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.
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian scholar, fluent in eight languages, who authored seminal works on the history of world religions and mythology. He is perhaps best known for his studies on shamanism, yoga, and alchemy. Eliade also edited the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Religion. And The Eliade Guide to World Religions (1991) offers a concise summary of his scholarly publications.
While some critics of Eliade’s work say it’s overly selective, it’s difficult to find a researcher who isn’t selective. Critics also say that Eliade superimposes grand theory on his research data. This seems a more reasonable charge, but the inevitability of subjectivity arguably lessens the impact of this criticism.
Eliade also wrote works of fiction, saying that he had no choice when the artistic muse struck him. He simply had to follow, alternating between the international scholar and budding author. With this kind of outlook it’s not surprising that Eliade was on good terms with C. G. Jung, Joseph Campbell and others of like mind.
Eliade’s scholarly views, however, sometimes differed from those of Jung and Campbell, a fact that he handled quite diplomatically, always politely disagreeing and never alienating them within the scholarly circle that met annually at the Switzerland Eranos conferences.
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- Right views
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
The path is not to be followed in a linear sense; the aspirant usually shifts from one prescription to another. And interpretations of each prescription differ according to the doctrine of a particular Buddhist school, of which there are myriad. Japan, alone, had 162 different Buddhist schools in 1972 (Eliade Guide to World Religions: 1991, p. 40).
Having said that:
- Right views generally refers to accepting the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the Four Noble Truths.
- Right intention refers to cultivating a state of mind leading to the flowering of awareness known as enlightenment (bodhi).
- Right speech means avoiding harsh, unnecessary and untruthful speech.
- Right action means monks following the rules of their order or laypersons avoiding slothful, violent and generally unethical actions.
- Right livelihood means avoiding unethical occupations.
- Right effort means harnessing all of one’s thoughts and activities to the goal of enlightenment.
- Right mindfulness dispassionately observes the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations, with a view towards controlling and stilling them.
- Right concentration refers to focusing on a single point, ultimately leading to the achievement of nirvana. Right concentration could be seen as the doorway to meditation, the last step towards the Buddhist understanding of enlightenment.
Many compare the Eightfold Path, in a very superficial way, to the Hindu Vedanta or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But an honest, clear-minded analysis reveals important differences among the teachings of these world religions. By way of analogy, it’s like saying coke is identical to corn syrup, which is identical to water. While these all share the quality of being liquids, they’re also quite different liquids. And so it is, many would contend, with the teachings (and effects) of different world religions.
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Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) was a Scottish anthropologist best known for his classic study of magic and religion, The Golden Bough.
His work had a tremendous effect on Joseph Campbell, among others. And many see him as one of the founders of modern anthropology.
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Hell is believed to be the abode of evil spirits, and a nasty place of temporary or eternal punishment for departed souls.
In Western religions, especially Christianity, hell is typically defined as the freely chosen absence of God’s presence.
Historically, most religions exhibit some conception of hell. Wikipedia suggests the following general distinction:
The ancient Hittites believed that unresolved violations and quarrels were carried over into a netherworld where the recently deceased would be tormented by a spirit until a settlement was reached, at which point the deceased would proceed to the land of the dead.
Christian theologians generally define hell as a deprivation of God’s presence, the horrific and eternal outcome of a conscious choice to follow one’s own will instead of God’s.
Islam posits a fiery hell called Jahannam, from the Judaic Gehenna, which may be permanent or temporary.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism portray multiple hells, varying in degrees of horror and misery. But, as indicated above, these hells aren’t permanent. They are temporary places of punishment and purification in a long journey involving reincarnation (or some variation of reincarnation).
Many traditional Christians regard this Hindu and Buddhist view of hell as a kind of cosmic ‘detention center’ as essentially misguided. Critics of reincarnation theory say that it gives seekers a presumptuous and, perhaps, reckless sense of overconfidence.
Because reincarnation theory indicates that hell is only temporary, its critics say that believers in reincarnation might do whatever they want and wrongly believe that it doesn’t matter, that they’ll still get to heaven anyway.
Some Christians, however, believe in the idea of universal salvation where even the most hardened sinners are eventually saved. This approach is much closer to the Hindu and Buddhist view.
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Broadly speaking, magic is the use of supernatural power to cause an effect on or gain knowledge of people, souls, animals, vegetation, objects, the elements and events. Magical procedures may involve elaborate ritual and are variously directed towards the past, present, future and afterlife or some combination thereof.
A distinction is usually made between white and black magic. White magic is allegedly intended to help people. Black magic is revengeful with the intent to harm others and thus more clearly evil.
Sympathetic magic is the belief that one event causes another, so the magician imitates a desired outcome. A positive example would be painting animals on a cave wall in the belief that this will enrich the hunt. A negative example would be believing that a barren woman is the cause of a blighted crop.
Contagious magic is based on the belief that things once in physical contact or proximity continue to have a magical connection after they’re separated.
The most familiar example of Contagious Magic is the magical sympathy which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person, as his hair or nails; so that whoever gets possession of human hair or nails may work his will, at any distance, upon the person from whom they were cut. This superstition is world-wide.¹
Another distinction is made between magic and religion. As Joachim Wach (1898-1955) suggests:
Religion differs from magic in that it is not concerned with control or manipulation of the powers confronted. Rather it means submission to, trust in, and adoration of, what is apprehended as the divine nature of ultimate reality.²
However S. G. F. Brandon says this is a biased perspective:
…such attempts generally rest on a priori definitions of the two entities concerned.³
Sociologists also point out similarities between magical and religious rituals. However, structural similarities do not necessarily entail equivalence.
We could, for instance, say that Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and New York are both big cities. Each has roads, buildings, people, movie halls and markets. But anyone visiting these two locales will be struck by their differences.
While an outsider may think that religious and magical rituals look the same and bring about similar results, to believers (on both sides) the numinous results differ dramatically. Modern magicians often say (or imply) that religious ritual is just an empty shell, cut off from any spiritual meaning it may have once had. Meanwhile, many contemporary religious persons shun magical rituals, often saying that the result brings about a kind of dark, gloomy, heavy and obscuring spirituality that is the work of evil.
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¹ Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). The Golden Bough. 1922.
² Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, ch. 2, Columbia University Press (1958), cited in The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996.
³ Dictionary of Comparative Religion, ed. S. G. F. Brandon, New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1970, p. 418.
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Ahura Mazda is the all-wise creator and God of Zoroaster‘s monotheism.
The deity may have evolved from the cult of Mithra. Some scholars link him to the Rig Vedic Asura, which originally meant “The Lord,” or to the more specific name Varuna.
Mazda first created the Amesha Spentas. These divine assistants are often compared to Archangels.
The Yazatas came next as holy beings worthy of mankind’s worship.
Mazda then created the seven aspects of the one Good Creation: Man, earth, fire, sky, water, livestock and vegetation.
But he did not create his evil counterpart, Ahriman, who is said to independently exist throughout all time.
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