WORLD’S GREAT RELIGIONS


FOREWORD

     

In pictures from space, we can see our world in one glance. By satellite, we can circle it for instant communications On a shrinking planet we are bound together in a way that hardly needs theological emphasis: humankind is one family. But if we are truly brothers, and if we feel safe in that knowledge, then we can afford to be different. Indeed, our differences become increasingly important lest our identity be swallowed up Given the global oneness, our pluralism is not a liability but an asset. God may be one, but religions are many. They center their power where the culture is most distinct—places like Banaras, Mecca, Rome, Jerusalem. This book is an invitation to marvel at, learn from, and feel the strangeness and attraction of the great religions of the world. As I turn its pages, I recall a basic rule for any study of religion: We must learn to compare equal to equal. For centuries we have suffered under the habit of comparing our own religion in its ideal form with the actual manifestations of other religions. Sophisticated American tourists still are prone to judge other lands’ religions on the basis of hasty impressions of popular piety—a safe way to maintain a sense of superiority, but an unsound method of comparing religions. In truth, the nature and structure of what we call religion differs dramatically from culture to culture.


Some Christians ask, “Is Buddhism, which doesn’t recognize God, really a religion?” The very question seeks to impose our Western concepts of creation, being, and significance upon a drastically different theology that begins and ends with a deep, inspired understanding of “nothingness,” nirvana. We must also learn not to compare our own faith today with ancient religious practices. Religions develop and change. Marked differences exist between the religious views expressed by Abraham the patriarch and by Abraham Heschel the theologian, yet both are tightly called Jewish. Or between the evangelist John and Pope John XXIII, between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. We must compare contemporary with contemporary.


In this book, vivid pictures and text help us see and feel how faith expresses itself in different cultures. Religion speaks to most believers through symbols and ritual acts—rich and suggestive, rarely precise. For it would be a small god indeed who could be caught in the net of precise philosophical language. As we enter another man’s world to study his faith, we should seek to see how it looks from within — and not treat his convictions as artifacts, his temple as a museum. I do not have the right to visit his holy of holies insulated by the rubber soles of my globetrotter shoes His and ours are vital religions, with the power to cross all frontiers. Buddha will have his witnesses in the West as Christ will have his in the East. This is a serious book. It could strengthen religious vitality. Let us open our hearts and minds to what each of these great religions has to offer.


KRISTER STENDAHL

         

 








“LET THERE BE LIGHT”


The vacant lot beside our house in the Chinese town where my parents served as missionaries held a special fascination far me. On the day of a funeral, wealthy families would build on it an elaborate, full-scale paper house, fill it with paper furniture, paper effigies of servants, and piles of paper “ghost money.” Sometimes there would even he a paper Ford motorcar on the street out front. Later, straw was heaped against the house. Then, as monks circled it, chanting and playing cymbals and flutes, a torch was applied. In au instant the flames destroyed the paper symbols, making the amenities they represented available to the departed in his new life.


Not far away stood a large building I called the “hotel far the dead,” a mausoleum in which the bodies of the wealthier deceased lay far several years before burial. Here people came regularly to pay homage to their ancestors. How spectral that dark hall seemed, with its racks of tightly sealed wooden coffins. Some of its occupants may have arrived sooner than expected as a result of having purchased from Taoist alchemists elixirs to prolong life. These costly and secret brews could achieve the opposite of their intended effect, for they frequently contained danger-ous doses of arsenic and mercury. Folk superstitions mingled freely with Taoist precepts. The streets of our town curved for no apparent reason; I was told this was to thwart demons, who could move only in straight lines. The parents of my friends took their problems to wizened priests with musty books whose logic defied my young mind. They also consulted fortune-tellers who threw sticks to divine the future. I liked, respected, even loved the people of my town, but I could not under- stand their beliefs. When I left China to attend college in the United States, they slipped from my mind. I was busy learning American ways. But as the years passed and I devoted my life to the study of philosophy and religion, I remembered my Chinese friends with new understanding. Their rituals and beliefs however distant from our own —dealt, after all, with matters that concern us all: awe of death and what lies beyond, the need to cope with life’s hazards, and the tried to know who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.


Amid the dazzling variety of rituals and creeds that distinguish religions, these three themes recur again and again. Man feels the burden of time acutely; we grieve to see the flowers wilt and the leaves fall, for in our hearts we know that we too are transient and will soon (disappear. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away” — when we hymn such lines we don’t simply philosophize, we raise our voices in a human obsession. It was recognition of the inevitability of death that led a pampered Indian prince to renounce his throne and become Buddha—the Enlightened One. Tradition says he was shielded from all unpleasantness until he accidentally glimpsed three men, one aged, another diseased, a third dead. “Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?” he cried. His quest for an answer led to the founding of one of the world’s great religions.


Endlessly vulnerable to illness, accident, and heartbreak, man feels at times—in in job’s telling image—as if even a moth could crush him. We smile today at Pueblo Indian rain dances; our granary is constant, we doubt the efficacy of their rites. But what do we do when we are desperate? Fume impotently? Rage .against the dying of the light? Orate about being masters of our fate? On the two occasions when my life was shattered by the anguish of personal crisis, 1 did as those Indians did—I prayed for help. Prayer, of course, is more than petition; there are, besides, prayers of adoration and prayers of meditation. Yet prayer remains in part petition, wherein it is joined by sacrifice. Sacrifices seek results, but they are not simply payment to the gods for favors requested. The will to give is as deep in man as the will to receive-----or the need to feel worthy. When the Brahmins of early India offered libations for rain, they were not just bargaining; they were demonstrating their control of the elements. Their rites and formulas kept the monsoons on schedule.


Without a sense of right direction, man feels disoriented and confused. His life lacks meaning and wholeness. Sin pulls against right direction and the wholeness it affords, while atonement brings at-one-ment. One of the reasons for the pheno-menal spread of Islam, youngest of the great religions, lies in its answers to these questions. The Koran tells man he is the servant of his creator, then delineates the path he should walk in detail sufficient to help in every human endeavor. The very word “Islam” connotes the “peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” Man seems to have wrestled with these concerns as long as he has been on earth, for anthropologists have found no culture without religion. Primitive man sought his answers in ritual and myth. By participating in ritual actions which imitated the original creative acts of the gods—such as the “First Planting” or “First Mating” — he sought to partake of the timelessness of the gods themselves. Myths developed to embellish these rituals and enrich their meaning.


In time man developed the idea of a soul; he saw it as separable from, yet dependent on, the body. This is why pharaohs built pyramids — to protect their bodies and the possessions on which their souls depended . Scholars see a connection between the idea of a soul and dreams — in which a person can “travel” without his body leaving the room. Primitive man also shared with lno)Clern man the concept of “sacred space.” Such a vague thing, man’s hold on the sacred! It can announce itself with power, .only to withdraw in the face of all protestations.. “ Why hidest thou thy face from me? ~ sang time Psalmist. ‘To induce time sacred to linger, man has built habitats for it, trving to make a home for it in this bent and broken world. Caves, grottoes, and mountains served originally. Then buildings arose, crude and simple at first, later gathering glory’ into a Chartres, a Lingaraja, an Isfahan. Each summons the sacred with symbols: spires that aspire to heaven, stained-glass windows and mosaics that stun the senses, the play of light and darkness that speaks eloquently of mystery to the human soul. Temples also served another purpose; they joined heaven to earth. The central, towering pyramid of the temple at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was conceived as a magic mountain that ran through both heaven and earth and—as cosmic axis—held the world stable aiid in place. its design repeated heaven: Its moat mirrored the heavenly ocean, its surrounding rock wall the heavenly chain of mountains that held the ocean at bay. As pilgrims crossed the temple’s rainbow bridge (rainbows often symbolized the arch from heaven to earth) they believed they were stepping into heaven on earth. They felt they were likely to find gods there too, fur gods would feel at home in a place so closely patterned after their own abode.


To archaic man, sacred places were awesome; they were places of power. Facing the burning bush, Moses was enjoined, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Sacred places had also to be guarded against pollution. If a woman chanced into the “dream spot” where Australian aborigines gathered to commune with their ancestors, she was immediately killed. Women were denied the appropriate purification rites and were thus regarded as profane—that which must be left in front of (pro) the temple (fane)


Sacred time complemented sacred space. We look on Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve as times to let ourselves go. But behind our guarded release, our lowered inhibitions, move shapes dark and old: the orgies through which primitive man re-enacted the primordial chaos that reigned beft)re the gods established order and decorum. New Year’s resolutions echo dimly man’s determination to mirror this cosmic change by tidying up his own life.


In the period from around 800 B.C. to A.D. 650—a brief span in the life of mankind.-----religion took a giant swing. Then arose the geniuses who molded the great faiths we follow today: the prophets of Israel, Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha and the Upanishadic seers In India, Confucius and Lao Tin in China, Jesus in Palestine, and Mohammed in Arabia. This phenomenal outpouring of religious creativity across the globe coincided with changes in man’s secular history. Improved agricultural techniques had led to increased populations, expanded trade, and the accelerated growth of cities. As man found himself dealing more and more with strangers, the old tribal codes, the immemorial rituals and myths no longer sufficed. He had to learn how to behave toward people he did not know. The faiths taught by these great leaders introduced ethical systems that helped man answer this need. Each one had its Golden Rule: Christianity’s “Do unto others .....” Judaism’s “What the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God .....” Islam’s man who gives his substance “to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveller, beggars.......”;


Buddhism’s “boundless heart toward all beings”; Hinduism’s highest yogi who judges pleasure or pain everywhere by “looking on his neighbor as himself”; Confucianism’s “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.” ‘These faiths offered common features: sacred scriptures, a systematized theology to relate these teachings to man’s life, a priesthood or ministry, rituals and prayer techniques, symbols, and pilgrimages. But profound differences also marked these Faiths, especially those of East and West. The stark monotheism of Judaism con-fronts the 33 million gods in the traditional Hindu pantheon; the Christian envisions a personal God who knows and loves each one of us, while the Buddhist may adhere to an impersonal god who remains aloof from human scramblings. The Western believer may cherish au individual soul that will endure for all eternity; the Easterner may see his soul merging ultimately with a single universal soul, as “the dewdrop slips into the shining Sea.”


These fundamental differences in the way man looks at his God and at himself lie rooted in the origins of the various faiths. Hinduism, for instance, evolved slowly th rough the millenniums, absorbing the belief and practices of many peoples. The morning prayers to the sun voiced by millions in India today echo the nature worship brought there 40 centuries ago by Aryan invaders. No act of the gods has ever disturbed the immemorial rhythms of the cosmos. But in the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God intervenes personally and dramatically in human events: Yahweh reaches down to rescue a band of Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s bondage; Cod sends his only begotten son to earth to atone for the sins of mankind; Allah speaks through the angel Gabriel in a (lark cave to bid Mohammed become his prophet


Scripture develops these differences. In the Bible, God yearns over his children like a compassionate father : “It was I who taught Epliram to walk I took them [the children of Israel] up in my arms How different the Supreme Being in the Hindu Rig Veda: “Who knows..... whence [this world’s creation] first came into being? He in highest heaven..... knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”These various outlooks have profoundly influenced the cultures and ways of life of the peoples who embraced them. The Book of Genesis gives Western man a buoyant optimism in his attempts to change the world. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth And, behold, it was very good.” Man was commissioned to “have dominion . . . over every living thing.” The Eastern out look is voiced in the Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching: “Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed.”

         

Modern technology flourished in the West, while China strove to teach men how to live together in harmony and good order. Sometimes these differences seem to defy rational understanding. Entering the world of Zen Buddhism, for instance, is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonder-land in which everything seems rather mad. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, riddles, paradoxes, and abrupt non sequiturs, all carried off in the most cheerful and urbane style. One Zen master, when asked the meaning of Zen, lifted a finger. That was his entire answer. Another kicked a ball. Still another slapped the inquirer’s face. Is such a religion playing jokes? Not at all. Zen carries further than other faiths the recognition of the limitations of words and logic. At their best, words provide only a distorted reflection of reality. The highest modes of experience, Zen claims, transcend the reach of words entirely.


On a simpler level, the differences between East and West can be observed in their rituals. The Westerner usually worships congregationally; the Easterner traditionally goes to his temple alone or with his family. The Westerner closes his eyes in prayer to shut out external distractions; some Japanese, fearing internal as well as external distractions, meditate with eyes half-closed. In the the centuries since their found-ing, the great religions have shaped empires and nations. The fervor of Islam inspired the Arab conquerors to win a realm stretching from Spain to India—a realm which transmitted classical learning during Europe’s Dark Ages and displayed a tolerance not always matched by other faiths. The thrust of Christendom sent Crusaders for two centuries to battle in the Holy Land and molded chivalric codes of warfare.


Religion permeates the story of our own nation: Its impulse sent Puritans to. settle in Massachusetts, Quakers to Pennsylvania, Catholics to Maryland. “One Nation under God” declares the Pledge of Allegiance; our President takes his oath of office with a hand on the Bible; “In God We Trust” announce the coins in our pockets. Religion has inspired the greatest art: the Parthenon of Greece, the cathedrals of Europe, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; the paintings of Raphael, El Greco, DUrer, Rembrandt; the music of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, Handel. More importantly, religion has answered affirmatively the Biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We see the response in hospitals, orphanages, schools, and social service organizations around the world. We see the same response in the lives of men like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Pope John XXIII, and countless others whose names are not matters of history. Of course the record of the great religions has not been one of blessings only: Institutions are guided by men, so we see wars, persecution, and intolerance. But the great faiths have always stood ready to help man in his common quest to reach out beyond the confines of human experience with all its imperfections and limitations, to seek the fearful glory that contrasts with the banality and fragmentation that mark so much of life. Were we to observe only the seekers we might be tempted to side with the skeptics who see religion as wishful thinking,


Source:

A volume in “The Story of Man Library.”

Prepared by: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BOOK SERVICE

                    “GREAT RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD.”

                                    Copyright @ 1971, 1972, 1978, ( pgs. 7-22.)


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