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Religion: Meaning and Nature

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RELIGION: MEANING AND NATURE

Religion is an almost universal institution in human society. It is found in all societies, past and present. All the preliterate societies known to us have religion. Religion goes back to the beginning of the culture itself. It is a very ancient institution. There is no primitive society without religion.

Like other social institutions, religion also arose from the intellectual power of man in response to certain felt needs of men. While most people consider religion as universal and therefore, a significant institution of societies. It is the foundation on which the normative structure of society stands.

It is the social institution that deals with sacred things, that lie beyond our knowledge and control. It has influenced other institutions. It has been exerting tremendous influence upon political and economic aspects of life. It is said that man from the earliest times has been incurably religious. Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Semitic religions), Hinduism and Buddhism; Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto (Chinese-Japanese religions) etc. are examples of the great religions of the world.

Meaning of Religion:

Religion is concerned with the shared beliefs and practices of human beings. It is the human response to those elements in the life and environment of mankind which are beyond their ordinary comprehension. Religion is pre-eminently social and is found in nearly all societies. Majumdar and Madan explain that the word religion has its origin in the Latin word Rel (I) igio. This is derived from two root words.

The first root is Leg, meaning “together, count or observe”. The second root is Lig, meaning ‘to bind’. The first root refers to belief in and practice of “signs of Divine Communication”. The second root refers to the carrying out those activities which link human beings with the supernatural powers. Thus, we find that the word religion basically represents beliefs and practices which are generally the main characteristics of all religions.

Central to all religions is the concept of faith. Religion in this sense is the organisation of faith which binds human beings to their temporal and transcendental foundation. By faith man is distinguished from other beings. It is essentially a subjective and private matter. Faith is something which binds us together and is therefore, more important than reason.

Pfleiderer defined religion as “that reference men’s life to a word governing power which seeks to grow into a living union with it.”

According to James G. Frazer considered religion as a belief in “Powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life”.

As Christopher Dauson writes, “Whenever and wherever man has a sense of dependence on external powers which are conceived as mysterious and higher than man’s own, there is religion, and the feelings of awe and self-abasement with which man is filled in the presence of such powers is essentially a religious emotion, the root of worship and prayer.”

Arnold W. Green defines religion as “a system of beliefs and symbolic practices and objects, governed by faith rather than by knowledge, which relates man to an unseen supernatural realm beyond the known and beyond the controllable.”

According to Maclver and Page, “Religion, as we understand the term, implies a relationship not merely between man and man but also between man and some higher power.”

As Gillin and Gillin says, “The social field of religion may be regarded as including those emotionalized beliefs prevalent in a social group concurring the supernatural plus crest and behaviour, material objects and symbols associated with such beliefs.”

Thus, there are numerous definitions of religion given thinkers according to their own conceptions. As a matter of fact the forms in which religion expresses itself vary so much that it is difficult to agree upon a definition. Some maintain that religion includes a belief in supernatural or mysterious powers and that it expresses itself in overt activities designed to deal with those powers.

Others regard religion as something very earthly and materialistic, designed to achieve practical ends. Sumner and Keller asserted that, “Religion in history, from the earliest to very recent days, has not been a matter of morality at all but of rites, rituals, observance and ceremony”.

Religion, in fact, is not a mere process of mediations about man’s life; it is also a means of preserving the values of life. While it is possible to define religion as belief in God or some super-natural powers, it is well to remember that there can also be a Godless religion as Buddhism.

Nature of Religion:

In sociology, the word religion is used in a wider sense than that used in religious books. A common characteristic found among all religions is that they represent a complex of emotional feelings and attitudes towards mysterious and perplexities of life.

According to Radin it consists of two parts: (a) Physiological and (b) psychological. The physiological part expresses itself in such acts as kneeling, closing the eyes, touching the feet. The psychological part consists of supernormal sensitivity to certain traditions and beliefs. While belief in supernatural powers may be considered basic to all religion, equally fundamental is the presence of a deeply emotional feeling which Golden Weiber called the “religion thrill”.

If we analyse the great religions of the world, we shall find that each of them contains, five basic elements: (1) belief in supernatural powers, (2) belief in the holy, (3) ritual, (4) acts defined as sinful and (5) some method of salvation.

1. Belief in Supernatural Powers:

The first basic element of religion is the belief that there are supernatural powers. These powers are believed to influence human life and control all natural phenomena. Some call these supernatural forces God, other call them Gods. There are even others who do not call them by any name. They simply consider them as forces in their universe. Thus, belief in the non-sensory, super-empirical world is the first element of religion.

2. Belief in the Holy:

There are certain holy or sacred elements of religion. These constitute the heart of the religion. There are certain things which are regarded as holy or sacred. But a thing is holy or sacred not because of a peculiar quality of thing. An attitude makes a thing holy. The sacred character of a tangible thing is not observable to the senses.

Sacred things are symbols. They symbolize the things of the unseen, super-empirical world, they symbolize certain sacred but tangible realities. When a Hindu worships a cow, he worships it not because of the kind of animal the cow is, but because of a host of super-empirical characteristics which this animal is imagined to represent.

3. Ritual:

Religious ritual is “the active side of religion. It is behaviour with reference to super empirical entities and sacred- objects”. It includes any kind of behavior (such as the wearing of special clothing and the immersion in certain rivers, in the Ganga for instance), prayers, hymns, creedal recitations, and other forms of reverence, usually performed with other people and in public. It can include singing, dancing, weeping, crawling, starving, feasting, etc. Failure to perform these acts is considered a sin.

4. Acts defined as Sinful:

Each religion defines certain acts as sinful and profane (unholy). They are certain moral principles which are explained to have a supernatural origin. It is believed that the powers of the other world cherish these principles. The violation of these principles creates man’s sense of guilty. It may also bring upon him the disfavour of the supernatural powers. If the behaviour is not in accordance with the religions code, the behaviour or act is considered as sinful.

5. Some Method of Salvation:

A method of salvation is the fifth basic element of religion. Man needs some method by which he can regain harmony with the Gods through removal of guilt. In Hindu religion Moksha or Salvation represents the end of life, the realisation of an inner spirituality in man.

The Hindu seeks release from the bondage of Karma, which is the joy or suffering he undergoes as a result of his actions in his life. The ultimate end of life is to attain Moksha. The Buddhist hopes to attain Salvation by being absorbed in the Godhead and entering Nirvana. The Christian has a redeemer in Christ who gave his life for man’s sins.

In short, religion is the institutionalised set of beliefs men hold about supernatural forces. It is more or less coherent system of beliefs and practices concerning a supernatural order of beings, forces, places or other entities.…...

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