Asia due to the bitter rivalry between the Jews and Muslims.
The term ‘Hinduism’ is derived from the name of the river ‘Sindhu’ and ‘Hindu’ was a term used in ancient times to denote people -who lived on the Indian side of that river. The term was applied to all the inhabitants of a geographical territory. Throughout its history, Hinduism largely has been confined to the place of its origin, the Indian subcontinent.
Hinduism has been defined as a complex of beliefs, ritual behaviour and ethics. It is unlike the other major monotheistic religions in many ways. There is belief in a plurality of gods. The fact that various ideas, philosophies and customs have been absorbed and added to the fold of Hinduism over the centuries means that it does not have a single scripture or any single temple as a central authority.
Generally speaking, however, Hindus believe in the concept of transmigration, and have a well-defined value system in the form of four basic ideals of life—Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. There are numerous sacred sites of worship for Hindus spread across the Indian subcontinent.
Hinduism is said to have originated in the north-west of the Indian subcontinent and is associated with the advent of the Vedic Aryans in the region. The Vedic Aryan culture got in touch with the Dravidian culture but itself got modified before becoming a dominating force in the Indian subcontinent.
Though the Hindu culture, since the ancient times, has undergone many vicissitudes, it has continued to survive representing a distinct cultural unity. Over the centuries, a variety of divinities, beliefs and institutions have become a part of Hinduism and made it an all-embracing complex system. Throughout its history, Hinduism has experienced many reform movements which include the bhakti movement and Sikhism.
The Hindu thought spread to the areas where India had historical trade links. By the time of the beginning of the Christian era, Hinduism had reached South-east Asia—Java, Vietnam and other places. Though it did not have a missionary mission, Hinduism influenced the societies of South-east Asia as evident in their mythology and folk culture. Hinduism is still prevalent in Bali, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal where it is the state religion. Over the last few centuries, Hindus have migrated to the West, the Middle East and Africa in large numbers.
Buddhism is traced to the teachings of Lord Buddha in the sixth century BC (563-483 BC). It evolved in present-day Nepal and eastern parts of North India. Gautama Buddha emphasised on the Tour noble truths’ that explained the cause of suffering and emancipation from it. Buddhism stresses on the eight virtues of right knowledge, right resolve, right speech, right action, and right means of livelihood, right effort, right memory and right concentration.
It emerged at about the same time as Jainism, both religions advocating non-violence, peace and meditation. It is necessary to note that in the Hindu society of the time, there was too much of importance attached to religious sacrifices and rituals. Both Buddhism and Jainism spread as reactionary belief systems in that sense.
Like Islam, Buddhism witnessed a split into two major sects—the Hinayana and the Mahayana. Hinayana is the southern school preaching Buddhism in all its fundamentals and simplicity. It spread to South-east Asia and Sri Lanka.
Mahayana spread to East Asia—especially China, Korea and Japan in the ancient and medieval ages. While Hinayana emphasised on man attaining salvation by his own efforts following the eight virtues laid down, Mahayana believed that the Buddha had the power to help people attain salvation.
For about 300 years after its birth, Buddhism remained in the land of its origin. After the Mauryan king, Ashoka, adopted it, Buddhism acquired the necessary royal patronage to help it spread beyond the Indian subcontinent.
It largely spread through trade routes. In China, it established a strong hold by the fifth century AD though it had arrived here much earlier, that is, in the first century AD itself. Mongolia in the north, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Tibet—all came under Buddhist influence.
Buddhism was the most popular religious thought in Asia in the first millennium AD. Hinayana spread its influence in South-east Asia in the fifth-seventh centuries AD. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are strongly Buddhist.
It was at about this time that Buddhism lost its foothold in India; by the thirteenth century, it had completely vanished from the Indian sub-continent. There were many reasons for this, including persecution of Buddhists and degeneration of Buddhism into a mystical- ritualistic religion owing to the influence of Tantrism.
At present, there are only three pockets of Buddhism in India: the Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir; Sikkim; and parts of Maharashtra whose Buddhist population is a result of post- independence conversion as a result of the impact of Ambedkar movement.
Buddhism has made a comeback-of-sorts in the twentieth century. It has become extremely popular in the West, thanks to the conversion of many movie and showbiz celebrities to Buddhism. The conflict between communist China and the Buddhists in Tibet led by the Dalai Lama has gained Buddhism great sympathy in Western countries.
Sikhism emerged as a reform movement within the fold of Hinduism but gained the status of an independent religion over the centuries, since its origin by Guru Nanak in the sixteenth century AD. It originated in the undivided Punjab region of the pre-independence era and is mostly confined to north India, particularly the Punjab today.
Over the last two centuries, Sikhs have been migrating to the West in large numbers. As a result, the Sikh population in England, Canada and other places is a significant one. The Sikh religious identity has remained distinct in the new societies but they have become amalgamated in them in an integral manner.
8. Other Asian Religions:
In the traditional societies of East Asia, ancestor worship had been common. The emergence of Confucius in China in the centuries before the advent of Christianity led to an ethics-based religious set-up. Confucianism became State religion under the Han dynasty (136 BC) and remains firmly entrenched in Chinese today. Even today, there are many who follow this religion. Confucianism, however, has remained confined to China.
Lao Tse, a contemporary of Confucius, was the founder of Taoism (Tao meaning ‘the way”) which originated in China. Lao Tse emphasised on man’s relationship with nature for simplicity, tranquillity and spiritual liberation. Taoism remained the State cult for some time. Again Taoism was confined to China.
While Confucianism was a politico-ethical cult that was followed by bureaucracies, Taoism was the religion of the common people.
In Japan, the ancient native religion involved nature worship as well as ancestor worship. After Buddhism entered Japan, Shintoism became less popular in Japanese society. However, in the nineteenth century, Shintoism saw a resurrection of sorts and became the State religion. It helped unite the Japanese into a powerful nation. But after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, Shintoism did not remain the State religion, Shintoism has remained confined to Japan.