Diverse and dynamic as it has been throughout the history, mankind seems to be sharing one common struggle with the same basic questions. They may put on different forms and be faced at different levels of social organization (ranging from separate individuals to humanity viewed as a whole). Being mostly unconscious and suppressed by the ready-made answers one gets from the inherited culture or religion, the questions are still inescapable for every human being.
Deliberately or not, every person looks at his/her self and wonders: “Who am I?” While communicating with others, we tend to compare and relate ourselves to them, thus, answering the next questions: “Who are these people to me? Am I like them?” We perceive the nature around us and keep wondering: “What is it all to me? Do I belong to it?” The answers we get to these questions determine the inner decision our mind is constantly engaged in making: “What am I to do with my life every other second?”
The purpose of this essay is to compare the basic conclusions that different human cultures have reached regarding to the above questions. This can be done through analyzing the respective doctrines of the five world’s most authentic religions: Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and polytheism.
In the Chinese culture, self-identification has always been associated with belonging to a particular family and honoring senior members thereof (regardless of whether they were alive or not). This tendency has evolved from a rather pragmatic worship of the ancestors’ spirits during the Shang period (they were expected to offer general protection and prophesy the future) to the formation of the ?iao category by the Zhou times. The purpose of a man’s life, according to Confucius and his followers, is to achieve the perfect virtue ren by fostering filial piety and reverence xiao, which is practiced through the system of manners and rituals li. Still being rather practical, Chinese religious tradition did not look far into the spiritual realm. It emphasized the importance of an unselfish life, decent behavior and social justice in this world. Most of the insights into the nature were made by civil servants who were expected to be versatile and competent in many practical affairs. What we now call “scientific knowledge” was viewed as a part of righteous wisdom, and, therefore, bore moral and esthetic significance. Nevertheless, the construction of Changan and Hangzhou cities demonstrates that such beliefs did not prevent Chinese engineers from bringing the nature into compliance with their astronomic and esthetic designs.
The Hindu tradition suggested that a person chose proper times for attending to material and spiritual things. Young people were expected to marry, have children and work for the good of the society, being engaged in the profession assigned to their caste. The Hindu sought to achieve well-being and safety by the worship gods through rituals and sacrifices. They were also committed to fulfilling their duties towards the family and community in the most decent manner. The caste structure was seen as a part of Samsara, i.e., eternal circle of births and rebirths where everyone received what they had deserved in the previous lives by good or bad behavior. Therefore, social responsibility was deemed sacred. Only senior people could devote themselves to obtaining individual enlightenment through spiritual meditations while living as hermits in forests. However, it was often done with the view to increase one’s well-being in the next life rather than achieve eternal peace. Reverence to nature was an integral part of honoring the Creator God who could not be separated from the universe.
Unlike Brahmanism, the doctrine of Buddhism implies a certain degree of social alienation. It holds that all the responsibilities of a person towards society, as well as all possible worldly accomplishments, are barriers on the way to eternal calm or nirvana. A person is supposed to break free from the desires that can cause sufferings and be constantly engaged in developing right thoughts, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. This does not involve absolute self-denial, but rather allows rediscovering the “real” self. The concept of atman suggests that the universal soul is found in every person, but it is polluted by worldly illusions, cravings, and bad actions. Buddhism, therefore, teaches that it is more important to purify one’s inner self in order to be reunited with the Nature than to rearrange the environment. The fact that the doctrine does not break the unity between the man and the nature can be proved by the famous statues of Buddha found in Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia. The right hand of depicted Buddha always touches the Mother Earth calling her to witness that he has overcome all temptations on his last steps to enlightenment.
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The tribal form of polytheism that often transformed to totemism or animism differs a lot from the way many gods were worshipped in ancient Greece of Rome. Or course, the reason for it lies in the low level of civilizational development of early tribes. They did not appreciate individuality or self-identity, sought no spiritual perfection, but had one thing that our society has lost long ago – the sense of commonality and cooperation with Nature. Early hunters and farmers did not exploit the land or kill the animals as freely and arrogantly as we commonly do it now. They built special relationships with the nature asking and persuading her to surrender to their effort. Tribal priests would say long and intimate prayers to the Earth, Rivers, and Forest in order to show their deep reverence.
The smelting of bronze followed by the creation of first cities shifted the emphasis from the role of nature to that of society. The Bronze Age (after 3000 B.C.) created some opportunities for the individual feats of celebrated public heroes (e.g., Achilles and Hector). However, the period was succeeded by the Iron Age (after 1200 B.C.), which left little room for competitive self-assertion. In ancient Greece, people indentified themselves completely with their community. Social virtues were the only possible ones; even worshiping gods was a highly public matter. Therefore, it is natural that Socrates, with his teachings on following conscience rather than tradition and general disdain for human wisdom, experienced such an opposition from the fellow-citizens. He encouraged youth to seek wisdom in humility and obedience to gods; hold still to their convictions whatever the cost might be. The sentence approved by the Athenian jury demonstrates that these ideas were too spiritual, individualistic and, thus, dangerous for Athenian society. However, the death of Socrates did not stop the tendency towards developing strong, independent “personalities”. For example, Epictetus, Greek stoic philosopher believed that a person should follow the chosen pattern of life not trying to please the society. In his written works, he also encouraged fleeing from any distress that might be caused by placing ones affections on the things that could not be fully controlled (e.g., body, possessions, or other people). By doing so, a man could keep his mind “in a state conformable to nature.”
Christianity stems from ancient Judaism, being rooted in the worship of the only Creator God. Ancient Jews saw the purpose of their lives in obeying God by following the Law given by Him to Moses and making ritual sacrifices in the Temple through priests. In return for the piety, one could expect to have a long wealthy life and divine protection from enemies.
Before the Prophet Daniel started his ministry, descendants of Abraham were hoping to obtain their promised land on Earth. Basically, they desired to restore the kingdom of David, which was the most successful and powerful Hebrew state in ancient history. It is worth mentioning that the society was rather isolated and inwardly oriented. Judaism did not allow Jews to marry women from other peoples. If a foreigner wanted to live in the community, he would have to accept all the requirements of the Law and be circumcised. Hebrews emphasized family relations within their people so much because being the posterity of Abraham gave them hope to obtain a share in the Promised Land.
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Though several prophets, including Daniel, had predicted the approaching end of the world long before the New Testament times, Jewish society was not ready for the new message taught by Jesus – that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Even the followers of John the Baptist, who later joined Jesus, were expecting Him to fight Romans and restore the kingdom before the Ascension. However, Jesus did not want to be an earthly king. Instead, He created an absolutely new society where the fellowship of faith substituted for blood ties and national origin. For a Christian, the purpose of life was to obtain salvation from the evil world by faith in Jesus Christ and then to follow His way of living. This implied purification of soul and deeds with the help of God’s grace that had been earned by Jesus on the cross. The process of “sanctification” was constant and ongoing. Therefore, Christians saw themselves as undeserving sinners saved by God’s mercy regardless of what their individual accomplishments might be.
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Together with Jews, Christians believed that they were to subdue nature and rule over it. Both religions taught that humans did not belong to nature and could freely use it for living. In the 18-th century, this idea contributed to “the powerful transformation of human knowledge of the external world” that we now call the Scientific Revolution. The consequences of human’s alienation from the nature can be also seen in the reckless attitude we now have towards ecology.
From the above analysis, one can conclude that throughout the history of civilization, various beliefs and concepts of self, society and nature were generally accepted in different parts of the world. However, they all shared the same striving for purity, honesty and loyalty towards God, many gods or a certain community. Therefore, I believe that these qualities, not some rituals or supernatural experiences, are what makes us humans in the broadest sense of the word – the moral one
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