Religious Traditions in the Pre-Modern World

Please note: Everything addressed in this paper represent my personal views and interpretations of “facts.” Similar to all historical narratives my essay is, by default, biased. Should you wish to discuss it further, object, correct some of the information presented, feel free to contact me.

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History has proven that religion is inseparable from man’s development. The notion of a higher being is consistent throughout cultures in the pre-modern world. By examining the world starting from 2000th BCE until 8th CE, one gains a better understanding of the conception, nature and evolution of a higher being in Indian, Chinese and Western religious traditions. Indian Hinduism of 5th century CE had its roots in the Vedic Tradition that dates back to second millennia BCE. Mahayana Buddhism of China had its roots in a strictly polytheistic tradition; whereas Christianity of Western Europe had evolved from an early Jewish tradition. Those religious traditions were evolved to contextualize societal developments in political and social spheres.

People in the ancient world were fascinated with the question of origins. They sought to explain the unknown using supernatural beings. This is especially apparent in ancient Vedic Tradition of India that was prevalent in the 2nd millennia BCE. According to Rig Veda – sacred Vedic Sanskrit hymns – the world was created from a “Primal Man.”[1] They demonstrated their understanding of the vastness of the world by the size of the Man. This being was big, had numerous feet, arms and eyes that encompassed the earth. In addition to that, the primordial man laid the foundation for many ideas that persisted in the society and were later adapted by future reformists, such as the infamous caste system, notion of sacrifice and Dharma, and afterlife.

The Vedic Tradition is a heaven-based tradition in which people pray for the male gods for material things and protection. Vardhamarma Mahavira of the 5th century BCE rebelled against this after he was enlightened. He dismissed the personification of a higher being. Rather, “God” is everywhere within the environment, nature and us. People should seek salvation by taking the ‘right path’ that is practicing non-violence against all creatures, meditating to gain knowledge and awareness, fasting to limit body’s demands and giving up entirely on worldly things.[2]  He created the Jain order. Jainism was a bit radical in rejecting material and worldly things. It was not appealing to a large number of people for its extreme ideas.

Siddhartha Gautama, Mahavira contemporary, also known as The Buddha, sought to reform and build on the Jain ideas. Upon enlightenment, the Buddha advocated the middle path for salvation.[3] That is neither the Jainist way of living nor extreme indulgences in worldly things. He postulated the so-called Four Noble Truths: life is suffering, it originates from desires, its destructive nature, and how to overcome it. Although this may seem similar Jainism, it, nonetheless, advocates for the Middle Path in going about salvation and it does not regard any soul-like component in salvation.[4] It is very critical to note that Mahavira and Buddha were enlightened by a higher being. The idea of the higher being who intervenes in the earthly world to help the people prevailed from the Vedic Tradition. It is equally important to note that the Buddha did not develop an idea of afterlife, because the religion’s focus is the individual. He was more concerned with rejecting worldly attachments than to have an elaborate idea of afterlife. These two religions might be a social response to the Vedic Tradition’s caste system and hierarchy. The system was notorious, therefore the Buddha and Mahavira rebelled.

By the 4th century CE, the three main religious traditions were synthesized into one religion known as Hinduism. Although it might seem at first as a Vedic religion at first, theological components were added to it from the ideas of Jainism and Buddhism. This new religious tradition synthesized ideas from the previous orders such as reincarnation, following the right path, desire to escape worldly suffering, the notion of one supreme creator, being with multiple manifestations.[5] Furthermore, the relationship between Gods and humans were altered due to Jainist and Buddhist influence. Hinduism came to reinforce the notion of a divine being supervising the workings of the universe.

Religious traditions of ancient Chinese were polytheistic and varied in nature due to the size of what later would be China. Although early Chinese people had slightly different cultures, dialects and religious traditions, they shared similar conception of supernatural forces governing  the world.[6] The Shujing describes the life of the early Zhou Dynasty, and specifically the Mandate of Heaven. This is important because it demonstrates the relationship between power, influence and the notion of higher beings in heavens. The mandate ensures the legitimacy of monarchies on religious basis.[7] This is critical to understand future developments in political and cultural spheres that had their impact in creating modern day China. The Zhou Dynasty suffered from political fragmentation and long periods of warfare. This prompted the development of philosophical ideas about morality, ethics and ‘the proper way’ to run a government in response to the political distress.[8] These philosophical ideas were mainstreamed, championed by Confucius during the 6th BCE; they later became collectively known as: Confucianism. This was not a religious order, rather, strictly ethical and legal teachings stressed the importance of family ties, conduct in presence of authority, hierarchy, education and proper behavior.[9] This stirred a fierce discussion about human nature and its tendencies.

By the 5th BCE, Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher who founded Daoism, contested the pragmatism of Confucianism and stated that practical matters do not matter as much. His ideas were more theological than political. He dismissed the need for scholars and a hierarchical system to govern the state because those distract people from understanding the true nature of the Dao. In fact, he preached for as little government interference as possible.[10] His major ideas were about living in harmony with nature and that humans are not as important as nature itself. Nature, which is perceived as a higher being or a form of divinity, expresses itself in a profound way that is beyond human conception and knowledge. Thus, human should follow the right path, the Dao this is.[11] This tradition might have arisen due to the nature of the warring periods. People sought comfort and protection in nature; they might have distrusted scholars and hierarchy, and thought that living according to the Dao is what the mandate of heaven favored. Intertwined theological and philosophical ideas of a higher being formed the Chinese society at the time.

By the first century CE Buddhism trickled into China due to trading in the Silk Road. While some Buddhist teachings fit into the Chinese culture, such as detachment of material and worldly things, Buddhism did not appeal to the Chinese population due to other radical teachings such as living in monasteries away from their families and abstention from sex and procreation.[12] It was during the 3rd century CE that Buddhism took a turn to fit the Chinese tradition. This new sect was called Chan Buddhism, or commonly known as Mahayana Buddhism. Synthesis of different philosophical ideas from Xunzi, Confucious, Buddhism and Daoism gave rise to this theological take on Buddhism. Why this had arisen at this time is probably because of political turmoil – people usually turn to religion in tough times. Mahayana Buddhism perceives The Buddha as a higher, divine being who should be worshipped.[13] Theravada, or old, Buddhism does not address higher beings, soul-components to humans and definitely not worshipping the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that the Buddha never died; rather he is going to be always there to inspire, teach and help people.[14] This religious order is very interesting because it synthesis ideas from different traditions in the Chinese society: ethical, moral way of living, the mysterious nature of the Buddha, private worship and non-violence.

Christianity in Europe has evolved from an ancient monolatric tradition in ancient Judea. This earliest forms of Judaism had originated in the Canaan region when a tribe of Hebrews settled there during the 2nd millennia BCE. In the 5th century BCE, while captives in Babylon, they adapted some of the religious ideas prominent in Mesopotamia at the time: Zoroastrianism. Following their release they brought back to Judea a synthesized version of early Judaism mixed with Zoroastrianism.[15] The Hebrews later have become known as the Jewish people. Injections in the Jewish theology such as the notion of the Messiah and afterlife helped the Jews shaping their religious beliefs, while still worshipping in one God: Yahweh.[16] The idea, image of higher being who was protective and caring was very important because Jews were prosecuted many times throughout their history.

In the 1st century CE, people in Judea were angry at the policies Roman imposed on them. Jesus Christ, who was enlightened, attempted to reform the political and social spheres of Judea under the Roman Empire. Jesus did not come to ‘abolish’ Judaism, but sought to ‘fulfill’ and reinforce its teachings.[17] He came with five main values: forgiveness, salvation, anti-materialism, egalitarianism and passive resistance. These values had political and social messages embedded in them. Seeing charismatic Jesus influencing people, the Roman occupiers felt threatened so they executed him.[18] Following the death of Jesus, two of his Jewish apostles, Peter and Paul, spread what became known as Christian values. Peter sought to reform Judaism and teach Christianity for Jews. He thought of Christianity as an extension to Judaism. Paul, on the other hand, wanted to spread and extend Christianity to the gentiles. To do so, he defined Christian ideas and noted what distinguish them from the Jewish ideas. It is believed that Paul injected theological doctrines to Christianity – that is why it stood out as a separate religion. He built on the Jewish idea of afterlife, explained resurrection, talked about God’s spirit that dwells in Christians and defined what it means to be a Christian.[19] He also set the cornerstone for the idea of atonement, the original sin of Adam and Eve and that Jesus is the Messiah, son of God and Savior.

In 3rd century BCE, the Council of Nicaea – a council of bishops – developed the idea of Trinity. It came to the conclusion that God has three images: the father, who is the creator of the universe, the son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the trinity.[20] This idea was needed to unite people under one Christian faith. It ensured political and social stability within the Christian Roman Empire. Augustine’s City of God laid the foundation for development and strengthening of the Church. He argued that there are two kingdoms: heaven and earth. To be in the heaven city, one had to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ; that was what the Roman emperor and the Church endorsed.[21] It was not until the 8th century that Christianity became the prominent religion in Western Europe. The Capitulary of Saxony made it clear that if one opposed Christians, he/she were to be put to death.[22] Thus, if one was living in Christian territories he or she in a way or another had to convert to Christianity. He also supported the Church and clergy and expanded their authorities, wealth and influence. This gave rise to the all-powerful Church and papacy that characterize modern-day Western Europe.

From India to China to West Europe, peoples over two millennia have developed complex set of beliefs to explain their worldviews and conception of world at the time. Although the religious traditions of these regions might be different, they stand on similar grounds of a higher being protective of us. The idea of a divine being governing workings of the universe transcends political, social and cultural differences among peoples of the pre-modern world. Could certain injustices in our modern day world prompt the development of a new religious tradition?


[1] “The Sacrifice of Primal Man,” Rig Veda: http://www.mountainman.com.au/rig_veda.html

[2] Vardhamarma Mahavira, ‘Arkarnga-sutra,’ I, 8, 1-3-IV-8: http://www.mircea-eliade.com/from-primitives-to-zen/221.html

[3] The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), The Sermon at Benares: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/bud-ser.html

[4] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.185

[5] Brhadaranyaka Upaniad, 1:1-1:2: http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/brhad_00.html

[7] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.59

[8] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.61

[9] Confucius, Analects: (Xue Er: http://ctext.org/analects/xue-er) (Shu Er: http://ctext.org/analects/shu-er)

[10] Laozi (Lao Tzu), The Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing or Tao te ching): (On the way: http://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/daodejing01.php) (On governance: http://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/daodejing03.php)

[11] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.64

[12] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boton, 2011), p.172

[13] Fa Xian, A Record of the Buddhistic Kingdoms: (chapter XII, XIII and XIV http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/rbddh10.pdf)

[14] “The True Nature of the Buddha,” The Lotus Sutra: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/lotus0.html

[15] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.96-99

[17] “The Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 5:1 to 7:29, the New Testament: http://bible.oremus.org/

[18] Bulliet, The Earth and Its Peoples (Boston, 2011), p.160

[19] Paul of Tarsus, “Life Through the Spirit,” Romans 7:22 to 8:17, the New Testament: http://bible.oremus.org/

[20] “Creed of the Council of Nicaea,”: http://www.fourthcentury.com/old/index.htm?http&&&www.fourthcentury.com/old/Urkunden/trans24.htm

[21] Augustine of Hippo, City of God: http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/aug-city2.asp

[22] Charlemagne, Capitulary for Saxony: http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/carol-saxony.asp

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