The word religion has been derived from Latin Religio, meaning restraint or Relegere. According to Roman philosopher Cicero, it means to repeat, to read again, or most likely Religionem —to show respect for sacred. It is an organised system of spiritual beliefs and regular practices revolving around us. It is a written record of human experiences and ideas that began with the invention of writing more than 5,000 years ago. Writing played a major role in preserving religious texts irrespective of time and place and made the process of memorising prayers, hymns and divine rules easier.
In ancient times, religion was inseparable from mythology (as commonly perceived) and consisted of belief in supernatural entities who created and maintained the universe. Theses entities were anthropomorphic and behaved in ways which reflected human feelings closely. Religion is normally concerned with spiritual aspect of the human life, gods (often) and creation of the world, place of man in the world, life after death, immortality, virtue and vice, sin and redemption, et cetera. Sometimes, people believe that gods are born grow up, put on clothes, have voices and shapes like human beings.Ancient people felt that no single god could possibly take care of all the needs of human beings. For this practical reason many gods were required for different purposes like wealth, health, knowledge, beauty, art, war, water, love and many other major and minor purposes and so on. Considering importance and functions, specialisation was made among gods by human beings. According to necessity, some particular gods or goddesses became more popular and powerful.
Some historians claim that Mesopotamians were slaves to their gods because it is quite clear that people understood their position as co-workers. The gods compensated human beings for their service by taking care of their daily needs and maintaining the world where they lived. These gods intimately knew the needs of the people because they were not distant entities living high in the heavens. Rather, they dwelt at homes on earth built for them by their people. These homes, i.e. temples were erected in every Mesopotamian’s household. Ancient temple complexes were considered as the literal home of gods and their statues were fed, bathed and clothed regularly as the priests cared for them as one would do for a king or a queen. Such over devotional (please read - foolish) practice still prevails in many temples in this sub-continent.
The earliest archeological evidence of religious concepts dates back several thousand years. Even some archaeologists think that evidence of religious ideas is as old as 3,00,000 years. Some evidence of such ideas includes symbolic art of stone age sites in Africa, but all these ideas are controversial. Modern researchers have placed more theories on it challenging earlier claims of Christianity which meant mythological explanation of natural events but these are also questionable.
The oldest religious site discovered so far are some massive T-shaped stone pillars in West Asia known as the oldest megalith (where one portion was used for ceremonies) in the world, built before the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 BC. The place was almost abandoned at the beginning of the first agro-based society. The site is still under excavation and analysis that provides significant information about people in that region and general history of religion. The oldest ever has been found in pyramids of ancient Egypt during 2400-2300 BC. These were copied around 2,000 years ago. The Upanishads belong to this group and some of its parts date back to the mid–first millennium. The earliest evidence of religious ideas is found in the Middle and Lower Paleolithic areas thousands of years ago. Archaeologists cite Homo sapiens cemeteries as evidence of religious ideas some 300,000 years ago. Other evidence of religious ideas is found in Africa including various hand-made symbols in the Middle Stone Age.
Prior to writing religion was based on verbal utterances of people from one to another, from one age to other age and so on, but as man is oblivious many sermons got lost or changed and new ones evolved. In absence of written record it was not possible to maintain consistency and accuracy. Invention of printing machine in mid-15th century played an important role in the rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation under leaders like Martin Luther (1483-1546) which ravaged central Europe between 1618 and 1648. Secularism in Europe began in the 18th century which gained momentum after the French Revolution in 1789 and onwards, but the influence of religion gradually declined in almost all over Europe in the 20th century.
Along the change of time the idea of religion has also been changed to a great extent. Probably there was no reference to religion in the holy Qur’an, the Bible or other ancient scriptures because those were compiled as behavioural codes of human life. A German line of thinking explains religion in relation to human culture. This idea emerged at a time when elaborate study of the Bible and church history was developing in Germany and other places which influenced law, administration, culture and morality of people.Normally, irrespective of time and place, religion differs at various stages of its progress. It may turn from simple to complex societies, from polytheism to monotheism, from belief to agnosticism etc. Some people classify religion as a matter of genital mutilation. Some categorise it as an effort to convert people of other religions to their own religion whereas different religions contain similar beliefs on many subjects.
In many places religious beliefs are exposed through animal shapes, statues with human form, tombs, cave paintings, temple graphics etc. Some scholars of the 19th century opined that religion started from hedonism. Folklorists believed that religion originated from naturalism, but these theories have been widely criticised.
Many people think that scriptures are the sources of religion, but this idea is not justified. There is always a close relationship between god and religion, but we have to remember that no scripture (the Holy Qur’an, the Bible, Tripitak, Granthsshahib, Agamas etc.) contain messages received directly from god or the creator (if there is any). For example, the Bible, having two parts, is the holy book of Christianity. The Old Testament (1st part) contains history of the Jews and their beliefs and relationship with god before the birth of Christ and the New Testament (2nd part) describes the life and teachings of Jesus Christ written in the first century. In Bangla Academy Bengali-English Dictionary 2008, the Holy Qur’an has been defined as containing the Divine Revelation to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Upanishad has been defined as Hindu religious book containing Vedantic philosophy.
There is no universally acknowledged consensus about the origin of religion, but it is certain that almost every religion has emerged through a single person viz. Abraham (Judaism), Jesus Christ (Christianity), Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (Islam), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Gautam Buddha (Buddhism), Mahabir (Jainism) etc. Only Hindusim has no particular launcher. Whatever be the origin of religion it is established that religion is always a reality in the world with difference and similarity in belief and exposure, form and substance, morality and manner.
The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes