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    Religion comes in all forms, but all religions provide an answer to the same essential questions: Why do I live? Why do I die? What is the meaning of life? As a former atheist I struggled for a long time about whether God created people or people created God in a desperate search for meaning. Part of me still sees religion as a construct of the human brain to defend us from an otherwise bleak and nihilistic existence. An opiate of the masses. Even now that I have converted to Christianity I have a rather dire outlook towards religion. Religion takes something so personal, a person’s connection with the divine, and pollutes it with doctrine and ritual. Religion can take the purest teachings of love and corrupt them with hierarchy and politics. Taking Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism it is possible to see that despite different interpretations on life the three different religions central message remains the same.
    The most evident difference between these three religions is there understanding of God's form. Before even scratching the surface the difference in the number of Gods in these religions is an obvious contrast. Christianity is a monotheistic religion. A Christian believes in one supreme creator of the universe. The Christian God also has ordered its followers to worship it and it alone. So, the Hindus array of thousands of Gods seems a foreign concept to the Christian. Hinduism is said to have 330 million Gods. Yet, it is debatable whether Hinduism is polytheistic or monotheistic.
Hindus recognize an ultimate creator: Brahma. Other Gods are most often consider manifestations of this one central God. Many monotheistic religions jump on this characteristic of Hinduism and equate the religion with what they see as a barbaric indigenous religion. Actually Christianity has a similar aspect of polytheism. The trinity to many other religions seems to be polytheistic in nature. How is there only one God if you worship God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit? To a Christian they are all one in the same, simply manifestations of the same God. It is also interesting to note the significance of the number three playing a role in Hinduism as well. The Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are the Hindu Trimurti. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. This sounds similar to the Christian's trinity being explained as God the creator, Jesus the redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the sustainer.
    Buddhism unlike both Christianity and Hinduism fundamentally recognizes no Gods. There is an exception to this as Mahayana Buddhism does hold the belief that Buddha was a God. However, this idea does not correlate with Buddha's teachings or ideals. Buddhism is a very self reliant religion. Buddha advocated to look in to one's self to find the answers instead of relying on others to provided you with them. Unlike Christianity, which puts strong emphasis that salvation can only be reached in the form of Jesus Christ, Buddhism puts the burden on the individual's shoulders. A Buddhist does not search for salvation but rather freedom. Christians see the pain in this world as a result of human kinds original sin in the Garden of Eden. Often times they consider the flesh to be a person’s weakness as it creates the desire for destructive actions. Buddha saw the world differently. To him living was equivalent to suffering, or more precisely discontentment. To end this suffering one must give up desire. Until then a person is stuck in a continual cycle of rebirth into an unsatisfying life.
    Hinduism shares some of the same characteristics as Buddhism in the idea of reincarnation. However, the Hindu wishes to reunite the atman (or soul) to Brahman (spiritual essence of the universe) and Buddhists do not believe in humans having a soul. One of the foundations of Buddhism is the impermanence of all life, so an unchanging core aspect of individuals is rather contradictory to this principal. Buddhism does agree with reincarnation, but thinks that aspects of the person's being recombine and continue after a person expires rather than a person's soul continuing in another life form.
    Hinduism is also less restrictive in the way in which to achieve spiritual growth. As a Christian you must accept Jesus as your savior and master then live according to the rules God gave humans. Buddhist must follow the eightfold path. Hindus have a number of ways to live a spiritual life. They recognize that everybody has different strengths and needs. There is karma yoga, where one performs their actions with the lack of desire. Most Hindus practice bhakti yoga, which is a devotion to a God or guru. The yoga of meditation is called raja yoga, and hatha yoga is the physical form. These are just some of the different Hindu ways to practice spirituality.
    An intriguing observation can be reached by looking at these three religions central figures. The stories surrounding Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus Christ share more in common than one might think. Before Jesus was born his mother Mary had a vision of the angle Gabriel giving her a message of the child's greatness. The Buddha-to-Be's mother had a similar dream, and when a sage saw the young Buddha he predicted that the child would either be a great king or great spiritual leader. Both men went into a period of starvation and solitude for roughly forty days before conquering the temptations of evil.
    However, there are key differences in the two religious characters. Jesus came from a humble background. He was born in a manger, the son of a carpenter. He rode atop a donkey instead of a camel like the wealthy. There is an illustration of greatness coming from the common and unexpected in the life of Jesus. Siddhartha, however, was more like a King Solomon figure. He was born into wealth and greatness. His father sheltered him from the ugliness of life, but when Buddha escaped the confines of the palace walls and witnessed the heartache of this world he began to find his life full of hallow and fleeting pleasures. Eventually he would abandon his role as husband and father to escape the protective palace and begin to search for the reason of all this suffering he had witnessed.
    Buddha was terribly shaken by the aging, decay, and ultimate death that he witnessed in what is known as the Four Passing Sights. The notion of impermanence suggests that to enjoy life one must accept their death as if it already is. In a segment of the PBS documentary entitled "The Buddha: Birth and Youth" psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein illustrates, "Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably...But when the wind blows and the glass breaks...I say "Of course". But when I know that the glass is already broken every minute with it is precious." (THE BUDDHA: Birth & Youth, Part 1. www.youtube.com)
    Christianity also has elements of casting off this life. A Christian might interpret that one of the bible's messages is to live not for this life, but instead for the one in heaven. From Mathew chapter 6: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (New International Version, Mathew 6. 19-21) In John chapter 12: Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (New International Version, John 12. 23-25)
    Despite this message of death being necessary and part of a cycle, Christians tend to see death and destruction as decidedly negative things. Look for example at the difference between a traditional Christian funeral and the one of a Hindu. In the west, where Christianity thrives, before burying our dead we first embalm the corpse, which effectively stops the natural process of decay. After that a funeral home will usually apply heavy cosmetics and use certain lighting to give the corpse an appearance of “peaceful slumber” rather then an image of death. At the graveside the casket is closed to put the final barrier between the confrontation of dead and living. In India and other areas where Hinduism flourishes, a public cremation is usually held. The family of the deceased is tasked to prepare their loved one's body for the cremation. Death is much more in your face with Hinduism.
    This can be seen in one of their central deities: Shiva. Shiva is known as the destroyer. While this might not be the most inspiring manifestation of God to worship, there are several groups known as Shaivites who dedicate themselves to Shiva's praise. They have an understanding that in death there is rebirth. Kali, Shiva's female counter part, is seen by outsiders as a terrifying figure. The goddess is depicted as wild haired, dripping in blood, with a spear in one hand and a decapitated head in the other. Yet, Kali represents both destruction and motherhood. Followers of her believe that once faced the fear of Kali can be overcome, and one can experience her love and comfort. (Neumann, Erich. http://www.dollsofindia.com/kali.htm)
    While expressed and understood differently, all three religions seek to face and conquer death. They also share a basic message of living by love in this life. In Hinduism meditation is not complete without practicing yama (or self-control), which calls a person to do away with selfishness. Hinduism also has a concept of ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-harmful or nonviolence. Perhaps one of Hinduisms better known examples of ahimsa in practice is Mohandas Gandhi. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau's essay entitled "On Civil Disobedience", Gandhi is famous for his nonviolent campaign toward India's independence from Britain. Buddhism, which developed out of Hinduism, also has the same principal of nonviolence. Similarly, Christianity's central teaching is one of love. When asked what was the greatest of the ten commandments Jesus responded that first one is to love God above all else, and secondly to love one's neighbor as oneself.
    Overall I find religion meaningless. My personal connection with God is the foundation of my life, but in the end all religions have the same message. Every religion I have encountered so far has tackled the same questions and has had the sane emphasis on the importance of love. Unfortunately, people continually choose to look for the differences between the world's religions instead of their common ground. Naturally everybody believes that their religion is the right one or else they wouldn't be followers of it. Personally I find all religions to be “the right one”, and I am disheartened by the importance people put on these titles and classifications we give ourselves and each other. When people focus on who is right and wrong it is easy to pick apart differing belief systems. We must understand that everyone thinks their religion contains the “unequivocal truth”. I still do not know if God created people or if people created God. However, I do know for certain that religion is an idea born of people. God has no religion.

 

    Beyond Tolerance

    I have encountered frustration with the general lack of respect that Christians attribute to other religions. This section of Coffee and Christ will be dedicated to furthering the knowledge of other religions in the hope that we can move beyond tolerance and towards appreciation of all beliefs.

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