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Great Religious Traditions

great religious faiths
Figure 1.--We believe that this boy is an Anglican altar boy hotographed some time befote World War I, probably about 1910. The reverse of the card has an illustration of a man making a toast and the caption 'Wishing you the old old wish.' Also, written in pen along the bottom it has, 'from Sydney wishing you all a happy xmas.' It may well be that Sydney was the boy in the photo since it was common at the time to send photo cards of yourself. He also could be a choir boy. Notice the Eton collar and now tie.

There are in the world five great religious traditions. Three of theem arose in the Middle East in remarakable proximity (Judiamism, Christianity, and Islam). The other two originated in India (Buddhism and Hinduism). It is remarkable that the religious faiths today practicted by so many arose in such limited geographic areas. There are remarkable similarities as well as profound differences in these religious traditions. It is interteresting that one of the most mystical of these religions with a tradition of literal interpreation of miraculous works, Christianity, is the predominate faith of the Western world, the most scientifically advanced area of the world. There are very considerable borrowings among these various religious traditions, especially among the People of the Book. All of been influenced by earlier religions that predated them. All have been the aegis and inspiration for the ethical improvement of man as well as some of the most apauling barbarous behavior in human history. While these five religions are by far the most important modern religions, scholars believe there may be a many as 10,000 religioins currently practiced by believers around the world.

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith is a monotheistic religion founded by Bahá'u'lláh in Persia (19th century). The religion maintains the the spiritual unity of all mankind. Current estimates suggest that there are 5-6 million Bahá'ís scatered around the world. The Bahá'í Faith unfolded through a series of divine messengers associated with the major world religions. The differences in these religions stems from the fact that the various religions were suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people at the time to understand. The religious messengers have included Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others. For the Baha'is, the most recent messengers are the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. The Bahá'í believe that each consecutive messenger prophesied messengers to follow. Bahá'u'lláh's life and teachings fulfilled the end-time promises of earlier messengers and scriptures. The Bahá'í see humanity to be in the proces of collective evolution. The modern need is for establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale. In addition to religious faith, there is a strong socialist theme to the Bahá'í Faith, presumably because of the time in which the religion was founded that Socialist ideas were articulated and began spreading around the world. One of social tennants of the Bahá'í Faith is the 'elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty'. They also believe in the equality of men and women. Although founded in Persia, the Bahá'í Faith is the most persecuted religious faith in Iran. This intense persecution began with the Islamic Revolution (1978). The Bahá'í have established their Universal House of Justice and other teaching and leearning facilities at Haifa Israel. This is in part because Ottoman authorities arrested and imprioned Bahá'u'lláh in Acre, which is near Haifa. And also because of Isreali toleration of religious faiths in contrast to Iran where the religion was founded.


Buddha lived and persued his teachings in India 500 years before Christ. Of all the great religions, Buddhism is the most pacifistic. Buddhism was virtually unknown in the Western world until the 19th century. Although it originated in India, the joint actiins of Hindu and Muslim rulers have virtually obliterated it there. Some in the Islamic world even seek to obliterate the archeological evidence of Buddhism, such as the Taliban destruction of the ??? Buddhas in 2001. Although largely driven from India, Budhism in the late 20th century has come to resonate with many in the Western world. A key figure in the introduction of Buddhism to the West was Sir William Jones, the renowned "Oriental Jones". Jones in 1778, after the British conquest of India from the French, was offered the post of justice on the Supreme Court of Bengal. Unlike most British who spurned Indian culture, Jones actually learned Sanskrit, perhaps the first Westerner to do so. With his previous academic training and knowledge of languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian), he was the first to grasp the similarities in these languages and their common origins that today has come to be known as the Indo-European language pool. Jones founded the Asiatic Societyb of Bengal and the societies periodic publications Provided a platform for researchers throughout India to share their findings. One such work mentioned a stone inscription in a palace known as Bod-dha-gaya that described "Bood-dha, the Author of Happiness ... the Supreme Being, the Eternal One." Other Westerners including George Turnour (Ceylon), Brian Hodgson (in the Himalayas), and James Prinsep (Bengal) began to realize that not only that Buddhism existed, but that it had been a widespread religion with different traditions. Princep managed to decipher Buddhist inspriptions andlearned of King Ashoka that hadspread Buddhism in India. Westerners gradually looked on Buddhism as esentially nihilistic, but gradually an appreciation for Buddhism has developed. [Allen] Today Westerners practice Buddhism in various forms and books and magazines discuss the teachins of Buddha and the practice of the religion.


The Christian religion is one of the three great monotheistic religions to emerge out of the Middle East. Christianity was a small sct of Judiasm until Paul extended the faith to gentiles. Christians believe that Jesus was the son or earthly manifestation of God. The precise character of Jesus and the Holy trinity is a matter of doctrinal dispute among Christian denominations. The major denominations are the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox or Eastern churches. There have been other denominations of considerable importance, some of which like the Copts still exist. The Church was split by the Great Scism in the ?th century and the Reformation in the 16th century. While Christianity rose in the Middle Eat, it was largely suplanted thgere by Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. Christianity adter being adopted as the state religion oif the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD eventually became the primncipal European religion and as a result of European colonialism, the principal religion of South and North America. for centuries in the Medieval Era, the Catholic Church was the one unifying force in Europe and played a major role in the Feudal System.


Confuscianism may be better described as a philosophy than a religion because it lacks the metaphysical component of the other great religions that have mostly come from the West and Mid-East. It needed to be considered, however, because it has played such an important role in China and neigboring countries which represent such an an important part of humanity. Confucianism is a destinctly Chinese ethical and philosophical system which developed out of the teachings of the Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, or K'ung-fu-tzu, 551–479 BC). Confucianism as originally construed was an ethical-sociopolitical teaching during whay is now known as the Spring and Autumn Period. Gradually it developed more relgious overtones with metaphysical and cosmological elements incorporated during the Han Dynasty.


There are some 700 million Hindus, mostly located in India. The only other countries with large numbers of Hindus are Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia (Bali). Hindus refer to their faith as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith. Hinduism is seemed by some as not precisely a religion. Rather itis a code of living based on the practice of Dharma. Veda provides an elaborate explanation of Hindu beliefs. Unlike other major religions, there ius no known founder of Hinduism. There is no elaboracte ceremony in becoming a Hindu. Anyone who practices Dharma can call himself a Hindu. Also unlike many other religions, there is no sin of heresy. Any Hindu can question the authority of any Hindu scriptureand even the existence the divinity. A Hindu as he matures in hiscrelgious understanding moves from ignorance to Truth. The teachings of the seers give the Hindu the basis and a path for spirituality. Hinduism appears to be the oldest of the world's great religious traditions. Even so, the truth realized by the seers are seen as beyond time. The Hindu principal Hindu scriptures are the Shruti (meaning 'heard'), Smriti (meaning 'remembered') and nyaya (meaning 'logic'). These apelages are based on the origins of the scriptures. The shruti means that the sages heard it directly from the Gods. In contrast smriti refers to a text that was written down and remembered. Shruti is the most authoritative scripture as it came directly from the deity. The Shruti is composed of Vedas. Vedanta-sutras (vedanta aphorisms) are lnown as Nyaya. Other religious texts are known as smriti. Nyaya always agrees with shruti.


Islam is one of the great monothestic religions. The religion is set forth in the Koran which teaches that there is but one God and Muhammad is his prophet. The word is also used to descibe the civilization and countries in which the Islamic religion dominates. Islam for several centuries while Christian Europe fell into the dark ages and intolerance prevailed, Islam developed a rich often tolerant society. Scholars pursued science, mathematics, literture, and art. Much of this was based on mjor precepts of the Koran. One of those precepts was tolerance for other civilizations and religions, especially People of the Book. Today many of these basic precepts of Islam are questioned by Fundamentalist Islamic scholars. These issues are addressed by the Holy Koran. And for the 7th century there is a notable level of tolerance. Many passeages, however, are difficult to accomodate wih the modern world.


Judiasm is the religion of the semi-nomadic Hebrew people. It is widely regarded as the first Monotheistic religion. Here its relationship to the monotheism of Phraroh Akhenaten is a matter of considerable controversy. The primitive religion of the Hebrews developed as a sophisticated religion which played a major force is Isrealite society as part of a theocratic state ruled by priest-kings. Judaism is the religious system that developed, including doctries and rites of the Jews. Judiasm developed as the theocratic state religion of a national group, the Israelites. In modern times this has meant a separate, often small religious community living among Gentiles--for the most part, Christian and Islamic majorities. That community over tume experienced periods of benign toleration followed by rulthless suppression. Anti Semitism became a prominent aspect of European life during the medieval Era. Many states expelled the Jews entirely. The most cataclysmic action against the Jews was of course the Holocaust during Woirld War II. This situation changed somewhat after the War in 1948 with the recognitionn by the United Nations of Israel, although most Jew cintinue to live outside Israel. Modern rabbinical Judaism was crafted by scholars and teachers known as rabbis just before and after the destructioin of the Jewish national state by the Romans at the beginning of the Christian (Common) Era.


`Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. Islam futher intensified the religious ferment of the sub-continent. The Islamic prohnibition on idoltry was particularly significant. New religious sects preached against idolatry as well as polytheism and caste. Here the Sikhs were especially important. Guru (teacher) Nanak (1469-1538) founded Sikism. He was a Punjabi, born in Talwandi Lahore which is now part of Pakistan. Sikism is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and the teachings of the nine Sikh gurus who followed Nanak. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh declared that there would be no other living Sikh Gurus, but followers instead should look o their holy scriptures for spiritual guidance. Thus the holy book in Sikhdom has become the 'Guru'. The Sikh scripture is a book called the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of teachings and writings by Guru Nanak and other Gurus as well as Sikh, Hindu and Muslim saints. Sikhism at its heart is an attempt to recocile the two main religions of India, Hinduism and Islam. Most Sikhs live in Indiam near rg borders with Pakistan. but the religion has spread all over the world. Muslim intoplerance has tend to reduce the number of Sikhis in Pakistan.


Zoroastriainism is one of the world's great monotheistic religious traditions. The religion was centered in ancient Persia. Although the adherents today are relatively small in number and under attack by the Islamic mullahs in Iran. Zoroastriainism has had a major impact on important modern religions, especiially Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm. Zoroastriainism may be as old as Judiasm and thus lat claim to the oldest monothesistic religion. There are many shared traditions with Christianity. The central theme in both religions is the conflict between good and evil. The symbols in Zoroastriainism was light and dark. Zoriatrians believed in a last judgement, life after death, the coming of a mesiah, a savior, and the triumpoh of good over evil. There are many ways in which these concepts could have been incorporated into the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jews would have come into contact with Zoroastrians during the Babalonian captivity. After the Jews returned to the Holy land, many stayed and as a result there were Jewish merchant communities in trading centers on most important trading routes throughout Mesopotamia. The sharing of a common language (Aramehic) meant that religious and other ideas could easily be exchanged. Many scjolares believe that the YThree Magi (wisemen) from the eadt were actually Zoroastrian priests. (Often refeered to as the Three Kings--this is an inaccurate translation.)

Other Religions

While these five religions are by far the most important modern religions, scholars believe there may be a many as 10,000 religions currently practiced by believers around the world. [World Christain Encyclopedia] One important religion is Shintoism. This was the Japanese state religion. Since Japan became such an important country, the Shinto religion became important despite being confined to a single country. These other religions, often with quite small numbers of adherents, are as diverse as Santania and Bushmen Animism. Greek mythology has played ajor role in Greek culture and through it the development of both Roman and Christian culture. Some art historians believe that a basic understanding of mythology, especially Greek mythology, is esential to understand Western art, nusic and literature. These images of gods are an important reflection of a society's concept of the universe and life. [Leeming]


Allen, Charles. The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion (Carrol & Graf: 2003), 322p.

Leaming, David. From Olympus to Camelot: The World of Europeam Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2003), 210p.

World Christain Encyclopedia


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Created: 5:19 PM 1/24/2013
Last updated: 6:06 PM 1/24/2013