Religion is an essential component of the human civilization that signifies a particular system of faith and worship usually of a shape or shapeless superhuman controlling power (God) or more of such powers (Gods) in variously defined forms. The system of faith is usually linked with a cultural system of identified behaviour patterns and practices, views, holy texts, sanctified places, ethics, and organizations, that relate humanity to the supernatural or transcendental.
Philosophers and scholars world over have attempted to define religion from time to time from their perspective and these definitions or postulations chiefly fall under the categories of modern western construct, classical and modern definitions. In all civilizations, people pro and against religion led to the themes of theism and atheism, and irrespective of religion, the basic tenet of the theism has been a distinction between a transcendent deity and all else, between the creator and his creation, or more precisely between God and man.
World: Religious Demography
As per Adherent survey and estimates of 2012, three largest religions namely Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the world together constitute about 4.8 billion population (67.77%), Others mainly comprising of Buddhism, Chinese traditional, African traditional, Ethnic, Sikhism, Judaism, Jainism, Baha’i etc., constitute about 1.2 billion (16.88%) and the remaining 1.1 billion populace (15.35%) falls under the category of non-religious/atheist/agnostic etc.
* In Billions
Source: Adherent Estimates in 2012
Among Others, the largest number of followers come under the categories of Buddhism (5.25%), Chinese traditional religion (5.50%) and Ethnic religions (4.19%). Incidentally, religions like Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, originated in the Indian-subcontinent, are in fact offshoot of Hinduism with many cultural and social resemblances with the latter.
Though Christianity has a worldwide presence but the main Christian population resides in the countries of Europe, Americas and Australia. Similarly, Muslims, followers of Islam, also have global presence, but the main concentration of their population is in West Asia, South Asia, North Africa and Indonesia. Hindus, the third largest population following Hinduism, mainly live in India and Nepal with small numbers scattered world over, and Buddhists mainly in South-east Asian countries. Ironically, Buddhism evolved in India but a very small population lives in there.
Major Religions of World
It is difficult to trace and present authentic account of all religions in the world, particularly because in common parlance, the socio-cultural aspects of various civilizations have been rightly or erroneously interpreted as religion and linked with the ethnic population of that place and period. In any case, the motive of this write up is not to trace the origin and history of religions but to highlight dynamics of more common religions and their influence over the society.
Abrahamic Religions: They are monotheistic religions with the belief of having descended from Abraham. Judaism, Christianity and Islam fall under this category:
This is considered to be the oldest of Abrahamic religion having its origin in the modern Israel and Judea. The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is the main text while the Torah is its foundational text. Followers of Judaism believe that God communicated his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form the Written and Oral Torah. Currently, world population of Jews is about 14 million, of which about 45 per cent living in Israel and almost same numbers in the United States, the remaining Jews are scattered in small population in European countries and negligible numbers elsewhere. India has an estimated population of about 5,000 Jews.
Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as per the New Testament. The Christian faith essentially revolves around Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and as Saviour and Lord. Collectively, they call it a Trinity, which teaches the unity of Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit as one Godhead. Since its evolution in the first millennium, Christianity has spread worldwide. Christianity comprises of the orthodox Catholics and reformists Protestants.
The Catholic Church is led by the Bishop of Rome and the bishops worldwide in communion with him. On the other hand, Protestantism, separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th-century and splitted into several denominations or groups. Today, Christianity has the maximum following the world over. There are several instances of forced conversion throughout the history of Christianity such as during the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages, and in the modern times too, the Christianity has spread through conversion but mainly by resorting to peaceful means of persuasion, social service and upliftment.
Islam is based on the holy text Quran, which is considered by Muslims to be revealed by God to Muhammad through the prophet Moses. The prophet Muhammad was a prominent political and religious figure of his time, who is considered as the founder of Islam in Mecca and Madina towards early seventh century based on teachings (hadith) of God. After Christianity, Islam is the second most widely practiced religion world over with the large concentration of Muslims in North Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asian countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Sunni and Shia are two major Islamic sects, with Sunni constituting the largest followers within Islam. Other adherents of Islam with rather small followings include Ahmadiyas, Sufism, Ibadi, Quranism, Mahdavia and Wahhabis. Though the Islamic Law is believed to be against the forced conversion, the history has many instances of conversions through coercion particularly during the war, insurgency and communal violence. Some religious heads interpret holy texts to tell Muslims to fight unbelievers until they are either dead, converted to Islam, or in a permanent state of subjugation under Muslim domination. In South Asia itself, numerous instances in the modern times reportedly occurred during the Partition of India, the Bangladesh Liberation War, and even during the peacetime in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Indian Religions: Indian religions are practiced or were founded in the Indian subcontinent. They are sometimes classified as the dharmic religions, as they all feature dharma and associated Karma. Dharma has no corresponding word in Western literature or dictionaries. In Indian philosophical parlance, Dharma relates to the laws of spiritual growth of believers and denotes their divine duty while Karma implies their karmic application according to the Dharma. Hinduism is considered to be oldest religion in the world, with Sanatana dharma (Eternal Order) having many sects like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, etc. Other prominent religions evolved in the subcontinent as offshoot of Hinduism are Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Unlike Abrahamic religions of monotheistic nature, Hinduism is considered as polytheistic religion due to its diverse nature and deities. But some scholars actually consider it to be henotheistic that is there is only one supreme God i.e. Brahma, and all other deities and forms remain actually his aspects and reflections.
In Hinduism, the Trinity means Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver or adherent and Shiva the destroyer or regenerator. This implies that God presents in different forms which followers recognize as deities with different identities and functionalities. The basic theme of Hinduism is that each individual has a duty (dharma) which only he (or she) should perform (karma). If one acts (karma) in the right manner, he (or she) is rewarded by moving closer to and eventually becoming one (moksha or Nirvana) with God; Else he repeats to the karmic cycle (reincarnation) till eventually he reaches the supreme soul.
By the sheer number of followers, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. The basic tenets of Hinduism are; Brahma is truth and reality, the Vedas are ultimate authority, individuals should strive to act according to dharma, the soul is immortal, and the goal of each soul should be moksha. Ever since Vedic age, Hinduism allowed doubt, debate and acceptance of truth while encouraging tolerance, harmony and co-existence. There is no history of any systematic and mass conversion either through coercion or persuasion.
The other Indian religions i.e. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism actually originated from Hinduism which is evident from many similar texts adopted or modified by their founders of Hindu origin. For illustration, Siddhartha Gautam after enlightenment became Buddha and founded Buddhism. In Buddhism, instead of a soul seeking the union with God, actually endeavors to attain its own higher spiritual level leaving behind the illusions of the world which actually cause sufferings like illness, old age, fear of loss and death.
The Oldest Religion in World
Apart from Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, many other religions like Chinese traditional religion, African traditional religions, ethnic religions, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Baha’i, Judaism, Zoarostrianism, Spiritism, Shinto etc. grew at various points of time and exist in various parts of the world.
Perhaps religion could be dated as back as human civilization. Since early civilization, various socio-cultural and ethnic groups evolved in various parts of the world. Their faith, worship and cultural behaviour patterns loosely describe their religion. Hence it is very difficult to say with a certainty as to which particular religion is the oldest one. However, among the major and more popular religions, Hinduism appears to be the oldest religion.
It is rather difficult to give any authentic evidence as to when Hinduism started. But it is for sure that Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) existed well before Christianity and Islam, the other two major religions in the world today. As for Christianity, it grew from the first century Jewish following to a religion across the Greco-Roman world and beyond, and thus Christianity is not old more than two millenniums. Similarly, Islam is believed to have been founded by the prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century that makes it about 1400 years old.
In Indian sub-continent, Jainism is an ancient religion believed to have been founded by Mahavira, also known as Vardham?na born in a royal Hindu family, in 6th century BC, a religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Though Jainism have 24 Tirthankers or Janas, the first being Lord Rishabh (Adinath) and Mahavira, the 24th but exact period and credible account of all Tirthankers in history is not available. So it can be reasonably believed that Jainism is at least 2400 years old in Indian sub-continent.
Buddhism too was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century BC, that makes it a religion about 2400 years old, having many similarities with Hinduism inter alia including the belief and endeavour to escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth, achieving nirvana.
Unlike monotheistic religions, no evidence exists that Hinduism ever had a single founder or source. Many scholars actually hold it a way of life. Hinduism is actually a fusion or synthesis of different Indian cultures and traditions with diverse roots ever since the Vedic religion of the Iron Age dated from about 1900 BC to 1400 BC. Many scholars are of view that various Indian cultures and traditions including the Indo-Aryan and Harappan, Indus Valley Civilization, Dravidian traditions, among many others, are collectively responsible for Hinduism as it exists today. From the above account, it seems that Hinduism is approximately 4000 years old, and it can be reasonably argued as the oldest surviving religion in the world.
Religion - Opium of Masses
"Religion is the opium of the people" is one of the most frequently quoted and debated statements of German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. The full translation of Karl Marx’s statement reads as follows:
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".
Writers and scholars have debated and analysed his statement both with positive and negative connotations. However, most probably Marx’s contention was that a religion gives people only artificial and illusory happiness in the same manner as opium gives to an addict. Therefore, endeavour should be for freeing people from this unrealistic illusion from the point of view to building a better society.
Incidentally, Marx did not specify any particular religion, and his statement possibly implied that it is for weak-minded and emotionally wreck people who need some sort of crutch to get over miseries of life. The argument is more commonly used by atheists and because they do not believe in existence of God, they tend to underplay or ignore other’s need for religion and God.
On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of believers find logical, philosophical and even scientific reasons in having faith in the existence of God and hence religion. They believe that the faith in God and prayer could minimize or even eliminate many sufferings and damages to the humanity. For them, the religion is a natural resort or response to fall back upon as also an evidence of the existence of the supreme power.
Religion and Conflicts
Religion, particularly monotheistic ones, have scriptures or holy books with certain dogma or articles of belief that it is held followers must follow without raising doubts or asking any questions. The argument is these are the words of God revealed through the designated angel or prophet, hence for a believer it is blasphemy to doubt or compromise it. But at the same time these dogma or articles of belief are often found vague and subject to interpretation, and this vagueness and consequent often different interpretations by religious leaders, scholars and luminaries lead to conflicts. While moderates try to play it low but extremists escalate these conflicts even to the level of violence, war and even genocide among the societies, communities and nations.
As per a latest report published by the Pew Research Centre based on studies carried out in 2012-13, key findings of religious intolerance and conflicts are very alarming in the new world order:
The number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years.
Women were harassed because of religious dress in nearly a third of countries in 2012 (32%), up from a quarter in 2011 (25%) and less than one-in-ten (7%) in 2007.
For the first time in the study, China experienced a high level of social hostilities involving religion.
The Middle East and North Africa was the most common region for sectarian violence; half of all countries in the region in 2012 experienced this type of violence.
Roughly three-quarters of the global population lives where overall levels of religious restrictions or hostilities were high or very high in 2012.
The number of countries with a very high level of social hostilities involving religion increased from 14 in 2011 to 20 in 2012. In the list of 20 countries, Pakistan was on top, India ranked 3rd, Israel 5th and other prominent countries like Russia and Indonesia 9th and 10th, respectively. Incidentally, these countries have either predominantly Muslim or a significant Muslim population.
Religion-related terrorism and sectarian violence is on increase in many parts of the world, and in many cases even the state imposed legal limits on worship, preaching or religious wear exist. The same Pew report, however, noted that Hindus, Buddhists and folk religions have shown lower levels of hostility and only minor change over the years.
However, the religion based conflicts are not a new feature. As a matter of fact, human civilization has faced this threat since ancient times and this has been a major cause of the faster growth and expansion of some religions beyond their place of origin in the world. A case in point could be the nemesis of Zoroastrianism which it is believed evolved in Persia (modern Iran) almost parallel to Hinduism in Indian sub-continent. At the time of Arab conquest of Persia, Parsis fought for years together against the systematic mass persecution by Arabs to preserve their religious identity and finally the few left over Parsi families migrated to Sindh and Gujarat in Indian subcontinent to preserve their life and identity.
No point in calling names of the institutions, organizations or nations but most of the social conflicts in the world today have been hijacked by the extremists and terrorists therein by waging war and terror activities in the name of religion. The religious extremists escalate conflicts through radical measures justifying it as the need to fulfilling God's wishes.
Some religions tend to justify evangelism, yet another source of conflict. Preachers and religious heads give call to believers to spread the word of God with a view to increasing the numbers of the followers. The effort to impose Christianity on people during the colonization era by the European powers in various parts of the world including India could be illustrated as a case of evangelism. Another reason for conflicts is the religious fundamentalism which is mostly driven by modernity and global materialism.
Avoiding Religious Conflicts
Some scholars and thinkers tend to reconcile that the religion is inherently conflictual but facts do not really conform to this approach. Ways and methodology of worship may be different but most religions profess the oneness of God. Those who are thorough in scriptures and holy books also agree that none of the religions teaches hatred and hostility towards the humanity and believers of other faith or creed. Unfortunate part is that many religious heads and preachers themselves have biased and coloured vision that often tend to exploit the ignorant believers with narrow interpretation of religious texts often due to vested interests.
Hence the obvious solution is to promote an increased awareness of the positive peace building and reconciliatory role that religion has played in many conflict situations. Fighting ignorance may go a long way to minimize or avoid religious conflicts. Within religious hierarchies, interfaith dialogue could be beneficial to remove suspicion and ambiguities. Here only problem is while poly- or henotheistic religions such as Hinduism have always been open for debate or dialogue but the monotheistic religions are against, some even treat it a blasphemy. Flexibility should be adopted for the good of mankind where rigidity is causing hindrance. For educated people, making a habit to learn about other religions could help in removing misconceptions and doubts, and in turn avoiding conflicts. The educated lot in all communities must understand that being aware about the other religions through reading or attending luminaries ‘sessions does not mean conversion or an step towards conversion. It simply means understanding and respecting others' faith and sentiments.
God is One and for All
Religion is a matter of faith and there should be no cause for any objection, intervention and suppression of someone else’s faith, be it individual, community or nationality, by followers of other religion, be it an individual community or nation. Nomenclature, form, place and mode of worship is a matter of individual choice and such differences are innate and natural in view of the facts that various civilizations and cultures evolved and grew under different geographic and demographic realms, and so often in isolation.
These are manmade distinctions but the supreme power (God) cannot make distinction or discrimination with their subjects, and for that matter with the entire universe. I mean heaven and hell are postulations of the mankind but there cannot be a different God for a different faith. Whatever name a religious sect or community gives to the supreme power but this is same God for the entire mankind. For the same very reason, there should be no room for any conflict among the believers more particularly the educated and enlightened people of all communities. At the same time, it is their moral and divine duty to work towards educating the ignorant masses with a view to avoiding religious conflicts.