2.1.2 - Classical Religions

By: Wilson Wong and Hrishi Kulkarni

Basic Gist

At the beginning of the classical era in world history, religions and cultural traditions developed and spread throughout all of the world's major empires. Amongst these religions and cultural traditions were: Daoism, Confucianism, Greco-Roman Philosophy, Buddhism, and Christianity. Rome, Han China, Gupta/Maurya India, and the Persian Empire all adopted separate religious practices that often competed with one another. Some of the main religions and philosophies were: Daoism, Confucianism, Greco-Roman Philosophy, Buddhism, and Christianity. Though these traditions developed individually and independently, there are a number of commonalities that exist between them. For instance, the founder of each religion is usually depicted as a humane member of the elite, who enters a state of contemplation and eventually emerges to spread his moral teachings to the world. Whether this is a result of similar socioeconomic conditions across the world or some other factor is unsure, but the remarkable similarity between the stories of Jesus and Buddha have created speculation that the two were in fact the same person. In essence, all of the classical religions are similar in that they teach the importance of proper morals and virtue in the human existence.



Basic Beliefs

This religious tradition was founded by the Chinese philosopher Laozi in 500 BCE. It encourages practitioners to cast aside civilized society and become one with nature, shunning Confucianism's preaching of human relationships and higher education. The religious text Daodejing states that it is unnecessary and counterproductive to have ambition, because doing so would be resisting the Dao or "the Way". From a Daoist perspective, simply relaxing and allowing nature to take its course will produce the optimum for everyone, every time. Attempting to disrupt the Dao, even by attaining knowledge or working hard, will ultimately harm someone. Moreover, though it is referenced innumerable times, the Dao () is never explicitly defined in Daoist practice; it is merely alluded to as the will of the Universe, a nameless and eternal principle that governs all life.


Daoism emerged during a time of disunity in China called the Warring States Period. As competing kingdoms waged war with each other in a relentless cycle of chaos, disorder and turmoil, thinkers began to theorize how a unified Chinese state could be created. From this turbulent environment emerged Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. Daoism was equally well accepted by both the elite and the poor. A government official or scholar could follow Confucian principles during the day fulfilling his duties to society and state, then return home at night and practice Daoist meditation and create landscape paintings depicting the ephemeral human existence next to a natural mountain and water landscape. The religion also provided a bonding force for peasants to condemn governments that were imposing strict orders on them.


The Chinese lower and upper classes alike adopted this religion quickly because of its broadly moralistic appeal. Daoism's yielding nature allowed it to blend with other religions, and this is also why it was readily assimilated into both Korean and Japanese cultures once it spread outward.

Yin (darkness) and Yang (light) demonstrate the balance of opposites that is detailed in Daoism.



Along with Daoism, Confucianism developed in the Chinese Warring States Period, around 500 BCE. This philosophy is based on the teachings of Confucius, a sage who lived from 551 BCE - 479 BCE. Its emergence came largely as a search for peace in the chaotic and turbulent environment of political disunity that characterized this period. Though Confucius lived around 500 BCE, his teachings did no become prominent until after he died because he never wrote down his ideas. Instead, it was Confucius' students who compiled his teachings into the Analects and truly integrated his philosophy into the Chinese civilization.

Basic Beliefs

While Daoism’s focus is on the harmony between man and nature, Confucianism emphasizes the relationships between man and man. The Master detailed five basic relationships: ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and older friend and younger friend. In all of these, the former is expected to act with benevolence and compassion towards others. Consequently, the latter must always yield to and obey his or her superior.

Confucius promoted the family as the basic unit in society because it is a model of the state. The rulers, or parents, are kind and provide for the material well being of their subjects, or children. In return, the children practice filial piety, a ritual of respect for one’s ancestors and elders. In the eyes of Confucius, since all humans are naturally virtuous, the reciprocal generosity between superior and inferior will always be present, leading to a unified and peaceful state.


This way of life was initially oppressed by Shi Huangdi, but after he and his Legalist followers were toppled, Confucianism was adopted by the more benevolent Han emperors. Confucianism was actually helped by this competition because after being clamped down upon for two decades, citizens were furious with the government and wanted more justice from the rulers. Naturally, Confucianism presented itself as the antithesis of the despised Legalism, and therefore enjoyed a boost in popularity that would not have occurred had it not been initially subdued.

Confucius believed in virtue, benevolence, and piety as the basis of a strong society.

Greco-Roman Philosophy


The emergence of Greco-Roman philosophy cannot be completely attributed to one particular person or group, however, many philosophers and scientists helped develop and explore the rational thinking process behind it.

Basic Beliefs

The Greek philosophers sought to explain the world using rational ideas rather than supernatural phenomena such as gods. This led to many advancements in science and mathematics, as shown by the work of Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, and other scientists whose ideas form the basis of our modern technologies. However, rational thinking was not limited to the physical and mathematical sciences. Herodotus, a Greek historian, attempted to find an aspect of human nature that explained why the Greco-Persian wars occurred.


While Greco-Roman philosophy was not the only cultural tradition in its region. Its ideas spread into what would become known as Western civilization. The idea that human reasoning could explain the vast cosmos in place of an almighty being was an interesting idea, which helped develop Christian theology, find new scientific innovations, and form the basis for future European philosophy.



Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince . According to Buddhist scriptures, Gautama left his lavish and sheltered life at the palace at age 29. He began to journey outside of the palace and encountered things such as old age, sickness and death. Gautama spent six years on his journey, which eventually led to his enlightenment after he meditated for 49 days under a Bodhi Tree. After attaining enlightenment, Gautama shared his new found knowledge with a small following, which referred to him as the Buddha (which means “Enlightened One”) .
(above) Buddha achieving Enlightenment after sitting under the Bodhi tree, despite all the distractions around him.

Basic Beliefs

The Middle Way
Before attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha saw a variety of people who lived in different extremes. This led to his teaching of the Middle Way, which is the practice of living life in moderation. This life of moderation means not becoming overly self-indulgent or overly self-punishing for one’s wrongdoings.

Karma essentially dictates that for every good action a person makes, something good will happen to them as a consequence of that action, either during their life or after rebirth. This idea also applies to bad actions. For every bad action a person makes, something bad will happen to them as a consequence of that action, either during their life or after rebirth. According to the Eight Fold Path, one must build up a positive karma and refrain from committing any bad actions in order to attain Enlightenment.

Nirvana, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain Enlightenment (or nirvana) and get out of the endless c

ycle of rebirth and stop the suffering of life. According to the Tripitaka scriptures (the primary scriptures of Buddhism) the Buddha’s first teachings were the Four Noble Truths, which explained the cause of suffering. These truths are:

1. Life leads to suffering

(above) An illustration of the Eightfold Path.

2. Suffering is a result of cravings for individual fulfillment

3. The suffering stops after the cravings stop; this is done by reaching Enlightenment.

4. A person can attain Enlightenment by following the Eight Fold Path.

The Eight Fold Path essentially says that in order to attain Enlightenment a person must accept reality, act morally, and becom

e mentally disciplined (through proper meditation). By doing all these things, one may achieve nirvana .


The Beginnings in India
The spread of Buddhism within Indian society was mainly due to its accessibility. It rejected the religious authority of the Brahmins and allowed anyone to attain enlightenment. This rejection of the caste system had a large appeal to lower society members of the system. Additionally, the Buddha eventually allowed women to enter into their own monasteries as nuns, which increased Buddhism’s appeal to women. However, Buddhism’s growing popularity led to big differences in ideology.

Formation of Sects
The older sect is known as the Theravada. This sect views the Buddha as a teacher, but not as a god. It was also more psychological than religious, as gods played relatively minor roles in the road to enlightenment.
However, in the Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) form of Buddhism, Buddha was viewed as a god and salvation was now attainable through acts of devotion, such as donating to monastery. Additionally, in this form of Buddhism people who attained salvation would sometimes stay and help others in their quest for nirvana.

Spread into Other Regions
Buddhism began to grow and spread outside of India, primarily in its Mahayana form. The Silk Road trade helped to accelerate this process. Mahayana Buddhism was adopted in South and Central Asia, however its influence in Persia was stopped by Zoroastrianism. However, its numbers began to dwindle in India. Hinduism began to become broader and incorporated many Buddhist beliefs, even adopting the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. Additionally, a growing gap emerged as monasteries began to amass greater wealth. In combination with competition from Islam, these factors were major reasons for its decline in the land of its birth, despite growing in popularity in Central and East Asia.



Jesus of Nazareth was a young Jew from the province of Judea in the Roman Empire. Jesus changed professions however, and became a teacher and miracle-worker. This profession was short lived, as the Roman authorities executed him, believing him to be a threat to the state. His teachings went on to be spread by the Twelve Apostles and became Christianity.

Basic Beliefs

It is very difficult to generalize basic Christian beliefs due to the many varying interpretations by different denominations. Christianity is monotheistic. According to Christian scriptures, by accepting the Christian God one can attain salvation. This salvation grants a person access to Heaven. However, those who sin and those who are non-Christian will burn in Hell. God is viewed as an omnipotent being in Christianity; Jesus is believed to be the son of God and the messiah foretold of by the Old Testament (or the Jewish Bible). Many denominations also believe that Jesus will return on Judgment Day, when all souls will be judged by God .


Initially, Christianity began as a small sect of Judaism. However, as it began to grow in size, it separated itself from Judaism. The Twelve Apostles delivered Jesus’ message around the world. Missionaries such as Saint Paul also helped to spread Christianity. Much like Buddhism, Christianity believed that a person from any strata may attain salvation, which made it extremely popular with lower-stratum people. The stories of miracles which surrounded Christianity helped to impress possible converts.
(above) An artist's rendition of Jesus.
Christianity’s strong monotheistic ideology offended the polytheistic Romans; however, it slowly grew in popularity. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, which helped give it imperial recognition. Emperor Theodosius began the transition into Rome’s conversion into a Christian state by banning all polytheistic ritual sacrifices and closing their temples. This imperial recognition helped turn Rome into a Christian state.

Other Regions
This slow conversion into a Christian state later helped expand Christianity all over Europe and elsewhere in the w
orld. As the religion spread and became more popular a hierarchical structure emerged. The bishop of Rome emerged as the pope of the Church, and wielded significant power as the spiritual leader of Christianity. However, different practitioners began to develop different ideologies and the Church began to split into different sects. Eventually, the differing interpretations of the religion led to the formation of modern Christian sects.


Many of these religions (or ideologies in the case of Greco-Roman philosophy) had a profound impact in the development of the areas which they influenced. A plethora of artwork was dedicated to depicting stories based on religious scriptures or ideas, such as Heaven and Hell. While religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism practiced nonviolence, others such as Legalism promoted warfare as a safety from internal corruption. Many armies would pray to their respective Gods, or God, for triumph in battle, such as the Jews. While ideologies such as Greco-Roman philosophy did not get into particular arguments with science, other religions, such as Christianity continually clashed with science producing competing views on how the world worked. Greco-Roman philosophy looked to science to explain the phenomena of the universe, pushing intellectual ideas even further. Religions also played a major role in the economic life of societies. For example, many viewed Christianity as a materialistic religion, whereas Buddhists sought to refrain from self-indulgence. Such differing ideologies changed the economic views of their respective followers. However, the biggest impact of these religions can most clearly be seen in the social and political realms of society. Politically these religions were used to gain greater status. When Nero supposedly burned half of Rome to the ground, he used Christians as the political scapegoat for his actions. However, eventually, Rome’s imperial recognition of Christianity greatly impacted its popularity in the region. Additionally, religious leaders, such as the Pope, had massive political power because of Christianity’s large following. Socially, religions acted as a type of social control mechanism. They provided a moral backbone for societies. They all encouraged their followers to do moral things and refrain from immoral actions. Overall, a society’s religion became a huge part of its culture and its values.

Works Cited:


[1]: Ways of The World by Robert W. Strayer: pgs.189-213 and 333-351
[2]: Conze (1959), pp39-40 (Buddhism)
[3]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/ (Buddhism)
[4]: http://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm (Four Noble Truths, Karma, Eight Fold Path)
[5]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/ (Christianity)
[6] Ketcham, Jonathan. "Confucianism." Faithresource.com- Your Online Resource for Information on Faith. Center For Youth. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <http://faithresource.org/showcase/Confucianism/confucianismoverview.htm>.


[7]: ashwath0608.wordpress.com (Buddha Meditating)
[8]: buddhismspirits.blogspot.com (Monks praying)
[9]: nvcc.edu (Eightfold Path)
[10]: Phillips Atlas of World History (Spread of Buddhism)
[11]: rationalrevolution.net (Paul's Missionary Journeys)
[12]: sharpiron.wordpress.com (Jesus)
[13]: www.glogster.com/media/2/5/35/30/5353081.jpg (Yin Yang)
[14]: www.tuvy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/confucius.jpg (Confucius)