Gnostic scriptures found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

Anthropology: An Overview of the Different Religions in Human History

There are over 4,000 religions including the various denominations, sects, traditions, religious movements, religious organizations, etc. This number only keeps increasing with time.

In this post, we will attempt to understand the meaning and necessity of religion. Then, we shall look at the different types of religions. After which, we’ll explore some of the major religions that mankind has adhered to throughout history.

Defining Religion

Religion is challenging to define as the term is interpreted differently by various cultures. Besides, the English language doesn’t always have the right words to explain some of the religious concepts understood around the world. The many definitions that do exist have been mostly devised by western scholars, based on religions practised in the west.

Nevertheless, we shall attempt to define it to get a general idea of what the concept of religion entails. It can be best described as a set of standardized beliefs, behaviours and worship of a divine entity. They are often based on shared ideas and cultural practices within a community. Religion, therefore, comprises a social, a spiritual and an individual aspect.

This definition is, however, flawed because not all religions are based on the belief in one or more supernatural entities. Some are based on certain philosophies or even guidelines to live one’s life with discipline. Thus proving that religion is a highly subjective term.

Representing Religion

A religion may include or be represented through various philosophies, myths, texts, symbols and decorations, among other things. Religious practise often involves worshipping gods, other supernatural entities or ancestors. This may be done in the form of prayer, presenting offerings, showing gratitude, making wishes, performing rituals, using magic, etc. 

Celebrating festivals, holidays and cultural events such as marriage and funerals are part of religious practice. It may also be done through service to the community, sharing a meal with others, and through music and art.

Worship may be done inside communal establishments such as a temple, church, mosque, synagogue, etc. It may even be done individually in a private place or anywhere else.

Instructions for worship, guidelines for living a righteous life and the core beliefs are documented in religious texts. Most religions have at least one sacred text. However, there may be some with none. In those cases, traditions are passed down orally.

Religion is an important cultural aspect and, in anthropology, it aids in the better understanding of human societies.

The Necessity and Purpose of Religion

Religion has had many uses since the emergence of modern humans. It provides answers to life’s most existential and mysterious questions. Even if these answers do not have any scientific evidence, they satiate the curious human mind.

Religion has therefore provided insight into questions like:

  • What is the purpose of existence?
  • Who, what, why and how was the universe created?
  • Who created the world and all living beings?
  • How are we supposed to live our lives?
  • Why is there suffering?
  • What happens after death?

In most religions, the belief in a divine entity or force helps answer these mysteries. For instance, in many religions, this divine force is credited for the creation of the universe and everything in it.

Its existence also helps make sense of reality. At least that was the case for early modern humans. They needed an explanation for experiencing natural occurrences like day, night, weather, seasons, climate, life, death, etc. However, unlike humans today, they lacked the knowledge we have today to explain these phenomena. So, they formed their own explanations and shared their beliefs with similar communities.

They attributed these occurrences to one or more supernatural beings and believed they must maintain a harmonious relationship with them. Especially since hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies depended on their surroundings for sustenance. The natural phenomena would impact their survival and livelihoods. Supernatural beings or forces are interpreted differently among cultures. Some are benevolent, all-loving, caring and protective. While some are evil and destructive. Hence, they found ways to remain in harmony with divine forces through worship, offerings, rituals and sacrifices. This is how ritualistic behaviour developed and this is how some early religions were formed. They emerged due to human interaction with the natural environment.

Development of Religion for Social Purposes

community gathered together
Image Credit: Outreach Magazine

Additionally, certain religions may have developed due to the human need to stick together as a group. 

Religious ideas would ensure everyone in a group shared the same purpose and principles about existence.

It, therefore, encouraged cooperation and bound the community together. These ideas would even determine concepts of morality, deciding which type of behaviour is acceptable and which isn’t. This would help maintain order, stability and justice within the community.

Together, these groups of people would live in a certain way and try to achieve a collective goal. In this context, it can be said that religion functioned as a form of communication. 

Such behaviour brought disciplined habits and would even lead to the development of knowledge and society as a whole. Bringing more purpose and meaning into one’s life, developing healthy habits, understanding emotions, etc. These behaviours, in addition to the belief in one or more supernatural beings, allowed humans to believe the divine was there to support them. Particularly in times of despair, difficulty and tragedy.

Over time, these communities developed and became more complex. Religious ideas and principles were also standardized to cater to larger populations. All in all, having influence over the culture, politics and economy of a place.

Types of Theisms

woman praying with her hands folded
Image Credit: First Pres Joliet

The many thousands of religions are usually either theistic or atheistic. Theism acknowledges the existence of God or other divine beings. Atheistic refers to the opposite of theism. It rejects the idea of the existence of any god or divine figure. There can be many forms of theism, the most common of which are monotheism, duotheism, polytheism, pantheism, deism and autotheism.

Monotheism is the belief in the existence of only one god. Duotheism is the belief in the existence of two deities of equal power that contrast each other. For instance, one may be evil and the other may be good. One may represent the masculine divine, while the other represents the feminine divine. In polytheistic religions, there is a belief in multiple gods, goddesses, spirits and other divine entities. Pantheism is the belief that one God exists in all things within the universe. Pantheists believe there is no difference between God and their creations.  Deism is the belief in one God responsible for creation. However, this deity does not interfere in the workings of the universe. Lastly, autotheism is the belief that the divine lies within oneself. It may also refer to the belief that an individual is a god. Or, that an individual must reach the state of being divine.

These are just terms to understand what each religion generally believes about their god. However, on a more individual level, they may be interpreted differently. For instance, generally, Hinduism is regarded as a polytheistic religion. However, certain sects of Hinduism or certain individuals may believe it is a monotheistic religion. Due to the fact that Hindu deities are all expressions of a single absolute divine entity.

Major World Religions

Now, without further ado, let us explore the details of some of the world’s major religions. For each religion, there will be a summary of its core religious beliefs, its origins, primary religious practices and celebrations.

Animism and Shamanism

Animism and shamanism are not religions per se, but they are spiritual practices and beliefs. In fact, they are the earliest forms of spirituality.

Animism is the belief that all things in nature, including inanimate objects, possess a spirit or soul. This includes not only plants and animals but also geographic features like rivers, mountains, lakes, rocks, weather systems, etc. There is also the belief in supernatural powers, as that is what provides inanimate objects with a soul. Spirits or souls that don’t exist within physical objects or living beings may exist as ghosts, gods or forces. These spirits can be impressed or offended based on which they can influence humans and the physical world.  When threatened or offended, they may cause harm as a form of defence. Or, straight up suffering and destruction. Impressing or maintaining peace with the spirits, on the other hand, can provide blessing, maintain balance and even provide protection. In terms of death and the afterlife, the general belief was that one’s soul simply enters another plane of existence.

Origins of Animism

sun rising through the trees
Image Credit: Uni Guide

Anthropologists date back the existence of animistic beliefs back to the Palaeolithic era. If this is true, it suggests that it may have been one of the most ancient belief systems. We see some form of animistic belief in all ancient human cultures around the world. Today, the term animism is largely used to describe folk, tribal and indigenous beliefs. As they tend to be some of the most ancient religions practised within a culture.

In the 19th century, western anthropologists were striving to find the oldest and most primitive form of religion. This was when the term animism was first used in literature. Also during this time, anthropologists theorized that all religious systems evolved from a primordial religion called animism. Today, this theory is rejected for many reasons, one being that the theory was devised using data regarding contemporary tribal religions. Contemporary animism has developed and evolved over time. It wouldn’t have remained the same as animistic beliefs in the Palaeolithic era, for instance. This data cannot, therefore, prove whether an ancient animistic religion was indeed the source of all modern religions.

Animism, thus, is a way of viewing and understanding the world, more than a religious belief. Individuals do not necessarily need to adhere to folk religions to have animistic beliefs. Today, many still view the world in an animistic manner and still identify with other religions.

Shamanism: An Animistic Practice

image of a shaman performing healing rituals
Shamanic healing practice. Image Credit: Thomas Riccio

Shamanism is a form of animistic practice. It is often seen in animistic religions that certain practitioners are able to connect with spirits. These practitioners are known as shamans. Shamans enter an altered state of consciousness to connect with the spirit world.  Shamanism is the earliest form of spirituality that believed in the idea that there may be multiple realms of existence. One is visible while the other is invisible.

Shamans use the power of the spirits to heal others, to guide the deceased to the afterlife, to communicate with the deceased, to manipulate the forces of nature or to overall benefit and protect the community.

It is a form of spiritual wisdom seen especially within tribal cultures. Shamans were earlier known as medicine men, healers, witch doctors as they were the first healers within human societies. They were also the first therapists, sorcerers and storytellers. 

Shamanism still exists today, co-existing with other organized religions. Even today, people consult shamans to find solutions to the physical, emotional and spiritual ails they face in life.


Paganism and pagans have been misunderstood throughout history. The term was first used by Christians in the Roman Empire to refer to those in the countryside still practising the ancient Roman religion. Eventually, it was used to describe a person practising religions outside major religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. Paganism, therefore, refers primarily to the indigenous religions of pre-Christian Europe and its surroundings. The Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Norse, Celtic religions were among some of the polytheistic pagan religions of antiquity.

Paganism does not have a doctrine or a standardized set of beliefs. There are many types of paganism and pagan beliefs. Pagan beliefs were derived largely from personal experiences. However, most pagan traditions share certain similarities. For instance, most pagans believe there is sanctity in nature, the natural order and the natural cycle of life and death.

Most forms of paganism are often polytheistic. However, not all are classified as polytheistic. In some pagan traditions, there may be a large pantheon of gods and goddesses. But there may be a supreme or chief god or goddess within the pantheon. For instance, in the Ancient Greek religion, Zeus, the Olympian god of the sky and thunder, was the supreme god. In Norse paganism, for example, Odin, the all-father, was considered the most powerful god in the Norse pantheon. Pagan deities take many forms and express themselves within nature. They also represented both masculine and feminine forces, placing equal importance on both energies.

Pagans connected with the divine through the world around them. Worship took place in the form of prayer, ritual, offerings, sacrifice, feasts, chanting, dance and more. Festivals were celebrated according to the changes in the seasons. Celebrating solstices and equinoxes were common.

In terms of death and the afterlife, most pagan traditions believe in reincarnation.

Paganism Today

sun rising at Stonehenge
Stonehenge, an important pagan site. Image Credit: Olympus Europa

Paganism declined, especially during the Middle Ages. However, over the centuries, certain traditions survived and re-emerged in the early 20th century. Now known as neo-paganism, it combines ancient pagan traditions with modern beliefs. These traditions developed especially during the 1930s and 50s. This led to the revival and emergence of neo-pagan religions such as Wicca, Asatru, Druidism, etc. Among these, Wicca is rapidly gaining recognition in the present day.

Today’s pagans also celebrate the changes in the season like ancient pagans. They’re also free to choose which pantheon or specific deity they wish to worship. Additionally, they tend to live a lifestyle that does minimal harm to nature. For instance, many observe a vegetarian diet or eat fresh organic foods.


Wicca is a neo-pagan, nature-based religion. It honours the workings of nature, fertility, harvests and the seasons. There is no standardized way of practising Wicca. The practice can be customized to make it highly meaningful and personal to the practitioner. Wicca is, therefore, interpreted differently among Wiccans. Wiccans can be monotheistic, duotheistic, polytheistic or even atheist and agnostic. Most Wiccans, however, do worship a god and a goddess, representing the masculine and feminine divine. The feminine divine is revered in the form of a Triple Goddess viewed as the Maiden, Mother and Crone. The masculine deity is the Horned God, the god associated with the wilderness, hunting and virility. Equal importance is placed on these divine entities as they represent the balancing forces in nature. Alternatively, Wiccans may worship other gods and goddesses from different pantheons.

Magick and Witchcraft in Wicca

a pentacle made of twigs
Pentacle, a symbol of the five elements. Image Credit: Documentary Tube

Many pagan religions, including Wicca, believe in the five elements that make up all matter. These are earth, water, fire, air and spirit. These elements are illustrated as an upward-facing pentacle enclosed within a circle. The circle represents the interconnectedness between the five elements. Many Wiccans also believe in magick, which is the manipulation of natural energies directed to achieving a certain goal or wish. Magick is used through witchcraft. While practising witchcraft, the five elements along with a deity is invoked to cast a certain spell. Magick in Wicca is written with a ‘k’ to distinguish it from illusions performed at magic shows, for instance.

As many Wiccans practise witchcraft, they may refer to themselves as witches, regardless of gender. The word Wicca, in fact, comes from the old English word for witch or sorcerer.  It is important to note that Wicca and witchcraft are not synonymous. Witchcraft is a practice for which an individual need not be a Wiccan.

Morality in Wicca

In witchcraft, there is both black magick and white magick. The former uses magick to cause harm and misfortune, while the latter is used for more helpful purposes. The use of magick thus depends on one’s intentions. However, in Wicca, morality is maintained through the Wiccan Rede, a law that states that one can do as one pleases unless their actions harm others. The Wiccan Rede is perhaps the only type of rule within the religion. Most Wiccans who choose to practice witchcraft, therefore, practice white magick. In fact, the majority of witches today, even those who aren’t Wiccan, practice witchcraft with positive intentions.

Additionally, Wiccans believe in a concept similar to karma. Also known as the Wiccan Rule of Three. They believe the energy one puts into the universe, whether positive or negative, will come back to them threefold. So, according to this belief, any harm they cause will return to them three times the original amount.

Debunking Misconceptions

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding Wiccan beliefs and practices. First of all, many believe Wiccans worship Satan as a result of misunderstanding the Horned God. And even due to the use of a pentagram. Satan is a Judeo-Christian concept that does not exist in Wicca. There is no concept even similar to Satan in Wicca. To ease understanding of the Horned God, he is often compared to the Greek god of the wild, Pan. Meanwhile, the pentagram simply symbolizes the five elements of nature. Secondly, witchcraft is often assumed to only be used to cause harm. However, as mentioned earlier, magick can be both dark and beneficial. How one chooses to use it depends on the practitioner’s intent. This is why practitioners of witchcraft are usually careful with their use of magick.

In terms of death, Wiccans believe in reincarnations and many believe they will be born as witches in the next life.

In Wicca, there are no sacred texts. However, Wiccans do have a book of shadows, a personal notebook used to monitor their Wiccan journey. This can include anything from spells, their effectivity and even Wiccan concepts they learn throughout their life. A witch’s book of shadows is highly private.

The Eight Sabbats

Wheel of the year marking the 8 sabbats
Wheel of the year marking the 8 sabbats. Image Credit: Youth ki awaaz

Wiccans and other pagans celebrate the 8 Sabbats or pagan holidays. Together they form the wheel of the year and are based on seasonal changes. Dates of these holidays, therefore, differ in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. They celebrate the two solstices, the two equinoxes and four more holidays in between them.  The festivals are Yule (winter solstice), Imbolc, Ostara (spring equinox), Beltane, Litha (summer solstice), Lughnasadh, Mabon (autumn equinox) and Samhain.

Wicca may be practised in covens, which are a group of witches practising the same Wiccan philosophy or tradition. There are several Wiccan traditions, such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Dianic and Eclectic, among others. Covens may gather inside a person’s house or outside, in nature. They usually meet to celebrate the eight Sabbats, cast a spell, perform a ritual, or simply socialize. They are normally led by a high priest or priestess. Alternatively, it can be practised individually. Solitary practitioners tend not to adhere to one specific Wiccan tradition. They tend to be eclectic and their practice is more personalized. A more personal practice, connects better with the practitioner, making spells powerful and effective. Today, a large number of Wiccans are solitary practitioners.

Origins of Wicca

We’re now slightly more familiar with what Wicca is and how it is practised. Now, let’s briefly understand its origins.

Wicca was developed in the early 1900s by the English occultist Gerald Gardner. He is often referred to as the Father of Wicca. Upon retirement, Gardner moved to Highcliffe, England. There, in the 1930s he encountered a group of pagans who practised witchcraft. Subsequently, he was initiated into the coven of witches called the New Forest Coven. Since then, he devoted himself to the practice and its publicity. Many, however, doubt his initiation into the New Forest Coven as the event hasn’t been verified. Wicca became known to the world when Gardner published his book in 1954 titled Witchcraft Today. It is believed the religion is rooted in ancient Celtic paganism, while others believe there was no such tradition that existed previously and that it is a modern belief.

Nevertheless, the publication of the book popularized witchcraft and Wicca as well. Wicca spread to the United States in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. Today, it is one of the fastest-growing pagan religions in the world.

Click here to read about Wicca in more detail.  

Monotheistic Religions

This section will discuss some of the major monotheistic religions of the world. Adherents of the following religions believe in only one god.


zoroastrian symbol on a fire temple
Favaharis, the symbol of Zoroastrianism. Image Credit: Times Now News

Zoroastrianism, also known as Mazdayasna by Zoroastrians, is considered the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. However, this claim is debated as historians haven’t been able to provide a precise date of its foundation. As a result, it is difficult to determine whether Zoroastrianism predates Judaism.

Zoroastrianism was founded in Ancient Persia or modern-day Iran. It was the official religion of the Ancient Persian Empire for around a millennium before the Islamization of Persia.

Brief History of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism was founded approximately 3,700 – 3,500 years ago by Zoroaster. Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, was a spiritual teacher and prophet. He was born sometime between 1700 BC and 600 BC. As mentioned earlier, the exact dates of the foundation of the religion and Zoroaster’s birth aren’t available.

Nevertheless, during Zoroaster’s lifetime, the Persians worshipped many gods. Zoroaster was a priest of this pre-Zoroastrian polytheistic religion. During his time as a priest, he disliked the way the world around him functioned at the time. He observed that civilians constantly feared for their lives as drunken warriors attacked whoever they wanted. Zoroaster also realized the priests focused too much on performing rituals that in no way helped or guided those suffering. He was disappointed and could no longer tolerate what he saw. At the age of 30, one day, while fetching water for a ritual, Zoroaster received a vision. He saw the purest form of light or Ahura Mazda. This light revealed itself as the only god. From that day on, Zoroaster understood that it was now his duty to share this truth with others.

Soon Zoroastrianism throughout Ancient Persia and even outside the empire, like in Central Asia. It was even the official religion of the Persian Empire for about 1000 years before the 7th century AD. In the 7th century, the Arabs invaded as part of the Muslim conquest of Persia. Zoroastrians were persecuted and many were forced to convert to Islam. A small population of these persecuted Zoroastrians fled Persia and escaped to India. Landing in a small kingdom in present-day Gujarat. Descendants of these Zoroastrians form the minority Parsi community in India. Today, there are only around 200,000 Zoroastrians remaining in the world, most of whom reside in India, Iran and Iraq.

Zoroastrian Beliefs

Zoroastrians believe in the one God called Ahura Mazda, meaning Lord of the Light or the Wise Lord. Ahura Mazda is an eternal, genderless, uncreated, omnipotent god who has always existed. Ahura Mazda is the ultimate creator who maintains order and is responsible for all things good. God is wise and loving. The Lord of Light is aided by the Amesha Spentas, who are six divine beings who emerged out of Ahura Mazda.

Ahura Mazda’s opposing entity is Angra Mainyu. Angra Mainyu represents all the opposing qualities of Ahura Mazda. This entity is evil, dark, destructive, and is responsible for death and decay. Angra Mainyu is always trying to destroy what Ahura Mazda has created. Ahura Mazda is light, while Angra Mainyu is darkness.

The duality between good and evil and the belief in one god is a concept that was first seen in Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrians believe that these two opposing forces are constantly at war with each other. Reality is perceived as a continuous battle between truth and falsity, and between order and chaos.

It is believed that Angra Mainyu’s time in the universe is temporary. Ahura, Mazda has managed to cage it inside the physical world. This means it is easier to defeat this evil force. Mankind can do so by working with Ahura Mazda and by practising good thoughts, good words and good deeds. To be able to distinguish right from wrong, Ahura Mazda created the concept of Asha. Asha roughly translates to truth, wisdom, perfection, justice or righteousness.

The Final Battle

In Zoroastrianism, it is prophesized that the battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu would continue for thousands of years. Until Saoshyant, a saviour is born from a virgin mother. Then, Ahura Mazda and the good forces will finally defeat Angra Mainyu and the evil forces. The Saoshyant will guide people away from evil, which will eventually end the world. Good forces will burn the world and metal inside the earth will melt. It will be the only thing covering the earth’s surface. Good people will be able to pass through it, while the wicked will burn and be purified. During this event, hell will open up and all the condemned souls will be liberated and purified. The molten metal will eventually flow down to hell, where Angra Mainyu will be eliminated. This event is called Frashokerti or renewal.

Death and Afterlife

top of a Tower of Silence.
Zoroastrian Tower of Silence. Image Credit: Iran in Depth

Death is believed to exist because of Angra Mainyu and so it is generally seen as a form of pollution.

At death, a priest performs a ceremony that separates the soul from the body. The body is no longer touched afterwards. As death is polluting, Zoroastrians make sure it doesn’t pollute any of the natural elements either. The natural elements are earth, water, fire and air. The corpse is therefore taken to the tower of silence. These are high towers, where the body is placed on the stone roof for vultures to consume them. It is considered the final good deed. Today, Zoroastrians have found alternative ways to dispose of bodies as this practice has been banned in Iran. And in India, there is a lack of vultures due to urbanization and pollution.

Zoroastrians believe that upon death, the soul of an individual continues to exist. On the fourth day after death, the soul leaves the body and is taken to the Chinvat Bridge. Also known as the bridge of judgement. Below the bridge lies hell and above it is heaven. The bridge itself is narrow but it widens to allow good souls to be guided to heaven or the House of Song. Those with good souls would have led a life practising good thoughts, words and deeds rather than bad. In heaven, souls unite with Ahura Mazda.

If the soul is wicked, the bridge will become even more difficult to pass through and they’ll be dragged into hell or Duzakh. People face this judgement regardless of their status, class or gender.

Zoroastrianism was also the first organized religion to devise the concept of hell and heaven. Similar concepts can be found in Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

Important Zoroastrian Texts and Symbols

Zoroastrians have a collection of sacred texts known as Avesta. It is written in Avestan, the language spoken during the time of Zoroaster. It contains a collection of hymns known as Gathas, believed to be composed by Zoroaster. As Zoroastrians have been victims of persecution throughout history, a portion of the Avesta is lost. Today only a portion of it remains.

Fire is an important symbol for Zoroastrians. It is the sacred symbol of Ahura Mazda that represents truth and purity. In Zoroastrian places of worship – known as Fire Temples, a fire constantly burns, showing the presence of Ahura Mazda. All rituals are conducted in front of a fire. It is important to note that fire itself isn’t worshipped. It is only a symbol. Most Zoroastrians mainly visit fire temples during the holy days. Other worship is done at home or in private spaces. One of the most important holy days is Nowruz or New Year.

Click here to read how Indian Zoroastrians celebrate Nowruz.


The Star of David symbol of Judaism
Image Credit: Forward

Judaism is one of the first and oldest monotheistic religions. It is also the first Abrahamic religion. Abrahamic religions refer to those faiths that attribute their origins to the prophet Abraham. Examples of other Abrahamic religions are Christianity and Islam. Judaism also serves as the foundation of the other Abrahamic religions.

Foundations of Judaism

Judaism emerged over 3,500 years ago. However, the precise date is unknown. Its origins begin with the prophet Abraham. Abraham lived in a polytheistic society but he believed in one god. One day, god, the omnipotent, eternal, formless, and wise creator spoke to him. In Judaism, Yahweh is recognized as the name of God. However, it is considered so sacred that this name is not spoken out loud, out of respect.

God told Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and go to Canaan. In exchange for following God’s path, Abraham and his descendants were offered protection and the land of Canaan. This deal is known as the covenant and it is the most important concept in Judaism. As a sign of the covenant with God, Abraham received ritualistic circumcision. This is a ritual still practised today. All newborn male Jews are circumcised as a sign of the covenant with God.

Later in life, Abraham had many children and grandchildren. One of his grandsons, named Jacob once wrestled with god, gaining the name ‘Israel’, meaning ‘one who wrestles with god.’ His descendants were the Children of Israel. Canaan was named after this title, hence is now known as Israel.

The Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt for many years. Finally, one of his descendants, Moses, liberated the Jews with the help of god. After their liberation, god presents Moses the Torah. The Torah is a collection of sacred texts that form the first part of the Hebrew Bible. It is where all the commandments, including the famous 10 commandments, are written. Moses and the elders then entered a covenant whereby the Israelites would worship the one God and follow the commandments. Later, he led the Israelites to the Promised Land, which is today known as Israel.

Sacred Texts

Torah Scroll, sacred jewish text
Torah Scroll. Image Credit: Times of Israel

These events are written in the Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. The Tanakh is made up of the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Torah, the first section of the Hebrew Bible, consists of five books and is the most important set of texts. It details the creation of the world. Stating that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Torah is also where Abraham’s interaction with God and the subsequent events are recorded.

Jews have another set of texts known as the Talmud. It is a collection of books with 38 volumes containing the various interpretations of the Torah. It acts as a guide to Jewish life.

The Exile

Since the Children of Israel acquired the Promised Land, their descendants and their land faced many attacks. As a result, Jewish temples like the Second Temple were destroyed. Additionally, Jews were either enslaved or exiled, leading them to migrate to nearby areas. They reached various parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Even there, they were often victims of persecution, facing violence and genocide. The most unfortunate example is of the six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. Jews believe their exile lasted till 1947 when Palestine was partitioned and subsequently Israel was formed in 1948. 

Jewish Beliefs

God is supreme, one without a physical body and without gender. God also has no opponent, children or any entity equal. The supreme figure is the most powerful and created the universe without any help.

In Judaism, it is believed that God personally interacts with humans. Every Jew has a personal relationship with God. God rewards the good, punishes the bad, and forgives those who make mistakes.

Many Jews believe they were chosen to lead an exemplary life of ethics and morals. They are able to do so by following God’s way. Following this way is a lifestyle that honours and praises god. Living life, therefore, becomes an act of worship.

Some Jews believe in the concept of Tikkun Olam, the act of repairing the world, especially with kindness. They also practice Tzedakah, a form of charity where they donate 10% of their wealth to those in need. Jews also believe in maintaining peace, striving for justice and placing high importance on family and the community.

Upon death, the soul is believed to continue existing. Souls continue living with the souls of their deceased ancestors. Jews acknowledge they don’t know what will happen after death, but they do believe it has got to something with how they lived on earth. As such, they maintain the holy way and follow the commandments in the Torah. They also follow this path believing it will benefit the world around them.

Heaven and the underworld exist in Judaism, but they aren’t mentioned as frequently as in other Abrahamic religions. It is believed God lives in heaven and Sheol, the underworld, is where souls travel to after death.

The Jewish Prophecy

The Tanakh prophesizes the arrival of a messiah who will lead the Jews, rebuild the Holy Temple and bring all Jews back to the Promised Land. This will happen when the world is perfect and rid of all poverty, war and suffering. When the Messiah arrives, all Jews in existence will be resurrected and will return to Jerusalem. There they’ll see the creation of a paradise on Earth which God will create. This is why the bodies of the deceased are buried and not cremated. Jews believe this Messiah hasn’t arrived yet.

Jewish Practices and Traditions

The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem
The Heichal Shlomo and The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Judaism is a lifestyle, culture and nation. Jews are a diverse community spread across the world. Jews can be of any race and may adhere to different denominations. Such as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Judaism, and even atheistic or agnostic Judaism.

Many Jews maintain a kosher diet. Kosher foods are foods that are fit for consumption according to Jewish law. Vegetables, fruits, nuts and cereal are kosher. In terms of meat, animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves are considered kosher. Cattle and sheep, for instance, are kosher but pork is not. For fish, only those with scales and fins are kosher. In poultry, the most common types such as chicken, duck and turkey are kosher. 

Kosher food must also be prepared in a specific manner that ensures less suffering and quick death of the animal. As blood isn’t kosher, blood must also be drained.

Jews worship inside an establishment called a synagogue. Synagogues became the place of communal worship after the Second Temple was destroyed. A synagogue will always have a handwritten Torah and a rabbi. A rabbi is a Jewish spiritual teacher who is able to interpret Jewish law. They perform Jewish events like circumcisions of infants, weddings, funerals and coming of age ceremonies.

Shabbat or Saturday is the 7th day of the Hebrew week. God rested on this day after creating the world. So, Saturdays are a day of rest and rejuvenation. Jewish law doesn’t permit any work on Saturday. This includes shopping, household chores and driving are discouraged. Instead, Jews are encouraged to use this time to pray, read and, of course, relax.


St. Peter's Basilica, seat of the pope
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Image Credit: Miss Tourist

Christianity is another monotheistic Abrahamic religion. At present, it is the largest religion in the world with over 2 billion adherents. Christianity is based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ.

Life of Jesus Christ and the Foundations of Christianity

Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was a Jewish teacher and healer who was believed to be the messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Christianity initially started out as a sect of Judaism but eventually branched out to be its own religion.

Jesus was born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem in Judea. At the time of his birth, Judea was a part of the Roman Empire. He was born to Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who conceived him by the Holy Spirit. He is therefore called the Son of God.

It is believed that he was raised as a carpenter, but at the age of 30, he began spreading the word of god.  He began healing the sick, performing miracles and teaching. To teach, he used everyday stories with morals to pass on the divine messages. He spread the message of peace, love and justice. The message shared by Jesus is known as the gospel. Jesus was an exceptionally charismatic figure who had over time gathered a group of loyal followers. However, his wisdom was eventually what got him into trouble. His following and message angered the Roman authorities. They viewed Jesus as a rebel and a threat to their authority. As a result, he was put on trial for heresy, then crucified and buried.

Three days later, some of his disciples found his tomb was empty. This led his followers to believe he had defeated death and was resurrected. After his resurrection, he even appeared to his disciples for around 40 days before ascending to heaven. In heaven, he united with God, the father and rules from there.

Christian Beliefs

Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus as in the New Testament. Christians believe there is only one God. However, He exists in three forms – The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. It is believed God created the universe and all life in it. Jesus is the Son of God and he was sent to earth to save humanity from their sins.

Satan is also known as the devil in Christianity. He was initially an angel called Lucifer but later rebelled against God and was expelled from heaven. Satan is believed to be responsible for all sin. He is known to tempt people away from the truth and commit sin.

Christians believe Jesus lived a life free of sin but he sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of others. The cross in Christianity symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus, his victory over death and sin. Those who believed in him were forgiven for their sins. Jesus died and came back from the dead so that humans could correct their sins and reconnect with God.

In Christian belief, a person not atoning for their sins, not asking for forgiveness for their sins. And not believing in the one God, will end up in hell. To live a life without sin, Christians follow the Ten Commandments, which are based on the way Jesus lived his life.

Christians also believe that one day Jesus will return to earth to judge all humans, both living and dead. He will then allow eternal life to those faithful to him and eternal death to those who don’t.

Christian Place of Worship, the Bible and Holidays

Christians pray in a church. Leaders of the church are called priests and ministers. They perform rituals like baptisms, marriages, confessions, etc. and preach the word of god.

What is in the interior of a church depends on the denomination. Most churches have a nave, a space to sit for the people who come to pray. They have a sanctuary with an altar, a stand where the Bible is read and a crucifix.

The Bible is the holy book of Christianity. It is a collection of 66 books comprising sacred texts, written over 1500 years. The Bible contains the word of god and a record of God’s creation and action and the life of Jesus Christ. The Christian Bible contains both the Old Testament and New Testament.

Christians celebrate many holidays, the most important of which are Christmas and Easter. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, while Easter celebrates his resurrection and honours his suffering and death.

christmas tree by the fireplace
Christmas, a Christian Holiday. Image Credit: Our Today

Sects and Denominations of Christianity

Over time, Christianity developed to have its many sects and denominations, each with its own beliefs and practices. They still, however, honour the core beliefs of Christianity. At present, there are thousands of denominations and sects. The following branches discussed are only some of the largest and most popular.


It is a denomination of Christianity that follows the Catholic bible. Catholicism dates back to 2000 years and is the largest branch of Christianity.

Catholics see the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church, which he has absolute power over. The Pope is the successor to Saint Peter, who Jesus made the first head of his church. Saint Peter was one of 12 apostles of Jesus and is an important figure in Christianity.

Catholicism differs from other denominations due to its organizational structure and teachings. For instance, the Catholic Church maintains a hierarchy with the pope at the top, then cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, then laity. The church only permits celibate men to become members of the clergy. Secondly, Catholics follow and read the Catholic bible. Thirdly, the Virgin Mary and the Saints are highly venerated figures.  Additionally, Catholics also only worship inside an establishment like a church, chapel or cathedral.

Like other branches of Christianity, Catholics also receive the seven sacraments or religious rites. They are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.

Catholics, however, define the sacraments differently from other sects. In Catholicism, it is viewed as a spiritual and physical event in one’s life.

Christians who questioned the Catholic doctrine and absolute power of the pope broke away from this tradition. They then formed their own denominations and sects.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia. Image Credit:

The Eastern Orthodox Church or the Orthodox Church is made of many self-leading churches. Unlike a unified leader such as the pope, they have their own head of the church.

Eastern Orthodoxy includes elements from Greek, Middle Eastern and Slavic cultures. This is because this denomination developed in the Eastern Roman Empire based on politics and public pressures in this region.

Orthodox Christianity differs from other branches of Christianity in the way followers believe in Christian doctrine, live life and worship.

For example, in the Orthodox Church, priests, monks and nuns can be either married or celibate.  Orthodox Christians believe that in the Holy Trinity, referring to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In other sects and denominations, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son.

Orthodox Christians perform the sign of the cross differently. They use only their thumb, index and middle finger. The three fingers are brought together, while the other fingers are tucked in. They first touch their forehead then bring the hand down to the stomach. Then they touch their right shoulder first, then their left shoulder. This motion is done differently in other sects, as they place their hand first on their left shoulder, then the right.

Furthermore, Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, they celebrate Christian holidays on different dates. Christmas, for example, is celebrated on 7th January, instead of 25th December.


Mormonism refers to the beliefs and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are several other branches within Mormonism, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the most adherents.

Mormonism was founded by a prophet from New York named Joseph Smith, in the early 19th century. It is a Christian tradition that follows the Book of Mormon. It contains Christian ideas not mentioned in the Bible and details God’s interaction with people in America. The book is given equal importance as the bible.

In the early 19th century, Joseph Smith received a series of visions of God and Jesus Christ. From there, an angel guided him to find a pair of golden plates buried near his farm. He translated the text on the plates to English and published it. This text is now known as the Book of Mormon. It is believed to be a revealed sacred text from God just like the Bible.

Mormons believe their church restores the church established by Jesus himself as other churches have deviated from the original church. They also believe that while God is immortal, He has a physical body.

Mormon Practices

Traditional Mormons avoid alcohol, smoking, coffee, tea and drugs. They also wear a special type of undergarment as a sign of their commitment to God. It encourages modesty as these undergarments mustn’t be visible to others.

Initially, Mormons practised polygamy because it was believed to be a commandment that the founder received from God. However, in the late 19th century, the president of the Mormon Church at the time received a revelation from God. The revelation ordered them to withdraw the commandment, allowing many marriages. Since then, polygamy has been banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some Mormons however believed it wasn’t a revelation from God but a decision influenced by politics. These Mormons and their descendants, therefore, continued the practice of polygamy.

Mormons worship in both churches and temples. They attend church every Sunday and for regular worship. While temples, the house of God, are reserved for only certain rituals and ceremonies. For instance, baptism for the deceased, weddings, marriage sealing and endowments. The largest Mormon temple is the Salt Lake Temple, located in Utah, United States.


amish family riding a horse carriage
Image Credit: Tennessee Wholesale Nursery

Amish people are a community of American Protestants who descended from the European Anabaptists. They immigrated to the US between the 18th and 19th centuries to escape persecution. The very first group of Amish people settled in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century.

The Amish tradition developed in Europe as a result of a separation from the Mennonite Swiss Brethren. This separation took place in 1692 because of the way members were treated when they disobeyed its doctrines.

What sets the Amish apart from other Christian communities is their beliefs and lifestyle. They believe their faith and lifestyle are related. The Amish, for example, believe that the path to salvation is to live within a community separate from the rest of the world. To the point where they do not take any help from the state. Instead, they help each other out in tough times. Therefore, they live in remote communities usually containing only Amish people. They refer to the people outside their community as English.

Every Amish community lives differently based on a set of unwritten rules. There is no singular Amish leader in charge of all Amish communities. However, it is common to find similarities in their lifestyles. They differentiate themselves by dressing modestly, working, studying and travelling differently. The Amish reject modern conveniences and avoid technology when they believe it will harm the community. They do not, however, believe that technology is evil, as it is falsely assumed.

Amish Lifestyle

In terms of education, Amish children study in schools within their community till the age of 14. They then leave school to learn practical skills to prepare themselves to start working. After the age of 16, in some Amish communities, children are allowed to experience life outside the Amish community. This allows them to choose if they wish to continue living in the Amish community. If they decide to stay, they live as baptised members of the community. Most decide to stay.

Most Amish lead agrarian lives due to the belief that working in nature pleases God. They marry within the community and tend to have large families.

They even speak different languages as compared to the people outside their community. For instance, they speak Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves and pray in High German. However, they do, speak English to communicate with non-Amish people.

Lastly, they practice simplicity and humility, rejecting anything that brings pride or one to enjoy power. They also avoid violence and avoid the use of unpleasant words.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a denomination of Christianity. It was founded in the US at the end of the 19th century by Charles Taze Russell. Russell was a biblical scholar who believed the world would soon end. He shared his interpretations of the bible and his beliefs in a journal known as the Watchtower. After his demise, a former judge by the name of Joseph Franklin Rutherford became the leader of the faith. He made certain predictions that turned out to be false. This caused many followers of the Watchtower to split in 1931. The group that remained with Rutherford renamed themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their adherents, known as the publishers, are spread throughout the world. They are especially famous for their door-to-door missionary work. Presently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is headquartered in New York.

Adherents of Jehovah’s Witnesses believe other Christian churches have deviated from the real teachings of the Bible. For instance, they do not believe in the Holy Trinity as they believe there is only one form of God. They believe the Holy Trinity is derived from a pagan ideology. Due to this, some traditional churches do not always view Jehovah’s Witness as a valid denomination.

They also do not celebrate their birthdays, Christmas or Easter due to their pagan origins. Followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus did not ask his followers to celebrate his birthday. They only honour the day that Jesus died.

The church also believes the world is in its final days and the fight between good and evil is bound to happen soon. 


Gnosticism refers to a collection of Christian movements and theologies that developed alongside Christianity between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.

Before the mid-1900s, Gnostics were believed to be a group of brutal heretics. At the time, the only texts available about the Gnostics were those written by the early church. These texts portrayed them as heretics.

Then, in the mid-1900s, two major pieces of texts were found. One was the Nag Hammadi Library found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. The other was the Gospel of Judas also found in Egypt but in the 1970s. Written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they were some of the last pieces of text written by Gnostics. These texts shed light on Gnosticism from a Gnostic perspective of god, salvation and creation. Thus, changing previous beliefs about them.

Gnostic scriptures found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
Gnostic scriptures found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Image Credit: Biblical Archaeology

Gnostic Beliefs

Gnostic groups each had their own distinct beliefs but there are some that were common in all. For instance, Gnostics believed in god but differently from other Christians. Instead of believing that God existed in three persons, they viewed God as one genderless, unknowable, omnipresent entity. They called this entity the Monad. The concept of the Monad was devised and influenced by Greek philosophy. The Monad, however, did not create the world, or matter. It was an entity known as the Demiurge that created the world. In Gnosticism, the world is considered evil or imperfect. Hence, the Monad was too pure to create the world. The Demiurge, an entity inferior to the Monad, often interpreted as evil or imperfect, is the creator of the world. Gnostics believe the Demiurge is the god mentioned in the Old Testament.

The world and the physical body, according to Gnostics, are a trap that must be escaped from. One escapes this cage upon death when they shed their physical body and reunite with the Monad.

All these aforementioned beliefs were considered secret knowledge, or gnosis, from where the word Gnostic comes from. Jesus, as per the Gnostics, was an entity, without a physical body. He was sent to Earth to deliver this secret knowledge to humans. They, therefore, do not believe Jesus lived, died or was physically resurrected.

By the 4th century, Gnosticism declined. However, Gnostic groups still exist today. The Mandaeans of Iraq are, for example, one of the few Gnostic groups remaining from the early days of Christianity.


silhouette of a masjid dome (mosque) on red sky background
Image Credit: ABWE International

Islam, meaning submission to God, is another monotheistic Abrahamic religion. Its adherents are known as Muslims, meaning, those who completely submit themselves to God. Currently, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world after Christianity.

History of its Foundations

Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammed around 1400 years ago. Muhammed was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in the year 570. Throughout his life, he saw poverty, injustice, violence, and discrimination around him. He was a deeply spiritual person and would often spend his time meditating inside the cave on Mount Hira. In 610 AD, when Muhammed was 40 years old, during his time in the cave, the Angel Gabriel visited him. The Angel Gabriel is known as Jibril in Arabic. Jibril revealed to him that there was one singular God, Allah and that Muhammed was God’s messenger.

Muhammed was unable to write so, his companions, who knew how to write accompanied him to the cave. As he received the messages, Muhammed would dictate while his companions recorded them in the sequence that Allah wanted. Muhammed received the entire divine message over a span of 23 years. These texts would go on to form the Quran, the central religious text of Islam.

Spread of Islam

The message was supported by many and soon Muhammed had gained a significant number of followers. However, his message, to submit to the one God, also angered many. Especially since the Arabian tribes at the time were polytheists and worshipped the idols of many gods. Soon, Muhammed and his followers were ostracized from society and later persecuted. To avoid further persecution, they migrated to the city of Medina, where they could practice their faith. There, Muhammed gained more followers and the Muslim community expanded. In later years, Muhammed and his followers returned to Mecca. On their return, they destroyed the idols of the many Gods the Arabians worshipped and took over the city. 

Soon after, the majority of the Arabs converted to Islam and, over time, Islam spread throughout the Middle East. Later, the religion gained more followers through trade, expansion of empires and migration.

Islamic Beliefs

In Islam, Allah is the only god and submission to Allah means finding peace. Allah is a perfect, omnipotent, genderless, powerful and wise entity who created the universe. A person who worships any other God, entity or material other than Allah, no longer remains Muslim.

Muslims believe Allah is merciful and loving. Allah forgives those who repent for their sins and mistakes.

Islam recognizes and respects the Judeo-Christian prophets such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, etc. Muslims believe the prophet Muhammed was the last prophet and the Quran was the last holy book containing God’s message.

Death and Afterlife

Muslims believe there will one day come the Day of Resurrection or Yaum al-Qiyamah. On this day, all deceased beings will be resurrected and Allah will give their final judgement. Depending on the way they lived on earth, Allah will decide if a soul can enter Jannah (paradise) and Jahannam (hell). 

At the time of death, Allah sends Azrael, the angel of death, to separate the soul from the body. After the family of the deceased performs funerary rites, the body is buried in a grave. Soon after, two angels, Munkar and Nakir, visit the grave to test the person’s faith. If they pass, the soul can rest until judgement day.  If they do not pass, they will be punished until judgment day. This state of waiting for Yaum al-Qiyamah is called Barzakh. 

It is believed that those who believe in the oneness of Allah. Those who repent for their sins, abide by the Quran and perform good deeds, will enter Jannah. On the other hand, failing to repent for sins, only pretending to believe in Allah. Or, rejecting the belief in Allah and disrespecting Allah or the Prophet, will send people to Jahannam.

Denominations in Islam

There are two distinct denominations that exist in Islam- Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. In 632, when Muhammed died, he had left no successor to lead his followers. This is when the two denominations formed. The Sunni Muslims believed that the next leader or caliph should be elected by the community. Therefore, they chose Muhammed’s most trustworthy companions. Abu Bakr, Muhammed’s father-in-law, was the first caliph.

Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believed the leader should be related to the prophet. So, they recognized Ali, the closest male relative of the prophet, as their leader. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammed. He, however, was the fourth caliph to lead the Muslim community.

Today, the large majority (90%) of Muslims identify as Sunni Muslim, while 10% identify as Shia Muslim.

Islamic Practices

The five pillars of Islam form the most important beliefs and practices in Islam. They are briefly explained below:

Shahada: Shahada is the open declaration of faith. It is the belief that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammed is the Messenger of God.

Salat: Salat or prayer is a part of daily life for Muslims. They pray 5 times a day, facing the direction of Mecca. Prayer is done once at sunset, night, dawn, noon and afternoon. Before praying, the arms, feet, head and face are washed as a ritual called wudu. Prayer can be done privately or in a mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

Zakat: Zakat is the practice of donating around 2-3% of one’s income to the less fortunate ones within the community. This income must’ve been earned honestly and by performing actual labour.

Sawm: Sawm refers to fasting when the sun is up in the sky during the month of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims do not consume any food or drinks, nor do they smoke. This time is used to show gratitude for what Allah has given them. They’re also reminded to share their wealth with those in need, as they experience what they do during this time. The disabled, sick, menstruating and pregnant women are exempted from fasting if it stresses the body. Ramadan ends with Eid, during which Muslims feast.

Hajj: Every able Muslim must make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. It is a structure located in the centre of the Haram Mosque. It is believed to be the structure Abraham, or Ibrahim, built for Allah. 

Hajj pilgrims at Kaaba in Mecca.
Hajj pilgrims at Kaaba in Mecca. Image Credit: Review of Religions

The Quran

The primary sacred text in Islam is the Quran. Muslims believed it to contain the uncorrupted word of god that Muhammed, the final prophet, received.

The second most important text is the Hadith. This is a text full of Muhammed’s actions and sayings that his companions recorded. Not all Muslims follow the Hadith and if they do, they may follow different types of Hadith.

Mosques are the communal place of worship for Muslims. Prayers in a mosque are led by an imam. On Friday afternoons, Muslims gather in mosques to do the noonday prayer. After that, the imam leads a sermon, then another prayer.


Muslims observe a halal diet. All food and drink consumed must be halal. Halal translates to lawful. In terms of diet, it refers to food or drink that is permitted to be consumed according to Islamic law. Foods that aren’t halal are haram, meaning unlawful. It is sinful for a Muslim to eat or drink haram foods on purpose. That is unless there are no other alternatives available, in the case of a medical emergency or extreme hunger.  Pork, alcohol, blood, animals that haven’t been slaughtered according to Islamic law are some examples of haram foods.

The Baha’i Faith

The Lotus Temple in India
The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. One of the major Baha’i Houses of Worship. Image Credit: Bahá’í World News Service

The Baha’i faith is another major, but relatively new Abrahamic religion. Founded in Iran in 1863, it is the youngest major religion in the world.

The Baha’i faith grew out of Babism, which in turn grew out of Shia Islam. In 1844, Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad Shírází at the age of 24, proclaimed he was sent by God to prepare humanity. He was to prepare humanity for the arrival of a prophet similar to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed. The Bab predicted that this great prophet would arrive soon and that he would be a manifestation of God. His arrival would also mark the beginning of a new era. Subsequently, he took the name ‘Bab’, meaning gate in Arabic. He was the founder of Babism.

The Bab gained thousands of followers over time. However, he and his followers were persecuted by Muslim leaders for their ideologies as they directly contrasted Islamic doctrine. Later, the Bab was executed and his followers were arrested or exiled. One of Bab’s disciples, Mirza Husayn-Ali in 1863, during his imprisonment, had a revelation. It was revealed that he was the prophet that Bab predicted would arrive. Mirza Husayn-Ali then assumed the title Bahá’u’lláh, meaning Glory of God. Bahá’u’lláh was the founder of the Baha’i faith. He spent much of his time in exile and confinement. Despite this, he gained a large following because of his teachings and personality. He passed away in 1892.

Key Beliefs in the Baha’i Faith

Baha’is believe in one omnipotent, genderless, unknowable and perfect God who created the world. God is too great for humans to understand. God can also not be known directly, which is why there are prophets, the intermediary between God and mankind. 

They believe that this is the same God known to all by different names throughout all religions. God shows himself through several prophets and religious leaders throughout history. Therefore, founders of all religions all held the divine truth and every religion ultimately has the same purpose. The difference lies in their interpretations and methods. The Baha’i faith, therefore, sees all religions as valid and values them equally, thus promoting unity among mankind.

Baha’is believe all living beings should be shown love, kindness and compassion. They believe humans have their individuality but are equal, so one shouldn’t discriminate against anyone. Especially not based on one’s race or gender. The Baha’i faith encourages equality between men and women. Baha’is pray daily and devote their lives to serving humanity. They wish to promote equality and get rid of extremities, such as poverty or excess wealth. Baha’is also believe in unity and that humankind should work unitedly for their own benefit.

The Baha’i faith is represented by a nine-pointed star which symbolizes spiritual completeness. The central body or administrative centre of the Baha’i faith is currently located in Haifa, Israel. It is known as the Baha’i World Centre. Every few years, Baha’is gather to vote for the leader of their religion. Lastly, the shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in Iran is the holiest Baha’i site in the world.

Eastern Religions

The following religions and philosophies originated and are largely followed in East Asia.


stone statue of Confucius
Statue of Confucius. Image Credit: South China Morning Post

Confucianism is a philosophy that originated in Ancient China. Some view it as a religion, while others believe it is a belief system. Confucianism was founded by the Chinese philosopher Kong Qiu, who is also known as Master Kong or Confucius. Confucianism developed between the 6th and 5th centuries BC and is believed to be influenced by Chinese folk religion. It did not, however, become an established school of thought before the 2nd or 1st century BC.

Confucius was a philosopher, scholar and teacher who unintentionally founded this school of thought. At the time, during the Zhou dynasty, society was facing instability, bankruptcy and other conflicts. Confucius, like other philosophers of that era, was trying to understand why the gods worshipped at the time weren’t helping.

Philosophers of the time were looking to find what could bring social stability and order if it wasn’t for the gods and spirits. Confucius believed the answer lay in understanding the religious rituals performed at the time, from another perspective. Instead of viewing these rituals as asking for gods’ blessings, he saw them as disciplined patterned behaviours. Behaviours that formed the very foundations of human civilization. Behaviours that were only possible due to human wisdom. It was then that he realized only a civilized group of people could achieve social oneness and stability.

Key Confucian principles

Two key Confucian principles, Jen and Li, form the foundations of Confucianism.

Jen translates to humanity, humanness or goodness. It can be summarized as the act of showing humanity to others and wishing the best for others. It is the virtue that maintains harmony.

Li roughly translates to propriety or virtue. The word can be interpreted in many ways however, it’s often understood as the concept of order, gain and benefit. It may also be interpreted as the concept of ritual and social order. Li serves as a guide to knowing how to behave appropriately, perform proper action and have proper manners. It promotes self-discipline, respect for authority, elders and traditions. The ability to display proper action can then allow one to genuinely express Jen.

Incorporating both Jen and Li in one’s life yields a disciplined, well-conducting, civilized person. This person is empathic towards others and knows how to behave appropriately no matter the situation. Confucianism is, therefore, a way of life.

There is no belief in a supernatural entity, nor are there theories about the afterlife.

Confucius’ ideologies were compiled into two volumes of text, which are now considered the most important Confucian text. They are The Four Books and the Five Classics.

Confucianism was the official religion of China from 200 BC till its abolition during the communist era in 1949. Confucian belief encouraged a strong work ethic, something that can still be seen in Eastern Asian cultures today.


Taoist temple in Mount Qingcheng,
Taoist temple Jianfu Palace on Mount Qingcheng, Sichuan, China. Image Credit: China Discovery

Taoism or Daoism is another religion that originated in China. The Chinese language has two writing systems. Meaning, there are two ways the name of this religion can be translated into English. This is why it is known as both Taoism and Daoism. Much like Confucianism, some see it as a religion, while others view it as philosophy.

Taoism developed around the same time as Confucianism – in the 6th century BC. It was developed by the Chinese philosopher Laozi, meaning Old Master. Taoist beliefs have been inspired by Chinese folk religion but they have their differences. Taoist philosophy has influenced everything from art, literature, martial arts and even medicine throughout Chinese history.

Taoism gets its name from the term ‘Tao’, which refers to ‘the way of the cosmos’.  It can best be defined as an uncreated central force that is the source of reality that maintains cosmic order and ensures harmony between the two. Cosmic order refers to the natural order within reality. This order can be seen in nature. The imperfect yet symmetrical patterns of a snowflake can be an example of this order. One can experience the Tao and therefore the universe, by living at one with nature.

The Tao is explained in detail in the Daodejing, an 81 chapter book that acts as the foundational text of Taoism. It is believed to be written by Laozi sometime in the 5th century BC. Another text detailing the Tao is the Zhuangzi, written by the philosopher Zhuang Zhou in the 3rd century BC.

Taoist Principles and Beliefs

symbol of yin and yang
Symbol of Yin and Yang. Image Credit: Pinterest

Taoists believe that the Tao constantly creates and transforms its creations. Therefore, the universe is always changing. Living beings possess Qi or Chi, which is the force that allows things to move and exist. Chi guides all actions in the universe. This force flows constantly and it is this flow that keeps the Tao in balance.

Taoists also believe that everything in the cosmos is made up of contrasting forces that balance each other out. Yin and yang represent the unity of these opposing forces. This balance also plays a role in maintaining natural order.

Taoism teaches simplicity, moderation, compassion, authenticity, detachment and living in harmony with nature, among other things. It also teaches the concept of Wu-Wei, meaning inaction. Wu Wei, however, does not refer to stillness or no action at all. Rather, it encourages one not to force natural actions or the order of things. To just go with the flow. The goal is to be at one with the Tao. It is believed that the spirit unites with the Tao after death. 

Additionally, Taoists value longevity, health, balance and transformation. Earlier, many Taoists were involved in the practice of making medicine for this reason.

Taoists worship their ancestors, nature spirits, legendary heroes, celestial bodies that have been personified. They also respect the founding figures of the religion. They meditate and perform rituals as a form. Communal worship is done inside temples and monasteries.


Gate to a Shinto shrine in Japan
Gate to a Shinto shrine. Image Credit: Japanology

Shinto is an indigenous Japanese religion that is animistic in nature. Early records of Shinto date back to the 6th century AD. However, it may have been in practice earlier than that. Shinto acts as a bridge between modern and ancient Japan. Japanese culture in the present day, which includes costume, dance and customs, has been influenced by Shinto traditions. It is a part of the Japanese identity.

The term Shinto translates to ‘the way of the kami’. There is no English equivalent for the word kami, but it can best be described as the spirits found in nature. Kami can be found in specific places, objects, natural features like rivers, wind, fire, sun, etc. Ameratsu, the sun kami, for example, is a widely worshipped kami. Kami can also be present in manmade objects like shrines, mirrors, weapons and jewels. Humans can also become kami after death. There are believed to be around 8 million kami.

Kami are neutral, they’re neither good nor evil. They promote harmony between living beings. If offended, they can also punish people by causing bad luck, disease and disasters.

Kami worship was initially a local practice, which eventually spread all over Japan. In ancient times, every village had their own patron kami and own rituals dedicated to the kami. As people migrated and settled into various places in Japan, local practices became known to the masses.  Ancient Shinto practices and beliefs are the source of many traditional Japanese customs still in practice today.

In Shinto, there is only one reality, inhabited by both humans and kami. The only difference is that we live in a visible realm, while kami inhabit an invisible one. These realms overlap to form one reality. However, it is believed that kami or spirits interact with humans in specific locations. Shrines were built in these places to house the kami present. Currently, there are around 80,000 – 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan.

Visiting a Shinto Shrine

People visit these shrines to communicate, interact and worship the kami. Before entering, visitors first bow at the gate as a sign of respect, then go to a washing station to ritually cleanse themselves using wooden ladles. Once purified, the kami can be greeted. One way to greet is by first ringing bells, then offering coins, bowing, then clapping to get the kami’s attention, then bowing again.

Inside, Shinto priests conduct rituals for the kami every day through offerings, chants, prayers and rituals. The spirits are even entertained through cultural performances. When people visit the shrines, they often make donations so that priests can perform personal prayers on their behalf. Both men and women can be priests and they can even have a family.

Unlike other religions discussed so far, Shinto has no founder. There are certain Shinto texts, but none dominate one over the other. As such, there is no central Shinto scripture.  Shinto philosophy encourages sincerity, purity and gratitude. Harmful actions are inevitable and polluting to the self. However, this collective pollution can be purified by performing rituals.

Many Japanese people, as many as 80% of the population, visit or keep shrines dedicated to the kami. But only 4% actually identify as Shinto. This suggests that Shinto practices are practised alongside other religions and, that it is an ingrained part of the Japanese lifestyle.

Indic Religions

The following religions were founded and developed in the Indian Subcontinent.


hindu temple in eastern india
Jagannath Temple in Puri, India. Image Credit: The Telegraph India

Hinduism is the world’s oldest organized religion and the third largest religion in the world. It dates back to at least 5000 years ago, to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. Other Indic religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism emerged out of Hinduism.

Hindus refer to their religion as Sanatan Dharma, meaning ‘The Eternal Way’. The word Hindu originates from a mispronunciation of the Sanskrit name for the Indus River. The Indus River, on the banks of which the Indus Valley Civilization once flourished, is called Sindhu in Sanskrit. However, when the ancient Persians invaded India in the 6th century BC, they pronounced the river as Hindu. Later in antiquity, the Old Persian word ‘Hindu’ was Latinised into ‘Indus’. Which is also where the word ‘India’ comes from. The term ‘Hindu’ was then used to refer to the culture and religious traditions of the people living around and beyond the Indus River.

Hinduism is a combination of cultures and traditions practised across the Indian subcontinent over thousands of years. This is why the religion has no founder, no singular and no standard way of worship or ritual. There are various beliefs, traditions and interpretations of the religion. These differences are most visible in the many regions within the subcontinent. There are, however, some core beliefs and practices followed by most, if not all, Hindus.

Sacred Texts

First of all, is the practice of consulting the Vedas or books of knowledge. The Vedas are a collection of hymns, poems, rituals and prayers which contain the key principles and philosophies of Hinduism. They serve as guides, instructions and wisdom to all Hindus.

There are four types of Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. They were composed by saints, wise men, sages and gurus of the Vedic period (1750 – 500 BC). Scholars theorize that a group of Indo-Aryans, possibly from Central Asia, migrated to the fertile plains of the Ganges at the beginning of the Vedic period. With them, they brought their own knowledge and practices. Once they settled in the new land, their traditions merged with the existing practices. This led to the development of early Hinduism. The Vedas are a result of these combined cultures.

The knowledge in the Vedas was initially oral tradition until they were written down around 1200 BC.

In addition to the Vedas, other Sanskrit texts like the Upanishads and Puranas also serve as sacred scriptures of Hinduism. The Upanishads are a series of books explaining the core Hindu philosophy. The Puranas are also another collection of religious texts. They narrate a set of traditional stories which answer some of life’s biggest mysteries. Such as the origins and creation of the universe, the creation of divine entities, what is one’s purpose in life, etc.

Another crucial Hindu text is the Bhagavad Gita. It is a poem from the Indian epic, Mahabharata. It is a dialogue between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and the warrior-prince Arjuna. The conversation takes place on the battlefield, where Lord Krishna serves as Arjuna’s charioteer.

In summary, these sacred texts serve as the foundations of Hindu beliefs and practices.


the hindu trinity of gods
Brahma (left), Vishnu (centre) and Shiva (right), the Hindu trinity. Image Credit: Altervista

The second common belief among Hindus is that there is one eternal truth. The path to finding this truth may be different across cultures worldwide.

Brahman is the ultimate truth and reality. It is the divine, infinite, eternal, omnipotent and unchanging force that exists everywhere and within all things. Everything in the universe is a part of Brahman. Brahman cannot be seen, neither can it be described; it can only be experienced.

Hindus are famous for worshipping multiple gods and goddesses. These deities, however, are simply various expressions of Brahman. Brahman manifests as various incarnations, aspects and forms. The three main expressions of Brahman form the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator god, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the destroyer. Together, the deities maintain order in the universe.

A part of the Brahman lies in every individual. This is referred to as the soul or atman. Atman is immortal and when a person dies, their soul is reincarnated into a new body with no memory of their past life. This never-ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth is called Samsara.


Reincarnation is influenced by one’s karma. Karma, a concept found in other Indic religions as well, refers to one’s actions. In Hinduism, every action has a consequence that they may face either in their current life or in their next. The fate of an individual is predetermined based on the karma of their past and present life. For instance, to be born as a human, one must have done a lot of good deeds in their past life. However, their karma as humans will decide what they’ll be reincarnated as in their next life. Accordingly, they could be born again as a human. Or as an insect, plant, animal or some other living being.

In order to have a pleasant life in the next life, Hindus form good habits and are encouraged to make better choices.


The type of action one does is based on their Dharma, another key concept in Hinduism. Dharma, to put it simply, refers to the duties an individual must fulfil to achieve their true purpose in life. Traditionally, Dharma is influenced by the caste an individual is born into.

For instance, if a person is born a Brahmin, their dharma would entail practising and promoting Vedic learning and knowledge. And to maintain purity. Brahmins are the highest-ranking caste in the Hindu social order or the caste system.  Throughout history, Brahmins have worked as priests, scholars, teachers, doctors, etc. to fulfil their dharma.

The concept of dharma is discussed and explained in great depth in the Bhagavad Gita. It provides answers to questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my purpose in this life?’ 


Finally, there is the concept of moksha, which refers to liberation from samsara. It is the final goal of Hinduism. But why should a person achieve moksha? The cycle of birth, death and reincarnation is endless and in every life, there is pain and suffering. Achieving moksha liberates one from suffering to be at one with Brahman. If a person achieves moksha, their soul reunites with Brahman. Moksha can be achieved by overcoming desire, ignorance, performing good deeds and living according to one’s dharma.

Hindus worship daily and occasionally perform rituals. Most Hindus keep an altar or a space to house idols and images of the deities inside their homes. Alternatively, they may visit a temple. Many even follow a vegetarian diet to practice non-violence or ahimsa as it is a form of good karma.

Today, the majority of Hindus in the world live in India, but Hindus can be found all over the world.


Jain symbol iconography
Symbol of Jainism. The swastika is a sacred symbol of Jainism that represents the four types of living being the soul can be born as. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Jainism is a religion that was established in India around 500 BC. Jainism itself developed long before that but it wasn’t before 500 BC that it became widely known as a religion. It grew alongside other religions in the area, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it shares many similarities with them. Adherents of Jainism are known as Jains.

Jains follow the teachings of the 24 Tirthankaras, meaning ford maker. They are also known as Jina, meaning Victor. This is where the word Jain comes from. A Tirthankara is a spiritual teacher who has achieved complete wisdom, perfection and eternal bliss. They have also overcome attachment, desire, pride and anger. Most importantly, they’ve liberated themselves from the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. Much like in Hinduism, this cycle of rebirth is called samsara and freedom from samsara is called moksha. Tirthankaras have also devised a path for others to follow in order to achieve the same. Mahavira, the last Tirthankara, is often believed to be the founder of Jainism because of his role in propagating Jainism.

Jain Beliefs and Principles

The concept of karma exists in Jainism as well. Jains, however, view karma as particles that get attached to their soul. Like the way dust sticks to objects. Karma gets attached by performing both Punya (good deeds) and Paap (sins). The more karma a person attracts, the more consequences they must face. Emotions like greed, anger, lust and hate, for instance, attract the most karma. It is karma that keeps the soul stuck in the cycle of Samsara. The type of karma attached to the soul decides what it will be reincarnated as in the next life.

Jains believe that when a person completely rids themselves of these karma particles, they can achieve moksha. This is because karma, whether good or bad, keeps an individual from knowing the true nature of the soul. It covers this truth from them. This truth is only known when a person acquires complete wisdom and subsequently attain moksha. Moksha is the ultimate goal in Jainism, as it liberates the soul from continuous suffering.

The Tirthankaras teach that it is possible to achieve liberation through the path of the three jewels. They are Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct.

Right Faith

Right Faith or Right Vision entails training to learn the truth about reality. This is done by having faith is the seven tattvas as written in the Tattvasutras. The seven tattvas or elements form the fundamental truths of reality.

They are:

  1. Jiva: All living beings have a soul. The soul is separate from the physical body. The body simply houses the soul temporarily.
  2. Ajiva: Non-living things have no soul and they co-exist with jiva to form the universe.
  3. Asrava: Refers to the way one’s actions attract karma. The body which houses the soul influences these actions.
  4. Bandha: Karma binds to the soul and consciousness.
  5. Samvara: It is possible to stop karma from being attracted to the soul.
  6. Nirjara: Karma bound to the soul can be shed off or destroyed.
  7. Moksha: Liberation from attached karmic matter also liberates the soul from samsara resulting in the achievement of Moksha.

Believing in these truths and questioning reality can only then lead to the right knowledge. Only then is it possible to distinguish the truth from the untrue. It is the path to avoiding superstition, misunderstanding, stereotypes and achieving clarity. Those who possess the right faith have likely achieved calmness, kindness and a desire for moksha. They also overcome attachment to earthly things.

Right Knowledge

Right Knowledge entails knowing the truths of reality. The soul possesses its own consciousness, therefore, possesses knowledge. With the right faith, the knowledge a soul possesses becomes the right knowledge. Upon acquiring the right knowledge, present things as they are. They aren’t exaggerated nor are they understated.

In Jainism, knowledge is divided into five categories. First is sensory knowledge, which is knowledge acquired through the five senses. Second is knowledge of scriptures, referring to knowledge acquired through verbal or scriptural wisdom. There are several sacred texts in Jainism, among which are the Tattvasutras, the Sarvathasiddhi and the Agamas, among more. Jain scriptures contain the compiled knowledge of the Tirthankaras and Jain leaders throughout history. The third is clairvoyance, which is the knowledge of objects that are too detailed, too distant or too complicated to be understood by the senses or ordinary mind. Fourth is telepathy, the knowledge of knowing the thoughts of others. Finally, there is omniscience, which is complete wisdom. This is only acquired when all karma particles are ridden. 

Right Conduct

Right Conduct puts the right faith and right knowledge into practice. Doing so allows control over oneself and rids any attachment, pride, desires, etc. Which is what binds karma to the soul. Right conduct is done by observing the five mahavrats or great vows. They are:

  1. Ahimsa or non-violence. Every living thing has a soul and, therefore, can feel pain. Therefore, no one should harm any living being. This not only includes humans and animals but plants and microbes too. Non-violence is perhaps the most important vow in Jainism and Jains practice it strictly. For this reason, Jains tend to avoid violent jobs. They also follow a strict vegetarian diet, one that doesn’t include any animals or animal products. They also tend not to eat root vegetables like onions, ginger, garlic, carrots, potatoes, etc. Harvesting these vegetables requires the whole plant to be uprooted from the soil, which kills them. Strict Jains prefer not to eat after sunset because, according to scriptures, bacteria in the air multiply at lower temperatures. Consuming this food not only harms the microbes but may also present health issues. Lastly, Jain ascetics, monks and nuns even wear face guards to avoid inhaling microbes.

    a group of jain nuns
    Jain nuns covering their mouths with a faceguard. Image Credit: The New Indian Express
  2. Satya or truthfulness. Jains are encouraged to be honest and truthful.
  3. Asteya or non-stealing. Cheating others by stealing from others, being deceitful or committing fraud is unacceptable. This even includes charging unreasonable prices for products while doing business.
  4. Brahmacharya refers to practising celibacy, at least until marriage. It also refers to avoiding lust.
  5. Aparigraha or non-possession refers to avoiding unnecessary attachment to people, places and materials. 

The Jain Cosmos

Jains believe that the universe has always existed and that it is divided into three realms. At the top is heaven, in the middle lies the Earth and at the bottom, there is hell. Heaven is multi-layered and at the topmost layer lies Siddha Loka, which is where liberated souls reside. The rest of the layers are inhabited by gods and souls with a lot of good karma. Their time in heaven, however, is limited as both these souls and deities will eventually be reborn. Similarly, hell also has many layers which are inhabited by demons and souls with a lot of bad karma. Their time in hell is also temporary. 

The amount of time a being spends in these realms is dictated by the number of karmic particles their souls carry. They are reincarnated once their karmic effects are exhausted. They may be reborn as either a plant, animal, human or an entity of hell or heaven.

Jains revere the Tirthankaras, not to worship them or to ask for favours or guidance. But, more as a way to honour them, an aspiration to be enlightened like them. As Jainism grew alongside Hinduism in dominant Hindu society, many Jains worship Hindu gods and goddesses. Jain temples are the communal place of worship.


Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya
Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. The Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree located in this temple complex. Image Credit: Times of India

Buddhism began around 2500 years ago in India. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Gautama Buddha, between the 5th and 6th centuries BC. It is currently the 4th largest religion in the world.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BC in a palace in present-day Nepal. Siddhartha was born a prince as his parents were the king and queen of a local kingdom.

Before his birth, it was prophesized that he would either become a religious leader or a king like his father. To prevent his son from becoming a religious leader, Siddhartha’s father never allowed Siddhartha to leave the palace. No expense was spared in his upbringing, ensuring he enjoyed all the luxuries in life.

His father, the king, hid all signs of suffering from him. His father made sure he knew nothing about suffering. Palace staff were instructed not to speak to Siddhartha about the miseries of life. The sick, crippled, old and poor were kept out of sight, and anything dead or decaying was removed immediately.

At age 29, Siddhartha was finally allowed to leave the palace and venture outside. On his journey, he saw a sick man, an old man and a dead man. He learned about suffering for the first time in his life. This led him to learn more and find the source of this suffering. Then, on another visit outside the palace, he saw an ascetic. He did not have any possessions and seemed content. This sight led Siddhartha to think that the problem was with one’s attachment to material things. So, he gave up his life as a prince, his palace and all his possessions to become an ascetic.

From Siddhartha to the Buddha

He spent six years as a wandering ascetic, learning from other ascetics in India. Then he went to the deep forests to practice intense meditation and fasting. During this time, he would only eat a grain of rice to sustain himself and became extremely thin. He soon realized this way of life didn’t ease suffering, nor did it make him happy. After all this time, he was nowhere close to an answer. One day, however, he heard a music teacher telling their students to adjust the strings on their instruments. The teacher said that tightening the strings too much would break them. But if they were too loose, they wouldn’t sound.

That’s when Siddhartha realized that the key to happiness was somewhere in between the life of luxury and the life of an ascetic. So, he began eating properly again, then sat underneath a Bodhi tree and meditated. There, he finally found the answers he was looking for. He realized that suffering would end with the end of desire. He realized that change was constant and accepting those changes would bring happiness. These realizations made him experience a sense of joy like he’d never felt before. He had achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, meaning the enlightened one. He devised an eightfold path to curb desires, which would in turn reduce suffering and attain enlightenment. From his enlightenment to his death, the Buddha spent his time teaching others what he learned.

illustration of the buddha attaining nirvana
The Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Image Credit: Assumption University of Thailand

The Four Noble Truths

The fundamental principles of Buddhism are expressed in the four noble truths. They are:

  1. The truth of suffering: This truth identifies the existence of suffering. Life can be unfulfilling and overall disappointing.
  2. The truth about the origin of suffering: This truth explains the source of dissatisfaction. Desire and attachment to objects and people are the main sources. As a result, humans are disappointed when changes present themselves when they are least expected. Or, the reason we become upset when we don’t get what we want.
  3. The truth of the end of suffering: There is an end to endless suffering. Letting go of desires and attachment can end in suffering.
  4. The path to ending suffering: Following the Eightfold Path is the way to let go of desires and attachment. This path leads to nirvana (enlightenment), which frees the soul from samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. It is liberation from samsara that ends eternal suffering.

The Eightfold Path

The steps to the Eightfold Path are briefly explained below:

Right view: The acceptance of the four noble truths.

Right thought: Thoughts are most upsetting. Therefore, one should fill their minds with positive thoughts.

Right speech: Encourages the use of positive words and discourages gossip, lies and negative or harsh speech.

Right action: This involves living a non-violent life and having respect for all living things. Stealing, killing, deceit, inflicting injury on purpose, sexual misbehaviour, etc. are unacceptable.

Right livelihood: To make an honest and ethical living. This involves avoiding jobs that, for instance, use weapons, involve killing, enslavement, harming other living beings, involvement of drugs, exploitation of others, etc.

Right Effort: To put the effort to allow the flow of positive or useful thoughts instead of negative ones like violence, anger, hate, greed, anxiety, etc.

Right mindfulness: involves paying attention to one’s actions, being grounded and staying in the moment. It allows understanding of the mind and body, to identify the sources of positive or negative emotions or thoughts.

Right concentration: Involves focusing the mind on a single object, action or thing to gain insights and answers. 

The eightfold path is not easy to follow but it has allowed many to be enlightened over centuries.

Branches of Buddhism

There are two main branches of Buddhism – Theravada and Mahayana.

There are two denominations of Buddhism, the Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is the oldest form of Buddhism. In this branch of Buddhism, reading the suttas is an important practice. The suttas are a collection of text written in Pali containing what the Buddha preached after attaining nirvana. Theravada Buddhists view the Buddha as a more human figure. Additionally, they believe Siddhartha is the only enlightened one. Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are some countries practising Theravada Buddhism in large numbers.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Boddhisattvas play an important role. Bodhisattvas were enlightened people who decided to stay in the cycle of Samsara to help others achieve enlightenment. Buddhists pray and make offerings to the Boddhisattvas, as they would to the gods. Mahayana Buddhism is mostly practised in Eastern Asian countries like Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Nepal.

Mahayana Buddhism has sub-branches, one of which is Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. Practices and rituals differ from other branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists make use of chants called mantras, deep meditation, incantations and the visualization of supernatural entities to achieve enlightenment. This form of Buddhism relies on the guidance of Lamas or spiritual teachers. The Dalai Lama is the leader of Vajrayana Buddhism.


harmandir sahib golden temple
The Golden Temple, an important place of worship for Sikhs. Located in Amritsar, Punjab, India. Image Credit: Laurentiu Morariu via Unsplash

Sikhism, known as Sikhi to Sikhs, is a monotheistic religion that was founded in India around 500 years ago. It is one of the youngest organized religions in the world.

Brief Origins of Sikhi

Sikhi was founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in Punjab, a region that today is part of India and Pakistan.

Sikhi is based on the teachings of the gurus, who are spiritual guides or teachers. There are 10 human gurus in Sikhi, among whom, Guru Nanak was the first. Guru Nanak was born in 1469 in present-day Lahore, Pakistan. Growing up, he observed the corrupt, discriminative and exploitive behaviour of people. He especially disliked the way the wealthy exploited the poor and the rigid caste system of Hindu society.

One day while he was bathing in a river, he suddenly disappeared, then re-emerged three days later. In those three days, he had encountered God at his court where he spoke to Guru Nanak. He learned that there was only one god, who encouraged harmony, equality and discouraged any form of divisions amongst humans. Guru Nanak and the nine subsequent human gurus promoted this message of harmony, peace and equality. The 10th and final guru ended the line of human gurus by transferring guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib is the central sacred text of Sikhi.

Core Beliefs in Sikhi

Firstly, and most importantly, there is only one God who has no form, no gender and is omnipotent. God is reality and can be found in everything. Sikhs believe this is the one god known to various cultures but is interpreted differently.

There is no image or visual representation of God, as nothing is perfect enough to represent god. Sikhs refer to god as Waheguru, which translates to ‘wondrous lord’.

Secondly, all humans are equal. No one should be discriminated against for the family they’re born into, their gender, race, age, etc. For this reason, the role of women in Sikhi is more prominent, as compared to other major religions. Women have always served as community and service leaders, and as warriors.

Like Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, Sikhs also believe in karma and reincarnation. Karma decides what the soul will be born as. Regardless of what they’re born as, God gives souls a chance to perform good actions during their lifetime. Much like in the other Indic religions, the ultimate aim is to break free from the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. Upon doing so, the soul merges with God. This phenomenon is known as Mukti or liberation.

God created reality. Many forget this fact because of Maya or illusions. Maya keeps a person trapped in the cycle of rebirth and forms barriers between humankind and god. These barriers are made of lust, anger, greed, attachment and pride caused by ego. Ego ultimately allows people to only care about themselves, attract negativity and crave power. Mukti can be achieved by getting rid of ego, greed, attachment, anger and lust. This can be achieved by practising the three pillars of Sikhi.

Three Pillars of Sikhi

First is Naam Japna, which refers to mindfully meditating, chanting and constantly remembering God’s name. The second pillar is Kirat Karni, which is making an honest living and working hard to live honourably. Finally, there is Vand Chhakna, which is sharing the fruits of labour with the community. Sikhs must contribute in some way, either by sharing, giving or serving the community. This teaches individuals to be more humble and let go of ego, greed, attachment and anger.

Khalsa Panth

illustration of the establishment of the khalsa
Guru Gobind Singh offering Amrit to the panj pyare. Image Credit: Jagran

Khalsa, meaning ‘pure ones’, refers to a community of Sikhs who have undergone the initiation ceremony. The tradition was created by the final human guru, Guru Gobind Singh. It is a way to pledge commitment to Sikh values, duties and the gurus.

In 1699, on the occasion of Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh gathered a large group of Sikhs together. The guru stood on a stage, where a tent was also set up. He addressed the people from there and asked if anyone was willing to sacrifice themselves to God and the gurus. Five men came forward and, one by one, each was taken inside the tent. Every time a man was taken inside, the guru would come out shortly after, with a bloodied sword in hand. This continued till all five men went inside the tent. Soon after, the guru went back inside the tent and came out with all five men, completely unharmed. They did, however, come out with a distinct uniformed appearance. They now wore saffron clothes and neat turbans.

The five volunteers were called the panch pyare, meaning ‘beloved five’. They became the first members of the Khalsa Panth, the new Sikh order. The guru initiated them by giving them Amrit, or nectar made of sugar and water. The Amrit ceremony is still performed to initiate members into the Khalsa.

The 5 Ks

The guru also instructed members of the Khalsa to carry five items with them at all times; these are known as the 5 Ks.  The first is kesh, meaning uncut hair, which represents discipline. Turbans are worn to manage and cover long hair. The second is the Kangha, a small comb. The third is Kirpan, a dagger carried as a reminder to maintain justice and protect the vulnerable. It is intended for use against oppressors, not to promote violence. Nowadays, the Kirpans carried are only symbolic. They are also much smaller and blunt. The fourth item is Kacchera or underwear. It is a pair of shorts reminding the wearer to practice sexual constraint. Lastly, there is the Kara, a steel or iron bracelet symbolizing the infinite nature of God. These items represent a willingness to live their lives according to the gurus’ teachings and to uphold Sikh values. 

Guru Gobind Singh also gave both men and women new names to avoid discrimination faced due to their family names. Men were given the title Singh, meaning lion, and women were titled Kaur, meaning princess.

The Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib
The Guru Granth Sahib. Image Credit: Punjab News Express

Before the tenth and final human guru, Guru Gobind Singh died, he transferred guruship to the Guru Granth Sahib. This ended the succession of human gurus and instated an eternal guru.

The Guru Granth Sahib is the primary sacred book in Sikhi. It contains the teachings of the 10 gurus in the form of poems and hymns. The book also contains texts written by wise people of other religions. It serves as a guide and teacher to Sikhs. As the book itself is seen as the guru, it is treated with the utmost respect. In gurdwaras, which are the Sikh place of worship, the book is placed on raised platforms as if on a throne.


Gurdwara, meaning doorway to the guru, is the Sikh communal place of worship. Inside, people pray, sing and eat together. People of all faiths are welcome inside a gurdwara. However, they must cover their heads, remove their shoes, wash their hands at the entrance and behave appropriately. All gurdwaras have a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib inside. Most gurdwaras also have a langar service every day. Langar is a communal free kitchen. This kitchen is open to all, regardless of caste, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. It is organized and operated by Sikhs as a form of service and help to the community. Volunteers donate funds or ingredients, spend their time preparing and serving food, and even cleaning dishes. Langar services provide vegetarian food so people of all faiths and backgrounds can consume it.

The most important gurdwara is the Golden Temple or the Harmandir Sahib, located in Amritsar, Punjab, India. The Golden Temple also offers the world’s largest langar service, serving over 100,000 people every day. 

African Traditional Religions

African religions refer to the indigenous beliefs and practices of the various ethnic groups in the African continent. The folk religions are diverse and complex. There are at least hundreds of such traditions in Africa, one corresponding to each ethnic group. The majority of Africans today are either adherents of either Christianity or Islam. These are religions that were introduced to the continent through trade and colonization over the course of time. However, a small percentage of the population in all African nations still practice folk religions. Moreover, many still incorporate aspects of indigenous traditions into their everyday life.

African traditional religions are based on oral traditions, which include mythology, songs, festivals and customs. There are no known founders and neither are there any scriptures for these religions. These traditions provide answers and insights into life’s mysteries. Knowledge and way of life are transmitted from the older to younger generations through oral tradition. This is how it has survived for millennia.

Each traditional religion has its distinct features. However, there are some common elements including, belief in spirits, one or more deities, ancestor worship, magic and traditional healing. They are often categorized as animistic, polytheistic or even pantheistic.

Common Beliefs and Practices

african Traditional Ritual
An African Traditional Ritual being performed. Image Credit: 54 History

The concept of community is crucial in African traditional religions as it comprises people who have similar views and beliefs. It ensures order within a society and provides guidance for everyday living. The elders within a community are believed to be the wisest and are seen as authoritative figures. Additionally, each community will have a group of people to take care of people’s spiritual requirements and issues. This group usually constitutes rulers, priests, pastors, mystics, healers and other spiritually gifted people. Including weddings, funerals, births, festivals and even achievements like securing a job. Offerings are made to them and they’re shown gratitude, in exchange for their blessings.

In some cultures, there is a belief in a supreme god who is communicated through their ancestors. 

Other common beliefs include the belief in evil eyes and curses. There is also the belief that sacred objects, ancestors and spirits can provide help, protection and insight. For that, they must be offered sacrifices and perform certain rituals.

Examples of some ethnic traditions are Bantu, Kongo, Bushongo, Mbuti, Baluba, Hausa, Lotuko, Maasai, Akamba, Gikuyu, Dini Ya Msambwa, Lozi, Tumbuka, Xhosa, Zulu, San, Vodou and Efik mythology. Examples of traditional religions include Waaqism, Kemetism, Punic Religion, Traditional Berber Religion, Edo Religion, Ijo Traditional Religion, Akan Religion, Asaase Religion and Yoruba Religion. There are hundreds more.

Afro-Caribbean Religions

During the Transatlantic slave trade between the 16th and 18th centuries, European colonizers and merchants transported millions of slaves from Africa to the New World. This tragic event in history dislocated the Africans far from their homeland. The Africans who reached the Americas brought along with them their traditions and culture. These cultures merged with the indigenous American and European customs to form the African diaspora religions. Some of them are discussed below.


an Orisha in the form of a saint.
An Orisha in the form of a saint. Image Credit: Pinterest

Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion derived from the Ifa tradition practised by the Yoruba people in West Africa. This is mixed with elements from Catholicism.

Santeria means ‘way of the saints.’ It developed when enslaved Africans were brought to work in the sugar plantations in Cuba during the 17th century.

Practitioners of Santeria believe in spirits called Orishas. Orishas are expressions of the supreme God, Olodumare. It is also Olodumare who sends the Orishas to Earth. Their purpose is to guide and help mankind live their predestined life. Through Santeria, individuals build a connection between themselves and the Orishas. Therefore, Orishas are worshipped by performing certain rituals.

Santeria practices involve chanting, music, dancing and even spirit possession. Sometimes, during rituals, the priest or priestess conducting the rites is possessed by an Orisha. Others gathered around them can feel the presence of the spirit. Santeria has no scriptures or text, so knowledge is passed on through oral tradition.

Santeria is also associated with Catholicism because the Orishas were disguised as Catholic Saints. When the Africans were brought to Cuba, they really wanted their faith to survive. However, they weren’t allowed to practice their native religions. So, they tricked the European oppressors into believing they were practising Catholicism. They disguised the Orishas as saints and continued to practice their religion.


old flag of ethiopia, symbol of rastafari
Image Credit: NTS

Rastafari is another African diaspora religion. It is a relatively young monotheistic religion that is derived from Judeo-Christian doctrines and texts. It developed in Jamaica in the 1930s.

Rastafari started out as a movement as a response to British colonialism and oppression. The movement began after being inspired by the ideologies of Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican activist who advocated for the empowerment, rights and improvement of people of the black race.

In the 1920s, he also predicted that black people would be liberated when a new king was crowned in Africa. In 1930, Haile Selassie became the Emperor of Ethiopia and Jamaican clergymen believed Garvey’s prophecy had come true. Haile Selassie was viewed as a messiah, a prophet of Jah and the second incarnation of Jesus. In Rastafari, God is known as Jah.

Rastafarian Beliefs

Rastafari is based on rastology, which is the Rastafarian interpretation of the bible. The Rastafari Bible is used as the Rastafarian sacred text.

Since Rastafari finds its roots in the ideologies intended for the betterment of the black race, it is highly Afrocentric. Rastafarians believe the African diaspora is oppressed in Babylon. In Rastafari, Babylon refers to western lands. Rastafarians believe black people are the chosen people of Jah as they were also one of the tribes of Israel. They believe the oppressed must be liberated and resettled in the Promised Land or, Zion. Zion in Rastafari refers to Africa, more specifically, Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity. 

Many Jamaicans, Africans and African diaspora converted to Rastafari following the coronation of Haile Selassie. The popularity of Rastafari grew even more drastically with the popularization of reggae music. Especially with the internationally renowned reggae musician and singer, Bob Marley. Bob Marley had converted to Rastafari after Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966. Subsequently, he wrote and sang several songs influenced by Rastafarian ideologies.

At present, there are approximately 700,000 to 1 million Rastafarians around the world.

Practices and Lifestyle

Man with Rastafari Dreadlocks
Dreadlocks. Image Credit: Flickr

Rastafarians are especially famous for their use of cannabis or marijuana. Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is considered sacred and only used during certain ceremonies. Cannabis is believed to be the leaf from the Tree of Life in the Bible. Its use is believed to burn corruption from the heart.

Ceremonies involve meditation, drumming and chanting. There are no dedicated establishments for gathering and worship. Rastafarians meet weekly in community centres or in the homes of other Rastafarians. Together, they pray, discuss issues and feast.

Rastafarians follow an Ital diet, which involves eating very clean foods to maintain good health. They prefer to maintain a vegetarian diet, with the exception of fish. Even if they consume fish, it cannot be more than 12 inches in length. Food is often prepared using coconut oil. Many a time, salt is avoided, especially if it contains added minerals. They also avoid the consumption of alcohol.

Many Rastafarians try to follow the Nazarite Vow of Separation. According to the vow, they mustn’t cut their hair, so they grow it and wear it as dreadlocks. Length of dreadlocks indicates a person’s time as a Rastafarian, which in turn indicates wisdom. 

21st Century Religions

The following religions or religious movements were either founded or developed in the 21st century.


Adonitology is a modern religion founded by King Adonis I. Adherents of Adonitology worship the posteriors of callipygian women, meaning women with large and curvy backsides.

According to the official website of Adonitology, King Adonis is believed to be God reincarnated. In 1996, while in Phuket, Thailand, he was visited by Jesus, an angel and the Holy Spirit in the form of a callipygian called Issa Elohim. During their visit, they seemingly instructed him to form a religion. A religion specifically for women with large curvy buttocks because they will become powerful and influential in the future.

Adonitology even has its own church, known as the Church of Adonitology, which was also founded by King Adonis. Its objective is to promote peace, harmony, prosperity, and allow the world to receive the love of King Adonis.

The Aim of Adonitology

The Book of Adonitology
The Book of Adonitology. Image Credit: RNN

The religion intends to empower curvy women and allow its followers to attain enlightenment and joy through the appreciation of their bodies. According to King Adonis, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Madonna are examples of the ‘modern-day curvy woman’. He has therefore awarded them the title ‘Honorary Icons of Humanity’.

Followers of Adonitology are called Adonitologists. They must commit to praying twice a day and sensual meditation in the name of Adonis. This will ensure the holy spirit brings happiness to one’s life and protects the individual.

Adonitology additionally has its own text called the Book of Adonitology and contains all the important teachings. It is considered holy and includes the practices, rituals and theology of the religion. It was first published as the Holy Book of Adonai in 2011 by King Adonis.

The religion has become a meme in the past couple of years. Many do not view it as a serious religion. Some even find it offensive, believing women’s bodies are being objectified yet again. Despite these views, Adonitology today shockingly has over 16 million followers worldwide. The majority however come from North and South America. 


The Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pastafarianism is another modern religion that was founded by Bobby Henderson in 2005. It started when Bobby Henderson wrote a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education in 2005. It was written to protest the teaching of intelligent design, as opposed to evolution, in public schools. The letter was made public and its contents now form the foundations of Pastafarianism.

It was initially a satirical religion but over the years, it evolved into a social movement to encourage people to take matters of religion in light heart. Today more and more people view it as a legitimate religion. According to the website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the religion is not satirical.

Adherents of Pastafarianism are known as Pastafarians, who are members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. 

Pastafarian Beliefs

Pastafarians believe the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, the supreme God. He created everything in 4 days while drinking alcohol. In Pastafarianism, pirates are considered the chosen ones and the holy ancestors of mankind.

They believe those who believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster will ascend to heaven after death. Heaven comprises a volcano of chilled beer and strippers. Those who reject the flying spaghetti monster will descend to hell. They also have beer and strippers, but the beer available there is stale and warm. Hell also has strippers but they have contracted sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Hell is also full of penguins.

Pastafarians even have a moral code with eight condiments, like the Ten Commandments of Christianity. They’re also known as the eight  ‘I’d really rather you didn’ts’. Moreover, they have sacred texts such as the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Loose Canon.

Pastafarians celebrate a holiday called ‘Occasion’ during the holiday season, which is the period between Thanksgiving and New Year. They celebrate however they want to.

Lastly, their symbolic headgear is the good old pasta strainer.


Atheism refers to not having any belief in a god or any supernatural entity. It also rejects the notion that the universe or reality was created by a god or supernatural being. Atheists also believe humans are able to live without the help of gods and holy scriptures. This is possible by developing their own moral codes. They believe their morality doesn’t need to be connected with the idea of a god.

The term atheism or atheist is believed to have been coined in the 5th century BC. It was initially used to label, judge and downgrade those who had no faith in God or who weren’t religious. Atheism developed during the age of enlightenment in the 18th century in France. During this time, people were giving more importance to logical reasoning than to religion. This encouraged the advent of scepticism and therefore atheism.

Atheists have several reasons for not believing in the supernatural. One reason is that there isn’t sufficient or any evidence of the existence of a deity or supernatural entity. Another reason may be that they don’t think believing in a deity or even a religion makes sense. Largely due to the lack of evidence. Other atheists aren’t interested in religion nor do they believe it is useful in any way. Another reason may be that they have lost faith in god. One of the possible reasons for losing faith may be the amount of violence being done in the name of religion.

It is, however, possible to identify as an atheist and still be part of organized religions. For example, an atheist Christian, atheist Jew, atheist Buddhist, etc.


Theists believe there is a god or supernatural being. Atheists do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being. Agnostics believe there isn’t enough reasoning, logic or resources to know whether or not a god or supernatural being exists. They, therefore, neither deny nor accept their existence. Agnostics accept that their existence may or may never be known.


Secularism is simply the idea that matters of religion and the state should be separate. In secularist belief, members of the public may practice any religion they wish to or even choose not to follow any. As long as practising their faith isn’t causing harm to others. Additionally, secularists believe no one should be favoured or discriminated against for any religion they may or may not practice. Secularists can be theists, atheists or even agnostics.


Humanism is a school of thought. In Humanism, it is believed one can live well, without the need to be religious or any divine intervention. Humanists tend to therefore be non-religious with no belief in gods, the supernatural or the afterlife.

Humans are capable enough to use scientific reason to explain the mysteries in life by themselves. Humanists for example believe the creation of the universe was natural and no divine entity was behind it. They, therefore, do not have a predetermined purpose in life, meaning we get to create their own purpose. 

Humanists believe every person should have the chance to live to their fullest and develop themselves as much as possible. This, however, must be done while respecting others nor causing harm to other beings on the planet. Many in fact, believe they have a social duty towards the planet and mankind. So, they strive to work towards the overall benefit of humanity.


religious harmony between religions
Image Credit: Pinclipart

This lengthy post covered only a few of the world’s thousands of religions. First, we attempted to understand what we mean by religion. Then we understood why religion is necessary to many, while not as necessary to others. Next, we looked at a variety of philosophies, religious beliefs and practices from around the world. After getting a glimpse of these religions, we noticed that each had an aspect of a community. Meaning, ritualistic behaviour, beliefs, ideas were all shared with a group of people who also thought alike. We also noticed similarities between religions that emerged from the same geographic regions. Most importantly, we noticed the diversity in beliefs and ideas around the world, throughout history.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Click here for more articles like this. 

One thought on “Anthropology: An Overview of the Different Religions in Human History

Leave a Reply