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Major World Religions

In our society, which contains many different cultures and faiths, it is important for us to have some understanding of the beliefs practised by our neighbours and the ways in which these beliefs are manifested in worship. The study of other religions can contribute to a better understanding between peoples, help clarify your own beliefs, and extend your outlook and respect for the religious traditions of others.

About half the world’s believers are either Christian or Muslim. Not all religions are the same. Most religions have certain common characteristics and similar teachings do occur in one more than one religion.

Meditation in some form is common to all religions, but it receives special emphasis in the Eastern religious tradition. There are also differences not only between religions but also within each religion, and the differences are as marked as night and day. The difference between polytheism (belief in many gods) and monotheism (belief in one God) is a notable factor when comparing Judaism, Christianity and Islam with the Eastern religions. Most religions have a special place of worship but its structure and purpose may vary greatly.

Origins of religions

The religions that have their roots in the Middle East, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and those that developed in the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, are six important religions scattered throughout the world and will be the focus of this chapter. Some of these religions have spread to new geographical regions through migration or missionary activity. Some religions have developed and emerged through other religions. For example, Zoroastrianism, a religion still practised today by a small group called Parsis, influenced the central concerns of the other living religions. Its primary importance lies in its influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

There are also ancient religions which are native to a particular country. Ancient Chinese civilisation gave rise to two religious perspectives: cosmic harmony and ancestor worship. These evolved into the distinct but complementary religious traditions of Taoism and Confucianism. Ancestor worship was a common practice in primitive religions. As the native religion of Japan, early Shinto had many characteristics found in primitive religions -especially animism, ancestor worship, and seasonal festivals. Once Japan became open to China, three religious traditions -Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism -had a great impact on religion in Japan. By allying itself with nationalist ideals, Shintoism eventually dominated these religions.

Australian Aborigines believe that they, like the land itself, were created during the Dreamtime. The religious beliefs of the Aborigines of Australia are a complex entity, closely integrated with all aspects of life. These religions have a long history and are very important for many people today.


Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world. It has up to a billion followers mainly in the Indian sub-continent and around the world. Hinduism has been described as a river fed by many streams, each with its own source. The name comes from the river Sindhu, which formed the border between India and Iran (Persia) and was called the Hindu by the ancient Persians.

How the religion began

Hinduism has no founder, no fixed doctrines and no common worship. Hinduism is not a single unified religion but a complex system of beliefs and practices. Religious teachers are known as gurus, swamis and charyas. Hindus may believe in one or more of the million Indian gods as manifestation of Brahman. Hinduism is not polytheism in the way that Westerns interpret that term.

There are several Hindu schools of thought. One school believes all gods to be expressions of one unknowable, unchangeable God. Another school of thought pays particular devotion to Vishnu the Preserver and Sustainer, who has had ten incarnations or avatars, the best known being Rama and Krishna. This group, known as Vaishnavites, worships Vishnu as one of a central trinity of gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu who maintains that which has been created, and Shiva who destroys in order to prepare the way for re-creation. A third important group pays special devotion to Shiva, and are known as Shivites.

Some important beliefs

Hindus believe that Brahman is the origin and the substance of all life, and the goal of all living things. Brahman may take many different shapes -human or animal -so there are many images through which worship occurs. Hinduism is a personal religion. Only Brahman is real and everything else in the world is illusion (maya). For Hindus, nature is not a creation of God so much as a manifestation of God. Since nature shares in Brahman and therefore in divinity, the things of nature are revered.

Most Hindus homes have a shrine or alcove set aside for worshipping. Hindus have no obligation to worship at the temple although it is one way people can grow closer to God. Before entering the temple or shrine worshippers remove their shoes and wash their hands. Temple worship is very elaborate. A priest performs rituals which involve the awakening, bathing and dressing, and feeding of the deity. After this, incense, camphor, a lamp, and food are offered. People give milk and sweets as offerings to statues or pictures of the deities and offer their own particular devotions.

The holy book of Hindu is Bhagvad Gita, in which Lord Krishna instructs Prince Arjuna how and why he should do his duties in this world.

Taboos and actions

Many Hindus do not eat meat. They believe that all beings are part of the same spirit, and that it is wrong to kill. Hindus respect all animals especially cows because they believe cows are gentle-natured and care for humans as they give milk for food.

According to the law of Karma, a person who performs good deeds, spiritual exercises, and meditation can be reborn to a higher life form in a future lifetime. If the sum of one’s deeds is evil, the person will be reborn to a lower life form. This process of rebirth is known as Samsara. The concept of reincarnation is based on yearning. If a yearning is unsatisfied at death then another birth is necessary to satisfy that yearning. Only when all yearnings are renounced can the process of rebirth end.

The caste system

The caste system is a classification of society, based on one’s function in society and birth. Traditionally it has had religious significance for Hindus. The system imposes many restrictions on behaviour. Although discrimination against the lower castes and the out­ casts is now illegal in India, the caste system is still an integral and complex structure in society.

Gandhi, the great twentieth-century Indian leader and teacher, campaigned to improve the position of outcasts and named them ‘Harijans’ which means ‘children of God’. Such leadership clearly shows how ancient religious beliefs can have a powerful, life-giving impact on our modern world.


Buddhism began in India 2500 years ago in the sixth century BC. It has more than 800 million followers around the world. They are called Buddhists.

How the religion began

The founder was an Indian Hindu Prince named Siddharta Gautama, who was born in 560BC. Helived near the border of Nepal and India. He became known as ‘the Buddha’, meaning ‘the enlightened one’, after he had meditated under a fig tree and firmly believed he had found the answer to the world’s suffering. At the age of twenty-nine, determined to find a solution to the problem of suffering, he left his palace and family to travel around north India teaching his ideas. Although he was born a prince he turned away from a life of luxury. Gautama was proficient at Hindu practices of asceticism or self-denial for personal spiritual development. He believed there was a middle way to all things and by developing calmness of the mind through meditation he was able to see the truth within himself. Through this experience he attained ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ and so became Buddha.

The rest of his life he spent teaching others the way to spiritual freedom. The Buddha went out of his way to show his disapproval of the class system of his day. He treated all people alike. Some of his most trusted disciples were social outcasts before joining the Buddhist Sangha -a religious community of followers organised into an order of monks (and later nuns).

Gautama died at the age of eighty. antidepressants. His body was cremated by his disciples and the ashes divided between eight clan groups. Each built an elaborate sacred cairn or stupa to house the relic. For lay Buddhists these stupas became the focus of devotion and were later developed into the pagodas. The famous Golden Pagoda in Rangoon is the largest and oldest shrine in the world. It is the spiritual heart of Myanmar (Burma).

Major divisions

As Buddhism developed, two major distinct types of Buddhism emerged -Theravada and Mahayana -springing from a common root. Theravada Buddhism remained close to the original teachings of Gautama. Theravada is dominant in the south-east Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

In India, land of its birth, Buddhism is a minority religion currently undergoing revival. In China, Tibet, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Buddhism is under threat and its survival uncertain. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visited Australia in 1996. He stated that Tibetan freedom and Buddhist spirituality are very much linked. He hopes to save Buddhism by finding a political solution with China. In the west Buddhism is enjoying increasing acceptance.

Mahayana belongs to the second phase of Buddhist thought. Its beliefs coincide with the beginnings of the Christian way of salvation to all. Mahayana Buddhism accepted changes and new teachings, especially as it spread to new countries such as the northern countries of Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Zen, a Japanese form of Buddhism that is popular in the West, has developed unique practices to facilitate awakening.

Some important beliefs

Buddhists gather together to meditate and to venerate the Buddha in the shrine room. Buddhists follow the Dharma or the teachings of Buddha. Some Buddhists believe that Gautama was a teacher sent by God. Buddhist belief may be divided into three main parts: the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism shares many beliefs with Hinduism, such as Karma and reincarnation. It differs from Hinduism in that it believes enlightenment is available to anyone regardless of caste and without needing to undergo countless reincarnations.

The teachings of Buddhism are found in collections of scriptures called the three baskets or Tripitaka and also in the scriptures of the different schools of Buddhism. The Tripitaka deals with monastic discipline, the Buddha story, theories of self and rebirth and advanced doctrine and philosophy. The Dhammapada or ‘path of nature’ is the oldest Buddhist text. It is quite short but of great importance and contains the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and many teachings on practical morality and self-discipline


Judaism is the name of the religion of the Jews. Judaism began about 4000 years ago.

How the religion began

The beginnings of the Jewish faith can be traced back to the patriarchs whom Jews regard as the ‘Fathers ‘of the religion. These ‘Fathers’ were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of course, the most important is Abraham, the leader of a tribe who felt that his people should worship only one God. In return God promised that Abraham should be the Father of a great nation and his descendants were called the Children of Israel. Judaism was born in the land of Israel, of which Jerusalem is the capital.

In the sixth century BC the Jews had been taken away into exile in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon, sixty years later, they were free to go back to Canaan. Not many did go back, for they had grown up in the lands of Babylonia . Their homes and livelihoods were there. They had gone into trade and commerce and, as merchants, they found their way to the great trading cities of the Mediterranean world. Thus began the Dispersion (diaspora or scattering) of the Jews among the nations.

The religion of the Jewish people is Judaism. The word Judaism comes from the names of the original kingdom Judah or Judaea. Throughout the long history of Judaism, there have been many leaders and prophets.

Some important beliefs

The central belief of Judaism is the oneness of Yahweh or God. Judaism teaches that there is only one God. They allow that there are creatures besides humans – for example, angels and archangels -but these are created by God. They are heavenly messengers with particular mandates to fulfil.

The Pentateuch (the first five books in the Bible) is called the Torah. Jews believe in the divine revelation of the Torah -the Jewish word for law or teaching as handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai -and follow these ancient traditions. The Torah contains 613 commandments which specify how Jews should live, what they can eat and how religious services should be held, the requirement of circumcision and many other practices. The synagogue (meaning meeting place) is the central place of worship. Prayer is also associated with many activities in the home.

Judaism today

Today there are two main groups practising Judaism. The Orthodox Jews keep the traditions, follow them strictly and worship in Aramaic and Hebrew. The reform Jews, who were established in the middle of the nineteenth century, interpret the laws more freely, worshipping in both Hebrew and the language of the country they live in. Judaism is mainly found in the modern state of Israel where 80 per cent of the citizens are Jews. The largest Jewish community is in the United States of America. Jewish communities exist in many parts of the world, including Australia. The first Jews arrived here with the First Fleet.

There is arguably a third group in Judaism, comprising those who do not worship regularly, but identify as Jews and observe some milestones in life in a religious way.


Christianity began approximately 33CE (Common Era) in Roman-occupied Israel. Christianity is found in almost every country in the world.

How the religion began
Christianity derives its name from the founder of the religion, Jesus Christ. (Jesus means ‘saviour’ and Christ is from the Greek word Christos, the ‘Anointed One’ or ‘Chosen One of God’.) Christians believe that God sent his son into the world to live a human life. At the age of thirty, Jesus began his ministry after being baptised by his cousin John. He spent several years travelling and teaching that the kingdom of God, the universal rule of God on earth, had already begun. He said that people could accept this kingdom for themselves by repenting of their sins and thus begin a new life. He travelled around Galilee and Judea as a wandering preacher, teaching the people to live in God’s way. Religious teachers became angry with his teachings. They had him arrested and killed. Jesus’ first followers believed he was resurrected three days after his death. Christianity inherited its world view from the Judaism of the time.

Some important beliefs

The life of Jesus is recorded in the gospels which form part of the Bible, the Christian holy book. This is divided into two sections: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains the Old Jewish Scriptures and includes the history of the Jews before the birth of Jesus. The New Testament contains the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles which tell the story of the beginnings of the Christian church.

When Jesus left his disciples he told them to go out and preach God’s love and baptise in the name of the Trinity. For Christians, the Resurrection proves that Jesus is the son of God. They believe in God who is the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit- the Trinity. One of the most famous early missionaries was St Paul who was a convert to Christianity after being one of its most vehement opponents. After his conversion Paul became a leader of the Christian community and his letters form the basis for much Christian doctrine.

The creed

The beliefs are summarised in a statement which is called a creed. The word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin credo which means ‘I believe’. The creed is divided into three sections. The first describes the nature of God. The next and main section concerns the life and work of Jesus Christ and the third section first refers to the Holy Spirit, and then deals with beliefs concerning the church and the lives of individual Christians. The Apostles’ Creed is still today the creed of Christian churches.

Christianity may be regarded as one religion but in fact the Christian church has many branches and offshoots, each with variations in its beliefs, form of worship and celebration of festivals. The various branches or denominations -as they are called -can be divided into three main groups: Roman or Western Catholic; Reformed (sometimes called Protestant), examples include Church of England, Church of Scotland, Methodist and Baptist; and Eastern Orthodox, for example Greek Orthodox.

The Apostles Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.



Islam is one of the major religions of the world whose followers count more than one billion across the globe.

The word ‘Islam’ is a derivative of the Arabic root ‘Sallama’ which means to submit and so ‘Islam’ means submission to ‘Allah’ (the Arabic word for God). The same root also carries the meaning of peace and Islam becomes in this sense the religion of peace with God, with other people and creatures and with the universe. The followers of Islam are called Muslims.

How Islam began

Muslims believe in the oneness of religion. From Adam until Muhammad, Allah has guided humanity through revelation to prophets and messengers and the core of this one message is the worship of one God, submission to Him and following His laws. In this sense Adam, Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Issa Qesus), and Muhammad among other prophets form one family. God’s Laws which are an integral part of religion have been revealed to humanity according to the level of maturity of the time. The Qur’an which was revealed to Muhammad is the culmination of God’s message to all humanity until the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an and the tradition of the prophet Muhammad -the practical implementation of the teaching of the Qur’an-contain the creed (Aqidah), law (Sharia’h} and moral code (Akhlaq) of the last religion to address all humanity and not one single race or group.

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570CE. His parents died when he was young and he was brought up by his grandfather and later his uncle. As a young man he worked as a shepherd and as a trader and was known as the ‘honest’ and the ‘trustworthy’ in the community. As he approached the age of forty he liked solitude and used to spend a few weeks in the month of Ramadan of each year in a cave overlooking Mecca meditating about life. There the angel Gabriel visited him in the cave and asked him to ‘read’. Being illiterate Muhammad answered: ‘I can’t read/ then after repeating the question Gabriel revealed to him the first verses of the Qur’an. He appeared to him later and asked him to spread the message that there is no God but Allah and that he is a messenger of this God. The political leaders of Mecca considered his teachings (the submission to only one God and not to any other power) to be a threat to their authority and started a long period of persecution of him and his followers which lasted for thirteen years. During this period the Qur’an established the concept of the oneness of God, that He is the Lord of all the universe and that happiness in this life and the here­ after depends on man’s submission in all his life on God’s religion.

The persecution led to a number of migrations from Mecca until Muhammad managed to convince some of the people of Yathrib (later called Madinah) to accept Islam and an organised migration started. Muhammad was among the last to migrate to this city which later became the first city­ state of Islam. Prophet Muhammad became the leader of this city and he put down the terms of a treaty for the peaceful coexistence between the Muslims and the people of Madinah including the Jews. A period of strife followed during which the Jews supported the idol worshippers. Before the death of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) Islam spread in the whole of Arabia and the prophet led an army against the Romans who tried to invade the Arab peninsula, but the Romans avoided the battle.

The Qur’an considers that faith cannot be forced on people but at the same time it calls the believers to fight those who try to prevent others from a free choice.

The religious state established in Madinah made the worship of God the basis of all human activity and called for a balanced way of life in which spirituality and materiality worked .together. Islam cares for the individual as it cares for the society, for the man as much as for the women and children. It has its own universal economic, social, political and spiritual systems.

Islam then spread in many parts of the world and established its civilisation according to its religious values. During the Middle Ages the Muslims carried the torches of knowledge to the world and their major cities were the centres of education and enlightenment. Islam continues to be a significant and growing force in the world. Because of Islam’s comprehensive nature, prophet Muhammad is considered to be the most influential person in the history of mankind. His message to unite humanity in the worship of God and in the service of God’s creatures appeals not only to the followers of Islam but remains a dream for all humanity.

The six pillars of faith are to believe in Allah (God), His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Hereafter and Destiny – good or evil -from God.

The five pillars of Islam

  1. The testimony that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger.
  2. Performing Prayer five times a day.
  3. The fasting of the month of Ramadan of each year.
  4. Payment of Zakat (Alms): A certain percentage collected from the rich by the government and is spent on eight specified categories including the poor and the needy.
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca ‘Kaabah'(first house put to humanity for worshipping God), once in a lifetime, for those who can afford it.

Special food, dates and places

Islam allows its followers to eat everything which is good for health. Thus, it prohibits certain foods and drinks such as pork, meat of dead animals, blood and alcohol.

There are two annual celebrations of the end of the fasting month (Eidul Fitr) and the occasion of meeting in Mecca for pilgrimage (Eidul Adha).

The holy day for Muslims is Friday, where Muslims pray their noon prayers in congregation and the leader (imam) gives a sermon and leads the prayer. Muslims worship together in a Mosque (Masjid) and meet there five times a day.

There are three holy places of worship for Muslims in the world: The Mosque which contains the Kaabah in Mecca,the Mosque of prophet Muhammad in Madinah and Masjid Al-Aqsa which is next to the Dorne of the Rock in Jerusalem (Al-Quds)


In Shi’a Islam most followers believe that the Mahdi, the descendant of Muhammad who will come to restore the religion of God, is Muhammad al-Mahdi, the ‘Twelfth Imam’, who lived on earth until 941. His return to bring peace and justice to the world is a cornerstone of the branch of Shi’aknown as the Twelvers. This belief was especially prevalent in 19th-century Persia, where Shi’a Islam had for centuries been the state religion. It was here in 1844 that Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-50) declared that he was the Bab (‘Gate’) and had come to establish a faith in readiness for the coming of ‘He whom God shall make manifest ‘.

The Islamic authorities persecuted his followers, known as Babis, for their beliefs. Among them was Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri, who came to believe he was the one whose coming had been predicted by the Bab. He adopted the title Baha’u’llah (‘Glory of God’) in 1863, proclaiming that he was a messenger of God, the latest in a line of such messengers including Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. Throughout history, he explained, religions have been established by these messengers with each one in turn bringing the religious truth in a manner that was well-suited to the time and place. Each messenger has also prophesied the coming of another messenger, in a progressive revelation, a continual unfolding of the message of God.


Sikhism began in 1500 CE and is one of the younger faiths in the world. The centre of the Sikh religion is the Punjab, a region in the north-west of the Indian sub-continent. It has 17 million followers, including in Australia.

It is a monotheistic faith, preaching the existence of only one God, and teaching ideals that may be universally accepted today: honesty, compassion, humility, piety, social commitment, and most of all tolerance for other religions. The word ‘Sikh’ is derived from the Sanskrit word shishya, which means disciple, seeker of truth.

How the religion began

Nanak, the founder of the religion, was born in April 1469. He was greatly influenced by the Hindus and the Muslims. Nanak formed his beliefs from what he saw as good and bad in both of these religions. Nanak spent his life travelling and teaching his beliefs. He became known as Guru (teacher) Nanak.

When Nanak died his successor was Angad which means ‘part of me’. Altogether there were ten gurus, and the last of these gurus, Guru Godind Singh, founded the brotherhood of all Sikhs. He told his followers that he would not appoint another human being as guru. Sikhs should from then on be guided by the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book which contains the writings of the first five gurus and hymns by Muslim and Hindu writers.

Some important beliefs

Guru Nanak challenged the idea of inferiority and evil associated with women and freed them from slavery and taboos of the society. He felt that the real cause of misery lay in the disunity born of diversity of belief. He established mixed congregations and a free communal kitchen where every­ one -respective of caste, gender, status or belief -could eat and be together. The Hindus and the Muslims, the Brahmins (upper caste) and the Sudras (untouchables) were thus to be brought to a common social level.

The main teachings and beliefs of the Sikhs are found in the Guru Granth Sahib, the basis of which is the teaching of Nanak himself. In the gurdwara the Guru Granth Sahib rests upon a raised platform, usually covered in layers of cloth, and there is always a cloth canopy overhead. Sikhs usually sit on a lower level than that of their holy book. Before entering a gurdwara a Sikh should always be bathed, have the head covered, be in bare feet, and should not carry any tobacco or have consumed any alcohol. ‘Gurdwara’ means door of guru, the Sikh place of worship.

The main emphasis of Nanak’s writing is the adoration of God. Sikhs usually gather at the gurdwara on their day of rest. They listen to musicians who lead the singing of hymns and readings taken from the Guru Granth Sahib by the Granthi, who can be any respected member of the congregation.

The gurdwara is also a centre for promoting culture and health. The Golden Temple -which is covered in gold -was built by the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das in Amritsar. He decided to build a city where Sikhs could live and work to praise God. The temple has four doors, one on each side, to emphasise that it is open to all people and to show it does not point to any particular direction as a mosque does.

Five sacred symbols

The Sikhs have five sacred symbols to preserve their identity and to give uniformity and cohesion to the whole community (although not all Sikhs follow these). They are commonly known as the five Ks:

  • Kes or unshorn hair, regarded as a symbol of saintliness. Hair is an integral part of the human body created by God, and is not cut. Hair is done up in a bun or ‘joora’ on top of the head. Many Sikh men wear a turban made of cloth one metre wide and five metres long.
  • Kanga a small comb tucked behind the joora to keep the hair tidy.
  • Kara a steel (or gold) bracelet symbolises restraint from evil deeds. Worn on the right wrist as a reminder of vows taken not to bring shame or disgrace to the Guru.
  • Kirpan a steel sword, emblem of courage and self-defence, symbolises dignity and self-reliance, the capacity and readiness to always defend the weak or oppressed. The sword is not to be used for conquest or vengeance. About 10 to 15 centimetres long, placed on the left side of the waist and kept in place by a woven cotton strap around the neck and shoulder.
  • Kacch, underwear that must be worn at all times as a reminder of the need for self- restraint over passions and desires. It is a mark of perpetual readiness.

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