Ancient Religions

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Religions of the Ancient World

        Religions of the ancient world were in a state of constant flux. Karl Jaspers states that between the eighth and fourth centuries B.C.E, "great changes took place in all the civilized world" (qtd. in Basham 36), and the great thinkers of these times began thinking independently and individually. Moreover, "after these great thinkers the world was never the same again" (qtd. in Basham 36-37). These times were dubbed the "axial period" (qtd. in Basham 37). The axial religions that emerged during this period were profound and lasting. In fact, the religions discussed in this paper"”Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity"”are considered the most practiced religions to do this day. Although these religions have changed over time, their underlying structure remains intact.

        Ancient Hebrew Religion

        Richard Hooker states that there are four main periods in the Hebrew Religion, they are: the Pre-Mosaic Stage (1950 - 1300 B.C.E.), the National Monolatry and Monotheism (1300-1000 B.C.E.), the Prophetic Revolution (800-600 B.C.E.), and the Post-Exile Revolution (538 B.C.E., and beyond) (Hooker n. pag.). Little is known about the Pre-Mosaic stage, but some scholars have formed four main conclusions drawn from the text of Genesis. The first conclusion states that the beginning of Hebrew religion was polytheistic, involving several gods. This conclusion is formed from the "plural form of the name of God, Elohim rather than El" (Hooker n. pag.). The second conclusions is that early "Hebrew religion was animistic...and as a result...had a number of practices that fall into the category of magic" (Hooker n. pag.).

        In the Monolatry period, the most significant event was the flight from Egypt. The great migration led by Moses unified the Hebrew people. They began to refer to themselves as "bene yisrael" or "children of Israel". Also at this time, Moses instructed the Israelites to worship one God, Yahweh, and to follow his laws (Torah). The Israelites looked up to Yahweh as their God and chief ruler. Towards the end of this period the Kingdom of Israel was in a state of turmoil. They longed for a "unified state under a single monarch" (Hooker n. pag.) and they forged ahead with this notion in mind.         

        Under the monarchy system, many prophets surfaced and advised the Israelites to accept Yahweh as the true king, and to accept his laws as the true laws, hence the name the Prophetic Revolution. These Prophets, the most important being Amos, Hosea, Isaiah (who is actually three people) and Micah, reunited the Israelites with Yahweh. They made Yahweh the one and only universal god (monotheism), took away his war-like attributes, and replaced them with those of righteousness and justice. Additionally, at this time "ethical demands" replaced "ritual practices" (Hooker n. pag.). "Doing right, showing mercy, punishing evil, and doing justice" (Hooker n. pag.), were Yahweh's main concerns.

        The Post-Exile Revolution follows the Hebrew religious crisis known as the Exile (597-583 B.C.E.). After the Exile "a small group of religious reformers" believed that the tragedies that they had undergone were a result of the disobedience shown towards Yahweh (Hooker n. pag.). These religious reformers believed that to be able to return to their homeland, they must practice strict adherence to the Torah and revert to the original characteristics of the religion.

        During this time, Zoroastrianism (the first axial religion) had been founded, and the Hebrews borrowed some of its main elements: the concept of good and evil (dualism), an "elaborate theology of the end of time" (Hooker n. pag.), and the idea of an after-life. The religious reformers resisted these innovations, but the majority of Hebrews at this time accepted it. Note the dates, the cause, and the results of the Prophetic Revolution and the Post-Exilic Religion, and how in-tune they are with Jasper's definition of the "axial period."

        India's Vedic Background

        When discussing Indian religion, it is essential first to discuss the Vedic Period. The Vedic period had such a profound influence on Indian religions, that to neglect this historical time would in turn neglect the foundation for which Indian religions were built upon. The Vedic priests (bramins) produced great works of literature. The most significant of the literary works are the Vedas, a series of four texts, of which the Rg-veda is the oldest. The Rg-veda is a book of hymns addressed to various gods"”the Rg-veda never acknowledged an all-powerful God. Additionally, when an individual god was being praised, he was "treated as though he was the greatest god of all" (Basham, 10). Later Vedas include the Sama-veda, which were hymns and verses borrowed from the Rg-veda, composed for singing rather than the chanting of the Rg-veda; the Yajur-veda, a series of mantras for recital during sacrifices; and the Atharva-veda, composed differently from the later Vedas, and according to Basam is a cross-over between religion and magic (28). The Brahmanas were an additional series of four texts, each one connected to a corresponding Veda in order to explain the mysteries and symbolism of sacrifices. The Upanishads, session teachings.

        During the time in which Jaspers refers to as the "axial period" (qtd. in Basham 37), there was a growth of asceticism. Some men became "so devoted to ascetic practices that they gave up their homes and lived as hermits in huts or caves in the forest" (Basham 41). These extremists developed the doctrines of samsara and karman, which have been acknowledged by all Indian religions. Samsara is the endless cycle of birth and death, through which the soul transmigrates from one body to another. Karma is the consequences of ones actions that determines the form the soul will take on. During the period of growing asceticism, the Vedic religion of Ancient India fashioned into Hinduism. Furthermore, a heterodoxy emerged and Buddhism was formed.

        Hinduism

        As previously described, the Hindu religion emerged from the Vedic period. "Essential to Hinduism is the belief in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) and a society structured by caste" (Brummett et al. 156). The "four estates (varnas) of the Hindu social order" bear striking resemblance to a verse in Upanishad (1.4)

                The braman was his mouth,

                 of his arm was made the warrior,

                his thigh became Vaisya [peasant]

                 of his feet the Sudra [serf] was born

                (Basham 25)        

        The major gods of Hinduism emerged from Vedic period. Vishnu, Siva, and Devi were the all-powerful Gods that the Hindus singled out to worship. Of these selected Gods, Vishnu and Siva attained highest importance, and around each a large sectarian movement was formed; Vaishnavism and Saivism respectively.         

        The History of Buddha

        There have been many Buddhas in the past, and probably many more will follow. According to Scheck and Gorgens, there have been 7 Buddhas in all, the seventh being the widely known Siddartha Gautama (in the Pali language Siddhatta Gotama) (12). Siddartha was born the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya under a tree in the park at Lumbini. Shortly after his birth, astrological experts were called to forecast his future. The experts prophesized Siddartha to become either a "universal monarch or an omniscient Buddha" (Kashyap 5). The former prophecy would prevail as long the "four signs of ill"”old age, sickness, death, or a recluse" were kept from him (Kashyap 5). His father, in support of his son becoming a ruler, raised Siddartha in wealth and luxury, and did everything in his power to prevent him from seeing the signs of earthly misery. However, Siddartha was pre-destined to become one of life's greatest teachers.

        After witnessing the four signs of suffering, Siddartha renounced his position as Prince. For years he sought the answer to the source of human suffering and liberation thereof, submitting himself to extreme austerity and self mortification. However, it was after Siddartha strayed form asceticism that his journey to enlightenment began.

        His life cycle is a beautiful one: he was brought into this world under a tree in the park at Lumbini, became Awakened the same day of his birth under a Bodhi tree in the forest of Uruvela (near what is today Gaya), and entered Nirvana at the ripe old age of 80 years under a tree at Kusinara"”on the same day in which he was born, the same day in which he became enlightened.

        The Beginnings of Buddhism

        After almost dying from fasting and self-torture, Siddartha sat down under a Bodhi tree, was given a meal by a women, and feeling completely relaxed and at ease began to meditate for quite some time. After seven days and nights of focused meditation, he became aware of the four noble truths and was Awakened. At this point, Siddartha named himself Buddha. Further, he established the Noble Eightfold Path, a series of ideals to live up to. A person who has reached all eight steps can enter Nirvana, an existence free from karma and samsara, in essence the end of the vicious cycle of birth and death.

        After Buddha's Awakening, it came time to spread his words. His first sermon was at Deer Park in India, to a group of five monks who had deserted him in the past for giving up self-mortification. These monks became the first members of the Sangha. The Sangha is the order of monks established by the Buddha. They serves as a living example to laymen who may not be able to reach the highest goal (Nirvana), a source of inspiration, and guidance. Shortly after the Sangha was formed, Yasa, the son of a wealthy merchant who sought out Buddha for guidance, and fifty-three of his close friends became monks and joined the Sangha. These fifty-nine followers with Buddha at the head "formed the first sixty holy Arahats [one who has attained enlightenment] in the world" (Kashyap 33). From this point on, the fame of the Buddha spread rapidly, and every where he went he attracted people from all levels of society. In turn, the size of the Sangha grew rapidly, and with increasing size, problems began to arise. Some of the monks were "lacking in proper conduct" (Kashyap 34), and after many complaints, "regulations governing the ordination, probation, and proper training of novices" (Kashyap 34) were established by the Buddha.

        Buddhism and Hinduism

        Although Buddhism stems from certain Hindu principles, it is quite different than its predecessor, or any other religion for that matter. Buddhism, quite simply, is not a religion in which that word is commonly understood. Buddhism does not believe in a Creator God. Further, the Gods that are recognized in Buddhism are regarded as "celestial beings on different planes of existence" (Kashyap 45). Buddhism does not have a holy scripture, while followers read the Pali Tipitaka, the most faithful record of the words of Buddha, it is not a religious authority or doctrine, as is the Vedas for the Hindus. Buddhism also opposes self-mortification and the practice of austerities, commonly accepted by Hindus. Buddha himself practiced such austerities and saw that they offered no help to attaining enlightenment.

        The Collapse of Buddhism in India

        J. Kashyap believes the decline of strength in the Sangha, the Muslim invasion, and the opposition of the Hindu community were the three most important factors that lead to the virtual disappearance of Buddhism in India (48). After the death of the Buddha, members of the Sangha did their best to live up to the Buddha's ideals, but slowly the Sangha began to weaken. Just as the Sangha began to decline in strength, the Muslims invaded. Nearly everything concerning Buddhism was destroyed. The monks were killed, which in turn put an end to the Sangha. The Buddhist temples that "escaped destruction were turned into Hindu temples" (Kashyap 49). The Buddhists that remained were without leaders, and eventually gave in to the pressure of the caste system.

        The Spread of Buddhism

        Emperor Asoka, who ruled the Kingdom of Magadha in the third century B.C., was "one of the most influential figures in the history of Buddhism" (Kashyap 3). Ashoka sent missionaries all over India and beyond.

        The spread of Buddhism from India to the "Chinese cultural sphere" (Dumoulin 25) was a major event in the history of religion. It began around the first century of the Christian era, and "the process occurred over a period of three to four hundred years" (Dumoulin 25). Naturally there was some apprehension at first, mainly due to the fact that two completely different cultures were involved, but it is truly amazing how accepting the Chinese appeared to be of this new religion. Nearly all Buddhist literature, in the Sanskrit and Pali language, was translated into the Chinese language. This enormous task reveals not only the determination of Buddhist monks to spread their belief, but also how accepting and welcoming the Chinese"”an already established and self-satisfied civilization"”were to this new religion.

        Zen Buddhism

        Zen Buddhism "is a product of the fusion of Indian Buddhism with Chinese culture" (Dumoulin 25). Zen Buddhism began with the Ch'an school in China. Ch'an is simply the Chinese word for the sanskrit term dhy~na, which generally translates to meditation or contemplation. The word zen is the Japanese rendering of the term ch"˜an. At first dhy~na, ch"˜an, or zen was the "collective name for all manner of Buddhist meditation" (Dumoulin 38). As the Chinese began to develop a greater understanding of Buddhism, and as they began to shape this religion to fit their culture, the act of meditating began to acquire more meaning. In turn, the collective name became more meaningful. It was now regarded as the "meditative way of sudden enlightenment" (Dumoulin 38).

        The historical founder of Zen Buddhism is Bodhidharma, who supposedly "transported the peculiar tradition underlying Zen from India to China" (Dumoulin 25). Little known facts are known about him, and due to limited space, all I will say is that he was a native of India and he came to China to establish the "tradition of Chinese Zen" (qtd. in Dumoulin 68).

        According to Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen belongs to Mah~y~na Buddhism. The object of Zen is self-enlightenment, however, it is not enough to merely become enlightened. The follower of Zen "must not stop simply in personal tranquility; he must seek peace and happiness for all beings" (Hanayama 340). Zen Buddhism focuses on developing the immediate awareness of Buddha-mind through meditation on emptiness.

        The Beginning of Christianity

        According to Harold Attridge, the Christian movement probably began not from a single center (as suggested by The Book of Acts), but from many different centers where different groups of disciples of Jesus gathered and tried to make sense of what they had experienced with him and what had happened to him at the end of his public ministry. These experiences were interpreted many different ways, and as a result, the early stages of the Christian movement were extremely diverse. Christianity of the second and third centuries was not a unified coherent religious movement. There were very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity. According to L. Michael White, "the term "Christian" was first coined in Antioch probably some ten maybe even fifteen years after the death of Jesus." He further goes on to say that the term was probably used at first as a derogatory term to describe early followers of Jesus.

        The Apostle Paul

        The man responsible for converting many to Christianity is the Apostle Paul. Because of this fact, "the Apostle Paul is, next to Jesus, clearly the most intriguing figure of the 1st century of Christianity" (Meeks n.pag.). Paul believed that a person did not have to convert to Judaism in order to become a follower of Jesus. This was appealing to gentiles; they could now "become a member of the Christian movement without having to go through all of those rites of conversion to Judaism" (White n.pag.). What Paul did believe and what he preached was "that Jesus was the Christ...the son of God, and that he had died to atone for the sins of all people" (Brummett et al. 175). Paul was sentenced to death in Rome about 65 C.E.

        Random persecutions of the Christians began almost immediately after the term Christian was used. However, it was after "organized efforts were launched to suppress Christianity throughout the empire" (Brummett et al. 176) that the bloodshed increased significantly. The emperor Galerius "issued an edict of toleration [in 311] making Christianity a legal religion in the East" (Brummett et al. 176). Further, Constantine, under his reign, made Christianity legal throughout the empire.

        Early Christian Rituals

        Among the things that make the Christians different are a couple of rituals which they developed. One of these is the baptism, "which is simply a Greek word that means dunking" (Meeks n.pag.). A second ritual is a common meal, which they have together, which serves as a memorial of The Last Supper which Jesus had with his followers. "This is recorded already in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul" (Meeks n.pag.). Very early Christians worshiped in a house, probably the house of a "wealthy patron" (White n.pag.).

         The religions discussed in this essay have survived for thousands of years. In fact, these religions are among the most recognized religions of the world today. These religions underwent numerous hardships, changes, and periods of growth and decline throughout their development. Yet despite their difficulties, these religions only strengthened throughout time. Works Cited

Basham, A.L. The Origins and Developments of Classical Hinduism. Ed. Kenneth G. Zysk. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Brummett, Palmira, et all. Civilizations Past & Present. Ed. Priscilla McGeehon Longman, 2000.                                        

Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning. Trans.

        Maraldo, John C. New York: Weatherhill 1979.

Finegan, Jack. The Archeology of World Religions. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1952.

Hooker, Richard. The Hebrews. 1996: n. pag. Online. Internet. 10 Oct. 2000. Available http://www.edu:8080/~dee/HEBREWS/RELIGION.HTM.

Kashyap, J. et al. The Path of the Buddha. Ed. Morgan, Kenneth W. New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1956.

Scheck, Frank Reainer, Manfred Görgens. Buddhism: An Historical Overview. Baron's: 1999.

From Jesus to Christ: the First Christians. PBS and WGBH/FRONTLINE 1998: n. pag. Online. Internet. 2 Nov. 2000. Available http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/.
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