Current and Historical Contexts:
A global dialogue among people and religious leaders is very much needed for the common good of humanity so that we will not be working at cross-purposes that can only intensify conflicts around the world. One of the favorable outcomes of global migration and integration of the 20th century was exposure to the beliefs of our diverse associates. However, during the past nearly two decades of the 21st century, through the Internet and social media, there has been a much greater exposure to the thoughts, ideologies, and beliefs of those whom we have never met, known, or heard of before. Thus, we have become more aware and informed of the relative similarity of our values and core religious beliefs — though, they be varied in the forms of practice as a result of cultural contexts and the influence of the passage of time. Hence, the outcome is to having been brought face-to-face with our common humanity that lays just beneath the surface of our imagined differences of human identity and having begun to question the ‘Unwanted Barriers’ between ourselves and our neighbors — be they next door, next cubicle, or across the seas.
In search for commonality in religions, this author decided to mostly examine the actual ‘Holy Books/Sacred Texts’ of major religions of the world, whose authorship or content is usually indirectly attributed to the Founder, and/or directly/indirectly attributed to the earlier historical figures/disciples/followers of the religions. An example of this phenomenon is the writing/compiling of the Bible over a span of more than a millennium and a half by some 40 male authors from thirteen countries of three continents.
Nonetheless, these Sacred Texts — and those from other major religions — are sources of authoritative and unifying prescriptions for those who believe in them and points of reference and direction for those who follow them — including the direct or indirect influence they have had for thousands of years on the laws and the administration of numerous governments.
For the purpose of this short essay, the following is a concise list of the existing major religions, which usually have had their roots in the previous religion(s) – – Buddhism in Hinduism, Christianity in Judaism, Islam in Christianity/Judaism, Baha’i Faith in Islam, etc., — however, mostly with a new and usually identifiable Independent Founder. These Founders have often endorsed the validity and exalted the station of the previous Prophet-Founders and have reiterated many of the former spiritual/moral/ethical teachings, and occasionally abrogated or modified some of the predominantly social laws of the past; e.g., Christ annulling the law of Sabbath and divorce, Baha’u’llah abolishing the necessity for the institution of priesthood/clergy and in place of it establishing democratically- elected institutions of leadership at the local and international levels. The list below also includes the rough approximation of the dates of inception of religion — if known — based on the birth of the Founder, and/or the date of the declaration of his mission to Prophethood, Messengership, or any other designation; and the names of their most popularly-recognized Founders. This list does not include the denominations or the sects of the religions — regardless of their size, popularity, and influence. There is reference to the approximate place of the birth of each religion – – apparently, all were born in the vicinity of the current Middle East and Central Asia – – and the names of their Sacred Texts are also mentioned here:
- Hinduism: There is no complete agreement on a particular Founder – – although, Lord Krishna and the Sacred Text of Bhagavad Gita are accepted by the majority of the Hindus as their point of reference. Year of inception is not known, but is guesstimated at appx. 2000-3000 B.C.; India
- Judaism: Abraham, the Patriarch, Land of Canaan (currently, known as the Middle East); leading up to Moses; roughly 1400 B.C.; Land of Goshen (currently, Egypt); Hebrew Bible or Old Testament or Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, Writings)
- Zoroastranism: Zoroaster (Zarathustra); wide variation in the date of inception — roughly 6th century B.C.; Persia (currently, known as Iran); The Avesta — a collection of sacred texts
- Buddhism: the Buddha (Awakened One); roughly 4-6th century B.C.; India; The Tripitaka
- Christianity: Jesus The Christ (Greek for Anointed One); estimated birth is 6-4 years BC; Bethlehem, Judea (currently, known as Israel); New Testament of the Bible
- Islam: Muhammad; 622 A.D; Mecca, Arabia (currently, known as Saudi Arabia), Qur’an
- Baha’i Faith: The Bab (Gate); Founder of Babism, and Forerunner of Baha’i Faith, May 22, 1844 A.D.; Shiraz, Persia (currently, known as Iran), Bayan & several other books/ tablets;
Baha’u’llah (Glory of God), Founder of Baha’i Faith; experienced first intimation of mission in 1853 A.D. in a Prison – “Black Pit” – in Tehran, Persia (currently, known as Iran); public declaration was in April of 1863 — immediately outside of Baghdad, Iraq — authored Aqdas & numerous other books, epistles, and tablets
Points of Commonality in the Fundamentals or Essentials of Major Religions:
- Some form of conceptualization and/or level of belief in a Supreme Being, a Higher power, Unknowable Essence, Spiritual or Super Natural Force, and/or a Personal God in nearly all major religions of the world – – except for some perceived multiplicity of deities implied in the Hindu tradition and a singular God may not be well demonstrated in what’s available on Buddhism. This Higher Being is referred to by different names and titles due to variation in the languages of revelation, and/or cultures — e.g., Brahman, Om/Aum, Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, Ahoura- Mazda, Allah, Khoda, God.
- In most religions one easily finds reference(s) to a Single Intermediary between the Supreme Being and humankind. these Intermediaries in the words of Baha’u’llah are described as “…the Bearers of the trust of God are made manifest unto the peoples of the earth as the Exponents of a new Cause and the Bearers of a new message… they all arise to proclaim His irresistible Faith, they therefore are regarded as one soul and the same person. For they all drink from the one Cup of the love of God, and all partake of the fruit of the same Tree of Oneness.” –Book of Certitude, p. 152. He further states that “… all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in diverse attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, …. uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. Such is the unity of those Essences of Being, those Luminaries of infinite and immeasurable splendor”. –Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 50.Aside from the transformative influence these Figures/Founders have had on the lives of the believers, we also see that certain forms, practices, and ceremonies have crept into religions which have caused differences and conflict among them. If we set them aside and see the reality of the foundation, we shall most likely agree upon their oneness, because in reality religion is one and not multiple. They are all the chapters of the same Eternal Book of God — “…eternal in the past, eternal in the future”, which caused Baha’u’llah to beseech God by saying: “O God, deliver us from the sea of names!” It seems that we need to learn to detach ourselves from the name and form and turn to the light and not think that the form of the lamp is essential, since the lamp may be changed, but if we truly long for light, we will welcome it from whatever source or lamp it shines.In light of the above statements, we can perhaps deduce that whatever titles the Founders have, “The essential nature of messengers is twofold: they are at once human and divine. They are divine in that they all come from the same God and expound His teachings. In this light they are seen as one and the same. At the same time they are separate individuals [their human reality] and known by different names. Each fulfills a different mission, and is entrusted with a particular revelation.” —Baha’u’llah. Therefore, we need to look at their humanistic objectives that make up their essential unity and substantial integrity.
- A set of principles, code of laws, ethical/moral teachings, and admonitions mandated as guideline and prescription for improving man’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors and bringing order to society — e., the 10 Commandments. They are part of a single plan emanated from the same Higher Source for directing one’s life based on the context of the time, its structure and theological color “There is but one religion that is progressively revealed by God”. –Baha’u’llahSimilarities in religions are more often seen at the level of principle than at the level of application — form — since application needs to be contextual, therefore, revealed religions progressively take on the form or contingencies of the needs of the times. For instance, one example of similarity in principle within the Abrahamic line of religions is in relation to the equality of man and woman in creation: e.g., “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them male and female…” –Gen 1:27, Torah; “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” –Galatians 3:28, N.T.; “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily, to him will We give a new life, a life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” –The Bees [An-Nahl], Qur’an; “Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.Verily, God created women for men, and men for women. The most beloved of people before God are the most steadfast and those who have surpassed others in their love for God, exalted be His Glory…” –Baha’u’llah, cited in ‘Women’, p.26; “…the Pen of the Most High [God] hath lifted distinctions from between His servants and handmaidens, and, …hath conferred upon all a station and rank on the same plane.” — Baha’u’llah, cited in ‘Women’, p. 2. Also, in the contextual application, sometimes in zigzag forms — but mostly progressively — we see in the Holy Books more equal rights and opportunities are granted to women than in the past, which, citing them here would be beyond the scope of this short essay. A researched document in support of this fact exists by this author. Please see bio — below.Finally, in his book ‘Toward a True Kinship of Faiths’, Dalai Lama states that “compassion” is a common thread running through all great religions and is central to their ethical systems.
Teachings and Practices that Have Varied Degrees of Commonality Among Most Religions of the World:
- Principle of prayer/meditation and its power — most of the prayers are not revealed by the Founders
- Varied references to the importance of Fasting in bringing the individual closer to the Higher Being and those in need — by detachment from the self and worldly desires
- Rituals — performed on regular basis — are the most public manifestations of most religions
- Responsibility to teach religious values to offspring
- Manifesting religious symbols of identity, beliefs and spiritual attributes through artistic expressions
- Assemblage at a place of worship, a temple, a meeting hall for bringing about a sense of cohesiveness, unity, community, and passing on the traditions and religious practices from one generation to another
- Encouragement of acts of service – – e.g., helping the poor, orphans, children, widows, elderly,strangers; and philanthropic works — e.g., building schools, hospitals, shelters, home for the elderly, …..
- Encouragement towards the human virtues of honesty, truthfulness, fidelity, chastity, friendliness, love, kindliness, etc, and forbidding lying, cheating, hypocrisy, stealing, adultery, murder, backbiting/gossiping, calumny, mind/judgment- distorting drugs,
- Belief in the continuity of life hereafter in varied forms and concepts
- Cosmic religious/spiritual love or feelings, similar to having “compassion” for all the creat
However, because of the organic and evolving nature of religion
— being related to the time and capacity of the audience it comes to
— there are usually direct or indirect references in the Sacred Texts to the Continuity of Divine Revelation through future Prophets/ Messengers, Mouthpieces, and Imagery of the Day of Resurrection/Judgment Day, or through the allegorical usage of the term “return”, which are observed either implicitly or often explicitly — pointing out to the return of the Prophet, the coming of another Prophet or Manifestation of God, the City of God, The New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, Savior, Messiah, Son of Man, the Comforter, The Second Coming, Messenger, The Great Announcement, Promised World Teacher, the Escalatological Ingathering, etc.
One of its earliest and clearest expressions of return is reflected in Bhagavad-Gita, attributed to Lord Krishna, Ch 4: Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation: “I come, and go, and come. When Righteousness declines, O Bharata! When Wickedness is strong, I rise, from age to age, and take visible shape, and move a man with men, succouring the good, thrusting the evil back, and setting Virtue on her seat again.”
Although, followers of some religions uphold the concept of the FINALITY of their Prophet and, as a result, their religion, nonetheless, the ongoing drama of salvation and continuity seems to be anticipated in some form of “return”, “resurrection”, or another: e.g., The 5th Buddha, The Messiah, The Shah Bahram, The Second Coming of Christ in the Glory of the Father, The Comforter, The Son of Man, The Great Announcement, …. Since oneness in religions can be seen in their evolving organic continuity, on closer examination of them — and without emotional attachment to any one of them — one can perhaps see their commonality in essence or substance of continuity, and variation in forms, practice, and contextual cultural application. As it was alluded to earlier, this author has come to the observation and realization of the fact that often the Founder of a new religion confirms the validity of the Founders of the previous religions and predicts the coming of another one. Therefore, she sees oneness among the Founders/Messengers of the religions, but at the same time she sees a varied sense of supremacy and/or exclusivity expressed by followers of many religions who, for different reasons — perhaps, for boosting up self-esteem — manifest beliefs that their religion is the best and the truest one from God,
However, this author’s conclusion is that if humanity had learned from the cumulative effect of the progressive nature of the revealed religions and the Words of God, most likely, it would have been a lot further ahead in its spiritual, moral, and intellectual development than it is now. As a result, it would have been more unified and productive, and perhaps would have come to the conclusion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It would have placed the apparent variations in the theological matters and forms of practice of their religion into cultural context than to just get attached to them or to the physical Temple — the earthly being/ remains of its Founder — without seeing the oneness and the wholeness of the Founders’ spiritual Reality and the essence or substance of their teachings. That they all progressively have come and will continue to come from the same Source to address the evolutionary process, needs and concerns of our times based on our collective capacities to comprehend, and our spiritual and cognitive potential to grow and develop. We have indeed come of age to address these vital and challenging issues and, as a result, build an advancing material and spiritual civilization that would serve as a precursor to the Most Great Peace — the long-awaited hope and goal of humanity.
Fereshteh T. Bethel holds a Ph.D. degree in Psychology, an M.S. in Education, and a B.A. degree in 'Comparative History of Culture' -- the latter was earned from Damavand College, a Christian-based institution of higher learning, in Tehran, Iran. Her doctoral dissertation was written on 'A Psychological Theory of Martyrdom: A Content Analysis of Personal Documents of Baha'i Martyrs of Iran Written Between 1979-1982'.
For 22 years, Dr. Bethel served as a member of faculty at California State University System teaching undergraduate and some graduate level courses in Psychology, Life span Human Development, and Education. In 1996, she was invited to present her 'Research on the Status and Rights of Women in the Holy Books of Major Abrahamic World Religions' at a national women's conference workshop sponsored by California State University - Long Beach. For an electronic version of this research compilation, please email: [email protected]
In a variety of settings and at some four continents of the world, she has presented on numerous psycho-social and religious topics. Dr. Bethel is a licensed Clinical Psychologist -- currently, not practicing -- and is married and has two children.