Several major religions have their roots in the East: India, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Collectively, these belief systems are called ‘Eastern Religions,’ though strictly speaking, these also have elements of philosophy and metaphysics. That is why some people prefer the term, ‘Eastern thought,‘ though many scholars say that dilutes the meaning. It is part of Eastern culture for faith to be strongly linked to worldview, ethics, and even social structures. A more accurate (though clunky) term would be ‘Eastern Ways of Approaching Life and Living.’
Here are some of the major Eastern religions (for lack of a better phrase). These are now practiced all over the world, and have been incorporated into other thought systems, or mutated into different versions or hybrids. Nevertheless, these form the ‘core’ of Eastern thought—and remain to be some of the greatest contributions of the East to the world.
Hinduism is thought to be one of the oldest religions in the world Along with Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, it emerged in India. All of the Indian religions play on certain themes, though the meaning and interpretation vary per thought system.
For example, all Indian religions have a concept of karma. In general, karma is action, with each action bringing about both positive and negative consequences. However, in Hinduism, specifically the theistic school of Vedanta, karma is brought about by a supreme being called Ishvara, who metes a neutral and objective justice: ‘God is fair and gives you exactly what you deserve.’ Other Indian religions such as Buddhism believe that karma simply follows a law of cause and effect.
Believers of Hinduism are guided by dharma or religious living, which is synonymous with balanced and righteous living. They are guided by several scriptures, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, as well as the Bhagavad Gita.
Hinduism is considered to be a polytheistic religion, meaning it worships several gods. However, there are different kinds of Hinduism, and some of them—like the Advaita Vendata—believe in only one entity called Brahman, even though they think that Brahman can take on multiple forms.
Buddhism first emerged in the 5th century BCE, and is thought to have been developed by a person named Siddharta Gautama. Buddhism does not worship any gods. Instead, followers are called to pursue the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, towards the goal of achieving Enlightenment. In the process, the followers become liberated from samsara,
There are two major schools of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism can be further categorized as East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.
The schools of Buddhism are typically divided into Theravada and Mahayana. In academic circles, Mahayana is further divided into East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that someone who becomes enlightened without instruction is a buddha. The primary goal of Buddhism is the liberation from samsara, or the cycle of death and life caused by karma. Samsara is also described as a journey, plagued by illusion and suffering. It is only in confronting samsara, and eventually conquering it, can people achieve true happiness.
Like the Buddhists, followers of Jainism wish to escape the cycle of rebirth and death. They believe that their soul (jiva) can only do this by following a strict code of ethics, grounded on protecting all living things and avoiding doing any harm. For this reason, they are strict vegetarians. This belief system also urges them to prevent hurting others through thought, word and deed. Eventually, they achieve a state of purity or ‘jina’ (similar to Nirvana in Buddhism). Jainism followers see Mahavir as their religious leader.
Sikhism was developed from the body of teachins of Guru Nanak Dev, who rebelled against the Hindu caste system and the traditional beliefs and rituals of Hinduism. The followers are instead called to return to the universal God, who is formless and yet found in every form. This God is both creator and destroyer.
Guru Nanak Dev called his followers to reject empty, meaningless rituals like fasting and pilgrimage and focus instead on living ethically, helping the poor, and chants to God. Because of Sikhism’s rebellious roots, the religion also has a strong militaristic bent and a ‘warrior tradition’ rooted in the achievement of human rights, including the freedom to practice any religion and overthrow political suppression.
There are different kinds of Taoism. Religious Taoism have main deities (composed of Laozi and the Three Pure Ones), and incorporate nature and ancestor spirits. There are also non-religious Taoists that focus on the strong system of ethics and the metaphysical approach. This is called tao-chia or ‘unity with the Tao’ and is based on the teachings of masters such as Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Its main tenets include love, moderation and humility (called ‘The Jewels of the Tao’) and a belief in we-wei, or a strong connection to, and unity with, others and the universe. Wu-wei sees right action as natural and effortless, with a strong sense of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Lao-Tzu wrote the book Tao Te-Ching.
Shintoism is Japan’s ancient religion. It is pantheistic and worships several gods and spirits found at different shrines. It is known for being animistic and believes that even inanimate objects can hold a ‘soul.’
Shintoism does not have any formal books or revered texts, but is based on the simple respect for all spiritual entities found in the world. In fact the word Shinto means ‘the way of many gods’). Of all the gods the sun god occupies the highest position, and the early Japanese believed that their emperors were its direct descendant and therefore had a divine mandate to rule. Shinto followers also believe in divination and spirit possession, and practice faith healing and rituals associated with shamanism.
Confucianism is an interesting blend of moral, political, social, and religious thought. It was based on the teachings of Confucius, a scholar who lived in China during the sixth century BCE.
Confucianism has a strict code of conduct and rules for harmonious relationships, duty, discipline, virtue, and proper action. It was a guide to social virtue, or ‘Jen.’ It was primarily aimed towards leaders and scholars, and was crucial in establishing the rules and laws of China during the Han Dynasty. However, there was a time when Confucianism was banned, and many important texts were destroyed during the Qin dynasty.
However, some ancient manuscripts are revered for holding important fragments of Confucian belief and teachings. These include the I Ching, The Records of Rites, the Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of History.