Religion in Asia: What are the main faiths?

The world’s main faiths religions or philosophies include Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islamism, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism and Taoism. There are common origins for some of them.

First a note here for readers who may be confused about the two systems of quoting ancient historical or religious dates.

The traditional way, in use for many centuries, is BC and AD.  BC means ‘Before Christ‘ i.e. the number of years before Jesus Christ was born. AD is from the Latin ‘Anno Domini‘ – in the year of the Lord – referring to the number of years after the birth of Jesus.

This year is 2006 AD. The newer BCE and CE have several interpretations, but mean exactly the same. BCE is ‘Before the CommonCurrent or Christian Era‘ and CE is ‘in the Common, Current or Christian Era’. In a nutshell, BC = BCE, AD = CE.

Buddhist countries like Thailand and the Lao PDR show the number of years since the Buddha’s enlightenment in 543 AD (CE), showing this year as 2549 on their calendars (although in practice they use both systems).

Origins of the main religions: Christianity & Judaism

Christianity, Islam, Judaism (Jewish faith), Islam and Baha’i all originated with a divine covenant between the God of the ancient Israelites and Abraham around 2000 BC (BCE).

The next leader of the Israelites, Moses, led his people out of captivity in Egypt and received the Law from God. Joshua later led them into the promised land where Samuel established the Israelite kingdom with Saul as its first king. King David established Jerusalem and King Solomon built the first temple there.

In 70 AD the temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered throughout the world until 1948 when the state of Israel was formed.

People of the Jewish faith – Judaism – believe in one creator who alone is to be worshipped as absolute ruler of the universe. He monitors peoples activities and rewards good deeds and punishes evil.

The Torah was revealed to Moses by God and can not be changed, though God does communicate with the Jewish people through prophets.

Jews believe in the inherent goodness of the world and its inhabitants as creations of God and do not require a saviour to be absolved from original sin. 

They believe they are God’s chosen people and that the Messiah will arrive in the future, gather them into Israel, there will be a general resurrection of the dead, and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 CE will be rebuilt.

Christianity (the word ‘Christian’ comes from the Greek ‘christos’, equivalent of the Hebrew word for Messiah (the anointed one). It started out as a breakaway sect of Judaism some 2000 years agoJesus, the son of the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph, but conceived through the Holy Spirit, was unhappy with some of the practices within his native Jewish faith and began preaching a different message of God and religion.

During his travels he was joined by twelve disciples who followed him on his journeys and learned from him. According to the Bible, he performed many miracles during this time and related many of his teachings in the form of parables. Among his best known sayings are to “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek.”

At one point he revealed that he, Jesus, was the son of God sent to Earth to save humanity from its sins. This he did by being crucified (hung by nails on a wooden cross and left to die) for his teachings. He then ‘rose from the dead’ and appeared to his disciples and told them to go forth and spread his message.

Christianity and Judaism share the same history up to the time of Jesus Christ, so they are similar in many of their basic concepts. However, one notable difference is that Christians believe in ‘original sin’ and that Jesus died in their place to save them from that sin.

Secondly, they also believe that Jesus was fully human, fully God and also the Son of God. This is the Holy Trinity (three): God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit. All Christians believe in heaven and that those who sincerely repent their sins before God, will be saved and join him in heaven. Belief in hell and Satan (the Devil) varies among groups and individuals.

There are many different forms of Christianity which have developed either because of disagreements on dogma, adaptation to different cultures, or simply personal taste. For this reason there can be a great difference between the various forms of Christianity; they may even seem like different religions to some people.



Islam was founded in 622 AD by Muhammad the Prophet, in Makkah (also spelled Mecca). Though technically it is the youngest of the world’s major religionsMuslims do not view it as a new religion. They believe that it is the same faith taught by the prophets, Abraham, David, Moses and Jesus.

The role of Muhammad as the last prophet was to formalize and clarify the faith and purify it by removing ideas which were added in error.

The two sacred texts of Islam are the Qur’an (Koran) which are the words of Allah ‘the One True God’ as given to Muhammad, and the Hadith, which is a collection of Muhammad’s sayings. The duties of all Muslims are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and are to:

  1. Recite the shahadah at least once.
  2. Perform the salat (prayer) 5 times a day while facing the Kaaba in Makkah.
  3. Donate regularly to charity via the zakat, a 2.5% charity tax, and through additional donations to the needy.
  4. Fast during the month of Ramadan, the month that Muhammad received the Qur’an from Allah.
  5. Make pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in life, if economically and physically possible.

Muslims follow a strict monotheism with one creator who is just, omnipotent and merciful. They also believe in Satan who drives people to sin, and that all unbelievers and sinners will spend eternity in Hell. Muslims who sincerely repent and submit to God will return to a state of sinlessness and go to Paradise after death.

Alcohol, drugs, and gambling should be avoided and they reject racism. They respect the earlier prophets, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, but regard the concept of the divinity of Jesus as blasphemous and do not believe that he was executed on the cross.



Buddhism developed out of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who, in 535 BC, reached enlightenment and assumed the title Buddha. He promoted ‘The Middle Way’ as the path to enlightenment rather than the extremes of mortification of the flesh or hedonism.

Long after his death the Buddha’s teachings were written down. This collection is called the Tripitaka. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that one must go through cycles of birth, life, and death.

After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana. In general, Buddhists do not believe in any type of God, the need for a saviour, prayer, or eternal life after death.

However, since the time of the Buddha, Buddhism has been integrated with animism and many regional religious rituals, beliefs and customs that have spread throughout Asia, so that this generalization is no longer true for all Buddhists. This has occurred with little conflict due to the philosophical nature of Buddhism.


The origins of Hinduism can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization sometime between 4000 and 2500 BC. Though believed by many to be a polytheistic religion (belief in many gods), the basis of Hinduism is the belief in the unity of everything. This totality is called Brahman.

The purpose of life is to realise that people are part of God and by doing so they can leave this plane of existence and rejoin with God. This enlightenment can only be achieved by going through cycles of birth, life and death known as samsara.

One’s progress towards enlightenment is measured by his karma. This is the accumulation of all one’s good and bad deeds and this determines the person’s next reincarnation.

Selfless acts and thoughts as well as devotion to God help one to be reborn at a higher level. Bad acts and thoughts will cause one to be born at a lower level, as a person or even an animal (similar to Buddhist belief).

Hindus follow a strict caste system which determines the social standing of each person. The caste one is born into is the result of the karma from a previous life.

Only members of the highest caste, the brahmins, may perform the Hindu religious rituals and hold positions of authority within the temples.


K’ung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was born in 551 BC (similar time as the Buddha) in the state of Lu in China. He travelled throughout China giving advice to its rulers and teaching. His teachings and writings dealt with individual morality and ethics, and the proper exercise of political power. He stressed the following values:

  • Li: ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc.
  • Hsiao: love among family members
  • Yi: righteousness
  • Xin: honesty and trustworthiness
  • Jen: benevolence towards others; the highest Confucian virtue
  • Chung: loyalty to the state, etc.

Unlike most religions, Confucianism is primarily an ethical system with rituals at important times during one’s lifetime. The most important periods recognized in the Confucian tradition are birth, reaching maturity, marriage, and death.


Taoism was founded by Lao-Tse, a contemporary of Confucius in China. Taoism began as a combination of psychology and philosophy which Lao-Tse hoped would help end the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts of his time.

His writings, the Tao-te-Ching, describe the nature of life, the way to peace and how a ruler should lead his life. Taoism became a religion in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion.

Tao, roughly translated as path, is a force which flows through all life and is the first cause of everything. The goal of everyone is to become one with the Tao. Tai Chi, a technique of exercise using slow deliberate movements, is used to balance the flow of energy or “chi” within the body.

People should develop virtue and seek compassion, moderation and humility. One should plan any action in advance and achieve it through minimal action. Yin (dark side) and Yang (light side) symbolize pairs of opposites which are seen through the universe, such as good and evil, light and dark, male and female.

The impact of human civilization upsets the balance of Yin and Yang. Taoists believe that people are by nature, good, and that one should be kind to others simply because such treatment will probably be reciprocated.


Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion, closely tied to nature, which recognizes the existance of various “Kami”, nature dieties. The first two deities, Izanagi and Izanami, gave birth to the Japanese islands and their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans.

One of their daughters, Amaterasu (Sun Goddess), is the ancestress of the Imperial Family and is regarded as the chief deity. All the Kami are benign and serve only to sustain and protect. They are not seen as separate from humanity due to sin because humanity is “Kami’s Child.”

Followers of Shinto desire peace and believe all human life is sacred. They revere “musuhi”, the Kami’s creative and harmonizing powers, and aspire to have “makoto”, sincerity or true heart. Morality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. There are “Four Affirmations” in Shinto:

  • Tradition and family: the family is the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved.
  • Love of nature: nature is sacred and natural objects are to be worshipped as sacred spirits.
  • Physical cleanliness: they must take baths, wash their hands, and rinse their mouth often.
  • “Matsuri”: festival which honors the spirits


Sikhism faith was founded by Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the Punjab area, now Pakistan. He began preaching the way to enlightenment and God after receiving a vision. After his death a series of nine Gurus (regarded as reincarnations of Guru Nanak) led the movement until 1708.

At this time these functions passed to the Panth and the holy text. This text, the Shri Guru Granth Sahib, was compiled by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. It consists of hymns and writings of the first ten Gurus, along with texts from different Muslim and Hindu saints. The holy text is considered the 11th and final Guru.

Sikhs believe in a single formless God with many names, who can be known through meditation. Sikhs pray many times each day and are prohibited from worshipping idols or icons.

They believe in samsara, karma, and reincarnation as Hindus do but reject the caste system, believing that everyone has equal status in the eyes of God. During the 18th century, there were a number of attempts to prepare an accurate portrayal of Sikh customs.

Sikh scholars and theologians started in 1931 to prepare the Reht Maryada — the Sikh code of conduct and conventions.

This has successfully achieved a high level of uniformity in the religious and social practices of Sikhism throughout the world. It contains 27 articles, the first of which defines a Sikh as any human being who faithfully believes in all of the following:

  • One Immortal Being;
  • Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Guru Gobind Singh;
  • The Guru Granth Sahib;
  • The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and
  • The baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru, and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion.
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