Hopi Religion

Hopi Religion Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1996

Hopi people do not have a Hopi religion in the same way most European-Americans think of religion.  Hopi life is Hopi religion. There is no separation of the religious life from all other activities of the Hopi. Planting corn, weaving fabric, caring for children are all religious activities.  Likewise the elaborate ceremonies of the Hopi are also seen as practical activities. Their purpose is to ensure the continuation of life.  The practical and religious have no separation in Hopi life and faith (Loftin 3).  For most traditional Hopi it would be literally unthinkable not to have faith in what they see as their unbroken relationship with the Creator that extends back through the history of four worlds and will continue for three more worlds and beyond.

The complexity and richness of Hopi beliefs form volumes of information that is not only far, far beyond the scope of this essay, but much of which is not public information. This essay will attempt to give a small sampling of Hopi beliefs and life.

The Hopi believe that the First World was endless space and the Creator, Taiowa. The Creator first created his nephew Sotuknang and gave him the job of harmoniously forming the universes. Sotuknang in turn created Kokyangwuti, Spider Woman, whom he charged with the job of helping create life on earth, giving the web of life knowledge, wisdom, and love.  Spider Woman then created the twins, Poqanghoya and Palongawhoya, whose job it was to solidify the earth and bring it into balance. The twins were then stationed at the earth’s two poles to ensure this stability.  Spider Woman then began creating all the plant and animal life forms on earth, giving each a name. She molded each out of the earth, covered them with her white cape, sang over them, and gave them life. The Creator and his nephew were both very pleased with the quality of her work.

The Creator then ordered Spider Woman to create human beings. This time she gathered earth of four different colors: yellow, red, white, and black. She molded a figure of each using the liquid of her mouth to form them. She covered them with the white-substance of her cape, which was the essence of wisdom, and they were created in the image of Sotuknang. She then created four more creatures in her own image to be the female partners for the first four men. When she uncovered them it was in the time of the dark purple light — the first phase of creation. The people soon began to move but they were still damp and they still had a soft spot on their heads. The breath of life entered them and it was then the time of the yellow light — the second phase of creation. Then the Sun appeared on the horizon drying the people and hardening the soft spot on their heads. This was the time of the red light and the third phase of the dawn of creation.  The Spider Woman told the people to look at the sun as it was their father, the Creator.

Spider Woman found that the people could not talk so she called upon Sotuknang for help. He gave them the gift of speech and a different language for each color. He also gave them a respect for each other’s differences, wisdom, and power to reproduce and multiply.  He gave them these great gifts with only one requirement: that they always respect, remember, and honor the Creator.

The First People in the First World went out with the pristine wisdom granted them and lived in beautiful harmony with their Mother Earth and all its creation.  All people understood that their real father was the Creator, and their real mother was Mother Earth —  they were made of her flesh and suckled at her breast. The First People multiplied and spread over the earth. They understood each other without talking and the same was true in their dealings with the animals and plants.  But after time they began to forget to respect and honor the Creator, and they began to use their powers only to satisfy their own pleasures. It was at this time that the animals withdrew from the people and became afraid of them. The people of different colors and languages also began to draw away from one another. The Creator was not happy with the way things were developing. Sotuknang gathered together those people who still remembered to follow the ways of the Creator and told them to travel to a large mound where the Ant People lived.  The Ant People invited the people to live with them below the earth. Sotuknang then destroyed the First World with fire. Meanwhile the people learned many useful things living with the wise and hard working Ant People. After the Second World was created the people were allowed to emerge again.  It was not as beautiful as before but still very beautiful. The animals remained wild and kept away from the people.  The people began trading and bartering and soon they became greedy and wanted more and more. They soon forgot to sing praises to the Creator and instead sang praises to the goods they traded. They began to fight amongst themselves and war between villages.  There were still some that remembered the Creator and sang his songs. These people were again spared the destruction of the Second World by being sheltered underground.  The Second World was destroyed by ice.

After a long period of recovery the Third World was created and the people were once again allowed to emerge and again they multiplied, this time creating great cities, and, again, the people became more involved in earthly, material pursuits than in praising and relating to the Creator.  Still a few people clung to the ways of the Creator.  The people became so corrupt they even made flying machines in which they could attack one another. This time the just were saved from destruction by Spider Woman, who sealed them in hollow reeds with food and water, and the Third World was destroyed by a huge flood.  When the Fourth World was created the Spider Woman directed the people to search for the place they should make their home and not settle anywhere where life would be easy for them, as they would just fall into evil ways again.

The people divided into groups to begin their migrations and the search for the promised land.  They were instructed to travel to the ends of the earth and back. The traveling migration groups of the Hopi were called the clans.  The Creator sent the god of death, Maasaw, to give them instructions on the migration, how to know their final home when they found it, and how to live when they arrived. These instructions were written symbolically on tablets he gave the four major clans. He explained to them that the clans must make migration in the four directions to the end of the earth in each direction before they could reach their home.  The marks and influences of these migrations can be seen all over the Americas. Some settled in the tropics, living the easy life, ignoring the Creator’s law. There they built great cities that were destined to fail. Some clans persisted and finished the migrations and found their true homeland.  It was, as recommended by Spider Woman,  a land of difficulty where they would have to rely on sparse rainfall to grow their crops and rely on their prayer to the Creator for help and sustenance in survival (Waters 3-36).

It was the Bear Clan that first completed the full migration and found the Hopi Mesas in what is now northeastern Arizona. They settled in a village called Oraibi. As other clans arrived from the migrations, they had to apply to the Bear Clan for permission to settle. If they had used their powers wrongly during the migration, they had to settle in other villages. If they hadn’t misused their powers, they had to demonstrate their ceremonial contributions to prove their worthiness. The clans arrived, settling on the three Hopi Mesas, developing their skills in dry land farming and grazing. They evolved an annual cycle of ceremonies to keep them in touch with the Creator.  They were assisted each year by kachina, spirits who blessed and helped their efforts. [The word kachina is now being replaced by the word katsina, as there is no ch sound in the Hopi language.] Their religious life was connected to the practical life of each day (Waters 109-111).

When Maasaw instructed the people on how to farm the land, he told them that they could use the land only if they did so with humility and with good harmonious hearts. If they exhibited arrogant, greedy, or disrespectful behavior, or did not maintain their obligations to the Creator, the sparse rains would not come and their labor would be in vain. To insure that they kept their connection to the Creator this time, after the previous three failures, the Hopi developed one of the most complex and wonderful year-long ceremonial cycles human beings have ever devised.

One of the most important aspects of Hopi ceremony is the kiva. It is an underground chamber, circular or rectangular in shape, that is sunk into the earth like the womb of Mother Earth.  While public dances are held in the village plaza, secret ceremonies are held in the kivas. Ladders lead down into the kiva where, at the center, is a fire pit. The eastern side is raised above the level of the western side and the priests always occupy the lower level and the novices the raised level. Each village may have any number of kivas.  Oraibi once had fourteen active kivas.  The kiva is the focal point of the religious life and the heart of the ceremonies and propagation of Hopi life (Waters 126-7). Another important element of nearly all Hopi ceremonies is the pahos or prayer stick. The feathers in a pahos may be of any kind but usually an eagle feather is used.  From the time of the Hopi’s emergence to the Fourth World, eagle feathers were used as a vehicle to carry messages from the people to the Creator. The pahos can also contain cotton string, painted sticks, corn pollen and husk, honey, and other materials.  A pahos is made with great prayerfulness and smoked over.  It is then used in a shrine where its invisible power is absorbed by the forces of life (Waters 131-2). Ritual smoking is the most common form of Hopi prayer among men. John Loftin has summarized the practice as follows:

[Ritual smoking] involves the smoking of Hopi tobacco mixed with rain tobacco or spruce, pine, and aspen in a variety of clay pipes with reed stems.  The participants sit in a semicircle, and each one “drinks” four puffs of smoke from the pipe, which is then passed to the next person. As the pipe changes hands, the two men involved exchange kinship terms — for example, “my father-my son,” my uncle-my nephew” — thus demonstrating the unity of their hearts in requesting material blessing from the sacred. The Hopi feel that prayers are effective only if the participants are united in their thoughts and feeling, which should be focused on harmony and fertility for all the world. They also think that one participant with bad feelings, such as anger, greed, or arrogance, can ruin the efficacy of Hopi prayer. (38)

Other important elements found in Hopi ceremonies are cornmeal and medicine water. Sacred cornmeal is used in a multitude of ways in the ceremonies. Cornmeal is symbolic of Mother Corn, which is synonymous with Mother Earth — Corn is the sustenance of life. Medicine water is created by refracting a ray of sunlight through a piece of quartz into a bowl of pure spring water. It is a uniting of heaven and earth, of the male and female, to form sacred water for use in ceremonies.

Alph H. Secakuku describes the great Hopi ceremonial cycle according to the rhythm of the moon (5).  Muya comes for Muuyawa, which means moon:

Kelmuya: Men’s Societies Ceremonies — Each year the Hopi religious calendar is formalized and decreed  during this season in November. The Wuwuchim ceremony  participants are restricted to those who have completed  the “manhood” initiation. In the ceremony they proudly  commemorate and celebrate the wholeness of the creation  of the Fourth World. The ceremony requires eight days  of preparations and eight days of kiva rituals. The  ceremony is announced, participants purify and ready  themselves, perform sacred secret ceremonials in the  kivas, and a public dance is performed in the plaza to  involve the entire community.  As this is the first  great ceremony of the ceremonial cycle the fire of life  is lit, the emergence from the underworld proudly  commemorated, germination of life on earth celebrated,  and the eternal path of life for all humankind proudly  set.

Kyaamuya: Storytelling and Soyalangwu — This period in December is a time of reverence and respect for the  spirit beings.  It is a time for storytelling and the  performance of the Soyal ceremony.  Elders tell stories  both on adult and children’s levels. They are meant to  serve as moral guides and maintain a high standard of  Hopi life.  Soyalangwu ceremony is performed at the  arrival of Kyaamuya, the winter solstice season. The  sunrise and lunar observations set the time for the  ceremony.  This ceremony is to give direction to the  germination begun in the Wuwuchim ceremony. No colorful  public dance is performed during this period.  Instead,  its religious significance derives throughout from  rituals in the kiva which include reverent silence,  fasting for purification and humility, and the eating  of sacred Hopi foods to achieve prolonged spiritual  concentration and dedication. It is at this time that  the Soyal Katsina, the first katsina of the season  appears.

Paamuya: Social Dances — This is the time of the  “moisture moon,” in January.  It is marked by “social”  dances held at night in the kiva or homes, or in the  plaza by day.  The dances often deal with animals of  the area and involve women and men in carefully planned  and rehearsed dances. It is a festive time of reverence  and pleasure.

Powamuya: Bean Dance, Katsinam — The Powamuya is  perhaps the most complex of all Hopi ceremonies.  The  ceremony is the third of the great winter ceremonies  and among its purposes is to purify the new life that  has begun in the first two ceremonies. Beans are  planted in the kivas and grown as part of the  ceremonies. It is also a time of initiation of Hopi  children into either the Powamu or Katsina societies.  In this ceremony the katsinam appear among the Hopi so  life for all humankind can have substantial growth and  maturity.

Osomuya: Night Dances, Soo’so’yoktu, Katsinam – This season encompasses the month of March when a series of  katsina night dances takes place in each of the  villages.  From now until the end of July the katsina  rituals and beliefs will be manifested in the lives of  the Hopi.  The katsinam are ever-watchful spirit  beings, the invisible forces of life and messengers who  listen for humble prayers. The immediate goal of the  night dances is to create a pleasant atmosphere for all  life forms, encourage their growth, and bring all-  important rain.

Kwiyamuya: Hototom, Katsinam —  April is the time  fruit trees begin budding and planting time is there  for gardens and some early crops.  It is also time to  build windbreaks, called kwiya, for the seedlings. It  is a time of racer and mudhead katsinas visiting the  villages and creating much entertainment and  excitement.

Hakitonmuya: Hototom, Katsinam — This is the time for  planting beans, pumpkins, melons, and gourds. In May  men of different clans go forth to collect eaglets and  young hawks and adopt them into their clan families.  The families have said prayers to the mother eagles to  let them have an eagle and a gift of turquoise or  polished shell is left in the nest for the mother.  The  Hopi believe that anything young, like eaglets, is  innocent and pure of heart, thus possessing the  greatest spiritual powers.  Treated the same as newborn  Hopi children, the eaglets receive a ritual blessing,  have their “hair” washed, and are given a Hopi family  surname. The eaglets remain in the village to live with  and observe the people in the village for the rest of  the time of the katsinam.

Wuko’uyis: Katsinam — This is the June planting  season. It is an important time for all plant life,  especially the sacred corn which needs special blessing  to support its growth to maturity.  Traditionally, a  clan mother sponsors an organized planting party in her  clan corn field. It is also the time of the human  clowns. At about noon, a rowdy handful of human clowns  appear on the roof of one of the houses of the plaza  and make their raucous and awkward way down, in search  of the katsinam. The clowns have a very complex  ceremonial role. They act out many activities  indicative of that which is not in keeping with the  Hopi way — dishonesty, disrespectfulness, laziness. In  doing so they provide a great deal of amusement for the  people. Their acts also provide serious and wise  advice because the clowns are powerful critics of  unacceptable behavior.

Talangva: Katsinam Niman — The month of July is when all activities of summer climax with the sacred Niman ceremony or Home Dance — the all-important ritual  ending the katsina season. In the Niman ceremony, the  katsinam who have been on earth in their physical form  since the winter solstice will return home to their  spiritual world.  The ceremony is performed at  midsummer and is a time of high prayer and kiva rituals  as well as the final katsina dances. On the first day  of the Home dance the katsinas give the adopted eagles  the same presents given to good Hopi boys and girls:  katsina dolls, toy bows and arrows, and other gifts.  The eagles are then smothered in cornmeal. All their  feathers are removed except the head feathers and one  primary feather on each wing.  The removed feathers are  used in ceremonies for years to come and in that way  they stay a part of and continue bestowing blessings on  the family and village into which they were adopted.  The eagles are ritually buried with the gifts they  received from the katsinas. The eagles and their  knowledge of how the Hopi have been living then return  to the spirit land with the katsina.

Tala’paamuya: Snake-Antelope or Flute Ceremonies — This is the time of the summer social dances which include the Flute and the Snake-Antelope ceremonies

which are held on alternate years. The Flute Ceremony is a symbolic representation of the entire pattern of   humanity from the emergence to the present through song  and dance. The ceremony is to help bring the last of  summer rains and warming to mature the crops. The  Snake-Antelope Ceremony is the most famous to the  general public of all the Hopi ceremonies due to its  sensational aspect of men dancing with live  rattlesnakes in their mouths.  The ceremony lasts  sixteen days and the Snake Dance is held on the final  day.  The ceremony consists of gathering the snakes,  of races, and of dances.  The Snake Dance itself does  consist of the men dancing with all kinds of snakes,  including rattlesnakes, clenched gently between their  teeth.  Rarely is anyone bitten.  After the dance the  snakes are released outside the village with the  blessing that they carry the message of the renewal of  life to the four corners of the world.

Nasanmuya: Maraw, Harvest — This is the harvest season  in September and the time of the beginning of the  women’s ceremonies. The Marawimi Ceremony is performed  only by those women and a few men who are initiated  into the Maraw society. The ceremony is focused on  prayer and meditation.

Toho’osmuya: Lakon, O’waqolt — October is the time that the women’s ceremonies continue. Only women who are part of the Lakon society can participate in the

Lakon Ceremony and a few men are also participants to carry out specific ceremonial duties. The ceremony  deals with reinforcing maternal ideals. The final part  of the women’s ceremonies is O’waqolt, or the Basket  Dance.  As with the previous two ceremonies, the dance  involves both men and women and encourages healthy  impregnation and maternal ideals.

From approximately the winter solstice to the summer solstice the Hopi are assisted in their ceremonies by the spirits called katsinam. Katsinam are believed to come from the San Francisco Mountains to the west of the Hopi mesas, but they are also said to be from neighboring stars and distant worlds. They are invisible forces of life. They are not gods but messengers.  Their mission is to help bring rain and snow, moisture to help the continuation of life through the crops of the Hopi. There have been as many as 350 different katsina in the Hopi ceremonies. When the men who impersonate the katsinam dance, they lose their own identities and become the katsina.  It is a great responsibility.  Girls are given likenesses of the katsina carved from cottonwood roots to help them learn about the spirits. It is believed that the katsinam emerged with the people, were with them on their migrations, and now continue to help them.  The songs and dances of the katsinam are meant to serve as prayer, to provide help, and to bring happiness. The katsinam can be extremely powerful and at times terrifying in their incredible costumes (Waters 165-7). The creative force of the katsinam make them some of the most outstanding artistic expressions of any culture. The design and construction of hundreds of different katsina costumes is stunning in its diversity.  The songs and dances of the katsinam are equally amazing.  Each song and dance has a traditional complexity far beyond a non-Hopi’s understanding, but within that tradition each performer has the latitude for creative variations, which if very well done, are considered the ultimate in Hopi creativity. The katsinam are capable of expressing the full range of spiritual and human dimensions: from dignity and prayerfulness to beauty and loveliness to terror and ugliness to comedy and even vulgarity.

All the katsinam return to their spiritual homeland after the Niman ceremony with the exception of one, the Maasaw katsina. He is designated to stay and look over the Hopi villages and keep them safe. Maasaw is a wonderfully complex god in Hopi beliefs. He not only gave the Hopis their land and taught them farming, but also taught them fire making, homebuilding, and hunting skills. It must also be remembered that he is the god of death. The description given of the god in the numerous stories of his escapades is a most gruesome one:

He was about to step past the stranger, when the man [Maasaw] all at once changed his appearance so drastically that he now looked most repulsive. By making his transformation he had turned himself into a grotesque figure. His head was of colossal size and his face was covered with blood. Sores infested his head, from which sprouted only a sparse covering of hair. Ugh, he presented such an ugly sight!  His body was clearly in a state of putrefaction, so offensive was the stench he emitted. His shins were clearly visible, spotted with boils from which dripped pus (Molitki & Lomatuway’ma 45).

Maasaw had the capability to change himself into other forms as needed, primarily in order not to frighten villagers who could sometimes die from the sight of him. Hopi stories abound of his adventures that range from nobly protecting the Hopi people and helping them against their enemies to lecherous acts of taking sexual advantage of women.

Stories played a key role in the education of children and the general perpetuation of the cultural legacy of the Hopi. The stories ranged from complex tales of the migrations of the clans to children’s tales of morals and humor. The following illustrates the latter category:

Holding Up the Cliff

Coyote was living out there south of Oraibi, and one day he was going around looking for something to eat when he saw a grasshopper clinging to the base of a cliff. Coyote thought that the grasshopper looked very peculiar, with its legs against the cliff wall that way, but he was hungry and decided to eat it if he could. As he approached the grasshopper it said, “Thanks that you have come! I have been waiting all night.”

Coyote said, Why? Is something the matter?” and the grasshopper answered, “Matter? Yes, everything is the matter. The cliff wall is about to come down, and if it falls, the whole village will come down with it. I wanted to go up there and warn the people, but there was no time. So I stayed here and braced my feet against the cliff to hold it in place.” Coyote said, “Oh, that is something good that you are doing.”

The grasshopper said, “Now that you are here, I can warn the people of Oraibi. Come quickly and hold the wall for me.” Coyote went at once, lay on his side, and braced all four feet against the rocks.  The grasshopper said, “Do you have it held firmly?” Coyote said, “Yes, I’m holding it Go quickly, I don’t know how long I can hold it.” The grasshopper asked again, “Do you have it?” and Coyote said, “Yes, I have it.” Then the grasshopper leaped away.

Coyote laid there for a long time, his feet braced against the cliff wall. He was pushing very hard, and he was getting tired. At last he said, “I can’t hold it any longer!” So he jumped up and scrambled away, expecting the cliff to come down on him. But nothing happened, Coyote said, “Well, I did a good thing. I held it until Grasshopper arrived at the village and warned the people. They must have fixed it up above.”  told by Abbot Sekaquaptewa in July of 1968. (Courlander 232-3)

The Hopi life is one built around an oral tradition and complex web of ceremony, ritual, and traditions that are designed to keep them in touch with the Creator. This connection begins at birth. For the first twenty days of a child’s life it is kept in a darkened room. The process has been explained as follows:

…the twenty day confinement period after birth is understood as a reenactment of the emergence myth, the darkened room symbolizing the underworld from which the Hopi emerged in the beginning. The baby when born is perceived by the Hopi to be incomplete, just as the first Hopis were in the underworld.  According to tradition, Hopis in the underworld underwent a metamorphosis from insect-like creatures to fully human beings who finally emerged into this world.  The twenty-day confinement period following a birth is divided into four periods of five days each, symbolic of previous worlds.  The day after the birth the attendant rubs four lines of sacred cornmeal onto the four walls of the room, each one about one inch wide and six inches long.  Then at sunrise on the tenth, fifteenth and twentieth days, one cornmeal line is removed to symbolize the transition of the infant from one world to another. At sunrise on the twentieth day, the baby is considered to have emerged to this world and is taken outside to the edge of the mesa to be presented for the first time to the sun…..  The presentation of a twenty-day old infant to the sun is likened to the emergence of the Hopi through the earth navel. (Loftin 29)

The beauty of this ceremony in connecting each newborn with the original creation of the Hopi themselves is typical of the repeated connections made throughout the life of each individual Hopi with all Hopi before. It is also a very gentle way to make the transition from the dark warmth of the womb to the light of the Hopi world.  Each traditional Hopi is so deeply connected to the past and to all other Hopi that to ask them of their “roots” would only evoke a very perplexed response.

The Hopi culture follows a matriarchal lineage and property rights. Following clan and kinship, women own the homes, the cisterns, and even the sacred tiiponi, which is the “heart” of each of the major men’s ceremonies. This may seem strange in a culture that is so ceremonially dominated by men and their complex cycle of religious observance, but it is a characteristic of many cultures. Women are perceived as innately sacred. They have, naturally, tremendous sacred power to create life within themselves. They are the human manifestation of Mother Earth. Men, on the other hand, need to create external structures of relationship with God to attempt to make themselves sacred and keep a connection with the Creator.

Hopi women are also the owners of the fields. They call upon the male members of their kinship group to assist them in caring for the crops. The dry agriculture of the Hopi lands can easily be seen as a condition which would need divine intervention for success. When the Hopi emerged they were given their choice of what they wished to grow for sustenance. Staying with Spider Woman’s advice, they chose a short blue variety of corn that is noted for its difficulty to grow but also its hardiness.  The Hopi now grow six kinds of traditional corn: yellow, blue, white, red, purple and sweet.  These colors correspond to the cardinal directions of the Hopi: red, southeast; white, northeast; blue, southwest; yellow, northwest; purple, up; and sweet or speckled corn, toward the center of the earth (Page 31). Corn is seen not only as the basis for the life of the Hopi but a metaphor for the Hopi themselves. The Hopi word quatungwu means a harvested corn plant and also a human corpse.  They are  both transitory (Loftin 31). The Hopi concept of death and the afterlife is also deeply connected with their entire cosmic understanding. “Afterlife” is not the best way to describe the Hopi’s sense of what happens after death; it is more a continuation of a very long cycle. The Hopi don’t explicitly talk of reincarnation but the general belief is that people are born back into this world to continually take part in the immense continuity of humankind working its way through seven worlds in seven successive universes for an eventual forty-nine states of existence. There can be some exceptions to this continual reemergence. If people lead a ritually perfect existence, there is a chance they would become a katsina and join the spirit realm. If people are evil, practicing witchcraft, their reemergence into the cycle of life might be excruciatingly slow and painful. The Hopi way is not to dwell on a fear of damnation or a chance of eternal glory, but to be content to live in the nature cycle of Hopi life. The Hopi way is to shun individual honor, gain, fame, and attention.  The Hopi priests who take part in the great ceremonies return to everyday life as common villagers when the ceremony is finished. There is no “full-time” priesthood (Waters 192). The Hopi way is to live with the patterns of life as  a harmonious component. People are willing to play the needed roles to keep in unity with the Creator. Hopi morals and ethics are tied to the ceremonial and everyday life, as there is no difference seen between the two. Humility, kindness, peacefulness, and generosity is a way of life, not a set of imposed rules. Life is to be experienced in a receptive manner rather than as a series of events where the individual attempts to manipulate life by imposing individual will.

Today about 6,500 of the 9,500 Hopi live in villages on or around the three ancient mesas. The villages express considerable independence in government and religious ceremonies (Secakuku 1), but they are all represented by a tribal council imposed by the U.S. government. The history of foreign intervention into Hopi life is a long and extremely complex one. Spanish, American, Navajo, and other pressures and influences have taken their toll on the Hopi ways, but compared to many Native American groups they have been extraordinarily resilient. Only about five percent of the Hopis have converted to Christianity and they have maintained the core of their homeland, although Navajo encroachment continues (Page 157).  The Hopi have had the title of “The People of Peace” imposed on them by whites. Their basic ethical persuasion is certainly one of peace and harmony, but they have not been without conflict, especially conflict within the Hopi. From the time of the migrations to the present the Hopis have not been all of one mind. Today among themselves there is a split between what the whites have labeled the “traditionalists,” those who would stay strictly to the old ways, and the “progressives,” those who would adapt to the American ways around them. Most Hopis reject these labels as the distinctions are not nearly that clear.

Certainly, the fullness of the Hopi ceremonial cycle has been eroded. One has only to contemplate the commitment, devotion, and immense amount of labor and time it would take to maintain the ceremonial cycle in the old ways, to see how quickly modern ways and thinking could diminish it. While the lessening of devotion to the ceremonial cycle saddens many Hopi, it is also seen by many as the fulfillment of prophesy. According to the Hopi cosmic vision, the Fourth World will inevitably end as did the first three.  The end will come in a similar way with the Hopi slowly forgetting and not observing their obligations to the Creator.  The Creator will then again call those faithful into protection, destroy the Fourth World, and start anew with the Fifth World. This apocalyptic vision caught special attention during the Cold War Years, particularly in the 1980’s when it looked as if we might well destroy ourselves. The prophecy has had a fatalistic impact on some Hopi, but many elders contend that is not the proper reaction to the prophecy:

Prophecy provides one with a strong direction in life. It illustrates definite patterns of evolution in this world, lets individuals know what to expect for the future, and as such prepares them for the inevitable. By taking note of prophecy and recognizing the signs of its fulfillment, people can adjust their lives in accordance with the ways of the universe, and by doing so, prolong the existence of this world. There is a definite strength in prophecy; it provides a clear recognition of present day realities, it calls for an acceptance of disharmony and corruption in spirit, and it points toward the importance of self-sufficiency, self-discipline, and attentiveness to Hopi teachings and practices in preparation for the next world.  Unfortunately, few Hopis appear to be taking note of prophecy and adjusting their lives for the better….  Most people express frustration and depression when talking about prophecy….  Prophecy has been used as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility in improving the qualities of life and behaving in a way that follows Hopi teachings and beliefs. There runs a tremendous pessimism throughout Hopi that things will only get worse….  It is foretold that although this world will end, no one can predict exactly when this event will come to pass.  In the meantime, people have lives to lead and a responsibility to do their utmost to contribute to the harmony of the universe — and other people’s well-being. (Loftin 115)

Lessons that can be learned from the Hopi are many. A primary one is the lesson so many tribal cultures represent: a sense of harmony and unity with nature. The Hopi envision a total web of the cosmos.  They see themselves in harmony with not only other people, but also with the other animals, the plants, the land, the earth, the stars, and the universe itself. They believe that one is not free to act independently of this great interdependency. We are not “free.” We have obligations to fulfill and duties to carry out to ensure that this web is not broken and that the cosmic road of life progresses. The Hopi have created a way of interlocked practical and religious life that attempts to fulfill those obligations with a deep sense of beauty.  The complexity and unity of the Hopi way of life is even more amazing when the difficulty of sustaining their physical lives in the arid environment is considered.

Many Hopis do not wish to be romanticized by the dominant culture as a timeless, noble people. They are very aware that they are human beings with the problems of most human beings. A look at their internal history makes that clear. But the lessons of the Hopi are needed by the post-industrial world. They are lessons that may help lengthen the time all humanity has until the Fifth World.


Courlander, Harold, Hopi Voices: Recollections, Traditions, and Narratives of the Hopi Indians, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Loftin, John D., Religion and Hopi Life in the Twentieth Century, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Malotki, Ekkehart and Michael Lomatuway’ma, Stories of Maasaw, A Hopi God, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Page, Susanne and Jake, Hopi, New York: Harry Abrams, 1994.

Secakuku, Aph H., Following the Sun and the Moon: Hopi Kachina Tradition, Flagstaff, Northland Publishing, 1995.

Waters, Frank, Book of the Hopi, New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

1996 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1

Designs of Faith Prologue


(PLEASE NOTE: these essays have not been professionally edited, so be forgiving of my many mistakes)

This series of essays and paintings is an attempt to explore some of the world’s religions from the perspective of an artist.  When I look at religious structures, I view them as attempts to form order out of the parts of our existence and create a sense of purpose and direction in our lives.

My motivation in creating this series is primarily self-education and the need I feel to find more meaning and direction in my own life.  In the post-industrial world the true guidance of religion has been largely supplanted by economic designs that may or may not pay lip service to religion. Most of our lives are guided down a path of consumption and careers that form the purpose of our lives. It is my intent in these essays and paintings to study alternative ways of designing our relationships from many cultural sources.

The content of the essays focus on the foundation history of the religions and the basic moral and ethical teachings of the faith.  It is not my intent to investigate the many variations, factions, and directions that these basic religions have spawned over the centuries.

The series includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Dreaming Religion of Aboriginal Australia, Hopi Religion, Ifa Divination of the Yoruba of West Africa, and Inuit Spiritualism. The Designs of Faith Project was begun in 1992 and completed in 1998.

My research approach to each religion begins with reading the basic religious writings of the faith if they are available. I then read a sampling of both the scholarly and spiritual writings on the religion as well.  After taking extensive notes, the framework of the essay evolves in my mind and the writing begins. Early drafts of the essay are reviewed by two individuals who have been my valued friends and critics for many years, Tom Hansen and Legia Spicer.

The completed essay and research experience form the beginning of the visual inspiration for the canvas.  Additional research is done on the artistic tradition of the faith, stimulating many possible solutions on how to express my ideas in the language of design. I then execute an initial 19 ½” X 16 ½” watercolor study, working on five separate pieces of paper to prepare myself for the five section quintych canvas.  A second study of the same size is sometimes produced, working out the various inadequacies and problems of the first. I then move on to the production of the 92” X 79” five sectioned canvas. In the public presentation of the canvas, a statement of symbolism and sources is included to give interested viewers information on the evolution of the imagery of the quintych.

I would like to be clear in that I, in no way, see this study as being definitive. Each of the religions covered in the essays and paintings is tremendously complex with an abundance of variations that have grown from the foundation. People approach these religions from many different perspectives and for many different reasons. Their experiences are certainly no less valid than mine.

Designs of Faith has been the most thought-provoking and enjoyable of any of the research based projects I have undertaken in the past eighteen years. I hope I can share some of this enjoyment and appreciation with others.

1998 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Judaism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1995

Judaism is a religion that most people know of, but few people understand. Due to Judaism’s persecution in the worst atrocities of the 20th century it has received high visibility in a tragic context.  Many Christians think of Judaism as the religion of the Old Testament.  This is partially true; the foundation of Judaism is built on a complex and structured body of writings including the Old Testament but also the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash writings. But beyond that, Judaism is not simply a religion based on writings, it is a faith also based on a people and the living evolution of those people, on their faith and on the wisdom of their sages.  It is a religion that has created a total design for living.  It does not simply deal with the spiritual dimension of life; it has structured an entire way of life.  Jacob Neusner as has stated a beginning definition of Judaism:

… a religion that (1) takes as its Scripture the Torah revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai,  meaning, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus,  Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the Pentateuch)  and certain other records of revelation in addition;  (2) believes that its adherents through all times and places form part of that one and the same extended  family, or “Israel,” the singular or holy people of  whom the Pentateuch speaks; and (3) requires “Israel”  to live in accord with the teachings of the Torah.  (I, 209)

A point to begin a study of Judaism is a partial review of and sampling of the content of the Old Testament, called the Tanakh in Judaism.  The Tanakh begins with the five books of Moses, the Torah. The book of Genesis starts with an explanation of how the universe came to be – a description of God creating the world.  When it came to creating man God did a remarkable thing:

And God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on the earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth…. And it was so.  And God saw all that He made, and found it very good. (Genesis 1:26-31)


the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth.  He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man He formed. And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of       good and bad. (Genesis 2:7-9)

It was a remarkable start for man, and things got even better when God did a reconstruction job on him and formed Eve from one of his ribs. But a tragic turn of events took place when the serpent enticed Eve to eat from the tree of life, which was forbidden to them, and she convinced Adam to join her. The following is God’s punishment:

And to the woman He said. “I will make most severe your pangs of childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

To Adam He said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it.’

Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field;  by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”            (Genesis 3:16-19)

Relations between God and human beings continued to decline, greatly compounded by the first murder. Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, as instructed, brought offerings to God. Abel brought the firstling of his flock and Cain brought the fruit of the soil. God accepted Abel’s offering and ignored Cain’s. In a fit of jealous rage Cain killed Abel.

This second great tragedy was still just the beginning of God’s disappointment with human beings. For ten generations the wickedness of man spread on the earth. Finally God had enough and was determined to end his creation, for he regretted having made it. But fortunately, or some might say unfortunately, Noah proved himself to be worth saving and God spared him and his family and a sample of the creatures of the earth. All else God killed with the flood.

Ten more generations passed after Noah, and God waited for man to acknowledge Him as sole God over heaven and earth (Neusner I, 9). Then God found Abraham and in him an individual worthy of being the founder of the holy people:

Abram threw himself on his face and God spoke to him further, “As for me this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be known as Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and to your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding, I will be their God.”

God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep my covenant.  Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.  As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn and purchased alike. Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:3-16)

Thus the covenant was formed that created the chosen people, the Jews. God further told Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear him a child, to which Abraham and Sarah both had a good laugh as Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90. Sarah bore Isaac, who was circumcised as God had commanded. God tested Abraham by ordering him to kill Isaac as a sacrifice to him and then stopped the test when Abraham proved his obedience. After Sarah’s death at the age of 127, Abraham took another wife and had many more sons. At the time of his death Abraham blessed Isaac as his heir and sent to the east the most famous of his other sons, Ishmael, who was born to Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar.

Isaac married Rebekah, who was barren until God blessed her with twins, Esau, the firstborn, and Jacob. Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birthright several times, and when Isaac was on his deathbed, Rebekah tricked the blind old man into blessing Jacob rather than Esau. Rebekah sent Jacob away while his brother cooled off, and while he was gone Jacob married Leah and Rachel. He had many children by them and their maids. After growing wealthy Jacob decided to return to his homeland. On his return, he met a stranger who turned out to be  an angel with whom he wrestled. The angel gave him the new name of Israel. A name that was to prove symbolic of the long term relationship of the Jews and God, as it means “wrestling with God.” The Jews did not submit to God or have pure faith in God, through the millennium they have wrestled with God (Telushkin 40).

Of all Israel’s (Jacob’s) sons he best loved Joseph. This created a very strong sibling rivalry and the other sons plotted to kill him. Instead they sold him into slavery and he was eventually sold in Egypt. Joseph did well in slavery and was soon in charge of his master’s household, but he refused to sleep with his master’s wife, who then accused him of molestation, for which he was thrown in jail.  In jail Joseph gained a reputation for interpreting dreams. When the Pharaoh was having troubling dreams that his priests and magicians couldn’t interpret, Joseph was called upon. He interpreted the dreams to mean that there were going to be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and he recommended rations be gathered to prepare for the famine. The Pharaoh was so pleased he put Jacob in charge of the land. The famine spread to Canaan and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to seek food. They arrived and did not recognize their brother Joseph, who granted them food but told them to not return without their brother Joseph. Jacob made them return anyway, and Joseph finally revealed himself to them and invited all the family to Egypt, as there were five years of famine yet to come.  Thus did Israel move to Egypt and the twelve sons of Jacob become the fathers of the Twelve tribes of Israel.

The second book of the Torah, Exodus, describes the Israelites’ problems in Egypt, their eventual departure, and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.  The Israelites did not return to their homeland but stayed in Egypt under bondage to the Pharaoh.  Their numbers increased greatly over the generations and the Egyptians began to suppress them. At one point the Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male Israelite children at birth.  An Israelite child hidden in a basket by the Nile was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses, and raised him in the privilege of the palace. In manhood Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite and was forced to flee into the countryside. There God appeared to Moses and informed him that he had been chosen to lead the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt.  Moses was very hesitant as he had a speech impediment and was not a good communicator. God then also chose Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help in the task. God gave Moses the power of many miracles to try to persuade the Egyptians to let the Israelites go, but God also hardened the Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites each time.  Lice, vermin, hailstorms, plagues, boils, locusts – all failed to win the Israelites’ freedom. Finally Moses declared that unless they were released the firstborn of all men and animals would die.  God instructed the Israelites to paint lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels so death would pass over them. He also gave detailed instructions on a meal to eat marking the event – the first Passover feast. The death of all the first born in the land, including his own son, finally convinced the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go but he later had a change of heart and sent an army after them. The army caught the Israelites at the Red Sea, where God parted the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass and letting it crash back on the Egyptian army.

After several months of traveling the Israelites began grumbling about hardships. In response, God supplied them a food from heaven called manna.  “It was like a coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafer in honey … And the Israelites ate manna forty years until they came to the border of Canaan.”  When they reached Mount Sinai an event took place that shaped the future of the Western world; God appeared to Moses on the mountain and gave him the commandments:

“God spoke all these words, saying,

I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; You shall have no other gods besides Me.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting guilt of the parents upon their children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son, or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the LORD made the heaven and the earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested in the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Honor your father and mother, that you may long

endure on the land that the LORD is assigning to you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness

against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s

house; you shall not covet your

neighbor’s wife; or his male or female

slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything

that is your neighbor’s.

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be forever with you, so that you do not go astray.'” (Genesis 20:1-18)

God also gave a great deal of other instructions, rules, and elaboration on the commandments. He also gave very detailed instruction on the construction of an ark to contain the tablets of the commandments, and a Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting to become a place of worship and sacrifice during the travels to Canaan. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of the LORD, the Israelites grew impatient and talked

Aaron into making a golden calf image to worship. God was furious and intended to kill them all. Moses appeased him by organizing an army that killed three thousand men; God was further placated by sending a plague upon the people.

The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, documents the detailed instructions God gave concerning the offerings to be made at the Tabernacle, the structure of the priesthood, rules of cleanness and uncleanness and more general rules in ordering the lives of these chosen people.

Offerings at the Tabernacle were to fall into various categories: burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, offerings of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being. The following is an example of one of the instructions:

If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he shall choose offerings from turtledoves or pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it into the place of the ashes, at the east side of the altar.  The priest shall tear it open by its wings, without severing it, and turn it into smoke on the altar, upon wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:14-17)

The Cult of the Temple formed the center of the Israelite religious experience. It was a system where God and the people met with the priests serving as intermediaries.

In regard to cleanness and uncleanness, God gave Moses detailed instructions on what foods were considered clean, and therefore edible, and what was considered unclean. He also conveyed to Moses what conditions of people were clean and what one could do rectify uncleanness, such as the following:

12:1-5 The LORD spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity.  – On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. – She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.”

The book concludes with God restating and elaborating on His promises of success to His people, if they follow His rules, promising to crush them if they disobey.

Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, provides an account of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Again the Israelites began complaining about food and wanted meat instead of manna. This infuriated God, who sent them huge quantities of quail, which many people gorged themselves on. God then sent a plague that killed all those who ate the quail.

Scouts reported back to the Israelites that the land of Canaan was occupied by fortified cities and a strong people. The Israelites were afraid and complained to Moses and Aaron that they were being led to their death. Again God was furious with them and swore that no one over twenty years old would set foot in the promised land because of their lack of faith. The wanderings continued with periodic uprisings and complaints, which were punished by God. The Israelites began battle with tribes in the region and became great warriors, killing all males and taking females and animals as booty. When they were ready to cross the Jordan river into Canaan, God ordered all its inhabitants killed so as to not contaminate the Israelites.

The fifth and final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy. In this book Moses gives a long sermon on the history of the Israelites and a restatement of the covenant between the chosen people and God.  Moses warns his people of the waywardness they have demonstrated over and over again:

“Know then, that it is not for any virtue that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember and never forget, how you provoked the LORD your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

Moses reaffirmed the great promises made to the Israelites:

“There shall be no needy among you – since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the LORD your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you. (Deuteronomy 15:4-6)

He gave them laws of great wisdom and compassion:

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it …” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

And Moses gave some laws that seem quite ludicrous by contemporary eyes:

25:11 “If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, you shall cut off her hand, show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11)

At the end of the book, God took Moses to a high mountain overlooking the promised land and let him look upon it before his death, as Moses was not to enter. He was counted among those punished for their disobedience and doubt in the wilderness. So Moses died having never set foot in Canaan, and before his death he blessed Joshua to lead the Israelites to their land of milk and honey.  Thus ends the Five Books of Moses.

The next section of the Tanakh is called the Nevi’m, the Prophets, consisting of the nine books of major prophets and twelve books of minor prophets. It begins with a continuation of the story of the Torah with Joshua entering the promised land and following the instructions of Moses and God. He and his armies exterminate every tribe in Canaan with the exception of the Hivites who trick the Israelites into letting them live as servants. In the Nevi’m the story is told of the establishment of the first king of Israel, Saul, and his many wars, especially those against the Philistines. In these wars an unlikely hero arises in the form of a shepherd boy named David. David became Saul’s primary commander and won many battles, but Saul became jealous and fearful of David and plotted to have him killed. David fled to the Philistines, who eventually killed Saul and his sons.

At the age of thirty David became king and began a forty year rule.  He was the greatest of the Israelite warrior kings and was an equally famous poet. In his great palace in Jerusalem he had numerous wives and concubines, but even he was not without sin. The most famous example is the story of David’s infatuation with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba.  David had her husband, Uriah, sent to battle and set up to be killed so he could have her. God sent his prophet of the time, Nathan, to David who told him a poetic story of a rich man who took a poor man’s only lamb to serve to a guest. David was infuriated and said the rich man should die, Nathan then told David he was that man for taking Uriah’s wife and sending him to his death. David admitted his guilt and the LORD spared him but proclaimed his next born would die.

David fell from God’s blessing. As he grew old he had Nathan anoint his son by Bathsheba, Solomon, as the next king of Israel. God came to Solomon and asked him what he could grant him. Solomon asked only for wisdom, which greatly pleased God and he also granted him glory and riches for all his life. Solomon’s rule grew to cover a great expanse by conquest and also by marrying daughters of adjoining empires. He was acknowledged as the wisest of men and built the First Temple to God, using the finest of materials, and the LORD was very pleased. Solomon took over 700 royal wives and 300 concubines from all over his kingdom and beyond. He built temples for some of his foreign wives to the gods of their homelands. This displeased God and Solomon’s power diminished and the empire was broken into parts.

Israel continued to slip into evil ways including the worshipping of false gods.  As punishment God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia to conquer Israel. The Babylonians took the treasures of the royal palace and stripped the Temple. They exiled most of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon and later had the First Temple in Jerusalem destroyed when a rebellion was put down.

Much of the writings of the prophets is to call attention to the lost way of the Israelites and urge redemption:

I responded to those who did not ask,

I was at hand to those who did not seek Me;

I said, “Here I am, here I am,”

To a nation that did not invoke My name.

I constantly spread out My name.

To a disloyal people,

Who walk the way that is not good,

Following their own designs…

(Isaiah 65:1-2)


“When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor – to bring you back to this place.  For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you -declares the LORD – plans for the future. When you call Me, and come and pray to Me, I will heed you. You will search for Me and find Me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the LORD – and I will restore your fortunes.  And I will gather you from all the nations and from all places to which I have banished you – declares the LORD – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

The third part of the Tanakh consists of the Kethuvim, the Writings. It is a collection of books with very diverse perspectives and points of view. One of the most famous and highly praised is the book of Psalms. Most of these verses are attributed to David, the great poet, and are written to God:

Man, his days are like those of grass;

he blooms like the flowers of the field;

a wind passes by and it is no more,

its own place it no longer knows it.

But the LORD’s steadfast love is for all eternity toward those who fear Him,

and His beneficence is for his children’s children of those who keep His covenant

and remember to observe His precepts.

The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His sovereign rule is over all.


Equally famous is the book of Proverbs in which the wisdom of Solomon is distilled in the wonderfully structured sayings, creating a wealth of advice for living. The following is but a small sampling:

Happy is the man who finds wisdom,

The man who attains understanding.

Her value in trade is better than silver,

Her yield, greater than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;

All of your goods cannot equal her.

In her right hand is length of days,

in her left, riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,

And all her paths, peaceful.

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,

And whoever holds on to her is happy.


A capable wife is a crown for her husband,

But an incompetent one is like rot in his bones.


Better a meal of vegetables where there is love

Than a fattened ox where there is hate.


Pride goes before ruin,

Arrogance before failure.

Better to be humble and among the lowly

Than to share spoils with the proud.


He who loves transgression loves strife;

He who builds a high threshold invites broken bones.


Many designs are in a man’s mind,

But it is the LORD’s plan that is accomplished.


Through forbearance a ruler may be won over;

A gentle tongue can break bones.


If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;

If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

You will be heaping coals on his head,

And the LORD will reward you.


As a dog returns to his vomit,

So a dullard repeats his folly.

If you see a man who thinks himself wise,

There is more hope for a dullard than for him.


Also attributed to Solomon is the beautiful Song of Songs. Meant to be a love poem to God, it has verses in which the sensuality is vivid:

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like a palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like the choicest wine.

Let it flow into my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers. (7:7-10)

The book of Job is a complex story of a very good man who is used as an experiment between God and the Adversary. The Adversary claimed that if Job did not have all of God’s blessings he would turn against him. To prove Job’s devotion God takes away everything from him: Job’s children are killed, his possessions are all lost, and he is covered with festering sores from head to feet. The story is a document of Job’s faith and his discussions with his friends who try to comfort him. The story ends with Job’s great dismay, his final faith, and God’s restoration of more wealth than he had before and a new set of children.

Among the writings of the Kethuvim is the book of Ecclesiastes. This book is one of the most unusual of these diverse writings and in many ways feels the most modern. It is laced with philosophy that ranges from fatalism, to hedonism, to nihilism, to pragmatism:

I realized, too, that whatever God has brought to pass will recur evermore:

Nothing can be added to it

And nothing taken from it –

and God has brought to pass that men revere Him.

What is occurring occurred long since:

And what is to occur occurred long since:

and God seeks the pursued. And, indeed, I have observed under the sun:

Alongside justice there is wickedness,

Alongside righteousness there is wickedness. (3:14-16)


Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days that God has given him; for that is his portion. Also, whenever a man is given riches and property by God, and is also permitted by Him to enjoy them and to take his portion and get pleasure form his gains – that is a gift of God. For [such a man] will not brood much over the days of his life, because God keeps him busy enjoying himself. (5:17-19)


How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many days of darkness there are going to be.  The only future is nothingness! (11:7-8)


The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.    (12:13)

The Tanakh, the “Old Testament,” tells the story of creation, the story of the chosen people of God, the Israelites. It tells of their many falls from grace but it also tells of God’s great love for them and his perseverance with them.

The conquest of Israel by Babylonia is given the date of 586 BCE (Before the Common Era).  Three generations later, at the end of the sixth century BCE, the Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and applied his more tolerant subjugation to the Jews in Babylon; they were allowed to return to Jerusalem if they wished. Later the Temple ceremonies were again allowed to take place, and in 450 BCE the Persians sent a Jewish governor, Nehemiah, and an administrator, Ezra, to Jerusalem and the Second Temple was constructed. The crisis of the destruction of the First Temple, the exile, and then restoration kindled in the Jews’ the sense of identity. It was in reaction to these events that the Torah was first assembled. Many of the writings existed before this time, but it was during this period that the structure of the Torah began to take shape (Neusner I, 39). It was an explanation of what happened and an ordering of Jewish life, now that some self-governing power was back in their hands.

The Jews generally maintained basic administrative power in their communities under the empire structures of the Persians, then the Greeks, and the Romans, until 70 C.E. (Common Era). In 70 the Jews rose up against the Romans, were soundly defeated, and the Second Temple destroyed as punishment. Following what they believed to be historical guidelines three generations later the Jews tried to regain political control and restore the Temple. This uprising was also crushed by the Romans and now the Jews were banished from Jerusalem. It was a definitive end of the system of Temple worship and political structure that the Jews had known for a thousand years. It seemed to be a total and complete end of the Jewish nation. Ironically, in many ways it was only the beginning of a new and even more religiously powerful phase.

The Jewish sages of the time, along with some of the remnants of the priest class, set about creating a new system by which the Jewish people could live without the Temple. The end result was a law code called the Mishnah, completed sometime around 200 C.E. The Mishnah was structured around six general areas: holy things, purities, agriculture, appointed times, damage concerns in civil law and government, and women’s issues concerning family, home and personal status (Neusner I, 58). It is a document carefully structured and obsessed with classification. It may be read as philosophy, but in content it doesn’t deal with abstraction or generalizations but with detailed information about immediate and many times common concerns. The Mishnah strives to create a stable, understandable design to live by, where all things and people are classified into a design of consistency and unity. The Mishnah was structured around the utopian unit of the “household,” a family agricultural unit that formed villages. It strove to form a steady-state-economy where everyone maintained in their present status – no one grew richer, no one grew poorer. The economy was not to be based on the market but on a distributive system that maintained stability and the status quo. Private property was taken for granted with a few communal aspects in the society such as wells, bathhouses, and town squares. Money was considered a functioning commodity and not the definition of wealth. The Mishnah set forth guidelines for living within the economic structure as in the following example:

Mishnah-tractate Baba Mesia 4:10

A. Just as a claim of fraud applies to buying and selling,

B. so a claim of fraud applies to spoken words.

C. One may not say to [a storekeeper], “How much is this object?” knowing that he does not want to  buy it. (Neusner II, 139)

The Mishnah created a new political structure of power designating who could control whom. It set up a system of judgment with courts of sages as the power base. The court of seventy-one was in charge of major civil matters, administering high offices of state and foreign policy. Judicial functions were primarily carried out by a court of three, with capital cases requiring a court of twenty- three.

Mishnah-tractate Sanhedrin 1:5 A-C

A. (1) They judge a tribe, a false prophet [Dt 18:20], and a high priest, only on the  instructions of a court of seventy-one members.

B. (2) They call [the army] to wage a war fought by choice only on the instructions of a court of  seventy-one.

C. (3) They make additions to the city [of    Jerusalem] and to the courtyards [of the Temple]  only on the instructions of a court of seventy-  one.      (Neusner II, 139)

The Mishnah defines women’s place in the social structure and economy and always in relation to men who the give form to the economy. Women could never be considered at the head of a household and if a divorce took place it was assumed she would return to her father’s household. Marriages were to take place within the guidelines given for the caste system within society:

Mishnah-tractate Qiddushim 4:1

A. Ten castes came up from Babylonia: (1) priests, 2) Levites, (3) Israelites, (4) impaired priests, (5) converts, (6) freed slaves, (7) mamzers, (8) Netins, (9) “silenced ones”  [unknown fathers] and (10) foundlings.

B. Priests, Levites, and Israelites are permitted to marry among one another.

C. Levites, Israelites, impaired priests, converts, and freed slaves are permitted to marry among  one another. (Neusner II, 186)

The Mishnah was not perceived as merely a newly composed law book for the Jews. It was considered the Oral Torah – laws of the Jewish people that were given at Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah and carried on by sages and priests to the present time, when they were finally being put into written form. The Mishnah created a coherent way of living for the Jewish community, without the Temple. It was written in a utopian format, without outwardly recognizing the destruction of the Temple, but it created a structure that could function in the system of subjugation in which the Israelites now found themselves.  The Romans needed a stable social structure over which they could keep control of the Jewish people and the Mishnah was adopted nearly as soon as it was completed.

But the Mishnah was not an end in itself; it was a beginning point of a much larger and comprehensive body of Jewish writings now called the Talmud. The Talmud was again a reaction to another political crisis in the Jewish world. In 312 Christianity was legalized and by the end of the century adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 429 the new Christian Roman rulers abolished the Jewish patriarchal system in Israel, ending a system of government that the Jews traced back to David. To prevent the collapse of Judaism, the Jewish sages again produced an intellectual and religious masterwork that served to further unify the Jewish faith.

Two Talmuds were produced. The first called Talmud of the Land of Israel (sometimes called the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud) was written about 400-450 CE. The second, called the Babylonian Talmud, was produced around 600 in Babylonia. Both of these Talmuds comment extensively on each of the components of the Mishnah, far beyond the original material and creating a blend of law, legend, philosophy, logic, pragmatism, history, science, anecdotes, and humor (Steinsaltz 4).  Much of the commentary is in the form of debate between sages over various aspects of the Mishnah or related topics:

Rabbi Chiyah and Rabbi Shimon bar Abba were engaged in study. One said: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward, for it is written: “My eyes and My heart will be there (on earth) for all time (I Kings 9:3).” The other said: our eyes must be directed upward for it is written: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven (Lamentations 3:41).” Meanwhile, Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yosei happened along. He said: What are you discussing?  They told him. Then he said: This was the view of Abba: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, thus fulfilling both verses. (Gates 3)

Other segments of the Talmud give us insight into subtler aspects of Jewish life that may be hard to discern from other writing such as the actual place of women in Jewish life:

Some louts in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood were giving him a great deal of trouble, and in exasperation he prayed for their deaths. His wife Beruriah said to him: How can you think that such a prayer is  permitted? Pray for an end to sin; then, sin having  ceased, there will be no more sinners. Pray that they  may turn from their ways. Then Rabbi Meir prayed on  their behalf. (Gates 238)

Many of the anecdotes and stories of the Talmud are insights into the wisdom of the sages:

Rav Beroka of Bei Hozae was often in the market of Bei Lapat.  There he would meet Elijah. Once he said  to Elijah: Is there anyone in this market who has  earned eternal life? Elijah said to him: No. They  were standing there when two men came along. Elijah  said to him: These men have earned eternal life. Rav  Beroka went to them and said: What do you do? They  replied: We are jesters, and make the sad laugh.  When we see two people quarreling, we strain  ourselves to make peace between them. (Gates 244)

The Talmud also helped to elaborate and refine the concept of the Jewish Messiah after the events of Christianity. It taught that the Messiah would yet come, and when he did, he would reaffirm the Torah and Israel as God’s chosen people. It was the Jews’ job to prepare the way for him by keeping the commandments and following the correct ways of a living – loving God rather than the ways of cruel and deceitful men.

The literary accomplishments of the age did not end with the Mishnah and the Talmuds. About the same time as the Talmud, another great body of writings was being composed, the Midrash, which also consisted of commentaries – not upon the Oral Torah, the Mishnah, but upon some of the books of the Tanakh.

There were extensive Midrash writings on the Torah and on other books of the Bible including Proverbs. The following is an example from Proverbs that elaborates on the wisdom displayed by Solomon when being quizzed by the Queen of Sheba:

She gave him yet another test. She brought in boys and girls, all of the same appearance, all of the same height, all clothed the same. Then she said to   him, “Distinguish the boys from the girls.”     He immediately motioned to his eunuch to fetch some parched grain and nuts, and began passing them out. The boys unashamedly stuffed their tunics full, but the girls, being modest, [only] filled their  kerchiefs. He then told the queen, “These are the  boys and those are the girls. ” She said, “My son,  you are a great sage!” (Visotzky 18-19)

Another example from the Midrash on Proverbs shows how a contrasting commentary illuminates different approaches to the wisdom of Solomon:

Do not answer a dullard in accord with his folly,  else you will become like him (Prov. 26:4) What is  said thereafter?  Answer a dullard in accord with his  folly, else he will think himself wise (Prov. 26:5)  R. Huna said: Do not answer a dullard -in a place  where people know both you and him. Why so? Else you  will become like him – so that people would not say  “Come see the sage having give and take with that  fool.” R. Joshua be Levi said: Answer a dullard in  accord with his folly – in a place where people would  not know either you or him. Why so? Else he will  think himself wise – so that people would not say ,  “Were it not that this sage is suspect in the matters  that the fool is speaking about, would he not remain  silent?” and it is said, Like a pebble in a heap of  stones, so is paying honor to a dullard (Prov.  26:80). (Visotzky 108)

The Mishnah, the Talmuds, and the Midrash, all created after the fall of the Second Temple, produced a total design for living while under the subjugation of another people. As put by Jacob Neusner:

It emerged as a Judaism in which each of the elements  of the Judaism of the Temple and cult would find a  counterpart: (1) in place of the Temple, the holy  people, in whom holiness endured even outside of the  cult… (2) in place of the priesthood, the sage, the  holy man qualified by learning… (3) in the place of  the sacrifices of the altar, the holy way of life  expressed through the carrying out of religious  duties (mitzvot, “commandments”), and acts of  kindness and grace beyond those commanded (maasim  tovim, “good deeds”), and, above all, through  studying the Torah. (I, 52-3)

To replace the sacrifice at the Temple the grace after meals created a personal ceremony for each family in their holiness interacting with God without the need of priestly intermediaries. Public prayer, observed three times a day, became a social event at the synagogue. The Sabbath remained a cornerstone of Jewish observance.  The festivals mark the passage of time through the seasons and reflect on the history of the Israelites.  The feast of the tabernacles, Sukkot, marks the end of agricultural toil and commemorates the wandering in the wilderness.  Passover, Pessah, is the spring festival and celebrates the escape of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The Feast of Weeks, Shavuot or Pentecost, comes fifty days after Passover and celebrates the revealing of the Torah at Sinai. The Days of Awe are ten days that begin on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  These festivals and feasts mark the Jewish year and give continuity to the present and meaning to the past.

Jewish communities formed self-sufficient groups within empires and countries. They survived and many times thrived under the centuries of Christian and Islamic domination, although periodically they were persecuted, and in our own century subjected to near genocide. The rabbinic system of Judaism intentionally created the Jewish community as distinct. They wore special clothes, they ate special foods, they lived in special areas, they held specific jobs, and they even spoke special languages in some countries. They were Jews living dispersed within many countries but they were still Israelites. With the development of nation-states in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this system began to deteriorate. In countries that began to democratize their governments, Jews became citizens. They were no longer just Jews, they were also American, French, English, and so on. They had new allegiances beyond their ethnic, religious communities (Neusner I, 171).

Reform Judaism began in the early part of the nineteenth century as a reaction to these new political circumstances. Jews believing that major reconstruction of the faith was necessary made changes in liturgy, dress, food, and purity to accommodate modern times.  They accepted the moral laws of the Torah and the messianic message of a kingdom to come, but no longer saw Jews as a nation but as a religious community. In the mid nineteenth century the Orthodox movement began as a reaction to Reform Judaism. Its followers attempted to maintain more of the original teachings of the Dual Torah: trying to maintain as much of the law as possible while entering into the mainstream society for their livelihood. A third movement arouse, Conservative Judaism, that tried to take a middle path between Reform and Orthodoxy. It embraced keeping as much of the Torah as possible while also accepting many of the Reform Judaism’s positions on integrating into society (Neusner I, 13).

The great body of Jewish scriptures and commentaries are not static. Especially the Talmud and Midrash writings encourage active and ongoing debate and reinterpretation. The heritage of study and debate has produced formidable sages in each period, people who took the vast religious and philosophical heritage of the Israelites and made it live for their own time and for ages after. One of the most famous is Maimonides of the 12th Century. The following are two famous quotes by the master:

Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as  Jereboam. We ourselves decide whether to make  ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or  cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the  other; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our  own way (Gates 8).


With regard to all human traits, the middle of the road is the right path. For example: Do not be hot-tempered, easily angered. Nor, on the other hand,   should you be unfeeling like a corpse. Rather, take  the middle of the road: keep an even disposition,  reserving your anger for occasions when it is truly  warranted. Similarly, do not cultivate a desire for  luxuries; keep your eyes fixed on only genuine  necessities. In giving to others, do not hold back  what you can afford, but do not give so lavishly that  you yourself will be impoverished. Avoid both  hysterical gaiety and somber dejection, and instead  be calmly joyful always showing a cheerful  continence. Act similarly with regard to all the  dispositions. This is the path followed by the wise  (Gates 8).

The first quote is an eloquent statement of self-determinism, and the second could have as easily been made by the Buddha or Confucius. This tradition of wisdom is not a relic of the past. A 20th century example is the great scholar and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel left Poland in 1939 to teach in the United States, thereby avoiding the pogrom. He eventually settled at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where he taught until his death in 1972. His writings bring to life the concepts of the Torah in vivid, meaningful imagery for the contemporary mind. He takes Biblical concepts such as grandeur, the sublime, wonder, mystery, and awe and makes them reverberate with his intelligence and faith.  The following is a sample:

The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well  as in acts of goodness and in the search for the  truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginnings  of the experience of the sublime.  The sublime is  that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the  silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than  themselves….  It is that which our words, our  forms, our categories can never reach. This is why  the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root  of man’s creative activities in the arts, thought,  and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully  displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no  work of art, no system of philosophy, no theory of  science, ever brought to expression the depth of  meaning, the sublimity of reality in the sight of  which the souls of saints, artists, and philosophers  live.

The sublime, furthermore, is not necessarily related to the vast and overwhelming in size. It may  be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of  water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in  the winter, may arouse in us the sense of wonder that  is our response to the sublime….

The sublime is not simply there. It is not a thing, a quality, but rather a happening, the act of  God, a marvel. Thus even a mountain is not regarded as  a thing. What seems to be a stone is a drama; what  seems to be natural is wondrous. There are no sublime  facts; there are only divine acts. (Heschel 38)

Heschel had the power to confront questions of faith and contemporary doubt head on and with clarity and conviction:

Since the days of the Deists, the idea of man’s    self-sufficiency has been used as an argument to  discredit the belief in revelation. The certainty of  man’s capacity to find peace, perfection, and the  meaning of existence, gained increasing momentum with  the advancement of technology. Man’s fate, we were  told, depended solely upon the development of his  social awareness and the utilization of his own  power. The course of history was regarded as a  perpetual progress in cooperation, an increasing  harmonization of interests. Man is too good to be in  need of supernatural guidance.

The idea of man’s self-sufficiency, man’s    exaggerated consciousness of himself, was based upon  a generalization; from the fact that technology could  solve some problems it was deduced that technology  could solve all problems.  This proved to be a  fallacy. Social reforms, it was thought, would cure  all ills and eliminate all evils from our world. Yet  we have finally discovered what the prophets and  saints have always known: bread and power alone will  not save humanity.  There is a passion and drive for  cruel deeds which only the awe and fear of God can  soothe; there is a suffocating selfishness in man  which only holiness can ventilate. (Heschel 74)

He can challenge some of the most revered ideas of the late 20th century, such as the new worship of nature, with such precision as to make one seriously question deeply held beliefs:

It is suspiciously easier to feel one with nature than to feel one with every man: with the savage, with the leper, with the slave. Those who know that   to be one with the whole means to be for the sake of  every part of the whole will seek to love not only  humanity but also the individual man, to regard any  man as if he were all men. Once we decide to serve  here and now, we discover that the vision of abstract  unity goes out of sight like lightning, and what  remains is the gloom of a drizzly night, where we  must in toil and tears strike the darkness to beget a  gleam, to light a torch….  The norms of spiritual  living are a challenge to nature, not a part of  nature. There is a discrepancy between being and  spirit, between facts and norms, between that which  is and that which ought to be. Nature shows little  regard for spiritual norms and is often callous, if  not hostile to our moral endeavors.

Man is more than reason. Man is life. In facing  the all-embracing question, he faces that which is more  than a principle, more than a theoretical problem.  …  Yet, to refer to the supreme law of nature as God or to  say the world came into being by virtue of its own  energy is to beg the question.  For the cardinal  question is not what is the law that would explain the  interaction of phenomena in the universe, but why there  is a law, a universe at all.  (Heschel 100)

Heschel explores the fundamentals of Judaism with such insight as to seem to be a man in the dark with a flashlight illuminating concepts as he approaches them. He describes mitzvot, commandments, as, “spiritual ends, points of eternity in the flux of the temporality.” He describes life as a concern, “A man entirely unconcerned with his self is dead: and man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast.” He regards needs as natural to humans but, “He who sets out to employ the realities of life for satisfying his own desires will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool. Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his soul.” Heschel regards the ultimate need not one of ours but the need of God for man. Man is needed. Life is a partnership with God – a commitment – a covenant. Heschel does not look to God in heaven but believes the true dwelling place of God is in the heart of everyone willing to let God in. He believes that law of the Torah is what holds the world together but it is the love of the Torah that will bring the world forward.

Abraham Joshua Heschel had deep compassion in interpreting a Judaism of constructive love and law; but he also looked upon contemporary times with great despondency and said the only honest preaching of the day can be a “theology of despair.” He said:

The central problem of this generation is    emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to  the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse  of communication between the realm of tradition and  the inner world of the individual. The central  problem is that we do not know how to think, how to  pray, how to cry, or how to resist the deceptions of  the silent persuaders.  There is no community of  those who worry about integrity. (Heschel 251)

But even in his despair he did not give up hope:

The spirit is still a small voice, and masters of vulgarity use loudspeakers. The voice has been  stifled, and many of us have lost faith in the  possibility of a new perceptiveness. …

Yet, man is able to break the chains of despair,    to stand up against those who deny him the right and  the strength to believe wholeheartedly. Ultimate  truth may be hidden from man, yet the power to  discern between the valid and the specious has not  been taken from us.

Surely God will always receive a surprise of a    handful of fools – who do not fail. There will always  remain a spiritual underground where a few brave  minds continue to fight. Yet our concern is not how  to worship in the catacombs but rather how to remain  human in the skyscrapers. (Heschel 254)

Judaism is a religion, a way of life, a design, of a relationship between God and people in this life. There is little talk of heaven, paradise, devils, and hell. The emphasis is on living a life of justice and wisdom in a covenant with God.

The legacy of Judaism to the Western world is enormous. It has not only created a remarkable religious, philosophical, and historical heritage – no small accomplishment for a small, usually weak and many times countryless people – it is also the fertile ground on which two more of the world’s most influential religions grew, Islam and Christianity. Not all of the Jewish heritage may be looked upon by all with glowing favor, including the male-dominated patriarchal society, a contribution to Western society that Judaism shared with the ancient Greeks. To look upon Judaism and see the 3000 year transition from a small, sacrificial cult to the living, evolving religion of today, to look upon the heritage of faith, wisdom, and determination of this extended family of Israel, to gain some insight into this religion and people is an experience of awe.


Gates of Repentance, The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984.

Heschel, Abraham J., Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism, selected, edited and introduced by Fritz A. Rothchild,  New York: The Free Press, 1959.

Neusner (I), Jacob, A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.

Neusner (II), Jacob, The Mishnah: Introduction and Reader, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

Steinsaltz, Adin, The Essential Talmud, New York: Bantam Books, 1976

Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.

Vitotsky, Burton L., translator, The Midrash on Proverbs, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

all Biblical quotes not from the above sources came from:

Sacred Writings Volume 1: Judaism: The Tanakh. The New JPS Translation (Jewish Publication Society), New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 1992.

1995 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Christianity Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1993

Christianity is a faith that grew on the fertile, aged soil of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew; he was circumcised and two doves were sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem to mark his birth as laid down in the law of Moses. In the six centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish nation had suffered domination by the Babylonians, Persians, and Hellenistic Greeks, and were currently subservient to the Romans. They had learned how to survive under these conditions and maintain their ancient traditions, including the elaborate system of temple sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and maintenance of the covenant with God as set forth in the book of Leviticus.

According to Scripture, Jesus was born to Mary from conception of the Holy Spirit before her marriage to Joseph. Jesus had four brothers and also a number of sisters. What we know of his life comes to us primarily through the Gospels that were written some two generations after his death (Frend 55). Little is know of his early life other than a few incidents noted primarily in the Gospel of Luke.  Most accounts begin with his travel to his cousin, John the Baptist, who had established a following as an ascetic, recluse prophet. Jesus went to him for baptism and at that time had a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit entering him. The Holy Spirit then led him into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the Devil to prove his worthiness. Instead of following John’s example of ascetic ministry, Jesus chose a different mission. He recruited disciples from the fishermen and working class of Nazareth and took his message to the common people. One of his earliest and most profound teachings was the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit;

the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are the sorrowful;

they shall find consolation.

Blessed are the gentle;

they shall have the earth for their


Blessed are those who hunger and

thirst to see right prevail;

they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are those who show


mercy shall be shown to them.

Blessed are those whose hearts are


they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers;

they shall be called God’s


Blessed are those who are

persecuted for the cause of right;

the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

(Matthew 5:3-10)

With this remarkable statement of humility and compassion, the basis of Christianity was set. Jesus was adamant that he had not come to abolish the law of Moses but to complete it; he went so far as to say, “not a letter, not a dot will disappear from the law….” (Matthew 5:18). But in completing this law he made some dramatic changes and additions. He said not only must you not murder, but you must not even feel anger against another. He said that the prohibition against adultery extended so far as to not even looking lustfully at anyone other than your spouse.  He said that you must not only love your neighbor but you must also love your enemy.  He said you must forgive others for whatever wrongs they have done to you. He said you cannot serve both God and money. He said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.  He said we were not to judge others.  Many of these new commandments are stated in another of his sermons, the Sermon to the Disciples:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also; if anyone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Give to everyone that asks you; if anyone takes what is yours, do not demand it back.

Treat others as you would like them to treat you.  If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.  Again, if you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit is there in that? Even sinners do as much. And if you lend only what you expect to be repaid, what credit is there in that? Even sinners lend to each other to be repaid in full. But you must love your enemies and do good, and lend without expecting any return; and you will have a rich reward: you will be sons of the Most High, because he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned; give, and gifts will be presented you. Good measure, pressed and shaken down and running over, will be poured into your lap; for whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you in turn. (Luke 7:27-37)

Jesus’ teachings often took the form of parables to stress the point of his new or revised commandments. When challenged by a scribe of the Temple as to which of the commandments was greatest, Jesus stated that to love God is the greatest followed by loving your neighbor. Jesus said that all the law and teachings of the prophets were based on these two commandments. The scribe then asked how he was to know who was his neighbor, and Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan: how a man badly beaten by robbers lay by the side of the road and was ignored by a Jewish priest and a Levite, but was not only cared for, but taken to an inn and his recovery financed by a Samaritan, a Gentile (non-Jewish). Jesus asked the lawyer which of the men had acted like a good neighbor, and the scribe responded the Samaritan had. Jesus told him to go and act like that. In another case he illustrated his teaching of being non-judgmental. Jewish leaders brought a woman accused of adultery and asked what should be done with her, knowing well that the law of Moses required stoning her to death. After doodling on the ground with his finger, Jesus told them that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. After they had all left, he told her to go and sin no more. Jesus’ sense of forgiveness was also given life in his parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of a son who convinced his father to give him his share of the estate early and immediately went off and squandered it on wild living.  He became so destitute he was reduced to tending a man’s pigs and not eating as well as they did. He came crawling back to his father and asked him to take him back as a slave. Instead the father ordered the fatted-calf killed and a feast laid out to celebrate his son’s return. The father’s other son was disturbed to see such a welcome, as he had remained faithful, but the father told him to celebrate, as he would always be dear to him, but now his lost son was found and it was a time for rejoicing.

While the radical teachings of Jesus undoubtedly gathered a following, his reputation as a miracle worker and healer was probably as great, if not greater, an attraction to his growing devotees. He healed the lepers, the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, and the sick. He brought people back from the dead. He walked on water, drove out demons, calmed storms, and fed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fishes.

The Gospels put forth all these teachings and miracles, but they also present some contrasting images of Jesus; he violently drove merchants from the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13); he killed a fig tree that bore no fruit when he was hungry (Matthew 21:18-19); he said those who were not for him were automatically against him (Matthew 12:30); he refused to see his mother and brothers when in their concern they came to visit him (Matthew 12:46-50); he repudiated the Jewish tradition of divorce (Matthew 19:9); he challenged the ancient dietary regulations of the Jewish faith by teaching, “No one is defiled by what goes into the mouth; only by what comes out of it.” In his teachings in the Temple he not only radically changed the interpretation of the law of Moses, he attacked the Jewish leaders of the day. The following is a small fragment of his onslaught of accusations:

Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  You are like tombs covered with whitewash; they look fine on the outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and corruption.  So it is with you: outwardly you look like honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)

Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. As reflected in the writings of the prophets, Jesus does not fit the profile of Messiah as the inheritor of the warrior king David who would once again lead the Jewish nation to be a great and powerful kingdom. Jesus does call himself the Son of Man and the Son of God. It is possible to interpret this as an indication that all the Jews are children of God as is stated many times in the scriptures. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus did see his role as that of a sacrificial offering opening to the Jews a new avenue to God and preparing for the coming of the kingdom of God.  This was most graphically illustrated in the Jewish Passover meal he shared with his disciples hours before his arrest:

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: `Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: `Drink from it all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Matthew 26:26-28)

The arrest of Jesus was precipitated by his attacks on Jewish traditions and leaders and also by the tension that existed between the Romans and Jews due to recent small-scale insurrections. These circumstances left Jewish leaders worried that this radical teacher was going to stir up trouble and bring down the wrath of the Romans on them and the Temple.  Jesus was accused of being a false prophet and claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah. He refused to deny the charges and was quickly crucified (Frend 72-3). Events that had occurred in Jesus’ very short three-year ministry were to change the course of history. The Gospels tell that in three days he rose from the dead and sent a message for his remaining eleven disciples to meet him in Galilee. Judas, who had betrayed Jesus with a kiss, had committed suicide. In Galilee Jesus charged them to carry his teachings to all nations and to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Peter, James, and John returned to Jerusalem and established the center of the church. They frequently worshiped and taught at the Temple as well. James emerged as the undisputed leader of the church and established good relations with the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem that lasted for twenty years. Christian instruction emphasized the teaching of Jesus as the risen Messiah who would return and restore Israel as predicted by the prophets. Christianity was seen as a branch of Judaism. By 40 C.E. Christianity had gained a foothold throughout Palestine with funds being raised and sent to headquarters in Jerusalem (Frend 86-97).

In 46 C.E. Paul joined the ministry. A Jew who was formerly a strict interpreter of the law and persecutor of Christians, he was also a Roman citizen through his well-to-do family. In a blinding vision Jesus came to him and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. His original attempt to join with the disciples in Jerusalem was rebuffed, but they eventually sent him on mission work.  In 48 C.E. he returned with a new vision for Christianity; he demanded of James that circumcision be dropped as a requirement for joining the faith. James finally acquiesced with the stipulation that all other aspects of the law remain in effect, including dietary and sexual customs. Paul spent eight years (49-57 C.E.) in mission work to Greece and Asia Minor with remarkable results.  His primary mission was to the Gentiles but he found greatest success in already established Jewish communities and among the “God-Fearers,” those who accepted the monotheism of the Jews but refused circumcision and other Jewish traditions. Paul and his disciples traveled throughout Greece and Asia Minor establishing Christian synagogues throughout the region (Frend 99-100).

Paul’s teaching centered on the personality and love of Jesus above that of the law of Moses. As his teachings evolved, more and more of the Jewish law was dismissed and replaced by the new law of Christ.  Paul claimed Christ to be the new Adam, who came to reverse the original sin. Through His ultimate sacrifice of His own body and blood the original sin was annulled; all those that came to Him were saved and free of death through His love and sacrifice. Christianity became a faith of rapid salvation. Christ had performed the labor of salvation; Christians needed only to believe and follow. Paul gave structure to Christ’s magnetic invitation:

Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to wear, my load is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Paul made his teaching concrete in his letters to the congregations of his missions.  These letters make up a large portion of the New Testament. The following is an example both of the powers of his writing and the guidance he dispensed to his followers:

For just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions, so we who are united with Christ, though many, form one body, and belong to one another as its limbs and organs.

Let us use the different gifts allotted to each of us by God’s grace: the gift of inspired utterance, for example, let us use in proportion to our faith; the gift of administration to administer, the gift of teaching to teach, the gift of counseling to counsel. If you give to charity, give without grudging; if you are a leader lead with enthusiasm; if you help others in distress, do it cheerfully.

Love in all sincerity, loathing evil and holding fast to good.  Let love of the Christian community show itself in mutual affection.  Esteem others more highly than yourself.

With unflagging zeal, aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Let hope keep you joyful; in trouble stand firm; persist in prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people, and practice hospitality.  Call down the blessings on your persecutors — blessings, not curses.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in agreement with one another. Do not be proud, but be ready to mix with humble people. Do not keep thinking about how wise you are.

Never pay back evil for evil. Let your aims be such as all count honorable. If possible, so far as it lies with you, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:4-18)

While Paul was eager to dismantle much of the traditional law and regulations of the Jews, there were aspects he was equally eager to maintain. One of these aspects was the position of women in the Christian community. While Jesus had shown a somewhat more open attitude toward women — he had women as followers and traveling companions, he healed women, he spoke of harlots entering heaven before Jewish leaders, and some people view his abolishing divorce as an attempt to protect women from abandonment and poverty (Frend 67) — Paul’s attitude was firmly based in the Old Testament. He gave quite precise orders:

Women must dress in a becoming manner, modestly and soberly, not with elaborate hairstyles, not adorned with gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, as befits women who claim to be religious. Their role is to learn, listening quietly with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they should keep quiet. For Adam was created first and then Eve afterwards; moreover it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who yielding to deception, fell into sin. But salvation for the women will be in the bearing of children, provided she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty. (Timothy I, 2:9-15)

While abandoning most rituals of the Jews, Paul structured the rituals of Christianity. Circumcision was now a symbolic rather than physical act. Rather than stripping away the foreskin, Christ would strip away the old nature. Baptism became the symbol of a new covenant, now with Christ.  The baptism was, and is, a symbolic death by submerging in water and rebirth in Christ by rising out of it. The Eucharist was a sacramental communion between the participants and Christ.  It was, and is, the consumption of the body and blood of Christ, a ritual of becoming one with him: Christ enters the participant and the participant enters Christ. This ritual re- enactment of the ultimate sacrifice replaced the many sacrifices of Temple required by Jewish law; they were no longer necessary.

Paul’s tremendous energy and conviction was balanced by a sense of insecurity. He was never fully accepted by the disciples in Jerusalem and in turn he reflected a sense of enmity toward them. In a statement of arrogance sandwiched in humility Paul said:

Last of all he [Jesus] appeared to me too; it was like a sudden, abnormal birth. For I am the least of the apostles, indeed not fit to be called an apostle, because I had persecuted the church of God. However, by God’s grace I am what I am, and his grace to me has not proved vain; in my labours I have outdone them all – not I, indeed, but the grace of God working with me. (Corinthians I, 15:8-10)

Paul professed that his was the only true teaching of Christ and that all others should be ignored. He made many enemies and suffered persecution from many directions. James in Jerusalem was still working within the framework of Judaism and Paul’s successes in the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean put strains on the unity of the church. In 58 C.E. Paul returned to Jerusalem and was jailed. Being a Roman citizen he was transported to Rome in 60 C.E. for trial, where he was kept under token arrest and allowed to preach and make converts. In 64 C.E. Rome suffered a massive fire and Nero needed a scapegoat to blame it on. He chose the Christians. Later Christian writings record that nearly a thousand martyrs died, including Paul and Peter who was also preaching in Rome at the time. Nero’s persecution of Christianity as an “evil religion” made it illegal throughout the empire (Frend 109). In 62 C.E. a rival group of Jewish leaders succeeded in arranging the murder of James in Jerusalem.  While the Christians in Palestine were still in shock from his death, the great Jewish revolt against the Romans broke out in 66 C.E. and removed the Christians from any contemporary significance; some accounts have some Christians fleeing to Greece, but it is not certain.  The Roman emperor Titus crushed the Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E. and destroyed the Temple (Frend 120).  The Jews rallied back to their traditional leaders for guidance in the disaster. What developed was Judaism without the Temple but with a new, far more flexible structure established by the writings that were to evolve in the Mishnah and Talmud. Christianity was to survive as well, in spite of its illegality, and to flourish in the communities created by Paul and his disciples. It would be Paul’s vision that would shape this new religion for Jews and Gentiles alike: a religion of love and salvation.

The morality and ethics of Christianity revolve around a central point, the focal point of the teachings of Jesus; love. Love was a major theme of Judaism as well, but Jesus transformed it into the central focus of Christian actions and deeds. By commanding that we are not only to love our neighbors but also our enemies, He changed the intensity level to a very difficult degree. It is a task that calls for selfless commitment, a task that asks us to emulate God in His impartiality of sending the sun to shine on the good and bad alike. Our love is to fall on all equally. It is not to be done with the idea of transforming the enemy into a friend, but with a purity of maintaining a harmony of love for all; it is a law of love (Niebuhr 40). This law of love has been expressed by writers in many ways:

The law of love is not obeyed simply by being known. Whenever it is obeyed at all, it is because life in its beauty and terror has been more fully revealed to man. The love that cannot be willed may nevertheless grow as a natural fruit upon a tree which has roots deep enough to be nurtured by the springs of life beneath the surface and the branches reaching up to heaven.  (Niebuhr 220)

Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things, and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it or ill-fortune cast it down. (`a Kempis 97-8)

…we can be happy in this world only in so far as we are free to rejoice in the good of another: specifically, in so far as we are free to rejoice in the good which is God’s.

If the whole world were only capable of grasping this principle that true happiness consists only in the freedom of disinterested love — the ability to get away from ourselves, and our own limited sphere of interests and appetites and needs, and rejoice in that good that is in others, not because it is also ours, but formally in so far as it is theirs!  (Merton 316)

Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable.  He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between love of our neighbor and justice. (Weil 139)

This all-encompassing, universal love is the center around which all other Christian virtues revolve. These virtues are traditionally numbered seven: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Faith, Hope and Charity. Prudence is common sense, thinking about what you are going to do before doing it, and what the probable outcome will be. Temperance is often confused with abstaining from intoxicants, but it is meant to have much broader application to all pleasures — not in the abstention from pleasures, but in the moderation of pleasures. Justice extends beyond the contemporary legal context and relates to fairness in all interactions. Fortitude means facing danger when needed and sticking with your undertaking even if it involves pain or discomfort. Faith is the art of holding on to beliefs through changing moods and conditions; it represents the need for prayer, church, and ritual.  Hope is belief; the belief that the kingdom of God is waiting for the faithful. Charity is the giving to the needy as another expression of universal love (Lewis 74-124).

In the fifteenth century a German monk by the name of Thomas `a Kempis wrote a small book to help instruct those coming into the brotherhood; it is titled The Imitation of Christ. For the past five hundred years it has been one of the most, if not the most, revered Christian books after the New Testament. It is a book of great clarity and devotion that lays out the aspects of the above-mentioned Christian virtues with a lucidity few writers have equaled:

Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. (27)

We could enjoy much peace if we did not busy ourselves with what other people say and do, for this is of no concern of ours. (37)

Judge yourself, and beware of passing judgment on others. In judging others, we expend our energy to no purpose; we are often mistaken, and sin easily. But if we judge ourselves our labor is always to our profit. (42)

Whatever a man is unable to correct in himself or in others, he should bear patiently until God ordains otherwise.  Consider, it is perhaps better thus, for the testing of our patience, without which our merits are of little worth…. Strive to be patient; bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you, too, have many faults which others have to bear. (44)

Firstly, be peaceful yourself, and you will be able to bring peace to others. A man of peace does more good than a very learned man. A passionate man turns even good into evil, and readily listens to evil; but a good and peaceable man turns all things to good. He who is truly at peace thinks evil of no one; but he who is discontented and restless is tormented by suspicions beyond number. He has no peace in himself, nor will he allow peace in others.  (70)

While the virtues and morals of the teaching of Jesus have been developed over the centuries, likewise have the Christian concepts of sin and hell. Judaism rarely dealt with the concept of hell, and Jesus seems to have followed in that tradition as reflected in the Gospels with a few exceptions. One such exception is the out-of- character passage in Luke where Jesus advises his followers to mutilate themselves rather than end up in hell where “the devouring worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (9:48). Hell evolved as a balance to heaven, as a consequence of sin and, as irrational as it seems, a consequence to not following Jesus’ path of love. A definition of hell that rings with a poignant contemporary clarity is given by Thomas Merton: “Hell is where no one has anything in common with anyone else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves” (65).

Sin has also evolved in a bewildering complexity of levels and punishments. Again from a contemporary perspective, C. S. Lewis has expressed himself eloquently on what he sees as the ultimate sin:

Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed and selfishness are really far more the result of Pride….[P]ower is what Pride really enjoys:  there is nothing that makes a man so superior to others  as being able to move them about as toy soldiers.  …The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been  the chief cause of misery in every nation and every  family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes  bring people together…. But Pride always means enmity  — it is enmity.  And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God…. Pride is spiritual cancer: it  eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment,  or even common sense. (110-2)

When one contemplates the original teachings of Jesus it is bewildering to look at Christianity’s evolution over time. Paul had planted the seeds of his vision of Christianity in the Mediterranean in a little over a decade. Those seeds continued to grow and develop in spite of the official ban on the religion. Christians suffered some of their most severe persecution during the last half of the third century; then in the beginning of the fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Edict of Milan in 313.  By 314 Constantine was proclaiming himself a convert and Christianity was phased in as the official religion of the Roman Empire (Frend 486-7).  This remarkable chain of events began Christianity’s long reign as the religion of political power, rather than the religion to empower the poor and oppressed as Jesus had envisioned it.

Centuries and centuries passed with official Christianity structured and fine-tuned to enable the powerful and wealthy to remain so and oppress and use the poor. The ultimate perversion took place during the centuries of European colonization of the world, when in the name of Christ countless lives were lost and entire cultures destroyed.  When the economic thrust changed to the mercantile and then industrial systems, Christianity was deformed to fit and bolster the concept of individual greed and a new form of exploitation. In our own time the contortions continue with new technologies such as television continually utilized to manipulate and dupe people for the techno-powerfuls’ gain and avarice in the name of Jesus.

In spite of the distortions and perversions of the teachings of Jesus, in every place and in every time there have been individuals and groups of people who have been able to live by the true teachings of Jesus — to live lives of universal love to the best of their abilities. They have been beacons of goodness to the Western world and remain so. While the gentleness and humility of Jesus has rarely found its way into the political uses of Christianity, it has created for two thousand years, and will continue to create for thousands more a personal way of love and salvation for millions of people around the world.

The dichotomy between political Christianity and personal Christianity may be best summarized by Reinhold Niebuhr:

Since the anarchy of human life is something more than the anarchy of animal existence, it cannot be checked by the forces inherent in a rational culture. The vitality, and the resulting anarchy of human existence, is the vitality of the children of God. Nothing short of the knowledge of the true God will save them from the impiety of making themselves God and the cruelty of seeing their fellow men as devils because they are involved in the same pretension. (237)


Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

`a Kempis, Thomas, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Leo Sherley-Price, New York: Dorset Press, 1952.

Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1952.

Merton, Thomas, A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnel, New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Niebuhr, Reinhold, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, New York:             Harper & Row Publishers, 1935.

Weil, Simone, Waiting For God, New York: Harper & Row Publishers,         1973.

all Biblical quotes not from the above sources came from:

Sacred Writings Volume 2: The Apocrypha and The New Testament, From The Revised English Bible, New York: Quality

1993 copyright Mark. McGinnis

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Islam Quintych (watercolor study) Mark W. McGinnis, 1993

To the average American, Islam is a very foreign religion: one that not only conjures up Eastern or “Oriental” overtones, but one that also usually carries negative connotations. These adverse associations have many sources, from the days of the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, to today’s nightly news, where Islam seems to be represented by extremists promoting violent and many times very un- Islamic attitudes.

The truth is that Islam is not foreign to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Islam is actually another facet of the same lineage. Islam considers itself another development from the root of the monotheism of Abraham. Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, who was born to Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, Hagar. Ishmael was Abraham’s pride and joy until his wife, Sarah, gave birth at the age of ninety to Isaac.  Sarah grew exceedingly jealous of Hagar and worried about the eldest son, Ishmael. She convinced Abraham to send them both away forever.  Abraham was hesitant but finally agreed, with God’s promise to take care of them and make Ishmael the father of a great people.  Abraham took them into the wilderness of the valley of Mecca and left them there. It is said that when Abraham later returned to see his grown son, together they built the first temple to God, the Ka’bah (Armstrong 161). While Isaac went on to be the patriarch of the Jewish nation, Ishmael fathered the Arab nation, which was not to flower until the seventh century.

The Islamic faith believes in many of the prophets of the Torah, the Old Testament, with special emphasis on Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses.  It also believes whole-heartedly that Jesus, son of Mary, was a major prophet of God. It breaks with Christianity in not believing in the divinity of Jesus as the son of God. The largest discrepancy with the two previous religions of Abraham comes with Islam’s claim that God sent another prophet, Muhammad, with a new revelation, the Qur’an, to the Arab nation. This is where the remarkable story of Islam begins.

Muhammad was born into a commercial family in the thriving trading city of Mecca, where he was orphaned at an early age and brought up by extended family. Mecca was a community that had undergone considerable change in the previous few generations. Commercial development had transformed the lives of nomadic tribesmen to capitalistic townspeople focused on personal gain and wealth. It was a culture still living deeply tied to tribal and clan allegiances with spiritual traditions rooted in polytheism.  People were accustomed to having multiple gods help them in the many hardships they encountered. Internally, the tribes of Arabia were constantly at war with one another; blood-feuds led from one vendetta to another. Externally, both Persian and Byzantine empires were strong in the seventh century but did not consider the Arabian area worth an invasion.  It was inconceivable that a new major religion would soon evolve there and then an empire that would dwarf theirs (Armstrong 53-4).

Muhammad worked in the family business; his main job was to guide caravans to Syria and Mesopotamia. He married a woman whom he been working for by the name of Khadija. She was considerably older than he, but proved to be an excellent wife, not only giving him six children but also becoming his most valued companion and supporter. When Muhammad was about forty he began making more frequent spiritual retreats, devoting himself to the worship of Allah, the primary God of Mecca.  His first revelation occurred on one of these retreats to Mount Hira on the seventeenth night of Ramadan, 610. He was visited by an angel who commanded him to recite.  He was terrified and protested but was unable to refuse, and thus began the revelation of the Qur’an, the Recitation.

Muhammad believed he was fulfilling the role of the prophet of God to the Arabs, who had been left out of previous prophecies.  The Arabic Qur’an was the message to the Arabs to fulfill their needs and right their wrongs. It was not a new religion but a continuation of the religion of Abraham, and he was its prophet (Armstrong 82-70). Muhammad could not read or write so he memorized the recitations of the Qur’an as did his followers. This process was seen as an enhancement of the purity of the revelation of the new words of God, which continued to be revealed to him over a period of years.  For the first three years Muhammad preached only to a small group of followers including members of his family and some of his friends. His wife, Khadija, was his first and most faithful convert.  In 615 he started preaching publicly and began to win converts among the people of Mecca; he also began to split families in their allegiance between his new religion and the traditional multiple gods.  At first the religion was fairly well accepted, except for the concept of the Last Judgment; this egalitarian ending of each man’s life, where only good or bad deeds mattered, did not sit too well with wealth-oriented businessmen of the city. But major problems arose in 616 when Muhammad began to stress the absolute monotheism of the faith, insisting that all other gods must be abandoned completely.  This created a wide rift between the Muslims and the traditionalists, and the Muslims became a ridiculed minority. A campaign was mounted to rid Mecca of the new religion (Armstrong 105-7).  Fortunately, Muhammad had the protection of a powerful clan leader who would have started a bloody vendetta if Muhammad had been killed.  To try to drive the Muslims out of Mecca the traditionalists enforced a ban against them that created very difficult conditions for the Muslims, but after two years the ban was ended.  However other conditions worsened; Muhammad’s main protector died and Khadija also died, leaving him in a very saddened state.

In 620 Muhammad experienced his most mystical encounter, now called “The Night Flight.” He was awakened from his sleep by the angel Gabriel, who flew him to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount where they were greeted by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and a group of other prophets.  Later he climbed a ladder into the seven levels of heaven and finally stood before the Throne of God. It was a validating experience that became immensely important in Islamic spirituality, particularly in some of the Sufi traditions. Some Muslims insist that Muhammad made the journey to God’s Throne in body, but others believe that the Night Journey and Ascension were purely spiritual experiences (Armstrong 138-40).

Mecca was home to one of Arabia’s most sacred sites, the ancient temple called the Ka’bah, dedicated to a primary god of Mecca, al- Llah, and also many minor deities. The Ka’bah was the primary focus of an annual pilgrimage, the hajj, that involved people from throughout the region. Pilgrims from the northern oasis community of Medina met Muhammad during the hajj and were very impressed with him. They began negotiations that led to the immigration of many of the persecuted Muslims of Mecca to Medina.  In 622 Muhammad’s remaining protector died and an alliance of clans organized an assassination plot against Muhammad. He narrowly escaped and found his way to Medina where he was welcomed as an arbiter between warring groups that were destroying the community.

Muhammad gained stature in Medina and began to organize raids on the caravans of Mecca as a source of income for the Muslims and retribution against the Meccans.  This led to the Battle of Badr where Muhammad led 350 Muslims to capture a caravan, and an army of 1000 from Mecca attempted to stop them. The Meccans were not experienced warriors and Muhammad made some excellent tactical decisions resulting in the defeat and rout of the Meccans.  It was an incredible morale boost for the Muslims in Medina. The battle of Badr was seen as a sign of salvation from God (Armstrong 176).

This victory set the conditions for the inevitable vengeance of the Meccans as Muhammad continued his raids on the caravans of Mecca. In 625 the Meccans led a 3,000 man army against Medina.  Muhammad confronted them with an army of 1,000 men. The battle did not go well; Muhammad was wounded leaving the Muslims in disarray. Fortunately, the Meccans were also disorganized. Thinking Muhammad had been killed, they did not follow the Muslims, who retreated back to Medina.

In 627 the Meccans marched against Medina with 10,000 men.            Muhammad mustered about 3,000 in defense. The Muslims barricaded themselves in the city and dug a trench on a vulnerable front. Each family was responsible for a certain amount of the excavation. Muhammad himself worked on the trench. The Meccans were unable to breach the trench and a violent turn in the weather led them to give up the siege and return to Mecca.  During the siege a Jewish tribe within Medina had conspired with the Meccans to betray the Muslims. As punishment all the 700 men of the tribe were executed and the women and children were sold into slavery. Muhammad’s victory over the Meccans and his harsh treatment of the traitors led him to be regarded as the leader of the most powerful group in Arabia (Armstrong 203-8).

At this point Muhammad was more certain of the Muslim’s survival and began taking a very different strategy. In 628 he announced he was to make pilgrimage to the Ka’bah and invited the Muslims to join him.  They went without armor and only lightly armed.  Outside Mecca in the neutral area where no fighting was allowed, they were stopped and not permitted to enter the city.  After much tension and negotiation Muhammad agreed to return to Medina, but not before negotiating a ten-year truce between Mecca and Medina and the right to return during next year’s hajj to the Ka’bah, when the Meccans would abandon the area for three days for the use of the Muslims. Some Muslims were furious with the generous terms of the treaty but Muhammad persisted and continued with his long-term strategy of winning over more people to Islam by its dedication to the ancient ways of the Ka’bah. It was a practical decision that would have tangible gains far greater than immediate military ones (Armstrong 214-20).

At the end of 629, when the Meccans broke the treaty with Medina, Muhammad organized an army of 10,000 to march on Mecca. After one small skirmish, the city of Mecca gave way to his bloodless conquest. He did not force Islam on them but he did destroy all the idols around the Ka’bah. He granted a general amnesty to people of Mecca with the exception of a Black List of about ten people who were executed (Armstrong 243).

Muhammad’s total victory in Mecca led tribes throughout Arabia to join in allegiances with him and adopt Islam, although many times nominally. In the ten years since he fled from Mecca to Medina, he had managed to create an Arab unity that was unimaginable before.  He set up a system that was to govern a huge empire for the next thousand years. Islam was not a faith that expected God to do for them. It was a practical and realistic faith that believed they would need to work with divine guidance to make things happen.  Muhammad was not a removed mystic communing with God but a very practical, political, and spiritual leader doing what needed to be done within the rather grim framework of tribal traditions (Armstrong 250).

In 632 Muhammad led the pilgrims to Mecca for the last time. Near Mount Arafat Muhammad preached his farewell sermon.  He told them to deal justly with one another, treat women kindly, abandon all blood-feuds from the pagan period, and remember that all Muslims are brothers — the brethren of Islam was the new allegiance.

After returning to Mecca he began having severe incapacitating headaches; he grew increasingly ill and died. He was succeeded by his follower, Abu Bakr, who took the title of Caliph, or Representative of Muhammad. Abu Bakr was careful to stay in the tradition of Muhammad and declared he was fit to lead only as long as he followed the way of the Qur’an and the Prophet and if he should go astray, he should be removed. He ruled for only two years, until his death, and was followed by a quick succession of three more Caliphs who all ruled in accordance with the principles of Muhammad and are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This period has been called the Golden Age as many of the following Caliphs did not live up to Muhammad’s high standards of equality and justice (Armstrong 258).

If one were considering Muhammad’s remarkable political career alone, he would be a fascinating historical figure. He set the model for future Islamic rulers and beyond that he became one of Islam’s most unifying factors. He is seen as the example that all good Muslims should try to emulate, but his main contribution was in the new revelation he left the Arab people and the world, the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is a continuation of the revelation of God as seen in the Torah and Gospels but with a very distinct Arabic voice, as in the following Surah (chapter) 22: verses 5-6:

If you have any doubt, O men,

about being raised to life again,

(remember) that We created you

from dust,

then a drop of semen, then an

embryo, then a chewed up  lump

of flesh, shaped and shapeless

that We may reveal (the various

steps) to you.

We keep what We please in the

womb for a certain time,

then you come out as a child,

then reach the prime of age.

Some of you die, some reach

the age of dotage when they

forget what they knew, having

known it once.

You see the earth all withered,

then We will send down rain

upon it,  and it bestirs itself,

swells, and brings forth every

kind of beauteous verdure.

That is so for God is the

undeniable Reality.

It is He who brings the dead to


For He has the power over every



It is difficult for a non-Muslim and non-Arabic speaker and reader to gain any of the true impact of the Qur’an. From the beginning the revelation of the Qur’an is spoken of with a deep reverence. Unbelievers heard it and cried, won over by the tremendous poetry and power of the verses. This is still the impact of the writings for the devoted Muslim, who is moved not just by the content of the words but by the overall aesthetic experience of the spoken or recited verses.

But aside from the artistic beauty of the Qur’an, its importance in the life of a Muslim is readily discernible.  The Qur’an builds on the morals and ethics of the Torah and the Gospels but goes far beyond to set up a structured set of duties and responsibilities for the believer beginning with the Five Principles. The Muslim must believe in these five articles of faith: God, His Angels, His Prophets, His Books, and Life after Death (Ali 100).

The belief in God is a total and complete surrender to the one supreme God, Allah. The word Islam means surrender, submission, and peace. The word Muslim means one who has surrendered. This act of surrender is especially important as Muslims believe all God’s creatures except man are naturally subordinate to His will and live according to His divine plan; only man was given free will and has the responsibility to become a Muslim, to submit to God’s will (Armstrong 166). The focus on the one God underlies the unity Islam strives to create in spiritual and social matters.  In Muhammad’s revelations of the seventh century, the Qur’an gives a truly startling message of the unity of all the human race, regardless of racial or ethnic background. The theme of the one God is a recurring refrain throughout the Qur’an and the prayers of Islam:

There is no god but God,

and God is all-mighty and all-

wise. (3:62)

This monotheism was undoubtedly to counter the multiple-god

worship of the traditionalists of Muhammad’s time but today Muslims see it just as relevant as a reminder against the multiple gods of materialism.

The second article of faith is the belief in God’s angels. Angels, creatures God created of light, are more forces of nature than human-like. They are made only to obey the will of God and be intermediaries between God and humans. Their most important function has been to bring God’s revelation to humans. It is believed that the stronger a person’s righteousness becomes, the stronger the person’s connection with the angels. It is said that every good or noble deed is stimulated by an angel and that angels are also the recorders of people’s deeds for the final reckoning. Associated with angels are their opposites, jinn, or devils. These creatures, made of fire, urge us to follow the lower passions of life rather than the higher spiritual passions that lead to God (Ali 134-43).

The third article of faith is the belief in the prophets of God. Islam believes that every nation has had its prophet of God and pays special attention to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, who are seen as part of their lineage:

We believe in God

and what has been sent

down to us,

and what has been revealed

to Abraham and Ishmael

and Isaac and Jacob and their

progeny, and what was given to

Moses and Christ,

and to all the other prophets of

the Lord.

We make no distinctions among


and we submit to Him. (2:136)

But the focus of belief in prophets lies with Muhammad, who has the distinction of not only being a prophet of God but also of being the last prophet of God. Muslims believe that God’s revelation reached its perfection with Muhammad and there is no need for any further prophets after him (Ali 158).

The fourth article of faith in Islam is the belief in God’s books.  As with the belief in prophets, Muslims pay special tribute to the Torah and Gospels as revelation brought down to the two previous religions of Abraham, but the focus for belief is in the perfect book as revealed by Muhammad, the Qur’an itself. While the Qur’an relates some of the same stories as the Torah it often gives different versions, many times omitting any of the weaknesses or sins of the prophets, believing them to be “defects” in the originals and smears on the divine revelation of the prophets (Ali 160). The Qur’an is considered to be the greatest miracle of Islam, a miracle that has the power to transform individuals, families, societies, and nations not only on a spiritual level but also on moral, intellectual, and material levels as well.

The fifth and final article of faith is the belief in life after death. The importance of this article has been well stated by the Muslim scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali:

The greater the faith in the good or bad consequences of a deed, the greater is the incentive which urges a man to or withholds him from that deed. Therefore this belief is both the greatest impetus towards good and noble, and the greatest restraint upon evil or irresponsible deeds. But more than this, such a belief purifies the motives with which the deed is done. It makes a man work with the most selfless motives, for he seeks no reward for what he does; his work is for higher and nobler ends relating to the life beyond the grave (200).


The Qur’an weaves the themes of heaven and hell through many of its chapters from beginning to end. Heaven is depicted as a cool garden with running water, shade, and pleasant company; while hell is described sometimes in brutal detail with punishments one would certainly want to avoid:

Before him is Hell, and he will

get putrid liquid to drink

He will sip it,

yet not be able to gulp it down.

Death will crowd him upon every

side, but he will not die.

A terrible torrent trails him.


The Islamic concept of the afterlife does have some interesting characteristics. Hell is a place of retribution for past evil deeds but it is also a place for purification. The punishments of hell eventually rid people of their sins and there is a chance for spiritual advancement and eventual release from hell (Ali 229). Heaven, on the other hand, is not considered a stagnant place but a higher life of increasing advancement, rising higher and higher as new accomplishments are made (Ali 226). At the time of each individual’s Last Judgment and Resurrection a book of his or her good and bad deeds is revealed. No outside reckoning is necessary; it will be so obvious to each person that they will pass judgment on themselves (Ali 215).

In addition to the five articles of faith are five fundamental religious duties recognized by Islam: prayer, zakat or charity, fasting, pilgrimage, and jihad or struggle. Prayer is the first duty not only in order but also in importance. Prayer is at the very root of Islamic experience. Prayer is the means by which God enters the living force of people. The realization of the Divine comes only through the personal communication of the individual and God. Islam has not left this crucial duty to the discretion of the individual. It has institutionalized prayer into a devotional activity to be performed five times daily: once in the morning before sunrise, another after midday, a third in the afternoon, a fourth at sunset, and a fifth before going to bed. Prayer is an integral part of every day. If possible these prayers are to be done in a mosque as a communal event with fellow believers. In a mosque, which is a prayer hall, every Muslim becomes equal; there is no difference in status, rank, race, or ethnic background. It is to be an experience of complete unity and cohesion of believers. Five times a day this sense of harmony and peace is to take precedence over the everyday life of struggle and inequalities. It is to be a practical lesson in Islamic equality. Due to the nature of these standard prayers which are taken from the Qur’an, the language of Arabic is retained to maintain the purity of the poetry and the beauty of the original revelation in the original language.  There is no Sabbath day in Islam; with prayers five times daily, every day becomes God’s day. On Fridays a special sermon is scheduled for the afternoon in the mosque in which the Imam, the leader of prayer, delivers a message on any matter dealing with the life of the Muslims. The mosque is not only the spiritual center of the Muslims but also the cultural center of the community. The only requirement of a mosque is that it face the Ka’bah in Mecca. Traditionally it is a simple structure with open spaces for prayer and prostration. It usually has one or more minarets or raised platforms from which the adhan, the call to prayer, can be given five times daily (Ali 263-82).

The second religious duty of a Muslim is that of charity. There are two kinds of charity in  Islam, voluntary and obligatory. In a very broad sense of the word all acts of goodness towards humanity can be seen as charity and such acts are a necessary part of any Muslim’s life. Regarding the matter of wealth, each individual is expected to give to those less fortunate, not as the act of a superior but as a duty imposed by the love of God. The obligatory charity is called the zakat. The zakat is a flat tax of one fortieth of one’s wealth that is to be paid annually to a common fund for the relief of the poor.  The unequal distribution of wealth was and is a social problem that Muhammad recognized and sought to lessen (Ali 343-6).

The third duty is that of fasting. Fasting is abstaining — abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset. In a larger sense, the person fasting is also supposed to abstain from all that is immoral: lying, using bad language, acting unfaithfully, or doing any evil deed. The primary fast of Muslims is the entire month of Ramadzan, the month in which the Qur’an began to be revealed and also the month of the Battle of Badr.  Fasting is considered moral training of the individual: learning to suffer when necessary, to undergo trials rather than indulge desires, to control appetites of the body and be their masters instead of them mastering you. Fasting is a practical lesson in facing hardships and increasing the resistance to temptation. The elderly, the ill, and travelers are exempted from the fast, but when possible they are to make up the fast days when they can. In addition to the month of Ramadzan, Muhammad recommended about three days a month as voluntary fast days. He discouraged any excessive fasting as a show of devotion (Ali 358- 65).

The fourth duty of a Muslim is the hajj, the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah. As previously mentioned the Ka’bah has roots that extend before recorded or remembered history. It is a simple structure with the front and back wall forty feet in length, two side walls thirty- five feet in length, and an overall height of fifty feet. The walls of the structure are covered with a black curtain.  The east cornerstone is a famous Black Stone that some believe to be a meteorite, a cornerstone directly from God.  While circling the Ka’bah is considered to be the highlight of the annual hajj, there are other rituals performed, most predating Muhammad and now incorporated into the Muslim devotional acts. Every Muslim is required to make this pilgrimage once in their lives if it is within their financial and physical means to do so.  It is as difficult for an outsider to comprehend the hajj as it is to understand the beauty of the Qur’an.  The hajj is another of the Muslims’ creations of an experience of equality. All individuals are to leave all marks of distinction and rank behind.  Men all dress in two white sheets and women dress in modest, ordinary clothes. The objective is to have an ultimate spiritual experience as a part of the vast body of Islam. It has been described by the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati as follows:

As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka’bah, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. Carried by a wave you lose touch with the ground.  Suddenly, you are floating, carried on by the flood. As  you approach the center, the pressure of the crowd  squeezes you so hard that you are given a new life. You  are now part of the people; you are now a Man, alive and  eternal ….  The Ka’bah is the world’s sun whose face  attracts you into its orbit.  You have become part of  this universal system. Circumambulating around Allah,  you will soon forget yourself …. You have been  transformed into a particle that is gradually melting  and disappearing.  This is absolute love at its peak.  (Armstrong 253)

The fifth, final, and most often misunderstood of the duties of a Muslim is the jihad, the struggle. Unfortunately more often jihad is interpreted to mean war rather than struggle.  The struggle is the struggle to spread Islam and the struggle against oneself, the devil, and the enemies of Islam. The struggle is to be one of using the weapon of the Qur’an, not the sword. Every Muslim is obligated to spread the message of the Qur’an but not through violent means. War is specifically designated by the Qur’an to be used only for self- defense, never for offensive reasons, never to spread Islam by force. When one is forced into war the Qur’an supports fighting to win for Allah, but as soon as the adversaries sue for peace, Muslims must end hostilities immediately.

In addition to these five duties there are other regulations and rules in Islam. Muslims are prohibited from the use of any intoxicants.  Forbidden food includes pork and animals that die a natural death or that have been sacrificed to another god. The Qur’an puts a great stress on cleanliness, both physical and mental. Modesty and moderation are promoted in all matters. Arrogance and extravagance are condemned. Truthfulness, perseverance, and courage are all basic characteristics that the Muslim should develop and foster.

Parents are encouraged to be kind and gentle with their children. In return children are to show the same love and respect to their parents when they grow old as is reflected in this wonderful passage from the Qur’an:

So your Lord decreed: Do not worship anyone but Him, and be good to your parents. If one or both of them grow old in your presence, do not say fie to them, nor reprove them, but say gentle words to them   and look after them with kindness and love, and say: “O Lord have mercy on them as they nourished me when I was small.” (17:23-4)

Muslims are warned against deriding others, looking down on others, seeking faults, and being suspicious of others.  They are encouraged to express kindness, generosity, and compassion to all, whether neighbor, servant, or, in days past, slave. As guidance in these matters, Muslims look to the life of Muhammad, who exemplified these traits. He lived very modestly and frugally. He had one set of coarse commoner’s clothes. He milked his own goat, cared for his own camel, mended his own clothes and shoes, did the shopping for his house and neighbors, and helped with household chores. He rejected any special treatment. He was always smiling and friendly to all. He loved children and helped with their care. He demanded complete justice for friend or foe and was careful of how he dispensed it as the following story illustrates:

The Holy Prophet Muhammad was once requested by an aged woman to speak to her son, who spent all his daily wages on the fruit of the date palm, leaving her penniless. The Prophet promised to do so after a five week interval.

On the appointed day the boy was brought before the Prophet, who spoke to him very kindly, saying, “You are such a sensible lad that you ought to remember that your mother has endured much suffering to bring you up; and now she is so old and you are in a position to support her, you are squandering your money on dates. Is this right?  I hope, by the grace and mercy of Allah, you will give up this habit.”  The boy listened very attentively and profited by what he heard.

The disciples of the Prophet wondered and asked why the reproof was delayed for thirty-five days. The Holy Prophet explained saying, “I myself am fond of dates, and I felt as if I had no right to advise the lad to abstain from them until I myself refrained from eating them for five weeks.” (Khan II, 30)

One of the aspects of Islam often questioned in modern times is the position of women in the faith. When Muhammad founded Islam women were treated as property of men. They had no rights at all. As part of Islam’s social reforms women gained considerably more rights and influence. They were given the right to own property, to inherit property, to earn property, and to give and receive property as gifts.  Instead of being property women had the power of property at their disposal, as all were endowed at marriage with property that was exclusively their own. From modern Western standards women of Muhammad’s world were not “liberated,” but they were far advanced from women in the Christian communities of the time and for many centuries thereafter. Traditions of all women wearing a veil and the separation of women from men in the home and mosque were instituted generations after Muhammad and have no basis in the Qur’an. They may have been influenced by Byzantium or Persia where such treatment was common (Armstrong 198).

The Qur’an was and is the fundamental and primary source of Islamic teachings. A secondary source is the Sunnah, practice, and the Hadith, sayings, of Muhammad. These writings are careful compilations of the words and actions of Muhammad used as guidance for Muslims.  The following is an example of one of the sayings of Muhammad:

Hadith: Al-Bukhari and Muslim, in the authority of ‘Abd- Allah Ibn ‘Umar, The Messenger of Allah, may benediction and salutation of Allah be upon him, said: “Verily, each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible for his flock. So, the leader who is placed over the people is a shepherd responsible for his flock — a man is placed over the members of his family and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is placed over the family of her husband and his children and she is responsible for them; a servant of a man is placed over the property of his master and he is responsible for it; undoubtedly, each one of you is a shepherd, and each one of you is responsible for his flock.” (Doi 87)

One of Muhammad’s primary goals was to maintain the unity of the Muslims, and unity is still stronger in Islam than in many fragmented religions such as Christianity or Buddhism. But there was still a major rift in the followers of Muhammad when a group broke away from the main body of the Muslims, called the Sunnah, and formed Shiah-i Ali, the party of Ali, who believed that only the descendants of Ali, one of Muhammad’s followers, should rule. This split led to the Sunnis and Shi’ites of today.  Another aspect of Islam that is represented in both the Sunni and Shi’ite groups is that of the Sufis, or Sufism. In its most basic definition a Sufi is a Muslim ascetic who wears coarse wool (suf) garments as a sign of his/her renunciation of worldly pleasures. While so much of Islam is very outward, practical, and worldly oriented, Sufism takes Islam on an inward journey to find the true nature of God, humans, and the universe. One Sufi Master put it as follows:

The soul is an immense thing; it is the whole cosmos, since it is a copy of it. Everything which is in the cosmos is to be found in the soul; equally everything in the soul is in the cosmos. Because of this fact, he who masters his soul most certainly masters the cosmos, just as he who is dominated by his soul is certainly dominated by the whole cosmos. (Nasr 29)

Sufism is a mystical quest for knowledge and understanding that has spawned many orders and versions of Sufism from the seventh century to today.  Although it is primarily an inward quest, by its nature it has greatly influenced all aspects of Islamic culture. Education, science, and all areas of the arts have been the beneficiaries of the Sufis and their search for knowledge, wisdom, and beauty (Nasr 16-19).  There have been thousands of great Sufi sages and poets through the centuries. The following are a sampling of quotes from a few:

El-Ghazali (twelfth century)


I should like to know what a man who has no knowledge has really gained, and what a man of knowledge has not gained. (Shah 57)

A man who is being delivered from the danger of a fierce lion does not object, whether this service is performed by an unknown or an illustrious individual. Why, therefore, do people seek knowledge from celebrities. (Shah 54)

Attar of Nishapur (thirteenth century)


Some Israelites reviled Jesus one day as he was walking through their part of town. But he answered them by repeating prayers in theirname.

Someone said to him:

“You prayed for these men, did you not feel incensed  against them?”

He answered:

“I could spend only what I had in my purse.” (Shah 63)

Saadi of Shiraz (thirteenth century)


Dominion of the world from end to end

Is worth less than a drip of blood on the earth. (Shah 84)


He who has self-conceit in his head —

Do not imagine that he will ever hear the truth. (Shah 85)


Whoever gives advice to a heedless man is himself in need of advice. (Shah 92)

Hakim Jami (fifteenth century)

Do not boast that you have no pride because it is less visible than an ant’s foot on a black stone in a dark night.

And do not think that bringing it out from within is easy, for it is easier to extract a mountain from the earth with a needle.  (Shah 97)

And finally, and quite extensively, a more contemporary Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan, from the early twentieth century:

God made man, and man made good and evil. (7)


The closer one approaches reality, the nearer one comes to unity.  (11)


Man makes his reasons to suit himself. (13)


Many feel, a few think, and fewer still there are who can express their thoughts. (14)


Every moment of your life is more valuable than anything else in the world. (21)


The present spirit of humanity has commercialism as its crown and materialism as its throne. (31)


The secret of life is balance, and the absence of balance is life’s destruction. (32)


The true sword of Muhammad was the charm of his personality. (35)


To make God intelligible you must make a God of your own. (39)


Success gives an appearance of the reality even to false things. (40)


Goodness and wickedness both exist in human nature at the same time; only when one is manifest the other is hidden, like the lining inside the coat. (46)


Happy is he who does good to others, and miserable is he who expects good from others. (70)


Verily, every atom sets in motion each atom of the universe. (99)


Verily, man is his own mind. (99)


Art is dear to my heart, but nature is dear to my soul. (114)


All men are equal in truth, not in fact. (116)


It is unjust to be rich when others are poor, and it is fatal to be poor when others are rich. (130)


Criticism, indifference, pessimism are the three things which close the door to the heart. (138)


God created man in His own image, and man made God in his own likeness. (138)


What pleasure is there in a useless action?

What interest is there in a senseless speech?

What joy is there in a depthless thought?

What happiness is there in a loveless feeling? (138)


So few in this world discriminate properly between their want and their need. (143)


To express an impulse gives relief, but to control it gives strength. (145)


If a dog barks at the elephant, it takes no notice and goes on its way; so do the wise when attacked by the ignorant. (146)


The man who tries to prove his belief superior to the faith of another, does not know the meaning of religion. (147)


There can be no comparison between art and nature, for art is as limited as man, but nature is as perfect as God. (148)


Woman, whom destiny has made to be man’s superior, by trying to become his equal, falls beneath his estimation. (151)


An optimist takes the chance of losing; a pessimist loses the chance of gaining. (174)


Tolerance is the sign of an evolved soul. A soul gives the proof of its evolution in the degree of the tolerance it shows. (192)


It is not what Christ taught that makes his devotees love him.  They dispute over these things in vain. It is what he himself was that is loved and admired by them. (212)


The mystic seeks God both within and without; he recognizes God in both unity and in variety. (216)


Our virtues are made by love, and our sins caused by the lack of it.  (230)


It is not solid wood that can become a flute; it is the empty reed.  (260)

Islam is a faith with a history of remarkable success, from the time of its founder in the seventh century to the remarkable expansion of its empire that finally ebbed in the eighteenth century. This success is one of the aspects of Islam that makes it seem suspicious to some people. Islam’s predecessor faiths of Abraham did not enjoy such attainment. Judaism has spent most of its long history as a captive religion forced to exist under domination, and managing to do so with awesome tenacity. Christianity was a faith born in worldly failure and raised in persecution. When it did finally gain political power it was so distorted to fit the material needs of the power elite that it was a faith that would be unrecognizable to Jesus.  Islam on the other hand grew with spiritual and political power as partners and created a faith that was also a governing body. Separation of religion and state was unthinkable.

Islam is a religion that has opportunities for those who would wish to use it for their own gain. There are aspects of Islam that might invite absolute thinking and intolerance. Muhammad’s use of war to protect his growing faith in a time of violence can, and often has, been misinterpreted as an excuse to use Islam as a tool of imperialism, personal profit, or vengeance. This has been true from the beginning of Islam to violent radicals of the Middle East today. But all religions have the same problem of manipulation by the unscrupulous.  While the Euro-American culture of materialism has seemed to overcome some of the momentum of the Islamic movement in the twentieth century, recent decades have shown the beginnings of a reversal of the trend. And even in the United States, the heart of materialism, the fastest growing faith is Islam.

At its foundation Islam is a remarkable faith of equality and unity — a faith that, if lived as Muhammad designed, creates a life of goodness, compassion, and justice.


Ali, Maulana Muhammad, The Religion of Islam. Columbus, Ohio: The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam, sixth edition, 1990.

Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Doi, Rahman, I., Hadith: An Introduction. Kazi Publications, 1980.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat, The Complete Sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1978.

Khan [II], Hazrat Inayat, Tales. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1980.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Sufi Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972.

Shah, Idries, The Way of the Sufi. London: The Octagon Press, 1980.

All quotes from the Qur’an from:

The Qur’an. translated by Ahmed Ali, Sacred Writings, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1

1993 copyright Mark W. McGinnis


Baha’i Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1995

When the religion of Baha’i is mentioned there are usually two possible responses. The first is for the individual to know someone who is a Baha’i or have heard of the Baha’is but know little or nothing of their beliefs. The second response is to simply never have heard of the faith.

Those who don’t understand it sometimes call Baha’i a cult, and others who are likewise misinformed sometimes call it a form of Islam.  It is surprising, almost shocking in a way, to learn that Baha’i considers itself to be the next and fourth great religion in the lineage of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and now Baha’i.  It considers its prophets to be in the direct lineage from Abraham, to Moses, to Christ, to Muhammad, to the Bab, to Baha’u’llah.

It is truly a religion in its infancy. Its major prophet died in 1892, only a little over a century ago. But its growth in the twentieth century has been most impressive. It has spread to 218 countries and there are over 116,000 Baha’i Assemblies around the world with over five million members. It is a quiet religion and its expansion is primarily by word of mouth and example rather than overt missionary work.

To gain some understanding of the Baha’i faith it may be best to start with a brief history of its prophets, beginning with the Bab. Born Mirza Ali Muhammad, he assumed the name, the Bab, which means the Gate. He was born in Iran in 1819 and was in the lineage of Muhammad and a devoted Muslim. He followed the teaching of the Qur’an to the letter until at the age of 25, he declared himself a messenger of God (Esslemont 14-5). The validity of this calling was established by eighteen disciples coming to him with no previous knowledge of who he was.  These disciples were called Letters of the Living. The Bab adopted titles that equated him with Muhammad and charged his disciples to spread the word of the new prophet (Balyuzi 29-30). His teachings were in line with Islam on most matters. He encouraged brotherly love, education, abstinence from intoxicants, care for the poor, and more freedom for women. At the heart of his message was the pure love for God — a love that was to be so strong as to have no hope for reward nor fear of persecution, and persecution was what they found (Esslemont 21). The teaching of the new prophet spread rapidly and his disciples won converts throughout the region.

One of the basic beliefs of many Muslims was, and is, that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets.” Muhammad was believed to have been the final prophet of God, bringing the perfect teaching of which no more revision would be needed. For the Bab to proclaim that he was a new prophet and equal with Muhammad was seen as heresy by some of the Muslim clerics who had strong influence in the government. The Bab also strongly criticized the Muslim clergy for what he saw as hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. The persecution of the Babis, as they came to be known, was swift and harsh. Thousands of his followers were killed including all the Letters of the Living, and on the ninth of July 1850, the Bab himself was executed.  Another of the teachings of the Bab was that he was just the predecessor to a much greater prophet to follow, one that would unify the world. In some ways the Bab is seen as the John the Baptist of the Baha’is.

An early convert to the teachings of the Bab was Mirza Husayn Ali, the son of a wealthy government minister in Tehran.  He had led a privileged life but never attended any formal schools, only receiving tutoring at home as would suit a young man of his class. He became a devoted follower of the teaching of the Bab and developed a penetrating eloquence in teaching and promoting the faith.  His high position in the society gave him some immunity to the purges that swept through the Babi community but in 1852 even his connections could not help him. Incensed by the assassination of the Bab two of his followers launched a crude assassination attempt against the ruler of Iran and failed.  The government then launched an even harsher attack on the Babis and Mirza Husayn Ali was thrown into a dungeon called the “Dark Pit” with eighty other Babis.  He suffered the degradations of the prison but while there had a great revelation as he relates:

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most  wondrous a most sweet voice, calling above My head.  Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden — the embodiment  of the remembrance of the name of My Lord —  suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she  in her very soul that her countenance shone with the  ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks  glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful….  [s]he addressed all who are in heaven and all who are  on the earth, saying: “By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not.  This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power  of His sovereignty within you, could ye but  understand. This is the Mystery of God and His  Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who  are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if  ye be of them that perceive.” (Balyuzi 82-3)


So Mirza Husayn Ali was called upon to be the manifestation of God on earth. He would be known as Baha’u’llah, The Glory of God. He did not divulge the revelation to others at this time. After four months in prison he was released and in 1853 exiled to Baghdad, Iraq, where he was to remain for the next ten years.  In Baghdad a conflict grew between himself and his half-brother Mirza Yahya, who had been appointed successor by the Bab and resented Baha’u’llah’s growing influence.  The jealousy and conflict proved too much for Baha’u’llah to bear, and he retreated to the seclusion of the caves of Kurdistan where he kept himself in contemplation for two years (Balyuzi 114).

Upon his return to Baghdad he found the Babi community in shambles. He quietly and gradually rebuilt the community and gained followers from all classes in Baghdad. He encouraged only a passive spread of the faith and forbid any forceful or coercive missionary work.  He received financial support and many followers made provisions for the faith in their wills. As his influence spread in the community, Muslim clergy grew worried and put pressure on the rulers of the Ottoman Empire that controlled the entire area to move him to Istanbul and remove his influence from the region, which they did.  But before Baha’u’llah went to his next exile, he spent twelve days in what is now known as the Garden of Ridvan, paradise, where he unfolded the revelation that he was the promised one of the prophesy of the Bab, the great new prophet of unity (Balyuzi 168).

After a short stay in Istanbul, Baha’u’llah and his followers were transported to the city of Adrianople where he remained for four and a half years. His following there grew and he announced his mission. It was at this time that his followers dropped the name of Babis and adopted the name, Baha’is. But conflict with his half-brother had not been left in Iraq. Mirza Yahya had also been exiled to Adrianople, and he and his followers did everything possible to discredit Baha’u’llah’s and plot his downfall. The conflict reached such a level that the Turkish authorities banished both groups, with Baha’u’llah and his followers going to Akka in Palestine, and Mirza Yahya and his followers to Cyprus (Esslemont 26).

The Egyptians mention Akka’s existence over four thousand years ago and it may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the world. The Ottoman Turks had converted the ancient place into a penal colony. The Baha’is were confined in the army barracks where many fell ill and died of malaria and dysentery (Balyuzi 283). It was in Akka that Baha’u’llah’s eldest son, Abdu’l-Baha, began playing a more important role in the faith. He assumed a leadership position and gained the respect of the people of Akka and the authorities. The Baha’is were eventually moved out of the barracks and allowed to live in the surrounding city where many established businesses. In 1879 Abdu’l-Baha rented and later purchased a mansion outside Akka at the foot of Mount Carmel. It was there Baha’u’llah lived his final years in comfort. Abdu’l-Baha handled all practical matters of the family and faith and filtered all visitors to his father, who had by this time become very well known throughout the region. On May 29, 1892, Baha’u’llah died at the age of seventy-five.  In his last will and testament he appointed Abdu’l-Baha his successor and interpreter of his teachings (Balyuzi 420).

After Baha’u’llah’s death there were yet more inter-family conflicts and charges were raised by family members against Abdu’l- Baha, which led Turkish officials to again confine him and his family within the walls of Akka (Esslemont 55). In 1908 the rebellion of the Young Turks freed all political prisoners, so Abdu’l-Baha gained his liberty.  He traveled extensively to Europe and the United States and firmly planted the seeds of the Baha’i faith where they grew and spread world-wide.

While in the previous teaching of the religions of Abraham the voices of the prophets are always filtered through other voices after centuries have passed between the preaching of the prophet and the documentation of his words. With Baha’u’llah the words of the prophet have been preserved in the hand of the prophet himself. There is no conflict about what he “really” said.  Baha’u’llah’s writings are prolific.  He wrote over one hundred books in his life on topics including the history of religion, morality, ethics, spirituality, economics, social organization, human rights, jurisprudence, the arts, metaphysics, science, mysticism, and prophecy (Shepperd 36). These writings provide a large and firm foundation for the faith of the Baha’is that goes far beyond religious guidance to all areas of human endeavor. Shoghi Effendi has summarized the basic principles of the Baha’i Faith as follows:

The Baha’i faith recognizes the unity of God and His  Prophets, upholds the principle of an unfettered  search after the truth, condemns all forms of  superstition and prejudice, teaches that the  fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord  and harmony, that it must go hand-in-hand with  science, and that it constitutes the sole and  ultimate basis of  a peaceful, an ordered and  progressive society.  It inculcates the principle of  equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both  sexes, advocates compulsory education, abolishes  extremes of poverty and wealth, exalts work performed  in the spirit of service to the rank of worship,  recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international  language, and provides the necessary agencies for the  establishment and safeguarding of a permanent and  universal peace. (Hatcher 85)


The primary Baha’i principle of unity is one that identifies the Baha’i Faith as a truly modern development. It is the first major religion that developed in a time when it was possible to gain a realistic global perspective, and with that range of vision, sees itself as a tool to unify all the peoples of the world through a religious structure.  This sense of unity is poetically expressed in one of Baha’u’llah’s most famous books The Hidden Words:



Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were  created. Since We have created you all from one same  substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one  soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same  mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your  inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of  oneness and the essence of detachment may be made  manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of  light!  Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the  fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.  (20)


This sense of unity permeates all Baha’i teachings. It is not simply a philosophical premise but also the basis of many of the practical applications of the faith. The Baha’is promote a general system of weights and measurements, an international currency, a universal auxiliary language, and an effective international tribunal. While promoting this sense of global unity the Baha’is are careful to not threaten national sovereignty.  They are well aware that the system of nations is deeply rooted in humankind and that the kind of unity they promote would not replace this system, but form a loose confederation of the national structures.  They are equally careful to guard the rights of individuals. They believe the philosophy they promote would foster cultural identity and the rights of the individual; it would not promote uniformity but spiritual unity (Sheppard 74). With the Baha’i extreme emphasis on unity it is important recognize that individualism is also a highly prized quality. The Baha’i believe that each person, culture, and nation has unique aspects that need not be blended but rather exalted to make life more interesting and progress possible under the umbrella of the spiritual and political unity the Baha’i envision.

One of the main vehicles to promote this unity is through their conviction that all religion is actually based on the belief in the same God.  Again from the words of Baha’u’llah:

There is no distinction whatsoever among the Bearers of  My Message. They all have but one purpose; their secret  is the same secret. To prefer one in honor to another,  to exalt certain ones above the rest, is in no way wise  to be permitted. Every true Prophet hath regarded His  message fundamentally the same as the Revelation of  every other Prophet gone before Him. (GWB 78)

This belief is at the root of what the Baha’is call “progressive revelation.” It is believed that about every thousand years God sends a messenger or manifestation to bring his word and truth to the people. These major messengers have included Abraham, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and now Baha’u’llah. As mentioned previously the primary conflict between the Baha’is and Muslims is that Muhammad was described in the Qur’an to be the “Seal of the Prophets.” The Baha’is actually agree with that interpretation in that they see Muhammad as the conclusion of what they call the Prophetic Era, and Baha’u’llah as the beginning of a modern era of revelation that is free of obscure ritual and symbolism, one that deals with unity of humankind on a global scale (Holley 218). While they see Baha’u’llah as a renewal of revelation of the past they also see him as the first of the prophets for a new age, the age of fulfillment for humankind. They also believe that in approximately one thousand years another manifestation of God will be shown to man to guide humankind in a new era. Contemporary, flexible Baha’i interpretation of progressive revelation also sees the Buddha, Krishna, and tribal religions as having their foundation with the same God as the Baha’i and the tradition of Abraham.

As part of the modernization of religion, the Baha’i faith believes that true science and true religion are always in harmony. They believe that science and religion simply have different ways of describing the same phenomena. They believe, as many scientists, that the essential nature of God is beyond all comprehension (Esslemont 201). They believe that the universe is without beginning or end; that worlds and systems will come and go; that all matter is eternal and will take different forms at different times; that nothing is ever lost or gained but manifest in the new from the old (Esslemont 204).

Baha’is believe that the major force promoting spiritual unity is universal education.  As put by Baha’u’llah:

Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone.  The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be  acquired as can profit the people of the earth, and not  those which begin with words and end with words. (ESW  26)

Education is seen as a guide to a new and enlightened way of life.  Horace Holley expresses the power of education as follows: “Education alone can overcome the inertia of our separateness, transmute our creative energies for the realization of world unity, free the mind from its servitude to the past and reshape civilization to be the guardian of our spiritual and physical resources (126).” Yet as expressed in the previous quote by Baha’u’llah that education needs to be selective.  That education to be pursued should be productive education and that which furthers humankind. In the Baha’i faith the teacher is seen as the position to which a person can aspire (Esslemont 150).

In the realm of economics a leveling of the wide gap between the rich and the poor is deemed mandatory — not through a system of socialism or mandated means but through religious conviction. The dominance of materialism in modern life is condemned by the words of Abdu’l-Baha:

Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of  this world; their minds are so circumscribed by  exteriors manners and traditional interests that they  are blind to any other realm of existence, to the  spiritual significance of all things! They think and  dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous  delights and comfortable surroundings bound their  horizon, their highest ambitions center in successes of  worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not  their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep!  Like an animal, they have no thought beyond their own  physical well-being. It is true that these necessities  must be dispatched. Life is a load which must be  carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the  lower things of life should not be allowed to  monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of the  human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a  more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to  higher levels! Men should hold their souls in vision of  celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine  Spirit. (LDI 67-8)


The Baha’is maintain that an equitable economic system will develop when a new spiritual understanding unites people. Each person has talents and capabilities to add to the well being of all. A just society will find the means to develop those potentialities and make every person a benefit to themselves and the world (Esslemont 140). Horace Holley sees contemporary life doing the opposite of this by making each person an island unto themselves:

The profit motive alone will not sustain a balanced, enduring civilization. Far stronger, far truer — in  fact, far more humanly natural — is the motive of  self-expression and fulfillment found in children and  surviving in the few artists, artisans and spiritually  conscious men and women who refuse to be molded by the  external forces prevailing in their environment. The  inadequacy of the profit motive appears when we imagine  the result if it extended to family life. Every family  is a cooperative economy attempting to maintain itself  in a competitive community.  The dissolution of the  family marks the end of an age. At present education is  limited to the aim of assuring personal survival in a  competitive society, and the effect of this mental and  moral strangulation is to leave the essential core of  personality —its understanding of fundamental purpose  and its motives –to the overwhelming influence of an already perverted societyAs the expression of a  collective social mentality, education can and must  deal with basic human values.

Holley has said that “when the lights of religion darken the materialists appear” (122).  It follows that when the lights of religion brighten, the materialists will decline. That is what the Baha’i see as the influence of their religion on our economic future.

As practical guidance to how a person should live, the Baha’i teaching provide an abundance of instruction, the most important coming from the primary source, Baha’u’llah:

Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answer to the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to   all men.  Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness,  a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven  for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the  victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness  distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger,  a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the  fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light  unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the  countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity,  a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of  life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of  justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew  to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of  knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the  diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of  thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility. We  pray God to protect thee from the heat of jealousy and the cold of hatred. (ESW 93)


Other obligations of a Baha’i include the following: to make daily prayers and to read from the Sacred Writings daily; to observe an annual nineteen-day fast period from sunrise to sunset; to refrain from gambling, extramarital sex, and intoxicants; to practice monogamy and gain the permission of parents before marriage; to observe a one year waiting period before divorce; to avoid all forms of prejudice; to obey the civil government; to prohibit any form of clergy in the Faith; to be of service to humankind; and to not find fault in others.

The Baha’i concept of the soul and the afterlife are also modernized to fit a more contemporary lifestyle. Our brief lives are seen as enough time to gain the spiritual tools to carry on into the next life; there is no rebirth, as there is no need for one. Our body is but a shell for the soul to develop within during this earthly life; when the development is done it is discarded. The soul is the ultimate reality that continues an endless development, not only here on earth but also in the afterlife, which is also a series of steps of development toward greater perfection, the progress never stops. As it is impossible to know the true nature of God, so it is impossible to know the state of the afterlife. Baha’u’llah has attempted to give some idea of the extent of the difference: “The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother” (GWB 157). The soul is nurtured in this life by prayer, obedience to God, and service to humanity (Sheppard 60).  The Baha’is generally hold no concept of hell other than hell being the absence of God in one’s life. Similarly, evil is the absence of good; the gloomy vacuum in people’s souls without God is what might be labeled as evil (Holley 212).

As with all the religions of Abraham, the Baha’is started a new calendar beginning with their era. The Baha’i year begins on the equinox, the first day of Spring. It consists of nineteen months of nineteen days, the final month of the year being the fast month. The first day of each month is a feast day and a day of gathering for Baha’is for worship and fellowship. These Baha’i assemblies are the core of Baha’i social organization and are groups of people who join together for friendship and consultation.  There is no clergy, as any type of clergy was expressly forbidden by Baha’u’llah; instead each member has the right of equal participation. A nine member administrative group is elected by each assembly to guide the gathering.  Horace Holley has written: “Every Baha’i assembly is a world in miniature, containing the differences and personal problems of the world….  This is our glory, our privilege, our attainment, our distinction, not our weakness, not our shame” (240).  These local assemblies elect representatives to the National Baha’i Assembly. The national assemblies send representatives to an international convention every five years that elect individuals to the Universal House of Justice which is now the supreme administrative body of the Baha’i faith (Sheppard 79).

When Abdu’l-Baha died in 1921, he appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi as his successor and interpreter of the teaching of Baha’u’llah. Shoghi Effendi was given the title of Guardian of the Cause and gave thirty-six years of service to the spread of the faith and interpretation of the teachings of Baha’u’llah in many languages throughout the world. It was his dedication that led to the remarkable global spread of the faith in the twentieth century. Before his death in 1957, Shoghi Effendi appointed twenty-seven Hands of the Cause of God who were charged with carrying on and protecting the Baha’i faith. They worked on building a system that led to the first Universal House of Justice in 1963. The Universal House of Justice is located at the Baha’i World Center on Mount Carmel, now in Israel.  This site also is home to the tombs of Baha’u’llah and the Bab and is the site of pilgrimage for members of the Baha’i faith from around the world.

While the Baha’i faith is certainly modern in many aspects of its structure and faith, it is still firmly grounded in the tradition of the religions of Abraham. It is a faith built on the foundation of a patriarchal godhead who is to be feared. As clearly stated by Baha’u’llah: “The essence of wisdom is the fear of God, the dread of His scourge and punishment, and the apprehension of His justice and decree” (TOB 156).

Baha’u’llah’s attitude toward man and his position in the world is also one that has its roots at the core of the Judeo- Christian-Islamic tradition:

Man, the noblest and most perfect of all created  things, excelleth them in all the intensity of this  revelation, and is a fuller expression of its glory.  And of all men, the most accomplished, the most  distinguished, and the most excellent are the  Manifestations of the Sun of Truth. (GWB 179)

This positioning of man at the pinnacle of creation and seeing the rest of the world as his resource is still at the basis of Baha’i thinking. And to use the word “man” might still be accurate as well. Even with a basic principle of the Baha’i Faith established as the equality of men and women, and the undoubted improvement of the place of women over the teaching of the previous religions of Abraham, still, women are excluded from serving on the highest administrative body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice.

From the viewpoint of modern society, drenched in cynicism and pessimism, the principles of the Baha’i Faith are idealistic and naive. Their vision of a world unified through spiritual goodness seems a virtual impossibility when seen through the distorted lens of news media most of us receive daily. How could a world be unified that appears to be breaking apart at the seams more with each new conflict and war? But if one steps back and tries to view the world from a longer perspective rather than the short and often near-sighted view of the entertainment/news, a different picture beings to take shape.  There has been a great deal of unifying taking place in the twentieth century.  Certainly on the economic level it has been remarkable, with a global economy a reality that all must deal with. On the political level, once the dust settles from the collapse of the superpowers, a considerable unifying will have taken place as well.  In recent decades the United Nations’ responsibilities and expectations have been growing at a very rapid rate, but it is yet to be seen if the nations of the world will give this particular organization enough power to make it truly effective.  Baha’u’llah’s nineteenth century vision of a humanity united in a commonwealth with personal freedoms guaranteed and a world legislature that could create laws that would satisfy the needs of people globally is not so far-fetched, especially if viewed from a visionary twenty-first century vantage point.  The people of the Baha’i counsel patience. As Shoghi Effendi has put it:

Our … duty, however confused the scene, however  dismal the present outlook, however circumscribed the  resources we dispose of,  [is] to labor serenely,  confidently and unremittingly to lend our share of  assistance, in whichever way circumstances may enable  us, to the operation of the forces which, as marshaled  and directed by Baha’u’llah, are leading humanity out  of the valley of misery and shame to the summits of  power and glory.  (36)






Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of Wolf. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1941, 1988. (Referred to as ESW.)

Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah.  Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1952, 1983. (Referred to as GWB.)

Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1939, 1994. (Referred to as HW.)

Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1978, 1988. (Referred to as TOB.)

Balyuzi, H. H., Baha’u’llah: The King of Glory. Oxford: George Ronald, second revised edition, 1991.

Effendi, Shoghi, Selected Writings of Shoghi Effendi.  Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1942, 1975.

Esslemont, J. E., Baha’u’llah and the New Era. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1980.

Hayes, Terril, et. al. (compiled by), Life, Death, and Immortality. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1994. (Referred to as LDI.)

Hatcher, William S., and J. Douglas Martin, The Baha’i Faith: The Emerging Global Religion, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984

Holley, Horace, Religion for Mankind. Oxford: George Ronald, 1956.

Sheppard, Joseph, The Elements of the Baha’i Faith. Rockport, Massachusetts: Elements, Inc., 1992

1995 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Hinduism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1998

Hinduism is a faith that has the tendency to baffle or even frighten the Western observer. It is a faith that can be seen as having no real God, only an abstract, unknowable, creative force existing in all creation. It can be characterized as a religion with one supreme God that is the creator, preserver, and destroyer. It can be understood as a faith of many gods and goddesses who are all manifestations of one great God. It can be characterized as a religion with thousands of gods and goddesses, each worthy of devotion. The difference of beliefs within Hinduism is greater in some cases than the differences in the West between Christianity and Islam or between Judaism and Baha’i.

Hinduism is not a single faith. It is many faiths which, having evolved in one part of the world, share some common origination points and foundations. In the three thousand years that this complex system has been unfolding it has absorbed many different cultural and philosophical influences. This great legacy has led to the vast array of spiritual beliefs that the people of South Asia have decided to follow. While the barrage of unfamiliar terminology and names in Hinduism may seem formidable, they are all fused together under the encompassing nature of Hinduism. A good approach for the Westerner wishing to learn something of this religious medley is to forgo wishing to put everything into neat compartments and to relax and enjoy the wonderful variety that exists within Hinduism.

Hinduism can be seen as the result of the mixing of three cultural traditions: the ancient Indus Valley culture that flourished from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE, the Aryan culture that migrated into South Asia from the Caucasus region, arriving around 1500 BCE, and the tribal cultures of India. Many arguments exist as to how these cultures mixed to form what we call Hinduism (Flood 23). The Aryans brought with them their even more ancient scriptures, the Vedas, written in the Indo-European language, Sanskrit, which was to become the sacred language of Hinduism. They had three primary focuses for worship: Angi, the fire god; Indra, the warrior god; and Soma, a god symbolizing a hallucinogenic plant.  The Aryans slowly spread throughout south Asia, finally establishing their domination over the native Dravidian people in the 6th century BCE (Flood 30). The Veda is considered by some to be of divine authorship containing all knowledge. One definition of a Hindu is one who believes the Veda as the revelation of god. The Veda was passed down orally from generation to generation of Vedic priests, the Brahmans, and was not committed to writing until thousands of years after its composition as writing was thought to be a polluting act. The scope and complexity of the Veda is formidable. There are four Veda: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda (Flood 35-6).

The Rig Veda, the oldest of the four, can be translated as Praises of Sacred Knowledge. It is composed of over one thousand hymns, comprised of more than ten thousand verses. The hymns are said to be the voice of the ancient sages making their voices heard through the verse. The following are selected segments of three hymns from the Rig Veda praising the primary gods of the conquering Aryans:

Of Indra:

All sacred songs have magnified Indra expansive as the sea,

The best of warriors borne on cars, the Lord, the very Lord of strength.

Strong in thy friendship, Indra, Lord of power and might, we have no fear.

We glorify with praises thee, the never-conquered conqueror. (6)

Of Angi:

O ancient Herald, be thou glad in this our rite and fellowship;

Hearken thou well to these our songs.

Whate’er in this perpetual course we sacrifice to God and God,

That this gift is offered up in thee

May he be our dear household Lord,

Priest, pleasant and choice-worthy may

We, with bright fires, be dear to him.

The Gods, adored and with brilliant fires, have granted precious wealth to us

So, with bright fires, we pray to thee.

An Immortal One, so may be the eulogies of mortal men

Belong to us and thee alike.

With all thy fires, O Angi, find pleasure in this our sacrifice.

And this our speech, O Son of Strength. (16)

Of Soma:

Thou, Soma, art the Lord of heroes, King, yea, Vrta-slayer thou:

Thou art auspicious energy.

And Soma, let it be thy wish that we may live and may not die:

Praise-loving Lord of the plants art thou.

To him who keeps the law, both old and young, thou givest happiness,

And energy that he may live.

Guard us, King Soma, on all sides from him who threatens us: let never

The friend of one like thee be harmed.

With those delightful aids which thou hast,

Soma, for the worshipper –

Even with those protect thou us.

Accepting this our sacrifice and this our praise, O Soma, come,

And be thou nigh to prosper us.

Well-skilled in speech we magnify thee,

Soma in our sacred songs:

Come to us, most gracious One.

Enricher, healer of disease, wealth-finder, prospering our store,

Be, Soma, a good Friend to us. (57)

There are schools or branches of  Brahmans, the highest class of Hindus that specialize in specific books of the Veda. Generation after generation for three thousand years the Veda has been memorized and passed down from father to son. Along with the text the Brahman also learns to perform the necessary rituals contained in the Veda (Flood 39).

Easily confused with the Hindu class, Brahman, is the term brahman which is used to express the essence of the ritual and also the essence of the universe. It is also the essence of the true self (atman) that is the true nature and being of a person beyond all difference. Brahman is the ultimate bliss of truth: the understanding of the ultimate unity of all creation (Flood 84). This cosmic braham was described in the Brihadarnyaka Upanishad as follows:

This Self is Brahman indeed: it consists of understanding, mind, breath, sight and hearing; of earth, water, wind and space, light and darkness, desire and desirelessness, and the lack of it, right and wrong: it consists of all things. This is what is meant by the saying: ‘It consists of this: it consists of that.’

As a man acts (karma), as he behaves, so does he become. Whoso does good, becomes good: whoso does evil, becomes evil. By good works a man becomes holy, by evil works he becomes evil. (Zaehner 89)

Vedic world view has two primary components: first that the universe is the result of the sacrificed body of the primordial cosmic man, and second, that humans are responsible to regenerate the world to repetition of that sacrifice through ritual (Knipe 32). The original sacrifice is described in the Rig Veda as the gods’ sacrifice and dismemberment of a cosmic giant, different parts of his body being transformed into the different classes of people. From his mouth the Brahmans, the priests, were formed; from his arms came the Ksatriya, the warrior class; from his thighs came the Vaisya, the commoner class; and from his feet came the Sudra, the servant class. The Brahman were to sustain the community though ritual, the warriors were to protect the community and rule over it, the commoners were to raise the food and perform the crafts of the community, and the servants were to serve the other classes. These were hereditary positions in the society and sacred in their conception. Of these four classes the first three were called “twice-born” because the male members undergo a rite of passage ritual that gives them full membership to the class (Flood 48) .

Vedic ritual as described in the scriptures did not require a special building, icons, or texts, just the Brahman priest who knew the specific procedures and recitations. The sponsor might instigate a ritual for the blessing of sons, cattle, good crops, social standing, power, or purity.  A primary aspect of most Vedic ritual was that of a sacrificial  fire which would carry the sacrifice to the god or gods being invoked. The sacrifice itself could be a wide range of substances: grains, milk, butter, soma plant (later replaced by non-intoxicating plants), and sometimes domestic animals, although these were not common. The fire was the vehicle to transport the sacrifice to the deva, the god. Two primary types of rituals developed: solemn, public rites and domestic, life-cycle rites. Public rites usually use three fires and domestic rites use only one. Some of these ancient rites survive today with some Brahmans carrying on the rituals intact from thousands of years ago. While the central act of the Vedic ritual was the simple offering of a substance into the fire, preparations and closings can be very complex, lasting many days and requiring up to four priests, each with assistants and specific duties (Flood 40-2).

One of the most important concepts evolved through the Veda is that of dharma. Dharma is an all-encompassing ideology that embraces both ritual and moral behavior, whose neglect would have bad social and personal consequences. All Hindus had their dharma, which is their proper duties in all aspects of life. Purity and pollution is an important aspect of the Hindu concept of dharma. This purity can refer to physical purity of the body, which must be maintained through cleanliness, but also a deeper sense of the fear of pollution that must be prevented through separation of the classes. Hindu social space must be maintained to preserve the purity of  the members of the class.

Of the four classes, the three twice-born classes are permitted to hear the Veda;  only the Brahman are allowed to learn it and recite it during rituals. Each class is associated with specific colors: the Brahman with white, the Ksatriyas with red, the Vaisyas with yellow and the Sudras with black.  Each of the four classes are broken down into more divisions called castes. The caste system is commonly divided into sub castes and then into sub-sub castes, and so on creating a very complex leveling of society. A village may contain as many as twenty or thirty different caste groups within it. Castes sometimes come together to form caste blocs, as a result of which the boundaries between the castes sometimes lack firm boundaries. In a village the caste members have their houses clustered in groups. Certain public eating places are used only by certain castes; lower castes do not use the facilities of higher castes. The caste system is not a hidden aspect of life but  a very visible part of social structure. One is born into a caste and remains in the caste until death. Many occupations, especially the trades and services, are caste specific. The concepts of purity  and pollution are at the core of the caste system with the Brahmans the purest and the Harijans, the Untouchables, the most polluted. The Brahmans keep their purity partially by having lower castes do polluting work for them, such as barbering, laundering, sanitation work. The consumption of pure foods, bodily cleanliness, and sexual relations within caste are also ways of maintaining purity (Fuller 13-15). The harsh discrimination against the untouchable castes, which make up about one-fifth of India’s population, is now officially prohibited. They have been outside even the servant, Sudra, class and had no rights in society (Flood 61).

Between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE evolved the concepts that living beings were reincarnated into the world (samsara) time and time again and the quality of the rebirth was a result of their actions (karma) in previous life. The process was one of suffering and could be minimized by gaining spiritual knowledge. Ascetics, for example,  attempted to renounce this world to transcend the suffering of this existence. The ultimate goal of their efforts is called moksha, salvation, liberation, from the cycles of rebirth — freedom from the karma of innumerable lifetimes (Flood 75-6).

The tradition of the renouncers, also called ascetics, led to the development of two other religious traditions in India: Buddhism and Jainism. Both new faiths took the path of renunciation and cast off much of the Vedic rituals of Hinduism.

Another tradition developed in the Veda was the asrama system, which refers to the stages of one’s life. The ideal stages for a Brahman male would consist of childhood, then a celibate student stage that could last from 9 to 36 years living with his teacher and learning the Vedas. The student would then undertake the householder stage of life, marrying and having a family. When he became wrinkled and gray he could undertake the renouncer stage of his life, retiring to a contemplative life with or without his wife. The final stage of life is complete celibate renunciation, not using even a cooking fire, begging all meals with no obligations other than the  struggle for liberation (mokhsa), going beyond any connection with the material world (Flood 62). Hindu rites of passage in the asrama system can number up to forty but the count is usually between twelve and eighteen and the four that are the most commonly followed are birth rites, initiation rites, marriage rites, and funeral rites (Flood 202).

Many bodies of literature grew in Hinduism as commentary on the Vedas. One of these bodies of writings came to be called the Upanishads. These texts were written by poet-philosophers and, while often based in the sacrificial concepts of the Vedas, branched into many new areas of religious endeavor such as meditation, Yoga, and focus on specific deities such as Vishnu and Shiva (Knipe 42). In the Upanishads yoga is described as a steady control of the senses that permits one to cease mental activity thus allowing a supreme state of mind. It is also compared with controlling a chariot. The self is the driver, the body is the vehicle and the senses are the horses. The self must control the senses as the driver must control the horses if chaos is not to dominate. Yoga is the technology that can lead to an understanding of the nature of existence. The mind and the senses are taught to be restrained and controlled. The individual can gain control over the “I” or ego and the true self can be experienced. The disciplines of Yoga are constructed to aid in the transformation of consciousness.

One of the most famous types of yoga is called raga-yoga — the best yoga. It carries forward the premise that yoga is a cessation of mental wandering. Its objective is to  train the mind to be one-pointed through a path of eight steps. The first step is that of ethical restraint comprised of non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, celibacy, and generosity.  The second step is discipline that includes cleanliness, serenity, asceticism, study and devotion. The next steps are posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and finally absorbed concentration, which consists of a multi-leveled concentration of thought. The yogi learns to develop an awareness and control of breath, body and consciousness that can lead to increasingly higher states of concentrated absorption. Finally a refined state of  transcendence is achieved.

Another form of yoga is called hatha-yoga, which involves an elaborate system of difficult postures accompanied by breathing techniques. The purpose of the system is to gain liberation by awakening the true identity of the individual and joining it with the absolute. This is achieved by aligning the esoteric anatomy of the body to channel the energy of the body to a root center that awakens this awareness.

The primary goal of yoga is liberation but some seek and find what can be considered magical powers as well. These power have been said to include knowledge of past lives and the past and the future, telepathy, enormous strength, supernormal senses, and levitation. While such powers are seen by some as indicators of progress on the path, they are also seen as a hindrance to the ultimate goal of liberation as they form attachments to the material world (Flood 94-101).

The purity of Vedic ritual began to give way in about 500 BCE to devotional  worship of specific deities. This devotional worship, called bhakti, was a way for individuals to express love and devotion to a deity. This approach to worship grew to be the central religious practice of most Hindus. A literary tradition grew around this devotion beginning with the great epics of India’s literature, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem at over 100,000 verses. It was compiled over several centuries, from the first century BCE to the first century CE. It is a battle story that functions on many different planes: from the ethical battle on the human plane, to the battle between the lower and higher self on the spiritual plane, to the actual physical battle of the contending forces in the story. The story revolves around the contention for the throne of a kingdom between factions of the royal family. The many adventures and entanglements of the plot make it overwhelming in its detail: from blind fathers, to sons all with the same wife, to gambling, to exile, to war, to philosophy, to dogs, and gods disguised as charioteers and dogs. Within this great epic, as one small component, lies the famous Bhagavad Gita with the classic dialogue between the god Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna (Flood 103-6).

It is in the Bhagavad Gita that the concept of bhakti, personal devotion to a supreme god as the ultimate reality, is clearly elaborated. It is presented by Krishna as a way of religious devotion that can be more important than the sacred Vedic ways of the past. The Gita has been occasionally called the Hindu New Testament or the Hindu Sermon on the Mount. At first it seems a strange analogy, a plea for a prince to go into bloody battle being compared with Jesus’ gentle speech of love and meekness. But in many ways it is an apt comparison. As Jesus set the direction for Christianity and the break from traditional Judaism so Krishna sets the way of personal devotion over the traditions of Vedic sacrifice and opens the door for individual salvation.

The following are some quotes from the Bhagavad Gita highlighting some of Krishna’s argument to the reluctant warrior prince Arjuna:

Learn thou! the Life is, spreading life through all;

It cannot anywhere, by any means,

Be anywise diminished, stayed or changed.

But for these fleeting frames which it informs

With spirit deathless, endless, infinite,

They perish, Let them perish, Prince! and fight!

Who shall say, “Lo! I have slain a man!”

He who shall think, “Lo! I am slain!” those both

Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain! (Arnold 8)

Seek refuge in thy soul; have there thy heaven!

Scorn them that follow virtue for her gifts!

The mind of pure devotion – even here —

Casts equally aside good deeds and bad,

Passing above them. Unto pure devotion

Devote thyself: with perfect meditation…(Arnold 11)

I make and unmake this Universe;

Than me there is no other Master, Prince!

No other Maker! All these hang on me

As hangs a row of pearls on its string.

I am the taste of  the Water;

I the silver of the moon, the gold of the sun,

The word of worship in the Veds… (Arnold 36)

I am the Sacrifice! I am the Prayer!

I am the Funeral-Cake set for the dead!

I am the healing herb! I am the ghee,

The Mantra, and the flame, and that which burns!

I am – all this boundless Universe – (Arnold 45)

And whoso loveth Me cometh to Me.

Whoso shall offer Me in faith and love

A leaf, a flower, a fruit, water poured forth,

That offering I accept, lovingly made

With pious will. Whatever thou doest, Prince!

Eating or sacrificing, giving gifts,

Praying or fasting, let it all be done

For Me, as Mine. So shall thou free thyself

From Karmabandh, the chain which holdeth men

To good and evil issue, so shalt come

Safe unto me – when thou art quit of flesh –

By faith and abdication joined to Me! (Arnold 46)

There is “true” Knowledge. Learn thou it is this:

To see changeless Life in all the Lives’

And in the Separate. One Inseparable…..

There is “right” Action: that which – being enjoined –

Is wrought without attachment, passionlessly,

For duty, not for love, nor hate, nor gain….

There is the “rightful” doer. He who acts

Free from self-seeking, humble, resolute,

Steadfast, in good or evil hap the same,

Content to do aright – he “truly” acts. (Arnold 91)

Finally after much soul searching, Arjuna agrees to Krishna’s argument and goes into battle and fulfills his dharma as a warrior:

Trouble and ignorance are gone! The Light

Hath come unto me, by Thy favor, Lord!

Now am I fixed! My doubt is fled away!

According to thy word, so I will do! (Arnold 97)

A slightly shorter epic is the Ramayana, which has been dated around the fourth century BCE. Originally composed by Valmiki in Sanskrit, it has been said every one of India’s hundreds of millions of people, from the highest Brahmin to the lowest  untouchable, knows this story in one form or another. It can be taken as a tale of character studies, a literary masterpiece, or as scripture, depending on the perspective of the reader or listener (Narayan xi). In its traditional narration a storyteller, who had memorized all ten thousand five hundred stanzas of the epic poem, would quote them in song or verse over the span of forty days in three-hour presentations (Narayan 170).

It is a phenomenal story that fuses morality, religion, adventure, love, lust, war, violence, and beauty into a tale that puts most modern attempts at the same themes to shame. A bare-bones highlighting of the plot follows.

King Dasarnath ruled a perfect kingdom as the perfect sovereign. His only sorrow was he had no children. Through the intercession of the gods he was granted a series of sons with his wives and bliss reigned in the country. The most radiant of all the sons was Rama. He was admired by all and exhibited the ideal of obedience and kindness. In his daily return from studies with the religious sages he would speak with the people of the kingdom and ask what he could do for them to make their lives better.

The greatest sage of the nation came to the king, asking that Rama accompany him on a long journey to perform important rites. The king nearly refused the sage out of his great love for his son but in the end acquiesced and allowed Rama and his brother Lakshama to go with the sage. On the trip they crossed a great desert that had been made lifeless by a terrible demon and her army. The horrific creature attacked the three travelers and Rama slew her with his bow and arrows of great magical power. The sage then went on to teach Rama all the magical powers of warfare.  It is at this point that we begin to understand that Rama is actually a human incarnation of the great god Vishnu. The trip continues and they perform the rites the sage had planned.

Throughout the trip the  sage continues his education of Rama with a variety of stories. The following is a sample of his teachings to Rama:

Every inch of ground on earth, as you may have realized by now, has a divine association. Mother Earth has been here since the beginning of creation, being one of the five primeval elements. She has seen countless pairs of feet running on thousands of aims and pursuits, both evil and good, and will continue until Time swallows and digests everything. Even after the participants have vanished, every inch of earth still retains the impress of all that has gone on before. We attain full understanding only when we are aware of the divine and other associations of every piece of ground we tread on. (Narayan 17).

As the journey progresses Rama’s destiny to destroy evil and restore good becomes more evident and more associations are developed between Rama and the gods. When they reach a great wealthy city on their journey  the sage and the king of the city decide Rama is to be wed to one of the king’s daughters, Sita, which is fortunate as Sita saw Rama enter the city and fell madly in love with him. In a huge procession nearly all Rama’s home city comes to the great wedding, which also includes all of Rama’s brothers marrying sisters of Sita.

After Rama and Sita’s return to their homeland his father decides it is time to retire and announces that Rama is to be the new king. The people of the nation are overwhelmed with joy and preparations are made for the coronation. On the eve of the great event the king’s first wife reminds him that she saved his life and that he promised her two wishes. She now claims those wishes. The first is to have her own son crowned king and the second is that Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king is devastated but cannot refuse. Rama takes the news with complete calm and prepares to leave. His adoring wife Sita and his brother Lakshama do not let him leave without them. The brother chosen to be king is grief-stricken when he finds out and refuses the crown but relents when encouraged by Rama, but only until Rama returns from exile. Rama, Lakshama, and Sita lived an ideal life of simplicity and renunciation in the forest until they are confronted by Soorpanaka, the sister of the king of all demons, Ravana, who has conquered the gods and earth. The demoness  becomes obsessed by lust for Rama and tries to convince him to take her as his wife. He refuses and she decides to kidnap Sita and remove the competition. Lakshama foils her attempt and cuts off her nose, ears, and breasts as punishment. Soorpanka returns to her brother and demands vengeance. She also tells him of Sita and he becomes infatuated with her and plots a successful kidnapping.

The rest of the story revolves around Sita’s virtuous distress and Rama’s difficult and arduous rescue of his wife. In the long, difficult ordeal Rama and Lakshama enlist the aid of an army of monkeys and their great, powerful general Hanuman. In the climax of the rescue a personal battle between Rama and Ravana seems a never-ending barrage of supernatural weaponry  with the balance of the battle shifting from one to the other. Rama finally finds Ravana’s vulnerability and slays him. Sita’s liberation takes a unexpected turn when Rama announces that she cannot live with him as she has been living unescorted in another man’s house, thereby violating the code of behavior, her dharma. Sita in turn proves her virtue by having a large fire built, into which she steps. The ancient Vedic fire god, Angi, carries her out of the fire and presents her to Rama, establishing her integrity. Brahma, the creator, then appears to Rama and proclaims that he and Sita  together are the Supreme God without beginning or end. The fourteen years of exile having passed, they return to their homeland and are installed as the rightful rulers.

Within this framework of plot a proliferation of richly detailed description, subtle character development, and many stories of Vishnu’s other incarnations as well as of  lives of other gods and supernatural powers make the story a feast for the reader or listener. But the primary theme is the virtue of Rama and Sita. In spite of occasional lapses they display the qualities of the perfect Hindu couple and become the model to be emulated for all time. The Ramayana also played an important role in the development of bhakti, devotionalism, as Rama and Sita came to be the preferred deities of millions of Hindus. In addition to Vishnu being the focus of devotion through Rama and Sita, Rama’s monkey commander, Hanuman also has many devotees as well (Flood 145). Due to his great protective strength and courage, statues of Hanuman stand at the perimeters of thousands of villages throughout India.

Another body of literature in support of the rise of devotionalism was the Puranas, the stories of the ancient past. These complex narratives gave the genealogies of deities and kings, cosmologies, law codes, descriptions of ritual and pilgrimages to holy sites.

The Puranas consisted of eighteen texts and eighteen sub texts and laid out essential information about not only the three primary gods, Vishnu, Siva, and the Goddess, but also many other deities in the Hindu pantheon. These writings present a view from the perspective of a particular deity, often putting the deity at the center of creation and the overall worldview. The Puranas also put forward the bewildering Hindu concept of time. The world is seen as going through a cycle of four stages or yugas. The total cycle takes over four million years and the world moves from a more perfect state to a more degenerate state as the cycle progresses.  We are in the final stage, the kali-yuga, of degeneration in our current time, but we still have over 400,000 years to go until the world will be renewed to its perfect state and the cycle will begin again. The total of the four yugas is called a manvantara. A thousand manvantaras comprise one day for Brahma. When a thousand of these have occurred, there will then be one night for Brahma in which the world will be destroyed by fire or flood for one thousand manvantaras. The process continues for all eternity and serves no other purpose than the play of God (Flood 109-13).

In the sixth to the eighth centuries BCE two previously minor Vedic deities gain the primary focus as devotional gods: Shiva, who was called Rudra in the Riga Veda, and Vishnu. Each is seen by followers as the supreme god with full creative and destructive powers. Vishnu came to be depicted as a blue youth, standing upright with four arms holding a conch, discus, mace, and lotus. He is also often depicted reclining, sleeping on the coils of the great cosmic snake, Sesa, floating on the cosmic ocean. On awaking Vishnu created the universe. A lotus appears from his navel and from it Brahma appears to form the Universe. Vishnu then maintains it and Shiva destroys it. When the world descends into times of darkness, Vishnu manifests himself in the world in his various incarnations or avatara. Vishnu’s incarnations have been traditionally set at ten: Matsya, the Fish; Kurma, the Tortoise; Varaha, the Boar; Narashimha, the Man-lion; Vamana, the Dwarf; Parasurama, Rama with an ax; Rama; Krishna; Buddha; and Kalki. All these incarnations fit with the creation, destruction, and recreation mythology of Vishnu.

The Matsya Purana tells how the first man, Manu, is saved from a cosmic deluge by the Fish. The Tortoise places himself at the bottom of the ocean of milk as the support for the mountain Mandara, which is then used as a stick by the gods and demons to churn the cosmic ocean, from which various desired and undesired objects emerge, including the nectar of immortality. The Boar rescues the Earth, personified as a goddess, from the bottom of the cosmic ocean and brings her to the surface where he spreads her out, piles up mountains and divides her into seven continents. The rest of Vishnu’s incarnations fall chronologically in line but the last incarnation is yet to come, Kalki, called the White Horse, who will come at the end of our current dark age to destroy the wicked and restore purity for the new cycle (Flood 114-6). Vishnu’s primary consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune. His second wife is Bhuvdei, the goddess of the earth.

One of the most popular incarnations of Vishnu is Krishna. He was an amorous young prince brought up as a cowherd who wandered the forest destroying demons, dancing, and making love with milk-maids. His erotic exploits make him a beloved character and focus of much veneration in poetry through the ages. Many different orders evolved that worshipped Krishna, most focusing on his loving nature and his relationship with his most famous consort Radha (Flood 142). Devotion to Krishna and his lover Radha  is a contradiction for a Hindu. It is an erotic and mutually devotional relationship  between Krishna and a married woman, an adulterous affair. It is also between castes –  Radha being from a low caste of cowherds and Krishna being a Kshatriya prince. These are very serious violations of the dharma of both individuals. In contrast, another couple is the focus of much devotionalist worship, Rama and Sita, who make the ideal Hindu couple following their dharma to perfection. But the devotion to Krishna and Radha is symbolic of the power of bhakti, devotionalism, to overcome even tradition. Devotion to these deities can be made by anyone — any gender, any caste, any economic or educational level (Fuller 156-7).

While the traditions of Vishnu worship are firmly grounded in the world of Hindu householder, with Rama and Sita being the ideal, the traditions of Shiva worship are grounded in the world of the renouncer, the ascetic. Shiva is depicted in many ways: as an ascetic with wildly, matted hair; as a family man with his wife Parvati and their two sons, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, Ganesa, and the god of war, Skanda; and as the phallic symbol, the linga found in most Hindu temples. Shiva does not have a series of earthly incarnations as Vishnu has, but he does have manifestations he can take at anytime: Bhairava, the terrible; Bhikshantana, the beggar; Dakshinamurti, the guru; and Nataraja, the lord of the dance. In this final form he is the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of the cosmos. He is four-armed, dancing on a dwarf of ignorance in a circle of flames.

Shiva’s primary cult is focused around the linga, a round topped pillar representing his erect phallus on a base representing the vulva, the yoni. It is found in all his temples. The linga is symbolic of Shiva’s great creative powers and his great erotic potency. Shiva is seen as encompassing and possessing all opposites and is sometimes depicted as half man and half woman. Sati, another of Shiva’s wives, was outraged when her father snubbed her husband and did not invite him to an important sacrifice. In her outrage she intentionally burnt herself to death with her yogic powers. Shiva, enraged, destroyed the entire group and then resurrected it all, including Sati (Flood 150). This is the origination story that led to the controversial Hindu tradition of the wife dying on the funeral pyre of her husband.

Thousands upon thousands of temples are dedicated to the two preeminent gods of  Hinduism, Vishnu and Shiva. The third great god, Brahma, has a prominent role as a creator but is not widely worshipped and plays a subordinate role to the two great gods. Both Shiva and Vishnu have as many as 1,000 names. The pantheon of Hindu gods include many demons as well as deities, and these demons are usually devotees of Shiva or Vishnu, who gave them their powers. The demons and deities are linked together in symbiotic relationships, creating a balance between order and chaos (Fuller 32).

The goal of the bhakti devotee of Shiva or Vishnu is the loss of the self and the material world in favor of a total outpouring of love and devotion to the eternal and transcendent Lord. With bhakti the focus is on salvation that can be achieved through the love and grace of the Lord, with caste and gender being of little consequence (Flood 169).

The Tantras are scriptural writings that began to appear around 600 CE. They evolved into a vast body of texts. There are Buddhist and Jain Tantras as well as Hindu. Followers regard them as superior to the Veda. Many of the Hindu Tantras take the form of a dialogue between Shiva and the Goddess. The meaning of the dialogues are often obscure and regarded as secret, only to be revealed by a guru after appropriate initiation into the sect. The Tantras are famous for their ferocious deities, ritual sex, and consumption of alcohol and meat, but much of the content of the Tantras are of a more sober nature and range over a wide field of topics (Flood 158-9).

While the great bulk of Hindu devotional literature has revolved around Shiva and  Vishnu, a third and equally important devotional tradition in south Asia is Goddess worship. There are countless goddesses throughout India but they are all usually seen as manifestations of the single Great Goddess, Maha Devi. She often has two very different faces: first that of the life giver, the benevolent mother; and second the terrible, ferocious force that demands blood offerings to placate her wrath. Saktas is the name given to the devotees of the Goddess and tens of millions of Hindus revere her in one form or another. One of the most famous and widespread manifestations of Devi is called Durga, a warrior goddess. She is most famous for her slaying of the buffalo demon, Manishasura. The Buffalo Demon had been given the power that no man could kill him and went on a reign of terror, conquering the earth and threatening the heavens. The heavens and all the gods are saved when Durga, a woman, conquers and decapitates the great demon (Flood 174-5).

The idea of paradox is often associated with the Goddess; she is erotic, yet detached, beautiful yet terrible, gentle yet heroic. She is the ultimate reality to her devotees. She is the great illusion that binds all human beings, but also has the power to liberate.  She is depicted as the demon-slayer Durga seated on lion or tiger; as terrible emaciated, blood-drinking Kali or Caminda; as the consorts of the great Hindu gods; as local or regional female deities or icons, in the form of stones, poles, diagrams, or stylized female genitals (yoni); or as natural phenomena such as rivers (as the sacred rivers Ganges or Kaveri) or sacred lakes, trees, or grooves in the land (Flood 177).

The Goddess can also be seen as the ultimate creative force in the universe. She is seen to unfold the cosmos and contract it in endless cycles, giving her equal powers with Vishnu and Shiva. This power is associated with the absolute and prime sound of the syllable OM — identified as energy, light, and consciousness – which begins and ends most Hindu prayers and hymns. Village goddesses are often connected with the cycles of the agricultural year. Village rituals often follow these seasonal changes, bringing the events of peoples’ lives into the rhythm of nature.

Deities can be classified as either “hot” or “cool.” Hot deities, usually those associated with the Goddess, are connected to passion and the lower social levels. The hot deities need to be cooled. Cool deities are often associated with purity and the higher social levels. Male deities are more often connected with cool deities (Flood 188-96).

Hindu rituals fill all areas of life. Rituals take place in the home, in the temple, at wayside shrines, at pilgrimage sites, at holy natural sites. Rituals are done to mark special occasions, to ask for blessings, to placate angry gods, to mark the stages of life. Rituals give shape to life. They give coherence and continuity. They anchor people to the past and future (Flood 198).

Puja is the offering of vegetarian food, flowers, or incense to a deity. Puja might be offered in simple ceremonies in the home or in elaborate ceremonies in the temple, where priests recite sacred verses and bathe and dress icons with a variety of offerings. To be present at such services is to gain some blessings from the deities and to receive back some of the food blessed by the god. The temple ceremonies are begun behind closed curtains where the priests bath the idol and anoint it with substances such as sesame oil and curd. The deity is then dressed and adorned with gold, jewels, and perfumes. Food is then offered to the deity and bells rung. The curtain is then drawn back and the devotees can behold the vision of the deity. The priests wave camphor lamps before the icon and circle the icons with loud drumming and horn blowing. A priest them takes the camphor lamps to the devotees who cup their hands over the flames and touch their eyes and faces, bringing the light and warmth of the deity to their own being. The devotees are then given turmeric powder or white ash to mark their foreheads with and the puja is over. They might also take away blessed food that had been offered to the deity to be eaten later (Flood 208-9). Puja is at the heart of popular Hinduism. It is performed by both lay people in their homes and priests in the temples everywhere in India. At the heart of the ritual is a devotee’s welcoming and honoring an adored guest into home or temple — the deity being the guest. This ritual, both honoring and displaying personal affection toward the guest, creates unity between deity and worshipper that if approached with purity dissolves the difference  between the human and the divine (Fuller 57).

A primary goal of temple puja is to please the deity. If the ceremony is well and properly performed, the community will be protected and will flourish. If the puja is not performed or poorly performed, the deities can become angry, and distress and misery can befall the community. In the process of puja the deity comes down toward the human level and the devotee comes up toward the divine level. The result can be the devotee merging identity with the deity. For example, the lamps, usually with a camphor flame, which are waved in front of the deity as the climax of the worship, absorb some of the deity’s power and benevolence. The devotees who cup their hands over the flames and then touch their eyes, transfer that power and blessing to themselves. It is once again a joining of the divine and human. Other sanctified puja substances (prasada) given to worshippers are ash or powder put on the forehead, consecrated water sprinkled on the head or swallowed, flowers used in the ceremony and the sanctified food from the puja (Fuller 58-74).

Images of deities are meant to display the powers and attributes of the god or goddess. They are strictly governed by traditional rules that specify particular features, proportions, number of arms, what is held in each hand, and other attributes. Pictures sometimes substitute for sculptural images. With the advent of cheap color printing, poorer homes often contain only pictures of favorite deities who are worshipped. Village deities may be symbolized by painted stones, metal tridents, or pots that stand at small shrines or under trees. Natural phenomena may also be the subject of puja. Rivers and other places are subject of worship and veneration. The cow is frequently venerated for its association with Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.

Darshana, gazing on the image of the deity, is thought to bring good fortune, well-being, grace, and spiritual merit to the devotee, especially when done in the early morning at the temple just after the deity has been awakened. It is considered an exchange of vision between the deity and the devotee. The power of vision is an important part of worship. The third eye often depicted on images of Shiva is symbolic of his great power. This is symbolized on humans as well by the mark placed above the bridge of the nose to symbolize a third eye and point of spiritual power.

Hindu ritual is often accompanied by the repetition of sacred words called mantras. They are sentences, phrases or words that have ritual power. They may be said loudly or whispered or said mentally. They are often given to individuals by gurus and are to have the power to help the worshipper or bring to life the spirit of the deity (Flood 221). A common practice in Hinduism is to write mantras on bits of paper placed in silver tubes or inscribed on copper plates to be worn by the devotee as protection against evil or for curative power or simply as an act of devotion (Knipe 80).

Vegetarianism is followed primarily by the Brahman and Vaishya classes and food sacrifices of puja are vegetarian. Animal sacrifices to the ferocious “hot” deities is radically different. The animals most frequently used are male goats, pigs and fowls. The ultimate sacrificial animal is the male buffalo, which is still used occasionally in sacrifice to Durga in reenactment of her conquest of the buffalo-demon. The great majority of animal sacrifices are to the “hot” goddess deities including Kali, Durga, and regional and village goddesses. The sacrifices are to placate the deities whose rage is cooled through the blood of the sacrificial animals. The worship of the ferocious female deities is found most fully developed in Tantric Hinduism where Kali is often depicted wearing a garland of human skulls, drinking blood from a skull cup and dancing in a cremation ground (Fuller 84-6). The demands for blood sacrifice as part of some worship of the Goddess are in stark contrast to the tradition of ahimsa (non-violence) so prominent among the Brahmans and renouncers (Flood 183).

Pilgrimage in India is commonly called a tirthayatra, journey to a holy place — a crossing place. Many cities are considered holy as are some rivers and mountains. Shorter, more local pilgrimages to shrines and temples are considered local pilgrimages,  usually undertaken to get favor from deities. Longer pilgrimages to major Hindu centers are often done for their own intrinsic value and the fruits are left in the hands of the gods. The crossing place of a pilgrimage may be a symbolic crossing between the world of the human and the world of the divine. It is a place where the two worlds can make closer contact. The pilgrim can be said to have temporarily taken on the role of the renouncer, one who is detached from the ordinary daily concerns of the world. It is generally acknowledged that pilgrimage on foot is of greater merit than vehicular pilgrimage. Pilgrimage does create some loosening of the divisions of caste, gender, and class. With all the people following the common goal of the pilgrimage, the normal social boundaries are not as rigid and give people a chance for a different social environment for the duration of the pilgrimage experience (Fuller 207-222).

Connected with pilgrimage for many Hindus, festivals follow the Hindu lunar calendar.  Some festivals are pan-Indian and some are celebrated only at specific temples. People by the thousands will line the streets of the festival cities to see the icons borne through the city on huge, elaborate carriages, sometimes pulled by hundreds of  devotees (Flood 211).

Hindu devotionalism is not always directed at the gods of the Hindu pantheon; it is at times also given to living god-men. God-men are usually renouncers who gain a wide following and are granted a state of divinity by their followers. A 20th century god-man is Sathya Sai Baba. Claiming to be Shiva incarnate, he has a large following and has been given credit for many miracles. His following is primarily the urban middle class. He offers them salvation and they offer him devotion (Fuller 178-9). One other way that human beings can become the focus of devotion is  when a deity possesses a devotee in the ritual process and the devotee becomes the manifestation of the deity. This type of possession occurs most frequently during festivals (Flood 220).

Another aspect of Hindu spiritualism is focused on the area of misfortune. In the Hindu world when misfortune falls on an individual, family or community, they will often turn to their gods for help. The cause of the suffering is often attributed to malevolent ghosts, witches, sorcerers, or the evil eye. The misfortune might also be the result of impersonal forces such as inauspicious times caused by the planets. When an individual or community does not uphold their dharma, they invite the wrath of the gods whose job it to see that dharma prevails in the universe. If this happens, it is up to the individual to make amends with the correct rituals to appease the offended deity.

Many Hindus lay their misfortunes such as illness, childlessness, or even death at the feet of ghosts of people who died premature or “bad” deaths. A bad death is one that comes to a child or youth, one that comes to a woman in childbirth, a suicide or a victim of murder, disease, or snakebite. The ghost of these people or those whose funeral rites were improperly handled cannot pass over into the world of the dead, so they stay in this world and cause trouble. These ghosts often inflict sickness, madness, or bad luck on members of their former family. To find if this has happened one consults a diviner-priest of a local deity. If the spirit is identified, then the offended people can enshrine the spirit and worship it as a household deity and thereby pacify the spirit (Fuller 225-7).      The evil eye is often  blamed for misfortune by many Hindus. It is caused by the envious gaze of jealous people. It is most harmful to children and there are a multitude of rituals to ward it off. Higher-status, more educated Hindus do not place much credence in ghosts, witches, the evil eye, and so on. The believe their proper worship of great gods is the proper way to prevent misfortune, and they view the lower class preoccupation with the spirit world as primarily superstition (Fuller 238-9).

Auspicious and inauspicious times are also a concern of many if not most Hindus. Few people would consider scheduling a wedding without consulting an astrologer about the best, most auspicious, time for the ceremony (Fuller 242). Many Hindus are involved with the astrology, and especially the sinister role of Shani, the planet Saturn, in causing problems in people’s lives. Temples are constructed throughout India to the nine planets where people give offering to create harmony with the celestial bodies (Knipe 89).                                                         Women throughout much Hindu history were subject to the control of men for their entire lives: a girl to her father, a wife to her husband, and a widow to her sons. Although not written in the Veda a tradition developed where a “good” woman was expected to die on the funeral pyre of her husband (sati). The practice is now illegal but still occasionally takes place in India. Devotion of a women to her husband was considered a religious duty; the husband was to be seen as a god to his wife. Women had power within the home but little or none outside the home (Flood 66). However, the exclusion of women from inner religious practices is not a constant factor of the long history of Hinduism. During the Vedic and Upanishadic  periods many women spiritual leaders and saints are noted. The same is true during the period of Tantric sects, which were primarily focused on female deities. In the far south of India some matriarchal systems still survive from tribal times, managing to escape the male dominance of the Aryans and the later Muslim invaders (Ross 62-3). Women’s rituals are considered the real cement that holds Hindu culture together at its most important level, the family. Daily vows, prayers, devotions and occasional  pilgrimage form a critical part of the system in which  the wife attempts to maintain the correct connection to the gods in order to bring good fortune and protection to her family (Knipe 134). In contemporary times the position of India’s educated women has equaled or in some ways surpassed that in the West, with India having popularly elected a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1966.

The decline of the Mughal empire in the 18th century left an opening for the British Empire builders and by middle of the 19th century the British were in firm control of India. In the early 19th century what is called the Hindu “renaissance” began to develop, stimulated by Ram Mohan Roy, an Indian made wealthy by the British East India Company. Roy believed that God was the transcendent and unknowable creator of the universe. He maintained that all religions could find common ground and that God could be known through studying his creation and  through reason. This “renaissance” put an emphasis on the truth of Veda, a rejection of icon worship, a rejection of caste, an attempt to promote Hinduism on a ethical level equal or superior to that of Islam and Christianity (Flood 250-2) While this intellectual movement had an impact on the educated classes it had little meaning for the great masses of Hindus who followed their devotionalist ways.

In the 20th century one Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, had an impact on India and the world that is still reverberating today. He believed that God was truth and the individual self was truth as well, as self and God were one and the same. He strove to unite social justice goals with this sense of God (Flood 260-1). He was devoted to ahimsa and the renouncer traditions and through his efforts contributed greatly to gaining India’s independence from British rule. His teachings still influence many people around the globe.

Among the many Hindus to have an impact on the Western world in the 20th century was Krishnamurti, an English-educated Indian. He was adopted by the Theosophical society, an English group which tried to fuse the fundamental teaching of the West and the East. They believed that Krishnamurti was the new Messiah to the world but he completely rejected their role for him. He went on to teach a philosophy of pure awareness based on the Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy developed in the ninth century by the sage Sankara. Krishnamurti gained a large following in the West and is well known for his dialogues with world scholars (Flood 270).

In a discussion with Swami Venkatesananda, Krishnamurti was asked if he thought the essence of the Hindu understanding of an ultimate God was still relevant — if the concept that the Self and Brahman were synonymous was relevant or in need of revision. The following is a small part of that discussion:

Krishnaji: …How do I know the highest? Because the sages have talked of it? I don’t accept the sages. They might be caught in illusion, they might be talking sense or nonsense. I don’t know; I am not interested. I find that as long as the mind is in a state of fear, it wants to escape from it, and it projects an idea of the Supreme, and wants to experience that. But if it frees itself from its own agony, then it is altogether in a different state. It doesn’t even ask for the experience because it is at a different level.

Swamiji: Quite, quite.

Krishnaji: Now, why do the sages, according to what you have said say “You must experience that, you must be that, you must realize that?”

Swamiji: They didn’t say, “You must…”

Krishnaji: Put it any way you like. Why should they say all these things? Would it not better to say, “Look here, my friends, get rid of your fear. Get rid of your beastly antagonism, get rid of your childishness, and then when you have done that …

Swamiji: …nothing more remains.

Krishnaji: Nothing more. You’ll find the beauty of it. You don’t have to ask, then.

Swamiji: Fantastic, fantastic! (169-70)

Later in the conversation Krishnamurti elaborates further:

Nothing more is necessary. Look at yourself. Observe yourself. Go into yourself, because in this state as we are, we will create a monstrous world. You may go to the Moon, you may go further to Venus, Mars and all the rest of it, but you will always carry yourself over there. Change yourself first! Change yourself — not first – change yourself. Therefore to change, look at yourself, go into yourself – observe, listen, learn.  That’s not a message. You can do it yourself if you want to.(171)


…we are so concentrated upon our own worries, our own hopes, our own desires and experiences, that we shut ourselves in a cage of our own thinking; and we don’t look beyond it … Don’t do that. Look at everything and through looking at everything you’ll discover your cage. (172)

In essence, Krishnamurti’s teachings do agree that each of us is the universe, but we build up walls of the ego around us until we cannot see that we are Brahman. In building these walls we create the pain that is all around us. He sees the individual as guilty of the ills of society; hence, each individual is responsible for breaking down the walls and eliminating the “me.” In doing so the individual matures and now being at one with creation, the injustices around him or her are unthinkable. Krishnamurti sees the individual as the world:  the anger, hatred, fragmentation, and misunderstanding of the individual projected into the world, creating the mess of the world. It can only be solved by individuals healing themselves first.

Whether we are looking at the abstract psychology of Krishnamurti, the sacrificial Vedas, the theistic devotion to Vishnu or Shiva, the worship of any of the great pantheon of goddess deities from dignified Lakshmi to the blood-thirsty Kali, a village deity symbolized by a painted rock, the devotion to a long-dead local hero, or an individual sacrificing to a malevolent ghost, we are dealing with Hinduism.

One of Hinduism’s greatest accomplishments was to develop the firm belief that union with God is achievable here on earth in this lifetime, whether a fusion with the spirit of Brahman or a devotee merging with a deity in puja. Salvation is attainable through whatever road the person chooses to pursue (Ross 76). Hinduism’s great umbrella shelters a diversity of ways of coming to a spiritual understanding of our existence. It has a place for everyone regardless of education or class. For the Hindu, it is a faith for all and all faiths in one.


Arnold, Sir Edwin (translator), Bhagavad Gita, New York: Dover Publications, 1993.

Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Fuller, C. J., The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Griffith, Ralph T. H. (translator), The Rig Veda, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

Knipe, David M., Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred, San Francisco: HaprerSanFrancisco, 1991.

Krishnamurti, J., The Awakening of Intelligence, San Francisco: HaprerSanFrancisco, 1973.

Narayan, R. K., The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Ross, Nancy Wilson, Three Ways of Asian Wisdom, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Zaehner, R. C. (translator), Hindu Scriptures, New York: Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knof, 1992.

1998 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Buddhism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1992

Buddhism was established in the sixth century BC in what is now northeastern India. The founder of the faith was a young man by the name of Siddhartha. He was also called Gautama, from his clan name; Shakyamuni, meaning sage of the Shakya; and the Buddha, the enlightened one, a name given him by village children he was teaching (Hanh 131).

Siddhartha was the crown prince of the Shakya kingdom and lived a life of privilege. He married, had a son, and seemed to be following the expected path for a person of his position. Then at the age of 29 he renounced it all. After encountering sickness, death, and old age outside the luxuries of the palace, and after experiencing a general revulsion to politics, Siddhartha decided to leave his family and comforts to find a truth that overcomes suffering.  He studied with many teachers of the day and gained much knowledge but not the ultimate truth that he was seeking.  In a desperate attempt he became a reclusive ascetic, one who practices self-denial, and for six years lived a life of extreme physical deprivation until, skin and bones, he was near death.  Still he was unable to find the understanding he sought, and at the age of 35 he rejected asceticism as he had previously rejected a life of luxury. He began eating regularly and embarked upon a concentrated meditative effort to find the truth with a clear mind, unclouded by either physical suffering or opulence.  During this effort his favorite place of meditation was a large pippala tree under whose cool shade he could concentrate his thoughts.  It was there that the breakthrough took place, and the tree became known as the Bodhi Tree, the tree of awakening.

The Buddha described his enlightenment as total freedom from all suffering, complete knowledge of the nature of reality, and full awareness of all the dimensions of reality. At the core of the awakening was the understanding that there was no autonomous self, that everything in the universe is connected in a symbiotic relationship. For the next 45 years the Buddha formulated his understanding into a system of belief that was to spread throughout Asia, having a tremendous impact on millions of lives (Rhie & Thurman 22-23). During his lifetime the Buddha was joined in his monastic life by his son, wife, and mother, reuniting the family in a new spiritual unit.

Buddhism is based on the Three Refuges, also called the Three Gems: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the monastic community). The Buddha is seen as the manifestation of the ultimate goal of Buddhism, complete enlightenment, total understanding. In the original basics of Buddhism he is not seen as a god but as a person who has reached perfection.  Images of the Buddha are honored as a mark of gratitude and a practice of reflection (Saddhatissa 46).  The Buddha denounced blind faith and encouraged his students to question and investigate his teachings (Saddhatissa 43).  He encouraged his followers to accept only what they could support with their own reason and what was wise and virtuous, and brought happiness. All other teaching was to be rejected (Hanh 421).  Direct experience and not philosophical theories is the basis of the Buddha’s teachings. It was direct experience that brought about his enlightenment, and the process can have the same results for all those that follow. His objective was not to explain the universe, but to see the true face of reality through personal experience (Hanh 212-3).  Human beings are not seen as subservient to the Buddha or any god. The person is not a “sinner” or repentant.  Buddhist pilgrims begin their path to understanding, truth, enlightenment, and happiness as free thinkers with the guidance of the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Buddha is no guarantee to success in any of the follower’s endeavors. Success or failure is the inevitable result of one’s own efforts.  Reverence to the Buddha is to be shown by following his teachings through free will and with an inquiring mind (Saddhatissa 46).

The second refuge is the Dharma – the teaching. The metaphysics of the beginning or end of time or any such speculation was of no interest to the Buddha. He was interested in the present and his teachings are structured to make the present a beautiful and peaceful existence. His teachings are called the Middle Way. He taught the avoidance of excesses such as the sensual pleasures or punishing the mind and body. It is a path of moderation he encouraged that could lead to understanding, liberation and peace. At the beginning of his Middle Way are the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is subject to suffering. Birth, old age, sickness, death, sadness, anger, jealousy, worry, anxiety, fear, despair, desire, attachment, and clinging are types of suffering. The second truth is that this suffering is caused by ignorance, which many times leads to desire and attachment. The third truth is that this suffering can be extinguished by the elimination of desires caused by ignorance.  Understanding the truth of life ends all suffering and gives true happiness. The fourth and final truth is that the Middle Way can guide one to this understanding by following the Eightfold Path: (1) Right Understanding: to begin the path we must see ourselves in accordance with the true nature of existence; we must see the suffering, the impermanence, and the selflessness.  (2) Right Thought: to follow the way we must have our minds free of lust, ill-will, and cruelty; we must be willing to cast off anything that obstructs our way and give all merit gained to all beings.  (3) Right Speech: we must refrain from lying, back-biting, harsh talk, and idle gossip. We must be conscious of the linkage between what we think and what we say. We must be sensitive to how our words affect people and use words of kindness and wisdom, free from dogmatism and inflamed passion.  (4) Right Action: One should live according to the Five Precepts – (i) do not kill, but practice love to all beings; (ii) do not steal, but generously give; (iii) do not practice sexual misconduct, but practice self-control; (iv) do not lie, but practice honesty and sincerity; (v) do not use intoxicants, but practice restraint and mindfulness. (5) Right Livelihood or Vocation: on the path the follower should not pursue an occupation that would inflict harm or injustice to other beings. Traditional trades in which laymen should not engage are dealing (i) in arms, (ii) in living beings, (iii) in meat, (iv) in intoxicants, (iii) in poison. The person on the path should be free from acquisitiveness and pursue a life of duty and service.  (6) Right Effort: to keep on the path to perfection the traveler must avoid ignoble qualities and foster noble qualities.  In fostering what is good and rejecting what is evil, the Buddhist develops generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, honesty, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness, and equanimity.  (7) Right Mindfulness: to follow the way we must keep a constant state of awareness of our mind, our feelings, our ideas, and our body.  This mindfulness involves being conscious of the present moment and how our minds, feelings, ideas, and body are functioning with a full awareness, not worrying about the future or reliving the past, but being mindful of the present. (8) Right Concentration: towards the end of the path travelers must focus their concentration on full understanding through meditation.  The mind must come to a total awareness of the impermanence and selflessness of all nature to find the final truth (Saddhatissa 58-63).

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path form the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings and are the focus of intense study and application by those entering the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. For the layman, the Five Precepts mentioned under Right Action are the basics of following a secular Buddhist path and deserve more elaboration. The First Precept: the Buddhist is to refrain from killing, causing to be killed, or sanctioning the killing of any living being. “Living Beings” include everything from humans to insects. This precept is to nourish respect, compassion, and empathy for all living creatures (Saddhatissa 74). The first precept calls for the Buddhist to be a protector and preserver of life and celebrate the reverence of life.  The Second Precept: we are to abstain from taking what is not ours or freely given to us.  Stealing or theft of any kind is denounced.  The Buddha recognized two types of theft, direct and indirect.  Direct theft involves appropriating anything that does not rightfully belong to you. Indirect stealing involves any frauds or deceptions that cheat people out of what rightfully belongs to them (Saddhatissa 86). It is an injunction against any dishonest dealings and includes the gaining of wealth by the labor of others. This precept encourages practicing generosity as opposed to oppressive or exploitive behavior.   The Third Precept: we are not to engage in sexual misconduct but remain faithful to our spouses and to respect the rights of others (Hanh 155). This precept commits the Buddhist to responsible sexual behavior based on love and long-term relationships.  The Fourth Precept: this calls for the abstention from all falsehoods. One should not lie, conceal a lie, use exaggerations, or in any way depart from the truth. This includes spreading words that cause discord or hatred or contain information of which you are not certain. The Buddha reminds us that those who habitually lie or exaggerate lose all sense of the truth, while those careful to speak only what they know to be the truth are persons of wisdom.  In speaking the truth the Buddhist should use words that spread confidence, joy, and hope, refrain from stimulating discord and division, and shun the use of any abusive language.  The Fifth Precept: abstain from intoxicants.  The basis of this precept is the fact that alcohol and drugs distort the person’s perception of reality, making it impossible to find the truth and understanding the Buddhist seeks (Saddhatissa 92-5). This precept encourages the Buddhist to consume only what stimulates a healthy mind and body.  In contemporary terms this would include abstaining from the many types of modern entertainment that poison the mind.

These five precepts set a course by which the practitioner can avoid the suffering previously discussed, create harmony with family, friends and within oneself, and in general live a happy life (Hanh 155).  The Precepts were created by the Buddha not as ends in themselves but as essential preliminaries and permanent accompaniment on the path to Enlightenment (Saddhatissa 99).

Buddhism originated and grew in a land that already had a long spiritual history. What we call Hinduism had been evolving in the region for thousands of years and deeply influenced Buddhism.  A concept that is at the core of both Hinduism and Buddhism is Karma: the actions and deeds in one’s life are carried over into the next rebirth in an endless chain of cause and effect; like the waves on the ocean where each wave creates the next, so, too, previous lives form the next life unaffected by any outside power or divinity (Saddhatissa 29-30). The quality of the next reincarnation is subject to the actions and deeds of the previous life. It is said in relation to Karma, “He who speaks from a mind defiled, that one suffering follows as a wheel the foot that leads it,” and,  “He who speaks or acts from a pure mind, that one happiness follows as his shadow that never leaves him” (Saddhatissa 21). The Buddha broke this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth with his enlightenment. By coming to a full and perfect realization of the truth he was no longer bound by the cycle, and through his teachings he offers others the same hope.

Another deeply entrenched Hindu tradition, closely related to karma and reincarnation, is the caste system. The grouping of people into strict hereditary social castes (classes) has a history stretching back for generations unknown. The Buddha rejected this system in relation to his faith. He declared that all people’s tears were salty and all people’s blood was red; to create division and prejudice was wrong (Hanh 131). He believed that his way to the truth knew no classes and he went so far as to recruit untouchables, the lowest caste, to join his monastic family where they became equal members, as all castes were dissolved in the Sangha.

Buddhism offered the lay people considerable guidance in their everyday lives even beyond the Five Precepts. One set of family guidance is the seven directions of a “Good Person”: maintain your parents, revere the head of the family, use gentle language, speak no slander, be generous, speak the truth, and do not give way to anger (Saddhatissa 119). These qualities point to the often reinforced tenants of the importance of the family and family responsibilities.  Responsibilities also extend to friends.  In choosing friends the Buddha advises us to select people who are kindly, free of avarice, understanding, of good reputation, generous, sympathetic, and wise.  It is counseled to choose your friends carefully in that “whatever a friend does, whatever he practices, by association with him one becomes of such quality” (Saddhatissa 125).

Moral responsibility runs through every aspect of life. Leaders are expected to live lives of the highest of moral values as an example to those they are leading: “When the ruler keeps to the righteous ways, his people will be righteous also and peace will reign in the realm. A fool in exalted station causes great trouble” (Saddhatissa 140). It is a leader’s responsibility to use his knowledge, power, and skills to minimize poverty and distribute wealth so that none suffer hunger or degradation. The Buddha denounced the use of corporal punishment, imprisonment, and execution as means of controlling crime. He asserted that crime was a result of poverty and the best solution was for the leaders to build a healthy economy. They need to help farmers and small business men, to exempt the poor from taxation, to provide job training, and to establish a system of free will in choosing vocations (Hanh 522-3). But moral responsibility is as much with the masses as with the leaders.  Each person must use her or his sense of morality to make decisions and help the community act as a unified entity. The moral character of each individual is the primary shaping force of a society (Saddhatissa 149).

While the practical moralities of Buddhism form the guidance for everyday life, the spiritual enlightenment of the Buddha forms the basis on which these moralities originate, grow, and have full meaning. This enlightenment of the Buddha has been described as follows:

He saw the oneness of the body and the mind, that each and every cell of the body contained all the wisdom of the  universe. He saw that he only needed to look deeply into a  speck of dust to see the true face of the entire universe –  that the speck of dust was itself the universe and if it did  not exist, the universe could not exist either…. In  reality, all things were without a separate self.  Non-self  was the nature of all existence…. It was a thunderbolt that destroyed all wrong views (Hanh 108).

The central position of the Buddha’s awakening was this: that there are not separate entities in the universe, that all is interconnected, a part of everything else. There is no separate self.  Non-self and interdependence were the keys to liberation and each individual already possessed the seeds of wisdom within, needing only to find them.

Shortly after the Buddha’s enlightenment he taught a group of country children what he had learned. He taught his concept of interdependence as follows:

We are rice plants, tangerines, rivers, and air, because without these things we could not be. When you children look  at rice plants, coconuts, tangerines, and water, remember  that in this life you depend upon many other beings for your  existence. These other beings are a part of you. If you can  see that, you will experience true understanding and love  (Hanh 135).

To an adult student the Buddha taught the lesson in a more sophisticated but no less beautiful manner:

Take, for example, this leaf in my hand. Earth, water, heat,  seed, tree, clouds, sun, time, space – all these elements  have enabled this leaf to come to existence. If just one of  these elements was missing, the leaf could not exist. All  beings, organic and inorganic, rely on the law of dependent  co-arising.  The source of one thing is all things. Please  consider this carefully. Don’t you see that this leaf I am  now holding in my hand is only here thanks to the  interpenetration of all the phenomena in the universe,  including your own awareness? (Hanh 169)

While these concepts seem so simple they are yet surprisingly difficult to come to a full understanding of – to truly break through the concept of the separate self to the oneness that the Buddha revealed. The reason for this difficulty as explained by the Buddha is also simple – ignorance. Ignorance is a false way of looking at reality. In a state of ignorance one thinks the impermanent is permanent and that there is a separate self. This ignorance is the source of all suffering -of greed, anger, fear, jealousy, and pain.  The Buddha realized people were often trapped by unjust social conditions but many times they were equally trapped by sorrows and passions they created themselves in their hearts and minds.  The overcoming of this inner ignorance was the only true basis of social work. A change in heart had to proceed a change in society (Hanh 65-6). The Dharma of the Buddha shows the path to overcome the ignorance and find true understanding. The impact of ignorance goes as far as our perception of birth and death.  The following is an account of the Buddha’s overcoming of this ignorance:

He saw how countless beings pass through countless births and deaths. He saw that these births and deaths were but

outward appearances and not true reality, just as millions  of waves rise and fall incessantly on the surface of the  sea, while the sea itself is beyond birth and death. If the  waves understood that they themselves were water, they would  transcend birth and death and arrive at true inner peace, overcoming all fear (Hanh 119).

Understanding is at the heart of Buddhism, and understanding is synonymous with love. This is not love based on lust, passion, attachment, discrimination, or prejudice.  It is love founded in understanding and made manifest in kindness and compassion.  Love cannot be based on a desire to possess another, as that kind of love only creates a prison.  Love must be based on open understanding of another’s suffering and aspirations and the desire to make that other happy. This type of love extends beyond one’s immediate circle and emanates to all beings. This love\understanding leads to the compassion that fuels the most helpful of actions and services.  Understanding produces a fruit called compassion. While compassion calls for a sharing of another’s suffering, it is a suffering that gives a sweet strength, not a bitter pain (Hanh 272-6).  Understanding, love, and tolerance fuse to form a perfect union where people can live in happiness and most of the suffering in the world can subside.  The Buddha said the following to his son:

Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to  others without demanding anything in return. Practice  compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity  to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything  in return.  Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred.  Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness  of others and wishes others well-being and success. Practice  non-attachment to overcome prejudice. Non-attachment is the  way of looking at all things openly and equally. This is  because that is. That is because this is. Myself and others  are not separate. Do not reject one thing only to chase  after another (Hanh 321).

The Buddha’s promotion of open-mindedness stems from his understanding that what we see and hear is only a fraction of reality. If one accepts it as the whole of reality one has taken a distorted picture to be true. On the path to the truth the seeker must never unquestioningly cling to present views, but remain open to new understanding as it is revealed. Humility and open-mindedness are two essential qualities for making progress along the Middle Way (Hanh 451).

While this path is one that asks the traveler to be diligent and devoted, it is also a path that offers at its center happiness and joy for those that follow the teachings. While the Buddha fully acknowledged the role of suffering in our existences, he taught how love, understanding, kindness, and compassion were the vehicles to ease and transform the suffering into happiness. He said, “…suffering is not the true nature of the universe.  Suffering is the result of the way we live our lives and our erroneous understanding of life” (Hanh 152). In contrast to much contemporary thinking on happiness, the Buddha asserted that happiness is not the result of satisfying desires. While the gratification of desires may give a temporary illusion of happiness, most often it is actually a source of suffering. True happiness to the Buddha is fully experiencing the wonders of life.  It is living in the present moment without attachments. A breeze, the sky, a flower, a tree, the smile of a child in the present moment is the source of true happiness, with the full awareness that these things will pass away. The Buddha said, “A look filled with understanding, an accepting smile, a loving word, a meal shared in warmth and awareness in the present moment are things that create happiness” (Hanh 510- 3).

The ultimate happiness can be called Nirvana. The Buddha described it this way: “When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation, and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy, and freedom” (Hanh 234). It is the total destruction of lust, hatred, delusion, and all ignorance. It is the acquisition of complete truth, perfect vision, and knowledge.  Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. When the Buddha died with his perfect understanding, there could be no rebirth. His perfect karma did not create another wave on the sea of life; its perfection fused with the entire sea in total oneness, and such is the case for all who reach enlightenment.

As with all the world’s religions, Buddhism did not remain a monolithic faith. Within a century of the Buddha’s death division had already begun. The basic point of departure was the question of whether people find the way to enlightenment through their efforts alone or there are group avenues based on grace, love and salvation. The group taking the individualistic route became known by the name Hinayana, the little raft or vehicle. They later adopted the more positive name Theravada, or Way of the Elders. The group taking the broader approach became known as the Mahayana, the great raft or vehicle. The Theravada maintained the position that human beings were distinct individuals who need to find their own way in the universe. The key virtue was wisdom; the Buddha was seen as a human saint; they had minimal ritual; and prayer was confined to meditation. The Mahayanists maintained that people must be involved with others on the way to the truth and arrival could be based on salvation.  The key virtue was compassion; the Buddha became a savior and sometimes a god; complex rituals evolved; and prayer became petitionary.  While Theravada maintained its unity, its spread was limited to South Asia and Southeast Asia.  Mahayana on the other hand spread through Mongolia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, and it fragmented into many various forms of Buddhism. Three of these many divisions of Mahayana are Chan Buddhism (known as Zen in Japan and the U.S.), Pure Land Buddhism that spread throughout Asia and Tantric Buddhism, that evolved in Tibet and is the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and his followers. This flexibility of Mahayana made it the dominant form and its variations have found followers around the world (Smith 180-8).

At the base of all forms of Buddhism are the basic teachings of the Buddha; teachings that encourage compassion, love, and mindfulness; teachings that are among the most passive and gentle of any in the world; teachings that promote harmony and peace; teachings that after twenty-five centuries still promise a life of beauty and tranquility.


Hanh, Thich Nhat. Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkley, CA: Parrallax Press, 1991.

Rhie, Marylin M., and Robert A. F. Thurman. Wisdom and     Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. NYC: Harry N. Abrams,  Inc., 1991.

Saddhatissa, Hammalawa., Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

Smith, Huston., The Religions of Man. NYC: Harper Perennial, 1989

1992 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Taoism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1994

Taoism is an ancient faith with roots deeply planted in China’s evolution as a culture. It could be surmised that Tao is the manifest power of nature that most tribal cultures have at the center of their faith. But as China became more socially complex, with the rise of larger clans and eventually kingdoms, the power of nature evolved to the concept of Tao. The ideas that were to form the basis of Taoism began developing approximately from 8,000 BCE to 600 B.C.E., when they may have first been consolidated in a more structured way.

To define Tao is impossible; and if it was defined the greatest Taoist master made it clear that what was defined was most assuredly not Tao. But, of course, definitions abound. There are synonyms that attempt to give a glimpse of the meaning. Tao is many times referred to as the Way, or the Subtle Origin, or spiritual energy. Tao has been called “All-pervading, self existent, eternal cosmic unity, the source from which all created things emanate and to which they all return (Mair I, 132).”

Another definition is given in clear terms by Lin Yutang:

The Tao of the Taoist is the divine intelligence of the  universe, the source of things, the life giving  principle; it informs and transforms all things; it is  impersonal, impartial, and has little regard for  individuals. It is immanent, formless, invisible, and  eternal. Best of all the Taoist does not presume to  tell us about God; he insists to the point of  repetitiousness that the Tao cannot be named and the  Tao that is named is not the Tao.  Above all, the one  important message of Taoism is the oneness and  spirituality of the material universe. (15)

This may be somewhat startling to a Western reader. A religion without a god? A faith that is “impersonal, impartial, and has little regard for individuals?” This is not familiar ground for those brought up in a Judeo-Christian background, and as such, there is occasionally a Western scholar that refuses to even acknowledge Taoism as a religion. But a religion it most certainly is.       The study of Taoism usually starts with the first of the great masters, Lao Tzu. He is generally considered by scholars to be partially or totally mythical. Lao Tzu was possibly based on a historical figure, but he has come down in history and literature a composite of many earlier sources. Lao Tzu can be translated as Old Master, or Old Boy, and he is sometimes referred to as Old Big Ears, or Long Ears.  While this seems strangely disrespectful to refer to the founder of a faith in such terms, it is actually quite in keeping with the general irreverent attitude of much Taoism that makes it so endearing to many people. The date of Lao Tzu’s birth is given as around 571 B.C.E. Some legends depict the sage as an archivist for a royal library. Stories tell of his disillusionment with the kingdom and decision to leave, but he was stopped by a border guard who convinced him to write down his teachings before leaving; thus, the origin of the Tao Te Ching, The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way. It is a collection of eighty-one short poems, called chapters that were probably part of the oral tradition of the preceding three centuries.  They were put into the current collection around the second half of the third century B.C.E.  (Mair I, 119-120).  In 1973 the earliest known copy of the book was discovered in a tomb in Hunan province in China, dating back to around the end of the third century B.C.E. This early version has been beautifully translated by Victor Mair and is the source for the Tao Te Ching quotes in this essay. The Tao Te Ching has become the standard text of Taoism and is revered world-wide for its wisdom, wit, and brevity.  One of the continuing themes of the book is that of non-action — which the Way of nature will take its course and all will be harmonious if we simply let it be. The following are some passages to illustrate that point:

The softest thing under heaven gallops triumphantly over

The hardest thing under heaven.


Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.

Hence, I know the advantages of nonaction.


The doctrine without words,

The advantage of nonaction —

few under heaven can realize this! (11)




Without going out-of-doors,

one may know all under heaven;

Without peering through windows,

one may know the Way of heaven.


The farther one goes,

The less one knows.


For this reason,

The sage knows without journeying,

understands without looking,

accomplishes without acting. (15)



This aspect of inaction as the goal is again a foreign concept to most in the West, but the surprises go further when Lao Tzu explains why Tao does not work in human societies:

The more taboos under heaven,

the poorer the people;

The more clever devices people have,

the more confused the state and ruling house;

The more knowledge people have,

the more strange things spring up;

The more legal affairs are given prominence,

the more numerous bandits and thieves. (26)


The more rules, the more things, the more knowledge, the more laws people have, the further they will be from the Way, Tao. The solution is to minimize these aspects of life:

Let there be a small state with few people,

where military devices find no use;

Let the people look solemnly upon death,

and banish the thought of moving elsewhere.


They may have carts and boats,

but there is no reason to ride them;

They may have armor and weapons,

but they have no reason to display them.



Let the people go back to tying knots

to keep records.

Let their food be savory,

their clothes beautiful,

their customs pleasurable,

their dwelling secure.


Though they may gaze across at a neighboring state,

and hear the sounds of its dogs and chickens,

The people will never travel back and forth,

till they die of old age. (39)


In another area of the book Lao Tzu goes so far as to recommend that people be kept ignorant, well-fed, happy, and living in accord with the Way — shocking social philosophy from a modern perspective.

While the theme of the Way, its loss, and what can be done to regain it, is a dominant theme of the Tao Te Ching, many other themes are laced throughout the eighty-one poems. One of the major subjects is that of integrity/virtue:

Treat well those who are good,

Also treat well those who are not good;

thus is goodness attained.


Be sincere to those who are sincere,

Also be sincere to those who are insincere; thus is sincerity attained. (17)



Who is puffed up cannot stand,

Who is self-absorbed has no distinction,

Who is self-revealing does not shine,

Who is self-assertive has no merit,

Who is self-praising does not last long. (86)


Understanding others is knowledge,

Understanding oneself is enlightenment;

Conquering others is power,

Conquering oneself is strength;

Contentment is wealth,

Forceful conduct is willfulness;

Not losing one’s rightful place is to endure,

To die but not be forgotten is longevity. (100)

The wisdom of Lao Tzu has made this small volume popular for the centuries, and at its core is revolutionary thinking that encourages the overturn of the sacred institution of civilization and the return of humankind to the source of its being.

The second great sage of Taoism is Chuang Tzu. He is only slightly more historical than Lao Tzu. Said to have been born around 369 B.C.E. and died about 286 B.C.E., Chuang Tzu was one of the many contending philosophers during the Warring States period that attempted to persuade rulers of contending kingdoms to follow their philosophies. However, Chuang Tzu did more criticizing of the others, mainly Confucians, rather than outright courting of rulers. While Lao Tzu’s humor was subtle and charming, Chuang Tzu’s humor was often stinging and sometimes outrageous. In a marvelous new translation, again by Victor Mair, Chuang Tzu’s writings, also called Chuang Tzu, is brought to life with all its royal and raunchy cast of philosophers, noblemen, robbers, and animals. Most of the following quotes come from Mair’s translation. Many of the themes of Lao Tzu are pursued and given new interpretation and elaborations.  In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu makes the point that the uselessness of a gnarled tree is its salvation from the carpenters axe; Chuang Tzu takes the same story and adds his own twists:

Master Hui said to Master Chuang, “I have a big tree people call Stinky Quassia. Its great trunk is so gnarled and knotted that it cannot be measured with an inked line. Its small branches are so twisted and turned that neither compass nor L-square can be applied to them. It stands next to the road, but carpenters pay no attention to it. Now, sir, your words are just like my tree — big, useless, and heeded by no one.”

“Sir,” said Master Chuang, “are you the only one who hasn’t observed a wild cat or a weasel?  Crouching down, it lies in wait for its prey.  It leaps about east and west, avoiding neither high or low, until it gets caught in a snare or dies in a net.  Then there is the yak, big as the clouds suspended in the sky.  It’s big, all right, but it can’t catch mice.  Now you, sir, have a big tree and are bothered by this uselessness.  Why don’t you plant in Neverland with its wide open spaces?  There you can roam in nonaction by its side and sleep carefreely beneath it. Your Stinky Quassia’s life will not be cut short by axes, nor will anything else harm it. Being useless, how could it ever come to grief?” (8-9)

This irreverent and somewhat sarcastic attitude typifies the stinging barbs Chuang Tzu’s aims at the other characters he places in his stories. He also follows the theme of the lost Way and the ideal past where people lived in harmony with Tao.  The following passage tells of those times:

In the time of the clansman Hohsu, when people stayed at home, they did not know what they were doing, and when they went outside, they did not know where they were going. They filled their mouths with food and were happy, strolling about with their bellies stuffed tight as a drum. The abilities of the people were this and no more. Then along came the sages to rectify the form of all under heaven with their bowing and scraping to the rites and music. They unveiled their humaneness and righteousness from on high to soothe the hearts of all under heaven, but the people began to be plodding in their fondness for knowledge. They ended up contending for profit and they could not be stopped. This, too, is the error of the sages. (82-83)

Again, the blame for the loss of the Way is laid upon knowledge, and this time in particular the teachings of the sages with a very calculated criticism of the Confucians, as they were the ones promoting “rites, music, humaneness, and righteousness.”

While most Taoist philosophers advocated a minimal government, Chuang Tzu advocated no government; he wanted nature to take its course with no interference. While his advocating of anarchy is most certainly radical, it is a non-violent anarchy he promoted. He believed that if we could just let things be, each person could find happiness for themselves. His philosophy was directed at the individual rather than the government (Mair II, xli).

According to legend Chuang Tzu’s fame spread far and wide and he was offered a high government post.  The story is told in Chuang Tzu as follows:

Master Chuang was fishing in the P’u River. The king of Ch’u dispatched two high-ranking officials to go before him with this message: “I wish to encumber you with the administration of my realm.”

Without turning around, Master Chuang just kept holding on to his fishing rod and said, “I have heard that in Ch’u there is a sacred tortoise that has already been dead for three thousand years. The king stores it in his ancestral temple inside a hamper wrapped with cloth. Do you think this tortoise would rather be dead and have its bones preserved as objects of veneration, or be alive and dragging its tail through the mud?”

“It would rather be alive and dragging its tail through the mud,” said the two officials.

“Begone!” said Master Chuang.  “I’d rather be dragging my tail in the mud.” (164)

To further elaborate his disdain and contempt for government position, Chuang Tzu adds the following tale:

When Master Hui was serving as the prime minister of Liang, Master Chuang set off to visit him. Somebody said to Master Hui, “Master Chuang is coming and he wants to replace you as prime minister.” Whereupon Master Hui became afraid and had the kingdom searched for three days and three nights.

After Master Chuang arrived, he went to see master Hui and said, “In the south there is a bird.  Its name is Yellow Phoenix.  Have you ever heard of it?  It takes off from the Southern Sea and flies to the Northern Sea.  It won’t stop on any other tree but the kolanut; won’t eat anything but bamboo seeds; won’t drink anything but sweet spring water.  There was once an owl that, having got hold of a putrid rat, looked up at the Yellow Phoenix as it was passing by and shouted ‘shoo!’ Now, sir, do you wish to shoo me away from your kingdom of Liang?” (164-165)

One of the other concepts many times illuminated in Chuang Tzu is that of relativity. The individual who follows the Way has to know that the large and small, long and short, good and bad are not absolutes, that there is no true distinction between them as there is no distinction between the self and the other. If true understanding of this can be reached the searcher of Tao has come to some understanding of the unity of the Way (Mair II, xlii). This idea is wonderfully shown in the most famous of all Chuang Tzu’s stories:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly,    fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a  butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly,  unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably  myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming  I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am  a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a  distinction. The transition is called the transformation of  material things. (Yutang 238)

Another recurring and weighty theme of Chuang Tzu is that of life and death. A famous story concerns visitors coming to Chuang Tzu’s home after the death of his wife to offer him condolences. Upon arrival they find him squatting on the floor banging a pan and singing songs.  They are horrified to see such lack of respect for his wife, but he explains that at first he wept but then he realized that she was just part of the “mass of the formless,” going through transitions just as the seasons go through their changes. So for him to weep and beat his chest would only show that he did not understand the Way of nature.

In this next very poetic passage from Chuang Tzu the concept of relativity and life and death are fused to cyclic continuum:

For life is the disciple of death and death is the beginning of life. Who knows their regulator? Human life is the coalescence of vital breath. When it coalesces there is life; when it dissipates there is death. Since life and death are disciples of each other, how should I be troubled by them? Thus the myriad things are a unity. What makes the one beautiful is its spirit and wonder; what makes the other loathsome is its stench and putrefaction. But stench and putrefaction evolve into spirit and wonder, and spirit and wonder evolve once again into stench and putrefaction. Therefore it is said, ‘A unitary vital breath pervades all under heaven.’ Hence the sage values unity. (212)

And a final Chuang Tzu story about death that brings us back his lovable irreverence; who but Chuang Tzu would use a skull as a pillow!

When Master Chuang went to Ch’u, he saw an empty skull.    Though brittle, it still retained its shape. Master Chuang tapped  the skull with his riding crop and asked, “Did you end up like  this because of greed for life and loss of reason? Or was it  because you were involved in some treasonous affair and had your  head chopped off with an ax? Or was it because you were involved  in some unsavory conduct, shamefully disgracing your parents, wife  or children? Or was it because you starved or froze? Or was it  simply because your time was up?”

When he had finished with his questions, Master Chuang picked up the skull and used it as a pillow when he went to sleep. A midnight, the skull appeared to him in a dream and said, “Your manner of talking makes you sound like a sophist. I perceive that  what you mentioned are all burdens of the living. When you are  dead, there’s none of that. Would you like to hear me tell you  about death, sir?”

“Yes,” said Master Chuang.

“When you’re dead,” said the skull, “there’s no ruler above you and no subjects below you.  There are no affairs of the four seasons; instead, time passes leisurely as it does for heaven and  earth. Not even the joys of being a south-facing king can surpass  those of death.”

Not believing the skull, Master Chuang said, “If I were to  have the Arbiter of Destiny restore life to your physical form, to  give you back your flesh, bones, and skin, to return your parents,  wife, children and village acquaintances, would you like that?”

Frowning in deep consternation, the skull said, “How could I abandon ‘the joys of a south-facing king’ and return to the toils  of mankind?” (170)

Following Chuang Tzu many other masters maintained the tradition of the “Old Masters,”  but it was a difficult discipline to follow, requiring its devotees to renounce the world and attempt to find the original Way. In 142 C.E. it is said that Lao Tzu, as a god, appeared to Zhang Dao Ling and authorized him to establish a religion with an elaborate set of beliefs, rituals, magical spells, alchemy, immortality, and a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hartz 39-42). As divorced as this seems from the actual teachings of Taoism, it was the beginning of the evolution of the many forms of popular Taoism. A bureaucracy of Taoist priests evolved to perform the elaborate rituals that were part of all village life, marking the important times of the year and transitions in people’s lives. Taoism blended with the popular culture of China and became an integral part of the common people’s existence. Taoism was and is basic to Chinese culture on so many levels as to be inextricable from the very nature and being of the Chinese people.

One of the basic principles of Taoism is the concept of Yin and Yang.  This concept is probably even older than Taoism itself and is central to any understanding of the faith. The concept is well explained by the oldest master himself, Lao Tzu:

It (the origin of the universe) is a problem that defies the mind and language of man. I will try to tell you what it is like approximately. The great yin is majestically silent; the great yang is impressively active. Majestic silence comes from heaven, and impressive activity comes from the earth.  When the two meet and merge, all things are formed. Some can see the connection but cannot see their form. Growth alternates with decay, fullness with exhaustion, darkness with light.  Every day things change, and every month they are transformed. You see what is going on every day and observe that the change is imperceptible.  Life comes from a source and death is but a return to it. Thus beginning follows the end in a continual endless cycle.  Without Tao, what can be the generative principle binding on all? (Yutang 12-13)


The Yin and the Yang are the all-pervasive forces in the universe, which are in a constant state of balance or imbalance. Tao is the union of the forces. The all-encompassing nature of Ying and Yang are well expressed by Hua-Ching Ni:

There is no facet of life to which the activities of yin and    yang do not apply. Yin and yang express the polar aspects and  inter-relationships of everything that exists in the universe. Yin  and yang have no fixed, explicit definition, which makes the terms  virtually untranslatable. Rather, they represent two broad  categories of complements, which include the correspondences of  the negative and positive, destructive and creative, inert and  active, gross and subtle, actual and potential. (5)

Another basic Taoist principle is that of breath or Chi. Without breath there is no life. Breath sustains us; it brings oxygen, regulates the heart, feeds the brain, creates the red of the blood. The entire energy field of the body is dependent on the breath.  The body, the mind, and the spirit are all linked with the breath or Chi (Ming-Dao 351). And beyond that Chi or breath is the regulating element of the universe at large.  This spiritual sense of breath is likened to the water in the environment of a fish. It surrounds us; we are unmindful of it, but Chi is our energy environment that we exist in and that supports and shapes us (Ni 1).

Taoists have developed many systems to try to create a harmony of the Chi with the body, and harmony of the breath of the body with the Chi of the universe. The most renowned of these practices is T’ai Chi, which takes the laws of nature and interprets them into a physical experience. T’ai Chi is a series of physical movements, of gentle exercises that unite the body and the mind.  Breath is regulated to a sense of harmony with the body and eventually with the universe itself. Its attributes are acclaimed for wide-ranging physical and mental benefits. Balance and harmony are at the heart of T’ai Chi and also at the center of most other Taoist practices to bring the individual into balance with the Way.  Herbal medicine, acupuncture and acupressure are also Taoist methods of creating a harmony of the Yin and Yang and healing the Chi of the individual.

Meditation is yet another Taoist method of returning to the Way. Grounded in the Tao Te Ching’s call for nonaction, Taoist meditation calls for quiet sitting. The individual attempts to empty all thoughts, worries, cares — all knowledge is emptied and the individual becomes one with Tao. It has been likened to water pouring into water, a perfect union. The concept and value of emptiness is another recurring theme through Taoism and is closely allied with nonaction. Lao Tzu described its value as follows:

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,

But it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies.

Clay is molded to make a pot,

but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.

Cut out the doors and windows to make a room, but it is the spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.


Benefit may be derived from something,

but it is in nothing that we find usefulness. (Mair  I, 70)

And as Chuang Tzu put it in his usual boldness:

Do not be a corpse for fame,

Do not be a storehouse of schemes;

Do not be responsible for affairs,

Do not be a proprietor of knowledge.

Thoroughly embody unendingness and wander in nonbeginning. Thoroughly experience what you receive from heaven but do not  reveal what you attain. Just be empty, that’s all. The mind of the ultimate man functions like a mirror. It neither sends off nor  welcomes; it responds but does not retain. Therefore, he can  triumph over things without injury. (Mair II, 70-71)


Taoism is still very much alive in the contemporary world. It is an ever-present part of Chinese culture and with the new freedom granted religion in China, temples are being restored and opened throughout mainland China. Beyond China the influence of the writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are making an impact. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the U.S. counterculture embraced Eastern religions. Among these were Taoism and the form of Buddhism heavily influenced by Taoism, Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. Today there are Taoist masters teaching in the United States and writing for the general public. One such master and prolific writer is Hua-Ching Ni.  His writings fuse philosophical Taoism with elements of popular Taoism to create a fascinating and occasionally exotic view of Taoism. The following are some of his practical teachings:

Spiritual cultivation is composed of one’s daily activities, such as the way of speaking, the way of behaving, and all daily life movements. All of these are important elements of spiritual power development.  They are the most elementary spiritual ceremonies. They restore spontaneity and deny any kind of mental manipulation. A natural human being is directed by his spiritual energy and causes appropriate responses not by need, but by pure spontaneity. Without design, one practices the very nature of the universe and connects oneself with universal simplicity. By simplifying one’s activities, emotions, mind, and spirit, one becomes united with the very essence of the universe.  One conducts oneself exactly as a natural being. Then the universe responds not to one’s manipulative mind, but to his or her pure spirit. When a human knows and embodies goodness, he or she receives good and beautiful responses.  Through strict traditional spiritual training, one may become a completely developed human being. (113)


The following are ten rules Hua-Ching Ni gives to enhance the Spirit of Life:

1. Sincerely follow Tao, the path to eternal life. To turn    one’s back to the Subtle Origin is to face darkness and  degeneration of the soul.


2. Experience and cherish the pure happiness within your    own soul.  It is eternal and constant. The treasures of  the world are deceptive and fleeting, causing the  progressive erosion of one’s subtle, spiritual essence.


3. Be plain, simple, honest and practical when dealing    with the world. It is better to be naive than cunning.  Better to be fooled than suspicious.


4. Consider righteousness before profit. To gain profit    and lose virtue is no bargain.


5. Pay attention to the laws of the world. Behave with    conscience and maintain dignity. In this way you  protect the freedom for self-cultivation.


6. Plant yourself firmly in Tao. As the tide ebbs and    flows, so does the great transformation of the ten  thousand things sweep away all but the firmly rooted.


7. Become familiar with the law of cause and effect, and    deeply penetrate the truth of the universal law of  subtle energy response. To sow is to reap.  Energies of  the same frequency attract each other.  Therefore,  blind desires lead to blind alleys and righteousness  leads to eternality.


8. Share happiness with others. By extending ourselves to

others we enlarge our being. Selfless service is our

sacred vow.  Receiving by giving is the universal law

of supply.


9. Unite yourself with Heaven and Earth. Be unconcerned

with life and death. With clarity and self-awareness   developed through self-cultivation transform your  being, and thus end your bondage to the law of the  great transformation.


10. Clearly and completely discern the heart of the  unadorned teachings. Passed down through the  generations, they have come from our ancient Masters.  Our Way is the gathering of the greatest simple  truths. The well-spring of eternal life is the  infinite simplicity of Tao. (131-133)

And finally the following are the rewards to be reaped from following and finding the Way according to Hua-Ching Ni:

The mind is rectified and the body reflects its balance. Old physical maladies gradually and completely disappear. One is no longer tempted by former bad habits, nor does one chase after  worldly pleasures. One stands firmly on one’s own two feet. Deep  calm pervades one’s internal and external atmosphere. One has both  the time and energy to accomplish any task. One purifies oneself  and is at peace with one’s environment. One never becomes violent  and has untiring patience with one’s fellow beings. One is free  from worry and always has a joyful heart.

One is never jealous of another’s predominance, and never greedy for possessions prized by others. One has no ambition to live a vain or luxurious life.  Because one lives simply, one  maintains serenity. One keeps one’s physical desire subdued and  one’s virtues high. One develops true and deep self-knowledge,  dissolves all obstacles, and extends oneself to meet the straight  and eternal Way. Thus, one experiences uncritically that concepts  of life and death are merely the ebb and flow of the eternal  breath of Tao.

One dissolves one’s ego and with it all conflicts between the internal and the external. One does not seek one’s own longevity or personal happiness nor does one struggle to hold on to material  things. One does not hold the speakable as truth to suppress those  who are silent. One has no desire to go beyond one’s means or  ability. In one’s pure mind, one holds no illusions or strange  thinking. One nurtures a firm character through selfless giving  and self-oblivion. One never emphasizes that one’s actions are  right, nor does one claim credit for one’s undertakings. One knows things thoroughly from the beginning to end.  Virtuously, one knows there are certain things one will never do.  One avoids involvement in contests for worldly profits or glory.  One is amiable and useful. One embodies harmonious equilibrium and  creative appropriateness. One enjoys easiness both internally and  externally. One strives only to surpass one’s own virtues. One  obeys the universal spirit in order to evolve higher.  Before  touching the formed, one rests in the unformed. One enlightens  oneself and never tires of awakening the world. (141-142)

The rewards sound like the absolute perfection of the human condition: a truly utopian individual attainment created in an imperfect world. Another contemporary Taoist master who doesn’t write of quite such states of perfection, but more of everyday striving, is Deng Ming-Dao. He writes of ordinary Taoist concerns and updated Taoist classic concepts in his book, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations.  The following is a sampling of his wisdom:

Worry is a problem that seems to be rampant. Perhaps it is due to the nature of our overly advanced civilization; perhaps it is a measure of our own spiritual degeneracy. Whatever the source, it is clear that worry is not useful. It is a cancer of the emotions — concern gone compulsive. It eats away at the body and mind….  When ever you meet a problem, help if it is in your power to do so.  After you have acted, withdraw and be unconcerned about it. Walk on without ever mentioning it to anybody.  Then there is no worry, because there has been action.  (39)


Why not simply stay quiet? Enjoy Tao as you will. Let others think you are dumb. Inside yourself, you will know the joy of Tao’s mysteries. If you meet someone who can profit by your experience, you should share.  But if you are merely a wanderer in a crowd of strangers, it is wisdom to be silent. (56)


Of all the spiritual traditions, following Tao is among the least popular. Its adherents are poor and veiled with humility. In comparison, many traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, comfort, ecstasy, belonging, power, and wealth. Tao offers only three things; sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life, and liberation from the fear of death. (57)


There is no god in the sense of a cosmic father or mother who will provide all things to their children. Nor is there some heavenly bureaucracy to petition.  These models are not descriptions of a divine order, but are projections from archetypal templates. If we believe in the divine as cosmic family, we relegate ourselves to perpetual adolescence. If we regard the divine as supreme government, we are forever victims of unfathomable officialdom…. Faith should not be shaken because bad things happen to us or because our loved ones are killed. Good and bad fortune are not in the hands of gods, so it is useless to blame them.  Neither does faith need to be confirmed by some objective occurrence.  Faith is self- affirming.  If we maintain faith, then we have its reward. If we become better people, then faith has results.  It is we who create faith, and it is through our efforts that faith is validated.  (114)

What we do only has meaning in the here and now. It will not remain in the next instant. Just do what you can for the present, and leave everything else to happen naturally. Work. Wash. Meditate. Eat. Study. Urinate. Sleep. Exercise. Talk. Listen. Touch. Die each night.  Be born again each morning.  (151)

Those who follow Tao believe in using sixteen attributes on behalf of others: mercy, gentleness, patience, nonattachment, control, skill, joy, spiritual love, humility, reflection, restfulness, seriousness, effort, controlled emotion, magnanimity, and concentration. Whenever you need to help another, draw upon these qualities. Notice that self-sacrifice is not included in this list. You do not need to destroy yourself to help another. Your overall obligation is to complete your own journey along your personal Tao. As long as you can offer solace to others on your same path, you have done the best that you can. (188)

In this competitive world, it is best to be invisible.  Go through life without showing off, attracting attention to yourself, or making flamboyant gestures.  These will only attract the hostility of others. The wise will accomplish all that they want without arousing the envy or scorn of others. They make achievements only for the sake of fulfilling their inner yearnings.  (203)


When will we give up the artificiality of our tiresome lives and cleave instead to what is natural?  All the achievements of man are only monuments to overwhelming pride. There has not been a single man-made item that has been a necessary improvement to the earth….  Did we need mechanization, steam power, electricity, nuclear power, or computer technology? All our achievements have been for the sake of our exclusive comfort and gratification. We have only advanced the mad tangle of supply and demand that we call civilization….  We ignore the natural order of our own bodies and minds and close ourselves to the point that only sex and drugs are stimulating enough.  We lament that we are lost and alienated. (246)


The appreciation of life does not require wealth or plenty. It requires only gratitude for the beauty of the world. (266)


Commitment and discipline — these are two of the most precious words for those who would seek Tao.  (271)


All the philosophy of Tao is intended to lead to self- sufficiency.  Whatever one needs to do in life, one should be able to do it on one’s own. (321)

The only way to achieve actual purity is to realize your own essential oneness with all things. If you are one with everything, then even filth is pure. For this to happen, you must transcend all distinctions in yourself, resolve all contradictions. With this erasure, the mirror-bright soul and the dust are dissolved in a single purity.  (362)

In the modern world one might think that Taoism is too simple, too anarchistic, too minimal, too unstructured, or too empty to serve as a successful religious design to live by. In reality it probably seemed the same way in 600 B.C.E. when it was being formulated. And much of the appeal of the faith was probably also the same then as it is now: the stress on the individual and individual achievement, the moving back to simpler structures and concepts, the appeal and draw of natural order, and the belief in an innate goodness. If these attributes had an appeal to people at the dawn of civilization, if the weakness of large social structures was already so evident when human beings were just beginning to form nations, then one has to ask why this philosophy would not be popular today? This especially so when the ills that Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu so accurately pointed out over two thousand years ago are now at the point of threatening the entire ecosystem of the “Way.”

While it is undoubtedly too late to turn back the hands of time to a civilization of happy, ignorant, full-bellied villagers, it is not too late to heed the words of the sages of Taoism and try to bring our culture into some harmony with Tao, at least enough so as not to commit eventual omnicide. And beyond that, if you can go beyond that, there is great personal, individual wisdom to be gained in Taoism. It has the vision and proven systems to create a sense of harmony in our minds, bodies, and spirits. As the Taoists of the first millennium B.C.E. found — if the world would not listen, the individual can still create a union with Tao. They could then, and one can now.


Hartz, Paula R., Taoism: World Religions, New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Mair, Victor H., (translator) Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way by Lao Tzu, New York: Bantam Books, 1990. (referred to as Mair I)

Mair, Victor H., (translator) Wandering on the Way: Early Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, New York: Bantam Books, 1994. (referred to as Mair II)

Ming-Dao, Deng, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Ni, Hua-Ching, Tao: The Subtle Universal Law and the Integral Way of Life, Santa Monica, CA: Seven Stars Communications, Second Edition, 1979.

Yutang, Lin, The Wisdom of Laotse, New York: Random House, The Modern Library, 1948.

1994 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1


Confucian Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1994

All the religions of the East are relatively unknown to the general public of the West. A partial exception to this is Confucianism or, to be more specific, the religion’s founder, Confucius. But context of the Western exposure is such that it is of little enduring value. The fortune cookie of the Chinese restaurant may deal out a fragment of “Confucius says,” or in an old black and white movie a Euro-American actor made up to be Charlie Chan may use Confucius’ name in attempting to enlighten his slow-witted son. These commercialized impressions do very little to give any sense of one of the world’s most remarkably designed faiths.

To begin a rudimentary understanding of this belief system a brief portrait of the individual whose name, Confucius, has been taken for the identity of the religion is necessary. A common date given for his birth is 551 BCE, although like much other information about him, what is fact and what is part of the legend are impossible to differentiate. It has been said that his father, a soldier who married late, died when Confucius was only a few years old.  Confucius is said to have grown up poor, supporting himself and his family through various odd jobs, but to have developed a love of learning for the ancient Chinese classics that was to shape his entire life.  In his late teens it is said that he married and fathered two children, a boy and a girl. He began his life-long teaching career in his mid-twenties and lived out his life as a private person engaged in teaching the sons of the upper-class in the virtues proper to their position (Cleary 9-10).   Confucius occasionally served in  government positions but spent most of his time in direct teaching and traveling from state to state, vainly searching for a leader who would take his teachings to heart. At the age of seventy he returned to his home state of Lu where he died three years later (Cleary 11).

While he was greatly respected in his lifetime, the legend of the divine sage that grew in the centuries after his death is at direct odds with his own appraisal of himself. He once said that there was not a village of ten or more houses that could not produce men as loyal or dependable as he was.  He also spoke of his own weaknesses in his writings, insisting that his only claim to extraordinariness was his love of learning.  This humility was but one of the many virtues he taught in his philosophy that grew from the classics. He claims no originality. All that he taught, he says, was taught before him; he was simply passing it on.  For his guidance he looked to the Way of the Former Kings, what is called the Way of Goodness, ways that he claimed had long ago (yes, long before the fifth century BCE) been discarded for a way of violence and aggression. The ancient rulers he looked back to were kings such as Yao, Shun, and Yu, who were said to have lived two thousand years before his time and the more recent (only about five hundred years before his time) King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Chou.  The base of Confucius’ teachings is the legendary rule through goodness, with humanity forming a trinity with Heaven and Earth, and the perfection of the self in this system of goodness. Confucius believed that a harmony could be restored between people, and with Heaven and Earth, if people would return to living in the ways of the past. To bring people to this point he advocated education as the key. People must learn through the self-cultivation of their natural Heaven-given humanity.  A moral society living through the virtues of humanity, wisdom, righteousness, propriety, and faithfulness was Confucius’ vision of humankind again united with the source of Heaven.

Various books are attributed to Confucius but probably little, if any, can with certainty be said to have come from his hand. This is even true of his most famous book, The Analects. Analects means “selected sayings” and the book consists of short teachings and responses to students’ questions. While the written form of these sayings were probably formulated by later followers of Confucius, the ideas of Confucius are embodied in them (Waley 25). Much of the teaching in The Analects is designed to form his students into “chun- tzu.”  This term has been defined somewhat variously, by most translators who have dealt with Confucius, as the superior man, the Knight of the Way, the gentleman, or the perfect man. I prefer Tu Wei-Ming’s translation of “profound person.” The goal of chun-tzus is to find the Way of the Former Kings and through self-cultivation to bring themselves and, through their example, help bring those around them into harmony with Heaven and Earth.

The following are selected examples from The Analects, translated by Arthur Waley:

The Master said, `Clever talk and a pretentious manner’  are seldom found in the Good. (84)

The Master said, (the good man) does not grieve that  other people do not recognize his merits. His only  anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs. (87)

The Master said, If out of the three hundred Songs I had  to take one phrase to cover all my teachings, I would  say `Let there be no evil in your thoughts.’ (88)

The Master said, He who by reanimating the Old can gain  knowledge of the New is fit to be a teacher. (90)

The Master said, A gentleman is not an implement. (90)

Tzu-kung asked about the true gentlemen. The Master said, He does not preach what he practises till he has   practised what he preaches. (90)

The Master said, A gentlemen can see a question from all  sides without bias. The small man is biased and can see  a question only from one side. (91)

The Master said, Without Goodness a man cannot for long endure adversity and cannot for long enjoy prosperity. (102)

The Master said, A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover  what will pay. (105)


The Master said, A gentlemen covets the reputation of  being slow in word but prompt in deed. (106)

Chi Wen Tzu used to think thrice before acting. The  Master hearing of it said, Twice is quite enough. (112)

The Master said, Only one who bursts with eagerness do I  instruct; only one who bubbles with excitement, do I  enlighten.  If I hold up one corner and a man cannot  come back to me with the other three, I do not continue  the lesson.  (124)

The Master said, I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it. (127)

The master said, Just as lavishness leads easily to  presumption, so does frugality to meanness. But meanness  is a far less serious fault than presumption. (131)

The Master said, If a man has gifts as wonderful as  those of the Duke of Chou, yet is arrogant and mean, all  the rest is of no account. (135)

There were four things that the Master wholly eschewed:  he took nothing for granted, he was never over-positive,  never obstinate, never egotistic. (138)

Tzu-kung said, Suppose one had a lovely jewel, should one wrap it up, put it in a box and keep it, or try to get the best price one can for it? The Master said, Sell  it! Most certainly sell it!  I myself am one who is  waiting for an offer. (141)


The Master said, I have never yet seen

anyone whose  desire to build up his moral power was as strong as  sexual desire. (142)

Tzu-lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how  can you serve ghosts?  Tzu-lu then ventured upon a  question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know  about the living, how are you to know about the dead?  (155)

The Master said, To go too far is as bad as not to go far enough.  (156)

The Master said, The gentleman calls attention to the good points in others; he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of  this. (167)

The essence of the gentleman is that of the wind; the essence of small people is that of grass. And when the wind passes over the grass, it cannot choose but bend.



The Master said, Imperturbable, resolute, tree-like, slow to speak — such a one is near to Goodness. (178)

The Master said, The knight of the Way who thinks only of sitting quietly at home is not worthy to be called a  knight. (180)


The Master said, In old days men studied for the sake of  self-improvement; nowadays men study in order to impress  other people. (187)


The Master said, A gentleman is ashamed to let his words  outrun his deeds. (187)


The Master said, `The demands that a gentleman makes are  upon himself; those a small man makes are upon others.’  (197)

Tzu-lung asked saying, Is there any single saying that  one can act upon all day  and every day? The Master  said, Perhaps the saying about consideration: `Never do  to others what you would not like them to do to you.’  (198)

The Master said, Clever talk can confound the workings of moral force, just as small impatiences can confound

great projects.  (198)

The Master said, When everyone dislikes a man, inquiry is necessary; when everyone likes a man, inquiry is  necessary. (198)

The Master said, From a gentleman consistency is  expected, but not blind fidelity. (200)

The Master said, It is only the very wisest and very stupidest who cannot change. (209)

After Confucius’ death his many students managed to keep his teachings alive through the Warring States period and the severe persecution of the Ch’in Dynasty. Then, toward the end of the second century BCE, the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the official creed of the empire and the tremendous influence of Confucian thinking on Chinese history began in earnest. The Confucian philosophy adopted by the Han officials was primarily based on the Confucian teacher Hsun Tzu, who was born in the early fourth century BCE. Very little is known of his life other than that he was respected during his time and spent his life in rather quiet teaching and study. However, as was true for Confucius, he was basically ignored by the political leaders of day (Watson 2-3).

Many of Hsun Tzu’s teachings are based directly on Confucius but illuminate the concepts with a slightly different light:

Select men who are worthy and good for government  office, promote those who are kind and respectful,  encourage filial piety and brotherly affection, look  after orphans and widows and assist the poor, and then  the common people will feel safe and at ease with their  government.  And once the common people feel safe, then  the gentleman may occupy his post in safety. This is  what the old text means when it says, “The ruler is the  boat and the common people are the water. It is the  water that bears the boat up, and the water that  capsizes it.” (Watson 37)


Much of Hsun Tzu’s teaching had a stony practicality to it and encouraged people to face reality with a sense of conviction as shown in the following passage:

You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway. The sun and moon undergo  an eclipse and you try to save them; a drought occurs  and you pray for rain; you consult the arts of  divination before making a decision on some important  matter. But it is not as though you could hope to  accomplish anything by such ceremonies. They are done  purely for ornament.  Hence the gentleman regards them  as ornaments, but the common people regard them as  supernatural. He who considers them ornaments is  fortunate; he who considers them supernatural is  unfortunate. (Watson 85)

While Hsun Tzu had disdain for the supernatural, he, (as did Confucius) saw both the need and the value of traditional rituals:

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born  with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him,  he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself.  If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then  he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men.  From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes  exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and  therefore they established ritual principles in order to  curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their  satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not  overextend the means for their satisfaction, and  material goods did not fall short of what was desired.  Thus both desires and goods were looked after and  satisfied. This is the origin of rites.  (Watson 89)

And later:

Rites have three bases. Heaven and earth are the basis  of life, the ancestors are the basis of the family, and  rulers and teachers are the basis of order…. The king  honors the founder of his family as an equal of Heaven,  the feudal lords would not dare to dismantle the  mortuary temples of their ancestors, and the high  ministers and officials maintain constant family  sacrifices. In this way they distinguish and pay honor  to the beginners of their family.  To honor the  beginning is the basis of virtue.  (Watson 91)

Much of Hsun Tzu’s teachings have a critical edge to them that encourages a careful and wholistic approach to action with the overriding Confucian concern of moderation:

These are the signs of a disordered age: men wear bright  colored clothing, their manner is feminine, their  customs are lascivious, their minds are set on profit,  their conduct is erratic, their music is depraved, and  their decorative arts are vile and garish.  In  satisfying the desires of the living they observe no  limits, but in burying the dead they are mean and  niggardly. They despise ritual principles and value  daring and shows of strength. If they are poor, they  steal, and if they are rich, they commit outrages.  A  well-ordered age is just the opposite of this. (Watson  120)

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of the truth and fail  to comprehend its over-all principles. (Watson 121)

The sage understands the dangers involved in improper use of the mind, and sees the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind. Therefore, he does allow himself to be influenced by considerations of desire or hate, beginning or end, distance or nearness, breadth or  shallowness, past or present, but searches and examines  all things and weighs them impartially in a balance. As  a result, the distinctions which exist in all things  cannot inflict obsession upon him and bring disorder to  his reason.  (Watson 126)

When men acquire something, they never get only what they desire and nothing more; when men reject something,  they never rid themselves only of what they hate and  nothing more. Therefore, when men act, it must be on the  basis of some scale and standard. (Watson 153)

An old text says, “If you do not know a man, look at his  friends, if you do not know a ruler, look at his  attendants.” Environment is the important thing!  Environment is the important thing!  (Watson 171)

Hsun Tzu solidified Confucius’ concept of the chun tzu as the ideal public servant and created the basis of the Chinese civil service that was to be based on testing the applicants’ knowledge of Confucian classics:

As a basis for action, diversity is impractical. Hence the wise man selects one thing and unifies his actions about it. The farmer is well versed in the work of the fields, but he cannot become a director of agriculture.  The merchant is well versed in the ways of the market,  but he cannot become a director of commerce. The artisan  is well versed in the process of manufacture, but he  cannot become a director of crafts. Yet there are men  who, though they possess none of these three skills, are  still able to fill the offices that direct them. This is  not because they are well versed in the facts, but  because they are well versed in the Way.  He who is well  versed in the facts alone treat each fact as a fact and  no more. He who is well versed in the Way will unify his  treatment of the facts. Hence the gentleman finds a  basis for unity in the Way and on this basis examines  and compares the facts.  Since he has the unity of the  Way as his basis, his approach will be correct; and  since he examines and compares the facts, his perception  will be clear. With thinking that is based upon the  correct approach and action that is based upon clear  perception, he is able to control all things. (Watson  130)

The most famous or infamous of all Hsun Tzu’s teachings was his break from Confucius in promoting the concept that basic human nature is evil:

Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of  conscious activity.  The nature of man is such that he  is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this  fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife,  and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.  He is born with feelings of hate and envy, and if he  indulges these, they will lead him into violence and  crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will  disappear.  Man is born with the desires of the eyes and  ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds.  If he indulges these, they will lead him into license  and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct  forms will be lost. Hence, any man who follows his  nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become  involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms  and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.  Therefore, man must first be transformed by the  instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual  principles, and only then will he be able to observe the  dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the rules and  forms of society, and achieve order. It is obvious from  this, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his  goodness is the result of conscious activity.  A warped  piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against  the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape  before it can become straight…. (Watson 157)


While this outlook may be partially understood by the bleak warring period he lived in, this dark appraisal by Hsun Tzu was to have ramifications that he certainly did not foresee.  After his death his two most famous students took very different paths, both moving drastically to the right. Han Fei Tzu perfected the Legalist school of thought extolling harsh control of the people and aggressive warfare. Another student of Hsun Tzu was Li Ssu, who became an advisor to the brutal First Emperor of the Ch’in Dynasty and aided in a fierce repression of Confucianism.  Fortunately, the Han Dynasty revival of Hsun Tzu’s teaching went back to his more orthodox thought.

The second great follower of Confucius to have a major impact, and many would say more lasting impact than Hsun Tzu, was Mencius, 372 -289 BCE While there were similarities in the two philosophers’ approach to the teachings of Confucius, there was a principal difference.  Mencius held the position that basic human nature was good:


‘As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man  is capable of becoming good,’ said Mencius. `That is  what I mean by good. As for his becoming bad, that is  not the fault of his native endowment. The heart of  compassion is possessed by all men alike; likewise the  heart of shame, the heart of respect, and  benevolence … the heart of right and wrong….  Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites, and  wisdom are not welded to me from the outside; they are  in me originally…. The Book of Odes says, Heaven produces the teeming masses, and where there is a thing there is a norm. If the people are held to their constant nature, They would be drawn to superior virtue.’ (Lau 163)


While he held firmly to the position that people’s basic nature was good, Mencius saw clearly that most people had strayed from that goodness as shown in this ecological analogy from the third century BCE:


Mencius said, `There was a time when the trees were  luxuriant on the Ox Mountain. As it is on the outskirts  of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly lopped  by axes. Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?  With the respite they get in the day and in the night,  and the moistening by the rain and dew, there is  certainly no lack of no shoots coming out, but then the  cattle and sheep come to graze upon the mountain. That  is why it is as bald as it is. People, seeing only its  baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees.  But can this possibly be the true nature of a mountain?  Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral  inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is  like the case of the trees and axes. When the trees are  lopped off day after day, is it any wonder that they are  no longer fine?’ (Lau 164-5)


Mencius goes on to explain that after constant lopping of his true heart, man can become so much more like an animal that some people believe man was always an animal. Mencius taught that to follow the teachings of Confucius, the Ways of the Former Kings, human beings can find their way back to that true heart of innate goodness that Heaven has created in us.

Much of Mencius’ teachings reflect the basic virtues taught by Confucius but many times a gentleness is reflected that contrasts not only with Hsun Tzu but also with Confucius himself:

The attitude of a gentleman towards animals is this: once having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them  die, and once having heard their cry, he cannot bear to  eat their flesh. That is why the gentleman keeps his  distance from the kitchen. (Lau 55)

Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a  lack of constant means of support. The people, on the  other hand, will not have constant hearts if they are  without constant means. Lacking constant hearts, they  will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at  nothing. To punish them after they have fallen foul of  the law is to set a trap for the people. How can a  benevolent man in authority allow himself to set a trap  for the people?  Hence in determining what means of  support the people should have, a clear-sighted ruler  ensures that these are sufficient, on the one hand, for  the care of parents, and on the other hand, for the  support of wife and children, so that the people always  have sufficient food in good years and escape starvation  in bad; only then does he drive them towards goodness;  in this way the people find it easy to follow him. (Lau  58)


The people will delight in the joy of him who delights in their joy, and will worry over the troubles of him who worries over their troubles. He who delights and worries on account of the Empire is certain to become a  true King. (Lau 63)


Mencius said, `If others do not respond to your love with love, look into your own benevolence; if others fail to respond to your attempts to govern them with order, look into your own wisdom; if others do not  return your courtesy, look into your own respect. In  other words, look into yourself whenever you fail to  achieve your purpose.’ (Lau 119)


Mencius said, `Benevolence overcomes cruelty just as water overcomes fire. Those who practice benevolence today are comparable to someone trying to put out a  carload of burning firewood with a cupful of water. When  the fire fails to be extinguished, they say water cannot  overcome fire.’ (Lau 169)


Mencius went so far with his compassionate approach to Confucianism as to say that it is necessary sometime to break rules when they do not make sense for the situation:

Ch’un-yu K’un said `Is it prescribed by the rites    that, in giving and receiving, man and woman should not  touch each other?’

`It is,’ said Mencius.

`When one’s sister-in-law is drowning, does one  stretch out a hand to help her?’

`Not to help a sister-in-law who is drowning is to be a brute. It is prescribed by the rites that, in giving and receiving, man and woman should not touch each  another, but in stretching out a helping hand to the  drowning sister-in-law one uses one’s discretion.’ (Lau  124)

In the centuries following the Han Dynasty’s official adoption of the Confucian creed, the application of the faith underwent many transformations depending on the conditions and the rule of the time. This included occasional strong influence by Taoist and Buddhist doctrines that were periodically prevalent. Confucianism was shifted to focus primarily on the problems of social institutions rather than on the discipline and reevaluation of the self as Confucius had taught. In the eleventh century two brothers Ch’eng I and Ch’eng Hao began a revival of what they saw as a more orthodox approach to the teaching of Confucius. This approach grew to be called Neo-Confucianism.  Ch’eng I in particular promoted return to the education and development of the self as the primary goal of the creed. He also attempted to lessen the emphasis on divination, especially related to the Book of Changes, where the relations between Heaven and Earth were given linear symbolic form and used to divine human matters.  Ch’eng I did not believe in the supernatural and shifted the attention on the Book of Changes to its philosophical content (Wing-tsit 53).

Following the Ch’eng brothers was the greatest of the Neo-Confucian reformers, Chu Hsi, 1130-1200. He also called for the return to the fundamental teaching of Confucius, but he was also a very astute man of his times. Chu Hsi saw the need to make more obvious the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of Confucianism in a time when Buddhism and Taoism also were competing for attention. His teachings did a great deal to develop a clearer Confucian sense of Heaven and what he called the Great Ultimate. A problem many Western readers of Confucius have is finding the sense of religion in what appears to be primarily moral philosophy. Chu Hsi, building on Confucius and Mencius creates the conditions for a deep sense of spirituality to develop in Neo-Confucianism. Chu Hsi drew greatly on Mencius, using his gentler approach to Confucianism and the adherence to the premise that the nature of human beings was inherently good. Chu Hsi set as the basis of Confucian scripture the Four Books: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and Mencius. The Doctrine of the Mean’s impact on Confucianism has been as great as The Analects. For two thousand years before Chu Hsi it functioned as one chapter in one of the Chinese Classics.  In traditional China the Confucian student started his study of The Doctrine of the Mean at the age of eight with the complete memorization of the text. After this submersion in the book the student then begins what can be a life-long undertaking of realizing its inner logic through personal experience and study.  The richness of the short text has given stimulation for many great minds to amplify the basics of Neo- Confucianism. One of the most profound commentaries has been given by the twentieth century Harvard scholar, Tu Wei-Ming.

Chung-yung, commonly called The Doctrine of the Mean, is translated by Tu Wei-Ming as Centrality and Commonality. These are the two main themes of the text. The primary thesis of the book is that “to cultivate centrality and harmony with thoroughness is the way to bring heaven and earth together” ( Tu 8). This cultivation process is the way of Confucianism, the Way of the Former Kings. Heaven is rooted in each person. Human nature is imparted by Heaven and is of Heaven and therefore it is ultimate goodness. But to find both this Way of Heaven and goodness, a person must go through process of self-realization (Tu 9). This process returns to Confucius’ concept of the chun tzu, interpreted by Tu Wei-Ming as the “profound person.” The course of learning to become a chun-tzu is the path to the true Heaven-created self within you. Everyone has the capacity for this realization and perfection, regardless of innate intelligence, talent, and abilities.  While the search is to find the Heaven-endowed nature of each person, the search for the Way is one of everyday living, of the ordinary, not the extraordinary.  While everyone has the capabilities, the fact is that few accomplish the task or even tread very far on the path of the Way.  Confucius explains the problem as follows:

I know why the Way is not pursued. The intelligent go beyond it and the unintelligent do no come up to it. I know why the Way is not understood. The worthy go beyond it and the unworthy do no come up to it. There is not one who does not eat and drink, but there are few who can really know the flavor. (Tu 29)

In Confucianism the path of self-realization is not that of the solitary life or meditative hermit, but rather that of social activity.  The profound person maintains contact with the people and can be a source of inspiration to them.  It is not a dogmatic path or a proselytizing position. People on the path have no compulsion to project their views onto others; their duty is to rectify themselves.

The Chung-yung extols one of the primary social duties as that of filial piety, commonly rendered as “reverence for parents.” This system of family obligations has been criticized as the groundwork for the autocratic political system of feudal China, but that was not its original intention in Confucian tradition (Tu 41).  The father- son relationship is one of the strictest in the culture, with the son’s ability to fulfill his family obligations regarded as a proving ground for trust in other aspects of life. Filial piety is also seen as a symbolic system of respect and acknowledgment of dependence. Through the honoring of our parents and ancestors we also honor our cosmic father and mother, Heaven and Earth. The ideal realization of filial piety is a natural response to the loving care of the parents. It is an inevitable outcome of human sensitivity. Brothers and sisters are treated as welcome gifts, enriching our lives by sharing our joys and sorrows. In Confucian families siblings are often referred to as “hands and feet,” symbolizing the closeness of the relationship (Tu 111). The husband and wife relationship has a special status as the origination point of the family and also an aura of mystery. The yin-yang model is often used to illustrate the complementary and conflicting aspect of the relationship. Social responsibility is more often at the core of the pairing rather than romantic love. A division of labor structures the relationship, with the mother supervising the allocation of finances and education and discipline of the children, while the father has unquestioned authority in the public world (Tu 113). The family is seen as the heart of Confucian tradition. The family functions as a unit and not as separate egos. The family forms the true roots of the Confucian society. The community, the state, and even peace are branches that grow from this stable, structured and caring base. What goes on in the confines of private homes has deep religious and social ramifications.

In traditional Confucian culture, rites and rituals are seen as an extension of this famial groundwork. As explained by Tu Wei-Ming:

The historical and sociological reasons behind the formation of these ceremonial acts have been lost forever, but each ritual, no matter how trifling it appears to us today, symbolized a sacrificial tradition with generations of devoted observance. To sons who were filial in Chung-yung’s sense, repairing their ancestral temples, for example, must have been a solemn occasion, observed year after year without any conscious deviation from the prescribed methods.  Similarly the display of the ancestral vessels and the exhibition of ancestral robes must have been performed with the utmost seriousness as manifestations of their commitment to ancestral worship…. For a traditional Confucian, ancestral worship by filial sons may be taken as a microcosm of an ideal society. Ceremonial acts in this connection symbolize desirable behavioral patterns. To respect the old and to honor the dead is to show special concern for the origin of all. The old are respected not only for their past service but also for the continual value of their wise guidance.  The dead are honored because a loving memory of the forefathers brings forth communal identity and social solidarity. Society so conceived is not an adversary system consisting of pressure groups but a fiduciary community based on mutual trust.  Only in this sense was Confucius able to make the claim that if the ruler can administer his state with rites, we will no longer have any difficulty. (47-8)

In the Chung-yung the concept of humanity is considered to be the ultimate virtue. It is through humanity that human beings can reach their most genuine state. It is through humanity that people have the capacity to embody love in their daily conduct. Along with humanity and as manifestations of humanity, the other Confucian virtues are wisdom, courage, righteousness, propriety, and faithfulness. To maintain a path of humanity the Chung-yung recommends the following: “avoid slanders, keep away from seductive beauties, regard wealth lightly, and honor virtue” (Tu 62).  In following the Confucian path these are more than social norms; morality in this context transcends social ethics and has as its ultimate goal the unification of Heaven and the human being. People are not “created” by a higher order; they are a part of that higher order themselves; they are identical with Heaven, but finding that identity takes a road of arduous self-cultivation.  It is a creative process which has as its goal a unification with the cosmos. To become fully human in the Confucian faith a relationship must be established with Heaven, a relationship of self-effort with the goal of self-transcendence. Finding the true self in Confucianism means losing the private ego. The true self forms a community with humanity and with Heaven. Tu Wei-Ming explains the relationship in this way:

As the Confucians argue, it is more difficult to imagine ourselves as isolable individuals than as centers of relationships constantly interacting with one another in dynamic networks of human-relatedness. Similarly, it is more difficult to believe in an omnipotent God who violates the rules of nature for mysterious reasons than in enduring cosmic patterns discoverable by human rationality. I do not mean to challenge the doctrine of individualism which has inspired generation after generation to search for autonomy, independence and dignity, or the concept of an all-mighty God which continues to be informed by sophisticated theological argumentation. I simply want to note that, despite its apparent naiveté, that concept of the organismic unity is predicated on an inclusive humanist vision. The Confucian way of being religious is a means of understanding that vision. (95)

The idea of a religion without a theistic God is difficult for some people to grasp. Confucianism sees no need for such a deity. The Confucian sense of Heaven as “enduring cosmic patterns discoverable by human rationality” is a sense of the transcendent that fulfills an intellectual understanding of a person’s relationship with the universe, a relationship that is not founded on creator/created, worshipped/worshipper, ruler/ruled, or lawgiver/obeyer systems. Instead a design is set in which humanity is an integral part of the cosmic forces and the goal is to find one’s true relationship with what one already is.

Confucianism has, as have all great religions, been abused and manipulated to fit the desires of those in power. It is often blamed for the feudal system of domination that spanned most of China’s history. While it is certain that distortions of the Confucian filial piety systems were developed as tools of repression, the basis of the filial system of respect and obligation had and still has much merit. The popularization of Confucianism and its competition with other religions in China led to the establishment of Confucian temples and systems of Confucian holidays, rites, and even “priests.” While some people do see this as a kind of deification of Confucius, most see it as a way to systemize the religion. The rites and temples are seen as ways to focus on perfecting one’s own moral and spiritual nature — a goal that is at the very core of the faith (Taylor 30).

With the great transformations that have been sweeping China and all Asia through the twentieth century there is now some talk of the advent of the “Third Epoch of Confucianism,” a new transforming of the faith to fit the modern world and technological changes.  It may well be that such an evolution will take place, but as I look at Confucianism from my own small part of the world and personal perspective, I question whether there is a need to change the faith to fit the times or technology. I see much in the traditional ways of family loyalty, moral guidance, and spiritual wisdom that could be relearned for immediate contemporary application.


Cleary, Thomas, trans., The Essential Confucius, San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

Lau, D. C., trans., Mencius, London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Tayor, Rodney L., The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism, Albany: State University Press of New York Press, 1990.

Tu Wei-Ming, Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Waley, Arthur, trans., Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

Watson, Burton, trans., Hsun Tzu: Basic Writings, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Wing-tsit Chan, editor, Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

1994 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at Amazon.com

baws cover 1