The 5 Major Religions of the World
How was the universe created? What’s our purpose here on Earth? Is there an afterlife? Or does the mind simply vanish after death? Throughout the centuries people have asked themselves these questions, and some have used religion as a way to get some answers. Religion helps people get a better sense of the world they live in and it also helps them guide their lives. When someone is part of a religion they recognize one main deity, many deities, or in some cases they don’t worship a deity at all. For many hundreds of years, thousands of wars have been fought, some of them with a religious purpose for behind them. There are over six billion people living in our planet and most of them are part of some religion. There are some religions that have similarities with each other and there are others that are as different as day and night. There are some religions which are extremely popular and there are others which have barely survived as mere memories. But in the world today there are five main religions which have the largest number of followers. These religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world. Judaism originated in Israel in the Middle East. Migrations and expulsion of Jews have resulted in the existence of Jewish communities in all parts of the world. It is estimated that by the end of 2006, the Jewish population will have about 16 million followers. Judaism is based on the existence of one God, Yahweh, who came into agreement with the descendants of Abraham who were God’s chosen people. Judaism’s holy writings, known as the Torah, reveal how God has been present with them throughout time. The Torah is God’s will for humankind written as commandments. During the 20th century B.C., the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, founded Judaism. God promised to bless his descendants if they remained faithful to him. Abraham’s line descended through Isaac and then Jacob. The twelve families that descended from Jacob went into slavery after migrating to Egypt. At about 1300 B.C., Moses led them out of slavery and for forty years they wandered the desert until he led them to the land God had promised them. This land was called Canaan and its inhabitants were called Canaanites. After reaching this land the Hebrews conquered the Canaanites and took over Canaan. After Canaan was conquered a monarchy was established with Saul being its first king and David and Solomon his successors. By the end of Solomon’s reign a temple had been built. After Solomon’s death, Canaan was split into Israel in the north and Judea in the south. Conflicts with the Assyrian and Babylonian empires led to the destruction of the temple and the exile of Jews to Babylon. When they were able to go back to their homeland they were ruled by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, and Syria. When the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to stop the practice of Judaism, the Maccabee family led a revolt against him and in 128 B.C., Jewish independence was won. In 63 B.C., the Romans conquered Jerusalem. During this period many small groups emerged such as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Apocalyptists, and the Zealots, each which offered different interpretations of Judaism. In 70 A.D., the Zealots revolted which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The Jews were once again scattered into Diaspora and were persecuted everywhere they went. Rabbinic Judaism became the primary expression of faith. In the 12th century Maimonides devised the 13 Articles of Faith. During the Middle-Ages the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi branches of European Judaism were developed. During the 19th century, anti-Semitism once again tormented European Jews which initialized the start of the Zionist movement. Probably the most important event in Judaism was the Holocaust of World War II, when over 6 million European Jews were killed. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was important to the millions who had suffered the persecution of the Nazis and to the Zionist movement. Jewish communities today continue synagogue worship which includes readings and prayers from the Torah. The religious life of a Jew is directed by commandments of the Torah. There are 3 main expressions of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Reform Judaism is the most liberal; Conservative Judaism follows most traditional practice and makes Judaism suitable for everyone; Orthodox Judaism follows the traditional faith and practice with seriousness. Generally, Jews aren’t missionaries but they’re always looking for newcomers.
Christianity is the most widely distributed religion in the world with a total membership of over 2 billion people. Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ whose life is written in the New Testament. Almost all of the information about Jesus comes from those who were his disciples. Since they wrote to persuade people rather than to answer historical curiosity there is not a satisfying chronological order of the information and because of this it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the original teachings of Jesus and the developing teachings about Jesus in early Christian communities. The message of Jesus of Nazareth attracted a following of people who believed him to be a new prophet. Those who wrote the Gospels recall Jesus’ days on Earth with the miracle of resurrection from the dead on the first Easter after he was crucified. They concluded that when he showed himself walking with the inhabitants of Palestine after he was crucified, that he must have been already been resurrected and therefore must have been in the very presence of God. The apostles of Jesus believed that it had been his will that they should band together as the saving remnant people of Israel. They became the first church in Jerusalem because of their belief to receive his promised gift of the Holy Spirit and new power. Jerusalem was the center of the Christian movement until its destruction by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. But by the time this had happened Christianity had already spread to other cities and towns throughout the Roman Empire. At first Christianity’s appeal was large although not complete. Christianity descended from Judaism and it is claimed that Jesus fulfilled many promises of the Hebrew Scripture; known as the Old Testament by Christians. The loss of continuity with Judaism hasn’t been total. The presence of Judaism in the Christian Bible reminds Christians that whom they worship as their Lord was himself a Jew. In its first two centuries, Christianity began developing distinctive principles, liturgy, and ministry. During the 4th century, the Catholic Church had been established in countries from Spain to Persia and India. In the year 380, Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of Rome. In 1054 the Christians of the East and of the West separated their churches because of differing beliefs between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. The resulting churches were the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Reformers within the Roman Catholic Church wanted to change some of its practices and thus the Protestant denominations came into being. Throughout the centuries missionary activity has helped spread Christianity to most parts of the world.
Islam is a major world religion which was founded in Arabia and is based on the teachings of Muhammad, who is also known as a Prophet. Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. to a wealthy family at the town of Mecca and belonged to the Quraysh tribe, which was active in caravan trade. When he was about 25 years old, he joined a caravan trade from Mecca to Syria and it was during this trip that he realized the true suffering of people. He began to live a contemplative life in the desert. At age 40, he began his ministry after the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision and others that followed. Gradually he began to believe that he had been given a God appointed task and that his mission was the reformation of religion. He began to preach in his hometown Mecca, but he was soon ridiculed by its people. In 622 A.D., he went to the city of Medina and pretty soon he held temporal and spiritual authority there after being thought of as a lawgiver and a prophet. This time marks the beginning of the Muslim era. By the time of his death in 632 A.D., Muhammad was the leader of an Arab state that was growing rapidly in power. Muhammad’s followers, called Muslims, regarded him as the prophet of Allah beside whom there is no other God. The five primary duties of Islam are profession of faith, prayer performed five times a day, almsgiving to the poor, fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime. Sources of Islamic doctrine and practice are the Koran and the Sunnah. The Koran is a collection of the passages revealed to Muhammad during the 22 years of his prophetic life and the Sunnah is a second source of Islam. According to Islam, God has four functions in accordance to humanity and the universe. These functions are creation, sustenance, guidance, and judgment. However the ultimate purpose of humanity is to serve God and to worship only him. Islam succeeded in uniting an Arab world that had been separated into tribes and castes. With over 1 billion Muslims worldwide, Islam is the principal religion in the Middle East, Asia, and the northern half of Africa.
Buddhism was founded in northeastern India and is based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama who is also known as Buddha. Buddhism today is divided into two branches known as Theravada and Mahayana. Siddhartha Gautama was born in Kapilauastu in 563 B.C. and was the son of the ruler of a small kingdom. At age 24 he realized how empty his life had been and so he left home. He wandered as an ascetic seeking a solution to the struggles of human existence. For a few years he practiced yoga and extreme self-denial. At last while meditating under a Bodhi tree, he was enlightened and began to preach from place to place, gathering followers and teaching them about his new spiritual understanding. At the core of his understanding there were the Four Noble Truths which were: all living beings suffer; the origin of the suffering is desire; desire can be overcome; and there’s a path that leads to the release from desire which is called the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindedness, and right contemplation. These eight are usually divided into 3 categories; Anatta, Karma, and Nirvana. Anatta is the denial of a permanent soul. This doctrine helped Buddha reinterpret the idea of rebirth in the cycle of phenomenal existence known as Saṃsārasince he felt that all existence is characterized by the marks of no soul, impermanence, and suffering. Karma consists of a person’s acts and their consequences. Whereas good deeds are rewarded, evil deeds are punished thus serving as a universal justice. Karma determines one’s species, beauty, intelligence, longevity, wealth and social status, and varying types of Karma can lead to different types of rebirth. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain Nirvana, an enlightened state in which greed, hatred, and ignorance have been overcome. Buddha recommended a disciplined life called the Middle Way. He also believed that existence consisted of a cycle of rebirth called reincarnation and the only way to be broken from the cycle was by acquiring complete detachment from cares. Before Buddha’s death, the monastic order had meetings to reach agreements on doctrine and practice. After Buddha’s death, his followers kept developing doctrine and practice which centered on the sacred teachings of Buddhism (dharma), the community of followers (sangha), and the Buddha. By the third century B.C., Buddhism had spread through India and other parts of Asia. Throughout time several Buddhist sects emerged like the Mahayana, the Theravada, and Vajrayana. One of the remaining strengths Buddhism has is its ability to adapt to a variety of cultures. Even though Buddhism has already spread throughout most of Asia, its influence is slowly developing in the West.
Hinduism is the main religion in India. Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world and it is said that it dates back to prehistoric times. Unlike other religions, Hinduism has no founder; it originated in the religious practices of Aryan tribes who migrated into India from central Asia over 3,000 years ago. The Aryan society developed the caste system which ranked society based on their occupation and was divided into four major hereditary classes: the Brahmin (priests); the Kshatriya (military, professional, ruling, and governing occupations); the Vaishya (landowners, merchants, and business occupations); and the Sudra (artisans, laborers, and peasants). Below the Sudra there was a fifth group called the Harijahns, also known as the “untouchables”, which included the lowest occupations and had no social standing. Even though the caste system was outlawed in 1948 by the Indian government, it’s still important to the Hindu people of India and is still recognized as the proper way to classify society. Since there is complete freedom of belief, one can be a monotheist, a polytheist, or an antitheist. Those who do choose to worship a single god devote themselves primarily to the gods Shiva and Vishnu. The most ancient sacred texts of Hinduism are called the Vedas and are written in Sanskrit. There are four Vedic books with the Rig Veda being the oldest of them. The Rig Veda talks about multiple gods, the universe, and creation. The Upanishads are commentaries on the Vedas which examine the origin of the universe and Anatta and its relationship to Braman. They also suggest the practice of yoga and they introduce the doctrine of karma. Hinduism is based on the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation is a cycle in which human, animal, and plant spirits come back to Earth to live many times in different forms after death. New life is determined by the laws of karma, and so rebirth depends on the moral behavior the spirit had in its previous life. Life here on Earth is viewed as short lived and a burden. This is why the ultimate goal of existence is the liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and entrance to a state called Moksha. The practice of Hinduism consists on ceremonies centering on birth, marriage, and death. Hindu temples are the dwelling places of deities to whom people bring offerings to. Throughout Asia there are several places of pilgrimage, the principal one being Benares on the Ganges, where Hindus travel to, to pay their respects.
What is religion? When asked, almost all of us know perfectly well what it is until we are asked for a definition of it. The many groups, practices, and systems that we classify as religions are so diverse that it’s no easy matter bringing them under one clear definition. Anyhow, people have tried to reach the definition of religion. Some people define religion as the beliefs, structures, or functions and in many cases a person’s definition of religion is the interpretation of their own religion. While no single definition can fully sum up what religion is, they all tell us something about it. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are the world’s five major religions. Even though they are all separate religions, many of them share similar thoughts and ideas. But even still there are arguments and fights over which religion is the “best”. For this question there is no correct answer because people have different thoughts and opinions about them. The five major religions of the world are the most popular religions of the day with the most members. But what does the future hold for these religions? Perhaps some religions will expand even further, while some might one day be completely forgotten. Maybe even a time will come when all the people of the world will get together spiritually and will decide to practice one single religion. The future of these religions rests in the hands of their people.
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