With a loose working definition for a religion (as a set of customs and traditions associated with a broad set of values encompassing one or more aspects of life), various religions may be identified in the last 10000 years of human history. While most of the religions were polytheist in nature for a very long duration till last 2000 years or so, there is a reverse in trend with the consolidation of exclusivist version of monotheism in the last two millenium.
Study of religions is biased towards major religions of the day. Major religions are also described as great religions interchageably without justification. Monotheism of Islam and Christianity (and of Jews) is treated, often, as an evolved concept from previous primitive religions. Antiquity of Judaism and Christianity, recentness of Islam are highlighted conveniently not just in media but also in academic circles. In this context, the following is a brief overview of history and features of world religions.
The religions of Hindus are oldest, existing even during remote Kritayuga. Jainism dates Rishabha to an ancient period. Zoroaster has a time period of 6000 years before plato. Buddhism was at its peak about 3000 years ago. Jewish traditions consider Abraham about 4800 years ago. Christianity is 2000 years old and Islam is as recent as about 1300 years.
Archeological evidences have been found from Paleolithic periods several hundred thousand years ago. Specific burial practices, symbolic artifacts from stone age sites of Africa have proving religious traditions emanating from a distant past. Relatively recent archeological findings such as artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic (50,000-13,000) include the lion man, the Venus figurines, cave paintings from Chauvet Cave and the elaborate ritual burial from Sungir.
The Neolithic religions determined from the excavations of Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, had female figurines. The well-formed, carefully made figurines, carved and molded from marble, blue and brown limestone, schist, calcite, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented a female deity of the Great Goddess type. Although a male deity existed as well. A stately goddess seated on a throne flanked by two female lions – was found in a grain bin is believed be a means of ensuring the harvest or protecting the food supply.
The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are eligious texts in the world dating to between 2400-2300 BCE. Time period of Vedas are not known and Hindus consider them as ever existent from time immemorial.
All religions of the world from very ancient period to the present day, excluding Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are polytheist in nature. Although Monotheism is defined as belief in the existence of only one god. Polytheism includes all gods, considers universe as gods. Christian Church interprets monotheism in a more restricted manner as a “belief in one personal and transcendent God”.
Monotheism, as used herein, refers to exclusivist religions exemplified by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Dualism, Non-dualism, and qualified non-dualism of India are not exclusivist but are related to polytheism and pantheism. The vocabulary and the discussion about religions is influenced by exclusivist religions, especially the Christianity.
Thoretically, several conjectures have been proposed by Scholars of the 18th – 20th centuries. Edward Burnett Tylor and Herbert Spencer proposed the concept of animism, archaeologist John Lubbock used the term “fetishism”, religious scholar Max Müller advocated religious roots in hedonism and folklorist and Wilhelm Mannhardt suggested that religion began in “naturalism”. [Animism – Worshipping natural objects; fetishism – belief of magical powers of fetishes; hedonism – ethical principles around pursuit of pleasure as the highest good; folklorist – ardent follower of folklore; naturalism – mythological explanation of natural events.]
The terms zoolatry (worshipping animals), idolatry (worshipping idols), monolatry (one god without talking about others), cosmolatry (worship of cosmos), astrolatry(astronomical), autolatry(self), diabolatry(devils), hagiolatry(saints), heliolatry(sun), selenolatry (worship of the moon) created by Christian perspective of urreligion are not useful in positively characterizing non exclusivist religions. Each of the eastern, early semitic, pre-mohammad, Aftrican and american religions have many of the above descriptions. Hindu religions have all of these characteristics.
The study of religions led by Western academicians are crippled by the exclusivist ideas associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If a set of religious beliefs are creating obstacles for an open minded academic study, it is time to shed those religious beliefs and initiate a sincere study of religions.