Religions of the World

A Brief Introduction to the Major Religions of the World


This is a summary of the World's great religions (with the word great being used to imply numbers of adherents and historical influence rather than any descriptive ideas).

All religions have the function of explaining the world in terms of absolute truths revealed to people at some point in the past. Most religions postulate the existence of one or more intelligent entities responsible for the existence of everything. Most religions deny the existence of death. There is usually an implication that part of the conscience of every human being is eternal. This manifests itself in beliefs of reincarnations and eternal life at the end of the world.

There are many ways of classifying the religions of the world.

One classification is to describe a religion as being either linear or cyclic.

Linear religions have a beginning an end, one life, and (usually) some kind of judgement day at the end. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Parsees are linear. Cyclic religions have the idea of birth, death and rebirth, with reincarnation a major theme. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism are cyclic.

Another classification is by deity numbers. Monotheistic religions (from the Greek single god) have one god. Often however, there are polytheistic elements (like the Trinity, saints, angels, devils, etc). The monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Parsees, Sikhism and the Bahai.

Polytheistic religions have many gods. Most primitive or animistic religions are essentially polytheistic. Hinduism is the one major religion with many gods.

Finally, there are Atheistic religions (Greek: without god). These have no creator god as such (although there may be spirits and other exotic entities). Buddhism is an example (the Buddha is a human who has reached enlightenment), Jainism (with its Tirthankas, or teachers), Confucianism, Taoism (these last two are more philosophies than god-driven religions).

In a historical sense, religions do not spring from nothing. There is an evolutionary progression of ideas leading from one religion to another. Sometimes a number of religions compete for pre-eminence at a historical period only for some accident to favour one over the others. The major religions of the world are discussed below in two groups: the linear, monotheistic religions of the West, followed by the polytheistic and atheistic religions of the East. Within these loose groupings, the discussions are vaguely chronological.


Judaism is the oldest of the Western religions. It originated amongst the nomadic Hebrew (Greek: no land) tribes around 1200 BC but much of its scripture dates from 7th century BC.

Judaism combines elements and ideas from Egypt (the story of the young Moses by the Nile, many of the proverbs, circumcision) and Babylonia (the stone tablets containing the laws received atop a mountain, the Creation, flood stories). It is likely that Moses was a composite mythological character rather than a real person. The books of the Jewish Bible (known as the Old Testament to Christians and as The Law and The Prophets to the Jews) are composed from a number of sources dating from before 2000 BC to around 250 BC.

Jews believe they are God's Chosen People. They live by a Lunar calendar and have many strict dietary rules (e.g. they don't eat pork or animals without legs). Their Holy city is Jerusalem and they consider the land of Israel to be theirs by divine right. All boys are circumcised early in their lives and many wear skull caps.

Worship is at a Synagogue which was developed under the Greeks around 250 BC. The language of the liturgy is Hebrew. The holy day is Saturday (from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset since the Jewish day begins at sunset). Their single god has the Hebrew name JHWH (no vowels in the Hebrew script) which has an unknown pronunciation but which is usually rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah. This name (called the Tetragrammon from the Greek for four letters) is supposed to only be pronounced by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.

There are many sects of Judaism. Hasidic Jews wear 18th century European clothes and have long sideburns. They are very strict in their observance of Jewish Law. Jews are found in most parts of the world but mainly in Israel, USA and Europe.


This is the religion with the most adherents. Christianity is a fusion of Jewish Messianic ideas (the saviour who comes to Earth to save humanity) and Greek Gnostic rites (the God who dies, goes to hell and rises after three days).

It appears to be the brainchild of Saul (known to Christians as Saint Paul) who combined the two threads and removed the strict dietary requirements and circumcision of Judaism.

Christianity is first mentioned in historical documents at the end of the 1st century AD. The Christian Bible is made up of the Jewish parts (The Old Testament) and the newer part written originally in Greek and called The New Testament). A meeting of the Church during the early part of the second century AD finalised which books were to be included in the New Testament.

Christians believe in a single god that has appeared on Earth as a historical character called Jesus Christ in order to save the world after the first man, Adam (actually a Hebrew word meaning man), had condemned the world by disobeying God.

There is also an entity called the Holy Spirit. These three make up what is called the Holy Trinity. This is actually one of the most complex theological ideas in any religion. It is one of the reasons that the monotheistic Islam made so much progress during the 7th century.

Christianity preaches love and forgiveness but its adherents have often fought against non-Christians and fellow Christians throughout history. There are hundreds of sects (or denominations as the faithful call them). The major ones are Orthodox (ritualistic but with no Pope - practised mainly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe), Catholic (controlled by the Pope, contains many saints and pilgrimage places - practised mainly in Southern Europe and Latin America), and the Protestants (less ritual orientated - practised in Northern Europe, Northern America and Oceana). The liturgical languages vary from Latin, Greek, Russian to the vernaculars of various countries). The Orthodox sect was the original. Catholics split around the 4th century and Protestants around the 1600s.

The main rite of Christians is the symbolic one of drinking wine and eating bread. This is supposed to signify the blood and body of the Christ. Baptism and the sign of the cross are also widely practised. The latter was a late addition since early Christians used the fish as their symbol. The Greek for fish (ICHTHOS) was the initials of the phrase Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

Many of these rites were derived from the Essenes, the pre-Christian sect who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As with the Jews, Jerusalem is a holy city but Bethlehem, Nazareth and Rome come close behind.

Christian festivals are either derived from their Jewish counterparts (Easter) or from Roman festivals taken over by the faith (Christmas). As Christianity moved into northern Europe many local rites were incorporated (Christmas trees, Santa Claus, hot cross buns). Many of the holiest shrines of Christianity are on sites previously occupied by Roman and Greek temples. The birthplace of Jesus is on the site of a temple to Adonis, for example.

Many historians do not consider that Jesus Christ was a historical character. The name Jesus comes from the Aramaic Yeshu (which means saviour) and the Greek Christos (anointed), so the name actually means anointed saviour.


Islam means surrender. A Muslim is one who surrenders to god.

Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century AD. It was devised by Mohammed, a local leader who attempted to combine Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe that Islam was revealed to Mohammed by one of the angles, Gabriel.

It has many cultural aspects of the desert (women hidden away from the men, spreading the faith with the sword). Islam is very strictly monotheistic. To be a Muslim one has only to utter the words There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet (preferably in Arabic). The name Allah is the Arabic for the god.

Muslims are forbidden to make images, drink alcohol or eat pork. They worship in mosques after a ritualistic cleansing of their bodies.

Islam has five pillars:

The holy day is Friday. The holy book was written down from the sayings of Mohammed shortly after his death. It is written in Arabic and called the Quran (recitation).

Muslims consider Mohammed to be the last and greatest prophet but others are recognised. These include Moses (called Musa), Abraham (Ibrahim) and Jesus (Isa).

Mecca is the holiest city with Medina (also in Saudi Arabia) and Jerusalem (called Quds which means The Shrine) close behind.

Islam is found amongst the Arab countries, North Africa, and many parts of Asia. It is the world's second largest religion. To believers, Islam is more than a religion - it is a way of life. To outsiders it seems harsh and compassionless reflecting the values of the inhospitable deserts that spawned it. Strict Islamic countries ban all drinking, mixing of the sexes outside of marriage, music, dancing, the taking of photographs, and other forms of worship. Afganistan recently blew up a group of 1500 year old Buddhist statues because of the ban of making images.


Hinduism is the oldest extant religion dating back to over 3000 BC. Modern Hinduism is a collection of beliefs and rites from all over the Indian Subcontinent. There are many gods so this is a real polytheistic religion. The more important of the deities are described below.

Brahma is the creator. All Hindu gods have six arms but Brahma also has four faces. The creator's job is completed so there are few temples to Brahma. His consort is Sarasvati who rides on a swan.

Vishnu is the preserver. He is shown holding a coral shell. Vishnu has made many incarnations on the Earth (like the Christian god). These include Rama who is the subject of carvings, stories and dance all over Asia. The epic Ramayana (an Asian version of the Odyssey) is the story of Rama. Another incarnation is Krishna who lived amongst peasants and cavorted with milk maids. Krishna is always shown in blue, playing a flute. Many Hindus believe that Buddha is also an incarnation of Vishnu. Vishnu's consort is Laxmi, goddess of wealth.

Shiva is the destroyer and reproducer. Shiva is king of the River Ganges. He lives in the Himalaya and smokes ganga. His symbol is the trident. He is closely associated with a giant bull called a Nandi which is often found outside Shiva temples. Shiva's reproductive qualities are symbolised by the Lingam, a phallic image common in Shiva temples. Shiva's consort is the beautiful Parvati, who epitomises all the womanly virtues. She has another form, the evil Durga (or Kali) who requires sacrifice. Worshippers of Kali used to perform human sacrifice. They were called Thugees from where the English word thugs is derived.

Ganesh is the popular and much worshipped son of Shiva and Parvati. His father once lopped his head off in anger and replaced it with an elephant's head! He is the god visited when a new venture is about to begin.

Hinduism has a caste system where everybody is born into one of five castes:

It is believed that one's caste is determined by the actions (or Karma) in a past life. A good life means the next one will be better and vice versa. The holy animal is the Cow (another form of Laxmi). True Hindus are vegetarian and will not eat meat.

The holiest site for Hindus is Varanasi (also called Benares) on the banks of the River Ganges. All good Hindus dream of dying here. Hindus (unlike Jews, Christians and Muslims) cremate their dead (on sandalwood logs) and scatter the ashes on a river, preferably the Ganges. The Hindu scriptures are written in Sanskrit, the 'Latin' of the North Indian languages.

Hinduism is mainly associated with India and Indians. In the past much of South-East Asia shared this faith; even now there are cultural influences from the Hindu periods in places like Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Indonesian island of Bali is Hindu to this day.


Buddhism grew out of Hinduism (much as Christianity grew from Judaism) around 300 BC. Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth of the Hindus. The difference is that the Buddha (in life an Indian prince) showed how to break out of the infinite cycle. Buddhists look at the Buddha as their guide to Nirvana, the state of enlightenment reached when one breaks out of the cycle of life.

Buddhist believe in moderation in everything, the so-called middle way. It is a mellow gentle religion which is usually tolerant of other faiths. Many Buddhists are vegetarian abhorring the taking of life. Their main festival is the Thrice Blessed Day on which the Buddha was born, reached enlightenment, and died (in different years, of course).

The holiest sites are in northern part of the Indian Subcontinent. Lopburi, in Nepal where the Buddha was born. Bodh Gaya where he reached enlightenment (the story goes that he was sitting under a Bo tree). Sarnath, the place where he gave his first sermon. The latter is a deer park because the story says that even the deer looked around when he preached.

In Buddhist countries most men and many women become monks even for a short time. Monks dress in orange and collect food from the public one a day. They are a common sight in the morning in even the most modern Buddhist cities. Buddhists spend a lot of time chanting their scriptures (these chants are called mantras). They are written in Pali, a derivative of Sanskrit and forerunner of Sinhalese.

Buddhism spread from India to Sri Lanka, Tibet (and thence to China and Japan), but is strongest in South-East Asian countries like Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia.


Jainism also originated in India around the same time as Buddhism. Unlike the latter it never spread so there are no Jain countries outside India.

The Jains believe in twenty teachers (or Tirthankars) whos teachings are followed closely. They have a complete aversion to the taking of life. So much so that they will not eat anything that has to be killed. Jain priests often wear face masks to avoid accidentally swallowing insects and killing them.

Jain temples are amongst the most beautifully carved (usually marble) in the whole world. Their holy sites are scattered around India but Palitana in Gujerat State has 838 temples draped on a mountain.


The Sikh religion came about as a reaction to the Hinduism and Islam practiced in Moghul India. It formed in the Punjab area of India during the 16th and 17th centuries. The holiest site is the Golden Temple at Amritsar.

Sikh men have five signs (or kakars) so that they can recognise each other. Each begins with the letter 'k' in the Punjabi language. They are:

Sikh men look very distinctive with their beards and turbans. The religion's founder was Guru Nanak. The holy book is written in Punjabi with a script called Gurumukha (meaning from the mouth of the Guru).

Zoroastrianism (The Parsees)

The Parsees are the descendants of an ancient religion (Zoroastrianism). It began in Persia and is now confined to parts of Iran, Pakistan and India.

This religion believes in the eternal fight between good and evil. When you do good, you help the forces of good in their fight, and vice versa. Parsees worship fire as a symbol of god. Non believers are never allowed into their temples. A Parsee who marries outside the faith is no longer a Parsee. They believe in the purity of the elements; they will nor bury or cremate their dead (because it pollutes the earth and air respectively). Instead they leave the bodies on towers of silence where they are picked clean by vultures!

The World Religions Chronology

Religion Place of Origin Time of Origin Numbers
Where Active
Hinduism Indus Valley 3000 BC 650 India / Nepal
Indian Ocean
East Africa
Judaism Palestine 7th Cent BC 18 Israel
North America
Zoroastrianism (Parsees) Persia 7th Cent BC 1 Iran
Taoism China 6th Cent BC 30 China / Korea
Buddhism Ganges Valley 480 BC 310 Indo-China
Nepal / Tibet
North East Asia
Confucius China 5th Cent BC 6 China / Korea
Asia Minor
1st Cent AD 160 Eastern Europe
Russia / Ukraine
Middle East
South West India
Central China
Roman Empire 4th Cent AD 910 Latin America
Southern Europe
Africa (West)
Islam Arabia 7th Cent AD 840 Central Asia
South East Asia
North Africa
Middle East
North India
Sikhism Punjab (India) 16th Cent AD 16 India
North America
Germany 17th Cent AD 560 North America
Northern Europe
Africa (East / South)
Bahais Iran 19th Cent AD 5 Middle East

Evolution of the Religions

Evolution of the Religions

© 1998, 2006 KryssTal

Books From and

External Religion Links

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Basic beliefs of Christianity.

Discover Islam
Islamic site - a selection of books.

Basic introduction to Judaism.

Introduction to Hinduism.

Questions and answers about Buddhism.

Web site of the World Sikh Organization.

Bible Evolution (Links)
The Bible - Its Evolution, Contradictions and Inconsistencies.