Religions

Hinduism
One of the oldest religions in the world, Hinduism dates back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. Hinduism is also known as the Sanatana-Dharma which means eternal religion. It was in fact one of the earliest expression of historical Vedic religion. The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era are called the historical Vedic religion. The present day version of the religion is said to have grown out of the Vedas, the oldest of them being the Rigveda. Thus Hinduism is also known as Vaidika-Dharma. Swami Vivekanand in his paper on Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religion said that “the Vedas are without beginning and with out end. They are an accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons at different times. They are laws that govern the spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits.”
The laws that are prescribed in these scriptures are the spiritual experiences of the Rishis and sages. The focus of the Vedas worship is deities like Indra, Varuna and Agni.

Hinduism is the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam and has no one founder.
A diverse range of cultures, traditions and rituals slowly assimilated into this one tradition and evolved into the religion as it is known today.
The first Vice President of India and prominent theologian, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan once said about Hinduism that it is not "just a faith." He further suggested that it can not be defined, but is only to be experienced.

Dharma (duty), Samsara (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from Samsara), and the various Yogas (practices) are some of the more major beliefs of Hinduism.

The scriptures of Hinduism are divided into Sruti (revealed) and Smriti (remembered). These texts include the Vedas, Upnishads, Tantras, Agamas, Puranas as well as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The scriptures talk about the theology, philosophy as well as the practice of Dharma.

There are 330,000 deities in this religion. They are avatars or incarnations of the Supreme Being or the ‘Brahman’. Hinduism gives its practitioner the freedom to choose a spiritual practice as well as a form of Brahman that is corresponding to his spiritual competence and that will satisfy his spiritual cravings. Thus the religion allows numerous gods.
These deities are characterized by a complexity of images and idols symbolizing divine powers.
The most important of all the gods are the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – creator, preserver and destroyer respectively. The other popular gods include Ganesha, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Durga, Kali and Saraswati.

All the deities have their own particular vehicles or ‘vahan’ on which they travel. These are either birds or animals and represent the various forces that the gods signify. For example, goddess Saraswati is shown with a peacock as she the controller of the pursuit of performing arts. Lord Vishnu sits on the primal serpent which represents the desire of consciousness in humankind; Lord Shiva rides the Nandi Bull, which stands for the brute and blind power of man. Durga or Kali on other hand ride on the lion, which symbolizes mercilessness, anger and pride – vices she can help her devotes check. A mouse is Ganesha carrier that represents the timidity and nervousness, feelings that affect us when we start any new venture and he helps us overcome them.

The rituals in Hinduism vary from region to region, individual to individual. The common form of worship is to perform the puja at dawn after bathing either at home or at a temple. The ritual could include reciting from the scripture, singing hymns, chanting mantras, meditating, lighting the lamp and making offerings. One of the most important features of all rituals is the division between purity and pollution. Some degree of impurity is presupposed in the practitioner which must be overcome and is done usually with water.

The life-cycle rituals include Annaprashan, when a baby first takes in solid food, Upanayanam or sacred thread ceremony, which is usually done by upper-caste children as they are initiated into formal education and Shraadh which is the ritual of treating people to feasts in the name of the deceased. Marriage is usually conducted in consultation with astrologers who prescribe the right date and time. On death the bodies are cremated.

Christianity

Christianity which began as a Jewish sect in the eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the first century until Constantine I legalized it in the fourth century and Emperor Theodosius I established it as the official religion of the Roman Empire. From then Christianity played an important role in shaping the Western civilization.
The largest religion in the world, Christianity is centered on the life and teachings of Jesus, which is presented in the New Testament. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah who was to come, as it was prophesized in the Old Testament, to save mankind from sin. He was born as a human, so that he could suffer, die and resurrect in order to bring salvation from sin.

Christians believe that Jesus resurrected from death and ascended into heaven and will return to judge and the living and the dead. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Christians believe in the concept of salvation. With Jesus’s death and resurrection, he has saved mankind from sin and eternal death and by believing in him, they feel that they too would be saved.
Trinity is another important belief of Christians. It is believed that God the father, son and the Holy Spirit though three separate entities, are still one. They represent both the immanence and transcendence of God.

For Christians the soul, upon death of the physical body will experience divine judgement and awarded either eternal death or eternal life. However, sometime in the middle ages, following the first council of Lyon, the disconcerting possibility of eternal damnation was moderated by the introduction of the purgatory. Purgatory is considered the place in between heaven and hell. Those who die in a state of grace, i.e. without any mortal sin, but are still not pure enough to enter heaven, undergo a purification process through the intermediate state of purgatory and then enter heaven.

It is further believed that at the end of the world, Jesus would come for a second time to judge the living and the dead and all those who died would be bodily resurrected. Jesus would then establish the kingdom of God in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies.

Some of the Christian rituals include, attending the Sunday mass, where in they listen to the Gospel and the sermon. The Gospel are the sections from the New Testament of the Bible that have been written by four disciples of Christ, i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. After reading a small portion from any of the four books, the priest gives a sermon, which is basically a lecture based on the reading.

An important act of the mass, amongst the Catholics, is the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Eucharist. In this, the congregation partakes of the bread and wine which symbolically stands for the body and blood of Christ.

The Eucharist is just one of the seven sacraments of the church. The others include, Baptism (when a new born or any one who is interested to convert into Christianity is initiated into the religion), Confirmation, Holy orders, Confession, Anointing of the sick and Marriage.

Certain people who have lived an exemplary and divine life and are considered to be in the divine presence even after death, are given the status of Saints amongst Christians. These people are said to have special powers to intercede to God on behalf of the living. The Roman Catholic Church has developed a formal process for recognizing saints known as Canonization. This process is lengthy and may take anywhere between years to centuries. It involves firstly a study of the individual’s life, which undertaken by an expert. The prepared report is then presented to the Bishop of that area and further studies are undertaken. Once that is also done, the report is sent to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome, who if they approve, give the individual, the title of ‘Venerable’. Further investigations may lead to beatification, where in the candidate will be given the title of ‘Blessed’. The final step of ‘Saint’ is given only once atleast two important miracles are proved on behalf of the candidate. Special weight is given to those miracles that happen after his death and show his continued relationship with God. Finally when everything is done, the Pope canonizes the Saint.

On death, Christians bury their dead.

Islam
The second largest religion after Christianity, Islam has originated from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad was a seventh century Arab religious and political figure and it is believed that God revealed the Quran to him. The Quran however, does mention Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jesus as prophets in Islam. Muslims do not accept Jesus as the Son of God as the Christians believe and consider Prophet Muhammad as the last prophet and the one who restored the original monotheistic faith.
The word Islam means total surrender to God and a Muslim is one who submits to God. Islam has been derived from the Arabic verb Aslama which means ‘to accept, surrender or submit.’ The word is given a number of meanings in the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah (words and deeds of Muhammad) are regarded as the fundamental sources of Islam.

The Quran is believed to have been revealed to Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel over a period of two decades. It was written down by Muhammad’s companions while he was alive and was complied in the time of Abu Bakr, the first caliph and was standardized under the administration of Uthman, the third caliph. The Quran is divided into 114 suras or chapters and contains 6236 verses. The verses that were revealed first are on ethical and spiritual topics while the later ones talked about moral and social issues. The Hadith or the written record of the Muhammad’s life is used by the Muslim jurists to supplement the Quran as well as assist with its interpretation.

Muslims are required to observe the Five Pillars of Islam or the five duties that unite them as a community. The first is the Shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam and forms the foundation of all other beliefs. The Shahadah states that ‘I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God’. The second is the Salah or ritual prayer which must be performed five times a day. Every prayer has to be done facing the Kabba in Mecca. The salah is supposed to focus the mind on God and is a personal communication with him expressing gratitude and worship. The third is the Zakat or giving alms. It is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it, to give charity, as the wealth is seen as trust from God’s bounty. The fourth is the Swam or the fasting during Ramadan. During this period which lasts for 30 days, Muslims are supposed abstain from eating and drinking including many other things from dawn to dusk. This is done to encourage their closeness to God as they are supposed to meditate on him, thank him for the blessings and atone for their sins. The fifth is the Haj pilgrimage which must be undertaken during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijja in Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to undertake this pilgrimage atleast once in his/her lifetime is encouraged to do so. When the pilgrim is about ten kilometers from Mecca, he must dress in Ihram clothing which is two seamless white sheets. The other rituals include walking seven times around the Kaaba, touching the Black Stone, running seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah and symbolically stoning the Devil in Mina.

The fundamental belief of Islam is tawhid or the belief that there is only one god. Muslims are not supposed to visualize God but worship him as a protector. They also believe in angels and consider them to be the messenger of God. As per the Quran the angels do not possess any free will and are completely obedient to God’s will. Their duty is to communicate revelations from God, glorify him, record every person’s actions and maybe intercede on his behalf and taking a person’s soul at the time of death.
Islam talks of the ‘Day of Resurrection’ and the ‘Day of Judgement’. This time it is believed is known only to God and not to man. Both the Quran and the Hadith as well as the commentaries by the Islamic scholars talks of the trials that would precede and follow the day of resurrection. Unlike the Christian belief, the Quran stresses on bodily resurrection.
The Sharia is the Islamic law and is considered the expression of the divine will. It governs all aspects of the life, political to foreign relations to daily living. The Quran and the Sunnah also contain laws on inheritance, marriage and restitution for injuries and murder as well as the rules for fasting, charity and prayer. The Fiqh or jurisprudence is the knowledge of the practical rules of the religion.
Muslims also believe in predestination and accordingly think that God has full knowledge and control over what is happening. Nothing is happening without his will or approval. The Shia understanding of predestination is called ‘divine justice’ and emphasizes on the importance of man’s responsibility for his own actions.

Most Muslims are divided into two major denominations, i.e. Sunni and Shia. The division occurred in the late 7th century because of the disagreements between the religious and political leadership of the community. The Shia’s believe in the political and religious leadership of Imams. For them Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad was his rightful successor and they called him the Imam.

The other denominations of Islam are Sufism, Kharijite and Kalam.