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Changing Religions and Human Beliefs

Introduction

Religion is often defined as the belief in the teachings of a supernatural being or spiritual leader as embodied in a text or texts handed down from one generation to another and that significantly dictates values and practices in a person’s life. Ultimately, however, religion is essentially the beliefs of one man or group of men expressed in a compelling enough manner for others to subscribe to it and follow its dictates. It is a highly subjective system of devotion that may evolve over time into other, sometimes unrecognizable, forms. The most important human beliefs center on the paths that lead to a purposeful life. A brief description of some religious beliefs and practices will illustrate how change is integral to religion.

Compare the Hindu and Buddhist understanding of suffering

The comparative study of Buddhism and Hinduism is an interesting one. Hinduism is the older belief system, but they both originate from India and share many common factors. Buddhism evolved from the teachings of a Shakya prince Siddhārtha Gautama and he was born into a privileged caste as a Hindu. It was as he emerged after a period of reflection that he is said to have achieved full enlightenment and Nirvana, and came to be known as Buddha, or enlightened one.

Suffering has similar representations in Buddhist and Hindu teaching but varying paths. Buddhists believe that suffering comes from desire, and the absence of desire brings about the end of suffering, as embodied in the Four Noble Truths. Hinduism clarifies this stand by maintaining that it is actions prompted by the desire to attain the fruits of that action that leads to suffering. Buddhism is much more ascetic in its approach because all desire leads to suffering, and that cessation of suffering follows the elimination of desire through the Noble Eightfold Path which is, briefly, based on morality, self-development, and wisdom, and following this path will lead anyone to Nirvana, or state of liberation, no matter the station in life. For Hindus, it is desire acted upon that brings about suffering. Because the hierarchy system in Hindu is very rigid, even the path to righteousness is limited to the brahmins, who are the only ones to transcend. Perhaps because Hinduism is the older religion, it has been transformed over time by personal ambitions and agendas.

Describe syncretism and demonstrate that using West African gods and the use of saints in Santeria and Voodun

Syncretism is defined as the transformation of one religion by assimilation into a society that is of a predominantly different religion. This happens typically when a transported race is compelled to comply with the demands of the native culture. It could also as a result of a political need, such as the joining of two races with different religions to face a common enemy. Over time, the religions evolve to accommodate some aspects of the other religions as it attains relevance based on a predetermined set of values and beliefs. In other words, it transforms the religions but remains distinct in some aspects from each other.

An example of this syncretism is the practice of Santeria. Also known as Regla de Ocha or Le Regla Lucumi, it originated from the Yoruba and Bantu people of Southern Nigeria, Senegal, and the Guinea Coast. It was the slave trade that brought these people to the Caribbean whose people were Roman Catholic. They were baptized but the ancient traditions persisted. To keep their own culture alive, the slaves found parallels between Roman Catholicism and their own traditions by equating their Orishas, head guardians, with a Christian saint. Babalz Ayi was St. Lazarus who was a patron of the sick, Oggzn transmuted to St. Peter, the patron saint of war, and the owner of heaven, Olorun, or Olódùmarè, was the equivalent of God. Their priests and priestesses, called Santeros and Santeras went through training for many years followed by a period of solitude. This is similar to priest and nun training in Christianity. However, many rituals have remained distinct from Christianity, and although it is a secretive organization, it is known that they have no equivalent to the Bible but depend on oral tradition to pass on their beliefs. They do ritual sacrifices, most commonly with chickens to please the Saints. Charms, herbs, and potions are also widely used.

Voodun, or voodoo, or spirit is also a religion that was brought by the Yoruba of West Africa. It was brought via the slave trade to Haiti and the West Indies and like Santeria, their religious rituals were suppressed. The voodoo of popular fiction has no basis on the practices of the actual religion, however, even as it transformed, and it has actually been recognized as the official religion of Benin. Voodoo is widely practiced in New Orleans and practitioners have also looked for parallels to their Lwa, considered lesser spirits to Bondye or their God, in Christianity in the ranks of the saints. In Santeria and Voodoo, practitioners find no real conflict between Christianity and their respective religions and practice both sides by side.

Science has used Darwinism and experiment and observation to describe a plausible vision of how the universe originated and has developed. Given that state of affairs, why should religion have anything at all to say concerning the origins of the universe? Is there a “scientific” alternative to Fundamentalism and its six-day creation?

The debate between science and religion has been going on for as long as history itself. Scientists scoff at religious beliefs as ridiculous while the religious call all scientific endeavors blasphemous. However, putting science and religion in the same arena makes no sense because it is like choosing between an apple and roast chicken. One needs not choose between them to have a good meal.

The origin of the universe is one issue that has yet to be resolved. The Fundamentalists believe that God made the universe in six days while scientists speculate that the universe was a result of some cosmic accident, such as the Big Bang. This theory has been disproved since, but its demise does not strengthen the case for the religious belief in Genesis. Perhaps the best attitude for scientists and the religious regarding the origins of the universe is to concede that they are working on different planes. Some may consider the difference to be function. Science asks how, when, where, and what. Religion asks why. Science seeks to verify facts of what they can see, feel, touch, smell, hear and taste and attempt to explain it in human terms. Religion is unconcerned with facts but instead focuses on the higher purpose of existence, of what lies beyond the material world which has no explanation. Science is by nature disbelief, while religion is belief.

Regarding the origin of the universe, religions state it was done in six days. However, a time when it involves the Supreme Being is not bound by human delineations. One day may represent millions or billions of years or one millisecond. In any case, it is something that has to be taken on faith. Science, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of faith. The role of scientists is to prove it, whatever it is. Scientists can only speculate based on whatever has been left behind, and the facts as it is known today may not be a fact tomorrow. It would be futile to try to reconcile the two disciplines because they are irreconcilable. However, they can benefit society in their own way so one does not have to choose one over the other because of semantics. (Kobulnicky)

Discuss the difference in understanding between Hinduism and Buddhism on how one leaves the wheel of samsara. Refer to the place of karma on the issue of the self.

In the nature of reincarnation or samsara, Hinduism and Buddhism go on divergent tracks. The concept of reincarnation is shared in both beliefs but the reason for it and subsequent reaction is different.

Samsara is Sanskrit for the course of life and is commonly understood to be the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. For Hindus, samsara results from a person’s ignorance or avidya of the True Self and becomes grounded in the physical world, unable to transcend the material world. They are unable to achieve liberation because they still desire and are tied to their karma, their action, effect, and destiny. Because they are tied to the state of illusion (Maya) that this world is their destiny, they remain on this plane rather than achieve ego-consciousness and enter the phenomenal world. In other words, it is not a good place to be for one seeking the True Self.

In early Buddhism, samsara is accepted as a psychological state that a person goes through but not necessarily as a state that should be corrected, or as a hindrance to achieving the True Self. It is true that in later schools of Buddhism, some people are thought to be subject to samsara and karma, but this is still not considered a negative state.

Conclusion

Religion is not a static discipline because people are involved in significant ways. Whether through slavery, enlightenment, scientific fact, or political agenda, religions will continue to evolve in various ways, mostly because of syncretism. In a widely connected world, this seems inevitable. Science may seem to dispute religion and vice versa, but they are mutually exclusive concepts and should remain so. Religious tolerance perhaps should not only apply to world religions but also to science.

References

  1. Kobulnicky, Chip. Science, religion, and the universe: a perspective from an astronomer. 2005. University of Wyoming.
  2. Mares, Jan. Dharma – karma – samsara: the system of cosmic justice. 2005. Bhagavata.net.
  3. Jayaram, V. Hinduism and Buddhism. 2007. Hinduwebsite. Web.
  4. Milne, Rich. The Origin of the Universe. 2002. Origins.
  5. Kissel, Joe. Voodoo. 2005. Interesting Thing of the Day.
  6. Imbach, S.H. Syncretism. 2007. Believe. Web.
  7. Santeria. (n.d.) Religious Tolerance. 2007.
  8. Vodun. (n.d.) Religious Tolerance. Web.
  9. Samsara in Hinduism. 2005. Bhagavata.net.