Religions of the East
Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
At first we might think that the religions of the East are exotic but not familiar to us. Many people would find it difficult to start describing Hinduism or Buddhism, and even more challenging to talk about the religion of Shinto or the philosophy of Confucius. However, when the topics of acupuncture, yoga, herbal medicine, or feng shui come up, people are suddenly knowledgeable, without thinking at first that they are dealing with aspects of Eastern religion.
Two differences are quite noticeable when comparing Eastern religions to the religions of the West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The first involves their view of the history. The second difference is their overall view of God.
History versus Transcending History
The Western concept of history is closely related to a timeline and specific events known to have taken place in time. For instance, Creation is a point in time. Moses led his people out of Egypt during one particular era. Jesus was born in the Roman Empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is disputed but the variance is only a few years. The prophet Mohammed is known for living in two particular cities, Medina and Mecca, and for having a direct impact on the events of his day.
Conflict within Western religion often takes place over historical interpretation, whether an event took place or not. When Rudolph Bultmann argued for the mythological interpretation of the New Testament, he was showing just as much interest in history as those who accepted the plain, literal meaning of the Scriptures. Even though Bultmann denied that certain New Testament miracles took place, his focus was still upon history and facts.
In contrast, the Eastern religions do not connect their meaning to historical events, although certain events are crucial (Buddha’s first realization of pain, suffering, illness, and death). Hinduism cannot even be limited to a specific confession of faith or set of dogmas. The official definition of Hinduism includes polytheism, the Vedas as scripture, and tolerance for different points of view. Shinto has many forms, with emperor worship being officially retired.
For this reason, Eastern religions seem to have a more pervasive influence upon daily life. One never thinks about a Catholic or a Methodist garden, but the Japanese garden is a reflection of the doctrines of Shinto. Pentecostals concentrate upon miraculous healings in the Christian world, but the Eastern religions have highly developed healing arts directed connected to their philosophy. Eastern religion is pervasive in Asian and Indian cultures, unless it is suppressed by Marxist government. Western religion seems quite secular and separate from society in comparison.
Monotheism versus Polytheism
The second major difference concerns God. The three Western religions agree in teaching monotheism – one God who acts in history. The Eastern religions are both polytheistic and non-theistic. Monotheism is foreign to Eastern religion.
Hinduism has over 300 million gods. No one can name them all or worship them all, so religious tolerance has a special meaning to India. Within Hinduism there is necessarily a great deal of latitude about beliefs, but great tension with Islam and Christianity.
Buddhism is supposed to be non-theistic, allowing for god but not requiring a specific belief nor opposing particular dogmas. Nevertheless, many would say that the hundreds of Buddha statues venerated by disciples suggest Buddha as a god. Buddhist literature also speaks of gods and goddesses.
Confucius seems to have established something more related to a philosophy of life than a religion about a deity or deities. These differences with Western religion also make it easier for people to adopt two or more Eastern religions at the same time. A Methodist-Jewish-Islamic disciple is such a contradiction that no one would consider it seriously, but one commonly finds people combining several Eastern religions.
1. What have you experienced among people who practice one of the religions of the East?
2. Some people think that Eastern religion is more influential in America than Western religion. What are your thoughts?
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