World Religions, A Brief Overview

General Reference Section

by Jayaram V

What is a religion? According to the generally accepted theory the word religion was derived from the Latin religiō (meaning an obligation to the gods). While we are not sure whether it is true, we know that the concept of religion is peculiarly western, although it is nowadays used to refer to all the faiths in the world.

Until the modern era, the concept of religion was foreign to the Indian subcontinent where dharma was the standard word used to denote faith. Even today, the faiths of Indian origin cannot be strictly classified as religions since they are complex traditions with many variations, schools of thought, and nuances and represent more than one faith or belief system. For example a complex tradition like Hinduism can be better understood by knowing what it is not rather than what it is. It is neither founded by one prophet nor represented by one scripture or dogma.

Even today, the world religion strictly applies to organized faiths that represent a set of beliefs, cultural practices, dogma, symbols, deities, sacred objects, and worldviews about life, afterlife, worship, spirituality, morality, ideal conduct, the meaning of life, existence, and relationship with the powers that seem to regulate them.

Organized religions have institutions , approved behavior and conduct, sacred texts, popular rituals, initiation methods, proselytizing practices, art forms, mythology, festivals, and established priestly class or clergy. Historically, religions have played a significant role in the progress of human civilization. They have also been responsible for major conflicts, bloodshed, social and civil unrest.

Mention may also be made of the counter movements such as materialism, atheism, communism, and secularism, which tend to discredit the belief systems that people follow in favor of the humanistic values, enlightened self-interest, and rationalism which they highlight as the alternatives.

Charles Joseph Adams, identified the main world religions based upon their geographical location as stated below

1.Middle Eastern religions, consisting of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and several ancient cults.

2.East Asian religions, comprising the religious communities of China, Japan, and Korea. Prominent among them are Confucianism, Daoism, various schools of Mahayana Buddhism, and Shintoism;

3.Indian religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. ;

4.African religions, or the cults of the tribal peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding the ancient religions of Egypt, which are grouped under the ancient Middle Eastern religions;

5.American religions, which cover the beliefs and practices of the American peoples indigenous to the two American continents;

6.Oceanic religions or religious beliefs of the peoples of the Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand; a

7.Classical religions of ancient Greece and Rome and their Hellenistic descendants.

Currently Middle Eastern religions (Abrahamic religions) are the largest group, followed by the Indian religions. Each of the religions is further divided into several sects, sub sects and schools.

The above mentioned list does not include the Iranian religions that originated in the region of Iran and Afghanistan. Of particular interest are the religions of Indo European origin that preceded the founding of Zoroastrianism, apart from Yazdânism, Ahl-e Haqq, Gnostic traditions (Mandaeism, Manichaeism), Sufism, and Baha'ism. Some of them share common features with both the religions of the Middle East and India.

Apart from them there are many indigenous ethnic religions which are marginalized by the organized religions, colonialism, and imperialism of the Christiana and Islamic nations. They include the traditional African religions, Asian Shamanic traditions, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions, Chinese folk religions, and postwar Shintoism. In the last two centuries many new age religions also appeared such as Scientology, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, etc.

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Reference: Major religious groups, Wikipedia: