World religions

Key points

  • There are many different belief systems in the world.
  • Christianity is the largest religion in the world with Islam the second largest and Hinduism the third largest religion.
  • Hinduism is described as the oldest and most diverse religious system in the world.
  • Religious worship of one god is called monotheism; worshiping more than one god is called polytheism.
  • School A to Z features links to third-party websites and resources. We are not responsible for the content of external sites.

Religious symbols of the world

 


 

Buddhism

Buddha statue.

Buddhism is about 2,500 years old. It began around the sixth century BC with the spiritual journey of Siddhartha Gautama, who left behind his privileged life in a royal Nepalese house to go in search of enlightenment. It was during a time of deep meditation beneath a bodhi tree (a tree of awakening) in Northern India that he reached enlightenment, or nirvana, and became known as the Buddha or ‘Awakened One'.

There are two schools of Buddhism: Theravada practised mostly in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Mahayana is more prominent in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia.

Thailand has the highest population of Buddhists (95 per cent), with China having the most Buddhists due to its sheer size (102,000,000). Altogether, about six per cent of the world's population follow Buddhism.

Although Buddhists have created temples, sculptures and images depicting the Buddha, they do not worship gods or deities. Instead, they seek enlightenment through personal spiritual development, practised by applying the eightfold path which incorporates meditation, morality and wisdom.

Devout Buddhists are called monks. The most famous is the Dalai Lama, who heads the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The ultimate goal for Buddhists is to reach nirvana (enlightenment) and to stop the cycle of samsara or life, death and rebirth.

The Life of Buddha (video): part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.


Christianity

Three crucifixes at Calvary.

Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived about 2,000 years ago in the Holy Land, which nowadays is made up of parts of the Middle East.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world with about 2.1 billion followers followers.

The story of Jesus is told through the Gospels and other writings found in the New Testament.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. The Old and New Testaments together make up the Christian Bible, the Christian holy book.

Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus came to earth for the salvation of humankind. In the Bible, it is told at the age of 33, Jesus was crucified(executed on a cross) and was buried, for the forgiveness of sins and wrongdoings committed by humankind. The Bible tells the story of how Jesus rose three days later and went to rule with God the Father in heaven. Those who trust in Jesus believe his death atones for their sins and in return they receive salvation and the right to eternal life.

Christians believe there is only one God but that there are three parts. This is what is known as the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The three main branches of Christianity are Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. Christians worship in churches by attending ceremonies.

Important days for the Christian faith that the western secular calendar has adopted include Easter and Christmas. The western calendar was developed around the birth and death of Jesus Christ – BC (the age Before Christ) and Anno Domini (Latin for the year of the Lord) eg, 2000 AD is the year 2000 in the western calendar.


Hinduism

Hinduism is described as the oldest and most diverse religion on Earth. It's the major religion of south Asia including India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and Bali. It has about  900 million followers and is the world's third largest religion. Hindu traditions date back about 5,000 years but scholars have not been able to pinpoint it to one source or one set of practices and teachings.

Hinduism doesn't have a single concept of a deity, a single holy text or a central religious authority or prophet. Instead, Hinduism incorporates a diverse range of beliefs and practices which aim to deliver salvation (moksha or nirvana) to its devotees. In Hinduism, Brahman is the principle source of the universe, a  divine intelligence that exists. Hinduism is often referred by those who follow it as Sanatana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘the eternal law', and is practised as a way of life.

Prominent themes in Hinduism include:

  • Dharma (which dictates a person's obligations and duties)
  • Samsara (which literally meaning ‘continuous flow' and relates to the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth)
  • Karma (action and subsequent reaction)
  • Moksha (liberation from Samsara)
  • Yoga (traditional physical or mental practices).

Sacred texts, poems, mantras and chants, predominantly written in Sanskrit, make up the Hindu scriptures. These include the ancient Vedas, the Upanishads, and the epic texts of the Mahabharata, which contains the Bhagavad-Gita. The texts discuss the Hindu philosophy and mythology, and guide the practice of dharma.

Hindus worship many personal deities– gods (devas) and goddesses (devis) according to their philosophy and denomination. Often the deities are depicted as human or partially human and are expressed in architecture, art and through icons. All deities are believed to be manifestations of the Brahman (or universal spirit). The three aspects or Trimurti of the supreme god are: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (preserver or protector) and Shiva (destroyer or judge). Other known devas and devis include Agni, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, Rama, Saraswati and Kali.


Islam

Islam was founded in Mecca, Arabia, about 1,400 years ago. It's the second largest religion in the world with about 1.5 billion followers. Islam is the major religion of Indonesia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Those who follow Islam are called Muslims. Muslims believe there is only one God – Allah. The two main major branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia.

According to Islamic belief, God sent a number of prophets including Jesus, Moses and Abraham, to teach humanity how to live according to Islamic law. Muhammad was the final prophet, who was born in Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 570.

Islamic faith is founded in the holy book called the Koran (or Qur'an), which was revealed to Muhammad by God through the archangel Gabriel over a period of 23 years in the 7th century. Other sacred sources of Islamic belief are: 

•    the Sunnah – the practise and examples of the Prophet Muhammad's life, and
•    the Hadith – reports of what the prophet Muhammad said or approved.

For Muslims, God is regarded beyond all comprehension and therefore they are not expected to visualise God.

The place of worship for Muslims is called a mosque. Islamic religious leaders are called imams.

There are five religious practices Muslims adhere to called the Five Pillars of Faith:
•    Shahadah: the declaration of faith
•    Salat: praying in a ritual way five times a day
•    Zakat: giving money to charity
•    Sawm: fasting through the month of Ramadan
•    Hajj: a pilgrimage to Mecca.


 

Judaism

Jewish men praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Judaism was established about 4,000 years ago. It is the religion of the Jewish people of Israel and is the oldest of the four largest monotheist religions – those that worship one god. It is the first of the Abrahamic faiths (religions that trace their origins to Abraham), which also includes Christianity and Islam.

Judaism is founded upon a covenant made between God (Yahweh) and Abraham, a nomad leader, who became the patriarch of the Jewish faith.

Abraham was the first person to teach the idea of just one god. God promised through Abraham to deliver the Jewish people, or Israelites, to the land of Israel, formerly called Canaan. In exchange for the good things God has done for the Jewish people, they in turn abide by the Judaic laws and aim to live a holy life.

The Hebrew Bible is known as the Tanakh. The Jewish law and tradition is found in the Torah in the first five books of the Tanakh – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah was given by God to Moses, the Jewish prophet, on Mount Sinai, 50 days after he had led the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery to the Holy Land. The Torah has 613 commandments or 'mitzvot' including the Ten Commandments. Other sacred texts include the Talmud.

Judaism has three main denominations: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

Jewish people worship in synagogues and the religious or spiritual leader is a called a rabbi. Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, was established as the holiest city by King David around 1005 BC.

Some of the religious practices and customs include observing the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day of rest, which begins at sunset on Friday and finishes at nightfall on Saturday. On the Sabbath, Jewish people tend not to do any chores, and celebrate the time with family by having a meal and attending the synagogue.

While Judaism has produced powerful kings including Saul, David and Solomon, it has also attracted enormous persecution. During World War II more than six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, in an attempt by Nazis to try to destroy the religion.


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