The oldest religions that exist in society today date back two or even three millennia. Hinduism known as the world’s oldest living religion has its origin dated back to the late Neolithic age (5500-2600 BCE) and even the modern Hinduism that is based on Vedas finds its roots in sacred texts written dated to 1700-1100 BCE. Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and many of the other sects of major religions we see today have developed over hundreds of years as far back as twenty five centuries ago. It is but natural that the original philosophies that have given birth to of these religions have lost their source of wisdom and found themselves hanging to dogma and blind belief in order to sustain the faith. The myths that have given birth to these tenets are indeed worth studying as, in them, we find many anthropological insights about historical civilizations that also throw light on modern society. Interestingly enough, many religions across the world share similarities in symbolism, mythological context and also, deeper philosophical meanings. In this paper, we will compare the tenets of religions like Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, while exploring the implications of these similarities on society.
‘Story’ as the vehicle
Religions were once merely philosophical schools of thought, but soon it became important for them to spread into the society, to the common, even illiterate people in order to sustain the way of life. The inbound relationship between ideology and action necessary to validate any philosophy gave birth to the medium of the story and later myth. For example, Krishna Consciousness, the modern movement with its spiritual base firmly planted in the Hindu sacred text of Bhagavad-Gita preaches non-violence to animals under the pretext that eating meat, wearing fur and other such activities pollute human consciousness with that of the animal, causing the soul to be reborn in the body of an animal (Prabhupada 768). Truth is, it is merely an interpretation of the poetic text of Gita by the founder Prabhupada, but Krishna Consciousness followers firmly believe that this is the truth. In comparison, although the concept is not endorsed by Christianity, resurrection is. The belief in one god further simplifies the matter and the story of the Christ serves as a vehicle for the very idea that sacred souls are immune to the phenomenon of death.
Throughout history many religions came and went, but those that survived have a strong foundation of mythology behind them, their stories explaining (vaguely) many universal phenomena that are still aeons beyond the grasp of science. Many of the dogmas in different religions, whether it is resurrection, virginal births or the agents of god, disciples, etc. have been reflected in different religions in similar stories. For example, the story of the saviour–or God’s own child being born on the earth to redeem humans of their sins and misery is such a story that reverberates throughout mythologies worldwide. The documentary, Zeitgeist: The Movie throws light on several such stories. Jesus and Krishna are both such saviours. And so was the Greek god Dionysus and the one before them all, the Egyptian sun god Horus. The story of the saviour was so persistently seen in so many religions, with similarities in names, contexts and astrological subtext that it brings to question, not just the historical basis of these myths, but the ultimate reason how a story can survive this long in human history. Surely, it must answer some questions that are very important to human society.
The basis for all religion: The question
As human beings, we understand that there are certain phenomena that cannot be answered through science or rationale. One such phenomenon is death. Death forever remains a question mark to a normal human being because he simply cannot accept it. The level of non-acceptance of death is so profound and historical that many myths have arisen to paint a picture that continues life, any kind of life.
In Hinduism, death is not a part of reality, especially where soul is concerned. The eternal journey of the soul is emphasised in many ways and rebirth is only one of them. Karma and Moksha are two concepts that evolved through the theories of Hinduism and while one subjects itself to action and reaction chain, the other denotes the ultimate goal of a soul.
Heaven and Hell: Christianity
Christianity is more rigid when it comes to death, but the dogmas of heaven and hell are enough to make a follower keep to the faith. In Christianity too, life follows after death, but either in heaven or in hell. The portrayal of Jesus Christ as the benevolent, forgiving god with all pervading love ensures the faithful followers of their rightful place in heaven and the sinful of a chance to redeem their sins and renew their faith (Adams 433). Monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism subscribe to this language of heaven and hell, with similar descriptions, mostly because of their Abrahamic origins.
In Buddhism, the body is in a constant state of change (Anicca) that death becomes inconsequential as it too is one such change that is expected at some point in life. Nibbana is be ultimate goal of a soul in Buddhism and through the practices of meditation and other techniques prescribed by Buddha, the blissful state of Nibbana can be achieved in this lifetime. Although, Buddhism too subscribes to the concept of rebirth, there is no mythological basis for it, except for a clear cut explanation as to how to embrace death as complete freedom from the limitations of the body. The following excerpt throws light on this complicated ideology.
When vedana (sensation) ceases, tanha (craving) ceases; when tanha ceases, upadana (clinging) ceases; when upadana ceases, kammabhava or upapattibhava (process of volitional action and rebirth process) ceases; when kammabhava or upapattibhava ceases, jara (old age), marana (death), soka (sorrow), parideva (lamentation), dukkha (pain), domanassa (grief), and upayasa (despair) cease. (“Vedana and Sampajanna” 104)
Death is not the only question that impounded the mind of a mortal human, so did society. As death is something that needs explanation, (civilized) life is too. The way in which a society should be (as opposed to the way it actually is) is a major question of concern addressed by religions worldwide. Monotheism is a trend that emerged in Abrahamic religions as well as Asian in order to sustain different forms of government. In Christianity, the Church lays rules as to how a person should act or should not act and had historically played a major role in decreeing the governments on their different laws and administrative policies. Hinduism on the other hand grew vicariously through monarchies spanned over many centuries, each era predisposed to accepting the king as the one god in human form. There was no question in either religion as to the role it has to play in the administration of kingdoms or countries.
The Church and the Apostles: The part of the story that emphasises that Jesus had twelve disciples played a major role in the establishment of the Church and its subsequent indoctrination of various kingdoms and governments across Europe. The same applies for Judaism which has a similar story. Although Christ has died, his teachings survived through his disciples and subsequently, the practices of priesthood and fatherhood emerged. Many elements of way Christian subjects live their life are decreed by the church through administrative policy, congregations and other methods. For example, the oldest recorded event in the history of Christianity and Judaism, the Council of Jerusalem was conducted in order to decide whether or not Christians are required to be circumcised or not. Circumcision being the ultimate Jewish practice, it clashed with the distinction of a highly separate Christian sect and hence the council decided that Christians will not be circumcised, while the common restrictions in both religions against eating blood or meat with blood, fornication and idolatry still remained. (Fridell and Walther 63)
King Ram as the incarnation of God : The Hindu mythological text of Ramayana depicts the story of Ram, the king of whole India and his administration. In the text written by Valmiki, there are vivid descriptions of a king-less state where misery and chaos prevails. He writes at one point where anarchy sends the empire into turmoil, “As the sight is essential to the body, so is a king necessary to the state for the propagation of truth and religion.” Ram is described as the incarnation of Vishnu, the supreme god in several instances and the trend continued in Mahabharata, the epic following Ramayan where it is stated that the king is not a normal man, but a deity in the form of a human being. Historical texts on administration in India, like Kautilya’s Arthashstra talk of espionage personnel capable of planting stories about the king’s superpowers and his god-like abilities in order to weaken enemy resolve.
Truth and Symbolism
There are few truths more universal than death in every living being. What comes close in comparison is that the sun rises every morning and sets in the evening. The poetic nature of the sun rising from a symbolic death every morning is of course one of the most religious advantage. As Zeitgeist: The movie portrays, it’s the greatest story ever told. The characterisation of Jesus and the events of his life are directly related to the astrological interaction of the sun with the rest of the stars in space. In comparison, Hindu mythology also heavily endorses astrology where events in outer space, like a particular star shining or a constellation appearing are given undue importance by notating an event in the deity’s life on earth. Below are a few examples and comparisons from Christian and Indian mythologies that point towards similar origins of different stories.
Birth of the god. Birth of a particular deity is given major importance in different mythologies across the world, some of the striking similarities pointing to celestial significance. Krishna is born when the star Rohini was shining in the east. Jesus was born when the star Syrius was shining in the east. Both Krishna and Jesus are born in a cave (in some accounts, in a barn or a lowly place) symbolically relating to the Sun’s dark place during winter solstice. They are born to virgin mothers even though Mary and Devaki were both known to have children before Jesus or Krishna. This reference is to the constellation Virgo that appears along the time of Jesus’s birth. Krishna is carried away in a reed basket to prevent infanticide and so is Jesus. Both of them perform miracles when they are children and at the age of twelve significant events happen.
Crucifixion and Resurrection. Crucifixion is actually a symbolic narrative of the relation between sun and the constellation called Crux. The sun is visually in the centre of crux with its brightness coming to a maximum during the spring equinox. This is the period in which Easter is celebrated when the Christ is said to be resurrected. Even in Hindu mythology, Krishna is said to be crucified by an arrow in his feet (leading him to death), after which he is resurrected long enough to redeem the hunter of his sin.
In addition to Krishna, Karna, son of Kunti was another such virgin born child in the lineage of the sun god. Towards the end of the Neolithic age, Hinduism was evidently separated into two different sects of Suryavanshis (descendants of the sun) who worshipped Hindu gods according to the solar calendar and the Chandravanshis (descendants of the moon) who followed the lunar calendar. In Hinduism, the various gods and goddesses and their stories are profoundly related to all kinds of astrological events whereas Christianity adheres by the story of the sun.
Nature is another element of profound philosophical importance when it comes to the motifs in different religions. Early religions worshipped nature as do various tribal sects spread across the world and the law of nature is explored in different ways in different religions. In Buddhism, for example, the law of nature is said to that of ‘change’, the only permanent factor of nature. By realising the constantly volatile nature of one’s body and mind, a follower is said to attain nirvana. While the content is simplified greatly in Buddhism, the same is complicated with various poetic and allegorical interpretations in Hinduism during the various eras in which it was the basis of governance and monarchies. This is the reason why Hindus have so many gods, because their historical kingdoms were often embroiled in the plight of conflict and various sects of religion emerged alongside various kingdoms each depicting their own sets of gods in their own kingdoms. Bhakti or devotion is only a method of attaining salvation according to the ancient Yogic philosophy and ‘God’ is a technique. However, in an effort to interpret the various phenomenon of nature, the simple truths of it, religion has emerged and the fundamental wisdom lost.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is. Mumbai: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1972. Print.
Zeitgeist: The Movie. Dir. Joseph, Peter. GMP LLC 2007. Film.
Adams, Marilyn. “Hell and the God of Justice”. Religious Studies. 11 (1975): 433-447. Print.
Arsienna, Ashin. The Importance of Vedana and Sampajanna: A Seminar, February 1990, Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri. Nashik: Vipassana Research Institute. Print.
Fridell, William. Corinthians: A New Translation. Vol. 32. Anchor Bible 1976. Print.