Belief systems include both religions and
philosophies that help to explain basic questions of human existence, such as
"Where did we come from?" Or "What happens after death?" or
"What is the nature of human relationships or interactions?" Many
major beliefs systems that influence the modern world began during the
Foundations Era (8000 BCE to 600 CE).
The earliest form of religion was probably polydaemonism (the belief in many spirits), but somewhere
in the Neolithic era people began to put these spirits together to form gods.
In polytheism, each god typically has responsibility for one area of life, like
war, the sea, or death. In early agricultural societies, quite logically most
of the gods had responsibility for the raising of crops and domesticated
animals. The most prominent god in many early societies was the Sun God, who
took many forms and went by many names. Other gods supervised rain, wind, the
moon, or stars. Greek polytheism stands out because the gods were anthropomorphic,
or, they had human qualities and temperaments.
Religion was extremely important to the
river-valley civilizations, and most areas of life revolved around pleasing the
gods. And pleasing the gods was invariably connected with the political order,
whether it be a pharaoh, king, or emperor. Monotheism was first introduced about 2000 BCE by Israelites (Hebrews), but monotheism did not grow
substantially till much later. Each of the classical civilizations had very
different belief systems that partially account for the very different
directions that the three areas took in succeeding eras. Rome and Greece were polytheistic, but Christianity had a firm
footing by the time the western empire fell. Hinduism dominated Indian society
from very early times, although Buddhism also took root in India. From China's early days, ancestors were revered, a belief
reinforced by the philosophy of Confucianism. Other belief systems, such as
Daoism, Legalism, and Buddhism, also flourished in China by 600 CE.
The beginnings of Hinduism are difficult to
trace, but the religion originated with the polytheism that the Aryans brought
as they began invading the Indian subcontinent sometime after 2000 BCE. Aryan priest recited hymns that told stories and
taught values and were eventually written down in The Vedas, the sacred texts
of Hinduism. One famous story is The Ramayana that tells about the life and
love of Prince Rama and his wife Sita.
Another epic story is The Mahabharata, which focuses
on a war between cousins. Its most famous part is called The Baghavad Gita, which tells how
one cousin, Arjuna, overcomes his hesitations to
fight his own kin. The stories embody important Hindu values that still guide
modern day India.
Hinduism assumes the eternal existence of a universal
spirit that guides all life on earth. A piece of the spirit called the atman is
trapped inside humans and other living creatures. The most important desire of
the atman is to be reunited with the universal spirit, and every aspect of an
individual's life is governed by it. When someone dies, their atman may be
reunited, but most usually is reborn in a new body. A person's caste membership
is a clear indication of how close he or she is to the desired reunion. Some
basic tenets of Hinduism are
- Atman spirits are reborn in different people after one body dies. This
rebirth has no beginning and no end, and is part of the larger universal
spirit that pervades all of life.
- This widely used word actually refers to the pattern of cause and effect
that transcends individual human lives. Whether or not an individual
fulfills his/her duties in one life determines what happens in the next.
- Duties called dharma are attached to each caste position. For example, a
warrior's dharma is to fight honorably, and a wife's duty is to serve her
husband faithfully. Even the lowliest caste has dharma attached to it. If
one fulfills this dharma, the reward is for the atman to be reborn into a
higher caste. Only the atman of a member of the highest caste (originally
the priests) has the opportunity to be reunited with the universal spirit.
The universal spirit is represented by
Brahman, a god that takes many different shapes. Two of Brahman's forms are
Vishnu the Creator, and Shiva the Destroyer. Hinduism is very difficult to
categorize as either polytheistic or monotheistic because of the central belief
in the universal spirit. Do each of Brahman's forms
represent a different god, or are they all the same? Brahman's forms almost
certainly represent different Aryan gods from the religion's early days, but
Hinduism eventually unites them all in the belief in Brahman.
Buddhism began in India in the Ganges River are during the 6th century BCE. Its founder was Siddhartha
Guatama, who later became known as the Buddha, or the
"Enlightened One." Siddhartha was the son
of a wealthy Hindu prince who grew up with many advantages in life. However, as
a young man he did not find answers to the meaning of life in Hinduism, so he
left home to become an ascetic, or wandering holy man. His Enlightenment came
while sitting under a tree in a Deerfield, and the revelations of that day form the basic
tenets of Buddhism:
- The Four Noble Truths -
1) All of life is suffering; 2) Suffering is caused by false desires for
things that do not bring satisfaction; 3) Suffering may be relieved by
removing the desire; 4) Desire may be removed by following the Eightfold
- The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment - The ultimate goal is to follow the path to
nirvana, or a state of contentment that occurs when the individual's soul
unites with the universal spirit. The eight steps must be achieved one by
one, starting with a change in thoughts and intentions, followed by
changes in life style and actions, that prelude a
higher thought process through meditation. Eventually, a
"breakthrough" occurs when nirvana is achieved that gives the
person a whole new understanding of life.
Note that Hinduism supported the continuation
of the caste system in India, since castes were an outer reflection of inner
purity. For example, placement in a lower caste happened because a person did
not fulfill his/her dharma in a previous life. Higher status was a
"reward" for good behavior in the past. Although Buddhism, like
Hinduism, emphasizes the soul's yearning for understandings on a higher plane,
it generally supported the notion that anyone of any social position could
follow the Eightfold Path successfully. Buddhists believed that changes in
thought processes and life styles brought enlightenment, not the powers of
one's caste. Although the Buddha actively spread the new beliefs during his
long lifetime, the new religion faced oppression after his death from Hindus
who saw it as a threat to the basic social and religious structure that held India together. Buddhism probably survived only because the
Mauryan emperor Ashoka
converted to it and promoted its practice. However, in the long run, Buddhism
did much better in areas where it spread through cultural diffusion, such as Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.
Three important belief systems (Confucianism,
Daoism, and Legalism) emerged in China during the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE) between the Zhou and Han
Dynasties. Although the period was politically chaotic, it hosted a cultural
flowering that left a permanent mark on Chinese history.
Confucius contemplated why China had fallen into chaos, and concluded that the Mandate
of Heaven had been lost because of poor behavior of not only the Chinese
emperor, but all his subjects as well. His plan for reestablishing Chinese
society profoundly affected the course of Chinese history and eventually spread
to many other areas of Asia
as well. He emphasized the importance of harmony, order, and obedience and
believed that if five basic relationships were sound, all of society would be,
- the emperor has the responsibility to take care of his subjects, and
subjects must obey the emperor
- the father takes care of the son, and the son obeys the father
brother/younger brother - the older brother takes care of the younger
brother, who in turn obeys him
- the husband takes care of the wife, who in turn obeys him
-The only relationship that does not assume inequality should be characterized
by mutual care and obedience
also defined the "superior man" - one who exhibits ren (kindness), li (sense of
propriety), and Xiao (filial piety, or loyalty
to the family).
Confucianism accepted and endorsed inequality
as an important part of an ordered society. It confirmed the power of the
emperor, but held him responsible for his people, and it reinforced the
patriarchal family structure that was already in place in China. Because Confucianism focused on social order and
political organization, it is generally seen as a philosophy rather than a
religion. Religions are more likely to emphasize spiritual topics, not society
The founder of Daoism is believed to have
been Laozi, a spiritualist who probably lived in the
4th century BCE. The religion centers on the Dao (sometimes referred
to as the "Way" or "Path"), the original force of the
cosmos that is an eternal and unchanging principle that governs all the
workings of the world. The Dao is passive - not active, good
nor bad - but it just is. It cannot be changed, so humans must learn to
live with it. According to Daoism, human strivings have brought the world to
chaos because they resist the Dao. A chief characteristic is wuwei, or a disengagement from the affairs of the world,
including government. The less government, the better.
Live simply, in harmony with nature. Daoism encourages introspection,
development of inner contentment, and no ambition to change the Dao.
Both Confucianism and Daoism encourage self
knowledge and acceptance of the ways things are. However, Confucianism is
activist and extroverted, and Daoism is reflective and introspective. The same
individual may believe in the importance of both belief systems, unlike many
people in western societies who think that a person may only adhere to one
belief system or another.
The third belief system that arose from the
Warring States Period is legalism, and it stands in stark contrast to the other
beliefs. It had no concern with ethics, morality, or propriety, and cared
nothing about human nature, or governing principles of the world. Instead it
emphasized the importance of rule of law, or the imperative for laws to govern,
not men. According to legalism, laws should be administered objectively, and
punishments for offenders should be harsh and swift. Legalism was the
philosophy of Shi Huangdi, the first emperor, whose Qin Dynasty rescued China from chaos. However, when he died,
the Han emperors that followed deserted legalism and established Confucianism
as the dominant philosophy.
As noted earlier, Judaism was the first
clearly monotheistic religion. At the heart of the religion was a belief in a
Covenant, or agreement, between God and the Jewish people, that God would
provide for them as long as they obeyed him. The Ten Commandments set down
rules for relationships among human beings, as well as human relationships to
God. Because they were specially chosen by God, Jews came to see themselves as
separate from others and did not seek to convert others to the religion. As a
result, Judaism has remained a relatively small religion. However, its
influence on other larger religions, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity,
and Islam is vast, and so it remains as a very significant "root religion."
Zoroastrianism is an early monotheistic
religion that almost certainly influenced and was influenced by Judaism, and it
is very difficult to know which one may have emerged first. Both religions
thrived in the Middle East, and adherents of both apparently had contact with
one another. Zoroastrianism was the major religion of Persia, a great land-based empire that was long at war with
Ancient Greece and eventually conquered by Alexander the Great. The religion's
founder was Zoroaster or Zarathushtra,
who saw the world immersed in a great struggle between good and evil, a concept
that certainly influenced other monotheistic religions.
Christianity grew directly out of Judaism,
with its founder Jesus of Nazareth born and raised as a Jew in the area just
east of the Mediterranean Sea. During his lifetime, the area was controlled by Rome as a province in the empire. Christianity originated
partly from a long-standing Jewish belief in the coming of a Messiah, or a
leader who would restore the Jewish kingdom to its former glory days. Jesus'
followers saw him as the Messiah who would cleanse the Jewish religion of its
rigid and haughty priests and assure life after death to all that followed
Christian precepts. In this way, its appeal to ordinary people may be compared
to that of Buddhism, as it struggled to emerge from the Hindu caste system.
Christianity's broad appeal of the masses, as well as deliberate conversion
efforts by its early apostles, meant that the religion grew steadily and
eventually became the religion with the most followers in the modern world.
Jesus was a prophet and teacher whose
followers came to believe that he was the son of God. He advocated a moral code
based on love, charity, and humility. His disciples predicted a final judgment
day when God would reward the righteous with immortality and condemn sinners to
eternal hell. Jesus was arrested and executed by Roman officials because he
aroused suspicions among Jewish leaders, and he was seen by many as a dangerous
rebel rouser. After his death, his apostles spread the faith. Especially
important was Paul, a Jew who was familiar with Greco-Roman culture. He
explained Christian principles in ways that Greeks and Romans understood, and
he established churches all over the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and even
as far away as Rome.
Christianity grew steadily in the Roman Empire, but not without clashes with Roman authorities.
Eventually in the 4th century CE, the Emperor Constantine was converted to
Christianity and established a new capital in the eastern city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. As a result, the religion grew west and north from Rome, and also east from Constantinople, greatly extending its reach.
By the end of the classical era, these major
belief systems had expanded to many areas of the world, and with the fall of
empires in the late classical era, came to be major forces in shaping world
history. One major religion - Islam - remained to be established in the 7th
century as part of the next great period that extended from 600 to 1450 CE.