A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS ...
Written by: Rommen, Edward Posted on: 04/25/2003
Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics
A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS
Few of us would question the fact that we live in a religiously
pluralistic world. In fact, the ever increasing exposure to
representatives of other faiths with their long histories, traditions,
highly developed cultures, and ancient rites has prompted many to call
for a "Copernican revolution" in our thinking about other religions.
The advocates of this view suggest that each religion be viewed as one
religion among others, no matter how different it may be from the
other religions. One group, they say, cannot simply distance itself
from the whole realm of the world's many religions. The resurgence of
many non-Christian religions and the general tolerance of our age have
led to an uneasy coexistence between various belief systems. In some
cases the different groups are no more than consciously aware of one
another. In other cases mutual recognition and varying degrees of
respect makes a genuine exchange of ideas possible. But no matter
what the arrangement, most people would agree that no religion can
afford to ignore the fact (existence) of the other faiths, since an
arrogant, isolated, or self-sufficient attitude will yield nothing but
counterproductive antagonism and ultimately rejection.
This leads to the question of how a Christian should approach the
other religions? For the believer the answer should be obvious and
non-negotiable. Whatever the nature of our interaction with the
adherents of other faiths, the Lordship and Saviorhood of Christ are
not to be relativized in any way. We need no other justification for
this stance than that of Christ's unique offer of salvation and our
obedience to his command to share with the world's peoples his offer
of salvation. (John 6:69, Matthew 16:16; 28:18). Yet, in terms of
our relationship to them we do have a number of options. We can
reject them as demonic, false, deceptive, or even as forerunners of
Christianity. But, no matter what positions we have initially
(traditionally) adopted, the present situation requires fresh
theological reflection based on accurate information about the various
Before we turn to that information and a comparison between
Christianity and other faiths, several preliminary questions need to
be addressed. They include the definition, the study, and the
classification of religions.
1.1. The Definition of Religion
Defining religion is a notoriously difficult task. Generally speaking
religion has to do with the way in which man relates to and interprets
the world around him, in particular to any unseen dimensions of that
world such as spirits, demons, and gods. A second important element
is the concept of salvation. Almost all religions seek to help the
individual 1) find the meaning of his world and his own life and 2)
find a solution to his own weakness and sinfulness. In many cases
salvation is interpreted as protection from natural disasters, fear,
and hunger. In other case it is thought of in terms of forgiveness
and/or freedom from some evil. Religion, then, provides a framework
within which an individual can interpret the world around him and a
source from which he can derive hope, love, security and purpose.
1.2. The Study of Religion
The study of religion is generally divided into five major areas:
1.2.1. Philosophy of religion concentrates on the meaning and the
truth of religious experience. It is an analysis of the existence and
nature of God, the epistomological basis of religious truth, and the
logical relationship between faith and reason.
1.2.2. Psychology of religion focuses its attention on the subjective
aspects of man's religious experience. Sigmund Freud, for example,
suggested that religion is an expression (projection) of our fears and
guilt feelings. Other studies have examined conversion, worship, and
prayer, all in an attempt to explain this subjective element of
1.2.3. Phenomenology of religion (comparative religions) is an
analysis and systematization of the objective and institutionalized
aspects of religious life. This involves anthropological and
sociological examination of the empirical state of any given religion
and provides an objective basis for comparison.
1.2.4. History of religion deals with the process that has led to the
form of each religion as we know it today. This often begins with the
question of the origin of the various religions. These theories can
be divided into several categories. First, there are evolutionary
schemes which suggest that the highly developed religions (monotheism)
have developed from primitive nature religions. One such theory
suggests that dreams about departed loved ones led to the belief in
spirits and ultimately in gods. Second, there are theories which
posit some form of original monotheism which was subjected devolution
not evolution. Man deliberately left or abandoned his loyalty to the
one God. As a result, man began to develop a myriad of religious
practices, most of them designed to manipulate and control the spirits
that man had come to fear.
Since no researcher has access to the original state of affairs, most
scholars have abandoned most attempts to find and describe man's
original religious state.
1.2.5. Theology of religion represents an attempt by the adherents of
one religion to define their relationship to other religions.
Questions that are raised include: to what extent are the claims of
other religions valid, true, or salvific; when, if at all, does God
reveal Himself in the other religions.
1.3. Classifying Religions
Researchers have discovered many parallels between the religions of
the world. Since the concept of God is crucial to all religions, some
have suggested that this be used as the main criteria for categorizing
religions. According to that scheme the major religions fall into two
broad groups - polytheistic and monotheistic. In a polytheistic
religion the existence of more than one God or divine being is
accepted. A monotheistic religion maintains the existence of only one
God. This is the approach adopted for the following comparison.
(Buddhism and Hinduism will be used to illustrate polytheistic
religions and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the major
2.1. Historical Overview
Unlike the other religions which will be presented in this chapter
Hinduism is extremely difficult to describe. There are several
reasons for this. First, it represents a wide variety of religious
experiences and beliefs ranging from polytheism through henotheism,
monotheism, and monism. Second, Hinduism has no founder. It is the
result of a long process of development, and for that reason has no
clearly definable formative period. Third, Hinduism so thoroughly
dominates Indian society that it has become almost synonymous with
that culture. Fourth, there is no single official scripture. Fifth,
worship is not limited to either temples, specific rituals or even
gods. In light of these characteristics Hinduism is best described in
terms of four stages of development, each with its own set of beliefs.
2.1.1. Vedic Hinduism (ca. 2000-600 B.C.)
The earliest form of Hinduism developed in pre-Aryan India. Between
B.C. 3200 and 2500 a vibrant culture had developed among the ancestors
of the Dravidians in the Indus valley. These people had developed a
highly advanced civilization which may have included cultural exchange
with the Sumerians. Both the content and the practice of Dravidian
religion was taken from sacred writings known as the Veda. Completed
some time before 1500 B.C. the Veda contain a collection of hymns and
ritual instruction which represents the religious seedbed for
Between 2000 and 1500 B.C., a central Asian people known as Aryans
invaded India from the north driving the Dravidians south. The
religious ideas and practices introduced by these light-skinned
conquerors altered the face of Dravidian Hinduism. The Aryans
worshiped the powers of nature rather than images. The most important
of their gods were Indra, a god of the atmosphere and stars, Varuna, a
sky god, and Agni, the god of fire. Because the Dravidian gods were
assimilated rather than displaced the emerging religion developed a
complicated array of gods and goddesses.
The Aryans also developed an elaborate system of rituals and
sacrifices, which were seen as a defense against ravages of war and
natural disasters. That led in turn to the need for priesthood (the
Brahmins) - powerful positions which the Aryans eagerly assumed. This
was, in all likelihood, the beginning of the Caste system. According
to this pattern social structure is organized around five classes: a)
the Brahmin (priests), b) the Kshatriya (warriors), c) Vaishya
(professionals and skilled workers), d) the Shudra (slaves), and
Panchama or Harijen (the untouchables).
The source of these religious beliefs and practices is the Upanishads.
These writings, philosophical commentaries on the Veda, reinterpreted
the Vedic texts and reduce the various ideas of god to a single
principle or absolute universal soul called Brahman or Paramatman.
This monistic or pantheistic viewpoint held that the universe is God,
and God is the universe. As a result the real world was considered to
be an illusion (maya) and man a part of the Paramatman, who's destiny
was to be freed from earthly life by the knowledge that he and the
world soul are identical. Short of attaining that knowledge man's
only hope of salvation was the faithful pursuit of the four
permissible goals of life: duty (dharma) as prescribed by one's
particular caste; material gain (artha); love, pleasure and esthetic
enjoyment (kama); and finally spiritual victory over life (moksha).
Each Hindu was also expected to work his way through four stages of
life: student, householder with family, a hermit seeking enlightenment
after renouncing all family ties, and finally a homeless but holy
2.1.2. The Period of Traditional Hinduism (600 B.C. - A.D. 300)
This period was characterized by several revolutionary changes:
126.96.36.199. A reaction against the dominance of the Brahmin led to
Hinduism being divided into a popular religion of the masses and a
more philosophical religion. This dissatisfaction with ritualistic
development also led to the formation of several other religions
including Buddhism and Jainism.
188.8.131.52. Worship was concentrated on one god - Vishnu and his many
incarnations. These incarnations, called Avatars generally involve
some kind of divine intervention in order to save the world from grave
peril. The form of the incarnation was not limited to that of man.
Vishnu also appeared as a fish, an amphibian, a boar, a man-lion, and
a dwarf. The seventh and eighth incarnations of Vishnu, Rama and
Krishna, are the most important and are worshiped more than Vishnu
184.108.40.206. A new class of religious literature was introduced. Whereas
the Vedas were referred to as shruti, these later writings were called
smriti. They included: a) The Laws of Manu, a collection of social
and religions laws from about the time of Christ; b) the Puranas
(ancient tales) which contain stories about the gods; and c) epic
Poems. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama and his wife Sita and
provided teaching on the marriage and the family. The Mahabharata
describes Krishna's involvement in a war between two families. It
offers instruction on man's duty, something which is seen as more
important than asceticism, sacrifice, or even philosophical
speculation. The most popular part of this work is the Bagavad-Gita.
220.127.116.11. During this period, the concept of salvation shifted from an
emphasis on fulfillment of duty to an emphasis on release and escape
from life. Life on earth began to be viewed quite pessimistically in
terms of karma and samsara.
The law of karma was a moral law of cause and effect. According to
this idea an individual could build up either good or evil karma
depending on his or her deeds.
According to the idea of samsara all life goes through an endless
succession of rebirths. Every living thing is on the wheel of life,
and the status of each new rebirth is determined by the karma
accumulated in the previous life. Salvation is defined as the
"breaking out of this endless cycle." This release is know as Moksha.
It occurs when a person extends his being (sat) awareness (chit), and
bliss (ananda) to an infinite level. Since Brahman, the impersonal
absolute, is infinite being, awareness, and bliss, the only way a man
can obtain Moksha is to come to the realization that his own self
(atman) is actually part of Brahman (Paramatman). This can be
summarized in the phrase "Tat Twam Asi" (used today in TM) which means
"You are that." Salvation, then, is achieved by detachment from the
finite self and attachment to reality as a whole. If and when this is
achieved, the individual has reached Nirvana, the "State of
2.1.3. Philosophical Hinduism (A.D. 300 - 1750)
There are six schools (Darsanas) of Orthodox Hindu Philosophy. Common
to each school is the assumed authority of the Vedas. Although the
actual ideas can be traced back to the ninth century B.C., the systems
were not developed until between the fifth B.C. and the third century
A.D. and assumed final form during the following 1000 years.
1) Sankhya was founded by Kapila (ca. 7th century B.C.), focuses on
the two eternal categories of being - Purusha (soul) and Prakriti
(matter), and is dualistic and atheistic.
2) Yoga, developed by Pantanjali (second century A.D.) as a practical
means (physical control and meditation) of attaining enlightenment.
3) Vedanta emerged about the time of Christ and is divided into three
schools: a) Sankara (A.D. 800) teaches a non-dual (advita) position
which maintains that everything is Brahman; b) Ramanuja (A.D. 1000)
teaches a modified non-dualism in which the physical world, individual
souls, and ultimate reality are each real and yet one; c) Madhva (A.D.
1200) developed a dualism which envisioned enlightened souls
consciously enjoying the presence of one supreme God (monotheistic!).
All others will spend eternity locked into the cycle of
4) Nyaya (1200 A.D) is a positivitic school based on the third century
(A.D.) writings of Gautama (not the founder of Buddhism) which teaches
that misery follows from false notions which in turn allow for
activities which have bad consequences in successive rebirths.
5) Purva-Mimamsa (400 B.C.) teaches the literal inspiration of four
Veda and expounds on the practical aspects of man's duty.
6) Vaisheshika (400 B.C) teaches that the world is a self-existent
reality formed of eternal and indivisible atoms combining and
2.1.4. Sectarian Hinduism (900 A.D. - )
Beginning around the 10th century a number of sects sprang up and
flourished in Hinduism. They differed from the followers of the
smriti in that they worshiped only one God such as Vishnu, Siva, Kali,
etc. On the basis of their devotion to that god they expected some
favor in return and thus tended to emphasize grace rather than works
as a means of salvation. In contrast to the non-dualist Vedanta they
held that the one God was personal. Of particular importance to this
discussion are the various paths (marga) to salvation offered by
1) Karma-Marga, the way of works, advocates following the ancient
vedic rituals and teachings.
2) Jnana-Marga, the way of knowledge (Vedanta), confirms with the way
of life taught in the Upanishads. Knowledge becomes the source of
peace and security in a transitory world.
3) Bhakti-Marga, the way of devotion, which hopes that the gods turned
to in devotion will respond by helping man in his present life.
2.2. Basic Teaching
2.2.1. Creation and the World. According to Hindu teaching the world
was created from that which already existed. Since the creator and
the creation are one and the same, creation (including man) has no
real or separate existence. This tends to downplay the value of the
individual and seems to leave creation without a clearly defined
2.2.2. Deity. In philosophical Hinduism, God is generally an
impersonal force as opposed to the personal God of Christianity. In
popular Hinduism, there are great multitudes of gods (3 Million by one
count!) and goddesses.
2.2.3. Man. In Hindu teaching man's primary problems are caused by
the effects of maya. In light of the illusory nature of both man and
his actions there can be no recognition of sin in the sense of moral
guilt. Sin itself becomes an illusion. Since man is at the same time
part of the world soul, he cannot be separated from God by his sin.
2.2.4. Salvation. In spite of its philosophical orientation
Hinduism's offer of salvation is made on the basis of good works or
duty (dharma). Unmerited mercy and the forgiveness of sins find no
place in a system dominated by the idea of karma. As has already been
pointed out, each person has many lives in which his own deeds
determine the amount of karma and whether or not the slow progress
toward reunification with or absorption into the world soul is being
made. Salvation, then, is the ultimate dissolution of the individual.
2.3. Present Strength and Distribution
The total number of Hindus is approximately 655,695,200. They are
distributed as follows: North America (810,000), South America
(660,000) Europe (591,200), Asia (651,929,000), Africa (1,410,000),
3.1. Historical Overview
The founder of Buddhism Siddhartha Gautama was born about 567 B.C. in
Southern Nepal near Kapilavastu (about 130 miles north of the modern
city of Benares). According to tradition, his father (Suddhodana), a
petty ruler of the Kshatriya class, was informed by a Seer at the
birth of his son, that Gautama was destined to become a great ruler.
However, if he were to see four things - disease, old age, death, and
a monk who had renounced the world - then the boy would abandon his
earthly destiny in order to become the founder of a new way of
salvation for all of the world. As a result, Gautama's father sought
to keep him from these experiences. He built a palace in the midst of
a sheltered park and ordered that neither the sick nor the aged nor
the dead nor the monk should be allowed near the palace. So it was
that the boy grew up shielded from the world.
Tradition goes on to report that gods intervened and on successive
days that as Gautama was being driven through his park, he saw a man
covered with sores, a very old man, a corpse, and finally a monk. As
Gautama was told what each one of these things were, he began to
meditate on the meaning of these new experiences recognizing that all
must grow old, perhaps become sick, and eventually die. However, it
was the peaceful appearance of the monk which convinced him to abandon
his family and seek salvation as a monk (compare this with the four
phases of life in Hindu teaching). So we are told that one night he
went to the door of his bed chamber, looked once upon his sleeping
wife and son, and left never to return. Gautama shaved off his hair,
put on a yellow robe, and went on his great quest for enlightenment.
This path took him through several stages: discussions with a Brahmin
master (study of Upanishads) followed extreme asceticism which left
him near starvation. Having found no satisfaction, he abandoned the
latter course by accepting food offered by a young maiden. Still
intent on finding enlightenment he seated himself under a tree and
vowed not to move until he had achieved what he was looking for. For
forty nights and forty days the evil one, Mara, fought to dissuade.
But finally he experienced the bliss of Nirvana and ultimate
salvation. This experience is best described as having become awake
(Bodhi). In that moment, Gautama became the Buddha - the fully
awakened or enlightened one.
It should be noted that to most Buddhists it makes no difference at
all how much of the above is actually historical. As one writer put
it, "to the extent that Buddhism is true it is, like the essence of
Christianity, beyond the accidents of time and place, of fact and
history. To the extent that it is untrue, it does not become more
true by being pinned to a set of words produced by a certain man on
such and such a day." (Humphreys, 'Buddhism', 25-26) That this is
true for Buddhism is beyond question. As for Christianity; here lies
a major difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
As Buddhism developed, it split into two major groupings. One called
Hinayana, the doctrine of the lesser way, or Theravada Buddhism. This
movement does not view Gautama as a god but rather as one who has
shown the way. That way involves rigorous monastic life, and
therefore limits salvation to a relatively small number of
individuals. It is most common in Southeast Asia, in particular Burma
The other major grouping, Mahayana Buddhism, whereas as Theravada
Buddhism offers salvation into Nirvana only to those who renounce this
world, Hinayana, the great vehicle, seeks to overcome this restriction
by offering hope to anyone. This form of Buddhism developed about the
time of Christ. One of the major characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism
is the concept of Bodhisattva, a being whose essence is enlightenment.
This is a person who like Gautama, achieved enlightenment but did not
pass immediately into Nirvana. These beings have taken a vow not to
enter Nirvana and thus can serve as helpers for those who call upon
them in faith. In light of this kind of mediating help, an individual
can lead a normal life and on the basis of his devotion to
Bodhisattva, can continue on the path to Nirvana. This, of course,
leads to a modification of the idea of Nirvana. Autonomous, agnostic
position was not very appealing, and Mahayana sects have introduced a
whole series of heavens and hells in which the promise of paradise is
made for the faithful.
3.2. Basic Teaching
3.2.1. The teachings of the Buddha.
It is difficult to be precise about the written sources for the
Buddha's teachings since there is no closed cannon of scripture in
Buddhism. Although hundreds of works could be included, there is a
body of scripture which is held to be basic by most Buddhists. The
Tripitaka (the three baskets) are the result of a long oral tradition
which was not recorded until about the first century B.C. The
Tripitaka is made up of three major divisions: a) the Vinaya Tripitaka
which is a collection of disciplines, rules of order, b) the Sutta
Tripitaka, the basket of discourses - dialogues between Buddha and his
disciples on the teachings of religion, and c) the Abhidhamma
Tripitaka - collection of teaching on metaphysics.
The teachings of Gautama can be summarized in terms of the four noble
18.104.22.168. The fact of Suffering. According to this principle, the
very fact or act of existing necessarily involves suffering.
Suffering is associated with five factors of existence. They are:
man's physical existence, man's feeling and emotions, imagination and
perception, will and activity, and consciousness. From this it can be
seen that anything from birth to death, both waking and sleeping,
dreaming and desiring, all involve suffering.
22.214.171.124. The cause of suffering. The ultimate source of suffering is
man's desire (tanha). It's man's desire for pleasure, security and
life itself which causes him to cling to the wheel of life which in
turn causes an endless cycle of rebirth.
126.96.36.199. Overcoming suffering. Since existence itself is suffering,
and suffering is caused by desire, the ultimate solution is overcoming
that desire. By eliminating all desire, all craving, and thus
bringing unending cycle of birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth,
suffering can be brought to an end.
188.8.131.52. The way to overcoming suffering. In order to overcome
suffering, an individual must follow the noble eightfold path. These
are usually translated as: l) right views, 2) right aims or intent,
3) right speech, 4) right conduct or action, 5) right means of
livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and right
meditation or contemplation. This is the path that leads to the
cessation of desire and finally to Nirvana cessation of the cycle of
Another important aspect of this teaching involves the "Three
refuges." Those who would follow the path of Buddha and seek
salvation Nirvana renounce the world and make the following
declaration of faith: "I go to the Buddha for refuge; I go to the
Dhamma for refuge; I go to the Sangha for refuge." In this way the
prospective Buddhist declares his intention to learn and follow the
four noble truths and the eightfold path. The Dhamma refers to cultic
practices which involve three separate exercises described as
honorable living (eightfold path), concentrated meditation, and
grasping the transcendental. This was the religious law which
determined the unity and fellowship of the Sangha. This amounted to a
religious order. Those entering were required to make the above
mentioned confession of faith, and submit to the order (Dhamma).
3.3. Present Strength and Distribution
The total number of Buddhists is approximately 309,626,1000. They are
distributed roughly as follows: North America (190,000), South America
(490,000) Europe (536,000), Asia (308,381,300), Africa (12,800),
4.1. Historical Overview
4.1.1. Although Judaism is the smallest of the three monotheistic
religions, it antedates both Islam and Christianity. Abraham,
regarded as the founding patriarch, migrated from Ur of the Chaldees
to Palestine around 2100 B.C. Under the leadership of one of his
descendants, Jacob, also called Israel, this semitic people moved to
the upper Nile delta region of Egypt (ca. 1870 B.C.) in order to
escape famine. During the course of several hundred years, these
people proliferated and were organized into tribes each associated
with one of the twelve sons of Jacob. After having suffered much
abuse at the hands of Egyptian task masters, these tribes were led out
of Egypt by Moses (ca. 1500 B.C.). At the end of a forty year sojourn
in the desert, leadership was passed to Joshua who led the twelve
tribes into Palestine where they subdued its Canaanite inhabitants.
Under the judges (leaders who were divinely appointed to deliver and
maintain Israel) the twelve tribes organized a loose federation
(anphictyonic covenant). Around l050 B.C. Saul established the Jewish
monarchy. Saul and his successors, David and Solomon, led the Jewish
nation to a golden age of economic, military, and cultural success
which reached its highpoint around 960 B.C.
In 930 B.C. the kingdom was divided into a northern (Israel) and
a southern (Judah) kingdom. In 722 B.C. Israel was defeated by the
Assyrians. In 586 B.C. Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and
many Jews were exiled to Babylon. Some of the exiled Jews were
allowed to return in 537 B.C. but a series of conquests prevented
them from regaining and maintaining full control.
4.1.2. Several centuries later Jews, under the leadership of the
Maccabees revolted against hellenistic kings who gave them a degree of
independence in l28 B.C. which lasted only until the Romans conquered
the country. During the Maccabean era and the ensuing Roman
occupation, several important religio-political parties emerged. The
Sadducees (priests in the temple) the Pharisees (teachers of the law
and the synagogues) the Essenes (a religious order associated with the
Dead Sea scrolls discovered in l947) and the Zealots, a para-military
organization prepared to fight for independence. In 68, the Zealots
led a revolt against Roman occupiers which was suppressed in A.D. 70
resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The Jews
were scattered into what is called the Diaspora.
4.1.3. The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. introduced a number
of significant changes. Meeting places known as synagogues, which
were first organized during the exile, became the focal point of
Jewish life. For example, the sacrificial system lost with the
destruction of the temple was replaced by the ritual, prayer, and the
study of the Law provided in the synagogues. The Levitical
priesthood, which was also tied to the temple, was replaced by
teachers of the Law, many of whom were Pharisees who had developed an
elaborate oral tradition based on their interpretation of the Mosaic
Law. In that tradition the Law was applied to every detail of life.
External observance of the Sabbath, dietary rules and holy days were
stressed. These Pharisaic teachers were known as rabbis (teachers).
With the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system gone,
Judaism began to stress the idea that every Jew had an immediate
access to God. As a Jew he needed no conversion or redemption.
Instead, a Jew could reach salvation by obedience to the Torah. The
rabbis broke the Law down into 613 precepts - 365 negative precepts
and 248 positive precepts which govern every detail of religious life.
In the 12th century, a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides produced a
creed which is still the generally accepted standard of Orthodoxy. He
considered Moses to be the greatest of the prophets and the Law to be
the highest form of revelation. This creed emphasized the
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