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Religion: Its origin and evolution

Posted by on in Humanities & Social Sciences

Section 1: Comparative religion studies


I had a lot of qualms when I first took the subject. I was always confused whether it is a good thing to study the faith, form and function of different religions. Therefore, even though I had left my belief and now I consider myself to be agnostic, still I was on my guard before the classes for this course proceeded. I knew a lot of beliefs would be challenged during class discussions, and even if I claimed that I am free from belief systems and faith, there would be certain area that would be probed and provoked. And that is what exactly happened during class discussions. Faiths were challenged, illusions of deities were broken, and the beliefs of a lifetime were challenged as we studied the origin and evolution of religion. People, especially in India have been raised by very a different concept of religion. India is a land of masses, and therefore majority of religion sects of India follow a mass, mob mentality when it comes to religion. That and the fact that India is a hub of culturally and aesthetically important religion backgrounds which laid the foundation of modern religion in many parts of the world. People who follow almost every major religion in the world live in India, therefore growing up in India is never a religion devoid experience for anyone. More than anything, I took the course out of curiosity and for the risks it involved. After studying Comparative Religion in depth for around 2 months, I find myself a changed person. I would not used the word enlightened here, but I would say that I definitely feel my conscience has been refreshed and I could see things around the world with a fairer perspective now.

What is Comparative Religion studies?

Wikipedia defines comparative religion as  "A branch of the study of religions concerned with the systematic comparison of the doctrines and practices of the world's religions." There are currently many religions being followed around the world, and the issues emanating from differences of religion have forced scholars to look into different religions more closely. They have then classified the different religions as follow:

  • Abrahamic Religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. All three religions are monotheistic in nature, and their beliefs have been derived from 'One God' concept of Abraham.
  • Dharmic or Indian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These are the religions which originated and evolved in the Indian sub-continent. Modern Hinduism started out after the Vedic period, and all the rest of the religions evolved after that.
  • Taoic religions: Includes Taoism, Shinto and Confucianism. All of them originated in East Asia and they revolve around the concept of 'Tao' ('The way').

Why Comparative religion:

The study of religion was derived from the very fact that cultural contact had been established between different groups and society and people were moving into different parts of the world with their ideologies and beliefs, and in many different ways. There was colonization of smaller state by European Countries, there was invasion by different groups, especially Islamic states and there were missionaries set out to spread the word of their leader into the world. This caused a lot of mixed identities and bewilderment in people, which led to confusion and chaos. Through its course of multi millennia journey, religion changed a lot in terms of what it meant to different people. A glimpse at history tells us that before science, technology and industrialization, religion was the only force that held them together, because the fear of the unknown led people to create a saviour, a protector, a destroyer and a creator of their own. This also exhibits the curious nature of a human mind, and its tendency to jump to conclusions when we cannot find a suitable answer.

But religion did give answers to people who were searching for them. Eminent philosopher and the 2nd President of India, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his book 'Recovery of Faith' explains that, "Like philosophy, religion is an attempt to account for our experiences as a whole. Experience is of different kinds. It relates to the world of objects, of nature studied by the natural sciences, the world of individual subjects, their thoughts and feelings, desires and decisions, studied by social sciences, psychology and history; and the world of values, studied by literature, philosophy and religion." I think this statement, although coming from the pen of a firm believer, it still establishes the ground reality of the world that we are living in; that no subject in the world is devoid of religion, even if it is present in traces, and that religion plays a major role in shaping of human beings and their psychological and philosophical evolution. Ethically or physically it may be wrong, but nevertheless religion still provides an answer.

Now coming back to the original question, as to why do we need to know about other religions apart from our own? As I have already talked about how with this age of science and technology, geographical boundaries have been removed and we can safely assume ourselves to be global citizens in the present day. We all come face to face with daily instances of our lives where we have to encounter other religious forms, consciously or sub-consciously. Our own religion might provide answers and solutions to our doubts, but seeing other people follow a totally different concept of a supernatural protective power becomes a very baffling experience overall. This increases the eternal thirst of the human mind, of a person's own self realization journey, and it even questions the morality which a person has been following his entire life. Many a times it leads to suppressed prejudice and chaos. On a large scale, we have been seeing that religious conflicts have caused a state of complete anarchy and violence within and outside a state. So therefore in my opinion, the answer is simple and obvious; we just cannot ignore it any more.

The Big Question: HOW?

Religion is indeed a never ending, infinite topic in terms of its prospects in the sense that a debate between a religion scholar and a common devotee will never end, because the faith factor comes into the picture here. Science is accessible and is taught to a large number of students, but somehow they manage to keep their faiths intact. Faith is the starting point of every religion. It somehow explains every turn in an individual's life and people adjust accordingly to their faith and this is how it forms the base of any religion. Any religion has three criterions to be fulfilled in order to be called a religion: Faith, Form and Function.

As I said, faith is the most basic building block of a religion. Religion is literally nothing without faith. The fact that people shower all their trust on an invisible, supposedly supernatural deity is what makes the tracing of history of religion almost parallel to that of origin of humans. Now to have faith in a supernatural singular and powerful entity, that entity must have a form. Not necessarily a physical form, in fact many religions blatantly deny the existence of God having a physical shape or form. But there needs to be a God, and there needs to be some account or knowledge of the extent of his powers, and some form of legend that could further establish firm faith in him. Therefore we have legends of God creating this planet, having the power to destroy it with floods yet preserving man to repopulate the earth (legends of Ark, Manu and the Matsya avatar of Vishnu), Jesus Christ rising back from death to save his followers, Mohammad travelling hundreds of kilometres to spread awareness of Allah. Therefore we have the Bible, the Bhagvad Gita, the Quran and the Zend Avesta, which gives firsthand account of God and his words, and describes the ideal path for a human being. Then it became successful in establishing a firm faith in God, because not only it in a way proved the existence of God, it also provided a route; a route to escape from the daily chores of life and embark upon an experience which lead to safety, security and a feeling of having conquered the unknown. It gave great satisfaction on a personal level. It lead to mass awareness, and it lead to the physical form of expressing their faiths, which is the third aspect of religion; function. The religious scriptures, apart from the avid descriptions of legends of God, also explained in great detail the duties and the rituals you need to perform in order to achieve closeness with God, the definition of which may vary in different religions. Function as a whole is the mass following the rituals and the celebrations and the implications of religion in everyday life. These three aspects combine to form the basic structure of religion.

Section 2: The origin of religion

Jose Ortega y Gasset remarked, "To live not wantonly but warily - wary of a transcendental reality - is the strict meaning of the Latin word religiosus and indeed the essential meaning of all religion. What a man believes and what he therefore regards as unquestionable really constitutes his religion. Religio does not derive from religare, to bind - that is, man to God. The adjective, as is often the case, has preserved the original meaning of the noun and religiosus stands for scrupulous, not trifling, conscientious. The opposite of religion thus would be negligence, carelessness, indifference, laxity. Over against religo we have neg-lego; religens (religiosus) is contrasted with neglegens."

The description by Gasset above absolutely collides with the basic etymology of the word religion, and the commonly accepted parent religare. It also changes the perspective through which I used to perceive religion. I understood it previously as a binding force, something that has kept people together for a long, long time. But in actual it goes deeper and is characterized as something evoking care, awareness and a mutual understanding of fellow human beings. This may be a little philosophical in nature but it goes against the principle of religion evolving through masses. Agreed, the mass plays a huge role in spreading and implementing of the very idea of religion, but the way I interpret it, it is the second step. The first step is cautious awareness, the advent of spirituality in a human being, which basically stops him from going towards subhuman, or animal consciousness. Dr. Radhakrishnan states that, "It is impossible for human beings to relapse into a lower state of consciousness. Psychological evolution is an irreversible process." This is true on many grounds. I feel that even faith might be a second step in the process of getting acquainted with religion. The first step is the instinct; the call for help in adverse situations, the rise of awareness inside seeing another person's belief. The other three aspects of faith are interlinked in one or the other ways. Spirituality plays a vital role in each person's life in some or the other way.

Now James Dow has a very interesting perspective on how religions evolve. He has devised an algorithm on how religion evolved and shaped up in the form it is today. According to him, the process starts with mammalian evolution, where animals 'created' another invisible animal to protect itself from predators. This was essentially the starting point of shamanism, and the concept of a supernatural superior power evolved from this point onwards. The second milestone was when pre-historic hominid man started using symbolic structures and languages to communicate with each other, which in turn integrated the brain functioning of humans to communicate and interpret in symbolic structures and languages (which was a precursor to rituals and beliefs), which in turn evolved into irrational passionate attachment, and the dangers involved became more complex in nature, and therefore the need of a religious leader arose, after which religion started working in patterns and format. This approach can be said to be both anthropological and psychological in nature as it takes into consideration both the human evolutionary process and the increasing complexity of the human mind over time.

Conclusion and Afterword:

There are a lot of different ideas and facts that I have tried to collate in a philosophical format, and I feel it aptly justifies the need to study Comparative Religion as a subject and the impact and stronghold religion dictates over our daily lives. With everything the human civilization has been subjected to since the dawn of the first idea, everything is changed from now and then, except religion. True, religion has changed a lot of forms over the years and continues to do so, but even after so many years, it exercises a central power over billions of human beings, and can be considered as the reason of human unification, even though it might be in different groups, but religion was the first phenomenon which sowed the seeds of nationalism into human beings, and even though we don't realize it in a conscious state, it has shaped the world as it is today. We could even credit disbelief and atheism as a product of religion, because those terms would be insignificant if religion wasn't there. And looking at today's world, which is dominated by science, technology and excessive socializing, we could say that the quest for discovery starts with dissatisfaction against a belief or an authority, therefore science evolved when religion couldn't give answers. Religion is not perfect, but it does implant the idea of consciousness and exploring within and outside, which lays the foundation of the first scientific approach of critically analyzing things. Therefore, religion is in a way present in each and every phenomenon present in this world, and man cannot live without religion. It is absolutely unimaginable to imagine a world where there would have been no religion.


  1. Dow, James (2008), The Evolution of Religion, Pg. 85.
  2. Gasset, Jose Ortega y (1946) Concord and Liverty, Pg 22.
  3. Radhakrishnan, S. (1967) Recovery of Faith. Delhi: Orient Publications
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