Generally, there are six major world religions which enjoy the majority of adherents throughout the world, all of which have deep and complex histories and traditions. Eastern religion is dominated by Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which originated in the Indian subcontinent. Western religion is characterized by the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which share a common geographical birthplace as well as extensive overlapping in practices and beliefs.

Hinduism

The Hindu religion is the most complex and multi-faceted world religion. At its core it is not a single religion, but an umbrella term to describe the multitude of Vedic traditions which have arisen throughout Indian history. Many of the sects and orders have common connection vis a vis mythology, gods and rituals. It has upwards of one billion followers, the vast majority of which live in India.

  • Hinduism stresses complete freedom of worship and the idea that the world is simply one large family with one overarching truth. Therefore it dismisses labels as something that merely causes division.
  • Hinduism has been referred to as polytheistic, pantheistic, atheistic and monotheistic and the concept of divinity is complex and depends on a individual’s philosophy and devotion.
  • Karma plays a central role in Hindu beliefs and can be conceived as good deeds or right action. People accumulate good an bad karma over their lifetimes and when a person is reincarnated, their station in life is dependent on their positive or negative karma.
  • Hindus believe in the idea of samsara, which conceives of birth, death and reincarnation as a continuous cycle which human beings are caught within.
  • Hindus emphasize several ways to find enlightenment or connection with God, such as yoga, meditation, asceticism and recitation.

Further resources

Buddhism

Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism can trace its origins to a single person’s teachings. However, over the millennium that followed the Buddha’s death, the religion fractured into two distinct traditions: Theravada and Mahayana. According to scholars, Theravada hews more closely to the original teachings of the Buddha and places heavy emphasis on asceticism and mediation while Mahayana is seen as a more worldly and experiential form of Buddhism.

  • All Buddhists accept the central tenets of the Buddha’s teachings which can be understood as the need to break the cycle of samsara. Doing so means accepting that life is full of ignorance, craving and suffering and only by realizing this can one achieve enlightenment, or nirvana.
  • Unlike Hinduism, which emphasizes extreme asceticism, the Buddha preached of the Middle Way, which held moderation to be a better way to reach enlightenment.
  • Theravada Buddhism is typified by monasticism, and in the countries where it is prevalent, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, monks are encouraged to renounce worldly possessions and meditate in monasteries for long periods.
  • Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes a more connected form of spiritual devotion and accepts the concept of bodhisattvas, who are people who make it their duty to help everyone achieve enlightenment.
  • All Buddhists follow the prescriptions of the Buddha’s fourth noble truth by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path as a way to break the cycle of samsara.

Further resources:

  • The Journal of Global Buddhism is a peer reviewed journal focusing on the history, beliefs and global implications of Buddhism.
  • The BBC provides a large and comprehensive guide to Buddhism both historical and modern.
  • Buddhist-Christian Studies, published by Johns Hopkins University, explores the historical relationships between these two world religions.

Jainism

Jainism, which appeared at the same time as Buddhism, emphasizes the practices of non-violence and self-control with the end goal of liberating the soul. Although Jainism has only six million followers, it has played an influential part in the social and cultural thought of India.

  • Core beliefs of Jainism include the concept that every living creature has a soul; therefore, a person should do no harm to any creature, every being is born based on their karmic actions in past lives, every soul has free will and its actions good and bad will will affect their futures.
  • Jainists practice strict non-violence and by doing so leads to a state of detachment from material things.
  • Because every living being has a soul, Jains are strictly vegetarian, and most will not even eat root vegetables due to scriptural prohibitions.

Further resources:

Judaism

According to tradition, Judaism is arose out of a special covenant between God and the Israelites. God revealed his laws and commandments to Moses and was concerned with the ethical actions of people rather than interactions with other gods. Jewish tradition can be traced back 3,000 years and it maintains a tightly knit ethnic and cultural identity based off the commandments and laws codified in the Hebrew bible.

  • Jewish religion is based on the covenant God made with the Hebrew people. Through various prophets, God gave the Jewish people laws and commandments to follow. In return for devotion to those scriptures Jews are to be protected by the love of God.

Further resources:

  • The BBC provides a large guide to the history and beliefs of Judaism.
  • Modern Judaism is a scholarly journal devoted to the study of Judaism and its history, contemporary issues and theology.
  • Journal for the Study of Judaism is a leading academic journal for scholarly research on the religion, its history, art and theological issues.

Christianity

Christianity originated as an off-shoot of Judaism. After Jesus’s death in 33 CE, his followers, especially Paul, helped to spread Jesus’s message throughout antiquity. Christianity shares many common practices, scripture and traditions with Judaism, but has its own complex belief system based on the divinity of Jesus. Over the course of its history, Christianity has grown and fractured leading to a number of competing denominations.

  • The core of Christian belief centers on the concept that Jesus is the only son of God and that he was placed on earth to die for the sins of all humanity.
  • Christian belief is codified in the Holy Bible, which is constitutes the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Some Christians consider it the direct word of God while others see it as the work of human beings who have been influenced by divine revelation.
  • Christians have a much more complex concept of the afterlife than their Jewish predecessors. The fundamental belief is that when you die you will either ascend to heaven and life in the eternal light of God or be confined to hell for eternity. There are as many variations on this theme as there are denominations.
  • Unlike the Indian religions that see life as a cycle, Christians have a well defined eschatology based on the final book of the bible. The Book of Revelation tells of Judgment Day when Jesus will return to earth and usher in the end of the world.

Further resources on Christianity:

  • Frontline produced a large series on the life of Jesus and Christianities transformation during the first century.
  • The Yale Divinity School Library maintains a large and comprehensive guide to readings on Christianity, including history, writings, theology, art and biblical studies.
  • The BBC also hosts a large guide to understanding Christianity, its development and teachings.

Islam

Islam appeared in the 7th century CE when the word of God was revealed to Muhammad in the Arabian desert. Muhammad had these revelations transcribed and codified and these writings now constitute the Muslim holy book The Qu’ran. Like the other Abrahamic traditions, Islam shares many things in common, such as the divinity in one true god, particular religious laws and practices and similar beliefs in end of times. There are three main sects of Islam, Shi’ite, Sunni and Sufi, but most of the religious practices overlap.

Muslim religious practice is based on the five pillars of Islam. The pillars specifically require all Muslims to profess the shahada, perform daily prayers, give alms to the poor, fast during Ramadan and make at least one pilgrimage Mecca, which is the spiritual center of Islam.

  • At its essence Muslims believe in one true God and that Muhammad is the last in a series of God’s prophets beginning with Adam. There are strict prohibitions from depicting any image of God or Muhammad in religious art.
  • The Qu’ran is consider the final word of God and is seen as a correcting of the Hebrew and Christian bibles which are consider by Muslims to have become distorted.
  • Muslims believe in predestination and consider everything that has and will happen to be permitted by God.
  • Like Christianity, Islam has a complex and rich concept of resurrection and judgment. In the future all mankind will be judged by God, and those deemed worthy will live in bliss with God.

Further Resources on Islam:

  • The BBC maintains an extensive guide to the history, practice and theology of Islam.
  • PBS produced a large film about the history and modern impact of Islam and maintains a site with additional resources on the subject.
  • The University of Georgia has a host of articles and topics on the matter of Islam, including religious texts, history and discussions on contemporary Islam.