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Shintoism Posted on: 2004/3/20 14:30
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Numbers: 4 million

Founder: Shinto claims no founder

Main Tenets: Shinto (or kami no michi, "way of the kami," or gods) is a prehistoric religious tradition indigenous to Japan, which has been influenced by Buddhism and Chinese religions and provides a worldview that has become central to Japanese culture and national identity. Shinto recognizes no all-powerful deity and is a diverse set of traditional rituals and ceremonies, rather than a system of dogmatic beliefs or ethics. The kami are the powers of nature primarily associated with such things as animals, trees, mountains, springs, boulders, the sun, and so forth. They also sometimes include the earliest ancestors of the Japanese, as well as the souls of the dead, and are revered in matsuri, or celebrations that seek to ensure continued order in the cosmos. Offerings such as fish, rice and vegetables are presented to the kami and later eaten. Music, dancing, and praise are also offered, and Shinto priests bless all with the branch of the sacred sakaki tree dipped in holy water. Another, shamanistic type of Shinto ritual exists in rural areas, in which miko (women shamans) speak for the kami by falling into a trance.

Main Sacred Text: Shinto has no comprehensive canon of scripture. No written Shinto documents survive from before the seventh century. But a written Shinto mythology appears in the early sections of the eighth-century books "Kojiki" ("Records of Ancient Matters," completed in 712 C.E.) and "Nihon Shoki" ("Chronicles of Japan," completed in 720 C.E.), which record the role of the kami in creating Japan and the Japanese imperial lineage. The divine pair Izanagi and Izanami brought forth Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestress of the Japanese emperor (hence the sun on the Japanese flag).

Principal Center: Shinto shrines can be found in groves of trees all over Japan. All the shrines have sacred gates (torii) and often contain water for symbolic purification of hands and mouth; larger shrines have main halls, buildings for offerings, and oratories. Inside the main hall resides the goshintai (god-body), which is sometimes represented by a mirror, but more often nothing at all. The classic Shinto shrine is the world-renowned Ise Shrine, the primary cult site for Amaterasu, arguably the most important kami.
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Baha'i Posted on: 2004/3/20 14:26
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Numbers: About 6 million people claim affiliation with Baha'i and its predecessor, Babism. Main tenets: Baha'i believe in the unity of all humankind, and therefore the unity of all religions. This means that Baha'i adherents believe that all religions teach the same truth. They therefore reject all prejudice--racial, political, or otherwise--and stress ethical teachings such as world peace, education, and sexual equality. Although they believe that God is completely unknowable, they hold that God's presence and works are evident in the creation of the world and the existence of the prophets, among other things. Important Baha'i prophets include Adam, the Jewish prophets, Jesus, and Muhammed, all of whom have been succeeded by Baha'ullah, the founder of Baha'i.
Founder: Baha'i was founded in Iran in the mid-nineteenth century by Mirza Husayn Ali (1817-1892). Better known as Baha'ullah, he believed that he was the prophet foretold by the Bab, a religious leader who was a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. Baha'ullah was persecuted and banished several times during his life, and he died as a prisoner in Palestine. After his death, one of his two sons set out on missionary journeys to Egypt, Europe, and America, establishing branches of the community.

Main sacred text: Among his many writings, Baha'ullah's Kitab al-Aqdas ("The Most Holy Book"), which contains detailed instructions for Baha'i life, is perhaps the closest to scriptures for Baha'is. However, there is no formal public ritual or priesthood. Local congregations hold informal devotional sessions.

Historical roots: Baha'i is an outgrowth of a religious movement known as Babism. Babism stemmed from the Twelver Shi'a sect of Islam, which holds that the twelfth of a series of great imams vanished from sight but is still alive and will return to institute an era of justice and peace.

Headquarters: The headquarters of Baha'i is currently in Haifa, Israel, near the graves of Baha'ullah and his predecessor, the Bab.
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Jainism Posted on: 2004/3/20 14:07
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Numbers: One of the oldest religious traditions of India, Jainism has existed side by side with Hinduism throughout its long history. With fewer than 5 million adherents and comprising less than 1% the Indian population, Jainism has demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and endurance and continues to exert an influence far beyond its small numbers.

Founder: Jainism (the name derives from a Sanskrit word meaning "follower of the Jina, or conqueror") was established in our era by Mahavira ("the Great Hero") in the sixth century B.C.E. In fact, Mahavira is considered only the most recent in a list of 24 such teachers who brought Jainism into the world during previous great cosmic eras of time. These teachers, or "Tirthankaras," taught a path to religious awakening based on renouncing the world by practice of strict religious austerity. Mahavira established a monastic community of both nuns and monks. This community is the oldest continually surviving monastic community in the world.

Main Tenets: Jains reject belief in a creator god and seek release from endless reincarnation through a life of strict self-denial. The title of Jina is given to those who are believed to have triumphed over all material existence. As all human activity accumulates karma, the force that perpetuates reincarnation, the only way to free one's jiva, or soul, from the bondage of material existence is by reducing this activity through ascetic practice. In addition, Jainism places a special emphasis on ahimsa ("non-injury") to all living beings. The concern for life is extended to all creatures, even minute microbes that are not visible. The Jain ideal is a mendicant ascetic who takes extreme measures to avoid injuring all creatures. Monks and nuns are sometimes seen with muslin cloths over their mouths to keep out flying insects, and they are enjoined to use small brooms to gently sweep away living creatures from their path, so as to not accidentally crush them.

Main Sacred Text: The sacred texts of the Jains are called Agamas. The two main branches of Jainism share many of the same sacred texts in common, but since their split in the fifth century C.E., they have developed different traditions of textual transmission. Both branches claim that authority for the most ancient texts derives from Mahavira, who was in turn enunciating sacred truths that the Tirthankaras before him had taught. Handed down orally in the monastic communities, the sacred literature was not written down until about 500 C.E.

There are several differences between the two traditions of Jainism, the Shvetambaras ("white-clad monastics") and the Digambaras ("sky-clad monastics"). Shvetambaras believe that monks and nuns should be permitted to wear a simple white robe. Digambaras require monks to be nude.
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Sikhism Posted on: 2004/3/20 14:06
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Numbers: 18 million

Founder: Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) was the first of Sikhism's ten Gurus, a lineage of holy teachers that continued until the end of the seventeenth century. The Gurus are understood to be the mediators of divine grace.

Main tenets: The term Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word for "disciple" or "learner." Sikhs are those who are disciples to the Guru. Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of northwest India, where it drew on elements from Bhakti Hinduism and Islamic Sufism to develop into a distinctive religious tradition in its own right. Sikhs believe that liberation from the karmic cycle of rebirths occurs in the merging of the human spirit with the all-embracing spirit of God. Their religious worship involves contemplation of the divine Name. The ultimate deity is known by several names: Sat (truth), Sat Guru (true Guru), Akal Purakh (timeless being), Kartar (creator) and Wahi-Guru ("praise to the Guru"). By concentrating on God's Name (or many titles), one conquers the ego and unites with God.

Known as the "religion of the householder," Sikhism emphasizes the family, and advocates living in the world without being worldly. Moral purity is considered the chief basis of religion. There is no priesthood per se, but there are official readers of scripture.

The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, instituted the Khalsa brotherhood, in which initiates are required to wear five distinctive symbols: uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist bangle, a sword, and short underpants. Not all Sikhs belong to this disciplined fellowship, but many do obey the principle rules of Khalsa. Guru Gobind Singh also required all male Sikhs to take the name Singh (meaning "lion") and all female Sikhs to take the name Kaur ("princess"). These measures give Sikhs a strong sense of communal identity, symbolized by the characteristic turbans and beards worn by Sikh men.

Main sacred text: The compilation of the Sikh scriptures, the Adi Granth, was begun in 1604 by the Fifth Guru. The last of the ten Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh, announced that he would be the last personal Guru and that thereafter, Sikhs were to regard the Adi Granth (Guru Granth Sahib) as their teacher. This sacred book is considered the living embodiment of all ten Gurus and is therefore the focus of worship in all Sikh temples and local gurudwaras, or sanctuaries. The Adi Granth comprises three main parts: a long poem by Nanak summing up the elements of Sikhism, a collection of Ragas, or songs composed by the first five Gurus, and a mixed collection of commentaries elaborating on the Ragas together with hymns of many Hindu saints and Sufi mystics.

Principal center: The Golden Temple of Amritsar in India.
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