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Most religions claim their teachings have existed since the beginning of the world or the dawn of human civilization. Several major religions of the world like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are linked to a prominent spiritual leader or prophet who laid the framework of the faith. The origins of such religions are usually traced to the lifetime of these prophets. Others appear to have risen out of an amalgamation of spiritual beliefs and ritualistic practices of a section of people which have been promoted by one or more spiritual leaders. Most traditional religions have such an origin.
Creating a list of the world’s oldest religions is not an easy task. The religious experience of humans predates written history. Much of the knowledge of pre-historic religions have been derived from suppositions, archeological records, and other indirect sources that are subject to debate. However, based on common scholarly beliefs, the following are the oldest religions in the world:
The World's Oldest Religion
Hinduism is believed to have the oldest roots among all religions. It has no single founder. It is often described as a “way of life” and is widely practiced in India and other parts of the Indian subcontinent as well as parts of Southeast Asia. Scholars mention that Hinduism is an amalgamation of various Indian traditions and cultures. A broad range of philosophies guide the practitioners of this religion. There are numerous divisions and schools within Hinduism. Shared concepts, common pilgrimage sites, similar rituals, and shared textual resources bind all of them under the umbrella of Hinduism.
Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact origin of this religion, it is roughly estimated to have formally started between 2300 B.C. and 1500 B.C. in the Indus Valley. During this time, the Indo-Aryans migrated to the Indus Valley. The cultures of these people and indigenous inhabitants then blended to give rise to a new faith. The initial years of Hinduism were defined as the “Vedic Period” when the Vedas guided the way of life of the people. It lasted from about 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. The Epic, Puranic, and Classic Period followed and lasted from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. Deity worship became more common during this time.
Hinduism flourished during the Medieval Period that stretched from 500 to 1500 A.D. Hinduism was adopted by a vast majority of people in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Hinduism suffered a setback during the Muslim Period from about 1200 to 1757. The Muslim rulers restricted the practice of Hinduism, destroyed temples, and force-converted many to Islam.
From 1757 to 1848 when the British ruled India, Hindus were allowed to practice their religion with minimum interference. However, in the later years of British Raj, Christian missionaries attempted to convert Hindus and westernize the Indian society.
During India’s independence, British India was partitioned into Muslim-major Pakistan and Hindu-major India. A lot of bloodshed followed this partition.
Today, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. It has around 1.15 billion followers that account for about 15% of the global population. Hinduism is the religion of the majority in India, Nepal, and Mauritius. Significant numbers of Hindu communities are also present worldwide.
Judaism is the world’s second-oldest religion. However, it is the oldest of the monotheistic religions. Judaism formally started roughly around 640 BC but events leading to its establishment started much earlier. Followers of the religion have faith in one God. Jews believe that prophets act as the medium of communication between God and the common people. The Tanakh or the “Hebrew Bible” is the Jewish sacred text. The first of the five books of the Tanakh is called the Torah. It outlines laws for Jews to follow.
According to the Torah, Abraham, a Hebrew man, is the founder of Judaism as God revealed himself to Abraham. The descendants of Abraham are thus the chosen ones. Isaac and Jacob, the son and grandson of Abraham are central figures in Jewish history. Their descendants became known as Israelites. Another prophet named Moses is also revered by the Jews. He is believed to have rescued Israelites from Egypt. According to scriptures, God communicated the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai, an important pilgrimage site for Jews today. The first holy Temple of the Jews was built in Jerusalem during the rule of King David’s son Solomon at around 1000 B.C.
Over the centuries, the Jews were persecuted many times for their religious beliefs. The worst such event was termed the Holocaust when over 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Today, the world has around 14 million Jews. Most live in Israel and the United States.
Evolution Of Religions And The Rise Of Atheism
Throughout human history, many religions sprang to life. However, only a few survived to emerge as major religions of the world. Today, globalization has a major effect on the evolution of new religions. The intense mingling of cultures has diluted the stringent and conservative religious beliefs of the younger generations across the world. They are more receptive of other faiths than ever before. Atheism is also on the rise in the modern-day. In North America and Europe especially, those who are religiously unaffiliated are the second largest group when the population is grouped by religion. Predictions state that as the world “modernizes,” religions might fade out altogether. Only time will tell whether this happens or newer, dynamic religions emerge to captivate even the “nones.”
What is the Oldest Religion in the World?
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