Religion is a universal phenomenon and recognized as a social institution. In the past, many forms of religion had existed in human societies in the world. Even the primitive man, who lived some hundred thousand years ago, had his own religion. Among the fossilized remains of ancient cave dwellers there are some artifacts buried with them to be used on their journey to the next world. It means that they believed in a sort of life after death. There were yet other religious beliefs evolved on the basis of seeking protection for the present life. A follower of a religion may worship ancestors, spirits or gods and practise prayers, meditation and rites and rituals pertaining to that particular religion. Because of this complex situation it is very difficult to define what religion is.
When we confine ourselves to Asian religions or institutionalized systems of beliefs, symbols, values and practices found in Asian countries, we see numerous solutions given in diverse perspectives. In spite of this diversity, there is a unitary characteristic in almost all the religions in the world. Which is, none other than the complexities of emotional feelings of man and his attitude towards the mysteries and perplexities in life and environment around him.
Due to some cultural reasons or close contact with one another there may be some similar features in some of the dominant religions in the world. There is mutual influence between religion and culture. Religions in Asia appeared in the cultural back ground of the respective countries in Asia. Then religion and culture continue to influence each other mutually. Cultures in respective countries in Asia depict the religious values of Asian religions. Edward B. Tylor well over a hundred years ago defining culture said in his work Primitive Culture (1871)
“Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.
In this context it is worth remembering that human beings whether in Asia or Europe have common problems. Natural calamities like floods, earth quakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, droughts and diseases, and fear from numerous sources around them are the dominant factors that tempted them to seek religious protection. Since the sentiments, aspirations and feelings of all human beings are common in character, solutions to those are found in their respective religions. Asian religions are no exception.
Being a very sensitive issue like ethnicity, religion plays a vital role in society maintaining the social system as a whole. It plays a dominant role in social solidarity, providing meaningful answers to mysteries of the world and beyond, offering psychological support to man in crisis and creating hopes in man's future. Sociology discusses these important functions of religion at length.
There are a number of religions in Asia. Here we discuss them very briefly. To begin with, Shinto in Japan, Taoism and Confucianism in China are to be mentioned. Later Buddhism was introduced to East Asian and South Asian countries including the above two countries and grew harmoniously with mutual assimilation. Much later Islam and Christianity were introduced.
The Indian subcontinent is also is the birthplace of several great religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
Here I give an outline of the major Asian religions to show the richness of Asian contribution to religious thought. Shinto in Japan is one of the ancient religions in Asia and supposed to have evolved out of ancestor worship around 3rd millennium B. C. It believes in the divinity of the emperor and adheres to the worship of family ancestors and national heroes. There is hereditary priesthood to officiate at the ceremonies of birth, marriage and death ensuring the ritual purification.
Taoism in China originated in the 6th century B. C., speaks of Tao as the universal force harmonizing nature, with an emphasis on contemplation. Thus it is a religio-philosophical system, which has its impact on Chinese culture. Tao is the Way as explained by the founder Lao-Zi. ‘Yin’, which is the feminine element that balances the ‘Yang’, the masculine element. Meditation, simplicity and such good qualities are emphasized. Confucianism as taught by the Chinese philosopher Confucius in the 6th century B.C. advocates benevolence, love, righteousness, decorum, and sincerity. It advocates wise leadership and encourages good management of family and society.
Vedic religion in India was Brahmanism and later known as Hinduism. There is no particular founder of Vedic religion or Hinduism. It has absorbed many beliefs and religious practices of the original inhabitants of India. Now, Hinduism we see today is many faceted having many gods and goddesses of high and low status. It is a complex religion advocating different beliefs and practices. Hinduism is polytheism, monotheism monism at the same time. The Vedas, where the sacrificial hymns are found are considered as revealed texts. There are numerous religious expositions and philosophical discussions in the post-Vedic Upanishads. A line of Hindu philosophers has made valuable contributions to the progress of Hindu Philosophy. What is important is, Hinduism firmly believes in the spiritual progress of man. Moral conduct and strict ascetic practices are envisaged to realize the Supreme Bliss or the unification of the individual soul with the universal soul. This is the end of reincarnation in the cycle of births and deaths. Other than the orthodox Hindu philosophical systems, there are some principal sects of Hinduism evolved some centuries later in Indian religious history. Shaivism advocating the worship of Shiva, Vaishnavism promoting the worship of Vishnu are important in this respect. There are offshoots of Shaivism known as Shaktism and Lingayats. A sense of mutual relationship is found among these sects. It is said that Shankara and later Kumarila popularized Shiva worship among the masses. Shiva is also associated with asceticism, self- mortification as well as with dancing. He is also called Natarajah, because he is the one who introduced dancing to the world. Vaishnavism involves the worship of Vishnu and popularized by Ramanuja and Madhva. Rama and Krishna are the very popular incarnations of Vishnu. As found in the Bhagavadgîtâ, Vishnu or Krishna is worshipped as the all-inclusive, all-pervasive and all-comprehensive god. Bhakti or the cult of devotion originated among the Vaishnaites in India.
Buddhism arose in the 6th century B. C. in India as a new approach to the realization of truth. Like Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, Buddhism has a definite founder popularly known as Gotama, the Buddha. Buddhism is humanistic in its approach and addresses to human reason. It denies the concept of soul as well as the belief in a creator god. From the beginning to the end Buddhism is ethical and moral. Therefore it can be termed as an ethico-philosophical system underlying a way of life. In its earliest phase it was free from rituals, but emphasized mind culture for the realization of truth. The Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, Karma, Rebirth, Three Characteristics of Existence are the most important teachings of Buddhism. The Buddha is credited with founding separate monastic orders for both males and females with sets of disciplinary rules. The Buddha has drafted a comprehensive set of social and domestic ethics in one of his popular discourses for the laity. His teachings of social philosophy, political philosophy, economic theory and psychology are unique contributions to human knowledge. Buddhism as a religion based on ethics and philosophy and began to spread beyond India from the 3rd century B. C. Its contribution to Asian culture as a peace loving religion is highly valued. Its scriptures are divided into three sections: Discourses, Discipline and Higher Doctrine. There are three major traditions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Theravada is mainly found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Mahayana is practised in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Vajrayana is dominant in Tibet and Mongolia. While fundamental doctrines of the three traditions are identical, there are some ritualistic practices evolved according to cultures in the countries those traditions spread.
The founder of Jainism is Vardhamana Mahavira, who is otherwise known as Nighantha Nathaputta, an elder contemporary of the Buddha. Just as Buddhism, it is also an atheistic religion. Jainism says that the world exists and evolves according to its inherent laws. All living beings have souls in them and can be perfected to attain infinite power, knowledge and final Bliss. Emphasis of non-violence in its strict form is a remarkable contribution of Jainism. There are many more important aspects of ethics and philosophy of Jainism. Jain scriptures are constituted of the Angas, the Purvas and the five Prakaranas together with some non-canonical works. In the course of time, Jainism split into two sects. One adhered to the old tradition of nudity giving up the habit of wearing cloths. According to them it is not desirable to possess even a piece of cloth to cover oneself and called themselves digambara. The other sect began to wear white clothes and called svatambara.
Sikhism is the youngest of Indian religions. Guru Nanak founded it in the 15th century. It is said that he was born a Hindu and dissatisfied with it, founded Sikhism on the influence of Islam with a particular national identity. Sikhs believe in karma and reincarnation and reality of one and only God. God is the creator, sustainer and the destroyer of the world. Creation is the result of divine self-revelation. God manifests himself as the world. Creation has a purpose and in spite of man's effort, liberation is not possible without god's grace. Sikhism believes in soul and emphasizes inner purity of mind and denounces all kinds of externalism. Spiritual release is to be experienced by singing devotional songs, recitation of the divine name, meditation and service. Sikhs follow five 'K' s advocated in their religion. Namely; Kangha (comb), Kacch (shorts), Kirpan (sword), Kara (steel bracelet) and Kesh (uncut hair and beard). Just like Buddhism, Sikhism also rejects Hindu caste system.