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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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Zoroastrianism Posted on: 2004/3/20 14:00
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Numbers: 150,000

Founder: Zarathustra (in Greek, Zoroaster) was a Persian prophet who at the age of 30 believed he had seen visions of God, whom he called Ahura Mazda, the creator of all that is good and who alone is worthy of worship. This was a departure from previous Indo-Persian polytheism, and Zarathustra has been termed the first non-biblical monotheist (though monotheism in Zoroastrianism never took on the absolute quality that it assumed in Judaism and Islam). Though there is disagreement among scholars as to exactly when and where Zarathustra lived, most agree that he lived in eastern Iran probably around the sixth century B.C.E.

Main Tenets: Zoroastrian theology is strongly dualistic. In his visions, Zarathustra was taken up to heaven, where Ahura Mazda revealed that he had an opponent, Aura Mainyu, the spirit and promoter of evil. Ahura Mazda charged Zarathustra with the task of inviting all human beings to choose between him (good) and Aura Mainyu (evil). Consequently, Zoroastrianism is a highly ethical religion. Zarathustra taught that humans are free to choose between right and wrong, truth and lie, and light and dark, and that their acts, words, and thoughts would affect their lives after death. He was thus the first to promote a belief in two heavenly judgments: of the individual soul right after death and of all humankind after a general resurrection. His ideas of heaven, hell, and the resurrection of the body profoundly influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Later Zoroastrianism conceived of an opposition between body and soul, though there was no suggestion in its theology that the body was evil and the soul was good. A wandering preacher from Mesopotamia named Mani developed those theories into an extreme form of dualism called Manichaeism.

Main Sacred Text: The Zoroastrian "Avesta" ("Book of the Law") is a fragmentary collection of sacred writings divided into: liturgical works with hymns ascribed to Zarathustra; invocations and rituals to be used at festivals; hymns of praise; and spells against demons and prescriptions for purification. Compiled over many centuries, the Avesta was not completed until Persia's Sassanid dynasty (226-641 C.E.).

Principal Center: Zoroastrianism all but disappeared in Persia after the Muslim invasion of 637 C.E. Only about 10,000 survive in remote villages in Iran, but over the centuries many sought religious freedom in India.
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Taoism Posted on: 2004/3/20 13:58
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Numbers: Because Chinese religious beliefs and practices overlap, the exact number of Taoists is difficult to estimate. However, about 225 million people adhere to Chinese traditional religions, of which Taoists is probably the chief one.

Founder: Lao Zi, (or Lao-tzu, according to the older Wade-Giles system of romanizing Chinese characters), supposedly an elder contemporary of Confucius (c. 551-470 B.C.E.), has traditionally been credited with founding Taoism, but few scholars now believe that any such person as Lao Zi ever lived. Unlike Confucius, who sought harmony in the ordering of social life, Lao Zi located life's ultimate principle in nature.

Main tenets: Taoism takes its name from the word "Tao" ("the Way"), the ancient Chinese name for the ordering principle that makes cosmic harmony possible. Not a transcendent ultimate, the Tao is found in the world (especially in nature), and can be encountered directly through mystical experience. It is the ultimate reality as well as the proper natural way of life humans must follow. Taoism prizes naturalness, non-action, and inwardness.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Taoism,: philosophical and religious. Philosophical Taoism is rational, contemplative, and nonsectarian, and it accepts death as a natural returning to the Tao. Religious Taoism is magical, cultic, esoteric, and sectarian, and it emphasizes health and healing as ways to gain long life or even immortality. T'ai chi and the medical practice of Quigong are modern manifestations of Taoism.

Main sacred text: It is still convenient to speak of Lao Zi as the author of the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing, "Book of the Way and Its Power"), the most important scripture of popular Taoist sects. Dating from the early third century B.C.E., this text combines religion, philosophy, poetry, and mysticism. The Tao Te Ching later became part of a larger Taoist canon (Tao Zang) which includes revelations, meditative and ritual texts, moral codes, registers of names and functions of spirits, and texts on alchemy, exorcism, astrology, and philosophy. Although Kublai Khan ordered the Tao Zang burned in 1281, it survived, and in its last main printing in 1926, it included 1,120 volumes. Other texts held as important in Taoism include the philosophical writings of Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.E.).

Principal center: In China, Taoism came into conflict with Confucianism and later, Communism. Today it survives in most of China only in folk beliefs and small monastic communities. Taoism does survive in other forms wherever traditional Chinese culture survives, especially in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Hawaii, and, most recently, in continental North America and Europe.
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