Origins of World Belief Systems Review for AP World History

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Review questions for this study guide can be found at:

Origins of World Belief Systems Review Questions for AP World History


Both nomadic and early agricultural peoples often held to a belief in many gods or goddesses, or polytheism. The ancient river valley civilizations in the Eastern Hemisphere as well as the early civilizations in the Americas believed in numerous gods and goddesses representing spirits or objects of nature. The Greeks and Romans also believed in an array of deities who represented natural phenomena but at the same time took on humanlike qualities. Some early peoples practiced a form of polytheism called animism, or a belief that gods and goddesses inhabited natural features. Animism was widespread among many societies in Africa and in the Pacific islands of Polynesia.


Hinduism is a belief system that originated in India from the literature, traditions, and class system of the Aryan invaders. In contrast to other world religions, Hinduism did not have a single founder. As a result, the precepts and values of Hinduism developed gradually and embraced a variety of forms of worship. Hinduism took the polytheistic gods of nature that had been central to the worship of the Brahmins, or priests, then changed their character to represent concepts.

According to Hindu belief, everything in the world is part of a divine essence called Brahma. The spirit of Brahma enters gods or different forms of one god. Two forms of the Hindu deity are Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. A meaningful life is one that has found union with the divine soul. Hinduism holds that this union is achieved through reincarnation, or the concept that after death the soul enters another human or an animal. The person's good or evil deeds in his or her personal life is that person's karma. Those who die with good karma may be reincarnated into a higher caste, whereas those with evil karma might descend to a lower caste or become an animal. If the soul lives a number of good lives, it is united with the soul of Brahma. Upon achieving this unification, or moksha, the soul no longer experiences worldly suffering.

Hinduism goes beyond a mystical emphasis to effect the everyday conduct of its followers. The moral law, or dharma, serves as a guide to actions in this world. Dharma emphasizes that human actions produce consequences and that each person has obligations to the family and community.

The Hindu religion reinforced the Indian caste system, offering hope for an improved lifestyle, especially for members of the lower castes. Those of the upper castes were encouraged by the prospect of achieving moksha. Hinduism also extended the Aryan custom of venerating cattle by considering cattle as sacred and forbidding the consumption of beef.

In time, Hinduism became the principal religion of India. Carried by merchants through the waters of the Indian Ocean, Hindu beliefs also spread to Southeast Asia, where they attracted large numbers of followers. During the first century C.E., there were already signs of Indian influence in the societies of the islands of the Indian Ocean and in the Malay peninsula. Some rulers in present-day Vietnam and Cambodia adopted the Sanskrit language of India as a form of written communication.

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