Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D
Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India
When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator. Mahatma Gandhi
We need to understand the correct definition of religion and the ultimate meaning of the word religion. The word religion comes from the Latin and while there are a few different translations, the most prevalent roots take you back to the Latin word “Re-Ligare”. “Ligare” means “to bind” or to “connect”. Adding the “re” before “ligare” causes the word tomean “Re-Bind” or “Re-Connect.”
The English word “religion” is derived from the Middle English “religioun” which came from the Old French “religion.
There is massive controversy surrounding the word “religion” and the definition of religion. People define religion as a set of beliefs, and then atheists assume that because a set of beliefs has become corrupt, then all religion is corrupt.
Religion is not a bad word. Religion does not encourage people to “stop thinking”. In fact, religion encourages people to think about how they can re-bind themselves or re-connect with a God who is infinitely more intelligent and loving.
Nature of Religion
Religion is a pervasive and significant cultural phenomenon, so people who study culture and human nature have sought to explain the nature of religion, the nature of religious beliefs, and the reasons why religions exist in the first place.
There have been as many theories as theorists, it seems, and while none fully captures what religion is, all offer important insights on the nature of religion and possible reasons why religion has persisted through human history.
Religion is Systematized Animism & Magic: E.B. Tylor and James Frazer are two of the earliest researchers to develop theories of the nature of religion. They defined religion as essentially being the belief in spiritual beings, making it systematized animism. The reason religion exists is to help people make sense of events which would otherwise be incomprehensible by relying on unseen, hidden forces. This inadequately addresses the social aspect of religion, though, depicting religion and animism are purely intellectual moves.
Religion is Mass Neurosis: According to Sigmund Freud, religion is a mass neurosis and exists as a response to deep emotional conflicts and weaknesses. A by-product of psychological distress, Freud argued that it should be possible to eliminate the illusions of religion by alleviating that distress. This approach is laudable for getting us to recognize that there can be hidden psychological motives behind religion and religious beliefs, but his arguments from analogy are weak and too often his position is circular.
Religion is a Means of Social Organization: Emile Durkheim is responsible for the development of sociology and wrote that “…religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” His focus was the importance of the concept of the “sacred” and its relevance to the welfare of the community.
Religious beliefs are symbolic expressions of social realities without which religious beliefs have no meaning. Durkheim reveals how religion serves in social functions.
Religion is the Opium of the Masses: According to Karl Marx, religion is a social institutions which is dependent upon material and economic realities in a given society. With no independent history, it is a creature of productive forces. Marx wrote: “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” Marx argued that religion is an illusion whose chief purpose is to provide reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them.
Religion is a Focus on the Sacred: Key to Mircea Eliade’s understanding of religion are two concepts: the sacred and the profane. Eliade says religion is primarily about belief in the supernatural, which for him lies at the heart of the sacred. He does not try to explain away religion and rejects all reductionist efforts. Eliade only focuses on “timeless forms” of ideas which he says keep recurring in religions all over the world, but in doing so he ignores their specific historical contexts or dismisses them as irrelevant.
Religion is Anthropomorphization: Stewart Guthrie argues that religion is “systematic anthropomorphism” — the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events. We interpret ambiguous information as whatever matters most to survival, which means seeing living beings. If we are in the woods and see a dark shape that might be a bear or a rock, it is smart to “see” a bear. If we are mistaken, we lose little; if we are right, we survive. This conceptual strategy leads to “seeing” spirits and gods at work around us.
Religion governs Emotions: Rejecting most anthropological, psychological, and sociological explanations of religion, E.E. Evans-Pritchard sought a comprehensive explanation of religion that took both its intellectual and social aspects into account.
He didn’t reach any final answers, but did argue that religion should be regarded as a vital aspect of society, as its “construct of the heart.” Beyond that, it may not be possible to explain religion in general, just to explain and understand particular religions.
Religion as Culture and Meaning: An anthropologist who describes culture as a system of symbols and actions which convey meaning, Clifford Geertz treats religion as a vital component of cultural meanings. He argues that religion carries symbols which establish especially powerful moods or feelings, help explain human existence by giving it an ultimate meaning, and purport to connect us to a reality that is “more real” than what we see every day. The religious sphere thus has a special status above and beyond regular life.
Means of Understanding Religion:
Here, are some of the principle means of explaining why religion exists: as an explanation for what we don’t understand; as a psychological reaction to our lives and surroundings; as an expression of social needs; as a tool of the status quo to keep some people in power and others out; as a focus upon supernatural and “sacred” aspects of our lives; and as an evolutionary strategy for survival.
If we define religion as the worship of supernatural forces, we must observe at the onset that some peoples have apparently no religion at all. But such cases are exceptional, and the old belief that religion is universal is substantially correct. To the philosopher this is one of the outstanding facts of history and psychology; he is not content to know that all religions contain much nonsense, but rather he is fascinated by the problem of the antiquity and persistence of belief. What are the sources of the indestructible piety of mankind?
Fear was the first mother of gods. Fear, above all, of death. Primitive life was beset with a thousand dangers , and seldom ended with natural decay; long before old age could come, violence or some strange disease carried off the great majority of men. Hence early man did not believe that death was ever natural; he attributed it to the operation of supernatural agencies. As for example in the mythology of the natives of New Britain death came to men by an error of the gods. The good god Kambinana told his foolish brother Korvouva, “Go down to men and tell them to cast their skins; so shall they avoid death. But tell the serpents that they henceforth die.” Korvouva mixed the messages ; he delivered the secret of immortality to the snakes, and the doom of death to men. Many tribes thought that death was due to the shrinkage of the skin, and that man would be immortal if only he could mould.
Fear of death, wonder at the causes of chance events or unintelligible happenings, hope for divine aid and gratitude for good fortune, cooperated to generate religious faith. Wonder and mystery adhered particularly to sex and dreams, and the mysterious influence of heavenly bodies upon the earth and man. Primitive man marvelled at the phantoms that he saw in sleep, and was struck with terror when he beheld, in his dreams, the figures of those whom he knew to be dead. He buried his dead in the earth to prevent their return; he buried victuals and goods with the corpse lest it should come back to curse him; sometimes he left to the dead the house in which death had come, while he himself moved on to another shelter; in some places he carried the body out of the house not through a door but through a hole in the wall, and bore it rapidly three times around the dwelling so that the spirit might forget the entrance and never haunt the home (S&K,859;Lippert,115).
Such experiences convinced early man that every living thing had a soul, or secret life, within it , which could be separated from the body in illness, sleep or death. ‘Let no one wake a man brusquely, “said one of the Upanishads of ancient India ,” For it is a matter difficult of cure if the soul finds not its way back to him”(Brihadaranyaka Upanished,4.,3;.). Not man alone but all things had souls; the external world was not insensitive or dead, it was intensely alive; if this were not so, thought primitive philosophy, nature would be full of inexplicable occurrences, like the motion of the sun, or the death dealing lightening, or the whispering of the trees. The personal way of conceiving objects and events preceded the impersonal or abstract; religion preceded philosophy. Such animism is the poetry of religion, and the religion of poetry. We may see it at its lowest in the wonder- struck eyes of a dog that watches a paper blown before him by the wind, and perhaps believes that a spirit moves the paper from within; and we find the same feeling at the highest in the language of a poet. To the primitive mind-and the poet in all ages- mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, stars, sun, moon and sky are sacra mentally holy things, because they are the outward and visible signs of inward and invisible souls. There is wisdom as well as beauty in this animism; It is good and nourishing to treat all things as alive.,
Since all things have souls, or contain hidden gods, the objects of religious worship are numberless. They fall into six classes
Of course we shall never know which of our universe of objects was worshipped first.
Most human gods, however, seem to have been in the beginning merely idealized dead men. The appearance of the dead in dreams was enough to establish the worship of the dead, for worship, if not the child, is at least the brother, of fear. Men who had been powerful during life, and therefore had been feared, were especially likely to be worshiped after their death. Among several primitive peoples the word for god actually meant “ a dead man “; even today the English word SPIRIT and the German word GEIST mean both ghost and soul. The Greeks, the Hindus, invoked their dead precisely as the Christians were to invoke the saints. So strong was the belief-first generated in dreams- in the continued life of the dead, the primitive men sometimes sent message to them in the most literal way; in one tribe of the chief, to convey such a letter, recited it verbally to a slave, and then cut off his head for special delivery; if the chief forget something he sent another decapitated slave as a postscript.
Gradually the cult of the ghost became the worship of ancestors. All the dead were feared, and had to be propitiated, lest they should curse and blight the lives of the living. The ancestor worship was so well adapted to promote social authority and continuity, conservatism and order, that is soon spread to every region of the earth. The institution held the family powerfully together despite the hostility of successive generations, and provided an invisible structure for many early societies. And just as compulsion grew into conscience, so fear graduated into love; the ritual of ancestor-worship, probably generated by terror, later aroused the sentiment of awe, and finally developed piety and devotion It is the tendency of gods to begin as ogres and to end as loving fathers; the idol passes into an ideal as the growing security, peacefulness and moral sense of the worshipers pacify and transform the features of their once ferocious deities. The slow progress of civilization is reflected in the tardy amiability of the gods.
Such experiences convinced early man that every living thing had a soul, or secret life, within it , which could be separated from the body in illness, sleep or death. ‘Let no one wake a man brusquely, “said one of the Upanishads of ancient India ,” For it is a matter difficult of cure if the soul finds not its way back to him”(Brihadaranyaka Upanished,4.,3;.). Not human alone but all things had souls; the external world was not insensitive or dead, it was intensely alive; if this were not so, thought primitive philosophy, nature would be full of inexplicable occurrences, like the motion of the sun, or the death dealing lightening, or the whispering of the trees. The personal way of conceiving objects and events preceded the impersonal or abstract; religion preceded philosophy. Such animism is the poetry of religion, and the religion of poetry. We may see it at its lowest in the wonder- struck eyes of a dog that watches a paper blown before him by the wind, and perhaps believes that a spirit moves the paper from within; and we find the same feeling at the highest in the language of a poet. To the primitive mind-and the poet in all ages- mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, stars, sun, moon and sky are sacra mentally holy things, because they are the outward and visible signs of inward and invisible souls. There is wisdom as well as beauty in this animism; It is good and nourishing to treat all things as alive.,
The idea of human god was a late step in a long development; it was slowly differentiated through many stages, out of conception of an ocean or multitude of spirits and ghosts surrounding the inhabiting everything. From the fear and worship of vague and formless spirits men seem to have passed to adoration of celestial, vegetative and sexual powers, than to reverence for animals, and worship of ancestors. The notion of God as Father was probably derived from ancestor worship; it meant originally that men had been physically begotten by the gods. In primitive theology there is no sharp or generic distinction between gods and men; to the early Greeks and Hindus, for example their gods were ancestors, and their ancestors were gods. A further development came when, out of the medley of ancestors, certain men and women who had been especially distinguished were singled out for clearer deification; so the greater kings became gods, sometimes even before their death. But with this development we reach the historic civilizations.
To quote Powys,John Cowper,in his book ,” The meaning of culture. Nature begins to present herself as a vast congeries of separate living entities, some visible, some invisible, but all possessed of mind- stuff, all possessed of matter-stuff, and all blending mind and matter together in the basic mystery of being….The world is full of gods! From every planet and from every stone there emanates a presence that disturbs us with a sense of multitudinousness of god-like powers, strong and feeble, great and little, moving between heaven and earth upon their secret purposes”.
Common Elements of Religion
One of the hallmarks of religion is a belief in supernatural beings and forces. They can take a variety forms, not all of which are found in every religion. The beliefs usually fall into one of five categories: animatism , animism , ancestral spirits , gods or goddesses, and minor supernatural beings.
A belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings is referred to as animatism. For those who hold this belief, the power is usually impersonal, unseen, and potentially everywhere. It is neither good nor evil, but it is powerful and dangerous if misused. It is something like electricity or “the force” in the Star Wars movies.
Animatism is a widespread belief, especially in small-scale societies. Among the Polynesian cultures of the South Pacific, this power is commonly known as “mana” . For them it is a force that is inherent in all objects, plants, and animals (including people) to different degrees. Some things or people have more of it than others and are, therefore, potentially dangerous. For instance, a chief may have so much of it that he must be carried around all of the time. If he were to walk on the ground, sufficient residual amounts of his mana might remain in his footprints to harm ordinary people if they later stepped on them. Volcanoes and some other places were thought to have concentrated mana and were, therefore, very dangerous.
A belief that natural objects are animated by spirits is animism. The term comes from the Latin word for soul (anima). This belief can take diverse forms. Things in nature may all have within them different spirits–each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit. Alternatively, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit. This latter version of animism was characteristic of many Native American cultures. In both forms of animism, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender. A belief in a powerful, mature, protective “mother nature” is an example. The spirits may be benevolent, malevolent, or neutral. They can be lovable, terrifying, or even mischievous. They can interact with humans and can be pleased or irritated by human actions. Therefore, people must be concerned about them and will try to avoid displeasing them.
Initially, animatism and animism may seem to be the same thing. In fact both beliefs are often found in the same culture. The difference, however, is that the “power” of animatism does not have a personality–it is an impersonal “it” rather than a “he” or “she” with human-like characteristics. Spirits are individual supernatural beings with their own recognizable traits.
One special category of spirit found in the belief system of most cultures consists of the souls or ghosts of ancestors. A belief in ancestral spirits is consistent with the widespread conviction that humans have at least two parts–a physical body and some kind of non-physical spirit or soul. The spirit portion is generally believed to be freed from the body by death and continues to exist in some form. Ancestral spirits are often seen as retaining an active interest and even membership in their family and society. Like living people, they can have emotions, feelings, and appetites. They must be treated well to assure their continued good will and assistance to the living.
In China, ancestral spirits are often thought of as still being active family members. They are treated warmly with respect and honor. Traditional Chinese families in rural villages often set a place at feast tables for their ancestors as if they were still living. If treated well, the ancestral spirits may help their living descendants have bigger crops, do better in business, or achieve other desirable goals because they are still interested in the well being of the family.
In European cultures, the spirits of dead ancestors are usually not thought of so kindly. The dead and their spirits have been seen historically as dangerous. They haunt the living and often do unpleasant, frightening, and unpredictable things. Ghosts or spirits are feared and avoided because of the danger inherent in encounters with them. This belief that the dead more likely than not will be malevolent is one of the reasons that Europeans have traditionally buried their relatives in cemeteries, which are essentially cities of the dead physically separated from the living. It also accounts for the success of Hollywood’s many haunted house movies. Ghosts are stereotypical villains for people in European derived cultures. In contrast, those cultures that believe ancestral spirits are helpful usually bury or store the remains of dead family members in or around the home to keep them close. In some cultures, people eat parts of the body of dead relatives or mix their cremated ashes in water and drink it. This mortuary cannibalism is intended to allow the dead to remain part of their living family. For the Yanomamö and some other lowland forest peoples of South America, not consuming the ashes of their relatives would be extremely unkind and insensitive.
Gods and Goddesses
Most religions maintain a belief in powerful supernatural beings with individual identities and recognizable attributes. These beings are usually thought of as gods or goddesses. Another term for them is deities. Like spirits, they have individual identities and recognizable attributes. However, gods and goddesses are more powerful than spirits and other lesser supernatural beings–they can effectively alter all of nature and human fortunes. As a result, they are commonly worshipped and requests are made of them to help in times of need.
Religions differ in the number of gods that their followers believe exist. A belief that there is only one god is referred to as monotheism . Judaism , Christianity , and Islam are examples of monotheistic religions. In contrast, a belief in more than one god is known as polytheism . Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.
When there are many gods in a religion, they are typically ranked relative to each other in terms of their powers and their interests. The supreme god is often an otiose deity . That is, he or she established the order of the universe at the beginning of time and is now remote from earthly concerns (“otiose” is Greek for “at rest). As a result, otiose deities may be almost ignored in favor of lesser gods who take an interest in the everyday affairs of humans now.
The simple distinction between monotheism and polytheism may be deceptive. The truth can be much more complex. For instance, some scholars have argued that monotheisms, such as Catholicism , are actually de facto polytheisms for many of the faithful. From this perspective, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are prayed to for guidance and help as if they were minor gods themselves. While the Christian God is considered all powerful, he is often not the one who is turned to by Catholics during life crises. Perhaps, this is because he is essentially an otiose deity for them.
Hinduism is also more complex than it may seem initially. In India and Bali, Hindus can be observed fervently worshipping hundreds of different gods. This fits the classic description of a polytheistic religion. However, since the many gods are only different manifestations of the supreme being, or Bhagavan , Hinduism can also be interpreted as a monotheism. It all depends on whether you are talking to a rural peasant farmer or an educated priest.
Minor Supernatural Beings
Minor supernatural beings are not spirits, gods, humans, or other natural beings. People do not pray to them for help. Yet these beings have some supernatural capabilities. In Western European folk tradition, leprechauns , elves , and pixies were minor supernatural beings. They were human-like in appearance and personality but could do things that were beyond the abilities of humans. Minor supernatural beings often have a “trickster” role. That is to say, they fool people, do outlandish things, and disappear. For instance, many rural people in Ireland in the past believed that elves steal boy children. As a result, mothers clothed their young sons in dresses and let their hair grow long like girls to avoid their being taken. Tricksters are frequently neither good nor bad. They do what they want and are often trouble makers. For the Indians of Western North America, coyote usually had such a trickster role in popular stories. For instance, he would skillfully disarm powerful people with his words and then magically steal what they valued most when their guard was down. In most cultures, tricksters are small, quick moving animals. In India, the trickster is usually a mouse, and in Africa it is a spider. Among the Native cultures of the Americas in which coyote did not fulfill the trickster role, it was usually a bird such as a raven. Tricksters are still popular in the high tech, industrialized societies of the modern world. However, we rarely make the connection with the tricksters of earlier traditions and other cultures. For instance, the cartoon characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are classic tricksters. They are small animals that speak and act like humans and play unexpected, humorous tricks at the expense of others and usually avoid the consequences for themselves.
Religions in India
It is impossible to know India without understanding its religious beliefs and practices, which have a large impact on the personal lives of most Indians and influence public life on a daily basis. Indian religions have deep historical roots that are recollected by contemporary Indians. The ancient culture of South Asia, going back at least 4,500 years, has come down to India primarily in the form of religious texts. The artistic heritage, as well as intellectual and philosophical contributions, has always owed much to religious thought and symbolism.
Contacts between India and other cultures have led to the spread of Indian religions throughout the world, resulting in the extensive influence of Indian thought and practice on Southeast and East Asia in ancient times and, more recently, in the diffusion of Indian religions to Europe and North America. Within India, on a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of people engage in ritual actions that are motivated by religious systems that owe much to the past but are continuously evolving. Religion, then, is one of the most important facets of Indian history and contemporary life.
A number of world religions originated in India, and others that started elsewhere found fertile ground for growth there.
The listing of the major belief systems only scratches the surface of the remarkable diversity in Indian religious life. The complex doctrines and institutions of the great traditions, preserved through written documents, are divided into numerous schools of thought, sects, and paths of devotion. In many cases, these divisions stem from the teachings of great masters, who arise continually to lead bands of followers with a new revelation or path to salvation.
India is a land of different religions which are characterised by various religious practices and beliefs. The spiritual land of India has given birth to many religions such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. These religions together form a subgroup and are known as Eastern religions. The people of India have a strong belief in religion as they believe that they add meaning and purpose to their lives. The religions here are not only confined to beliefs but also include ethics, rituals, ceremonies, life philosophies and many more. Today, a wide range of religions are practiced in India.
India is considered the birthplace of some of the world’s major religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism originated in India, and the largest number of people that follow Zoroastrianism and Baha’i faith are found in India, although these religions do not have Indian roots. India has the third largest population of Muslims in the world. Hinduism is considered one of the oldest religions in the world, and there is evidence that it existed during prehistoric times. Islam came to India in the 7th century, but only after the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent did it become a major religion. The exact origins of Christianity in India are unclear, but it was an established religion by the third century AD. The Christian population includes Catholics, Protestants and Oriental Orthodox Christians. Jews arrived in the city of Kochi in 562 BCE, and more followed in the year 70 CE as exiles from Israel. Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, and he preached universal brotherhood irrespective of caste, color or religion.
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