Religion is one of the most important aspects of world culture. It shapes identities, customs, class systems, and even the political sphere of many modern countries. Understanding religion, though, means going back in time and discovering its origin. While some of the world’s oldest religions began in the 15th century, others date back over 5,000 years! Let’s discover the ten oldest religions in the world.
Polytheism, although not one specific religion, is the oldest form of practiced religion. It often occured in pagan practices that aimed to worship a plethora of gods. Polytheism has influenced many prominent religions of today, including Hinduism. The earliest forms of polytheism took shape in Egyptian myths and were recorded on Sumerian tablets, which date back to 4000 B.C. and 3500 B.C., respectively.
Examples of polytheism include the worship of multiple gods in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Rome. For instance, the Greek god Aphrodite was the god of love, while Dionysus was the Greek god of wine.
Yahwism and Judaism
Judaism originates from a religion called Yahwism, which the Hebrew people practiced over 4,000 years ago. Yahwism began with Abraham, when Yahweh called upon him to create a nation of people. His son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob respectively, helped form the patriarch, which would influence the lives of the Hebrews for centuries to come. These individuals became the forefathers of the Israelite nation.
The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for hundreds of years until Moses, working on God’s orders, freed them. Moses brought the Israelites the 10 commandments, which were a set of rules that would become the basis for Jewish law. Over time, Yahwism turned into Judaism, as it is known today. Judaism emerged around 2,085 B.C. and was based on the teachings of Moses and his 10 commandments. Jewish people looked to the Torah for religious inspiration, which consists of five books that outline events from the creation of the world to the death of Moses.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Their one God, Yahweh, is the creator of the universe. Judaism originated in the Middle East but has spread across many landscapes and throughout many countries over time. Its main home lies in Israel, the promised land of the Hebrews. Christianity derives from the teachings and practices of Judaism, but its followers worship both Yahweh and Jesus Christ, who are the father and son of the holy trinity, respectively. Jewish people are Yahweh’s chosen people. They constructed the first monotheistic religion and followed the spoken word of Yahweh.
Hinduism originated around 1,500 B.C. and is mainly practiced in south Asian countries like India. In fact, approximately four out of every five Indians affiliate with the Hindu religion. Religions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism have derived from the Hindu faith, too, making Hinduism one of the world’s oldest religions.
Hinduism is based on the concept of dharma, which promotes the practice of virtue and morality. In addition, dharma is the omnipresent power that structures society and processes within the universe. Hinduism includes a caste system, which organizes social classes into different spheres. It also promotes many symbols, like the om, which represents a sacred sound, and the swastika, which represents good fortune. The swastika was later marred by the rise of the Nazi party. The ideas of samsara and karma have also influenced Hinduism. Samsara, in basic terms, signifies reincarnation, and karma refers to the law of cause and effect. Hinduism has no formal founder or single book of holy inspiration. However, sacred texts like the Vedas contain several scriptures that include teachings and hymns.
Hindus believe in one main god, Brahma, but they also believe in other gods that stem from Brahma. This organization of deities is henotheism. Hindus believe Brahma created the world and all things within it. However, Brahma is often associated with two other prominent deities: Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the god that protects all, and Shiva is the god that destroys all in order to rebuild it.
Finally, Hindus believe in atman, that all living things have a soul. In Hindu culture, cows are the most sacred animal. As a result, Hindus likely will not eat beef, some do not eat pork, and a sizeable number of Hindus are vegetarians.
The philosopher Confucius founded Confucianism 600 B.C., and many deem Confucianism to be as much a political philosophy as a religion, as it promotes both spiritual and societal ideals. For instance, Confucius maintained that society was hierarchical, and he distinguished between three main relationships: king and minister, husband and wife, and father and son.
Confucius claimed that his teachings came directly from Heaven, not from his own philosophy. He taught that reality was more than just the material world and that it was transcendent in nature. He believed five main principles should govern life. First, humanness and goodness come from practicing virtue and prioritizing relationships. Second, righteousness is crucial to humanity and friendship. As the third principle, Confucius promoted the importance of ritual and propriety in the celebration of events and the following of social norms. Confucius also says that wisdom comes from knowledge, meaning these ideas are inseparable. Lastly, trustworthiness is crucial to credibility and the maintenance of relationships.
Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism in 560 B.C. He searched for the meaning of extremes of life and achieved enlightenment, which is a state of being where the mind and spirit find peace and wisdom. Followers called him “the Buddha,” which translates to enlightenment. He spent his life teaching the ways of spiritual enlightenment.
Buddhism has no god but focuses on achieving enlightenment through meditation and other spiritual practices. There is a set path to enlightenment that includes the practice of morality and wisdom. The meditation practiced by Buddhists helps them to find truth, too. In addition, meditation and the path to enlightenment is ever changing, meaning it can develop over time according to context and newly discovered practices. Like Hinduism, Buddhism promotes reincarnation, karma, and dharma, and uses the swastika symbol.
The Four Noble Truths define the core values of Buddhism. These are dukkha, samudaya, nirhodha, and magga. They signify suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering, and the path that frees a person from suffering. In addition, the Eightfold Path describes a way in which a person can achieve nirhodha, or the end of suffering, through eight steps that include practicing Buddhist virtues. The Four Noble Truths help humanity to understand suffering and how to triumph over it, which leads to a better understanding of enlightenment itself.
Buddhists can practice in and outside of the home in temples and other sanctuaries. The religion also includes leaders like monks or the Dalai Lama, who follow rules that enhance their morality and path to enlightenment. Buddhism has a plethora of scriptures, such as the Tipitaka and the Sutras, that help a follower better understand the teachings within Buddhist writings. There are also several types of Buddhism, including Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism.
Taoism was founded between 450 and 500 A.D. and originated in China. It began with traditions and practices native to China that grew to become a religion. The founders of Taoism aimed to maintain indigenous Chinese practices that the rise of Buddhism threatened. The educated and wealthy class were the original Taoists, but the religion spread into lower classes over time. Therefore, different Taoist practices and traditions are preferred depending on the type of follower. For instance, many women prefer a form of Taoism called Ch’üan-chen.
The term Tao means “the way,” which describes the supreme elements within reality. Taoism aligns with the symbol of Yin Yang, which signifies the universe’s never-ending ability to change and develop. Another symbol is the crane, which represents perfection. Taoism focuses on the betterment of self and the implementation of self-restraint, which stems from the principle of sham, meaning goodness.
Taoism does not have a specific religious leader or sacred scripture. The religion never created a set of central values because many Taoist aspects stemmed from indigenous practices, and because its priests acted as leaders of ritual, rather than preachers of a message from a higher power.
Many debate the exact date of the start of Zoroastrianism; some believe it began during the 6th century B.C., and others believe it began almost a thousand years before. The prophet Zoroaster introduced his teachings and divine revelations to Persia thousands of years ago. Zoroastrianism is monotheistic and worships the god Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrianism promotes the law of asha, which describes the value of truth and righteousness. While only a few hundred thousand people affiliate with Zoroastrianism today, the religion dominated the Persian empire under the rule of Cyrus the Great. Zoroastrianism influenced many religions, including Christianity and Islam. After Muslims took over Persia in the mid-600s A.D., many Zoroastrians turned to Islam as their new faith.
Zoroastrianism is based on several beliefs and symbols. The Faravahar signifies eternity, and fire represents purification and light. Ancient Zoroastrian temples included an ever-burning fire on an altar, and followers believed Ahura Mazda gifted these temples to the people. Dakhmas were towers that contained deceased Zoroastrians, serving as a place for corpses to rest prior to burial.
Christianity originated in 30 A.D. and was based on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who was a Jewish person born in Nazareth. Jesus did away with several Judaic laws that had defined Jewish culture for centuries. Instead, he taught that salvation only came from believing in his name and teachings, as he claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus and his 12 disciples spread his message throughout Israel. After Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, his disciples formed the Christian church, which later spread throughout Europe and the Middle East by Paul the Apostle.
The main teachings of Christianity center on loving God–the same Jewish god Yahweh–and loving others. Christianity also promotes the importance of virtues like self-control, goodness, humility, and faithfulness, to name a few. The values and teachings of Christianity are in the sacred Christian text the Holy Bible. The Bible includes a historical look at the lives of the Hebrews, as well as a description of Jesus’s life and the events that followed his death.
Christianity contains many denominations within it, including Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. However, Christians divide into two main groups: Protestants and Catholics. Catholicism dominated Europe until a monk named Martin Luther brought complaints against the Catholic church. Martin Luther influenced the rise of Protestantism, which differs from the Catholic church because it does not include a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and a pope. Instead, Protestantism promotes the forming of churches with pastors, but does not report to a dominant religious figure like the Pope.
Islam stems from the Yahwist patriarch Abraham and is monotheistic like Judaism and Christianity. It began in 610 A.D. and worships the god Allah, who gave his message to the last prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Islam means “submission to the will of God,” and Muslims believe that Allah must approve everything they do. While Muslims believe that other Judeo-Christian prophets existed to preach the law of Allah, they deem Muhammad to be the last prophet to share his divine word.
Islam is based on the concept of jihad, which means “struggle.” The struggle that Muslims face takes form in their ability to defend their faith in the face of internal and external forces. The Five Pillars of Islam describe five key components to the Islamic faith. These are shahada, salat, zakat, sawm, and hajj. Each pillar outlines specific steps that a Muslim should take in affirming his faith. For instance, sawm describes the importance of fasting during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. In addition, the main religious text that Muslims follow is the Quran, which includes historical background and teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The Quran is Islam’s main source of authority and religious teachings besides Allah himself.
There are several different types of Islamic belief, including Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. Sunnis and Shiites disagree on the legitimate successors to the prophet Muhammad. Other Islamic sects are derived from the Sunnis and the Shiites, such as Wahhabi and Alawite Islam.
Sikhism stemmed from Buddhism and Hinduism and began in 1499. Guru Nanak, a Hindu, began Sikhism. Nine individual Gurus, who helped to develop the faith, succeeded him. Sikh means “learner,” which reflects the importance of following spiritual guidance.
The sacred text of Sikhism is the Adi Granth, which comprises thousands of hymns written by the original 10 Sikh Gurus and other prominent Sikhs. During Sikh worship services, followers use the Adi Garnth, and recite a specific prayer. Another text, the Dasam Granth, is also a sacred scripture within Sikhism, but some Sikhs do not deem the Dasam Granth to be legitimate. Finally, Sikhism does not promote the caste system like Hinduism does. In fact, Adi Garnth denounces the caste system. However, some Sikhs still adhere to the caste system, especially in marital matters.
Sikhism observes many types of rituals and festivals, too. The rites of passage describe three rituals that Sikhs follow to be initiated into Sikhism, and the fourth ritual is the funeral ritual. During initiation, a Sikh must follow several steps and avoid four cardinal sins. These sins are the cutting of a person’s own hair, the consumption of halal meat, adultery, and the use of tobacco. If a Sikh commits these sins, they must confess. Celebrations that Sikhs observe include eight distinct festivals, which observe major life events or remember the sacrifice of Sikh martyrs.