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Learning about World Religions
Hinduism: The people who practice Hinduism are called Hindus and they live mainly in India. This is a
very ancient religion, one that began around 2,000 B.C.E. in the Indus River Valley in South Asia. We
don’t really know who created this religion, but we think it is a mixture of the beliefs of Aryan invaders
from Europe and the people already living near the Indus River Valley. Hinduism is a very flexible faith—
it doesn’t have a lot of hard and fast rules and it has often adopted beliefs from other religions and
added them to Hinduism, especially ideas from Buddhism. It is a polytheistic religion, meaning that
Hindus believe in and can worship more than one god. They believe that there is one universal spirit,
Brahman, who shows himself through the faces of many gods and goddesses. Most Hindus have one
god who is their favorite and whom they worship in mandirs (these can be altars set up at home or
temples dedicated to a god and taken care of by priests.) There are three well-known Hindu gods-the
Hindu trinity or Trimurti. They are Shiva, the god of destruction and salvation; Vishnu, who preserves
the universe and who over time, has taken human form and visited Hindus on earth; and Brahma, the
god of creation. Hindus also believe that humans die and then their spirits are reborn in human or
animal form over and over again. This cycle is called samsara. A Hindu’s soul will go through this
process until it reaches a true understanding of the universe. The release from the cycle is called
moksha. Hindus believe that when you are reincarnated, the new form your spirit takes may be
determined by your karma. If you have good karma, you will be reincarnated as a higher being than
someone who has bad karma. Karma is the belief that our bad choices and actions will eventually catch
up with us, if not in this life, then in the next. When bad things happen to Hindus, many believe that this
is punishment for bad actions they may have done in a former life. Good karma leads to rewards, so
Hindus are pacifists; they do not believe in harming living beings. Many Hindus choose to live as
vegetarians because they do not want to harm living creatures, even for food. Hindus have several holy
texts that they read: the Bhagavad-Gita, an important holy book written in the form of a poem; the
Vedas, which help Hindus learn how to worship and the Upanishads which are writings that tell about
Hindu beliefs.
Judaism: People who practice Judaism or are born to a Jewish mother are called Jews. Most Jews today
live in either the country of Israel or in the United States. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, meaning
that Jews believe in and worship only one god. Their god is called Adonai. Judaism is an old religion,
almost as old as Hinduism. It began around 1,500 B.C.E. near the area we today call Iraq in Southwest
Asia. The founder of Judaism was a man named Abraham. Jews believe that Yahweh picked Abraham
and promised to make him the father of a great nation of people. He also said that he would give
Abraham and his descendents their own land. Many Jews today believe the land that Yahweh promised
them is the land called Israel. In return, Abraham and his family had to promise to follow the commands
of Yahweh and be an example to others of how Yahweh wanted humans to live. For many centuries
Jews tried to follow the directions of Yahweh; sometimes they were successful and sometimes they
weren’t. Their religion is based on the laws they believe Yahweh gave them which are written down in
their holy book, the Torah. They also read another book call the Talmud. Over many thousands of
years, Jewish scholars have thought and written about the laws laid down in the Torah. All their
comments are written down in the book called the Talmud. Both books are important to the Jewish
religion. Jews read the Torah and worship Yahweh in synagogues. The most important belief in Judaism
is that there is only one god, Yahweh, and that Jews must worship only him. Their religious services are
lead by rabbis who are men or women who know the Torah well. Jews try to follow Yahweh’s laws,
especially the Ten Commandments. Some of the rules they follow have to do with the type of food they
eat and how it is prepared. Many Jews eat only kosher food, meaning it has been prepared according to
the rules of the Torah and it is on the list of foods that Yahweh told Jews they could eat. The most
important day of the week to Jews is called the Sabbath. It begins Friday night at sundown and lasts
until sundown on Saturday night. Families and friends gather together and eat a special meal on this
night and pray together to Yahweh. Many Jews believe that Yahweh has asked them to rest on the
Sabbath, so the food for the meal is prepared ahead of time. As you have probably already learned, for
at least a thousand years, Jews were hated by Christians and were treated very harshly. During WWII,
the German leader Hitler tried to kill all the Jews in Europe because he blamed them for the problems
the world and Germany were facing at the time. This attempt to kill Jews, the Holocaust, was just the
biggest example of what people had been doing to them all over Europe for many, many years.
Beginning the late 1800s, Jews felt they would only be safe if they had their own country and weren’t
living spread out all over the world. The movement these Jews began to return to their ancestral home,
Palestine, was called Zionism. With the support of the United Nations, the Jews were allowed to return
to Palestine and make their own country there. They named it Israel and it was officially recognized by
the United Nations and much of the rest of the world in 1948. Unfortunately, although there had always
been some Jews living in Palestine, there were also many Muslims living in the area and they were very
angry that their land was given away by foreigners or that they would be forced to share what they
considered their own territory with the new country of Israel. To this day the Jews of Israel and the
Muslims who live around them do not get along. War breaks out frequently in the area.
Buddhism: The people who follow Buddhism are called Buddhists. Buddhism began in India in around
500 B.C.E. The founder of Buddhism was a man named Siddhartha Gautama. He was born a prince and
was very sheltered by his father the king. He lived in a beautiful palace and was given everything he
wanted for many years. He married while he was very young and had a son. As he grew up, he really
wanted to see what life was like outside the palace, but his father feared the influence of the outside
world. However, once he was a man, his father could no longer forbid him to leave the safety of his
home. Finally he ventured outside the shelter of the palace and saw how the rest of humanity lived. He
was shocked by all the suffering that he saw around him and decided to devote his life to finding a way
to stop it. Unfortunately for Siddhartha’s family, this meant that he would have to leave them and the
palace forever. After many years of trying, Siddhartha Gautama believed that through meditation and
prayer he had found the way to end the suffering of those around him. He began to share his method
with others and he took on a new name, The Buddha or the Awakened One. Buddha taught his
followers that there are four truths in life (The Four Noble Truths): life is suffering, human desires cause
suffering, suffering can be stopped, and the way to stop suffering is to live life according to the path
(The Eightfold Path). This path, with eight steps you take, teaches Buddhists how to separate
themselves from the world and all their cravings and desires. Buddhists, like Hindus, believe in
reincarnation. They believe that when we die, our souls are reborn in different bodies. We will
continue this life and death cycle until our souls reach nirvana, or living without suffering. Many
Buddhists don’t worship Buddha, although there are some who do. They don’t believe that he is a god.
Instead, they see Buddha as a human being whose example they want to follow. Most Buddhists don’t
worry too much over whether there is a god or not. They believe humans aren’t meant to understand
that. They focus on how to live properly. Buddhists are gentle. They do not believe in violence and
most are vegetarians. They sometimes pray to statues of Buddha at sanghas or homes for Buddhist
monks. Other times, they will pray to Buddha in temples. The followers of the Buddha wrote down his
teachings in a set of holy books called the Tipitaka, or three baskets. Buddhist monks and nuns are holy
people who have dedicated their lives to the study of Buddha and his teachings. They do not lead a
worship service, but they take care of the temples and pass on the Buddha’s teachings.
Christianity: The people who follow the religion of Christianity are called Christians. Christians live all
over the world today. Christianity is a monotheistic religion that grew out of Judaism. It began around
the year 33 C.E. in the country we today call Israel, in Southwest Asia. The founder of Christianity was a
Jewish man named Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was God who came to earth in human form.
They say that he was born to a virgin, Mary and that he came to bring people close to God and to save
humanity from sin. When Jesus was in his thirties, he began to preach to the people around him. He
asked them to repent, or turn away from their sinful ways, and worship God truly. He picked at least
twelve helpers during his ministry and he called them his disciples. The disciples studied with Jesus and
helped as he preached his message. Many of the Jewish leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus.
He was criticizing them and they did not like him. The Romans, who had taken over the country where
Jesus lived, didn’t like him either. They believed that he was a trouble maker and that people who
listened to him would rebel against Rome and try to get their independence back. Many poor Jews
loved Jesus. He reminded them that they were special and that God cared about them too.
Unfortunately, the Jewish leaders and Roman officials who didn’t like Jesus had him killed. He was
executed by the Roman government by a method called crucifixion-a person is nailed to a cross and
slowly dies of suffocation and thirst. It was a particularly horrible way to day, but Christians believe that
Jesus allowed himself to be killed this way to show them the way to God. Christians believe that after
three days in his tomb, he rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. They saw his death as a
sacrifice; they felt he gave his life to save them from sin and that his resurrection was a sign that God
was more powerful than death. The people who continued to follow his teachings after his death and
resurrection eventually broke away from Judaism and began their own religion--Christianity. Christians
worship one god, but they believe their god has three faces: God the father who created the universe,
God the son who was Jesus and took human form to be close to them and God the Holy Spirit who Jesus
left behind to help Christians follow God’s commandments and live the right way. Christians read their
holy book, the Bible. Half of it contains the Jewish scriptures and half of it contains new books written
about Jesus and the early church. Christians worship in churches. Their worship services can be lead by
ministers or priests, depending on the kind of Christians they are. Christians and Jews have much the
same history and believe many of the same things; however, Jews do not believe that Jesus was God in
human form and Christians do.
Islam: People who follow the teachings of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims live all over the world
today, but especially in Southwest Asia and Indonesia. It is a very fast growing religion. Islam is the
youngest of the major religions we are studying. It began in what we now call Saudi Arabia in about the
year 610 C.E. The founder of Islam was a man named Mohammed. Mohammed was a good man who
prayed often. One day, as he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira, Mohammed believed he was visited
by the angel Gabriel. He felt that the angel carried a special message to him and that he was supposed
to pass this message on to everyone else. Mohammed continued to pray at Mount Hira and he
continued to receive messages from Allah, or God. Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same
God. They share a lot of the same history in fact. However, Mohammed believed that both Jews and
Christians had strayed away from the true message of God. He believed that the angel Gabriel was
asking him to carry Allah’s message to get humanity back on track. Mohammed taught the message he
received to as many people as he could. Sometimes people accepted his teachings, other times, they
did not. There was quite a bit of conflict at the beginning of the story, but eventually the message
taught by Mohammed spread from Southwest Asia to North Africa and even as far away as Spain. Today
there are Muslims all over the world. Muslims read their holy book, the Qu’ran or Koran. They believe
the Qu’ran contains the message given to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. They also consult a book
called the Hadith, a book of sayings by Mohammed. Muslims, like Christians, believe in heaven and hell.
Muslims are strict monotheists. In fact their biggest statement of belief is that there is one God and that
Mohammed is his final prophet. They acknowledge that Jesus existed and that he was an important
prophet, but Muslims believe that Mohammed brought humanity the final word from Allah. They
worship in mosques and often there are holy men called Imams who lead prayers there. Their day of
worship is Friday. Like Jews, Muslims must follow certain laws pertaining to their diet. They must eat
food that comes from an approved list and it must be prepared according to Muslim custom. That type
of food is considered halal. Muslims have a core list of important beliefs, the Five Pillars of Islam. They
must proclaim that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet at least once a day;
they must pray a certain number of times each day facing the direction of one of their holy cities,
Mecca; they must give a portion of their income to the poor; they must fast during the daylight hours
during their holy month of Ramadan; and all who are able should visit the holy city of Mecca at least
once in his or her life.
Sikhism: People who follow the religion of Sikhism are called Sikhs. The Punjab (Panjab or Panj) is an
area of Northern India where the Sikh religion was founded. It is a fertile area because of the five rivers
flowing through it. Historically the area was Hindu but Muslims invaded trying to spread their religion.
From the battle between the two main religions the new religion, Sikhism, was founded. There are over
20 million Sikhs worldwide and the religion is open to anyone.
Sikhism was founded in the early 1400s by a teacher called Guru Nanak. He believed that all people
were born equal and should have equal opportunities. Guru means "spiritual leader.” Guru Nanak was
born into a Hindu family, but did not take part in the ceremony to initiate him into the Hindu religion. He
worked for a Muslim as he grew up so he learned about the Muslim religion too. Eventually he became a
religious teacher, teaching about a new faith using ideas from both Hinduism and Islam. This new
religion, called Sikhism, was based on one God and on the equality of all human beings. Nanak travelled
far and wide to teach about the new religion and he became known as a guru. There were ten other
Gurus after Guru Nanak, but today the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, is considered the
last and final Guru.
The Sikh faith started as Guru Nanak realized that people were losing sight of God in their lives because
of greed and superstition. He set out a list of new rules to bring people closer to God. These were based
on the fact that there is only one God, responsible for all and that all people are equal and should have
equal opportunities.
These are the major beliefs of Sikhism.
There is only one God.
We should worship and pray to the one God and no-one else.
Work hard and help others.
Be honest
Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, there is no rich, poor, male, female, black nor white. The
only difference between people is in their actions.
Be kind to all; birds, animals and people.
Fear nothing, pray for the good of all.
Be simple and honest in your daily life.
Share with the needy whatever you can spare. Treat all men and women as equals regardless of
nationalities, religions or creed.
The Guru Granth Sahib is Sikhism’s Holy Book. If it is not in use it is wrapped in decorative silks and
placed on a platform. The book is made up from the sacred writing of six of the gurus. It contains 1,430
pages, 3,384 hymns and is always exactly the same. The language it is written in is Gurmukhi (literally
"from the mouth of gurus")...a written form of Panjabi. It is treated like a live guru; with great respect.
Wherever the book is can be considered a meeting place for Sikhs. Reading the whole of The Guru
Granth Sahib is a special part of a ceremony. It takes 48 hours and is done on special occasions such as
after giving birth or moving as well as before festivals. Readers take it in turns to read the text. The total
reading in forty eight hours is called the Akhand Path. Reading it in a more leisurely fashion over about
ten days is called the Sahaj Path. It may be read either at the gurdwara or at home.
The gurdwara is a Sikh meeting place. Gurdwara means "the house of the guru", the guru that is there
now though is the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism. There are no priests or ministers in
Sikhism, although there may be people who are dedicated to tending the Gurdwara or performing Sikh
ceremonies like marriage and infant naming services.
The Gurdwara serves as a place of worship, school, meeting room, communal kitchen and if necessary a
place for people to sleep. The kitchen is a place where festival food, donated, prepared and cooked by
the Sikh families of the community is shared with any visitors to the gurdwara on that day. This meal is
always vegetarian and is called the langar.