Question: I saw a T-shirt recently that described various religions' basic beliefs digested into one sentence for each faith. Why not commit a column to the similarities and differences among the beliefs of various beliefs?
A paragraph on each would be enlightening. Keep up the good work, or the God work, if that's more appropriate. — D., via email@example.com
Answer: As co-author (with Fr. Tom Hartman) of "Religion for Dummies," I'll take your suggestion as an appropriate challenge. I don't think what follows would fit on a T-shirt, though, unless is was XXXL.
HINDUISM: The world's oldest religion is at least 6,000 years old and is woven into the culture of India (Hindu means India). Hinduism has no founder or divine sage. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita are the most important Hindu texts. They teach that the world is filled with gods, of which Brahma is the most powerful, although Vishnu, Shiva (the destroyer) and Sakti are also important. Humans are trapped in an almost but not quite never-ending cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Only our good deeds (karma) can help us achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation. The most important karmic virtue is non-violence (ahimsa).
BUDDHISM: Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), this faith is an outgrowth of Hinduism. The Buddha was born in Nepal around 563 BCE. Nothing is real (shunyata), and Buddhism has no God or gods. The world is filled with suffering (dukha) whose cause is our ignorant refusal to let go of the illusions that bind us to this unreal world. There is a way out of this suffering called the Eightfold Path, which teaches: right views, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The end of this path is Enlightenment (bodhi) and a state of being partly in and partly outside of this world, which is called Nirvana. A Buddha who remains in the world to teach others is called a Bodhisattva. Tibetan Buddhism considers the Dalai Lama to be a Bodhisattva (and I agree). The Buddha didn't consider himself a god, although some sects of Buddhism consider him divine. When asked if he was a god, the Buddha said, "I am just awake." Important Buddhist texts: the Dhammapada, the Siksha Samukhya, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Lotus Sutra, and the Heart Sutra.
JUDAISM: One God created the world and made all human beings in the holy image of that single God. God gave us laws (mitzvoth), which are both ritual and moral and lead to eternal life for our souls in The World To Come (heaven), which is an abode of the souls of righteous people from all the nations and every faith and no faith. The holy books of Judaism include the Hebrew Bible, which is comprised of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the Prophets, and The Writings (which is mostly the 150 Psalms). Also holy to Jews is the post-biblical work called the Talmud, comprised of the Mishana plus the Gemara plus rabbinic commentaries.
CHRISTIANITY: Founded by Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe was and is the Messiah (Christ). Jesus came to earth to be crucified and die for our sins and to atone for the original sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. His resurrection was the proof of his authenticity. Along with God the Father and The Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is a part of the triune mystery of God called the Trinity. Accepting Jesus as the Messiah and as one's personal savior is essential for salvation and life eternal in heaven. The holy books of Christianity are those of the Hebrew Bible plus the New Testament, comprised of 27 books including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation.
ISLAM: Founded by Muhammad (peace be upon him) who taught that submission to the will of God (Allah) is essential for salvation and is expressed, according to the Sunni tradition in Islam, by performance of the five pillars of Islam: 1) Saying and believing the shahadah, the central affirmation of the Muslim faith: "I testify that there is no god but God (Allah) and I testify that Mohammad is His prophet." Saying this and believing this is the most important part of converting to Islam; 2) Praying five times a day while facing Mecca (salat); 3) Giving charity (zakat); 4) Fasting from dawn to dark every day during the holy month of Ramadan (sawm); and 5) Making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during your lifetime (haj).
The Shia tradition in Islam accepts the five pillars but adds up to five more. The holy book of Islam is the Qur'an, which is comprised of 114 chapters (surahs).
But wait, there's more ... and I just ran out of T-shirt!
RABBI MARC GELLMAN is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York, where he has served since 1981. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.