by Carole Losee © 2005-2019


EASTERN RELIGIONS

by Elizabeth Seeger © 1973


 

Part One

EAST AND WEST


All the great religions of the world have come from Asia. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the religion taught by Muhammad) are closely related and come from the extreme western part of the continent where the Semitic people first lived. Hinduism and Buddhism come from India; Confucianism and Taoism from China; and there are other faiths, less well known outside their own countries, such as Shinto in Japan. These can be called the great religions because they have held the belief of many millions of people and have remained vital, some for thousands of years, some for less. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam belong both to the East and to the West. This book is concerned with those that belong primarily to the East: those of India, China, and Japan.


East and West, with capital letters, are somewhat vague terms. In this book, as in many others, the East denotes the lands and the nations of Asia while the West denotes those of Europe and all the other part of the world that are possessed and governed by Europeans or by their descendants: North and South America, Australia, parts of Africa and many other places. The two terms are cultural rather than geographical; for example, Siberia is in Asia but belongs to the West, since it is possessed and governed by the Russians.

The people of the West, then, have received their faith from other races; they have not thought it out themselves. They, and especially we in America, have received it, too, from great distances and at several removes; for we have been migrants, moving ever westward, for many centuries. We are separated, beyond hope of return, from the roots of our religion, from the land where it had its birth.

We have lost, in the process, an intuitive communion with the earth and the forces of nature, which all people know in the very early days of their history and which is usually a vital part of their religion. For they perceive a power greater than themselves, but at first they are unable to understand the whole, and worship it in part; as sun and moon, as wind and fire, as earth and sky. And if they remain in their homeland, they do not entirely lose that communion, even when they become civilized and their belief becomes more mature. It is, indeed, a precious thing. In America, only the Indian can know it, for the people from all parts of the world who have flooded the two continents had lost it long before they came here or have left it behind them in distant countries. The individual may deeply love his adopted land, but the communal festivals and rituals that celebrate the seasons, the planting and harvesting, the phases of sun and moon, are not easily transported.

The peoples of eastern Asia have stayed where they first settled as primitive, nomadic tribes. The Aryans came into India, thousands of years ago, from the same place where the Europeans started their long westward migration. There is no proof or tradition of any immigration into China. As far as they know, the Chinese have always lived on their rich, coastal plain, nourished by its great rivers and protected, as they believed, by their holy mountains. The Japanese have an even closer relation with their beautiful islands, for islands are more separate and more self-contained than continental lands and their people know them even more intimately because in the early days, they knew no other place.

This communion with nature is present in all the religions we are concerned with. The memory of the early gods remains even after philosophers and great religious leaders have attained the highest degree of spiritual understanding.

 

From the beginning of civilization, all over the world, men have asked themselves, as they faced the terrors and the wonders that surrounded them, "Where did this universe come from?" "How was it made and what is it made of?" "What is man and what is his part in it?" "And death? Is life finished when the body dies?" "When we ask ourselves these and other questions, as we still do, we have a vast store of knowledge and of speculation to draw upon. But there was a time when there was no previous knowledge, no books, and no teachers. The questions had to be answered by those who asked them. Some of the greatest men in the world's history gave their lives to the solving of these problems and have left us their findings. We shall do well to listen to them, for their answers form the basis of all religions and are at the foundation of the different cultures of mankind.

The answers are very much alike, for all peoples have recognized a spiritual presence and power that we call God. They believe that there is a relationship between man and God that is very important for man's welfare and happiness, and they are convinced that this relation depends upon the way man lives and behaves. The moral codes, written and unwritten, which are an important part of every faith, are based on this conviction.

There are also differences, for races and nations vary as much--and as little--as individuals do. For example, in the Western world the idea of God is a personal one: God is a male figure, a father, loving and watching over his creation, of which mankind is held to be the most important part. Of course, there are almost as many ideas of God as there are people, and many, both in the East and the West, do not believe in God at all. Nevertheless, this is the image that is presented in the Bible and that permeates our religious life.

In the East different ideas are found. The Indians, whose religion has been the most influential there, think of God as impersonal, absolute, beyond the reach of words or of any description, for description is a limitation and God cannot be limited. Words must be used, of course, for nothing can be talked about without them, and the Hindus give many names to God: "Brahman," "the Self," "Absolute Being, Knowledge, and Bliss." But they know that these are makeshifts, and in one of the most important statements of their scriptures God is simply "That." For they have a great longing for what is infinite and unchanging, for unity in the midst of the multitude of ever-changing appearances of our world. To the Hindu believer this Absolute Being, which is "within all and without all," is the true reality, far more real than the world that our senses perceive. It can be known only by the intuition, which is an inner realization and conviction, independent of thought and reason. To most Western people the world is real, and reason is more to be trusted than intuition. Both are indispensable faculties of the human mind.

In China, too, the name of God is Heaven, the Great Unity, the Way, the Nameless. All through the East, in its beliefs, its arts, its ways of living, one finds this distinction between the finite and the infinite, the real and the unreal, the world of the "opposites"--birth and death, good and bad, dark and light, joy and sorrow--and the all-pervading, transcendent world of the spirit.

It appears in Japan because many Japanese have turned to Buddhism, which comes from India. But Shinto, their original faith, lays more stress upon the finite than upon the infinite. The Shintoist recognizes the same spiritual presence that other religions do and finds it everywhere; but to him the material world is very real and desirable and he celebrates it in many delightful ways.The differences and the similarities in the cultures of the world make an absorbing study. Nowhere are the differences more interesting and the similarities more important than in the field of religion. "God is One," said a Hindu saint, "but He is worshiped in different ages and climes under different names and aspects." (1)

 

NOTES: EAST AND WEST

1. Swami Abhedananda, The Sayings of Ramakrishna, New York: Vedanta Society, 1961. p. 16.

 

Seeger, Eastern Religions, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 1-5.


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