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World Religions Study Guide

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Topics: Hinduism, Buddhism


The most consistent feature of the various religions that originated in India is belief in karma and reincarnation.


Hindus call their religion Sanatana Dharma, which means Everlasting Teaching. Hinduism has no single founder, and is not centrally organized.
Who is a Hindu? A Hindu is anyone who
• accepts the authority of the Vedas.
• is a native Indian and not a Parsee (Zoroastrian), a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim; or is a non-native convert to Hinduism.
• does not claim not to be a Hindu.
Hinduism is an intersection of folk religion and speculative philosophy. It is an ethnic Indian religion, without central organization, rooted in the Vedas. Hinduism is a kaleidoscope of religious practices and doctrines.
Hinduism is analytical of human nature. It teaches multiple paths to liberation. A path of discipline, or marga, is also called a yoga. A Hindu selects a yoga according to individual personality. There are four main yogas (paths to union):
• karma yoga—work, action
• jnana yoga—knowledge
• bhakti yoga—devotion
• raja yoga—mental discipline

An early Indus Valley civilization flourished until 1700 B.C.E. but was in decline by the time the nomadic Aryans arrived in the region from the west around 1500 B.C.E. The Aryans called the earlier inhabitants Dasas. The Aryan migration amounted to an invasion.
The Dasas worshipped a Mother Goddess (Devi) and possibly a Proto-Shiva, and their beliefs included the seeds of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. The Aryans adopted some of the Dravidian gods.
The worship by the Aryans centered upon a sacrificial fire on a low earthen altar under the open sky. Various animal and vegetable offerings were given, including ghee (clarified butter) and soma. Later, classical Hinduism would replace sacrifice with puja (acts of devotion).
Originally, the Aryans did not make images of their gods, nor did they build temples.

The oldest Hindu scriptures, whose name means knowledge or wisdom, are the Vedas. To be considered an orthodox Hindu, one must acknowledge the authority of the Vedas. There are four Vedas. The Rig Veda (Veda of Hymns) is the oldest, and consists of sacrificial hymns. Some of them offer varying accounts of the creation of the world, generally through the sacrifice of an animal, such as the horse, or of the primal, cosmic man.
Hinduism today cannot simply be equated with Vedic religion, although it developed from Vedic religion. (Similarly, modern Judaism is not simply the religion of the Hebrew Bible.) The Vedic period lasted from about the fifteenth to the seventh centuries B.C.E. Classical Hinduism took shape after 600 B.C.E.

Hinduism teaches that Brahman is the Absolute, but distinguishes between Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without qualities) and Saguna Brahman (Brahman with qualities).
In the Upanishads (which date from around 800 B.C.E.), “Atman is Brahman” means “The inner self is the ultimate reality.” The experience that Brahman and Atman are really different is based on maya. The conscious self is the jiva, which is the illusory self; the real self is the atman.

Each caste (varna/color) has specific duties related to it. There are four main castes:
• brahmana (brahmin)—scholar
• kshatriya—warrior/ruler
• vaishya—farmer/businessman
• shudra—laborer (serves the other three)
The Brahmin, or priestly, caste is the highest in Hinduism. The three highest castes in Hinduism are called twice-born. A twice-born Hindu is one who has received initiation rites, including reception of the sacred thread, and who may engage in vedic study. Only the twice-born are permitted to study the Vedas; the shudra, or laborer, caste is not permitted to hear the Vedas, since shudras are not regarded as full Aryans.
The untouchables are outcaste. Gandhi called the untouchables the harijan (children of God). Untouchability has been legally abolished in modern India.

The four stages (stations, ashramas) of life in Hinduism are
1. Student
2. Householder
3. Hermit
4. Renunciant (Sannyasin)

Morality, wealth, pleasure, and moksha (release or liberation) are all acceptable goals for Hindus to pursue.
The ultimate goal in Hinduism is not reincarnation into a higher caste, but union with Brahman. The Hindu goal is release (moksha) from the wheel of rebirth (samsara) altogether, by release from karma (action). In Hinduism, karma is more central than belief in reincarnation. Karma and samsara are purely automatic. Karma is part of the natural order, and can be controlled. In popular terms, the law of karma states that we reap what we sow.

The Mahabharata, the world’s longest poem, is also an epic about the legendary war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Bhagavad-Gita is the most famous portion of this poem. The Bhagavad-Gita portrays a conversation between Arjuna, who is a warrior, and Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu. The central character manifesting the divine in the Bhagavad-Gita is Krishna.
The Bhagavad-Gita portrays a conversation between Arjuna, who is a warrior, and Krishna. The central character manifesting the divine in the Bhagavad-Gita is Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu.
The Bhagavad-Gita teaches that anyone can gain release from karma by acting without attachment to the outcome of one’s action. Karma is action, but to be is to act (3:5). Not to act is still to act, and so inaction leaves one subject to the law of karma. Not inaction, but detachment from the fruits of action brings release from the law of karma. Karma is accrued from acting unnaturally. Whatever happens naturally depends upon what body we have, but the body is not truly ours. The proper detachment can occur when I simply do what presents itself to be done, or do what is my nature (duty) to do, as lightning flashes.

The Trimurti, or three main gods of Hinduism, are
• Brahma
• Vishnu
• Shiva
In Hinduism, Brahma is a creator god, but he has no cult. Most Hindus offer their devotion either to Vishnu (Vaishnavites), or to Shiva (Shaivites), or to Shakti, the divine feminine. worship. Shakti is worshipped in the form of a goddess, such as Durga or Kali. Shakti worship can also be nature. Avatars of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna. The lingam and yoni are symbols of Shiva. Shiva is the father of Ganesh.
The cow has been revered by Hindus since Aryan times, when nomadic herdsmen depended on it for milk, meat, butter, yogurt, and hides for clothing and shelter. Krishna is portrayed as a cowherd in the Puranas. The Laws of Manu forbid the slaughtering of cows. Cows have also become a symbol of motherhood.
A Hindu’s worship customarily begins at daybreak and includes bathing, marking the body, and reciting a hymn to the sun. When these actions are completed, one proceeds to the household shrine, where the man of the house functions as priest. Household worship is central, and is led by the male head of the household. Some Hindus never go to the temples. The image of the god is bathed and offered water and food prepared by the woman of the house. Few Hindus have reservations about idols.
Married Hindu women generally wear a red bindi, made of herbal powders, on the forehead to protect the spiritual eye. For some women the bindi is simply a cosmetic device that can change color with a change of clothes.
Diwali (Deepavali) is celebrated in October/November. Meaning “Row of Lights,” it celebrates the return of Rama following his victory over Ravana. Celebrants exchange gifts and sweets. Holi is a north Indian festival celebrated in February/March. It too is based on a mythological story. On this occasion, too, people exchange gifts and sweets. On the day following Holi, celebrants throw colored water and powder on each other. Several other regional festivals occur throughout the year. Regular patterns for pilgrimages are also observed.

Although Gandhi was a Hindu, he had contact with Jains, and owed his commitment to non-violence in part to them. He was also influenced by Jesus, Tolstoy, and Theosophy. Gandhi read the Bhagavad-Gita allegorically. Gandhi vigorously opposed the caste system, and especially the notion of untouchability. He called the untouchables harijans, which means children of God. Untouchability is no longer recognized in law in India.
Because Hinduism is not centrally organized, the government of India sometimes has to define matters that pertain to Hindus generally. Nevertheless, Hinduism is not the state religion of India. (Until recently, however, it was the official religion of Nepal.)


Jainism was founded by Mahavira (Great Hero). He was a contemporary of the Buddha, and like him, was raised in an aristocratic kshatriya family but left his home to become an ascetic around the age of 30. He experienced liberation at age 42, becoming a jina (conqueror). Mahavira lived in Bihar and taught for 30 years. He died of self-starvation near Patna at age 72.
Mahavira is held to be the twenty-fourth tirthankara (crossing-maker or ford-finder). Jains hold that the nineteenth was a woman.

Jainism is non-Vedic. Jainism rejects the concept of a Creator of the world; it views the world as eternal and cyclical. Jainism accepts the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Gods and other beings are believed to exist above the earth, but they, too, are subject to karma.
The aim in Jainism is to become a Jina, who gains liberation from the material world, following the examples of the tirthankaras. Jains regard karma as a subtle form of matter—a grime that clings to beings. The tirthankaras cannot offer help by intervention, but they aid Jains as models. One can only attain victory by one’s own deeds, especially by practicing austerities. Jainism regards suicide, sometimes by self-starvation, as an acceptable manner of death.

The Jain principle of ahimsa requires adherents to do no harm to any living creature. No human or animal may be killed for any reason. Jains are taught to avoid even abusive words and thoughts. Jains are strict vegetarians. Jains maintain an animal hospital in New Delhi. Jains will often buy caged animals to free them. Jainism holds to hylozoism; even kicking a rock injures life. Thus, few Jains are farmers, since digging and plowing disturb the soil and injure the organisms living there. (Jains have gravitated towards service professions.) Jains have been successful in business in part because people know they can be trusted to be honest.

Digambaras, or “Sky-clad” Jains, wear no clothes because they have renounced all material goods, except a broom to sweep insects from one’s path and a gourd for drinking. They recognize no texts as scripture. The Digambaras limit the role of women. Shvetambaras, or “White-clad” Jains have created a canon of scriptures. They grant a larger share of equality to women, and teach that Mahavira was married.
No Jain monk had traveled outside India until 1970, so non-Indian Jainism is only as old as the last century. Today, Jainism is organized in some form in at least six countries.


A Buddhist takes refuge in three things: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This Triple Refuge is also known as the Three Jewels.

“The Buddha” (“Awakened One”, “Enlightened One”) was the descriptive title given to Siddhartha Gautama by those who embraced his teaching. Siddhartha Gautama was born in the foothills of Nepal, into the Kshatriya caste, the son of a king of the Shakya tribe. The title “Shakyamuni” means “Sage of the Shakyas.”
At age 29, the sheltered prince witnessed the Four Signs that changed his view of the world:
• an old man
• a sick man
• a corpse
• an ascetic
As a consequence, he renounced his luxurious life and spent six years as a wandering ascetic along with five others. But asceticism did not bring him to his goal. At age 35, he obtained enlightenment under a bodhi tree. The Enlightenment of Siddhartha occurred when he chose meditation without extreme asceticism.
For the Buddha, the ultimate cause of suffering is rooted in ignorance. As an itinerant teacher, the Buddha most resembled a physician diagnosing an illness. A person ignoring matters of salvation and dwelling upon “questions not tending toward Nirvana” is compared to a man delaying the removal of a poisoned arrow. An example of a “question not tending toward Nirvana” would be, Whether the world is eternal. Nirvana is “extinguishing.” It is release from karma, described as bliss.
The Buddha’s first sermon was presented to his former fellow ascetics. This event is called “The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma (Law),” because it introduced the Four Noble Truths:
1. Existence is suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is desire.
3. Suffering can be removed.
4. The Eightfold Path (Middle Way) removes desire.
Buddhism’s “Middle Path” lies between hedonism and asceticism.
The Buddha’s last words were “Work out your salvation with diligence.”

The doctrine of anatta (anatman) teaches that there is no atman, no permanent Self. An individual is merely a composite of the five skandhas (heaps). There is no Self over and above these heaps, in which these components inhere. At death, the heaps dissolve and enter a new combination.
The doctrine of Dependent Co-origination teaches that all things arise together and depend upon one another: as there is no fire without fuel, so there is really no such thing as fuel without fire. Thus, there is no independent existence of anything, and no permanence, no Brahman. All things are emptiness (shunyata).

The Buddhist monastic order is the Sangha.
Theravadins emphasize imitating the ascetic life of the Buddha, while Mahayanists put more emphasis on universal Buddhist enlightenment. The three groupings of Theravadin scriptures are called the “Tripitaka,” meaning Three Baskets. Theravada Buddhism shows strong interest in the previous lives of the Buddha.
“Mahayana” means Greater Vehicle. Bodhisattvas are primarily a feature of Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Sangha eventually included laypersons as well as monks.In Mahayana Buddhism, the role of the Bodhisattva is to remain voluntarily outside of Nirvana to assist in the salvation of others.
In Buddhist Tantra, the aim is to overcome desire or craving by exhausting it. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are several Lamas.
Zen Buddhism emphasizes the circumventing of rational thought as a tool for attaining insight. A problem used by Zen monks to help reduce ordinary ways of thinking is called a “koan.” In Zen Buddhism, a koan may be useful in attaining a flash of insight.


The word “Sikh” means disciple. Sikhs are disciples of Guru Nanak and his successors.
Sikhism began in the Punjab during the sixteenth century, with the teachings of Nanak. He had been raised a Hindu, but together with his Muslim friend Mardana, he began a spiritual search that led to a direct experience of the divine. Nanak began to teach a monotheism that he believed transcended Hinduism and Islam.
The Sikh scriptures are called the Adi Granth, or Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhism was originally led by a succession of ten gurus. Afterward, the Guru Granth Sahib was regarded as the last guru, so that today the only guru of Sikhism is Guru Granth Sahib.
The central shrine of Sikhism is the Golden Temple, situated in an artificial lake in Amritsar, India.
Like Muslims, Sikhs believe in one God and avoid images of God. Like Hindus, they believe in karma and reincarnation.
Sikh men who join the khalsa, the military order, adopt the last name Singh (lion), wear turbans, and do not cut their hair.


Zoroastrianism is more accurately called Mazdaism, though Zoroastrians themselves refer to it simply as The Good Religion.

Zarathustra (in Greek, Zoroaster), the founder of Zoroastrianism, was an Iranian who broke with the traditional Iranian-Aryan beliefs. Those beliefs were similar to those of the Vedic religion, including animal sacrifice at fire altars, use of a sacred beverage, and a hereditary priesthood. The ancient Iranians were a cattle culture; once nomadic, it more recently had become pastoral. Zarathustra was active in the area of modern Iran and Afghanistan in the seventh century B.C.E. (Some scholars place him about four centuries earlier.)
His illumination occurred when he was 30 years old. Zoroastrianism is classified, therefore, as a revealed faith. Zarathustra and his followers encountered resistance until King Vishtaspa granted him an audience. Zarathustra answered all the challenges from the king’s priests and wise men. Consequently, the king embraced Zarathustra’s religion and commended it to his subjects.
Zarathustra seems to have taught a monotheistic faith, although later Zoroastrianism became more dualistic. The one God, for Zarathustra, is Ahura Mazda (Ormazd), who is good. He is opposed, however, by the evil Ahriman. Zarathustra saw history as a contest between good and evil.
Zarathustra retained the fire altar as a symbol of divine goodness, but rejected animal sacrifices.
The Gathas, part of the Avesta, record Zarathustra’s questions to Ahura Mazda and the answers he received.

Cyrus II (:the Great”), a tolerant ruler, promoted Zoroastrianism, though possibly was not a Zoroastrian himself—although his successors were. Darius conquered the Babylonians, thus extending the reach of Zoroastrianism.
Although Zarathustra had taught a monotheistic faith, in later times it became dualistic, taking the form of Zurvanism for a while, with two supreme beings: one good and the other evil.

After the Battle of al-Qadisiyah in 651 C.E. in which the Muslims defeated the Persian rulers, Persia (Iran) became overwhelmingly Islamic.
Many Zoroastrians fled to India for toleration in the seventh century C.E. and found it in Gujarat and Bombay (Mumbai), where they became known as Parsees. In return for toleration, they promised not to proselytize. Today it is all but impossible to join Zoroastrianism from the outside, and members may only marry other Zoroastrians or be cut off from the religion. In India, the Parsees are known to be business-savvy but scrupulously honest.
Today it is a remnant religion. Its only great center is in Mumbai (Bombay), India, although many Zoroastrians live in the U.S. and a pocket of Zoroastrians remain in Iran. American Zoroastrians are divided over the need to continue endogamy and the ban on conversion.

The “Good Religion” wages a constant battle against evil. It consists of
• Good thoughts
• Good words—telling the truth and dealing honestly
• Good deeds—tilling of farmland, kindness to animals
The central festival is Nawruz, a spring new-year festival.

Cremation of the dead is believed to contaminate the element of fire, and burial to contaminate earth and water. Therefore, the dead are disposed of in towers of silence to avoid the horror of contamination.
The souls of the dead must cross the Chinvat Bridge to be judged.

Zoroastrianism was probably the first religion to have an apocalyptic view of the end of time. It teaches the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the purification of the earth by fire.
Zoroastrianism affected the development of all three Abrahamic religions. The Jews were exposed to Zoroastrian beliefs when many lived under Persian rule. Zoroastrianism contributed to beliefs about the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, heaven and hell, angels, and Satan.

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