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Chapter 12 - Religion: Location, Diffusion and Cultural Landscape


Religion is the most recent major component of culture to develop. As a result, we know more about the development and dispersal of the major religions than we do of languages. In a world where cultural isolation is a thing of the past and religion is such an important part of culture, it is important to understand the different religions and their effect on the cultures of which they are a part. This chapter traces the spread of the belief systems that have contributed to the formation of modern cultural regions. It is remarkable that, after tens of thousands of years of human development and migration, the great faiths all arose within a few thousand kilometers of each other in South and Southwest Asia (Figure 12-1).


Hinduism is the oldest of the world’s major religions and one of the oldest extant religions in the world. It is a cultural religion, having emerged without a prophet or a book of scriptures and without evolving a bureaucratic structure comparable to that of the Christian religions. Hinduism appears to have originated in the region of the Indus Valley in what is today Pakistan (see Figure 12-1) perhaps as much as 4000 years ago. Hinduism reached its fullest development in India , and spread into Southeast Asia before the advent of Christianity. It has not been widely disseminated. Hinduism has remained essentially a cultural religion of South Asia and is more than a faith; it is a way of life. The cultural landscape of Hinduism is the cultural landscape of India . Temples and shrines, holy animals by the tens of millions, and the sights and sounds of endless processions and rituals all contribute to a unique atmosphere. The faith is a visual as well as an emotional experience.


Buddhism, with fewer than half as many adherents as Hinduism, arose in the sixth century B.C. in India . It was a reaction to the less desirable features of Hinduism such as its strict social hierarchy that protected the privileged and kept millions mired in poverty. Buddhism was founded by Prince Siddhanha, known to his followers as Gautama. The Buddha (enlightened one) was perhaps the first prominent Indian religious leader to speak out against Hinduism’s caste system. The faith grew rather slowly following the Buddha’s death until the middle of the third century B.C. when the Emperor Asoka became a convert. During Asoka’s rule there may have been more Buddhists than Hindu adherents in India , but after that period the strength of Hinduism began to reassert itself. Today Buddhism is practically extinct in India , although it still thrives in Sri Lanka , Southeast Asia , Nepal , Tibet , Korea , and Xapan. The Buddha received enlightenment as he sat under the Bodhi (enlightenment) tree and because of its association with the Buddha, the tree is revered and protected; it has diffused as far as China and Japan and marks the cultural landscape of many villages and towns. Buddhism’s architecture includes some magnificent achievements, with the pagoda as perhaps the most familiar structure. Buddhism is experiencing a revival that started two centuries ago and has recently intensified. It has become a global religion and diffused to many areas of the world.


Confucianism was founded on the teachings of Confucius in the sixth century B.C. Taoism is believed to have been founded by an older contemporary of Confucius Lao-Tsu, who had great and lasting impacts of Chinese life. In his teachings, Lao-Tsu focused on the proper form of political rule and the oneness of humanity and nature. According to Lao-Tsu, people should learn to live in harmony with nature (see Focus on: “Feng Shui”). Taoism became a cult of the masses. Following his death, the teachings of Confucius diffused widely throughout East and Southeast Asia . From his writings and sayings emerged the Confucian Classics, a set of 13 texts that became the focus of Chinese education for 200 years and the Guide for Chinese civilization. In the more liberal atmosphere in Communist China today, both the Chinese religions of old and the Christian and Islamic faiths are reviving, and Confucianism and Taoism continue to shape Chinese society.


Judaism grew out of the belief system of the Jews, one of several nomadic Semitic tribes living in Southwest Asia about 2000 B.C. It is the oldest religion to arise west of the Indus River and the history of the Jews is filled with upheavals. In the face of constant threats, the Jews have sustained their faith, the roots of which lie in the teachings of Abraham, who united his people. Table 11-1 shows the Jewish faith has about 18 million adherents, but the distribution of Jews proves that Judaism is indeed a world religion and has a global importance far greater than its numbers would indicate

Christianity and Islam

Christianity’s three major branches (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy) have diffused throughout the world by expansion combined with relocation diffusion. The cultural landscapes of Christianity’s branches reflect the changes the faith has undergone over the centuries. Certain denominations have more durable cultural landscapes in which the authority and influence of the church remain visible. Islam, the youngest of the world religions, has two major sects, the majority Sunni and the minority Shiah (see Figure Il -I). This division occurred almost immediately after the prophet Muhammad’s death and took on regional overtones when Shiism became the state religion of Persia (now Iran ). Like Christianity, Islam has diffused globally, but is a classic example of expansion diffusion from its Arabian source, followed by relocation diffusion (Figure 124). Islam achieved its greatest artistic expression, its most distinctive visible element, in architecture.

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