Monthly Archives: March 2013

Sikhism: living the good life through service and charity

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Although you may not know much about Sikhs, this religious group was wrongly targeted by many Americans after the September 11th terrorist attack because of their use of turbans. The most recent attack on this group occurred last August when six Sikhs were killed in a Wisconsin shooting.

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Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in the Punjab region which is now India and Pakistan at a time when Hinduism and Islam were the dominant religions. Early Sikhs were persecuted for their beliefs, but today Sikhism is practiced by 30 million people worldwide and it is the fifth most popular organized religion. Most Sikhs live in India or England, but there are more than 700,000 practicing Sikhs in the United States.

Punjab_map.svgNine other gurus followed Guru Nanak who further shaped Sikhism into what it is today. The fifth guru, Guru Arjan, made Amritsar the capital of the Sikh world and assembled the first Sikh scripture called the Adi Granth. Guru Arjan was seen as a threat by the state and was executed for his beliefs in 1606. The sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, militarized the Sikh followers so that they would be prepared to resist oppression. Sikhs have fought many battles in order to preserve their faith. The tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, made the military structure more apparent by forming the Khalsa, a military group of men and women in 1699. The purpose of the Khalsa is to defend the faith. Guru Gobind Singh also created Sikh baptism and the 5 Ks which is are the characteristics that make up the Sikh appearance. This was the last guru. The Sikhs now treat their scripture as gurus and now called the scripture Guru Granth Sahib.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that stresses good actions over ritual. They believe that the way to lead a good life is to always keep God in your mind, to live honestly and work hard, to treat everyone as an equal and to be generous and serve the less fortunate. Sikhs believe religion is practiced by living in the world and coping with everyday problems. Sikhs believe in one God who no form or gender. They believe that everyone is equal before God and that everyone has direct access. Sikhism stresses service to others and living a good life. They believe that the three duties in life are to pray, work, and give:

  • Nam japna: always keep God in your mind
  • Kirt Karna: earn an honest living, seek to live in honesty, avoid crime, gambling, begging, and working in the alcohol and tobacco industry
  • Vand Chhakna: give charity and care for others, especially those who have less than you

To live a good life, Sikhs also stress the avoidance of the five vices that make people self-centered:

  • lust
  • greed
  • attachment to material objects
  • anger
  • pride

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Sikhs worship in the Gurdwara, which means “residence of the Guru” or “the door that leads to the Guru.” The Gurdwara has four main purposes:

  • a place to learn spiritual wisdom
  • a place for Sikh ceremonies
  • a place where children learn about Sikhism
  • the place that functions as a community center that offers things like food and shelter to the needy in their community

Because Sikhs believe in one God with no physical form there are no statues or idols inside of the Gurdwara. The focal point of the service is the Guru Granth Sahib which is kept in its own room and brought down the main aisle during the procession before the worship. It is placed on a raised platform called the Manji Sahib which means “throne.” The Gurdwara also features four doors: the Door of Peace, the Door of Livelihood, the Door of Learning, and the Door of Grace. These four doors symbolize that all are welcome. Every Gurdwara is also attached to a Langar. The Langar is a kitchen that serves food to the community at no charge. There is a communal meal served at services that consists of vegetarian food. Sikhs are not required to be vegetarian, but these foods symbolize that all are welcome.

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Before entering the Gurdwara, you must remove your shoes and cover your head. Upon entering you bow to the Guru Granth Sahib and touch your forehead to the floor as a sign of respect and place offerings like money or food in front of the scripture. These offerings are used later for the Langar. If you cannot offer anything, you must offer your thanks for charity. Once inside, everyone sits on the floor to create equal status and men and women sit on opposite sides. Sikhs do not have religious leaders. Every Gurdwara has a Granthi who organizes the daily service, but any Sikh can lead the daily worship. The only requirements are that they must be able to fluently speak Gurmukhi and must know how to properly handle the Guru Granth Sahib.

82758-004-5E1BE45DThe most important day is the Sikh New Year called Vaisakhi. This festival is celebrated on April 13th or 14th and it includes parades, dancing, and singing. Many Sikhs also choose to be baptized on this day.5ks

The Sikh baptism is called Amrit Sanskar. There is no age limit on baptism, but the person must be old enough to fully understand the commitment they are making. The ceremony takes place in the Gurdwara in front of five baptized Sikhs. Those being baptized must drink amrit which is a mixture of sugar and water. Everyone drinks from the same bowl and some is splashed on the eyes and hair. Everyone must recite the Mool Mantra which explains the fundamentals of Sikhism. The ceremony ends when the candidates eat karah parshad, a sweet tasting food made of semolia, sugar, and ghee. Once baptized, the Sikh takes on the 5 Ks as a symbol of their baptism and faith:

  • Kesh: uncut hair (regarded as s symbol of holiness and strength, shows adoption of the simple life and rejects pride in one’s appearance
  • Kara: a steel bracelet (a symbol of god having no beginning or end, a symbol that all Sikhs are linked to the Guru)
  • Kanga: a wooden comb (symbolizes a clean mind and body, helps to maintain the body which God has created
  • Kaccha: cotton underwear (a symbol of chastity)
  • Kirpan: steel sword (kept in a sheath and can be worn under clothing, symbolizes defense of the goof and week, the their struggle to maintain their beliefs and religion)

Another celebration is the Sikh marriage called the Anand Karaj. Both people entering the marriage must be of Sikh faith. The marriage takes place in the morning and any Sikh can perform the marriage. Sikhs practice monogamy, believe widows and widowers can remarry, and view the husband and wife as equals within the marriage. An example of a Sikh marriage:

Sikhs believe in a life cycle: birth, life, and rebirth. Other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism share this similar belief. Sikhs believe that your food deeds on earth determine your next life. This concept is called Karma. Karma decides your next life based on how well or how poorly you acted in your previous life.

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Mormonism: church centered around Christ, distorted by media

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Just months ago, Mormonism was everywhere; the presidential campaign with Mitt Romney, the TLC show Sister Wives and the center of many YouTube parody videos.

The Mormon church, usually called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or The Church of Jesus Christ, was founded in the 19th century. The Mormon church is centered around Christ, but brings together beliefs from other religions, such as the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches. Mormonism has 13.5 million members world-wide.

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The church was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 and developed by Brigham Young who arrived in Salt Lake City in 1847 after coming to the United States. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith received a revelation from God through an angel in the 1820s. Smith was persecuted for his beliefs and was put into jail more 30 times and was tarred and feathered. Smith died at 38 years old in 1844 after being mobbed by about 150 men while in an Illinois jail. Although Smith died at a young age, he had much success during his lifetime because the Mormon church grew from six to 26,000 members.Mormon-book

During the early nineteenth century the church was having financial problems and decided to use a new custom of tithing – giving one-tenth of the member’s income to the church. Tithing resulted in double the usual income and it helped to bring the Church out of debt by 1907.

The Mormons make Jesus central to their religion because they believe other religions have strayed too far from the vision of religion Jesus brought to us. The Mormon church is led by bishops, but Sunday worship is led by the people of the church and does not involve priests. The Mormon sacred texts include both the Bible and the Book of the Mormon – a book that tells the story of how God dealt with the ancient inhabitants of the American continent.

Mormons have a different view on God than Christians would. Mormons believe that God has a physical body and a perfected man. They believe that there is more than one God and that human beings have the potential to become like God after death. Douglas Davies, a professor of theology and religion at Durham University says,”Mormons believe God and human beings are of the same basic stuff but at different levels of progressive development. Everything that is, has always existed. There was no initial ‘creation’.” Mormons believe that three beings make up the Godhead and that these things are separate but work in a united way. These beings include:

  1. God the Father9a94c6e149724680d42e94c8c7c82862
  2. Jesus Christ
  3. The Holy Ghost

Mormons reject the idea of original sin and do not believe that humans are inherently evil. When humans sin they push themselves farther away from God. Mormons believe that humans are accountable for the sins they commit after the age of eight. Like most other religions, Mormonism opposes abortion, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, pornography and gambling. Mormons also avoid tobacco, consuming alcohol, tea, coffee, and the use of drugs. Mormons believe that salvation is possible through their actions on earth and the grace of God. A portion of the work of salvation has already been completed by Jesus who atoned for our sins.

Mormons believe that human beings have three stages in life:

  1. Pre-existence as spirit children
  2. A time of probation on earth
  3. Eternal life with God the Father

Mormons believe that baptism is a necessary part of the religious life. A person must be baptized to receive salvation and one day return to live with God. Children are baptized at age eight. Mormon baptism includes total immersion into water to be cleansed of all sin and the recitation of prayers. The child or adult being baptized and the person leading the ceremony dress completely in plain white clothing.

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Missionary work is central to the Mormon life. In fact, about 40% of young men do missionary work. This missionary trips last two years for men and 18 months for women. After their trips are over the men receive the title of “Elder” and women receive the title of “Sister.”

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Marriage is central to Mormon life because they believe that God has ordered them to have children. Mormons also believe that God performed the first marriage. It is central to Mormon life because they believe that the family unit continues after death and that it is essential to salvation. Marriages are performed in a Mormon temple with a ceremony that lasts about 20 minutes called “sealing.”

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One major misconception about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that it accepts polygamy. We’ve all joked about it TLC’s hit show Sister Wives, but Mormons discontinued polygamy more than a century ago. The church actually excommunicates those who practice it.

Although polygamy has been discontinued BBC reports that there are about “30,000 people practicing polygamy in Utah, Montana and Arizona, who either regard themselves as preserving the original Mormon beliefs and customs, or have merely adopted polygamy as a desired way of life and not as part of the teachings of any church.” Although some legal action has been taken against these people, there has been little success because they maintain that polygamy is part of their First Amendment rights. One famous case was Tom Green who was sentenced to five years in prison after he claimed that he had three wives due to his religious beliefs. He had previously been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980.

Mormons prefer to burials over cremation. Family members recite prayers and dedicate the grave. Because Mormons believe that families are reunited after death there is usually less grief than normal at their funerals; their goodbye is more like a “see you later” and the funeral is a celebration of their time spent on Earth.

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Taoism: the art of doing through non-action

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If you think you know don’t know anything about Taoism, think again. Ever heard of Tai Chi, the Yin Yang and Feng Shui; these are all elements of an ancient Chinese tradition that is rooted in philosophy and religion, dating back more than 2,000 years. In other words, Taoism, which sometimes appears in America as Daoism, is both a philosophy and a practice. It surrounds around the idea of living harmoniously with the “Tao.”

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People often have difficulty with the idea of the Tao because it is not something that can be described in words. The Tao is not a thing that can be perceived, but it exists in all things of the world. “Tao” simply means “the way.” In Taoism, The Tao is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists, however the Tao is not a God is not worshiped. All things are unified and connected in the Tao. The Tao gives rise to all beings, but does not have a being. It guides all things on their way.

In summary, the Tao encompasses several concepts. The Tao is:

  • the source of creation
  • the ultimate
  • the inexpressible and indefinable
  • the unnameable
  • the natural universe as a whole
  • the way of nature as a whole

imagesA passage from the Tao Te Ching helps to describe the idea of the Tao:

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the mother of all things.
……
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before Heaven and Earth.
Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.
……
All things in the world come from being.
And being comes from non-being (form comes from formlessness).”

Tao Te Ching

This passage comes from most important text, the Tao Te Ching, which is filled with the teachings of Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who is regarded by many as the founder of Taoism (although Taoism does not officially have a founder or a founding date). The true identity of Lao Tzu is unknown. Some historians say he lived during the 6th century BCE, while others argue that Lao Tzu is one name for multiple historical figures. The texts Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi create the foundation of Taoism.

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Taoism became first recognized as a religious system during the 4th and 3rd century BCE. It was the semi-official Chinese religion during the Tang dynasty. The popularity of Taoism declined during the Song dynasty due to the rise of Confucianism which became the official religion during that time. Taoism took another hit after the communism came to China. Taoists were banned and re-educated which caused the number of Taoists in China to be cut by 99% in ten years.

One major concept of Taoism is Wu Wei – the idea non-action, living instead with the true nature of the world. Wu Wei is sometimes confused with giving up or laziness, but the idea promotes letting life take its natural course.

Another major concept of Taoism is Yin Yang – the idea that natural, complementary forces are dependent on each other and work together to form harmony. Some examples of this idea are masculinity and feminism, dark and light, and action and inaction. Although these things are opposites, they work together.

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Taoism stresses the idea of becoming a good person who lives in harmony with the Tao, and therefore, in harmony with all things and people. Every decision a Taoist makes should be in accordance with the Tao and attempting to decide what will for best with the natural order of the world.

Taoist works in accordance with the moral behaviors of other religions. It disapproves of killing, stealing, lying and promiscuity. It promotes purity of body and spirit. To achieve purity Taoists partake in certain activities and follow a diet. Taoists often use meditation and breathing techniques as a way to create mental stillness and mindfulness to allow the person to better follow the Tao. A Taoist diet also abstains from alcohol, meat, beans and grains.

The end of life for a Taoist brings about the idea of immortality, but not in the sense of a physical body. Death is the final step in achieving unity with the universe because when Taoists die, they believe they become part of the Tao.

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