The World’s Religions by Huston Smith Book Review

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Rating: 10/10 Find it on Amazon

My Bottom Line Thoughts

An awesome book detailing the basics of the world’s major religions.

I think this book or something similar should be required reading for everyone.

Once you learn more about the religions and beliefs of cultures around the world you learn how there are a lot of similarities between all of them and how people in different places/times of the world developed their own ways of ritual and of living.

I think the world would be a more loving accepting place if more people understood the basics of all belief systems and learned to embrace and appreciate the beauty in all of them.

I think the freedom to believe, worship, share your traditions, and live your life in the way you see best no matter what you identify with is one of the most important characteristics of a healthy world.

Also, it seems most of the time when certain religions get a bad media rap it’s because the media has honed in on one specific radical sect of a religion that is causing harm and isn’t actually following the principles outlined in their tradition.

Summary Notes

1. Hinduism

  1. India has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life and helped enrich our inner lives more than any other country
  2. It’s the oldest known religion going back to 6000 BCE
  3. Indus river valley civilization where the roots were formed
  4. Least dogmatic religion, not one way of being in Hindu
  5. There is no one man in Hinduism they look up to
  • Basic Principles
    1. Truth is eternal or one
      • Some people might take different pathways (devotion, love, knowledge, duty)
    2. One God or Soul Brahman
      • Out of that one god there are manifestations of other gods and goddesses
      • Brahma is the creator
      • Vishnu is the protector
      • Shiva is the destroyer
      • Some people may say it’s polytheistic but not really monotheistic either
    3. Hindus follow the Vedas which they believe are sacred
      • Stories, poems, hymns which form the beliefs of Hindus
      • Some Hindus follow some Vedas more than others
      • Room for different beliefs and interpretations
    4. Hindus believe their job on earth is to find their Dharma
      • It’s known as a way of life living your truth, authenticity, honesty
    5. All souls are immortal
      • We all have atman or our connection to the universe the god inside us
      • Atman is connected to Brahman through our Dharma (path)
      • Our Karma influence the path we follow
    6. All Hindus believe in reincarnation
      • The atman transcends the body through transmigration
      • When you die the soul transmigrates to another body where the karma determines whom they are born as their dharma and how they will live
    7. In basic Hinduism, they had a Caste System
      • You were born into the caste from your karma which determined your class
      • Some modern Hindus don’t believe in the Caste system anymore
      • Brahmins (priests)
      • Kshatriya (warriors, kings)
      • Vaishya (merchants, landowners)
      • Sudra (commoners, peasants, servants)
      • Outcaste (street sweepers, latrine cleaners)
      • Top of caste is closest to completing cycle reincarnation or truth
    8. Moksha is the stage you reach where your soul is free
      • If you followed your Dharma you can reach moksha
      • Free from pain and misery
      • Follow dharma which is dictated by karma so you can achieve moksha
    9. Yoga was created in Northern India and is in the Vedas

2. Buddhism

  1. Buddhism began with the man who woke up or found enlightenment Siddhartha Guatama
  2. Budh means to wake up or know
  3. While the rest of the world was dreaming in the human state one roused himself
  4. Many people don’t consider Buddhism a religion but more of a philosophy
  5. All say prayers to the 3 jewels or 3 cornerstones in Buddhism
  6. Some people consider Buddhism a Dharma or a way of teaching
  7. They believe in reincarnation but not a caste system
  8. Less focused on the exterior or God and focused on what we can do to find enlightenment or nirvana on this earth

Siddhartha Guatama

  • He was born around 563 BC in Nepal in a luxurious upbringing and had everything
  • Siddhartha was born to a noble Hindu family where his mother had a dream his birth would be the coming of a great one
    • She believed he would either be a great ruler (if he stayed home) or a great spiritual leader
    • His dad wanted him to stay home and be the King (his Dad made him stay home)
    • He made 4 trips at age 29 (Legend of 4 passing sights)
      1. He saw an old man
      2. He saw a sick man
      3. He saw a dead body
      4. He saw a happy guy begging for change
    • He realized some people are still happy knowing all of these terrible things are going to happen
    • He wanted to find out the answer to happiness amidst suffering
    • He tried all kinds of different paths (talked to gurus, fasting, etc)
    • He found enlightenment in meditation where he meditated under a fig tree for 49 days until he had his realization
    • He came up with the way to enlightenment below
    • He believed you have to figure it out for yourself and no one is going to do it for you

Four Noble Truths

  • Dukkha
    • Life consists of craving and suffering (we suffer because we desire)
    • The key to a happy life is wanting what you have and not comparing yourself to others
  • Samudaya
    • Suffering comes from you wanting things
    • Nothing is permanent everything is impermanent 
    • Suffering originates in the mind
  • Nirodha
    • If you can stop Dukkha you can create nirvana
    • When you want or need something that creates Karma
    • Karma keeps you trapped in the reincarnation cycle
  • Magga
    • There is a pathway to doing this (eightfold path)

Eight Fold Path or Middle Way:

  • Right Understanding
    • Understanding 4 noble truths
  • Right Thought
    • Have to be able to control our minds or have right thoughts
  • Right Speech
    • Can’t be degrading people or lying
    • Creates bad karma
  • Right Action
    • Non-violent and a good person
  • Right Livelihood or means of making a living
    • Shouldn’t be in a profession that brings pain or suffering
  • Right Mental Effort
    • Ability to be aware of your mind 
  • Right Mindfulness
    • Need to be aware of our feelings, state, body, etc
  • Right Concentration
    • About meditation to learn to know your mind, breathing, to clear and have true awareness

3. Confucianism

  • Born in 551 BC in China
  • Millions of people still follow his principles although they may seem strange or old
  • May have been a student to Daoist master Lao Tzu
  • Began government service and served many roles
  • Became frustrated with acts in government and wandered for many years
  • Confucius works were collected into the analects
    1. Do not do unto others you don’t want to be done to yourself
    2. Ceremony is important
    3. He valued ritual propriety (certain gestures stir our emotions correctly)
    4. We should treat our parents with reverence (moral life begins in the family)
      • Obey when young
      • Care when old
      • Mourn when die
      • Make sacrifices
    5. Should be obedient to honorary people
      • Relation between superiors and inferiors is like the wind and grass, the grass must bend when the wind blows across
      • Bending gracefully is not a sign of weakness but of humility and respect
    6. Cultivated knowledge can be more important than creativity
      • Benevolence, ritual propriety, righteousness, wisdom, integrity 5 constant virtues
      • The virtues must be cultivated constantly
      • A burst of inspiration is good but slow habits are more important

4. Taoism

  • Also pronounced as Daoism
  • 31 million people who call themselves Taoists
  • Lao Tzu was the main figure with the Tao Te Ching
  • Not a dogmatic religion
  • Has had an influence on Chinese medicine, martial arts, astrology
  • Opposite of Confucianism where it has a structured way of doing things
  • They believe God is undefinable and ineffable but there are Taoists who believe in god as well
  • There are Taoists who are Christians and those who are Buddhist
  • Tao means the way, energy of the universe
  • If you try to get in the way of the Tao it will cause disharmony

Main Principles & Philosophy

  • Wu Wei (Non-Doing)
    • action by non-action or not trying to fight the flow of the universe
  • Believe in simplicity
    • Best to be simple and not overthink things
  • Believe in being spontaneous
    • Best to be in the moment in life
  • Believe in 3 energies or treasures
    1. Sexual energy
    2. Spiritual energy
    3. Emotional energy
  • Yin and Yang
    • Always light and darkness
    • Always male and female
    • There is always light in dark and dark in light
  • Important that you are kind to yourself and history
    • These are supposed to be, so be kind to yourself

  5. Islam

  • 32% of Muslims live in Southeast Asia and 23% Middle East
  • 570 in Mecca Muhammed was born who is founder of Islam
  • Seen as last of prophets in Islam, as the final prophet after Christianity
  • Visits Syria where he interacts with a Christian monk who has great influence over him
  • Identifies with Abraham
  • Muhammed’s lineage goes through Ishmael
  • Becomes very respected
  • In 605 he was put in charge of putting the black rock back in the Kabba
  • 610 he had his first of many revelations in Hira cave where visited by Angel Gabriel
  • In the Islamic faith, they believe in angels who are intermediaries between people and God
  • The angel tells him that he is going to be a great prophet now
  • They believe in one God Allah
  • A lot of commonalities and crossovers between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism
  • People come to be persecuted who are following him
  • They pilgrimage out of Mecca to Medina (called Hijrah) where he is welcomed to unite people
  • They develop the constitution of Medina
    • Pray to mecca instead of Jerusalem
    • Tolerance of other faiths
    • Muhammed is the guy in charge
    • Muslims first city
  • In 630 he has about 10,000 people under command
  • Makes pilgrammage back to Mecca as new leader
  • Goes back to Kaaba
  • Destroy idols
  • Kaaba is the holiest place for Muslims
  • Califates are little dynasties of rulers
    • Sunnis
    • Shia

Articles & Principles of Faith

  1. Quran
    • Literal word of God
    • Spoken and prayed in Arabic
  2. Hadiths
    • Different accounts written down of Muhammed’s life
  3. Five Pillars of Islam
    1. Shahadah
      • Have to give yourself up to faith, “there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the messenger”
    2. Salah
      • Must pray 5 times a day
      • Must face Mecca
      • Rules about how to do it
    3. Zakat
      • Means charity
      • Can’t be greedy have to give away a certain amount of wealth
    4. Sawm
      • Fasting which occurs in the month of Ramadan (whole month)
    5. Hajj
      • Every Muslim must make a trek to Mecca to the Kaaba to pray

  6. Judaism

  • Rather minor religion 14 million people
  • 42% live in Israel or ancient Caanan
  • The land that was promised to them in the Torah (old testament)
  • Roots of Christianity and Islam
  • Hebrew people originate in UR Mesopotamia
  • 2000 BCE Abraham was in UR and contacted by God
  • Monotheistic religion one God or Yahweh
  • Abraham makes a covenant with God
  • God tells Abraham “Go from your country to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you and make your name great.”
  • If they listen to God he will bless them and give them Israel or Canaan
  • Abraham was 75 but had to have children
  • He made babies and left Mesopotamia to travel to Canaan or Israel with his people
  • In Israel, the land was dry, arid, and they had starvation so they moved to Egypt
  • In Egypt, they were taken as slaves
  • Exodus: Hebrew tribe was slaves in Egypt and Moses eventually was called to lead Hebrews out of Egypt
  • Moses leads them into the desert back to Israel to make their kingdom
  • In the Jewish faith, they believe a Messiah will come and unite Jews to create peace on earth
  • Christians believe the Messiah was Jesus but Jews say he was a prophet because there was no peace on earth
  • Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come
  • Moses goes to Mt Sinai to discover the 10 commandments
  • 10 commandments are at the root of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and western civilization
  • Moses and Hebrew people wander for 40 years before settling in Israel
  • 12 tribes of Hebrew people
  • Largest was Judah
  • Had the Kingdom of Israel
    • King Saul
    • King David
    • King Solomon
  • David takes Jerusalem
  • Solomon builds Solomon’s temple
    • The temple holds covenants
    • Temple was burned down 400 years after
  • The temple divides Israel
    • Kingdom of Israel in North
    • Judah in South
  • There was a fall of 2 kingdoms
  • Assyrian Empire begin takes over Jews
  • Assyrian empire was then evaporated by Babylonian Empire which captures Jerusalem and takes down Temple
  • Jewish people were then Exiled to Babylon
  • Persian King Cyrus The Great gives permission for 40k Jews to go back to Israel to rebuilt Temple
  • At Temple of Solomon, we get the tradition of Hannukah
  • Only had enough oil for a day but it lasted 8 days

10 commandments (covenant Hebrews make with God)

  1. You shall have no other gods before me
  2. No idols
  3. Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain
  4. Remember the sabbath day and keep holy (Jews Friday-Saturday, Christians Sunday)
  5. Honor your mother and father
  6. Do not kill
  7. Do not commit adultery
  8. Do not steal
  9. Do not bear false witness against neighbor
  10. Shall not covet anything of neighbor

  7. Christianity

  • #1 followed religion at 2.4 billion followers
  • 63 BCE in the kingdom of Judea where it was ruled by Romans
  • Most of the control over religious matters was controlled by Sanhedrin (Jewish court)
  • There were 2 camps of jews, those who wanted to fight Romans or those awaiting Messiah
  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem
  • At age of 30 he starts public ministry
  • Prior was baptized by John the Baptist (Jewish person)
  • Foretold coming of Jesus by Baptizing him
  • Jesus was basically a Jewish priest at that time
  • Talked about a personal relationship with God, love, forgiveness, looking out for poor and meek, and worked miracles
  • Christians believe in the old testament and new testament which are made up by Gospels or “good news”
  • Jesus gains a following with the apostles and mary magelene traveling around
  • Jesus is promising eternal life in heaven if they follow him
  • Christians believe in Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit
  • Jesus goes to Jerusalem where he was seen by many people as the Messiah but this was a problem for the Romans
  • The governor at the time was Pontius Pilot who saw Jesus as a threat
  • Prior to Jesus being arrested he had a last supper with his apostles
  • Judas was said to betray Jesus by going to the Sanhedrin to turn him in
  • He was then sentenced to be crucified and was given thorns, carry his own cross, given poison to drink
  • He had his ankles and hands nailed down to the cross and was on the cross for about 6 hours before he died
  • Roman soldiers put a spear through his side to make sure he was dead
  • He was put into a tomb
  • 3 days later he was resurrected and during this time period he visited the apostles and told them to tell the world as he ascended into heaven
  • Christianity spread slowly at first but then took off and grew in Roman empire
  • There was further Jewish rebellions where the Romans killed a lot of them and Christians were also persecuted as it was a challenge to Romans
  • Christianity continued to spread and it was the official religion of Rome eventually

Major Holidays

  • Christmas- birth of Jesus
  • Lent- 40 days before easter
  • Good Friday- Crucifixion of Jesus, Friday before Easter
  • Easter- Resurrection of Jesus

Basic Beliefs

  1. Jesus was sent by God as the son of God, born by the virgin mary, messiah that was foretold in old testament (Jews believe not messiah)
  2. Sent to cleanse the sin of man, we are born with sin but Jesus takes sin away
  3. In order to be a Christian you have to accept Christ as your savior (different from other religions in that you have to believe to go to heaven)
  4. Believe Jesus will return at Judgement day or revelation where he is sent to save
  5. Need to live a life like Jesus, love god, enemies ect
  6. A lot of christians believe they should help save other people
  7. Jesus was not just a prophet but the son of God (people of islamic and Jewish faith believe he was a great prophet)
  8. Jesus performed miracles
  9. Faith in Gospels and Jesus is savior
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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.