The complexity of the human brain, its imagination and interpretation of the various phenomena of nature and experiences throughout evolution, eventually took the form of religion. Today, there are many religions in the world, some surpassing the boundaries of culture and regions, while many are limited to a specific country or region. The similarities and differences of world religions, along with their relations with different social institutions, form a part of the study called anthropology of religion.
Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are some of the religions which transcend boundaries and are practiced in many countries of the world. Then there are certain region-specific religions, which also account for a sizable population of the planet. These are Hinduism, the Mandarin or Chinese religion, African traditional religion, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, the Baha'i Faith, Zoroastrianism, Scientology, and many more. Most religions are characterized by a deity, certain code of ethics, and a way of living adherent to a specific philosophy. The comparative study of religions brings forth some interesting facts and revelations about the way society has evolved over the years.
Understanding the Concept
The first question this study poses is, 'Why is the anthropology of religions a matter of interest among people?' This question has a wide set of answers. The present scenario of the world demands a large-scale awareness amongst people about other faiths. There is a growing need in this world growing smaller every passing minute to get acquainted with a wider variety of people, their lifestyles, likes and dislikes, or the way of thinking. In fact, to sustain better relations and increase our own acceptability, it is important to develop a deeper understanding and respect for other kinds of people. This knowledge developed as a result of curiosity and enthusiasm among many individuals about their counterparts on other parts of the globe. But today, it has become a necessity to understand fellow human beings, to avoid conflict or tensions, and improve the quality of human life.
It deals with a comparative study of religions based on what people think, want or believe, their way of living, the way they socialize or relate to others, and ultimately what they feel about the existing circumstances. These areas constitute the morphology of religion. A religion may influence sports, business or politics, that are a dominant aspect of human life, and the way these are practiced. The understanding of a religion depends on the understanding of these facets of life, as they are an integral part of every human community. Christianity or Islam, for example, have a basic characteristic, which is the relationship of human beings with the Divine. These religions are, in fact, defined on their belief system or conceptualization. But, there are other religions like Hinduism or Jainism, for which religion is much more than a belief system. Religion, according to these faiths, is a way of life in harmony with their conceptual aspect.
Certain features are common in almost all religions, like prayer or meditation. For instance, prayers are offered in various faiths to different Gods and Goddesses for a number of reasons, but there is a similarity in this practice. People pray for health, well-being, for protection against natural disasters, or simply for spiritual reasons like the praise of their deity. All these reasons and forms of prayer are different within the same religion, yet common for all religions. There are social forms of religious behavior, like the formation of voluntary communities, places of worship and associated social gatherings, functions of individuals, and so on.
A comparative study of many such aspects brings out a wealth of information. It helps one to appreciate the similarities and differences of different religions. Leo Tolstoy aptly reflects on religion in the following words, "The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion, as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart."