Asian Culture in Religion
Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
Asian cultures are lush with traditions that have been canonized or reinforced by their various philosophies and religions. Traditions such as group welfare, importance of the past, importance of agriculture, societal hierarchy, subjugation of women, and the importance of extended family. Three of the major Asian religions, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Shinto contain many of these cultural tendencies.
Mainly in China, while it is debatable whether it is more of a philosophy or a religion, Confucianism took hold early on, and it has helped govern Chinese life ever sense. The Chinese have always maintained a strict hierarchical order, and Confucius and Mencius, a major contributor to Confucianism, canonized the common practice as the right and moral thing to do. Confucianism also encourages people to organize and rebel against the unjust for the good all, though in practice, people rarely rebelled against unjust fathers. Confucius also stressed that, while people are born moral, they must also study the histories and educate themselves if they have any chance of remaining moral throughout life. The general positive outlook on life that the Chinese maintained was also embraced in Confucianism by encouraging people to follow the traditions of a good long life and to die only when surrounded by descendants. Indeed, Mencius said that the greatest filial sin is to have no descendants, which, of course, meant specifically male descendants as women were married off to become part of someone else’s household which is one way Confucianism supported, somewhat, the subjugated role of women in Chinese society (Murphey, Rhodes and Stapleton, 2014). Along with educating and culturing one’s self, Confucius also promoted the cultivation of the land (Tucker, n.d.), which is the base importance of an agrarian society as the Chinese were and largely still are.
While Confucianism incorporated much of Chinese culture and has had such profound influence on them, no religion is as closely tied with its people as Hinduism is with the people of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism defines the caste system that the Indian people follow. In an effort to maintain a hierarchical order, leadership, and economics, Hinduism defines what group of people are responsible for what tasks which greatly protects both group welfare, and the hierarchical order. The caste system consists of four primary societal ranks to maintain society and a pseud fifth class which is for people without a caste. The first two castes define the order of leadership, first the priestly class and then the ruling class. The third class is reserved for the farmers and merchants of society to keep the people fed and the economy strong, this also shows that farmers are regarded as the highest rank under the leadership which shows just how important agriculture is to the faith. The last true rank is that of their laborers who provide labor and service for the top three rungs of society. Hinduism also professes a love of all living things, and recommends against taking life. This is embodied for their reverence of past living things and the concept of reincarnation. No one knows if the animal (s)he kills was an honored ancestor, so it is best to avoid it. Unfortunately for women, they do not fit very highly in the Hindu culture. It is declared that women must never be independent, that they must first be subjects of their fathers, then husbands, and then, if her husband is dead, her sons (Murphey, Rhodes and Stapleton, 2014; Nigosian, 2000). Hindus also typically place importance on the extended family which can be seen by the fact that multiple generations of families have a tendency to live together (Iskconeducationalservices.org, n.d.).
Japan, which is the primary basin of Shinto, holds a special place in Asian culture by being a largely isolated island throughout much of the development of Asia. Unlike other Asian cultures, Japanese women actually had the ability to hold some amount of power instead of being largely subjugated. For much of its history, Shinto actually required women to take an active part in the religion in order for it to work. Though there was a short period of Shinto history where women were no longer required in the practice of Shinto, throughout history women have enjoyed the ability to take on high roles in Japanese culture which is reflected in Shinto (Haruko, n.d.). Unlike other religions, Shinto is much more localized and therefore only shares a few common Kami across the country. This also means that, unlike the other religions discussed, Shinto doesn’t look for group welfare in quite the same all-encompassing way, but has a focus on the welfare of the local communities that build the shrines. Shinto also professes an attachment to the past in the form of ancestor worship. Shinto practitioners often worship ancestors of particular clans or lineages as Kami for good fortune. Being an animistic religion, it shouldn’t be surprising that Shinto puts a great influence on agriculture as agriculture is the source of life which makes it only natural to ascribe Kami to it for good tidings. Also unlike other Asian religions, Shinto does little to promote a hierarchical structuring of society, but it was used for some time to give legitimacy to the ruling clan of Japan (Littleton, 1999).
As we can see, tradition and religion are highly mingled in Asian society. Indeed, in some cases such as Hindi, it can be hard to separate the religion from the culture. However, three of the major religions of the area, Hindi, Confucianism, and Shinto, all in someway embody the cultural traditions of the local people and reinforce them. In Asia, it would appear that religion is more of a philosophical view on how to live life based on cultural tradition, than some grand aspirations to a bountiful afterlife.
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Iskconeducationalservices.org. (n.d.). Heart of Hinduism: Family Life. [online] Available at: http://iskconeducationalservices.org/HoH/lifestyle/904.htm [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].
Littleton, S. (1999). Shinto. pp.144-161.
Murphey, Rhodes and Stapleton, K. (2014). Asian Religions and Their Cultures. In A History of Asia. 7th ed. New York: NY: Taylor & Francis Group, pp.28-46.
Nigosian, S. (2000). World Religions: A Historical Approach. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, pp.20-57.
Tucker, M. (n.d.). Confucianism | Religion | Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. [online] Fore.yale.edu. Available at: http://fore.yale.edu/religion/confucianism/ [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].