Yesterday I was driving around to charge the battery in my 27-year old Jag, and went west of Friendswood on a road I haven’t traveled in several decades. Just barely outside the city limits I came upon a Buddhist temple with a giant Buddha statue and two stele.
I drove straight home and returned with Natasha and Grandon to investigate more thoroughly. The following was written upon the left hand stele:
I had been thinking that the “essential purpose” of Judaism and Christianity was the resolution or forgiveness of guilt. So now I have the essential purpose of another religion and it is different. Buddhism is concerned with the relief of suffering. This is consistent with other things I’ve heard about it.
So what is the purpose of other major religions? I set out just now to discover.
I have read a good bit about Islam but could not pick out the purpose of it off the top of my head. When reading this excellent article A Black Christian Speaks on ISLAM: The Whole Truth. : ThyBlackMan.com (worth reading) I realized it is about “submission”. That agrees with what I had learned, and many visible aspects of the religion.
Those three I’m fairly sure of. The other top religions I’ve read less about, except possibly folk religions but there are so many of them. Below is a list I compiled of the largest religions and what their essential purpose is:
|Christianity||31.2%||1st century AD||absolution from guilt|
|Islam||24.1%||7th century AD||submission|
|Irreligion||16.0%||distant past||realism, freedom from superstition|
|Hinduism||15.1%||23rd-15th cent. BC||ending the endless cycle of birth|
|Buddhism||6.9%||5th cent. BC||freedom from suffering|
|Folk religions||5.7%||1000 centuries BC||(a) maintaining connection with ancestors|
|(b) exorcism or banishment of ghosts/demons|
|(c) control of physical world using ghosts, demons or magic|
|Sikhism||0.3%||15th century AD||blend of Christianity and Hinduism (cycle can be ended by god’s grace)|
|Judaism||0.2%||15th century BC||atonement of guilt through law-keeping and sacrifice, union with god|
It immediately sticks out that 3 of the top 7 started in India. Another 3 started in the Middle East. The only other one essentially started so far in the past a location is not too meaningful. I suppose with respect to established religions, India and the Middle East had early civilization. However, the earliest Middle East religions, from similar time frames as Hinduism, did not survive except as mythological literature. Hardly anyone worships Inanna or Zeus. Though Allah may be an old pagan mood god, and it has long been observed the similarity of Jesus and Ba’al. An early Chinese religion did not make the top 7 list, though Buddhism spread there and also to Japan where it gave rise to Zen. Ancestor worship in China and Japan would, I think, come under Folk religions. But I don’t actually know if the people who compiled this table counted it there. The founding and purpose columns were added by me.
My dating of Folk Religions is based on ceremonial burial of the dead with artifacts from life, which began about 100,000 years ago and rapidly spread. Despite the resources consumed or sacrificed, which reached a peak just before the advent of writing with entire courts and their living retinues sometimes being buried with kings, and wives with husbands, practitioners out-competed the more pragmatic sorts. There are various theories about this. Maybe religion increased cooperation (I’m not completely convinced). Or maybe when being reach a certain level of sentience they just can’t plan and function under the constraint of a limited lifespan.
These two can be united based on the Last Turn Dilemma, an idea that just occurred to me. The last turn dilemma is that in game theory, it is advantageous to cheat on the last turn. The opponent/partner cannot retaliate. However, if you know your playing partner thinks this way, it is advantageous to cheat on the next to last turn. And by similar reason the 2nd and 3rd to last, and by induction, on every turn. Mortality establishes that there is a last turn, and potentially places a limit on sentience, because more sentient beings would cooperate less (a finding social science research supports). Belief in an afterlife, conditional upon the current life, works to remove the last turn dilemma.
It is likely the dead were buried to get rid of ghosts. Whether people saw actual ghosts or imagined they did, the ghosts often in folktales ask for their body to be buried and promise to go away when this is done. I recall my mother saying she awoke one morning after my father died, and saw him walk across the room to get his wallet. If one saw ghosts attempting to get or use things of their daily life, this would explain ceremonial burial. As the belief became entrenched, one can imagine it growing. It’s not clear to me why it should decline after the invention of writing.
We have people among us now who act as lunatics. Sometimes they are dangerous. They may walk in a school and commit mass murder of children, which is not rational. But something that the ghost of an enemy might do. So there is a similarity between hostile ghosts (demons) and living people who are anti-social, sociopathic, schizophrenic, or otherwise violently abnormal. So exorcism would serve a similar purpose as ceremonial burial, and I have lumped these essential purposes together.
Primitive people did not necessarily bury their immediate ancestors in remote locations and abandon them, however. They kept the bones under the floor, for several generations, and took them when they moved. They embalmed and kept heads or skulls, and seem to have imagined conversing with their ancestors. Anyone who has lost dearly loved parents can sympathize with this. But someone who seriously believed in ghosts and demons would experience it as more real.
Control of the world via demons or magic is accomplished by requesting spirits do it. Animism involves the belief that material objects possess spirits. There is residue of this even in ancient Greek religion. My mother, a few months before she died, told me to look for her in the trees. Mother was a devout Christian, yet some of these older beliefs persisted in her.
Famous agricultural rituals involved doing things in the fields to suggest fertility, so the spirits of the seeded plants and the land would take the hint and grow. This is a basic magical concept, imitation. You see it also in Voodoo dolls. Gradually the larger of these spirits, those most important, became gods. For example, the north or south wind could be invoked to control the weather. The god of storm and thunder characterized Zeus and also Ba’al.
So that is the rational behind the essential purpose of Folk Religion, which I consider the fundamental basis or origin for all religion.
The oldest established formal religion is Hinduism. It’s purpose of ending the endless cycle does not resonate with us in the west, especially in the US where there isn’t much history and everything is new. Behind the dilemma of the endless cycle is karma. What you do comes back to you. Think how similar this is to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you do bad things, you come back on a lower rung and have to work your way up again. As you gain wealth and power, it is so easy to slip up and go backward in the next life and suffer. So many of the ideas of morality, guilt and suffering are already present in Hinduism.
Buddhism is a rather small reformation of Hinduism. The purpose of Hinduism was already to end the cycle, and the cycle was seen as suffering, but it was rather difficult, sort of like the Old Testament law. The Buddha achieved enlightenment, and by foregoing attachment to the things of this world, in which the cycles play out, ended suffering immediately. My understanding of Buddhism may be erroneous, I am no expert. But according to the stele, it’s purpose is freedom from suffering.
In Judaism and Christianity the endless cycle just becomes hell. When we understand this equivalence, it is a bit easier to understand why Hinduism was concerned with ending the cycle. But in the more straightforward Middle Eastern thinking, you get one chance and once you are in hell that’s that. Further, the idea emerges that eventually you will do something stupid and go to hell. To avoid this fate you have to have to follow a strict set of guidelines (the law) or simply be forgiven by “accepting” a deity.
Continuing to the most recently founded, I have written in the chart what I found on Wikipedia that the purpose of Sikhism is to get off the endless cycle but this can be done by grace, as in Christianity. I have read little about it. There seems to be a component of interest in the social or political sphere, i.e. Sikhism is concerned with society. Maybe? That’s all I get from a quick review. It is definitely aligned with New Age philosophy of meditation and the use of gurus.