The Common Origins of the World’s Major Religions

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Nick Meeker


The Common Origins of the World’s Major Religions

All too often in modern society it is the differences and conflicts that serve to separate religious groups that are emphasized. The mainstream media, fundamentalists’ propaganda, and other sources choose to ignore the numerous similarities that many religions share, and instead focus on the divisive elements. In this paper, I will attempt to shed light on the many commonalities in dogma that I believe exist between the major religions of the world. I also want to illustrate the fact that in addition to having similar core teachings, many religions have histories that have either endured or arisen during times of persecution. It is ironic that in many cases, the persecution that a particular group faces happens to be at the hands of the mainstream of a society who at one time or another had been persecuted themselves for their religious beliefs.

Above is a chart showing the population of the followers in millions of several religions

Throughout the history of civilization, religion has played an essential role in many societies. There are many reasons why religions have played such a prominent role in defining the culture of a society, but arguably the most notable of these reasons is that a belief or faith in a spiritual or divine power can add meaning and significance to may people’s worldly lives. This phenomenon has proven to be especially true amongst persecuted peoples. One of the reasons why persecuted peoples have shown a great propensity for holding steadfast religious beliefs is that their faith can give them a sense of hope and reason for living despite the terrible conditions of persecution. Evidence of this can be seen in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic societies. All three of these societies have been subjected to varying forms of persecution at some point in their respective histories, and many historians have pointed to the group’s steadfast religious beliefs as one of the major sources for their resiliency.

The Jewish Bible points to Abraham and the covenant that God made with him in the Book of Genesis. Yahweh’s people as they are known, today Jews account for over fourteen million people. Throughout their history, Jews have been persecuted for their faith as much as, if not more than the followers of any other faith. From having the first temple of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC to internment in Nazi concentration camps in the twentieth century, Jews communities have remained solidly united through belief in the Diaspora and the goal of reestablishing the state of Israel.1 Finally, in 1948, Israel once again regained its sovereignty; however, this has not brought an end to the suffering and conflict that seems to have characterized Jewish life since its inception.

Above is a picture of an original copy of the famous manuscripts from the Tora.

Central to Jewish dogma, is adherence to the Torah, or the Jewish Bible. The Torah, which is composed primarily of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While the most notable split from traditional Judaism can be seen in the origins of Christianity, other breakings include Conservative and Reform movements in the nineteenth century.

One of the greatest prophets in the Jewish tradition is Moses. Living at around the thirteenth century BC, Moses is accredited with delivering the Jewish Israelites from the harsh oppression of the Egyptian emperor. According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was supposed to be killed at birth because of an Egyptian law stating that all newborn Israelite boys were to be put to death. However, after a clever plot by Moses’ mother which spared his life, Moses grew up in Egypt unaware of his Jewish ancestry. After killing one of the Egyptian slave masters, Moses was forced to flee so that he would not be punished. It was during this time, that God revealed himself to Moses and told him that he was to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land for the Israelites.

Above is a picture of the contemporary Israeli flag. Israel regained its sovereignty in 1948.

In Contemporary Jewish Philosophies, William Kauffman presents the dominant theories of several prominent Jewish thinkers of the modern era. One of the most interesting of these theories comes from Richard Rubenstein. Rubenstein argues that in the post-Auschwitz age, it is no longer practical for the modern Jew to be always compliant, or submissive. Instead, Rubenstein argues that the modern Jew must take a stand in defending his faith and change the “image of the Jew from one of powerlessness to one of power.”2 While theories such as these are definitely instrumental in building a religious identity, they also run perilously close to the dangers that come with fundamentalism. Namely, the militant form of Judaism that can be seen practiced by many in the modern state of Israel departs greatly from the core of Judaic teaching.


After tabulating all of the various denominations, Christians outnumber the followers of any other religious faith in accounting for just over one-third of the world’s population. Roman Catholics represent the largest branch of Christianity, with approximately one billion people who profess allegiance to the Pope. Christianity originated from a section of Jews who began to follow Jesus in the first century. These disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah who had been sent by God to redeem mankind.

Above is a chart of the breakdown of the various Christian denominations of the world as of 1991.

During the time of Jesus’ life and after his death, early Christians were heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire. It was not until Constantine I came to power in 312 and issued the Edict of Milan that Christians were accepted into Roman society. The early church was guided St. Paul, and continued to be led by successive popes until the Protestant Reformation occurred in Europe in the sixteenth century.

The Protestant Reformation was led by individuals such as John Wycliffe and Martin Luther who opposed the abuses of power and corruption that was prevalent throughout the Catholic Church in medieval times. The posting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses on a church door is the pointed to by many to be the symbolic beginning of the reformation. Soon after declaring the injustices that he saw within the church hierarchy, Luther was excommunicated from the Church. In the wake of Luther’s excommunication, numerous other reformers began other denominations that each varied in the extent to which they departed from traditional Catholic teachings. Episcopalians are generally thought to be the closest of the reformed denominations to the Catholic Church; however, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists all have several similarities with one another.

In modern society, the origins that Christianity has in Judaism are often overlooked or disregarded. In his book Rabbi Jesus, Bruce Chilton examines many of the commonalities of tradition that exist between the Jewish and Christian faiths. One clear example of this can be seen in the Jewish observance of the Passover. On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, he celebrated the feast of Passover with his disciples at the Last Supper. The breaking of the bread and drinking from the cup were adopted by many Christian religions as a part of their Eucharistic ceremony. In fact at several Christian churches around the United States, such as the Epworth United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, pastors encourage the congregation to celebrate the feast of Passover when it occurs in March for the purposes of trying to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.3 Many Christian pastors also emphasize to their congregations that within the Bible, God takes special care to mention that the Jews are His chosen people.

Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper


Founded in the seventh century by the prophet Muhammad, Islam is one of the world’s largest and most historic religions. While the Muslim population has grown to over 2 billion worldwide, when Muhammad first began preaching in the city of Mecca in 613AD, he was met with stiff opposition from the powerful elite of Arabian society at that time. Muhammad’s main preaching taught the importance of sympathizing with the poor and most needy of society as well as condemning the worship of idols. It is thus, understandable that the wealthiest of society resented Muhammad and the popularity that he was gaining. Faced with increasingly harsh opposition, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca and escape to Medina in 622. The Hegira, as this escape has come to be known by Muslims, is a benchmark in Islamic history and is generally regarded as the beginning of the Islamic religion. By 629, Muhammad and his disciples had returned to Mecca and succeeded in regaining control of the region.

At the core of Islamic teaching is the Koran. The Koran is a collection of the revelations that Muhammad received from an angel of God, or Allah, in his childhood. Within the Koran are the five pillars of Islam: belief in one God, Allah and Muhammad as the most perfect prophet, required prayer five times during the day, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, giving alms to the poor, and going on a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca unless one is unable to do so because of a illness or financial hardship.4

The city of Mecca is located on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia

There are several similar themes between Islamic teachings and Christian teachings. In much the same way that Christians believe that God revealed himself in the four gospels to his disciples, Muslims believe that the same is true of Allah with respect to the Koran. Additionally, at the foundation of both of these religions is a belief that we on earth are obligated to care for those less privileged than ourselves. Perhaps one of the reasons why the western world has remained ignorant of Islamic society and chosen to accept discriminatory stereotypes in place of a true study of what exactly Islam teaches is that in order to preserve its sanctity, the Koran cannot be translated into any other language but Arabic.5 Another factor that contributes to the misconceptions that many within western society have concerning Islam is the prominence that radicals and fundamentalists have gained recently. However, in Islam: Beyond Terrorists and Terrorism, Iftekhar Mahmood correctly points out that “these Muslim fundamentalists are no different than those Christian fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics or Hindu fundamentalists who want to destroy every monument in India which has a Muslim imprint.”6

One aspect of Islam of which many are unaware is that while Muhammad is believed to be the highest of the prophets and the chosen messenger of Allah, several of the other prophets recognized by the Koran are principal figures of Judeo-Christian doctrine as well. For example, Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are all revered among the most holy of Allah’s prophets. In addition to the sharing of many prophets, the main aspects of Islamic dogma also share a lot in common with Judeo-Christian teaching. The main misconceptions of Islamic culture come from the radical extremists such as Osama bin Laden that receive massive coverage in today’s media. While it is understandable that individuals such as bin Laden would receive attention given the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, the media only presents one side of Islam when they choose to focus only on the extremists.


The world’s oldest major religion, Hinduism, today has roughly around eight-hundred million followers. Hinduism is renowned for its deeply philosophical teachings that based upon the idea of reincarnation. The origins of Hinduism can be traced to the Vedas, or Upanishads, which were holy texts “which were brought to India by Aryan invaders after 1200BC.”7 According to Hindi teachings, all living beings on earth go through many phases of reincarnation in an attempt to reach the state of moksha, or spiritual self-realization.

One of the most prominent figures in Hindi tradition was Mohandas Gandhi. Born in 1869 in the Indian city of Porbandar, Gandhi grew up in a privileged class of Indian society and as a result of his high education; he was given the opportunity to study law in London, England at the age of eighteen. After studying law, Gandhi and his family moved to South Africa where he hoped to continue his law practice. While Gandhi was in South Africa, he encountered intense discrimination for the darkness of his skin color. It was during these years that Gandhi began to take on a more active role in protesting human rights violations.

Gandhi is one of the most recognizable faces of the Hindi community.

After returning home to India in 1917, Gandhi began practicing satyagraha. Satyagraha was the personal philosophy adopted by Gandhi concerning his theories on social action. Satyagraha is composed primarily of four essential elements: civil disobedience must be offered in resistance to unjust laws, the disobedience must be carried out in non-violent forms of protest and must emphasize a love of mankind, disobedience must be offered as a sort of self-sacrifice on the part of the protestor for the glory of God, and the end goal of protest must be to change the hearts and minds of the oppressors.8

The resistance and challenges faced by Gandhi were doubly difficult considering the context of the time in which he lived. In addition to fighting British imperialism, Gandhi also protested against the bloody battles that were being waged between extreme Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims. In some ways it is ironic that Gandhi was killed by the hand of a fellow Hindu in 1948, just one year after India was granted independence from Britain. Gandhi during his own lifetime had always been an advocate of peace between Hindus and Muslims and in favor of unity between India and Pakistan.

Even after his death, the lifetime work and messages preached by Gandhi lived on. The work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to champion rights for African Americans in the 1960’s was in many ways influenced by the use of nonviolence protest taught by Gandhi.

Another prominent Hindi saint was Sri Ramana Bhagavan Maharshi. Ramana grew up in southern India in the late 1800’s. At the young age of seventeen, a dramatic event occurred in Ramana’s life that changed his perspective on the significance of earthly objects. Ramana had reached the holy stage of “moksha, a stage of release or liberation that so many Hindus believe that it takes a lifetime to find.”9 At this point, Ramana embarked on a pilgrimage to the city of Arunacala where he received great attention until his death from cancer in 1950.

Sri Ramana Bhagavan Maharshi

The lives of Gandhi and Ramana are quite different when compared directly with one another; however, it is important to point out that both men embodied core Hindi values and principles, but in very different ways. On the one hand, Gandhi took a very active role in trying to rectify the wrongs that he saw in society. In contrast to Gandhi, Ramana was focused on self-realization and spent the majority of his life in deep meditation hoping to find perfect spiritual harmony. One way that A.L. Herman compares the work of Gandhi and Ramana in his book A Brief Introduction to Hinduism, is that while Gandhi tried to tackle the problems of mankind through his own efforts, Ramana turned to God to provide the cure for man’s suffering.10 It is interesting to note, that strands of both ways of thinking, active protest and self-reflection, can be seen in other religions and contemporary western thought.

Buddhism, originating in fifth century BC in India, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist scholars, Gautama left his family and home at the age of twenty-nine to pursue Gautama, who came to be known as the Buddha, adopted several of his theories from Hinduism including the notion of reincarnation. It is worth mentioning that due to the fact that Buddhism was only passed on through oral tradition for the first two-hundred years, there are some disputes over the original teachings of the Buddha.

Above is a statue of the Buddha in India. Statues such as these are commonly dressed in ceremonial garb.

The tenets of Buddhist teaching can be found in the Four Noble Truths which are the beliefs that: existence is suffering, desire is its cause, an end to the suffering is possible, and lastly that the way to achieve the end of suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path. In Exploring Buddhism, Christmas Humphreys describes:

The Eightfold Path begins with Right Views, a deep understanding of the basic principles of Buddha’s Teaching. Then comes the Buddhist version of true Morality, including Right Motive, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood with the foregoing. Then Right Effort must be developed to provide the will power to the final stages.11

One of the unique aspects of Buddhism is that Buddhists do not recognize any Savior. According to Buddhist teachings, the only way by which one can break the cycle of reincarnation and reach the Enlightened state of Nirvana is through one’s own efforts.

Another tenet of Buddhist doctrine is the Middle Way. Buddhists believe that one of the keys to enlightenment is the avoidance of extremes. In order to attain the Middle Way, Buddhists spend a great deal of time in meditation hoping to find harmony with oneself. In many ways, the principles of the Middle Way can be found in other religions such as Christianity which teach that gluttony and greed for wealth often corrupts one’s spiritual soul.

Buddhism historically has been recognized as one of the most tolerant of all religions. Animosity towards other religions or followers of other religions is never mentioned in Buddhist texts, and “there has never been a Buddhist war, nor the persecution of any individual for his personal Buddhist views.”12


Beginning as an offshoot of Hinduism, Jainism, or Jain Dharma, broke away traditional Hindi teachings believing that the sacrifice of animals was wrong because even animals were sacred living things. As a result of this belief, followers of Jainism take all steps necessary in the course of their daily life to avoid causing injury to any animals. Jains do not believe that there is one supreme God that is responsible for creation; however, in much the same way as other major religions, Jains believe that there is an after-life, and that the way to reach the after-life is through a deep care and devotion to all living beings.

One of the defining characteristics of Jainism is that “during its existence of over 5000 years, it has never compromised on the concept of nonviolence either in principle or practice. It upholds nonviolence as the supreme religion (Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah) and has insisted upon its observance in thought, word, and deed at the individual as well as social levels.”13 As one might expect, all Jains are strict vegetarians and do not eat any organisms that have any more than one sense. As a result, Jains do not consume the roots of many plants because it is not uncommon for many other organisms to dwell within the root systems of plants.

In addition to their strict dietary regulations, the Jain code of conduct is composed of five vows which all Jains adhere to: Ahimsa, Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Brahmacharya (chastity). Also, Jainist teaches that the world has no beginning and will have no end.14 According to Jains, the universe is composed of seven spheres: the supreme abode, the upper world, the middle world, the nether world, the Nigoda, universe space, and space beyond. All the liberated souls, according to Jains, live in the supreme abode. Jains also believe that each person has karma, the aggregate total of the rights and wrongs that one has committed during his or her lifetime.

Multi-faith vs. Fundamentalism

In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong addresses and traces the rise of various fundamentalist sects that have arisen in many of the world’s major religions. Armstrong contends that it is not one single religion, such as Islam, that is susceptible to perversion by fundamentalist movements, but oftentimes in western society in particular Muslims and Islamic society are castigated because of the actions of a few radicals.

There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalists, which also cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal culture, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle.15

In addition to the overload of attention given to Islamic fundamentalists, it is not uncommon for the media to routinely focus on the negative aspects of various religious communities. For example, much of the press which clergy of the Catholic Church receives does not address the great amount of work which these individuals do in helping the disadvantaged members of their local communities, but instead focuses on the rare and isolated cases of sexual abuse and cover-ups that have resulted.

In sharp contrast to the mass attention and negative press that various fundamentalist groups receive, not nearly enough focus is given to groups that attempt to bring together peoples from religious faiths. Rather than encouraging people to set aside their respective creeds, the main emphasis of many multi-faith groups is to place differences aside and recognize the commonalities that do exist. From web based forums such to local community based organizations the work of multi-faith organizations can have a large impact on both the micro as well as macro levels.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Random House, Inc. 2000.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam. New York: The Modern Library. 2000.
Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus. New York: Random House, Inc. 2000.
Encyclopedia Britannica 2002
Herman, A.L. A Brief Introduction to Hinduism. Boulder: Westview Press. 1991.
Humphreys, Christmas. Exploring Buddhism. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1974.
Kauffman, William E. Contemporary Jewish Philosophies. New York: University Press of America. 1985.
Iftekhar, Mahmood. Islam: Beyond Terrorists and Terrorism. Lanham: University Press of America. 2000.
“Christians Try to Recapture Jewish Roots,”

1 Brittanica

2 Kauffman, 86.

3 “Christians Try to Recapture Jewish Roots.”

4 Bloom 35-38.

5 Bloom 39.

6 Mahmood xix.

7 Brittanica

8 Herman, 3.

9 Herman, 9.

10 Herman, 15.

11 Humphreys, 51.

12 Humphreys, 50.

13 “Jainism.”


15 Armstrong, ix.

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