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A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS ...

Written by: Rommen, Edward    Posted on: 04/25/2003

Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics

Source: CCN

                A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS                                 AND                             CHRISTIANITY

                                  by                             Edward Rommen



1. INTRODUCTION

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 religions.

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 religion.

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 monotheistic religions).

2. HINDUISM

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 Hinduism.

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 wanderer.

2.1.2. The Period of Traditional Hinduism (600 B.C. - A.D. 300)

This period was characterized by several revolutionary changes:

2.1.2.1.  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.

2.1.2.2. 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 himself.

2.1.2.3. 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.

2.1.2.4. 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 Passionless Peace."

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 transmigration.

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 recombining eternally.

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 sectarian Hinduism.

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 purpose.

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), Oceania (295,000).

3. BUDDHISM

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 and Thailand.

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 truths.

3.2.1.1.  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.

3.2.1.2. 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.

3.2.1.3. 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.

3.2.1.4. 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 rebirths.

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), Oceania (12,000).

4. JUDAISM

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 omnipotence, om

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