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World Religions: History and Beliefs

THE ELEVEN MAIN LIVING RELIGIONS

Buddhism
Christianity
Confucianism
Hinduism
Islam
Jainism
Judaism
Shinto
Sikhism
Taoism
Zoroastrianism

OTHER RELIGIONS, SECTS, TEACHERS AND SPIRITUALITIES


Astrology
Bahá’í
Benjamin Crème (Share International Foundation)
Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization (Raja Yoga)
ECKANKAR (Paul Twitchell and Sri Harold Klemp)
Gnosticism
A Course in Miracles (Helen Schucman)
ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness)
Kabbala (Mystical Judaism)
Kriya Yoga (Swami Sri Yukteswar and Paramahansa Yogananda)
Kundalini Yoga (Yogi Bhajan)
Meher Baba
Scientology
Sufism (Mystical Islam)
Theosophy (Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant)
Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
United Church of Religious Science (Dr. Ernest Holmes)
Yoga

When you click on any of the titles above, it goes to the correct explanation below.

 

Buddhism
Around 528 B.C., Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (later to be known as Buddha). Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, was an Indian rajah, the head of the Sakya warrior caste. Legend has it that prior to Gautama’s birth, his mother, Mahamaya, dreamed a beautiful silver-white elephant with six tusks entered her womb from the side. The Vedic priests interpreted this to mean that she would have a son who would either be a universal monarch or a great Buddha. Therefore, she named him Siddhartha, meaning one whose aim is accomplished.

Though his family was elite, wealthy, and influential, Siddhartha found his royal heritage empty and unfulfilling. He left in search of enlightenment, adopting the life of a wandering monk (sadhu). Siddhartha rejected traditional Hinduism because he found the Hindu caste system repulsive, extreme Hindu asceticism futile and the sensuality of the Hindu gods unacceptable.

The turning point in his life came while meditating under a fig tree (later to be called the “Bodhi Tree”—the tree of wisdom). Siddhartha claimed to receive the experience of Nirvana (enlightenment). Hence, he was called the “Buddha,” the “enlightened one.” He then began preaching his message of liberation from suffering, an approach he called the “Middle Path.” He began with five disciples and taught for about fifty years. He lived to be eighty years old, dying about 480 B.C. There are many sects in Buddhism. Those mentioned in Mike Shreve’s book, In Search of the True Light, include: Theravada, Mahayana, Amidha, Nichiren, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

The main sources of Scriptural inspiration for Buddhists are the Tripitaka (the Three Baskets). These are three collections of writings: the Sutra Pitaka (primarily dialogues between Buddha and other people), Vinaya Pitaka (over 225 rules that govern the monastic path), and Abhidharma Pitaka (philosophical and doctrinal explanations and categorizations).

Christianity
This is the correct path and true revelation of God to man. It is based on the belief that Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judea approximately 2,000 years ago, was the longed-for Messiah to the Jews, the Son of God, the manifestation of the God of Abraham in a physical body. His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension were all pivotal events in the history and spiritual development of this world. His crucifixion provided forgiveness of sins and restoration to fellowship with God; his resurrection displayed the hope of eternal life for all who believe. Christianity teaches the return of Jesus to this earth, when the kingdom of God will be fully established in this world.

The Scripture base of Christianity is the Bible, comprised of the Old Testament (adopted from Judaism) and the New Testament.

Confucianism
This worldview originated with the respected Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) and was further developed by some of his followers, such as Mencius (372–289 BC) and Zhu Xi (1130–1200 AD). His philosophy dealt more with ethics than religion. Confucius lived in a time when moral standards were lacking. He advocated a return to the ancient Chinese ideal of ethical living. He taught that rulers could be great only if they themselves lead exemplary lives. Effective leaders must be willing to be guided by moral principles. If they do so, their states will inevitably become prosperous and happy.

Confucius put his theories into practice when he became the magistrate of Zhongdu and the minister of crime for the state of Lu. His reforms were very successful, causing the prosperity of Lu to grow and greatly reducing crime. He was dismissed, however, due to the influence of leaders in another Chinese state who felt threatened by the increased prosperity of Lu. Confucius then devoted himself to traveling and teaching. During his last years, he spent most of his time writing commentaries on ancient Chinese literature.

The principles of Confucianism have been preserved in nine ancient Chinese writings, authored by either Confucius or one of his followers: The Five Classics and The Four Books.

The Four Books (Shih Shu) impart many of the philosophic sayings of Confucianism. They are: Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and The Book of Mencius (one of Confucius’ most revered followers).

Hinduism
The word “Hindu” stems from the Sanskrit word sindhu meaning river (specifically the Indus River that flows through India and Pakistan). Dating historically from 1500 B.C., Hinduism is one of the oldest of the eleven main living religions. It boasts over 700 million adherents. A wide variety of beliefs exist in Hinduism, sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory. Most likely this syncretism has resulted because of Hinduism’s ease in absorbing ideas from other cultures and religions. Millions of gods are revered (the traditional number is 330 million), but the source of all personal deities is the Impersonal Absolute, that Ultimate Reality referred to as Brahman.

No ecclesiastical hierarchy, no specific doctrinal parameters, and no universally defined moral boundaries are promoted in Hinduism. Each man discovers his own dharma, the divine order for his life. Commonly held beliefs include: reincarnation, the divinity of man, and the quest for enlightenment. The highest source of written truth for Hindus is found in the four Vedas (a word meaning “knowledge” or “sacred teaching”). The most ancient is the Rig Veda, probably created between 1,300 and 1,000 B.C.

Hindus differentiate between shruti—“hearing” (texts that adherents believe stream from divine revelation and are therefore infallible, absolute truth) and smriti—“recollection, tradition” (texts based on traditions that are valid and authoritative only when drawing from shruti). Shruti includes certain portions of the Vedas (the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, and certain Sutras). Smriti includes certain traditional texts (including the Puranas and two lengthy Sanskrit epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana). One of the most popular texts is the Bhagavad-Gita (“The Song of the Lord”), which is actually part of the Mahabharata.

Islam
Mohammed (570–632 AD), the founder of Islam, is considered in this religion to be the last and greatest of all prophets. Born an orphan, he was raised by his uncle and grandfather. Although he was a member of a poor family in Mecca, his family was still well respected. Known for his organizational ability and honesty, he was employed by a wealthy widow who he eventually married. Mohammed periodically went to a cave outside of Mecca for prayer and meditation. According to Muslim tradition, it was there that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed, declaring him to be a prophet of God.

Mohammed’s teaching stressed his belief in only one God, social and economic justice, and the final judgment. His emphasis on social reform brought him into conflict with the wealthy merchants of Mecca. In 619 A.D., he was offered a prominent position in arbitrating feuds in the city of Medina. Mohammed accepted the position and encouraged his followers to immigrate there. In Medina, he began to lay the foundation for Islamic practices and continued his efforts toward societal improvement. The city of Mecca finally surrendered to Mohammed in 630 A.D. after warring against Medina for a season. Soon after this, tribes from all over Arabia were converted to Islam. There are presently over 150 Islamic sects in the world.

The Qur’an is the main Scripture base for Muslims. Believed to be divinely inspired, the Qur’an was allegedly revealed to Mohammed by Gabriel over a period of approximately twenty-two years. The second source is the Sunna (the example of the prophet) known through Hadith (traditions concerning the sayings or actions of Mohammed as he dealt with various issues). The Qur’an is considered infallible; Hadith is not.

Jainism
The word “Jain” refers to a follower of the Jinas (a word meaning “those who conquer”). Individuals known as Jinas were, therefore, “conquerors” of this world and of their own fleshly existence. Twenty-four such persons are revered in Jainism, the last of which was Mahavira, the founder of this religion. These are also known as Tirthankaras, word that meaning “Ford-makers” (great teachers who guide others across the “river” of transmigration).

His name was originally Vardhamana Jnatiputra. Born in 599 B.C., he was a contemporary of Buddha. Later on, he was given the name Mahavira (pronounced mah-hah-vee-rah), meaning “great hero,” because of his courage and self-control. As the son of a king, Mahavira was raised in royal and opulent surroundings. When both his parents died, Mahavira wanted to renounce the world, but his brother convinced him to stay home for two years. For these two years, he practiced self-discipline and abstaining from luxuries. During the last year of this stage in his life, Mahavira gave charity to beggars every day.

At age thirty, he totally renounced his princely life including his wife, wealth, home, and clothing and for the next twelve years spent his time in silence and deep meditation, fasting often. During this time, Mahavira carefully avoided harming any living thing, including plants. According to Jainist tradition, at the end of this period he achieved keval-jnana or “perfect perception, knowledge, and bliss.” Mahavira then spent the next thirty years traveling as a barefoot mendicant preaching his message on non-violence and renunciation of the world.

Though it emerged in a predominantly Hindu culture, Jainism rejects the idea that the Vedas are divinely inspired. However, they similarly embrace a belief in reincarnation and the need for enlightenment in order to escape the cycle of rebirths. Jainism, like Buddhism, is basically non-theistic, though the worship of certain saints (siddhas) is promoted, and, most importantly, the adoration of the Tirthankaras (the Jinas). Non-violence to any living thing is a dominant doctrine in Jainism.

Judaism
This modern term relates to the religious culture of the Jews, those who are identified historically and presently as the remnant of biblical Israel. Though Jews, as God’s chosen people, trace their history back to the first man, Adam, their origin is primarily identified with the visitation Abraham received from God. At that time Abraham’s seed were set apart as a special treasure to God. Moses is one of the most revered prophets in this religion. Through him came the revelation and codification of foundational religious laws of Judaism.

Judaism has developed into a religious and cultural system of regulations, traditions, and ceremonies that govern the entire life of a Jew. The goal is the sanctification of all Israelites from the world as a people consecrated to the Most High God. Halakah is the “way” to live according to Jewish laws, customs, and rituals. It primarily involves abiding in a covenant relationship with God (Heb. berith) by observing His commandments (Heb. mitzvoth). A right relationship with God is further maintained by repentance for any shortcomings and faith in the God who mercifully forgives and restores the remorseful to a righteous standing.

Rooted deeply in monotheism, Judaism emphasizes the oneness of God. The most revered of all Scripture passages is the Shema—“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) To a Jew, the one and only true God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: transcendent, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal.

Pivotal events in the history of Judaism include: the calling of Abraham (separating him from a polytheistic family and culture), the enslavement of his offspring in Egypt, the supernatural deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt, the receiving the Law at Mount Sinai, their conquest of the Land of Canaan, their enslavement in Babylon, the subsequent restoration of the Israelite people to their homeland seventy years later, their dispersion (diaspora) into all the world after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and their regathering in 1948.

The doctrinal foundation of Judaism is fivefold:

(1) The Torah (the Pentateuch—the most revered, first five books of the Hebrew Bible);

(2) The rest of the Tenach, which is divided into three parts: the Torah, the Nebiim (the prophetic writings) and the Ketubim (other writings).

(3) The compilation of handed-down oral traditions, which resulted in the Mishnah (meaning “that which is learned”).

(4) Commentaries on the Mishnah, which produced the Talmud (meaning “that which is studied”).

(5) Other exegetical studies on the Scripture, and works of Halakhah, philosophy and thought.

Shinto
This is fundamentally and primarily the religion of the Japanese people. The word “Shinto” means “the way of the gods,” a name adopted in the sixth century A.D. to distinguish it from Buddhism and Confucianism. The origin of this religion is prehistoric. In its earliest expression it offered no orthodox sacred writings, no universal standard of moral behavior, and no fixed doctrinal base. It primarily focuses on the worship of a pantheon of deities or spirits (kami). The kami range from deities associated with aspects of nature (the sky, the sun, a mountain, etc.) to those that perform specific functions. Examples include: Fudo, who guards against danger or misfortune; Yakushi, who imparts healing for the mind and the body; or Inari, the rice god who brings an abundant harvest.

Two other major facets of Shintoism have been: Emperor worship—stemming from a belief that the Mikado (the emperors that ruled Japan) descended from Ama-terasu Omikami, the sun goddess. Defeat during the Second World War produced a great deal of skepticism toward, and rejection of, this doctrine. Ancestor worship—stemming from the belief that thirty-three years after death, every Shinto person becomes divine, joining the ranks of the kami. For many centuries, Shintoism lost its uniqueness and independent existence, being mixed with its two chief rivals: Buddhism and Confucianism. In the 18th century, however, a nationalistic revival took place under the influence of a number of scholars who sought to rid Japan of foreign influence and reestablish Shinto as the state religion.

The revered texts of this religion are: Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters—712 A.D.) Nihongi or Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan—720 A.D.) and Engishiki or Yengishiki (Procedures of the Engi Era—927 A.D.).

Sikhism
Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, was born in a Hindu family of merchants (1469–1539 A.D.). From a young age, he rejected many of his family’s ways. In his latter twenties, he claimed to experience a divine revelation and calling. This spurred him to make a number of long trips to help spread this viewpoint. One of his primary objectives was to create a completely God-centered, egalitarian society, free of injustice. His life story shows a high level of dedication to his ideals. Along with a Muslim musician, he journeyed all over the Far and Middle East teaching the oneness of God (the concept that Muslims and Hindus, as well as other religions, are all actually worshipping the same God). He also taught that salvation or liberation was easily accessible to all people, not just ascetics (as found in Hinduism). He vigorously promoted the equality of men and women.

Nine gurus succeeded Guru Nanak. The tenth and last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, decreed that at his demise there would no longer be a human guru at the head of the Sikh religion. Rather, their holy book, the Adi Granth, would become their “Guru” (their spiritual guide). All initiated Sikhs (the Guru Panth) also act as guides to others who are seeking truth. Though they have branched out worldwide, Sikhs are primarily found in the Punjab region of Northern India.

Taoism
Pronounced “Dowism,” this Chinese philosophical and religious worldview is believed to have begun around the sixth century B.C. Taoism claims Lao-Tzu as its founder, believed to be a contemporary of Confucius. His name means either “wise old child” or “old master.” Certain traditions claim Lao-Tzu was born a white-haired philosopher, after being carried seventy-two years in the womb of his mother. Some Taoist scholars admit he is only a legendary figure. However, according to the Shih-chi, he was actually a custodian of the archives in the court of the King of Chou. Disagreeable situations in this royal court motivated Lao-Tzu to resign and travel west.

At the mountain pass of Hsien-ku he was constrained by Yin Hsi, the guardian of that pass, to preserve his views by putting them into writing. The result was the Tao-te Ching, a document made up of 5,000 pictograms. It is the main sacred text on which this religion is based. After transferring his beliefs to paper, Lao-Tzu disappears, walking off the pages of history. He was later deified by his followers, some even suggesting that he was a manifestation of the primordial chaos and that he had previously reincarnated numerous times in order to guide the human race with his teaching. Another famous and greatly influential leader in Taoism is Chuang-tzu (369-286 B.C.).

Eva Wong, in The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, identifies five different and primary paths within Taoism: Magical Taoism (the Way of Power), Divinational Taoism (the Way of Seeing), Ceremonial Taoism (the Way of Devotion), Internal-Alchemical Taoism (the Way of Transformation), and Action and Karma Taoism (the Way of Right Action).

The Tao-te Ching describes the Source of all things as being Tao (meaning “the Way”). It is “eternal, nameless.” Yet whenever it is manifested, it is given “different names.” (Tao-te Ching 1, 32) Any name given to a manifestation of Tao is only earthly and temporary—“The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” (Tao-te Ching 1) On the highest level, Ultimate Reality is an impersonal energy force.

In Taoism, the secret to a successful life is to come into harmony with Tao. This harmonious union is called wu-wei (quiet non-striving). The superiority of this way of life is compared to water (that appears shapeless and weak) wearing away stone (that appears permanent and strong). The “parent of all teachings” is that “the violent man will come to a violent end.” (Tao-te Ching 42, 78)

Zoroastrianism
This unique religion stems from ancient Persia and is based on the teachings of Zoroaster (630–550 B.C). Considered a prophet by his followers, he declared Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”) to be the chief deity and god of light, opposed by Angra Mainyu, the god of darkness. Both gods are self-existent, co-equal and able to create.

Darius I, who reigned from 521 to 486 B.C., was probably the first Persian king to embrace Zoroastrianism. It was established as the state religion of Persia centuries later, from 224 to 641 A.D. Persia was eventually conquered by the Arabs and gradually converted to Islam during the seventh century A.D. Zoroastrianism was then suppressed, but still managed to survive. In India,

Zoroastrians are called Parsis (“Persians”). Adherents revere fire as a symbol of the divine Presence. Their sacred Scripture is the Avesta.

Other Religions, Sects, Spiritualities or Teachers

Astrology
This is the study of how the sun, moon, planets and stars affect events in this world, not only culturally, nationally and globally, but personally and individually as well. The positioning of all astronomical bodies at a person’s birth, and throughout his or her life, are said to determine both character and destiny. Astrological charts are called horoscopes. The Chaldeans were practicing astrology in Babylonia as early as 3000 B.C. There is evidence that astrology was being practiced about 1,000 years later in China and by the year 500 B.C. in ancient Greece. There are many schools of thought in astrology giving rise to a wide spectrum of speculations concerning the meaning of planetary and solar positions. It was based originally on a Ptolemaic view of the solar system (the belief that the earth is the center of the solar system and the sun, moon and planets revolve around the earth on a backdrop of unmoving stars).

Bahá’í
This faith grew out of Babism, which itself sprang out of the Shiite branch of the Muslim faith. On May 23, 1844, Sayyid ‘Alí Mohammed Shírazí began to proclaim in the land of Persia the fundamentals of his theology. He became known as the Bab (a Persian term meaning “the Gate”) because he was revered as a ‘gate’ of true revelation. He announced that various prophets of the past were divine Manifestations and that he was a Prophet and a Manifestation of God. He claimed greatness equal to Mohammed, yet identified himself only as a forerunner of an even greater Manifestation of God destined to emerge nineteen years later. A strong advocate of monogamy, the Bab preached against the polygamy so prevalent in the society of his day. Though greatly opposed, this sect survived. In 1863, a disciple of the Bab named Mírzá Husayn-‘Alí Núrí declared that he was the “Manifestation” foretold by the Bab. He took the name Bahá’u’lláh (which means “the glory of God”).

Bahá’ís believe strongly in the oneness of the human race and the establishment of a universal religion for all. It has no official priesthood and no system of sacraments in its belief system. There is no preaching in Bahá’í temples, simply the reciting of scriptures from the sacred texts of all religions. Especially in its beginning years, members of this faith suffered severe persecution.

Benjamin Creme (Share International Foundation)
Benjamin Creme, founder of Share International, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1922. At an early age he was recognized as an accomplished artist (modern style). He also became quite studious in the pursuit of spiritual insights through esoteric philosophy, especially the teachings of Helena Blavatsky (co-founder of the Theosophical Society) and Alice Bailey, who was one of the first writers to popularize the term “New Age.” Through their influence, Benjamin Creme came to believe in a hierarchy of Ascended Masters who are the spiritual custodians of this planet. He claims that in 1959 one of these Masters of Wisdom contacted him—revealing that about twenty years later, Maitreya, the long awaited World Teacher for this age, would manifest himself in the earth. Benjamin Creme was also informed that he would be instrumental in this planetary event if he accepted the responsibility.

In 1972 he began preparing for this task, and eventually began lecturing all over the world. His primary message has always been the declaration of the arrival of Maitreya. He insists Maitreya is the fulfillment of the messianic hope found in many religions. According to Benjamin Creme’s worldview, Maitreya is the fulfillment of the Christian expectation of the coming of Christ, the Jewish longing for Messiah, the Muslim hope for the Imam Mahdi, the Hindu’s longing for the next Avatar named Kalki and the Buddhist anticipation of Maitreya Buddha. All these religious projections for the future, he claims, will be realized in one individual. On his website (www.shareintl.org), Benjamin Creme lists numerous incidents worldwide that he claims were supernatural manifestations of Maitreya, usually to large groups of people. He has written a number of books and pamphlets on this subject.

Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization (Raja Yoga)
In 1876, the founder of this religious group, Lekh Raj, was born in Hyderabad, Sindh (now Pakistan). He was the child of a village headmaster, certainly a humble beginning. Later in life, he became a very successful and wealthy diamond merchant, known for his philanthropic treatment of the poor. Around the age of sixty, “Dada” (as he was affectionately called—meaning “elder brother”) felt compelled to spend a great deal of his time in solitude. His focus was the contemplation of the true nature of God and the self.

During meditation he claimed to receive a series of divinely inspired visions. A dominant prophetic theme involved a soon-to-come era of great destruction on the earth—through natural calamities, war, and the use of powerful weapons (his followers believe this was a reference to what would later be known as nuclear arms). Another vision revealed souls descending like tiny stars to the earth. Upon arriving here these souls were transformed into divine beings in a restored world of celestial-like peace, love, harmony, and happiness.

One vision was most pivotal to Lekh Raj’s view of his own role. He claimed to see the four-armed god, Vishnu, who said to him, “I am you.” It is also taught that around 1937, god Shiva began descending into Lekh Raj’s body expressing his wisdom and insights concerning the closing of a dark cyclical era (called “the Iron Age”) and the dawning of a new and glorious era (called “the Golden Age”). When Shiva allegedly spoke through one of Lekh Raj’s disciples, the name Prajapita Brahma was supernaturally bestowed on him. It was also communicated that he would be Brahma’s instrument to awaken the ancient yoga system of India and to establish the new world. He was especially known for preaching the equality of women with men in a society and during an era in which the opposite view was much more dominant and widespread.

This religious group explains that on January 18, 1969, Brahma Baba reached karmateet—the stage of being freed from all karmic accounts. It is taught that his soul departed to higher spiritual realms where he continues to work toward this goal of a transition into a golden-aged new world. Those who follow his teachings are known as Brahmins (the “twice-born”). Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (or Organization) has many centers all over the world. Their system of meditation and spiritual discipline is referred to as “Raja Yoga.” Their views on key doctrinal issues are quite unique as compared to other yoga groups.

ECKANKAR (Paul Twitchell and Sri Harold Klemp)
Heralded by its founder, Paul Twitchell, to be the channel of ancient wisdom revived, this sect made its appearance in 1965. Twitchell also claimed to be the 971st Living ECK Master. He insisted that he received his revelations from two former ECK Masters: Sudar Singh in India and Rebazar Tarzs in the Himalayas, and that the terminology used in this religion came from the Amdo dialect of the Tibetan language.

The present leader, Sri Harold Klemp, became the 973rd ECK Master in 1981. The ECK Master is also called the Mahanta. Whoever fills this role is said to be God in the flesh, omniscient and omnipresent, one who abides in the highest state of God-consciousness. The ECK Master’s calling is to lead other souls into the realm of spirit which is called the Kingdom of Heaven. The primary means by which this takes place is the leadership of the Mahanta and an experience called “Soul Travel.” Interpretation of dreams is also an important part of one’s spiritual development. To its initiates and members, ECKANKAR is taught to be the only true path to God.

The sacred text of this religious group is the Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad, said to be twelve volumes long, most of which are viewable only in the spiritual worlds. Paul Twitchell claimed to have transcribed the first two volumes while visiting higher planes.

Gnosticism
A religious movement that emerged strongly in the second and third centuries, Gnosticism presented a strong challenge to orthodox Christianity. Its emphasis was esoteric knowledge (gnosis) acquired through various means. Gnostics refuted or altered the meaning of many Christian doctrines. Members of this movement felt they possessed secret insights into the nature of God and of man. Gnosticism taught that matter is essentially evil, the creation of an evil god. Human beings possess a spark of divinity that is unfortunately trapped in matter and in ignorance, and must be liberated. To overcome this condition, some Gnostics embraced asceticism, while others embraced licentiousness, teaching that any indulgence in the flesh did not affect the state of the soul. Man does not need ‘salvation from sin,’ but an ‘awakening out of spiritual ignorance.’

Helen Schucman (A Course in Miracles)
This book and the worldview it promotes resulted from a mutual decision between two professors of medical psychology at Columbia University’s College of physicians and Surgeons in New York City: Helen Schucman and William Thetford. They were professionals, working together in a highly academic setting, but by their own admission, their relationship was strained, full of anger and marred by aggressiveness. One day, William, the head of the department, announced that there must be a better way. Around June of 1965, they proceeded to seek it out.

Though at one time a professed atheist, Helen began receiving symbolic dreams and perceiving strange images. After several months, she felt compelled to write down her impressions, sensing what she felt was the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in her task. Over a course of seven years, Helen Schucman dictated to William what she felt the ‘Voice’ communicated to her. She claimed her source was Jesus Christ (though her teachings are very non-biblical). William typed the course, making it a collaborative effort. The book, A Course in Miracles, was published in 1975 by the Foundation for Inner Peace. Helen Schucman died February 9, 1981. William Thetford passed away seven years later, July 4, 1988.

ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness)
This religious group is a modern continuation of a movement that adherents claim predates Hinduism. The central theme is devotion to Krishna as the highest personality of the Godhead. Devotees state their lineage goes all the way back to Lord Brahma, creator of this particular universe around 105 trillion earth-years ago. One of the most revered proponents of this worldview is Caitanya (1486-1534 A.D.), recognized as an Avatar (“one who descends”)—a manifestation of both Krishna, and Radha, his chief consort. Radha is described as a gopi (a shepherdess), who is so overwhelmed with a longing for Krishna that she leaves all other earthly attachments. Thus, she becomes the personification of the ecstatic love existing between God and every devotee. Radha is also worshipped as a goddess herself.

In 1922, a philosophy and economics major at the Scottish Churches College named Abhay Charan De was initiated into this worldview. He was greatly influenced by an Indian Guru and Spiritual Master (Acharya), Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Goswami Maharaja, who was spearheading a revival of devotion to Krishna in the early 1900s. At the age of 54, Abhay Charan De withdrew from business and family associations, only to assume the sannyasa order of life as a renunciate ten years later. At the age of 70, he came to the Western world and founded ISKCON. He then became known as His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The main source of the religious philosophy of ISKCON is the Bhagavad-Gita. Other Vedic sacred books are revered.

Kabbala (Mystical Judaism)
This is the esoteric offshoot of Judaism. One of its main sacred texts is called the Zohar. Some propose this book was authored by Rabbi Simeon Ben Yohai in the second century A.D. Others contend it was authored by a group of mystics associated with Moses de Leon, a Jew who lived in Spain in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Kabbalistic doctrine overflows with spiritual symbolism, mathematical and numerological projections, metaphysical insights, and a unique method of interpreting Scripture. Its doctrines, at times, conflict with traditional Judaism. However, Kabbalistic ‘revelations’ are so interwoven into traditional Jewish thought that often they are indistinguishable one from the other. Most of the quotes in this book are from modern Kabbalistic sources

Kriya Yoga (Swami Sri Yukteswar and Paramahansa Yogananda)
Paramahansa Yogananda was born January 5, 1893. His parents were Bengalis of the Kshatriya caste. He studied Kriya Yoga under Swami Sri Yukteswar who later encouraged him to carry this belief system to the West. (The word Kriya means “action” or “to do.”) In 1920, he came to the United States, eventually establishing the Church of All Religions and the Self-Realization Fellowship, building a large headquarters and yoga center in 1949 in Los Angeles, California. Since then Self-Realization Fellowship Centers have sprung up all over the world. Yogananda was one of the first Indian gurus to receive widespread recognition in the Western world.

One of his most popular and well-known works is the book entitled, The Autobiography of a Yogi. He died in 1952.

Kundalini Yoga (Yogi Bhajan)
In 1969, at the age of forty, Yogi Bhajan came to the Western world from India. He formed the 3HO Foundation (Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization) and began spreading the message of achieving a happy, healthy and holy life through the practice of Kundalini Yoga. Some Sikhs acknowledge Yogi Bhajan as the Siri Singh Sahib, the chief religious and administrative authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere. There are other Sikhs who question his right to bear this honorific title. Kundalini Yoga is professed to be a combination of many other types of yoga (hatha yoga, mantra yoga, raja yoga, etc.). It is called the “Yoga of Awareness.” Its emphasis is the arousal of the “kundalini” power in order to achieve enlightenment.

Meher Baba
Born February 25, 1894, Meher Baba’s name was originally Merwan Sheriar Irani. According to tradition, five Perfect Masters (Qutub—a God-conscious individual) influenced him over a period of seven years to achieve the realization that he was the Avatar of this cycle. The first was an elderly woman of the Muslim faith, Hazrat Babajan, who initiated the process when she kissed him on the forehead. The word “Avatar” means an embodiment or manifestation of God on earth. Followers of Meher Baba believe he was the most recent manifestation of God, having previously visited the earth as Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and others. Meher Baba maintained silence for the last forty-three years of his life, communicating primarily with hand gestures and an alphabet board. He never sought to establish a religious sect, but proclaimed the unity of all religions. A large following of disciples, from many different faiths, continues to grow worldwide. Meher Baba established a Universal Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He died January 31, 1969, at Meherazad, India.

Scientology
In 1952, American author, L. Ron Hubbard founded the Scientology religion. The first Church of Scientology was established by several of Mr. Hubbard’s students in February of 1954. The main emphasis is on “clearing” a person of “engrams” (negative perceptions in the subconscious mind) by a pastoral counseling process called “Dianetics” (a word meaning “through the soul”). Fundamentally, the goal of Scientology is to empower an individual to experience a greater understanding of life and to improve himself and the world in which he lives. There are many laws, axioms and techniques that the Scientologist applies to his day-to-day living to achieve this goal. Scientologists believe that truth is a subjective experience, a voyage of self-discovery. Scientology claims to draw wisdom from all the great religions of this world, although its closest spiritual ‘cousin’ is Buddhism.

Sufism (Mystical Islam)
Around the ninth century Sufism began to grow out of the ground of the Muslim faith. The Arabic word sufi means “mystic.” It stems from suf, meaning “wool”—most likely an allusion to the traditional woolen garment that early Muslim ascetics wore. Others contend is comes from the Arabic word tassawuf meaning “purification.” Though most Muslims teach a transcendent God, beyond personal encounter, the Sufi Muslims believe otherwise. They pursue mystical experiences with Allah through various means, especially a whirling kind of dance designed to project the worshipper into a trance-like state of blissful union with God. Other practices include fikr (meditation) and dhikr (the remembrance of God by frequent repetition of his names). Being a lover of the Beloved (God) is the emphasis in Sufism.

Sufis have long been noted for their spiritual ‘love poetry’ concerning this theme. The Qur’an is revered, though Sufis add levels of symbolic, inner meanings. Though many ascetics are found among Sufis, still, this religion does not ‘demand’ an ascetic-like withdrawal from the world. Rather, it emphasizes the goal of seeking God while involved in the world. Sheikh Muzaffer explains, “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and your heart busy with God.”1

There are many different Sufi brotherhoods. Given the emphasis of ‘dying to self’ in Sufism, some of its adherents claim the best description of this religious group is the enigmatic statement—“The Sufi is the one who is not.”2

  1. James Fadiman and Robert Grager, Essential Sufism (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 1998) p. 35.
  2. Abu al-Hasan Kharaqani, in Jami, Nafahat, p. 298; quoted in Carl W. Ernst, Ph. D., The Shambala Guide to Sufism (Boston, Massachusett: Shambhala Publications, 1997) p. 228.

 

Theosophy (Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant)
The word “Theosophy” comes from two Greek words, theos meaning “god,” and sophos meaning “wise.” In essence, it means those who seek the wisdom of God by searching through philosophy or by the pursuit of mystical experiences, or both. Proponents of Theosophical concepts can be found in Hinduism, Taoism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and the like.

In recent years, this term became closely linked with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky who formed the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875, along with Henry Steel Olcott. Blavatsky claimed to be in touch with spiritually evolved human beings dedicated to the service of the world whose teachings formed the basis of her belief system. She promoted a monistic and pantheistic view of the relationship between God and the universe. She also taught that mankind is evolving through reincarnation toward perfection, and those who are near, or reach such a goal are responsible to guide less evolved souls.

Annie Besant succeeded Blavatsky as the spiritual leader of the society after the latter’s death in 1891 and as international president after the death of the president-founder, Henry Steel Olcott, in 1907. She was quite involved, not only as a proponent of Theosophy, but in governmental, educational and social work in the land of India. It was Annie Besant who introduced Jiddu Krishnamurti as the Messiah of this age. He later refuted the claim.

There is no set dogma in the Theosophical Society. However, three foundational beliefs normally embraced are: “(1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the absolute ground of being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.”1

  1. FAQ, “What does this Wisdom Tradition Teach?,” theosophical.org, (September 30, 2001)

Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was born in India around 1910. After graduating from Allahabad University with a degree in physics, he began pursuing a higher purpose in life, becoming a disciple of Guru Dev for thirteen years. Maharishi first taught TM in India and then, at Guru Dev’s urging, he brought this system of thought to the West in 1959. Promoted as the Science of Creative Intelligence, TM offers its practitioners a means of achieving peace, harmony, inner joy, creativity, and enlightenment primarily through meditation and the chanting of various Sanskrit mantras. Adherents claim these are designed to lift a person to higher levels of consciousness. TM has been one of the more popular movements out of India and has numerous centers around the world.

United Church of Religious Science (Dr. Ernest Holmes)
This religious sect is a part of what has been termed the “New Thought Movement.” It is based on a belief that the human mind is an expression of the Universal Mind. The universe is its physical manifestation. Something called “affirmative prayer” is used to bring healing to the mind or the body. Ministers and practitioners give spiritual mind treatments. Dr. Ernest Holmes published his beliefs in the book, The Science of Mind, in 1926. The next year he formed the Institute of Religious Science and Philosophy in Los Angeles, California, to disseminate his doctrinal views. In 1949, the United Church of Religious Science was established.

Yoga
The word “yoga” means yoke. It implies being yoked or harnessed with God, brought into harmony with the Divine. Yoga is one of the six primary systems of orthodox thought in Indian philosophy. Adherents claim that its practice can, first, free the aspirant from the illusion and ignorance that characterizes this earthly realm, and second, enable the seeker, through various self-disciplines, to achieve oneness with the Divine. There are many types of yoga, such as:

  • Hatha Yoga (the path of physical disciplines)
  • Karma Yoga (the path of selfless action)
  • Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion to an individual god),
  • Jnana Yoga (the path of transcendental knowledge)
  • Mantra Yoga (the path of chanting mantras to achieve enlightenment)

Primary sacred texts are the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali (c. 200 BC). He taught that there are “eight limbs” of yoga:

(1) Yama (discipline, including avoidance of violence, dishonesty and greed);

(2) Niyama (restraint, spiritual devotion);

(3) Asana (physical postures);

(4) Pranayama (breath control);

(5) Pratyahara (sense-withdrawal);

(6) Dharana (concentration);

(7) Dhyana (meditation);

(8) Samadhi (ecstasy or enlightenment).

Most westerners only associate “yoga” with numbers (3) and (4).

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Written by Mike Shreve