Religion may be defined as the human belief in the supernatural, in what arouses awe or piety in a person, in what he believes is sacred.
It is a set of beliefs or sentiments that bind members of a specific group together. Religion may be any form of faith, involving belief in magic, monotheistic belief, ancestor worship, or polytheism, but each of these contains some element of reverence for the supernatural—the unknown Absolute.
In traditional societies, religion was a dominant force and it pervaded many spheres of ordinary life. But in modern commercial-industrial societies, like those of the West, religion has been relegated to the background in many dominant areas of life. In communist societies like China, the official ideology is atheistic but individuals have their own religious beliefs.
Religion fosters a distinct attitude towards life and this further affects the development of the society. In north-west Europe, for instance, Protestantism emerged dominant at the time of the Renaissance and thereafter, and it perhaps aided in development of capitalism in the region.
The flow of religious beliefs and influences into India from outside and emergence and development of religious faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism in the country over centuries have helped India emerge as a pluralistic and multicultural society today. It is to be remembered that cultural situations develop in regions as a result of mutual interaction between religion and social, political and economic factors.
In the world of today, there are few religions that can boast of a well-organised religious system with highly systematized, duly-structured and codified theological beliefs and a large, widespread number of believers. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism are the major religions of today.
It is significant that all the major religious systems of today originated in Asia: West Asia, the Indian sub-continental region, China and Japan may be termed the zone of origin of ancient religions.
Judaism and Christianity had their birth in Palestine and Islam in Arabia. The Baha’i faith originated in Iraq and Zoroastrianism in Iran. Hinduism appeared in north-western India. Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism emerged in India. Shintoism appeared in Japan and Confucianism and Taoism in ancient China.
Scholars see some causal relationship in the fact that the major religions of today emerged in specific regions of the world. West Asia, India and China are the cradles of civilisation as the ancient prosperous civilisations thrived in these areas. The abundant rivers and fertile lands in the alluvial valleys made water management imperative which led to growth of irrigation and increase in food production.
The tribal societies began to enlarge over time. To manage the complex activities of the complex tribal societies that were emerging, the tribal customs evolved into codified laws. These laws grew into religious systems. The elaborate system of codes or religion contributed to the preservation of societies.
In modern times, secularism is a concept that has developed in the context of diffusion of various religious systems.
Religion as a Way of Life:
Religion influences the totality of way of life. It affects socio-cultural behaviour, economic factors, political ethos and legal institutions in society. In this, the area of growth of a religion or its prevalence has some influence in determining the factors that aid in development.
A society’s institutions, such as of marriage, involve religious sanctions and conduct. The prevalent institution of marriage functions largely under the guidance of religious sanctions. Each religion has its own codification.
The religious laws, importantly, influence other factors like the demographic profile of societies. For instance, in ancient societies, polygamy was practised on a large scale by groups within societies (like the Kshatriyas) or it was permitted for the entire society (in tribal societies, in Islam).
Today, Islam is known to allow polygamy while Christianity and Hinduism advocate monotheism. Marriage ethics in this sense are a major determinant of family size norm of adherents and ultimately influence the entire demographic profile of communities or a State.
In modern societies, increasingly, marriage is overcoming the traditional religious and other taboos set on it. Inter-religious, inter-race, inter-caste marriages are accepted in these societies, with the result that the characteristics of urbanised societies in terms of religious, race and other factors are becoming more mixed and fluid.
Diet restrictions, which have religious associations (Hinduism does not permit beef- eating and Islam and Judaism do not allow eating of pork), and sacred associations of plants and animals reveal a lot about a region. For instance, Muslims and Jews avoid pork meat and it is significant that the region of West Asia is not known for breeding of pigs or pig farms. In India, the cow is worshipped and cattle are rarely butchered for its meat.
This factor has been linked to the rich cattle resource in India and its abundance of dairy farms and dairy products, since the ancient times. Likewise, the sacred associations with plants—Hinduism regards the peepal tree and the tulsi plant sacred, ancient Germanic rituals honour the oak and spruce, Christianity revers the famous Christmas tree— reveal the availability, and diversity of plants in specific regions.
The entire landscape and architectural evolution-, in different areas bear a close association with religious beliefs and systems. In Hinduism, for instance, the orientation of the total landscape is considered to arrive at mystical harmonies which are linked to cultural, religious and spiritual fulfillment. The architectural styles of different societies, as influenced by religion, show regional associations.
The Hindu architecture, Christian architecture and the Islamic architecture are very distinct from each other as they originated and evolved in different places and the communities were keen to preserve their distinct identities.
Different religions have different calendar systems which divide the year into segments and indicate ceremonial days. Christianity recognises the Christian calendar in which the Christian era starts with the birth of Christ. The Islamic calendar begins with the birth of Prophet Muhammad. In Hinduism, Vikrami Samvat and Shaka Samvat are followed. It is significant to note that calendar systems vary according to areas and societies.
Economic activity too has had an underpinning in terms of religious principles. In Europe, in the medieval times, money lending on interest was not allowed. Islamic banking also does not permit such money-lending. Every religion has its own centres of pilgrimage where thousands of devotees travel to pay obeisance.
Pilgrimages add to the economic significance of religious centres and aid in development of trade, commerce, transportation and communication in these areas. They witness commercial activity on a large scale and provide jobs to a number of people. Thus the employment scenario of a region improves depending on its religious links.
The influence of religion is felt on the political ethos of a society. The partition of the Indian subcontinent itself was the result of religion influencing the working of politics. In other parts of the world as well, in Ireland and West Asia (the creation of Israel, for instance), politics has been greatly influenced and political developments have been a direct result of religious preferences or influences. Internal politics not only in Asia but also in America and Europe, as in Germany, Netherlands and Canada, have religious undertones.
Religion thus influences different aspects of life of people—their socio-cultural life, economic life, political working and legal institutions.
Diffusion of Religion:
The major religions of today originated in a small area but consequently spread to other parts of the world. The spread of a religion or its expansion is attributed to various factors: the missionary zeal of the followers, the conquerors or kings who invaded new lands and, later, European political imperialism and expansion of political States.
Missionary activity is a strong reason for spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in the past across regions and even continents. Buddhist monks, scholars and travellers spread Buddhism into areas practising a variety of folk and disorganised religions in South, South-east and East Asia. It, in many ways, combined with local spiritualism and religious strains and, as a result, we have the Tibetan form of Buddhism and others that comprise numerous local elements and beliefs.
Christianity has been known for its missionary activities especially in the modern period when missionaries not only spread their religion by making new followers in new lands but also contributed in other forms to effect socio-cultural development and progress of societies.
The conquerors of ancient and medieval times who invaded new lands and spread their rule over vast territories carried their religion to these places. People wanting to show allegiance to the new rulers and win rights and benefits converted to a new religion. Islam, in particular, spread its dominance especially in the first few centuries of its emergence through its conquerors who spread into other parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. In the modern era, conquering of new lands through colonialism resulted in similar phenomenon.
The European powers acquired new lands in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia and, in this manner, Christianity gained a foothold all around the world. Today, it is the most dominant and widespread religion of the world.
It should be noted that Hinduism, in contrast, never displayed a strong missionary urge even though Hindu kingdoms were set up in the past in other parts of Asia apart from the Indian subcontinent, for instance, in Indonesia. It is for this reason that Hinduism has remained confined largely to its area of origin, which is India.
In the emergence of political States in the world, we can trace a correlation between political administration and religious systems. It is evident in the link between political imperialism in Europe and the sweep of Christianity across the world. The same religion has continued in many modern nation-States and regions—Christianity in Europe, for instance, and Islam in West Asia, the region where Islam originated and spread initially.
However, one cannot stretch this correlation too far as a political State is more fragile than the persistence of a religion among people. Political rulers of a particular faith have been overthrown but the religious systems they espoused and spread, stay on. A typical example of this is the continuance of Islam and Christianity in India even after the end of the Mughal Empire and British imperial rule over the subcontinent.
As stated, diffusion of religion results in modification of a belief system to accommodate the local beliefs and customs. Its symbols, interpretative systems and practices get modified in the new cultural system and it becomes an enduring component of that system.
Therefore also, the functional aspect of a religion has different roles to play in different cultural systems. There is the convergence of a variety of beliefs on the one hand and on the other, sectarian divergence within a religion.