Origins of World Belief Systems Review for AP World History (page 3)
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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.
The second major faith to originate in India was Buddhism. In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism had a founder in an Indian prince named Gautama, born about 563 B.C.E. Troubled by the suffering in the world, Gautama spent six years fasting and meditating on its cause. After he determined that suffering was the consequence of human desire, he began traveling to spread his beliefs. At this time Gautama became known as the "Buddha," or the "enlightened one."
Although later followers would consider Buddha a god, Buddha did not see himself as a deity. Rather, he stressed the existence of a divine essence. Buddhism sought self-control and stressed the equal treatment of peoples from all walks of life. The Buddhist faith, therefore, opposed the caste system.
Buddhism shared with Hinduism the concept of reincarnation but in a different perspective. Buddhist belief held that a series of reincarnations would lead the faithful follower to ever higher levels toward the ultimate goal, which was nirvana, or a union with the divine essence.
The popularity of Buddhism emerged from its acceptance of men and women from all ranks of society. At first Buddhism spread through the efforts of monks and nuns who established religious communities in northern India. Located along trade routes, Buddhist monasteries served as lodging for traders, who learned of the teachings of Buddhism through contact with Buddhist monks and nuns. In time, merchants carried the doctrines of Buddhism along the Silk Roads and other trade routes. Initially, Buddhist popularity was strengthened when the Mauryan emperor Ashoka adopted its beliefs. The faith, however, did not enjoy a long-term period of popularity in India because of opposition from Hindu Brahmins and the later promotion of Hinduism by Gupta emperors. Buddhism spread along the trade routes to become popular in Southeast Asia and East Asia, especially in Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, and China. In China, Buddhism blended with Confucianism to reinforce the concept of patriarchal families. As it spread to other locales, Buddhism developed the belief of bodhisattvas, which held that, through meditation, ordinary people could reach nirvana.
Out of the disorder of the Era of Warring States after the fall of the Zhou dynasty came a number of philosophies designed to create order in China. Among these philosophies was Confucianism, named after its founder Confucius, or Kúng Fu-tse (551–478 B.C.E.). Confucius believed that the source of good government was in the maintenance of tradition; tradition, in turn, was maintained by personal standards of virtue. These included respect for the patriarchal family (filial piety) and veneration of one's ancestors.
Confucius also believed that governmental stability depended on well-educated officials. To this end, he required his followers to study history and literature from the Zhou dynasty to determine the value of these subjects for government officials. Some of the students of Confucius compiled his sayings into the Analects, a work which also served to educate the Chinese bureaucracy or government officials. The Han dynasty appreciated Confucian philosophy because it supported order and submission to the government. The civil service examination that developed during the Han dynasty was based on the Analects and the course of study developed by Confucius. The Confucian values of veneration of one's ancestors and respect for the patriarchal family, as well as good government staffed by a responsible, well-educated bureaucracy, became basic traditions that defined Chinese culture.
Another philosophy that developed in response to the Era of Warring States was Daoism. Its founder was Lao-zi (or Lao-tsu), who is believed to have lived during the fifth century B.C.E. The philosophy adapted traditional Chinese concepts of balance in nature, or yin (male, assertive) and yang (female, submissive). According to Daoist philosophy, human understanding comes from following "The Way," a life force which exists in nature.
In contrast to the Confucian respect for education and for orderly government, Daoism taught that political involvement and education were unnecessary. Rather, in time, the natural balance of the universe would resolve most problems. Chinese thought and practice gradually blended both Confucianism and Daoism to include a concern for responsibility for the community and time for personal reflection.
The concept of monotheism, or the worship of one god, is attributed to the Hebrews, or Jews. The Hebrews traced their origins back to Abraham, who migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean about 2000 B.C.E. Because of a serious famine in the land of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham migrated to Egypt, which had escaped famine. There the Hebrews remained for about 430 years, part of this time serving as slaves under the pharaohs. The Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses was marked by the giving of the Ten Commandments, or moral law of the Hebrews. Returning to the land of Canaan, or Palestine, they established a theocracy, or a government ruled directly by God.
The heart of Judaism was a covenant, or agreement, between God and Abraham in which Yahweh would be their god and the Jews would be his people. The history of this covenant relationship became the basis of the Torah, or the Hebrew scriptures.
After years of observing the governments of neighboring kingdoms, the Hebrews established the kingdom of Israel about 1000 B.C.E. under Saul. During the rule of Saul's successor, David, Jerusalem became the capital of Israel. The kingdom began weakening under David's successor Solomon because of the heavy taxes he imposed. Eventually dividing into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Its inhabitants were scattered throughout the far reaches of the Assyrian empire, constituting the first Jewish diaspora, or exile. The southern kingdom, called Judah, endured until 586 B.C.E. Conquered by the Chaldeans (from approximately the same territory as the Babylonian Empire), the people of Judah were carried off into captivity into Babylon. When Cyrus conquered the Chaldeans and allowed the Jews to return to Palestine 70 years later, Palestine remained under Persian rule until it became the province of Judea under the Roman Empire in 63 C.E. In 132 C.E., after they rebelled against Roman rule, the Jews were spread throughout the Roman Empire in a second diaspora.
Unlike other religions of the period, notably Buddhism and Christianity, Judaism was not a missionary religion. Although the Jews had lived in Babylon for seventy years, with some Jews remaining after most of the former captives returned to Babylon, they did little to attempt to convert non-Jews. From the Jewish faith, however, would come another major world religion: Christianity.
A key element of Judaism was the belief that God had promised to send the Jews a Messiah, or a savior from their sins. Some of the early Jews felt that that promise was fulfilled when Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea about 4 to 6 B.C.E. As an adult, Jesus and his 12 disciples, or followers, went throughout the land of Judea, preaching the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was also called Christ, meaning "anointed." When Jesus' teachings were feared as a threat to Roman and Jewish authority, cooperation between both Jewish and Roman leaders led to his trial and death by crucifixion. Jesus' resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven fueled the zeal of his early followers.
The network of Roman roads facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout the empire. Missionaries, traders, and other travelers carried the Christian message of forgiveness of sins and an afterlife in heaven for those who believed in Jesus as their savior from sin. The greatest missionary of the early Christian church was Paul of Tarsus. A Roman citizen, he undertook three missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire in the first century C.E. Accounts of Jesus' life in addition to the missionary efforts of Paul and other followers of Jesus are found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
Several Roman emperors considered Christianity a threat to their rule. Although some, such as Diocletian, persecuted the Christian church, it continued to grow. In 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the position of earlier Roman emperors regarding Christianity. In the Edict of Milan he permitted the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 381 under the Emperor Theodosius.
After its adoption as the state church of Rome, Christianity in the west began developing an organization under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, or pope. In addition to priests who served local churches, monks and nuns withdrew from society to devote their time to prayer and meditation. As it spread throughout the Roman world, Christianity gained popularity because of its appeal to all social classes, especially the poor. Women received new status as Christianity taught that men and women were equal in matters of faith. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, Christianity spread to northern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia.
Although polytheism was the most common religious belief among early agricultural and nomadic peoples, a number of major belief systems arose before 600 C.E. Monotheism was the gift of Judaism, which, in turn, became the source of the Christian religion. In India, two faiths—Hinduism and Buddhism—emerged from the diverse social structure of South Asia. In China, Confucianism and Daoism blended family and political order with the balance of nature to define Chinese philosophical thought.
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