Search Results for Comparative Religion
Comparative Religion is the academic study of world religions to determine differences, similarities and points of equivalence.
Most scholars cite Max Müller (1823-1900), Sir E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir J. G. Frazer (1854-1941) as the most important figures in the birth of comparative religion. And some will also mention Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681- 1746).
But this can be misleading because as far back as Xenophanes (6th century BCE) we find writers comparing different religions. Plato and Aristotle also discuss diverse worldviews. And, as S. G. F. Brandon points out, several lesser known ancient Greek and Latin writers realized the importance of discerning similarities among different religious beliefs.¹
In the 19th century scholars of comparative religion tended to believe that their work was objective. They also assumed that mankind evolved from primitive to advanced states of being. Moreover, Christian biases were often present. Ruldolf Otto (1869-1937) is often criticized in this regard.
More recently, far more subtle Christian biases can be found in the works of Mircea Eliade and C. G. Jung. Before the second Vatican Council Catholic theology studied other religions mostly to demonstrate their allegedly misguided or, worse, demonic status.
The notion of objectivity was challenged by poststructuralism in the 1960′s to 1990′s—that is, the very idea of scientific and (most forms of) absolute truth were questioned.² But this kind of thinking isn’t terribly new. It’s been present for centuries with figures like Friedrich Nietszche and Pontius Pilate.
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18: 37-38).
Today the poststructural perspective has permeated religious studies. And a recent branch of ‘postmodern theology’ offers compelling arguments for the deconstruction of Biblical and related religious assumptions.
Meanwhile, comparative religion usually involves theory and methodology courses to grapple with issues of subjectivity and interpretation vs. objectivity and truth. And also, a sociologist might argue, to try to legitimize itself as a “scientific” enterprise, which usually increases eligibility for grants, funding, and the like.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 202).
² Ironically, some second-rate historians still talk about historical records as if they “prove” (rather than suggest) this or that point of view.
In the ancient Egyptian religion of the New Kingdom the ba represents, generally speaking, the individual characteristics of a person, roughly analogous to the personality.
The ba was often understood in terms of the effect it had on others, not entirely unlike the New Age idea of the ‘past life review’ (where the recently departed soul allegedly sees how its good and bad actions in life impacted others).
In the vision of the afterlife described in the Pyramid Texts, the ba is said to return to the mummified body at night, essentially going to Osiris (as the god of the dead). Then it returns to the land of the living during the daytime, free to roam as a spiritual presence.¹
S. G. F. Brandon says that the ba originally connoted spiritual power.²
Depictions of the ba might be present in Old Kingdom funerary statues, although scholars debate this point. More commonly the ba is said to be represented in the New Kingdom as a bird with a human head.³
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¹ Donald B. Redford ed., The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology, 2003.
² S. G. F. Brandon ed., A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, New York: Scribner, 1970.
³ Redford, 2003.
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Confucianism is a Chinese teaching of morality, right action and right education, based on the ethical teachings of Confucius. Up until 1382, statues of Confucius were common in public places. Every city had a shrine dedicated to Confucius and at least two state festivals were held in his honor during mid-spring and mid-autumn. The roots of Confucianism can be found in the ancient Chinese scholar class, the Ju. They were experts on rituals, sacrifices and the connection between heaven and earth.¹
Following Confucius’ death in 479 BCE, various schools of Confucianism arose. These Confucian schools are often contrasted with the more mystical aspects of Taoism. Confucianism is usually associated with precise rules of behavior and the State education that persisted in China early into this century. Taoism, on the other hand, is usually associated with the free-floating, unregulated ideas of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, as popularized by Alan Watts and others.
But such a contrast is arguably overemphasized due to Western misunderstanding.
The rites of Confucianism (li) are meant to guide our natural and inherently good human potential (jen), they are not meant to oppress or stultify. Rules ideally are like stakes guiding a growing plant. Oppression arises when li are distorted or corrupted because a ruler is out of sync with the cosmic harmony (Tao). Notably, Confucius was not a snob. He believed that all people could attain ethical correctness and thus become noble (chun tzu).
These fundamental ideas belong to both Confucianism and Taoism. Differences were arguably not categorical but more about emphasis. The Neo-Confucian Mencius favored following personal intuition instead of adhering to external rules. But he certainly knew that one must calibrate one’s actions to one’s social circle, which, sociologists will tell us, always implies a kind of structure and rule. Mo Tzu highlighted the importance of universal love. Meanwhile, Mencius stressed the importance of love within one’s immediate circle, which, again, to be effective must take in to account socio-cultural rules and expectations.
Earlier Chinese religion practiced divination through oracle bones and the belief in a great cosmic being. But Confucianism generally tried to steer thinking away from the transcendent toward the humanistic. This trend is found in the main Confucian texts of the Analects, The Book of Rites, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 203-205).
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Ch’an Buddhism is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Based on the Sanskrit word dhyana, Ch’an apparently was brought to China in the early 6th century by the Buddhist Missionary Bodhidharma (also said to be the first to develop the koan).
Ch’an essentially is a meditation school. While interpretations differ as to the character of its ultimate goal (i.e. Buddha-mind), generally it can be described as a stillness where no distinctions exist between subject and object, good and evil and where emotion is brought to a place of quiescence or indifference. In other words, Ch’an claims to offer a path that leads beyond duality.
These lines sum up Bodhidharma’s teaching:
A special transmission outside the scripture
No dependence upon words or letter
Direct pointing to the soul of man
Seeing into nature and attainment of Buddhahood.¹
It should be noted, however, that Ch’an doesn’t scorn conceptual knowledge. Instead, it tries to avoid excessive intellectualization. This is an important distinction that many Buddhists and, perhaps, Gnostics seem to miss. There’s nothing wrong with thinking and forming concepts, Ch’an says. As human beings we simply must do. And healthy thinking can even extend to trying to map out ultimate concerns—that is, to develop a cosmology. The problem, as Ch’an sees it, is when we cling to intellectual ideas without enough spiritual experience to justify doing so.
We find this kind of excessive intellectualization not just in Asian religions, but in any immature fundamentalism where people “think” about what’s right and what is, without any truly elevated experience behind their ideas. These people latch onto or proclaim a pet theory because doing so gives them social comfort and, perhaps, pays the bills (as in fundamentalist organizations that demand or pressure workers to believe in a particular interpretation of sacred scripture).²
Another interesting feature of Ch’an is that its insights do not rely on seated meditation. Instead, a great deal of creative physical activity goes hand in hand with the inner quest.
As D. Howard Smith puts it:
The search for direct communication with the inner nature of things and the vision of a world beyond all opposites led to a great outpouring of creative art in China and Japan.³
So with Ch’an we don’t always find navel gazing meditators who artificially try to remove themselves from all that the world has to offer. Instead, there seems to be more of a creative integration between the contemplative and creative aspects of the human self. This path arguably comes closer to the Hindu ideal of karma-yoga (the yoga of action).
¹ Cited in S. G. F. Brandon, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970), p. 186.
² Whether or not these workers actually believe in and privately follow what they outwardly display through their sugar-coated, squeaky clean work personas is another matter altogether.
³ D. Howard Smith in S. G. F. Brandon (1970), p. 187.
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In ancient India the caste system apparently was regarded as a positive, divinely based phenomenon. The hierarchical differentiation of human beings on the basis of color (varna) and birth (jati) was seen as a worldly reflection of a ritually sacrificed Divine Body (purusa).
Accordingly, the Rig Veda of the conquering northern Aryans¹ tells of the ritual dismemberment of a Primal Cosmic Man, on which the caste system is based.
The highest, fair-skinned Brahman caste (priests, thinkers) emanated from the head, the lower and darker Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action) from the arms, while the next lower and darker Vaisna caste (merchants) originated from the thighs.
Later, the additional fourth, lowest and darkest Sudra caste (servants) was added, believed to be the “feet” of the purusa. This caste was probably created by the Aryans to account for the indigenous Dravidians.
Like distinctions made by the apostle Paul in the New Testament, each caste had a unique social duty (dharma) to fulfill, corresponding to the particular part of the cosmic body from which it originated. Unlike Pauline Christianity, however, the Sudras were forbidden to study the sacred scripture of the Veda.²
In time, another fifth category evolved, the “untouchables” (quite literally, societal outcasts), whose members were allegedly so lowly that they didn’t belong to any caste. Deploring the caste system, Mahatma Gandhi called these people Harijans (“Children of God”).
Of the upper three castes, at age twelve the Hindu male undergoes the ritual of upanaya, receiving a sacred thread to indicate his status as ‘twice born.’ Not unlike the Christian Confirmation or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, this ceremony contains both cultural and spiritual significance.
The western equivalent to caste is the equally misguided idea of class. Both concepts tend to separate and evaluate individuals on a hierarchical scale. Caste did this exclusively by birth, whereas class includes other variables.
Despite the fact that caste was openly challenged by Gandhi in the 1930s and legally criminalized in the 1950s, both subtle and overt injustices premised on caste distinctions continue to this day, just as they do with the idea of class.
¹ It should be noted that not everyone subscribes to that version of Indian history. Click here for more.
² Human nature being what it is, similar prohibitions later arose in the Christian Church regarding the study of Latin and the reading of the Bible.
³ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 175-177).
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Carvaka is a branch of ancient Indian philosophy marked by extreme materialism, making it a curious alternative to Indian philosophy’s mostly transcendental bias.
In direct opposition to the claims of so many Indian gurus and holy persons, Carvaka does not believe in any form of transcendental reality, be it a soul or God. According to Carvaka, life is finite and its proper aim is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In short, nothing exists that cannot be perceived beyond the senses, so the worldly life is where it’s at.
The only surviving written accounts concerning Carvaka come to us second-hand through 8thC Buddhist and Jain commentaries. All the original texts have disappeared in the sands of time or, perhaps, never really existed.
Along these lines, some scholars suggest the school may have never existed, except as a mock philosophy created by rival, transcendentally-based thinkers so as to demonstrate their apparent superiority. That being said, the general consensus is that Carvaka’s roots stem back to the 6th century BCE.¹
¹ S. G. F. Brandon, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 175).
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The Druids were Celtic pagan priests. Although much pseudo-history and quasi sacred lore can be found, in actual fact we don’t know too much about them because they were sworn to secrecy and not permitted to express their beliefs in writing. We do, however, have written accounts from indirect sources.
When in Gaul, the Roman leader Julius Caesar noted that the Druids worshipped gods, passed on their traditions to the young, practiced human sacrifice in oak groves and forbade certain people from attending sacrificial ceremonies. Because attendance at sacrificial ceremonies cemented one’s in-group status, those forbidden to attend were marginalized.
Caesar also says the Druids met annually at a location taken to be the center of Gaul. Like contemporary priests, they didn’t fight in wars nor pay taxes. The Roman writer Pliny (the Elder, 23-79 CE) wrote that, in addition to their priestly role, the Druids were seers, diviners and healers.
The ancient Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56–117 CE) mentions Druidic presence in Britain. The Druids served as officials at their allegedly bloody and frightening human sacrifices, the victims usually being criminals. Sometimes, however, innocent people were sacrificed in times of national calamity.
Caesar says that giant casings of intertwined branches held victims as they were burnt alive by the Druids. Humans and animals, alike, were used as burnt offerings for the gods. However, it’s been suggested that the Romans cited the Druidic practice of human sacrifice to undermine the Druid’s political power. The Romans, themselves, executed human beings for the apparent good of the State (in the form of scourging to the death or crucifixion) but human sacrifice to the gods was no longer practiced in the classical world.
Despite New Age philosophies based on the alleged teachings of the Druids, there is scant hard evidence that they possessed any detailed body of esoteric knowledge or, as S. G. F. Brandon puts it, “any subtle and sophisticated philosophy.” Brandon, in fact, suggests that the Druids were not unlike any other “barbarian priesthood.”¹ And there’s no visible evidence to link the Druids with Stonehenge, as suggested by the English writer John Aubrey in 1649 and by numerous TV specials and contemporary enthusiasts.
Through the fantasy literature of writers like J. J. R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, the idea of the Druid-Sorcerer is firmly established as a kind of archetypal image depicting the powerful, brooding, wise and yet somewhat ambivalent magician. Not surprisingly, Druids feature prominently in off- and online gaming.
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¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., “Celtic (Pagan) Religion” in A Dictionary of Comparative Religion: New York: Scribner, 1970, p. 180-184. By way of contrast, Neo-Druidism is a movement that, among other things, venerates nature.
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The Donatists were a 4th century schismatic group in the North African Church, named after their leader, Donatus. They disputed conventional theologians like St. Augustine and also the authenticity of a certain bishop (Caecillian) whom they said had been consecrated by a traitor to the faith (The traitor apparently had handed over the Bible to Roman persecutors).
The Donatists resorted to violence in their bid to wrest Africa from Roman rule. And they survived until the Arab takeover of North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries.¹
Theologically, the Donatists believed that a corrupt priest could not effectively administer the sacraments. So apart from their political importance, they raised a theological question which many still wrestle with today:
Can a corrupt priest effectively administer the sacraments?
Not too many contemporary critics of Catholicism are aware that the Church quickly dealt with this question—albeit, in its own way. Basically, the Church forwarded an argument that is now known as ex opere operato (Latin: by the action performed). Among believers, ex opere operato indicates that a sacrament is always effective when administered by a consecrated priest, regardless of the moral condition of his soul at the time.
Some may object by saying that dressing up a theological idea in fancy sounding Latin doesn’t necessarily make it a true idea. On the other hand, if one believes that we’re all born with the taint of original sin and remain imperfect throughout our lives, the ex opere operato argument seems not only reasonable but necessary. That is, if a priest had to be morally spotless to effectively administer the sacraments, would it ever happen?
¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 245.
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A Dogma is a doctrine or a creed that can refer to religious or non-religious belief. The word “dogma” comes from the Greek dogma (“opinion” or “that which seems good”).¹ Dogma often refers to beliefs articulated and endorsed by the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, apparently derived from divine revelation, and to be accepted by believers despite the lack of conventional scientific evidence to support them.
But the word dogma has also been applied within the philosophy of science. For instance, Willard Quine wrote a seminal paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which levels a devastating critique of those who uncritically accept truth claims made by scientists.²
In everyday usage, the word dogma can refer to any kind of authoritarian claim that demands or depends on unquestioning belief. For instance, we have dogmas about healthy eating habits, normal sleep patterns, the efficacy of some green products, what constitutes intelligence and success, to name a few.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, pp. 244-245.
² Unfortunately, if someone is callow or careless enough to be uncritically blinded by science, they probably won’t take the time to try to understand what Quine is saying.
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Divination (from Latin divinare “to foresee, to be supernaturally inspired”) is trying to tell the future, locating lost objects or revealing hidden personality traits through magical or spiritual means, usually with the aid of a special technique. Divination appears in most societies throughout human history. The practice is so widespread that it’s found among the very first literature cultures. S. G. F. Brandon suggests that divination takes two main forms, which he calls automatic and interrogation of divine intent.¹
Some religions frown on the practice, or have come to frown on it by claiming to progressively “perfect,” “complete” or “fulfill” its imperfect religious roots (Christianity being a prime example). But for the most part, divination has been condoned or encouraged by zealous leaders and layperson alike, eager to know what life has in store for them, and how they should best decide on certain issues.
Delphi was home to the famous Dephic oracle. In Tibet, state temples were devoted to divination. In ancient China the I Ching was developed. In Africa oracles and female mediums were consulted. In the ancient Near East animal entrails were examined, their form and condition apparently foretelling future events.
The ancient Romans were mostly concerned with determining the gods’ attitudes towards certain acts. Auspicia were favorable omens (usually the flight of birds) that only senior Roman magistrates could interpret. Prodigia, on the other hand, were evil omens interpreted by the Roman elite, the effects of which could be avoided by civic piety and priestly skill. Augurs involved observing animals, in general, to receive a sign that would help in deciding action in public and private affairs. The Romans, however, were not bound to accept a given augur. They could reject it if they wished, and act on their own accord.²
In the New Testament we have the indisputable example of the Three Wise Men following the star that lead them to bear gifts to Jesus Christ. Despite this, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote the “Warning Against So-Called Judicial Astrology” in 1549. And Pope Sixtus V officially condemned all forms of divination in 1586.³
Several centuries prior, St. Francis of Assisi apparently opened the Bible at random every morning and read a verse, believing that God directed him to the passage that would set the right tone for his actions through the day.
In a similar vein, the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung believed a spiritus rector lead him to open books at the right page, turn on the radio at the precisely right moment, and so on, in order for meaningful coincidences (synchronicities) to take place.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, pp. 115, 243.
² Ibid. The entry on divination gives many more examples, as does Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divination
³Duby and Perrot (eds.) A History of Women, Vol 3, 2000, p. 455.