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Religious Beliefs

Religious ceremonies mark each step in the progress of a human life, but none so solemnly and extravagantly as death, the ultimate mystery and the fueling force of many devotional practices. Whether seen in dreams, conjured up through belief, or witnessed through actual contact, the spirits of the dead play vivid roles in many cultures of the past and the present. Many indigenous religions ascribe their own wisdom and power to their ancestors.

The Manu people of the Bismarck Archipelago, northeast of Papua New Guinea, called the spirit of the male head of the household "Sir Ghost" during his lifetime. After his death, they mounted his skull at the door, so he could continue to protect and judge the household. The burial practices of the Thonga people in Mozambique and South Africa include ceremonies within the village which introduce the deceased to the ancestors.

The neighboring Zulu believe that for a time after his burial, an old man's spirit wanders in the veldt, then reappears as a snake in the village, a sign that he has joined the ancestors. It is to the ancestors that the Zulu dance and give offerings, believing that they are the source of barrenness or fertility, drought or rain, pestilence or a good harvest.

The first day of November, a time in the Northern Hemisphere when nature itself has begun to die, is a traditional time to remember the spirits of the dead. The American holiday of Halloween, quite disconnected from religious ceremony, is a vestige of early Samhain observa- tions by which the Celts defended against the coming dark with bonfires blazing into the night. Roman conquerors extended the holy day to two days, combining respect for the dead with a harvest festival in honor of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees. As Christians gained control of the British Isles, they reinterpreted the pagan holidays by calling November 1 All Saints' Day, honoring the saints and martyrs of their religion, followed by All Souls' Day. Many still observed October 31 as All Hallows' Evening - shortend to Halloween.

Similarly, on the first two days of November, Mexicans observe the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos. Believing that at this time of the year the spirits of the dead return to their households, Mexican families set out lavish altars with candles, wreaths, flowers, and an array of food prepared only for this holiday, especially pan de muertos, the bread of the dead, kneaded into the shape of bones and human figures representing souls. Other families picnic at relatives' graves. Gleeful fireworks call the faithful to a solemn mass. While the Mexican Day of the Dead incorporates Christian symbols and celebrations, it probably represents, like Halloween, an assimilation of earlier local practices.

Many cultures refined the use of fragrant embalming spices and resins, as much for the sake of the living as the dead, so that the bodies of deceased family members could be enshrined in homes for a period of time. In some cultures, relatives returned in a certain number of months or years, performing a second ceremony of respect to store the bones. Cremation practices in India and Europe date from the Neolithic era or earlier. In ancient Rome, the bodies of the noble dead were displayed for a few days or as long as a week before cremation, while those of the lower classes were usually cremated a day after death. In the fifth century B.C., the Roman senate banned cremation within the city limits, but the practice continued, with a procession of mourners and musicians carrying the corpse outside city walls to burn it on a pyre. The ashen remains were saved in a jar. Wealthy Romans subscribed to funeral societies, paying monthly dues to ensure that their funerary urns would end up in columbaria, protected underground vaults where the family could install a memorial plaque.

Middle Eastern cultures tended to prefer underground burial to cremation, an inclination that influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. One exception arose among the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia, whose descendants, Iranian and Indian Parsees, followed ancient practices with the bodies of their dead. In 1895, the American author Samuel Clemens - better known as Mark Twain - traveled to Africa, India, and beyond. In India, he witnessed a Parsee crowd of mourners who watched a procession of corpse-bearers, clad in white, carrying their beloved's body to its final resting place, the Tower of Silence. "We have the Grave, the Tomb, the Mausoleum, God's Acre, the Cemetery," Twain wrote in Following the Equator, "but we have no name that is so majestic as that one, or lingers upon the ear with such deep and haunting pathos. "When the mourners had reached the neighborhood of the Tower - neither they nor any other human being but the bearers of the dead must approach within thirty feet of it - they turned and went back to one of the prayer-houses within the gates, to pray for the spirit of their dead. The bearers unlocked the Tower's sole door and disappeared from view within. In a little while they came out bringing the bier and the white covering-cloth, and locked the door again. Then the ring of vultures rose, flapping their wings, and swooped down into the Tower to devour the body. Nothing was left of it but a clean-picked skeleton when they flocked out again a few minutes afterward."

The bones are left in the Tower of Silence for weeks, washed by rain and bleached by equatorial sun. Then the corpse-bearers return and throw the bones down into the tower's well. A skeleton is "never seen again, never touched again, in the world." Twain explains that, to the Zoroastrians, corpses were unclean. None but those assigned the lifelong job of corpse-bearer were allowed to touch them, and even those men wore all-new garments every time they performed their job. Death levels all in society: "The bones of the rich, the poor, the illustrious and the obscure are flung into the common well together," wrote Twain.

Some traditions tell that the human race was once immortal and that death itself is a judgment pronounced by the gods for some basic wrongdoing. A Pygmy tribe of Central Africa told the story that in the beginning there was one man, Masupa, who had two sons and one daughter. From one son descended the Pygmies; from the other descended a neighboring tribe. The daughter was assigned the household tasks of fetching water and wood. They lived happily, commanded by their father to follow just one rule: They must never look upon him, never see him. His daughter delivered water and wood, routinely leaving it just outside his door, until one day her curiosity got the better of her. She hid behind a post at her father's doorstep, and as he reached out to grab the water pot, she saw his arm, richly ornamented as no ordinary man's would be.

Masupa was furious. He called his three children to his house and, still unseen, informed them that he must now depart, leaving them to a life of hard work and misery. He gave them tools and weapons and taught them how to forge iron. He told his daughter that of the three of them, she would experience the most pain, suffering through childbirth. Masupa left secretly, still unseen, moving down the river. Soon the daughter gave birth to her first child. She named him Death-Is-Coming. He died two days later. From then on, no one escaped the fate of death.

Some cultures invented ways to preserve the bodies of the dead. The Egyptians in the third millennium B.C., the Inca in the 15th century A.D., the Aborigines in Australia's Torres Strait in recent times - all practiced their own procedures of mummification. Of all the world's civilizations, the ancient Egyptians most vividly represent a people who honored their dead with complex burial rites and awe-inspiring tombs. The Egyptian pantheon included a host of interconnected gods. Ra, god of the sun, created Shu, god of the air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture. They in turn gave birth to Geb, god of the earth, and Nut, goddess of the sky, whose children included Isis and Osiris. The pharaoh stood between humans and gods, responsible to bring divine order to the world below. In his lifetime, he was seen to be the incarnation of Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, often portrayed with a falcon's head. After death the pharaoh merged with Osiris, considered not only the god of fertility but also the god of the dead.

An individual was composed of several parts, the ancient Egyptians believed, including the ren or name, the ba or soul, the ka or internal life force, and the akh - the eternal spirit, which left the body after death and returned to live among the gods in the stars. The ka remained behind and therefore deserved special treatment after death, especially on behalf of an elevated personage such as the pharaoh or a member of the royal family. The body was mummified following procedures that blended technical knowhow with religious belief. When Osiris was killed by his jealous brother, Seth, his sister and wife, Isis, gathered the pieces of his body, wrapped them together in linen, and brought him back to life. Every time Egyptian high priests embalmed and wrapped the body of a pharaoh, they reenacted the myth, believing that the resident akh would soon live again with the gods.

By the 13th century B.C., during Egypt's New Kingdom, a text called the Book of the Dead, inscribed on the walls of a tomb, codified the progress from death into the afterlife. The dead travel on a river through the underworld. The jackal-faced god, Anubis, weighs the soul of the deceased against the feather of truth. Only those souls light of heart - that is, righteous and honest in their earthly behavior - will proceed to the heavenly realm. Those who are judged worthy and survive the perils of the voyage through the underworld will rise at the next day's dawn with Ra, the sun god - perhaps civilization's earliest promise of an eternal life after death. In images of the scene of judgment, there is always a little bird with a human face - the ba, or soul, of the person being judged - perched on the scales, waiting for the verdict.

Other cultures prepared for the unknown after death by describing the passages the departed travel through and the experiences they undergo. According to Daoist traditions, dead souls descended to hell and had to endure hardships to atone for their sins. During the Northern and Southern dynasties of China, in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., the Daoist hell was the realm of the Emperor Fengdu, a netherworld of incredible dimensions where mountains rose 2,600 miles high and spread 30,000 miles around. There the souls of the dead traveled to face the judgment of the great emperor. He paid attention to the activities of the dead person's living relatives, for their ritual offerings could incline him to judge a soul more leniently and exact less hard work before allowing it to go to heaven.

A century later, during the Tang dynasty, a new and even more complicated tradition emerged, very likely an elaboration of a Hindu myth. According to this belief, the future of the dead was determined by ten kings, the Yamas of the Ten Halls, each one responsible for one sector out of the full panoply of souls arriving. An overarching Yama-King - represented in Tibetan Buddhist iconography with a ferocious fanged face, hair aflame, and six arms—greets the dead in the first hall and, making a first judgment, sends each on to the proper hall of reckoning. One soul, judged a dishonest intermediary in his former life, may go to Ice Hell, the second hall. Another, judged lustful, might be sent to the Wailing Hell, the fifth hall. Those lacking in filial piety file into the eighth hall, Grand Noisy Hell.

Only those whom the Lord Yama-King recognizes as truly virtuous may go to the tenth hall, where they begin to prepare for transmigration, the movement of a soul back into a new life and body. On the way, a deity named Mongpo feeds the soul bound for a new life a magic potion to erase all memories of the past. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the 14th to the 19th century, these visions of hell and judgment so moved the Chinese people that they would address their worship and bountiful offerings to the Yamas upon the death of any loved one, since the efforts of their supplication might improve the future lot of the deceased.

Throughout the ages, groups of people united by a sense of shared identity and history have approached the unknown or transcendent through their common myths, beliefs, and ritual practices. Normative rules for morality and behavior mold community. From the narrative tableaux that depict the births, life adventures, unions, conflicts, and deaths of gods, human beings learn about the world and their place in it. Effective answers to those questions intrinsic to human consciousness lie in the mythic cycles of indigenous practices, but also in the oral and scriptural traditions of the world's religions.

The characteristics of God, gods, or spirits mirror the fears and hopes of humans in society. Leaders of the community play central roles, often assuming the part of intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Ritual celebrations engage all the senses with color, movement, music, rhythm, and fragrance. Some ceremonies occur in reverent, mournful, or ominous silence, while others boil over with noise and energetic activity, joyous or frightful. Intricate masks and costumes are created or passed through generations just for these special occasions. In religious ceremony, people join together to gain new energy and renew shared identities in a circle of believing.

When Spanish conquistadores arrived in the New World, they encountered not only treasures, fertile land, and indigenous people but also complex cultures beyond their ken, woven together with myths and ritual practices like nothing they had ever seen in Europe or the Middle East. Troops led by Francisco Pizarro entered Cajamarca, Peru, in 1532. The Incan culture that they encountered was only 300 years old. Atahuallpa, the leader captured by Pizarro, was counted as the 13th in the Inca royal lineage, descending from Inti, the omnipotent sun god, and Pachamama, the earth goddess. Every king inherited the title Sapan Intiq Churin, Only Son of the Sun, along with royal headdresses, robes, and objects made from the gold found in regions of western and southern Peru and still being mined today. The Inca king sat on a throne of gold in the dazzling Temple of the Sun, also plated with gold. Priests tended the temple and performed frequent rituals. Women took vows of chastity and joined in the priestly rites. They were called virgins of the sun.

Inti Raymi, the feast of the sun, was celebrated each year at the winter solstice, which in the Southern Hemisphere represents the time when the sun rises highest and stays longest in the sky (as the seasons are reversed from those of the Northern Hemisphere). As the Inca people gathered around, singing songs of ceremony and praise, the Son of the Sun lifted golden tumblers filled with chicha, maize beer. He poured some out as a gift to Inti, drank some himself, then offered some to the nobles of his court.

Next he witnessed his high priest performing a holy sacrifice, using a golden knife to slice open the chest of a chosen all-black or all-white llama and divine the fortunes of the next year in the animal's still-throbbing heart. The high priest then used a brilliantly polished gold medallion to focus the sun's rays and light a sacramental fire. Conquering Spaniards banned the festival of Inti Raymi in 1572. Today the Quechua, Peru's Inca descendants, reaffirm their kinship with the sun by reenacting the ceremony in Cuzco every summer.

A poignant example of how religious vision and ceremony can build a sense of community is found in the North American Indian Ghost Dance of the early 20th century. At a time when native cultures across the West were being decimated by hostile white settlers and the United States military, a leader rose up named Wovoka, a Paiute Indian in Nevada. During a solar eclipse in 1889, he fell into a trance. Returning to consciousness, he explained that he had visited heaven, where the Indian ancestors lived in plenitude and peace. He returned with instructions for his people: They were to live harmoniously, work hard, and perform a religious ceremony called the Ghost Dance. "I want you to dance every six weeks," read a transcript of his message, written down at a school for Indian children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them," he advised. "When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again."

Wovoka's mystical promise spread quickly through the tribes of the American West, most of whom were by that time living on government-run reservations. The Lakota of the Dakota Territory recast the message in a militant way. By performing the Ghost Dance, they believed, they could make all whites disappear, bring the ancestors back to Earth, and replenish the buffalo - a sacred animal, source of food, clothing, shelter - brought nearly to extinction within a few decades after the arrival of the white man.

Z. A. Parker, a teacher from the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Dakota Territory, recorded her observations of a Ghost Dance ceremony there in June 1890. As many as 300 tents formed a circle around a central dance ground, in the middle of which grew a large pine tree "which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns - all offerings to the Great Spirit."

The dance was led by medicine men and by those "who had been so fortunate as to have had visions" in which they spoke to departed friends and ancestors. Men and women wore special ceremonial robes hung with feathers and painted with "birds, bows and arrows, sun, moon, and stars, and everything they saw in nature." Between 300 and 400 people, Parker counted, danced in a ring to the sound of drumbeats. They laid their hands on the shoulder of the next person in the circle, singing the words, "Father, I come." Next, she recorded, they stopped marching, but remained in the circle, and set up the most fearful, heart-piercing wails I ever heard - crying, moaning, groaning, and shrieking out their grief and naming over their departed friends and relatives, at the same time taking up handfuls of dust at their feet, washing their hands in it, and throwing it over their heads. Finally, they raised their eyes to heaven, their hands clasped high above their heads, and stood straight and perfectly still, invoking the power of the Great Spirit to allow them to see and talk with their people who had died.

This was just the beginning. The ceremony continued for five days, punctuated by ritual cleansing in a nearby river. Many participants swooned into unconsciousness. The others eagerly awaited their return to waking life to see if they, like Wovoka, had reached the heavenly land of the dead. The frenzy of the dance, its anti-white implications, and the powerful sense of community that it mustered, all threatened U.S. government officials, who responded by staging the final act in their takeover of Indian Territory: the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The human family shares many experiences, no matter what the period of history, no matter what the culture or country. As a man looks out into the world, he sees things he does not control or understand, forces that can overwhelm him with their strength and inexorability. As a woman looks into past and future, she recognizes that she and all the members of her family will face the inevitabilities of human life: joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, sickness and health, birth and death. So many givens in the human condition lie beyond our ken, yet it is the nature of the human consciousness to seek knowledge and to establish patterns that make the future more predictable.

Since the dawn of humankind, religion has been a source of comfort and provided answers for many of the fundamental existential questions posed by thinking human beings: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I behave? Does it matter how I behave? Do I matter? What can I hope for in this lifetime? What can I hope for after I die? Many of these drives and satisfactions, found in all religions from all times, connect intimately with those essential to the established religions now predominant in the world today.

The religious impulse accompanied the earliest of developments that make human beings what they are today: language, social organization, the use of symbols to express and record thought. Momentous changes in religious practice parallel the major shifts in human civilization. The transition from nomadic and hunter-gatherer cultures to settled agricultural life took place between 4000 and 3000 B.C., notably in the fertile river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, and the Indus in Asia. As humans clustered in an agricultural existence, cities grew, and trade developed, generating written records, city-focused leadership and administration, a code of law, public works - and centralized religious institutions. Artifacts from ancient Sumer, considered the world's first civilization, reveal the intertwining of these new features of human life. A clay tablet impressed with cuneiform marks dated to about 2350 B.C. records the pilgrimage of one ruler's wife from her city of Girsu - now called Tello, an Iraqian site much excavated by archaeologists. She visited six temples, honored 13 gods, and to them offered goats, sheep, and lambs.

The ancient Mesopotamian ruler of Babylon, Hammurapi, anchored the authority of his code of law, written around 1780 B.C., to the ancient gods. He traced his power back to Anu the Sublime and Bel, the lord of heaven and earth, through Marduk, granted dominion over earthly man by Ea, God of righteousness. It was Anu and Bel who founded the city of Babylon as "an everlasting kingdom, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth," and it was Anu and Bel who "called by name me, Hammurapi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers . . . and enlighten the land."

Thus all the laws expressed in Hammurapi's famous code - regarding crime, divorce, adoption, inheritance, military obligations, interest rates, scales for fees and wages - all come from the primeval gods through the worldly leader. Through much of early history, religion and state entwined inextricably. Many scholars believe that the rising eminence of solitary rulers in cities with vast wealth and territorial dominion encouraged the emergence of monotheism, the belief in one supreme divine being.

Religions and their moral code have shaped the history of the world. This book concentrates on five of the world's great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, authoritative estimates suggest that as of the year 2000, those practicing these religions represented about 77 percent of the nearly six billion people in the world, and nearly 90 percent of those who practice any religion whatsoever. An exploration of their histories and beliefs begins in the river valleys considered the cradles of civilization. From these regions, through thousands of years, the great religions emerged, evolving through twists and turns and changes also to be understood through the interactions of human beings and their physical environments.

From earliest times, human beings have sought to understand the forces of nature, the dynamics of their interactions with the environment, and the larger meaning of the life they live. In many ways, they have sought a map of reality - grounded in, harmonious with, but never limited to the geography of the world around them.

Contemporary religious beliefs and practices also arose in specific times and places. Just as the beliefs and rituals of indigenous traditions clearly connected with their place of origin, responding to their historical, social and geographic contexts, so too the religions are rooted in the particular places in which they began and developed. An appreciation of the geography of religion, its origins and development, reveals important insights and lessons about the enduring significance of religious beliefs and cultures in so many parts of our world.

Susan Tyler Hitchcock with John L. Esposito. Geography of Religion: Where God Lives, Where Pilgrims Walk . National Geographic. 2006.


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