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- The Role of Religion in History & Society
Major Religions have had an Influential Force Throughout History
Religion and History
Religion is among the most influential forces in history, in so much as the face of history is the reflection of the activities of men. From the origin of language and communication of thought the activities of men, humans, is the dye-plate that has stamped out history. Indelibly etched in the essence of mankind’s existence from times immemorial is the recognition of deity. The sum of all dichotomies in existence, all that binds and heals, all that shatters and breaks is deconstructed by the mind of man in the form of religion. Therefore in its myriad forms the story of religion is nearly the story of man encoded in language. From east to west the major religions today, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity represent our modern day existence, are the ethos of our history, and to a degree are reincarnations of the beliefs that carved the world that preceded them. It will be shown that Hindu and Buddhism have provided profound systems to manage social interactions and government. Further Islam has allowed for the expansion of the sciences while stunted some aspects of human rights Finally Christianity has with great discord prompted peace while sowing bloodshed.
To start one can look at perhaps the oldest religion known, Hinduism. Although not thoroughly understood or commonly practiced in the Western World, Hinduism is a ubiquitous belief set in India and Nepal, with approximately one billion believers. Hinduism provides one of the clearest examples of immense cultural impacts of a religion on the social customs of a group with the caste system. The caste system “divides the whole society into a large number of hereditary groups, distinguished from one another and connected together” (Dumont 21) by several factors. Each of the divisions in the castes system distinguish or ranks groups and peoples are superior or inferior to one another. There is debate over the origins of the cast system, but the roots can be found in the diversification of groups according to their relative spiritual development. Eventually the social division of the various groups became a hereditary distinction that has caused it much vilification today by non-Hindu groups. It is beyond refute though that this highly religious belief set has shaped the face and nature of the attitudes and governments that it has influenced. One can not fail to recognize this fact, when considering survival of Hindu society in the face of thousands of years of attack by Muslims and Europeans. This system has till modern times provided the ridged trussing that has promoted cohesion within Hindu society, and created the catalysis for the ruling classes to unite a large populous. Within Hinduism a kingdom is “itself part of the socio-cosmic order or dharma” (Fuller 107). Further the “king is himself a form or incarnation of the tutelary state deity, normally a form of Vishnu, Shiva, or the goddesses” and is expected to preserve or maintain the caste system (Fuller 107). Whether the structure and mechanisms that Hinduism has provided to influence and organize large groups of people stems from the social necessity for order, or directly from the religious teachings found in the Hindu religious Sanskrit, its profound influence of human history in South Central Asia is beyond refute.
The consideration of Hinduism leads us promptly in to the influence of the dharmic religion and philosophy of Buddhism. Realistically the history of Buddhism bleeds heavily into that of Hinduism particularly in the Indian subcontinent. It can be confidently stated that without Hinduism the varying forms of Buddhism, such as Lamaism in Tibet, could not have existed. There relationship is so intertwined that in Java and Cambodia the two “where avowedly combined and declared to be the same” (Eliot b2). Of the many cultural and historical impacts of Buddhism one of the most easily understood is the contribution this religion made to the expansion and influence of China on neighboring peoples. Around 250 BCE King Ashoka, “convened the third Buddhist council” (Wikipedia). The goal of this council was to unify the divergent schools of Buddhism and, “organize and dispatch Buddhist missionaries throughout the known world” (Wikipedia). So successful was this expansion that the “star within a diadem, symbols…appear on the coinage of the Hebrew King Alexander jannaeus (103-76 BCE)” (Wikipedia). Further in Japan the influence of 6th century Buddhist monks is glaring as today Japan is the largest Buddhist country. Buddhism has influenced the art, poetry, government, and social activities of the Japanese populous up till the 20th century. The ideas and philosophies of Buddhist teachings have undoubted dominated the development and culture of large groups of peoples over the past twenty-five-hundred years. Again strongly supporting the notion that this religion is highly influential on mans history.
Taking a very different religious form than that of Hinduism or Buddhism is the monotheism of the Islamic faith. Islam too has had an extensive impact on the history of man and defines many of the relationships and activities of peoples and governments to this day. The Islamic faith, although regarded by adherents as a restoration of the faiths of Abraham, Moses and other prophets, originated with the teachings of the 7th century Arab religious figures Muhammad. Within a mere century of the birth of Islam, the empire it carved had stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River. The beliefs of this religion impacted vast swaths of humankind and provided the foundation for one of the most advanced civilizations in the old world. The Islamic world made notable contributions to history in the areas of Astronomy with Al-Battani and Abd-al Rahman al Sufi, science and mathematics with Ibn-al-Nafis and Yusuf al-Mu’taman, and shipbuilding, military artillery, art, music and the list surpasses the scope of this consideration. Probably the most notable influence though, and perhaps the most easily recognizable to many westerners is the influence Islam has had on the character and practices of its adherents, known as Muslims. To a degree Islam became a melting pot of older practices, adapting or absorbing the long held beliefs of its converts. “Jewish scriptural, prophetic, ritual, and legal precedents where absorbed into Islamic Law. Hellenistic science, Sasanian and Byzantene court ceremony, art and architecture, administrative precedents, and political concepts were assimilated” (Lapidus 100). Undeniably though the Islamic faith asserted its unique identity, and reshaped its adopted concepts or practices to become “unmistakably Islamic” (Lapidus 100). Notable is the unflagging loyalty of its followers in following the Quran, the Islamic holy book, in working toward, “good deeds commanded by God” to be, “moderate, humble, kind, and just” among other fine attributes, while this is contrasted with the willingness to die for defending their faith (Lapidus 100). Also the view and treatment of women, while undergoing a modern day reformation, has permeated much of both the Islamic and Western world up till and beyond the 19th century. The continual struggling between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian beliefs has also shaped the face of political interaction and geographic distribution of wealth to this day. Undoubtedly the Islamic religion is one of the most influential forces on mankind’s history throughout much of the past two millennia, and is responsible for much of the character of the world scene today.
Christianity as the world’s largest religion, with over 2 billion adherents, is one of, if not the most influential forces of the past two thousand years of mankind’s existence. Although classified as an Abrahamic religion like Islam and Judaism, its beliefs and practices diverge widely, and vary internally as well. Christians believe that Jesus, a first century prophet and teacher who roamed the areas of modern day Israel, Jordan and Syria, was the son of God and the foretold Messiah of the Old Testament. They follow both the Old Testament as holy writings and the New Testament as the Gospel of Jesus, and the inspired writing of first century followers, most notably Saul of Tarsus, or Paul. Although originally based on the beliefs and mindset of the first century followers of Jesus, by at least the 4th century, with the Council of Nicea in 325, and further the Council of Constantinople in 381, and the adoption of the Trinity doctrine the Catholic church effectively, “no longer shared Jehovah with their Jewish forebears” (Rubenstein 209). Further they became nearly polytheistic in there worship of a “heartingin communion of spirits,” in the nearly 25,000 canonizes saints (Durant 743). Christian beliefs have permeated nearly every corner of the globe. This thanks to prevalent and incessant conversion since the first century. Christians have contributed to the stunting of progress in the sciences, adhering to an archaic world view that imprisoned the great mind of Galileo, and discouraging inquisitive minds from delving into the mathematics of the beginnings of the universe. In contrast the peaceful and passive teachings of Jesus, particularly on the famous Sermon on the Mount, have moved many people in history towards tolerance and forbearance of others, despite the wars that have pot-marked the face of Christianity. Unfortunately it is these wars that have made the most lasting impression thanks to the religion of Christianity. From the Constantine on the Church has indorsed, supported and financed, scores of wars. They have contributed to what can amount to mass executions of mankind, most notably in their endorsing of WWI and WWII, ironically on both sides of the struggle. It is beyond refute that Christianity has played a major roll on the world scene and affected the lives of the greater part of humanity for at least a thousand years.
While the distinction between whether Religion is merely the child of human experience or is the caretaker of mankind is difficult to discern, the influence of religion is beyond refute. It is one of the most influential powers in mankind’s history, and is evident in all his activities from the advent of writing till this day. Although many of the modern religious movements are merely adaptations or distortions of ancient mythology or religious oral traditions, there affect is no less profound. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have built up and broken down, made peace and fought wars, created beauty and instilled fear. The history of Religion is the history of mankind.
Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications.United States of
America: Universityof ChicagoPress, 1980. <http://books.google.com/>
Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950
Eliot, Sir Charles. Hinduism and Buddhism: an Historical Sketch.Surrey: Edward Arnold & co.,
Fuller, Christopher John The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. New
Jersey: PrincetonUniversity Press, 2004 <http://books.google.com/>
Lapidus, Ira Marvin. A History of Islamic Societies.New York:CambridgeUniversity Press,
Rubenstein, Richard E. When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the
Last Days of Rome.New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999
Wikipedia. 2007. 29 July 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Buddhism>