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Syncretism In The World Religions

Of all the world religions, Christianity is probably the most syncretistic. Although rooted in Judaism, Christianity quickly came to absorb elements of Zoroastrianism (the ancient dualistic religion of Iran), some important features of pharaonic Egyptian religion, the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, and a number of Greco-Roman cults, which were themselves highly syncretistic. The Zoroastrian impact, which was already present in postexilic Judaism, was profound indeed. The prime example here is the intense Christian (and late Judaic) emphasis on a constant struggle between good and evil, which was the essence of the religion found by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra, c. 630–550 B.C.E.). The fully evolved figure of Satan is a classic example of syncretism: a fusion of the Hebrew concept of Lucifer, the "fallen angel," and the Zoroastrian figure Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), who is the evil opponent of Ahura Mazda (Ormazd), the "wise lord" and the embodiment of light, truth, and goodness. Moreover, the late Zoroastrian texts tell of a final conflict between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, during which a messiah-like figure will appear and lead the forces of Good. This, of course, is dramatically reflected in a number of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic texts, from the Book of Daniel to the Book of Revelation. The important thing here is that neither Angra Mainyu nor Lucifer is identical to Satan. Rather, the Judeo-Christian figure is a syncretism of the two otherwise distinct evil entities.

Precursors to the importance of the resurrection of Jesus for Christianity were the resurrected Egyptian god Osiris, as well as the Mesopotamian deity Dummuzi, who was rescued from the land of the dead by his divine lover Inanna. The Egyptian cult of the goddess Isis, sister-wife of Osiris and mother of the god Horus, who, together with Astarte and other Near Eastern goddesses, influenced the rise of the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary. The Isis cult also affected Christian ritual. The sistrum, a tinkling rattle that was shaken during ceremonies honoring the goddess, is the source of the bell that is rung several points in a Roman Catholic mass.

Several Greco-Roman religious cults also impacted the new religion. For example, the dove, a widespread symbol of the goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus, became a symbol of the Holy Ghost, and the god Apollo was sometimes equated with Christ.

Islam also drew extensively on older religions, including Christianity and Zoroastrianism, especially after the Muslim conquest of Iran in 641 C.E. The chief Muslim demon, Iblis, is markedly similar to Angra Mainyu, and Islam also holds that there will be a final, Armageddon-like battle between the forces of good and evil.

Classical and modern Hinduism can be characterized as a grand syncretism between the indigenous Dravidian belief systems of northern India, as reflected in the artifacts of the Indus Valley civilization, and those carried into India in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. by the Aryans, whose beliefs were a variant of those carried by Indo-European speakers across Eurasia from India to Western Europe. One of the best examples is the major Hindu god Shiva, the third member of the trinity that includes Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva is often called "the Lord of Beasts," and an Indus Valley stamp seal found at Mohenjo Daro dating from about 1800 B.C.E. shows a god seated in the lotus position and surrounded by animals. This figure's connection with the later iconography of Shiva is clear, and thus strongly suggests that the god in question reflects a syncretism of the ancient Dravidian and Aryan religions. Even the fully evolved Hindu caste system involves an amalgamation of the Aryan tripartite social class system, which they shared with other ancient Indo-European-speaking communities, and the indigenous emphasis on occupation groups, which is clearly evident in the physical layout of the chief Indus Valley cities: Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.

Buddhism too has evolved its fair share of syncretistic beliefs and practices, especially as it spread to countries outside of India. In what is now northwest Pakistan (ancient Gandhara), where the Mahayana, or bodhisattva-centered, evangelical form of Buddhism crystallized in the centuries immediately preceding the beginning of the Common Era, the religion's iconography (sacred images) was heavily influenced by Greek artistic ideals, as the region in question was conquered by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C.E. These Hellenized images of the Buddha and other sacred figures were later carried into China, beginning in the first century C.E., where they blended with the indigenous artistic tradition. Moreover, by the time Buddhism arrived in Korea and Japan in the late fifth to mid-sixth centuries C.E. it had heavily syncretized with Confucianism, a development that is clearly exemplified in Shōtoku Taishi's (574–622 C.E.) famous "Seventeen-Article Constitution" (604 C.E.), which seamlessly blended the idea of filial piety and the other primary Confucian relationships with the Buddhist concept of dharma, which is itself deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition.

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