Chapter 8. Comparative Religion

How have the world’s religions influenced each other?

An image of a buddha statue surrounded by lights, a person lights a candle.
Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

As an alternative to reading, you can listen to this chapter on Soundcloud.

10.1 Cross-Cultural Examination of Religion

A tool that anthropologists use to closely examine cultural adaptations, cultural evolution, and the migration of culture, is the cross-cultural approach. The cross-cultural approach compares more than one cultural belief, tradition, or practice in order to identify differences and similarities that exist across groups. As we have seen in this course, anthropologists place no more importance on the major religions of the world today than we do on the ones practiced by small or isolated or even ancient groups. Because we set out to document and understand religious variation among humans, it only makes sense that we would want to examine the full range of that variation, not just a few of the most widespread examples. However, we also recognize that there is some value to singling out the major world religions in order to identify traits they have in common while similarly recognizing the major differences that arose due to environmental factors, historical events, etc. The following lesson will compare and contrast the beliefs, myths, and traditions of the world’s major religions in an attempt to offer a holistic picture of the world’s dominating belief systems.

Throughout this lesson (and, indeed, throughout this course) it’s important to be able to separate your own, particular religious beliefs from the course content and to look at religions objectively. Do not apply your own, culturally-specific idea of ultimate “truth” to the other religious belief systems that we will examine here; strive to think like an anthropologist and employ cultural relativism.

10.2 Religions Change Over Time

In “The Essentials of Hinduism,” Swami Bhaskarananda writes,

“Any ancient religion can be compared to the attic of an old home. Unless the attic is regularly cleaned, it gathers dust and cobwebs and eventually becomes unusable. Similarly, if a religion cannot be updated or cleaned from time to time, it looses its usefulness and cannot relate anymore to changed times and people.”

Here, Swami Bhaskarananda is making an important point: religions must adapt to changing times, environments, political events, and social contexts in order to remain relevant in the minds of adherents. This is precisely what we will examine together throughout this module. In the case of each major world religion, we will examine the cultural events that shaped the religion as we know it today and we will identify the cultural context that allows the religion to maintain relevance.

Remember that anthropologists embrace two prevailing theoretical approaches towards the development of world religions over time:

  • The evolutionary approach argues that world religions evolved over time to meet culturally different needs and historical changing needs. The evolutionary approach comes initially from Edward Burnett Tylor, who argued that religions evolve in a linear manner in one inevitable direction. Of course, we know that religions don’t actually evolve in a linear manner, but religions do change and adapt over time.
  • The other major approach is the diffusionist approach. Diffusionists argue that religions spread, or diffuse, across the globe because people spread them. We do so by sharing our beliefs and practices with others, who sometimes adopt those beliefs and practices as their own. We also bring our beliefs and practices with us when we move to new places. Today, diffusion is always happening, and with globalization and mass migration, world religions are spreading more than ever. With technology, we are able to share our religious and spiritual world views more than ever. The diffusionist approach is often criticized because it over-simplifies the way that religions spread. In its extreme form, diffusionism implies that spiritual innovation never happens. Rather, one or two civilizations came up with religious ideas and spread these ideas to everyone else. However, innovation does happen.

Both approaches are true to an extent; religion is ever-changing and is always diffusing across the globe.

10.3 The First Religion

Students often ask, “Who were the first humans to have religion?” But, in fact, religion may predate humanity as we know it. How do we know this? Human ancestors are called hominins. Two hominins, dating back 500,000–30,000 years ago show evidence of burial. Homo heidelbergensis buried their dead in dug pits with symbolic items such as a pink handaxe that would shatter if used. Neanderthals also buried their dead in specific body positions with symbolic artwork and grave goods. Since these hominins had brains the size of ours and the capacity for language and dreams, it is proposed that they also could have had the first ideas of spiritualism or an afterlife (Currier, 2015; Larsen, 2019). This leads anthropologists and archeologists to ask: was this burial ritual an early form of religion?

This practice may signify a form of appreciation of their loved ones, or perhaps it reflects an idea that the dead might need items in the afterlife. As you already understand, burial rituals (death rituals) are central to religion and symbolic gestures are a key component of culture. In this way, the argument can be made that religion existed on Earth before the evolution of modern humans.

For more on the fascinating burial practices of our human ancestors, read “Who First Buried the Dead?” by Paige Madison.

10.4 Mesopotamian Religion and Judaism

So, when we try to identify the “first” religion, it can be quite challenging since each element of our modern definition of “religion” has culturally evolved throughout human and pre-human history. For this reason, it makes sense to next focus on the first written religion. With the emergence of the first written language, humans began to record their religious stories and ritual guidelines; this written form of religion offers anthropologists and archeologists clear evidence to examine.

The Mesopotamians — a civilization that existed within the borders of modern day Iraq — were the first human civilization to develop a written language. It is called “cuneiform”, and it was developed about 3200 BCE. The clay tablets which contained the cuneiform writing are somewhat preserved and are continuously being discovered. Anthropologists and archeologists can read what the ancient Mesopotamians wrote about their spiritual worldviews which offers a helpful insight into the first forms of human religion.

A major religious text of the ancient Mesopotamians was called the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish is the creation story of ancient Mesopotamian society and it tells a story about a supreme god who created humans in order to serve the divine (Lambert 2013). Mesopotamian religion was polythesitic (the belief in multiple divine beings); the Mesopotamians believed their gods physically lived in ziggurats, or large temples that were built in community. The ziggurats were built to be huge and ornate because the Mesopotamians believed that their gods lived within them.

Remember that anthropologists closely examine myths in order to better understand a people’s worldview, and, we compare and contrast myths in order to identify similarities and differences across cultures. Arguably, the most well-known Mesopotamian myth is “ The Epic of Gilgamesh”, which was written in 2100 BCE and is told as an epic. “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” tells many stories about a demigod on great journeys. However, of particular interest, is the great flood story within the epic. The great flood story within the epic is nearly identical to the story of Noah’s Ark from the ancient Hebrew texts that are now embraced by modern Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Assyriologist Andrew George translated the epic to English and argues that the Mesopotamian flood story is so identical to the Biblical story of Noah that we must conclude that the two stories are related.

So, how could these two different religious traditions have the exact same myth? The answer is: both religious traditions emerged from the same part of the world at the same time. Let’s closely examine this.

We call three of the world’s major religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — the “Abrahamic religions” because they each identify as originating from Abraham (a figure from the ancient texts of these religions).

Abraham is believed to have initially founded Judaism by entering his people into a covenant with God. He is believed to have actually existed by some scholars while others believe that he was written as a character to reflect the lives of many people who had lived during his time. In either case, Abraham’s story tells us that was born in the capital of Mesopotamia in 1700 BCE. So, based on the location and time of his birth, upbringing, and emergence as a religious leader, we can already understand that Abraham’s religious ideals were largely shaped by the Ancient Mesopotamian culture within which he was from (or, if he’s a character written by a group of people, those writers were living in Ancient Mesopotamia at the time of the writing). Whether Abraham was actually one person or if he was written by a collection of people living in the region — the writers of early Hebrew texts would have been upper-class citizens, which means that they would have been well-educated in traditional Mesopotamian stories.

This is why Mesopotamian stories are largely identical to the Old Testament of the Bible, the Tanakh, or the Torah. There are a lot of similarities to compare the two religions. Consider the following similarities:

  • Both religions discuss a “primeval sea” that existed before creation,
  • Believe that humans were fashioned from clay
  • Both tell a flood story
  • Both tell a plague story

The Judeo-Christain story about the creation of different languages is the tower of Babel story. The tower of Babel story is based on ziggurats. In the story, people built a tower to reach God and complain about the challenges of life. God gets angry at their hubris and shoots down the tower. The people fall down the tower and suddenly speak different languages. This way, they could no longer communicate and build another tower to reach God. Mesopotamian scholars think that this was written by the Jews during a time when they were oppressed by Mesopotamian society. At the time, the Jews were a minority religion. They suffered by being marginalized, and their religion was viewed as a cult. The Jewish people saw the Mesopotamians use money on what they believed to be false gods and false prophets. They wrote the “Tower of Babel” as a form of political commentary of how Ziggurats were an over-use of funds and labor.

10.5 Hinduism

Hinduism is the only major world religion with no known founder and with no single holy text. Unlike Catholicism which has a singular authority (the Vatican) Hinduism is not defined by one ruling organization that defines the religion. In this way, Hinduism is considered to be a particularly adaptable religion whereby different regions of India will recognize, celebrate, and worship the divine in regionally specific ways. Hinduism is the most ancient major religion of the world and is the third-largest, today.

Hindus believe in reincarnation (the idea that a soul is reborn into a new life after death) and in samsara (the cycle of life, death, and rebirth). Hindus believe that karma determines a person’s next incarnation (this can be a human life or animal life). One’s actions and decisions in their current life determines how one will be reborn in the next life. The goal of Hinduism is to free oneself from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, and therefore to be free from the suffering of life; this goal is called “moksha.”

In Hinduism, religious followers strive to behave in an ethical way throughout their lifetimes and each individual follows the dharma, or ultimate cosmic truth. In this religion, different types of people have different types of responsibilities that they must meet in order to be in line with the dharma.

Hinduism is unique in that it is an inward-focused religion. Faith is typically expressed privately with inward meditation, renunciation, and selfless service.

While Hinduism has many religious texts to refer to, the first emerged in 1500 BCE and is called the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda focuses primarily on ritual procedure in that it outlines hymns to praise the divine.

Another commonly referenced story of Hinduism is called the “Bhagavad Gita”. The “Bhagavad Gita”, tells the story of Arjuna, an Ancient prince, who was going to war against another kingdom. The Bhagavad Gita is an epic that focuses on Arjuna’s internal struggle as he faces battle. As Arjuna approaches the conflict in his chariot, the Hindu God, Krishna, appears to him and explains the dharma to him. While Arjuna expresses that he does not want to kill or hurt anyone, Krishna explains that the balance of the universe requires his action in order to be aligned. Krishna goes on to comfort Arjuna by assuring him that all souls live on after death and that everyone’s fate is the result of their karma. Ultimately, the “Bhagavad Gita’’ is a spiritual dialogue and a conversation between the divine and humanity. Throughout the epic, Krishna tells Arjuna that humans were created to help the gods and that human life is eternal. This is why Krishna tells Arjuna to go to war in order to serve the divine.

Hindus believe in multiple gods and goddesses and these gods and goddesses can appear in new forms. Since Hinduism believes that the divine is not limited to one form, the religion has been able to show a particular tolerance to some other religious deities including the Buddha from Buddhism and Jesus from Christianity.

10.6 Ancient Egypt’s Brief Monotheism

The Ancient Egyptians were ruled by pharaohs who were viewed as divine and, therefore, as religious leaders. The religion was, traditionally, polytheistic (meaning that they believed in multiple divine beings). However, the most interesting case to examine anthropologically is the case of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV) who temporarily forced Ancient Egypt to become monotheistic during his reign. And, interestingly enough, some anthropologists and archeologists point to this historical occurrence as the beginning of permanent monotheism in other major world religions (David 1998).

Akhenaten became pharaoh at a young age after his father died. Before his death, Akhenaten’s father led his people in polytheistic worship but held the sun god, Aten, as his patron (favorite) deity. This sun god is also known as Re and was found in the Old Kingdom in cults that worshipped Amen-Re. After Akhenaten ascended into his role as pharaoh, he outlawed the worship of any deities that were not Aten. Akhenaten destroyed temples and fired priests who served any deity that was not Aten. This is an early example of large-scale monotheism in the Ancient world. This revolution was not met with support from most of the country, since it radically affected culture, religion, customs and the economy. He was regarded as a heretic after his death, and under the pharaoh Tutankhamun polytheism and the traditional religious practices were restored (David 1998).

Interestingly enough, Akhenaten’s monotheism may have had an influence upon the monotheism of modern Judaism (and, subsequently, modern Christianity and Islam). Moses, a central Biblical figure (important today to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is believed to have lived in Egypt during the same time as Akhenaten. As is true with many religious figures, we are not sure if Moses historically existed as one man or if he was written as a compilation reflecting many who lived at the same time. In either case, the ideologies that were developed during this time were influenced by Egyptian events.

It’s believed that Moses discovered the 10 Commandments (a set of rules defining ethics and worship in the Abhrahamic religions). It’s interesting to note that the first commandment tells followers that there is only one god. As the first commandment, this monotheistic statement largely defined the structure and values of the Abrahamic religions moving forward. The fact that one of the commandments states that “thou shall worship no other gods before me” points to a shift from polytheism to monotheism. Scholars have found connections between Egyptian wisdom instructions and the biblical books of Proverbs (from the Instruction of Ptah-hotep), Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Psalms, and Job (David, 1998). For example, there are strong parallels between the Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104 in the Bible.

10.7 The Influence of Zoroastrianism

Ancient Persian civilization traded extensively with Ancient Hindu civilizations and, as a result, the two cultures influenced each other. Interestingly enough, the philosophies of Ancient Persian society similarly spread across the globe to heavily influence the Abrahamic religions, as well.

In Ancient Persia around 2000 BCE, a prophet named Zoroaster is believed to have been born. The stories surrounding Zoroaster tell us that he was highly critical of inequality in his society and that he advocated for a more egalitarian society.

Today, Zoroastrianism is a religion that is still practiced; the largest percentage of Zoroastrians live in Iran while the second largest group live and practice in Los Angeles. Members of the religion call the religion monotheistic because they only worship one divine being: perfectly good and all-knowing god. However, Zoroastrianism also believes in a very powerful, evil being who is in battle with the all-good divine being. We call this dualism: a religion that believes in two opposing forces.

Zoroastrianism was the first religion to establish the idea of an all-good god and an all-evil being with which the all-good being is at war with. This worldview establishes the idea that human beings are engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil and that human beings have the responsibility to choose sides.

Religious scholars largely agree that the concept of “Satan” came from this Zoroastrian concept. Biblical texts do not initially mention a devil figure and the idea of a purely evil being who is external from God first emerges during a period when Ancient Persian civilizations were influencing Biblical writings.

Interestingly, Zoroastrians believe in the concept of “dharma” similar to the Hindu idea. At the same time, Zoroastrianism calls for morality through action, which is uniquely different from Hinduism.

10.8 Buddhism

It’s believed that the story of the Buddha begins in the year 560 BCE in a region that is now called Nepal (part of Ancient Hindu society). A figure called Queen Maya was believed to have had a dream of a white elephant informing her that she was pregnant. Upon calling a diviner to interpret the dream, the diviner told her that she would have a son who would either become a great spiritual leader or a great king. As the child’s father was already a King, the couple expressed a preference for their child to become a great king. In response, the diviner told the couple that they needed to shield their son from all suffering in order to prevent him from taking the path of spiritual leadership.

Queen Maya gave birth to her son, Siddhartha and shortly after, she died. The king and Siddhartha’s adoptive mother raised him to be completely shielded from all types of suffering throughout his young life until, one day, the young boy asked to leave the palace and see the world. His parents allowed him to briefly leave the palace; during this time he witnessed 4 sights:

  1. Siddhartha sees a sick person who is suffering. Before this moment, Siddhartha did not know about illness.
  2. Siddhartha then sees an old person and is shocked because he had never before realized that people age.
  3. Then, Siddhartha sees a dead body and is horrified because he had not previously been made aware of death.
  4. Finally, amidst all of this shock and suffering, Siddhartha sees a monk who is peacefully meditating. Siddhartha resolves to enter a journey of spirituality in order to find a solution to stop the suffering of people.

So, the story goes, that Siddhartha leaves the palace and studies a variety of spiritual movements. He first lives the ascetic life (a strict life with no pleasures or indulgence) and does not reach enlightenment. He then lives a life of extreme indulgence but also does not reach enlightenment. Finally, Siddhartha sits below a Bodhi tree and realizes that neither full sacrifice nor full indulgence is the key to enlightenment but that, rather “The Middle Way” is the path to becoming free from suffering. In this moment, Siddhartha becomes The Buddha.

The core beliefs of Buddhism include the Four Noble Truths, which are:

  1. All of life is suffering
  2. We suffer because we cling to ideas, people, things, etc.
  3. Only by not clinging can we stop suffering
  4. There are eight ways to stop clinging called The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path encourages:

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Please note that The Buddha, if he existed as the story is told, never wrote anything down. He similarly never claimed to be a God or divine being. The Buddha’s religion, Buddhism, is closely related to Hinduism as Siddhartha was born and raised in the Hindu tradition.

10.9 Christianity

Jesus is believed to have been born in the year 0, 560 years after the Buddha is believed to have been born. It’s interesting to note that the stories surrounding both Jesus and Buddha originated along the Silk Road (a trade route that connects all of Eurasia and played a role in the spread of culture and ideas across cultures).

The story of Jesus tells us that he was born and raised in what was then called Palestine as ruled by the Roman Empire: a society with a great deal of suffering where people were stratified into strict class groups. As many suffered under Roman oppression, Jesus advocated for a more egalitarian society and was executed for undermining the powerful Roman rule.

One of the radical ideas developed during this time was that humans could have a personal relationship with God, and they no longer had to go through temples to reach God. This belief is a defining characteristic of Christianity and was innovated during the time of Jesus. Similarly, believers of this era established the central Christian value of forgiveness: the idea that Jesus died to forgive humanity of their sins and that, therefore, humans should emulate the divine and forgive one another.

In Christianity, the firm belief in maintaining monotheism necessitates that their savior be born as in human form (in other words, by God and Jesus being the same person, Christians are able to continue to worship Jesus while still only honoring one divine being).

For a deeper historical understanding of the culture that developed Christianity, read Bart Erhman’s interview that addresses: “If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?

10.10 Weber and the Protestant Work Ethic

Religion impacts many facets of a culture and society. Since Anthropology employs a holistic approach to understanding culture, this approach can be used to examine the way that Christianity has impacted other elements of modern Western culture. Sociologist and economist Max Weber (1864–1920) argued in 1904 that Protestantism (a mainstream form of Christianity) and capitalism are such uniquely compatible worldviews that each augmented the other’s influence upon Euro-American civilization and led to the establishment of each as the dominating characteristics of much of the “western” world (Weber 2001). These arguments are outlined in his work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and we refer to the idea as the Protestant Work Ethic.

Before we can work through Weber’s arguments, we need to briefly clarify the different sects of Christianity. While the terms “Catholic” and “Christian” are often colloquially used to refer to different religions, Catholics are, actually, a form of Christianity. And, typically, when people use the term “Christian” in a colloquial sect, they are referring to “Protestants.”

Christianity is a major world religion that has three major subgroups: Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (Beverley 47). While Christianity has undergone a variety of transformations throughout history, it’s arguable that the greatest transformation followed Martin Luther’s 1517 “Ninety-Five Theses.” Luther composed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to critique the Catholic Church (the only form of Christianity at the time). While the Catholic Church has changed a great deal since 1517, Luther’s criticisms at the time centered around:

  • The practice of buying divine forgiveness by giving money to the church
  • The church’s celibacy requirements
  • The worshipping of saints as near gods
  • The powerful position held by the Pope (Beverley 126–127)

As a result of Luther’s popularized demand for change, the 16th century subsequently witnessed the Protestant Reformation whereby new sects of Christianity emerged. The forms of Protestantism that exist today are direct results of the Protestant Reformation including: Evangelical Christianity, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, Methodists, Anglicans, Non-Denominational Christians, Pentecostal, etc.

In Weber’s view, religious life before the Protestant Reformation viewed poverty as a moral value. This is true in most religious traditions — seeking wealth is viewed as a form of greed and most religions discourage greed — and this same value system is included in traditional Christianity. Greed is viewed as a sin.

But, as Weber explains, the Protestant Reformation democratized power to a certain extent and glorified all forms of work as a “calling” from God. In other words, before the Protestant Reformation, only those working in religious roles (priests) were viewed as doing “God’s work” but when Christianity started to view faith as more accessible to all types of people, anyone who worked hard was viewed as utilizing their gifts and talents given from God. As a result, making money was increasingly viewed as receiving God’s favor. The logic was: if you make a lot of money, then it must be because God favors your hard work.

This worldview is compatible with capitalism which is centered around the idea that, through market competition, the best ideas will always succeed. Capitalism tells participants that hard work will always be rewarded with wealth.

In Weber’s view, the cultural transformations within Christianity and the establishment of capitalism as the dominant economic system took a strong hold over Euro-American societies because they were compatible in their common idea that hard work leads to wealth and that wealth is a reflection of goodness.

To summarize, Weber’s argument follows the following steps:

  • Religious devotion usually leads people to reject worldly affairs (wealth, possessions).
  • The Protestant Reformation (16th century, Martin Luther) glorified work. This social schism rejected traditional ideas surrounding knowledge, power, and spirituality.
  • Any work viewed as “sacred’/ a calling
  • Work is suddenly viewed as a service to society.
  • This new attitude allowed a desire for wealth.
  • This idea overcomes previous issues regarding wage and time
  • Pre-capitalist workers were unwilling to work more hours after reaching their desired income.
  • Capitalist workers are willing to work more hours if they are paid a high wage
  • In Weber’s view, this was not a uniquely “Western” trend — but the two cultural forces are so compatible that both Protestantism and capitalism flourish. The two established themselves as the dominating forces in both the United States and in Europe.

Christianity is a diverse religion with an enormous global following and there is no, singular way to define that religion. We can, however, point to the rising popularity of “prosperity preachers” to illustrate Weber’s points. Prosperity preachers are religious leaders who are, typically, wealthy and who believe that God makes good and pious people wealthy and successful. Within this religious worldview, sick or poor people can overcome their disease and poverty by increasing their faith and that, in exchange, their god will reward them financially and heal them. In some of these movements, followers are told that, if they donate money to the preacher or to the church, then they will be rewarded with more wealth.

10.11 Islam

In Islam, followers believe that God sends signs to humanity intended to remind us of our obligations to live a good and pious life. In this religious tradition, God sent down a series of human beings to help guide humanity in a righteous path but that we continuously forget our obligations to each other, the planet, and to God. And, so, God has sent down multiple people to help get humanity back on the right track.

Muslims, followers of Islam, believe that Abraham was the first prophet to do this followed by many others including Moses (this is a view they hold in common with Jewish people) and Jesus (this is a view they hold in common with Christian people). In addition, Muslims also believe that a final prophet named Muhammad gave humanity a clear and final set of guiding principles intended to glorify God.

Muhammad was born in the year 571 CE in Saudi Arabia. It’s believed that he was an illiterate man who entered a cave to pray and that, suddenly, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to “recite!” Over the subsequent 23 years, Muhammad wrote the words of the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam. It’s believed that, because Muhammad wrote the Qur’an in Arabic, that reading the text in Arabic is akin to literally reading the word of God (this is unlike most other world religious texts which have been translated in many directions over time).

There are 5 pillars of Islam:

  1. Faith, the monotheistic idea that there is no God but one God.
  2. Prayer, which requires followers to pray 3 or 5 times a day depending on whether one is Sunni or Shia.
  3. Alms-giving, where all Muslims donate a portion of their income to charity,
  4. Fasting, when Muslims do not eat or drink from sun up to sun down during the month of Ramadan
  5. Pilgrimage, where Muslims are required to visit the holy site of Mecca once in their lives, which is called the Hajj.

As is commonly discussed, it’s forbidden to depict Muhammad in the Muslim tradition. This rule is held in Islamic culture as an attempt to prevent the idolization or mischaracterization of their holy person. Similarly, drawing or making statues of Jesus, Mary, or Moses, etc. are also forbidden and considered to be idolatry in the Muslim tradition.

10.12 Comparing and Contrasting Religious Influences

Let’s wrap up by comparing and contrasting the beliefs of the religions that we have discussed in this chapter.

Jesus and Buddha’s stories emerged within 500 years of each other, and their similarities reveal a great deal about what societies needed at the time. You may recall that the hero archetype is a common story-telling structure that exists across cultures and, of course, the stories of Jesus and Buddha follow that structure as well.

  • Their philosophies and stories are very similar; for example, when Jesus gives the “Sermon on the Mount”, the first thing that he teaches is the “Golden Rule”. The Golden Rule says, “do not do anything to others that you would not want others to do to you”. On the other hand, Buddha gives his first lessons beneath the Bodhi tree and his first lesson is: treat others as you would like to be treated.
  • Both Buddhism and Christianity preached nonviolence while living in violent societies, and it was a radical idea at the time.
  • Both Buddhism and Christianity rejected material wealth and undermined the ruling powers of their society.
  • Both Buddha and Jesus are believed to have had prostitutes as friends which reveals a common cultural oppression of women and a revolutionary new idea to overcome oppressive class structures.
  • Both religious figures started their spiritual journey at age 30.

Jesus and Buddha’s origin stories are also quite similar:

  • Jesus’ and Buddha’s legends are similar, as both of their mothers’ pregnancies were announced by angels: an elephant in Buddhism and Angel Gabriel in Christianity.
  • Both mothers gave birth during a journey, with Mary traveling to Jerusalem, and Buddha’s mother returning to her hometown.

While the stories of Jesus and Buddha are generally quite similar, they end in very different ways. Consider each:

  • It’s believed that Jesus was crucified by at age 32.
  • It’s believed that Buddha died at age 90 from food poisoning. In the story, one of Buddha’s followers accidentally undercooked a fish and served it to him. Rather than dying dramatically, it’s believed that Buddha calmly explained to his distraught followers the lesson: everything eventually dies.

Of course, because Buddhism and Hinduism emerged from the same origins, both religions believe in reincarnation, karma, and samsara, both seek liberation from suffering through inward reflection and selfless service.

Zoroastrianism heavily influenced the development of the Abrahamic religions. Christianity embraces the originally-Zoroastrian idea of “good versus evil”, the idea that humans are engaged in a cosmic battle. Similarly, Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Hinduism as both religions share the ideas of spiritual responsibility (dharma).

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Bibliography

Ambalu, Shulamit, et al. The Religions Book: DK Publishing, 2013.

Beverley, James A. Religions A to Z. Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Borg, Marcus J., and Ray Riegert. Jesus and Buddha: the Parallel Sayings. Seastone Press, 1999.

Green, Joey. Jesus and Muhammad: the Parallel Sayings. Seastone, an Imprint of Ulysses Press, 2003.

Hanh Nhât. Living Buddha, Living Christ. Riverhead Books, 2015.

Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: a Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Prabhupāda A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad-gītā as It Is. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997.

Smith, Jean. Radiant Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts. Riverhead Books, 1999.

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About

This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Sarah Etheridge (College of the Canyons), and Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Edited by Brian Pierson (Pierce College) and Madlen Avetyan (Los Angeles Valley College). Research Assistance from Phillip Te. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles