Religion encompasses the systematic study of world religions and faiths. Oxford Reference provides more than 61,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries on the wide range of subjects within this versatile field. Written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, entries are complemented by illustrative line drawings and images wherever useful.
Our coverage comprises authoritative, highly accessible information on the very latest terminology, concepts, faiths, theories, techniques, people, institutions, and organizations relating to all areas of religion—from the Christian Church, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and other World Religions, to Popes, the Bible, Saints, Islamic and Christian Art and Architecture, Islam and Women, and many more.
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A timeline of religion: from a passage grave constructed in 4,000 BCE in the île Longue (Brittany) to Joseph Ratzinger being elected pope in 2005
Quotations about religion and faith from Oxford Essential Quotations
What is the meaning of religion? John Bowker explores this question in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions
‘Guide to Buddhist Scriptures’ from A Dictionary of Buddhism
A chronological list of Popes and Antipopes from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?
Numerous terms come to mind (karma, yoga, bhakti, tantra); I would, however, settle for dharma – not because it can be easily or discretely defined, but, on the contrary, because it is a term with multiple meanings which, through cross-reference, provides a gateway to many of the most significant Indian religious concepts and traditions. For this reason, some have been happy to define it simply as ‘religion’; but just as there are multiple ‘Hinduisms’ there are multiple dharmas. There is svadharma – the dharma of birth, gender and class – taught by Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā; there is the dharma that, in the Mahābhārata in general, is represented as being in perpetual crisis at all levels—individual, social, and cosmic; there is sādhāraṇa dharma, a term applied to ethical principles and forms of self-restraint which are considered to be ‘common to all’, or ‘universal’, chief among them being the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence); there is the dharma of Dharmaśāstra, a voluminous category of verse literature dealing with everything from ritual, to criminal law, to quotidian behaviour, the foundation text of the genre being the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (‘The Law Code of Manu’). In short, dharma has, remained a potent and multivalent concept, not just for Brahmanical orthodoxy, but also, in the modern period, as a badge of the eternal and universal truth (sanātana dharma) which, for Neo-Hindu reformers, underwrites the Hindu tradition. All those hoping to make sense of the tradition should be familiar with it.
Which historical events or figures featured in your dictionary have most influenced your study of your subject?
Probably the rise of renunciation (saṃnyāsa), both as a religious idea and an institution, in the period from approximately the 6th century BCE onwards. In a variety of forms, this movement helped to shape not just the Brahmanical tradition, reflected in texts such as the Upaniṣads, but also what subsequently became the two great non-Hindu religious traditions of Buddhism and Jainism. What study of this period impressed upon me, is that none of these traditions can be properly understood in isolation, either as systems of thought or as historical phenomena. More broadly, with reference to the huge variety of Hindu traditions themselves, it is an approach or principle reflected in the copious cross-referencing employed in the dictionary.
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?
There are numerous common misconceptions about Hindus and Hinduism, many of them derived from the hunger for succinct answers to questions such as ‘What do Hindus believe?’. It may be that such questions are generated by one overriding misconception: namely, that there is some essential or ‘orthodox’ Hinduism which can be accessed to represent or define the tradition – the expectation that Hinduism has some identifiable essence which has been unchanging and unchanged across thousands of years.
The non-specialist can hardly be held fully responsible for this expectation, since in a number of ways it has itself been shaped by the history of the scholarly study of the subject. After the initial discoveries of 18th century pioneers, such as the jurist and polymath, Sir William Jones, a less beneficent and intellectually curious wave of Orientalism took hold. Certain forms of Hinduism, more easily classifiable in terms of European knowledge and the products of a Brahmanical elite, were promoted over and against others. Joining the enterprise, 19th century Hindu ‘reformers’ either reaffirmed this packaging of an accessible Hinduism or reacted against it. Indologists tended to hang back in a delimited Vedic and Upaniṣadic past, even when that past made nothing but philological sense to them. Max Müller’s now notorious assertion that the voluminous ritual texts known as the Brāhmaṇas were ‘twaddle and what is worse, theological twaddle’, is exemplary in this respect. It was therefore some way into the 20th century before a more open appreciation of the complexity and scope of the Indological undertaking began to emerge. This took the form of an increasing awareness that, unlike the study of classical Greece and Rome, any serious study of Indian religions would have to deal, not just with the deep past, but also with the past 2,000 years, up to and including the present; and that, even if some linguists and Orientalists of the old school were slow to admit it, this was a culture of persistent continuities. Consequently, it began to be acknowledged that leaving the library from time to time, and taking to the villages and temples, might indeed add something to our understanding. Under the influence of the religious elite, the brahmins, and their idealization of a timeless past, some scholars were equally reluctant to concede that, like every other known culture, Hinduism had been subject to ceaseless change, motored by complex patterns of stress and influence. These too would need to be examined. A further realization, was that many of the sources – the significant texts – had been composed in languages other than Sanskrit; these included not just those vernaculars, such as Hindi, derived from the Indo-European Sanskrit, but languages belonging to a different family altogether, the Dravidian tongues of South India.
In short, as understanding of the scope of the project increased, so did awareness of the seemingly limitless ignorance of Western Indologists in relation to the Hindus and their cultures. But at least for contemporary workers in the field, if not for those students hoping to frame a question with an easy answer, the misconception of Hinduism as some unchanging and essential set of beliefs and practices has been largely dissipated.
The history of Christian art and architecture
From the anti-Christian Roman emperor Diocletian to the legendary Knights of the Templar, a variety of unexpected subjects, movements, themes, and artists emerge in the history of Christian art and architecture. Test your knowledge with this quiz.
For more religion blog posts delve in to the OUPblog archives >
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