Religion, An Examination of History, Beliefs and Connections
Essay Number Two
These essays represent a work in progress and use a number of approaches at connecting a diverse collection of religious information, facts and histories and at times represent some of the same information in a different context. Please keep this in mind as you proceed.
Between 1,000 BC to 200 AD. there are threads that weave together a number of historical figures and various religious beliefs. This includes Siddhartha Gautama, Alexander the Great, Abraham, King Bindusarathe, and his son Emperor Ashoka, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, his Disciples and St. Paul.
Chronological order of the people and events involved:
- 4,000 to 3,000 B.C. origins of Hinduism
- 2,000 B.C. the time of Abraham
- 1,600 to 1,300 B.C. the location in time of the Exodus from Egypt
- 1,500 B.C. the oldest known Hindu temple
- 1,035 to 961 B.C. the life of King David
- 623 B.C. the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)
- 356 to 323 B.C. the life of Alexander the Great
- 268 to 223 B.C. the life of Emperor Ashoka (creator of organized Buddhism)
- 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. life of Caesar Augustus
- 5 B.C. (about) the birth of Jesus
- 29 A.D. preachings of John the Baptist
- 33 or 34 A.D the Crucifixion
- 280 – 337 A.D. the life of Emperor Constantine
- 325 A.D. the first Council of Nicaea (the formal beginning of the Christian church
- 570 -632 A.D. the life of the Prophet Mohammad
East and West
A number of Roman historical accounts describe an embassy (a diplomatic delegation) sent by the Indian Buddhist King Porus to Caesar Augustus sometime between 22 BC and 13 AD. The embassy was traveling with a diplomatic letter written in Greek, and one of its members was a sramana. Sramana means “seeker, one who lives a life of austerity, an ascetic”. The term refers to several Indian religious movements that were associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism of the period. This particular sramana burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. Buddhist monks of the period had been celebrated in India and western China for burning themselves alive to speed their passage to the Pure State or to show the strength of their faith and righteousness of their beliefs. The event made a sensation in the Empire and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antioch (near present day Antakya in Turkey) and the event was also recorded by Strabo and Dio Cassius. A tomb was made to the sramana in Athens, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the inscription:
ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ
(“Zarmanochegas from Barygaza in India”) -The first word was probably a reference to his name and his faith and Barygaza was a port on the northwest coast of India – Roman trade was already occurring by the beginning of the current era and was flourishing by 50 AD with both land caravans and ocean going vessels traveling to India.
This historical incident is evidence of the exposure of the West to religious beliefs of the Far East as well as the reverse. Very early in the current era (100 to 250 A.D.) four of the world’s five great religions were already extant in Euro-Asia. From the eastern Mediterranean thru India and on into China, these four religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity occupied a geographic space that intersected in Persia and western India.
Trade was already flourishing at that time between the Roman Empire and the Indian kingdoms along the silk road with merchant ships sailing trade routes in the Mediterranean and Indian oceans. There is significant historical evidence that principles of Buddhism and Hinduism were understood throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Christianity was being preached along the western coast of India. Saint Thomas is believed to have spent significant time in India preaching and died on December 21, 72 A.D. in Mylapore, India. Over this period caravans plied the “silk roads” making it possible for people to travel from Greece and Egypt thru Persia, India and even on into China.
The oldest Hindu temple dates back to over 1,500 B.C. Reasonable estimates place Hinduism’s origins as a religion at around 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. To put this in context, current studies regarding the time of Abraham place him at around 2,000 B.C. The Old Egyptian Kingdom dates back to about 3,000 B.C. with the Great Pyramid dated to 2,589 B.C.
Siddhartha and Buddhism
Around 600 B.C. in northeastern India or southern Nepal Siddhartha Gautama was born. He became the founder of the faith known as Buddhism. According to UNESCO, Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, was born in 623 B.C. in the famous gardens of Lumbini, which has become a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Early pilgrims included the Indian emperor Ashoka, who erected one of his commemorative Buddhist pillars there in the garden. At the time of Siddhartha’s birth Hinduism was the dominant religion of the region and Hindu ascetics were a common feature there. It is written that Siddhartha pursued the life of an ascetic in his early adulthood but at some point became enlightened to the true nature of the world and what was hidden behind everyday reality.
The Buddha’s teachings offered a “middle path” between everyday living and religious practice. He taught about living in harmony with people and other living creatures and that truly understanding one’s self was the path to individual enlightenment. This enlightenment or awakening comes thru the Dhamma, the truth taught by the Buddha, and is uncovered gradually through sustained practice. The Buddha made clear many times that Awakening does not occur like a bolt out of the blue but rather, it culminates a long journey of many stages.
Almost 300 years later Alexander the Great created an empire that conquered Greece, Persia, Egypt, all of the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan and northwestern India. The spread of his empire ended with his death in 323 B.C. but while he was in India he formed an alliance with a number of kings including King Bindusarathe, the grandfather of the Emperor Ashoka. As Alexander’s empire fractured after his death a series of new kingdoms came under the rule of his generals. Most of these new rulers had the experience of time spent in the eastern empire and many had married into local royal families and understood the customs and religious beliefs of these regions including Hinduism and Buddhism.There are a number of accounts of these “kings” traveling to meet at various times.
In 268 B.C. the Emperor Ashoka was born. He became an Indian ruler of the Maurya Dynasty who probably spoke the same language as Siddhartha. He ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from Persia in the east thru Nepal and south almost to the bottom of the subcontinent. While early in his rule he continued, like his father, to conquer other kingdoms, he also had frequent contact with remaining Greek colonies in northern India. He is most famous for later converting to Buddhism and became recognized as one of the most enlightened emperors in history.
Ashoka and the Spread of Buddhism
The Edicts of Ashoka are inscriptions inscribed on the Pillars of Ashoka as well as engraved on boulders and cave walls during his reign from 269 B.C. to 232 B.C. These inscriptions were dispersed throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan and represent the first tangible permanent record of Buddhism. According to the edicts and pillar inscriptions, the extent of his Buddhist proselytising reached as far as the shores of the Mediterranean thru Greece and into Egypt with historical records indicating that a number of Buddhist monuments (pillars) were erected in these regions.
The Dhamma, is the truth taught by the Buddha and was the primary cannon taught by the Lord Buddha. The Dharma preached by Ashoka are found in 33 edicts carved into the numerous Ashoka pillars. They are explained mainly in terms of moral precepts, based on the doing of good deeds, respect for others, generosity and purity. Following are a series of translations from these edicts.
Pillar Edict Number 1. Happiness in this world and the next is difficult to obtain without much love for the Dhamma, much self-examination, much respect, much fear (of evil), and much enthusiasm. Pillar Edict Number 1
Pillar Edict Number 2. Right behaviour: Dharma is good, but what constitutes Dharma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.
Minor Rock Edict Number 3. Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken.
Rock Edict Number 5. In past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders. They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma – for their welfare and happiness – so that they may be free from harassment.
Rock Pillar Number 7. And noble deeds of Dharma and the practice of Dharma consist of having kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, gentleness and goodness increase among the people.
Pillar Edict Number 8 (7). Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. At intervals of eight krosas, I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men. But these are but minor achievements. Such things to make the people happy have been done by former kings. I have done these things for this purpose, that the people might practice the Dhamma and spread its wisdom.
Rock Edict Number 11 One benefits in this world and gains great merit in the next by giving the gift of the Dhamma.
Rock Edict Number 12. Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.
Two edicts in Afghanistan have been found with Greek inscriptions, one of these being a bilingual edict in Greek and Aramaic (Aramaic was a common language in the Middle East and was the language of Jesus and his Apostles). This edict, found in Kandahar, advocates the adoption of “Piety” (using the Greek term Eusebeia for Dharma) by the Greek community:
Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King Piodasses (one of the titles of Ashoka: Piyadassi or Priyadarsi, “He who is the beloved of the Gods and who regards everyone amiably made known (the doctrine of) Piety (Greek:εὐσέβεια, Eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world. And the king abstains from (killing) living beings, and other men and those who (are) huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they have ceased from their intemperance as was in their power; and obedient to their father and mother and to the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future, by so acting on every occasion, they will live better and more happily. (Trans. by G. P. Carratelli)
The Genesis of Judaism
Judaism in the first and second centuries B.C. was practiced based on the foundations of the Covenants between God and “His people”. The original Covenant was made between God and Abraham and his offspring and required that they worship God, make offerings to him and live in a way that would please Him. Before the Exodus from Egypt the relationship between the God of Abraham and the individual could be described as one of simply recognizing and worshiping God, living to please Him and receiving his blessings and protection. The greater Covenant was later acknowledged between God and the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt. It starts with The Ten Commandments and continues with the laws of Moses, which were also provided by God.
“And afterward he (Moses) read all the words of the teachings, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the Torah”
In the first century A.D., Judaism was primarily focused on the “laws” which provided a guide for living to please God in the real world. It was all inclusive and prohibited such things as murder, theft, adultery and prescribed feasts, sacrifices, religious worship, as well as what to eat, how to marry and the laws governing priests and rulers. In other words it defined everything one needed to understand to live as a religious Jew. At the same time the notion of death and an afterlife where not generally part of the written traditions. While Judaism has always implied that death is not the end of existence it has virtually no written dogma about an afterlife. Those kinds of beliefs are fluid between various sects where some have a notion that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place like heaven, others believe they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the Savior. Likewise, many Orthodox Jews believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist.
John the Baptist Preaches in Judea
Somewhere around 29 A.D. a significant person in the cultural and religious beliefs of Judaism began preaching to the people of Judea. He lived the life of an ascetic and while he was not unique at the time he became important because of the number of followers that came to him. This was John the Baptist and contrary to current understanding he was probably not offering a new approach to faith but was baptizing as a means to ritual purity and preaching a return to the practices required in the Covenant. While he was preaching about a coming Messiah he was not unique as that was a reasonably common belief among a number of ascetic sects of the time who widely believed that there would come events delivering them from Roman oppression. John the Baptist quoted the passage from Isaiah in his call to baptism in the Jordan River.
“Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a path for our God.”
In this John was exhorting the people to repent, prepare for the coming Messiah and return to the obligations of the Covenant. One example and the position that ultimately resulted in his death was the condemnation of Herod, who was king of Galilee under the Romans, for divorcing his wife and ignoring the laws of Moses, by unlawfully wedding the wife of his brother. Again this is John demanding that the leader of the Hebrews follow the laws of God.
Jesus and the Seeds of a New Religion
Because there are a number of stories regarding John and Jesus being together it is probable that these are allusions to actual historical events. It is also probable that John baptised Jesus and that Jesus was counted among the many followers of John. Many scholars however do not believe that it was Jesus that John was forecasting as the Messiah of prophecy. Allusions attributed to John about Jesus in the Bible were most likely added to strengthen the case for Jesus’ divinity.
Jesus was born around 5 B.C. and began his teaching around 29 A.D. or about the same time John the Baptist was imprisoned. While the evidence suggests that John and Jesus were together for a time it is also clear that their messages were very different. While John the Baptist was a Jewish conservative exhorting the people to return to living according to the “laws”, Jesus was a radical who spoke about a new faith with a clear path for everyone to gain entry into heaven. These significant changes in beliefs go to the foundation of the new religion that would look to Jesus as its founder.
While Jesus was clearly associated with the Hebrew conservative John the Baptist, he quickly rejected foundational principles of Judaism. First he seemed to reject the concept of the Jews being God’s chosen people and offered a broadened description of a God that embraced all people willing to accept Him. He created a solid vision and commentary about Heaven as an eternal reward for all the faithful. That was something that had no parallel in the scriptures of Judaism. Thirdly he distilled books of Jewish texts on living a righteous life down to a few simple principles with the core being to treat others as you would want to be treated. Following from that were notions of forgiving others, helping the less fortunate, resisting violence and loving your enemies. Additionally he stressed the need to gain knowledge and insight by understanding one’s self, seeking true understanding and seeing the world as thru the eyes of a child (or innocent). His preaching seemed to suggest that people could find a simpler path to faith and God without the need of priests and traditional rituals and he rejected religious sacrifices and taught repentance and forgiveness of past misdeeds and sins by God.
Contrary to Christian dogma the new faith seemed to have had a number of philosophically different proponents in the years following Jesus’ death. Historically we know that the Disciples traveled widely. Peter preached in Rome where he was martyred by Emperor Nero. St. Andrew was believed to have traveled into Russia and St. Philip preached in western North Africa. James the Younger and Simon traveled into Persia while Bartholomew traveled with Thomas into India. The Disciples seemed to have had varying ideas concerning the message Jesus intended them to preach as well as who Jesus really was. James the Elder preached in Jerusalem, while Peter preached thru Turkey, Greece, Spain and in Rome and much of what they taught became associated with the core theology of the Roman Catholic Church. The other Disciple’s teachings seemed to have evolved into variations incorporating traditions and beliefs of religions of various regions. Thomas’s preaching became the foundation of the Saint Thomas Christians, also called Syrian Christians or Nasrani who incorporated many Hindu and Buddhist traditions into their faith. The Coptic Christians seemed to have adopted the teachings of St Mark as the core of their faith and were very influential in the Council of Nicaea. The Gnostics blended an existing theology with Christian writings attributed to the teachings of Thomas, Philip, Judas and Mary Magdalene.
Enigmatically the self-appointed Disciple Paul, who never knew Jesus and adopted Christianity after Jesus death produced writings forming key sections of the New Testament. Paul became involved in doctrinal disputes amongst the early followers of Christianity and is credited with codifying many aspects of Christianity through his letters to the early churches. St Paul, also known as Saul, ethnically was Jewish, but he was born a Roman Citizen in Tarsus, Cilicia, south Turkey. He grew up in Jerusalem and was raised by Gamaliel, a leading figure in the Jewish religious establishment (Sanhedrin). During his early life, Paul admitted to being party to the persecution of Christians such as the stoning of Stephen, and is believed by some to have been sent by the Sanhedrin to spy on the members of the emerging Christian movement.