Friday, October 30, 2009

World Religions In Art

The diverse collections of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts include thousands of works of art that were made for worship or religious ritual. Historically, people have lavished the finest materials and workmanship on those things that represented their most deeply held beliefs. The works of art included here were selected because they illustrate the main theological concepts of the world's major religions. The texts attempt to provide concise overviews and are intended to serve as comparative teaching resources. Each entry was reviewed by a knowledgeable practitioner and/or ordained clergy of that faith.


Origins of Hinduism
Hinduism with its complex and diverse mythology represents a way of life rather than a specific creed. Its numerous roots can be traced, through archaeological remains, to the Indus civilization, the first known to inhabit northern India, in the period of 2500 to 1800 B.C.

Literary evidence of Hinduism from the second millennium B.C. includes the four Vedas, and especially the Rig Veda, the sacred scriptures that constitute Shruti, "that which is heard." The people of the Indus valley are thought to have venerated natural forms such as the pipal tree and the linga (shaft). They also revered prototypes of Shiva and the Great Goddess Devi, the male and female manifestations of the Brahman, the supreme being. The many bathing sites throughout the valley also suggest early purification rituals, still practiced today.

Between 1500 and 1000 B.C., the Indus civilization mysteriously collapsed. The Aryans later arrived from the west and absorbed elements of early Vedic religion into their own culture. The Aryans instigated the hierarchical organization of society into four castes, or Varnas, which still exist today. These are:

Brahmins, the priests and scholars

Kshatriyas, warriors
Vaishyas, merchants

Shudras, laborers or servants

Hinduism encountered Buddhism in the sixth century B.C. As a result, the various philosophical schools of Hinduism developed, and their basic texts were composed. The authority of the Vedas was accepted and sociological doctrines were formulated in Smritis, "that which is remembered," the traditional law books. These books define the four goals of life:
Artha, the pursuit of wealth and worldly success
Karma, the pursuit of love
Dharma, the pursuit of law, human righteousness, duty, and cosmic order
Moksha, release from empty, material pleasures and from the pain of life in the everyday world, in order to unite with the Absolute.

The four stages of life were also defined in the Smritis. Each phase was to occupy one quarter of an ideal 100-year life span.
Brahmahcharya, the student
Grhastha, the householder
Vanaprastha, the hermit
Sanyasi, the renunciant (self-denial)

Buddhist heterodoxy encouraged the Hindus to compose lengthy epics. Most notable are the Puranas, which praise the powers and feats of the gods; the Ramayana, the adventures of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu; and the Mahabharata, a poem celebrating the great war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, descendants of the god-king Bharata.

Over time, Hinduism expanded to include a number of different beliefs. By 1800 twenty-five percent of the population had converted to Islam, and Hindus who rejected Islam reinforced the elitist caste system. The religious division also engendered a revival of devotional literature including the Ramayana, which was translated into several regional dialects. A number of new texts were composed, notably the seventeenth-century Ramacharitamanasa––deeds of Rama––which became widely read. A few scholars, such as the fifteenth-century philosopher Kabir, attempted a fusion of Islam and Hinduism, thereby creating Sikhism, a religion that combined the Hindu view of the world along with an Islamic emphasis on scriptures.


Origins of Buddhism
Unlike most world religions, Buddhsim is so flexible that it has survived by evolving and adapting to the needs of its diverse following. As Buddhism spread, it absorbed or coexisted with local religions, creating some distinctive yet interrelated forms with unique rituals. Thus Buddhism cannot be categorized as a strictly homogeneous faith. Rather, it resembles a living organism, evolving while keeping its original essence.

To some extent, Buddhism developed as a reaction to Brahmanism, now known as Hinduism, a religion introduced in India around 1500 B.C. The Aryan people entered the Indus River Valley and overran the native inhabitants, the Dravidian people. Aryan Brahmanism, or Hinduism, then shaped all aspects of social and religious life. It created a social structure based on castes. This structure segregated people primarily by color and occupation into the following categorizes: the Brahmins, or priests and sages; the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers; the Vaishyas, or merchants; and the Shudras, or laborers. Anyone outside the castes was impure or an “outcaste.” Women belonged to the castes in which their fathers were placed and then the castes of their husbands. However, within these castes, women held no real power.

In Brahmanism, salvation meant breaking up the cycle of rebirths, or transmigration, that condemned the soul to perpetual suffering. The soul was believed to have the potential to reach the ultimate state of nonexistence based on the individual’s karma, or good and evil deeds, which determine future lives. These beliefs served to justify the caste system. Buddhism arose as an alternative path to salvation for those who could not perform Brahmanic rituals due to their lower caste status, which condemned them to samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Buddhism originated with Siddhartha Gautama, who was born around 563 B.C. The name may sound unfamiliar because he is best known as Buddha. However, Buddha or "Enlightened One" is not a proper name, but a potential state of being. Gautama was born to a warrior clan from the Kshatriya caste, the Shakyas, in the Himalayan foothills between present-day India and Nepal. Many versions of his life story abound, yet emphasis is given to four events in his life: birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death.

Gautama was born after his mother, Queen Maya, had a dream in which a six-tusked white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb from the side. This extraordinary vision led to an equally miraculous childbirth. Queen Maya stopped at a garden to rest during a trip. In the midst of blooming trees, she grasped a tree branch and a child was born instantaneously from her side. Some Brahmin priests had predicted Gautama would grow up and join the wandering ascetics, a group of men who lived like nomads without any material pleasures. So the boy's parents gave Gautama a life of luxury meant to protect him.

Eventually, the pain and suffering outside his sheltered palace confronted Gautama. Urged by a need to understand existence, Gautama decided to abandon his princely life and search for enlightenment. At age twenty-nine, he left his wife, son, and family. He joined five ascetics and for nearly six years they practiced the mortification of the flesh as a means to enlightenment, but to no avail. He then decided to leave the ascetics and try to find enlightenment alone. One day, Gautama sat under a fig tree and, assuming the lotus (cross-legged) position, decided not to move until he had attained enlightenment.
While Gautama sat in meditation under the bodhi tree (tree of enlightenment), Mara, the Lord of Death and Desire, sent his daughters, Lust, Desire, and Thirst, and a host of demons to tempt Gautama, but they failed. Gautama defeated Mara through an intense, unbreakable meditation. Victorious, he sank into a deep trance and thereby gained knowledge of his previous lives, understood samsara, and realized the Four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering, 2) the reason for suffering is desire, 3) suffering can be extinguished by overcoming desire and 4) the Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, freedom from samsara. Gautama had attained enlightenment and thus became a Buddha.


Christianity and Christian Art
Like other world religions, the philosophy of Christianity has become an important part of the cultures in which it is practiced, to such an extent that the history of Western culture would be unrecognizable without the influences of Christianity. Not surprisingly, Christianity has extended its influence to many works of Western art. Artists use their artworks to express their own faith or to describe Biblical events and views on Christianity. Often, their works are designed to have a special effect on the viewer. Some works of art are devotionals, designed to make the viewer think deeply about faith and beliefs. Other works are intended to teach the viewer. Some works are dramatic and emotional, used to make the viewer feel a sense of love, fear, or respect for Christianity. And some artworks are used in Christian rituals.

Christian theology, or the study of Christian beliefs, can be difficult to understand, but it has its rewards. By first reading about the life of Christ and Christian beliefs, you will learn how these Christian symbols, events, and beliefs shape Christian art.

Origins of Christianity
Christianity developed historically and religiously out of Judaism, one of the earliest monotheistic religions (a religion that believes in one god) in the Middle East. Judaism is documented as early as 1200 B.C. in a series of religious books generally known as the Hebrew Bible (Christians call this text the Old Testament). These books, written by many authors over a period of many centuries, explain the history of the Israelites as God's chosen people. The Bible starts with the book of Genesis, which explains how God created the universe and humankind.

The story of Adam and Eve shows that humanity has a sinful nature and that we need God to help us live good lives. The books of the Old Testament also describe the rise of the Israelites, their covenant with God (an agreement for both sides to be faithful to one another), and their journey (called the Exodus) to the land promised to them by God.

The Israelites saw God in a different way than other early religions did. To them, God was seen as an all-powerful father who could be both angry and compassionate. God also cared enough about humanity to make direct contact with them. God often appeared to the Israelites in miraculous ways (creating everything from massive floods to a series of plagues) and was also said to have spoken to individuals on several occasions.

Both Christians and Jews believe in the idea of a messiah (“Anointed One” in Hebrew), a person sent by God to lead a group of people. The early Christians were those people (usually from Jewish backgrounds) who felt that Jesus Christ was the messiah and that his purpose was to bring humanity closer to God, to offer peace and assurance to humanity, and to promise eternal life after death for those who believed in God. The Jews who did not accept Jesus Christ as the messiah believed that the messiah would have a different purpose. They felt that the messiah would lead them to the land promised by God that they had lost after the Temple of Israel had been destroyed and they had been scattered to many different countries in 72 A.D. For them, Jesus Christ and his message of personal salvation just didn’t fit the role of the messiah that God was to send to them.

The Christians, on the other hand, not only accepted Christ as the messiah, but they had new beliefs that were not a part of the Jewish tradition. Christians felt that it was important that Christ be thought of as God incarnate (the idea that Jesus was God in a human form). Christians were also concerned about the condition of the human soul after death. In addition, Christianity was from the start a religion that wanted to convert all people.


The Man from Mecca: The Origins of Islam
The Arabic word Islam means submission, and its root comes from the word salam, meaning peace. Along with Judaism and Christianity, Islam is one of the world’s great monotheistic (belief in one God) religions. Its uncompromising monotheism is demonstrated in the profession of faith, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” From a once-undefined land, Mohammed established a culture and religion that today claim one-fifth of the world’s population. Islam is not solely a religion but is also a way of life that has bridged diverse cultural and artistic traditions since its origins.

The Islamic religion began historically with the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca, now Saudi Arabia, in A.D. 570. Muslims, or followers of Islam, believe that Islam dates back to the creation of the world, before Mohammed was born. They believe that God sent prophets, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Jesus, to summon people away from rebellion and sin. Muslims believe that Mohammed was the last of the prophets sent by God, making it his role to establish and clarify the faith.

Mohammed was born to an average family of the Quraysh tribe, during economic hardship, political deadlock, violence, polytheism, and paganism. After the death of his parents when he was quite young, his uncle willingly adopted him. He became known and respected early on as a modest, simple young man who worked as an honest trader. He was sensitive to human suffering and always willing to help those in need. When he was 25, a rich widow proposed to marry him. After the wedding, he began spending much of his time in meditation and prayer on Mount Hira, just outside Mecca, constantly wondering about creation and the phenomena of nature. He had always believed that there was some greater power governing the world.

While praying one night in 610 on Mount Hira, Mohammed had a revelation that changed not only his life but also world history. He heard a divine voice, believed to be the angel Gabriel, speak to him. The angel said, “Read!” referring to the words of God. Gabriel explained to Mohammed that God is God, there is no other God; therefore God is called Allah, meaning “the one who is God.” Mohammed learned that he was the last and greatest prophet and that he should proclaim the word of God: “la ilaha illa ‘Llah!”; “There is no god but God!” The voice of Gabriel would continue to dictate the word of Allah through Mohammed, the “Messenger of God.”

After that night, referred to as the Night of Power, Mohammed preached to the polytheistic people of Mecca, hoping to convert them to monotheism, but his religious news was not well received. The tribes of Mecca believed it was an insult to their ancestors and a threat to future generations to end the old traditions and adapt to a new religion based solely on the words of one man born in their time.

By 622, persecution forced Mohammed and a small group of disciples (made up of his close friends, relatives, and his wife) out of Mecca. They traveled 250 miles of desert to the town of Yathrib in the north, later named Medina an-Nabi, or “the city of the Prophet.” The people of Yathrib welcomed Mohammed and his followers based on his good reputation. They did not force Islam upon the people; rather, most of them naturally came to believe in what Mohammed had to teach them. They trusted that he had heard the words of God. This migration of 622 is called the Hijra, and it marks the beginning of the Muslim era.


Origins of Judaism
Judaism is one of the earliest monotheistic religions (a religion that believes in one God) in the Middle East. It is documented as early as 1200 B.C. in a series of religious books known as the Torah (the five books of Moses, or the Old Testament). These books, written by many authors over a period of many centuries, explain the history of the Israelites as God's chosen people. The books of the Old Testament also describe the rise of the Israelites, their covenant with God (an agreement for both sides to be faithful to one another), and their journey (called the Exodus) to the land promised to them by God.

Spiritual Goals and Practices of Judaism
Judaism incorporates ritual observance, spirituality, and morality at the core of its belief system. Jewish rituals and observances enhance both daily and spiritual life. These rituals are practiced both at home and in the synagogue, the Jewish place of worship, and are essential because they embellish the festivals and holidays, making them a celebration of life, the week, the seasons, and the world.

Today, Judaism has several branches or movements. Four of the most common are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. The Orthodox are the most traditional in practice, while the Reform and Reconstructionist are more liberal in their interpretations. Within this spectrum is a wide variety of traditions, beliefs, ritual observance, and practice.

Although there are multiple movements, there are some basic beliefs held by most Jewish people. The most common principle is that there is one God, who created the universe and who is loving and just. This precept is affirmed in the Shema, which comes from the Torah and is one of the central prayers of the Jewish religion. The Torah, written in Hebrew, the universal and sacred language of Judaism, is the central text of Judaism. It is accompanied by a book called the Talmud, and together, they contain all of the laws and commandments that guide the Jewish people.

Judaism teaches that the messiah is yet to come. While there are varying views about the messiah in the Jewish tradition, some believe that the messianic era will not come until all of the imperfections in the world have been repaired. This is why it is crucial for Jewish people to perform good deeds (mitzvot) and participate in repairing the world (tikkun olam). According to the Jewish tradition, there are a total of 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Some examples of mitzvot include giving money to the poor (tzedekah), caring for the sick (bikhur holim), and observing the sabbath and festivals. When the messiah comes, every Jewish person will be gathered from the Four Corners of the Earth and will be restored to the land of Israel. The messiah, according to the Jewish tradition, will be a descendent of King David. The final goal of the messiah is that he or she will bring peace to the whole world.

Each movement of Judaism allows for the interpretation of the classic Judaic texts, with each branch selecting its own methods of interpretation. Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a modern scholar of rabbinic texts at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, describes in Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text how the multiple interpretations of the Torah create a quilt of comfort and, therefore, span the generations of time. He explains,

The Bible became a patchwork quilt of text, with a verse of Scripture at the center and the various interpretations of the verse radiating outward to form the fabric. This quilt of scriptural interpretation offered warmth to all who sheltered under it. Like a family quilt, it was simultaneously a heirloom, linking the user to all previous generations, and a functional cover, expanding as new patches were sewn onto the already extant woof and warp

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