10 Greatest Religious Leaders in History
These people may have changed the world as much as science and technology
Religions have been around for thousands of years. Perhaps the world’s oldest is ancestor worship, also known as the ghost cult, and countless others have been added over the centuries. Many of these religions have a leader or founder and this list suggests 10 of the most prominent ones, though the names are listed in no particular order of importance.
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1. Muhammad, Prophet of Islam
One of the world’s great religions was started by a man who claimed to have continual revelations from God, which he would “recite” to others, particularly his followers. These recitations were recorded in the Qur’an, the most sacred book of Islam. Born in 570 C.E. in the Arabian city of Mecca, Muhammad purportedly became a messenger of God at the age of 40, and then, in order to promulgate this revelation, became a political and military leader in the city of Medina in Arabia. Eventually, utilizing a series of shrewd military campaigns and expedient political alliances, Muhammad conquered Mecca, the most important city of Arabia at the time and thereby established a monotheistic tradition based on the Bible’s Old Testament. This replaced the pagan-based religion of Arabia and began an expansion of Islam, which continues to the present day.
Often misunderstood and denigrated, Muhammad and Islam itself, have become synonymous - at least in the minds of many people in the West - with the use of religion-based terrorism. Even though Muhammad may have been ruthless in military matters and had poets who discredited him assassinated, the Arabs of that time had to administer their own law and order, just to survive. Also, on a parting note, it is said that Islam signifies peace and reconciliation.
2. Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German monk who challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. A key proponent of the so-called Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther decried papal authority, particularly as it relates to the absolving of one’s guilt by making payments of money or other riches to the Catholic authorities. Luther wrote about this and many other grievances in his polemic, The Ninety-Five Theses, published in 1517. Luther’s controversial stance unsettled the papacy of Pope Leo X, which eventually had Luther excommunicated and declared an outlaw. Over the following years, Luther would write numerous other works espousing a Protestant interpretation of the Holy Bible, which Luther translated from Latin into German. Luther also wrote many hymns and works of catechism.
Spreading this liberal viewpoint at a time when heretics were often burned at the stake certainly showed the bravery and fortitude of Martin Luther. But, as impressive as he may seem, late in life Luther espoused a decidedly anti-Semitic credo, referring to Jews in one of his writings as “the devil’s people.”
3. Mary Baker Eddy
Born in 1821, Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science in New England in the late 1800s. In 1875, Eddy wrote the textbook of Christian Science entitled, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which has undergone numerous revisions over the years and decades. At least in some ways, Eddy’s Christian Science emphasizes the use of what has been called faith healing. Moreover, often associated with Spiritualism, another movement popular in those days, Eddy claimed she was never a believer. Be that as it may, in Eddy’s early days, the 1860s, she was known as a trance medium while living in Boston, Massachusetts, where she sometimes gave séances for money and also practiced automatic writing. Nevertheless, once Eddy introduced Christian Science, she denounced spiritualism until her death.
These days, the Christian Science publishing Society, an offshoot of Eddy’s teachings, publishes the Christian Science Monitor and other periodicals.
Often quoted throughout the ages, Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who may have originated the famous Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Born around 551 B.C.E., Confucius emphasized personal, civic and governmental morality. Confucius thought family loyalty was very important too, and also advocated ancestor worship, one of the world’s oldest religions. Interestingly, Confucius had a long political career, through which he emphasized the value of diplomacy over warfare, though he didn’t stop at punishing lawbreakers. He developed along the way an impressive body of teachings, about which many people have adhered throughout the centuries, and these came to be known as the basis of Confucianism.
Confucianism is not always considered a religion, but more of a lifestyle. For example, Confucianism mentions the possibility of an afterlife or Heaven, though it doesn’t discuss spiritual matters such as the existence of souls. At any rate, in China at least, Confucianism seems as popular as ever and could still be relevant a thousand years from now.
5. The Buddha
Like Confucius, the Buddha was born around 500 B.C.E. Sources vary on the exact date of his birth and many questions about the Buddha’s life could be asked. Was he man or God? Could he stop the wheel of karma? Was he born of a virgin? Could he live forever? Nobody seems to know the answers to these questions. But most scholars believe Siddhartha Gautama was a man who eventually became the Buddha, meaning “the enlightened one.” Born in Nepal in a royal Hindu family, a man named Siddhartha Gautama lived a life filled with luxury and sensual pleasures. Then, about the age of 30, Siddhartha discovered poverty and sickness in the world and, determined to relieve such suffering, he became a mendicant.
Thereafter, Siddhartha entered a life of asceticism and meditation, though he eventually learned that deprivation and mortification of the flesh would not lead to a state of awakening. Then he meditated under the Bodhi Tree for 49 days until he reached a heightened state of awareness known as Nirvana. He soon formulated the Four Noble Truths, the vary tenets of Buddhism. For the remaining 45 years of his life the Buddha traveled about northeastern India teaching the principles of Buddhism, until his death at the age of 80.
6. Jesus of Nazareth
In the Western tradition, much has been written about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a.k.a. Jesus Christ. Though little is known about his early life, Jesus, who, some scholars believe, may have studied Buddhism for a time, started his ministry about the age of 30 and was eventually crucified by the Romans, after which he ascended to Heaven, but not before he showed himself to the Twelve Apostles, who later continued to spread the word, as written in the Four Canonical Gospels: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. As the biblical account goes, Jesus will one day return to the earth, where he will rule for a thousand years.
But since the eighteenth century, if not before, people have doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, claiming there is little historical or archaeological evidence for his existence and thereby assert a Christ myth theory. Nevertheless, most historians of the biblical period believe that Jesus actually existed – Roman accounts of his life are extant - though exactly what Jesus did during his life will probably remain more an aspect of faith than one of fact. At any rate, the story of Jesus may be one of the greatest ever told!
7. Joseph Smith Jr.
Living during the so-called Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith Jr., beginning when he was a teenager, reportedly received revelations from God, Jesus and an angel named Moroni, who told Smith that a book of golden plates was buried on a hill near his parent’s property. As the story goes, these plates were inscribed with the words of a modern “reformed” version of Egyptian, with which Smith used a seer stone (a treasure hunting device) to translate the ancient words. This translation supposedly chronicled the lives of biblical-appearing people (perhaps a Lost Tribe of Israel) who had lived in the New World many centuries before, and this became the basis of the Book of Mormon, published in 1830. Not surprisingly, Smith, purporting to be a latter-day prophet of God, developed many detractors and was murdered by a violent mob in 1844.
Per the beliefs of Hinduism, a religion perhaps 5,000 years old, the mythic, heroic man known as Krishna, reputed to be the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, one of the chief deities in the Hindu pantheon, was born around 3,100 B.C.E. Often depicted as a prince playing a flute, or as a small child dancing, or many other guises, including that of a military figure (he is also sometimes depicted as a herdsman, who protects the cows, and in this context referred to as the Govinda), Krishna supposedly represents the earthly manifestation of a god who spreads the doctrine of godliness and who also dramatizes the many struggles of humanity, particularly as described in sacred Hindu texts such as the Bhagavata Purana. Supposedly, when Krishna died or disappeared from the earth, the present age began.
It would be impossible to separate Hinduism from Buddhism, as the two religions are strongly related thematically and sprang from a common source - the Indian subcontinent. Thus these two religions have billions of followers. Interestingly, as a modern faith, followers of Krishna often gravitate to organizations such as the Hare Krishna movement.
9. Helena Blavatsky
A world traveler to such far-flung locales as India, Tibet, Cyprus and Greece, Russian-borne mystic Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. Based on esoteric ideas and principles going back many centuries, the Theosophical Society promotes the eclectic study of comparative religion, philosophy and science, hoping to reconcile such knowledge with the metaphysical possibilities of humankind – that is without any political or religious connections. The Society’s motto is: “There is no religion higher than truth.” Based on this weighty investigation, Blavatsky wrote her primary work, the Secret Doctrine, published in two volumes in 1888. She also edited the magazine, The Theosophist, and wrote many other highly influential books regarding esoteric and occult concepts.
The present day New Age Movement owes much to Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, utilizing many of its tenets and ideas. Blavatsky was also instrumental in the Western revival of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest branch of Buddhism.
10. Fourteenth Dalai Lama
The fourteenth Dalai Lama, whose religious name is Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 and is considered the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism practiced in the Himalaya region of Asia and other areas such as Mongolia and numbers 10 to 20 million adherents. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet when the People’s Republic of China invaded the country with the purpose of controlling it. The Dalai Lama then established a Tibetan government in exile in India. But one day the Dalai Lama hopes to return to Tibet and resume his life as what he considers its rightful ruler.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize; he also won the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. To this day, he remains Tibet’s most vocal advocate. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama, considered the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, has said in interviews that he doesn’t know if he will reincarnate into the next Dalai Lama or be known as the last Dalai Lama.
If anybody wants to learn more about the Dalai Lama, they can follow this link to his Facebook page.
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© 2013 Kelley
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