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Banaras

Also spelled Benares, offi cially Varanasi; for Hindus the most sacred city in India. Banaras sits on the banks of the sacred GANGES RIVER. It has been important since antiquity. For example, the BUDDHA (sixth-century B.C.E.) preached his fi rst sermon in Sarnath, one of its outlying districts. Banaras is renowned for its stepped bathing places. These are known as ghats. Tremendous numbers of people...

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Baha'i

A religion founded in Iran in the second half of the 19th century. The Baha'i faith sees itself called to unite spiritually all the peoples of the world. HISTORY During the 1840s a religious fi gure in Iran known as the Bab ("gateway") predicted the coming of "the one whom GOD shall reveal." In 1863, one of his followers, now known as Baha'ullah (1817– 92), claimed...

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Tower of Babel

The way the BIBLE explains the multitude of languages that human beings speak. According to Genesis 11, the inhabitants of the Earth decided to build a tower to reach to the HEAVENS. The kind of tower that the writer seems to have had in mind is the ziggurat. Ziggurats were huge pyramids, built in several steps or parallel layers. On top of them Mesopotamians...

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Baal Shem Tov

Baal Shem Tov (c. 1700–1760) the popular name of Israel ben Eliezer He was a Ukrainian Jew whom many consider to have founded HASIDISM. "Baal Shem Tov" means "Master of the Good Name." It refers to the miraculous powers that Israel ben Eliezer allegedly possessed. He is also known as the "Besht." This term is an acronym, made from the fi rst letters of Baal...

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Baal

The most important god of the ancient Canaanites. The BIBLE records confl icts between the priests of Baal and prophets of the Israelite god YHWH ("the Lord"). Texts from ancient Ugarit discovered in the 20th century present the god in a more positive light. Baal is actually a general word meaning "lord." In religious contexts, the specifi c lord in question is usually the Canaanite...

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Aztec religion

The religion of the people who ruled the valley of Mexico (the region around present-day Mexico City) when the Spanish conquered it in the 16th century. According to legend, the Aztecs migrated to the valley of Mexico from the north. Around 1325 C.E. they settled a marshy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, had pointed the site out to them....

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Ayatollah

Also spelled ayatullah; religious scholars of highest rank in a branch of SHI'ITE ISLAM. Ayatollah is an Arabic and Persian word that means "light of GOD." It denotes the religious scholars who lead a branch of Shi'ite Islam. Shi'ites maintain that, when MUHAMMAD died in 632 C.E., the leadership of the Islamic community passed to his male descendants. They call these leaders IMAMS. Shi'ites known...

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Avatar

A Sanskrit word for "descent"; in HINDUISM the appearance of a god on Earth, especially the appearance of the god VISHNU. The BHAGAVAD-GITA says that whenever evil waxes and virtue wanes, Vishnu appears on Earth to restore order. There are many avatars of Vishnu, but ten has become the standard number. Temples in India are often dedicated to Vishnu's "ten avatars." Ideas vary about who...

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Avalokitesvara

One of the most important BODHISATTVAS in BUDDHISM, known especially for compassion. Originally Avalokitesvara was male, but in east Asia Avalokitesvara became venerated in female form. She is known in Chinese as Kuan-yin and in Japanese as Kannon. Avalokitesvara is celebrated in two Buddhist scriptures, the LOTUS SUTRA and the Pure Land Sutra. He—or she—is a supreme example of the bodhisattva ideal. According to this ideal...

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Australian religions

The traditional religions of the indigenous people of Australia. These people are generally called Aborigines. Human beings seem to have settled in Australia as long ago as 40,000 B.P. (before the present). They developed complex cultural and religious traditions. An example of both are their rockpaintings. Some of them are perhaps 15,000 years old. Traditional Australians lived in local groups that had their own languages, cultures,...

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Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) one of the most important theologians of the ancient Christian church Aurelius Augustine was born and raised in North Africa. His mother, Monica, was a staunch Christian, but Augustine did not at fi rst practice CHRISTIANITY. He received an education in rhetoric and taught it in Carthage. Later he moved to Rome and then to Milan, where he held a prominent...

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Atman

A term used for the inmost self in the VEDANTA schools of Hindu philosophy. The Sankhya and YOGA schools have a similar concept. They call it purusha, "person." Others, such as the Jains, talk about the jiva, that is, the living component of human beings and animals, as opposed to inert matter. The UPANISHADS are the last layer of the sacred writings known as...

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Athena

The most important GODDESS of the ancient Greeks. Athena was a warrior goddess renowned for her intelligence. In that regard she contrasts with Ares, the god of military chaos and unthinking violent rage. According to myth Athena was born from the head of ZEUS. She herself remained always a virgin. Thus, the name for her most famous temple, the Parthenon in Athens, derived from the...

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Atheism

Denial of the existence of any GOD or supreme supernatural being. Atheists have long been around. In ancient India, China, and Greece a few philosophers said that the gods were only fi gments of human imagination, and everything that happens in the universe could be given a natural explanation. Religionists have also accused one another of atheism. Christians have sometimes said that Buddhists are atheists...

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Astrology

The belief that the position of the stars and planets in the sky affects the destinies of individuals, and of larger human units such as cities and nations, and even the entire world, is the basis of astrology. Over centuries it has developed into complex methods of determining that infl uence in particular cases, combining precise calculations with intuitive insight. Astrology is not an essential...

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Assemblies of God

An American denomination in the PENTECOSTAL tradition. The church was founded in 1914 under the leadership of Eudorus Bell (1866–1923), formerly a Southern Baptist and then a Pentecostal preacher who believed, with many others, that the diverse and largely independent Pentecostal churches formed since the movement began in 1906 should come together. Beginning with 531 groups and 6,000 members by the end of 1914, the...

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Assassins

Popular name for a medieval Shi'ite Muslim community more properly known as the Nizari Ismailis. The Nizari Ismaili community is a group within SHI'ITE ISLAM about which much imaginative lore has circulated. Europeans called them "assassins." Arabs called them hashishiyah, that is, "marijuana smokers." Travelers such as Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324) spread rumors that the assassins were incited to murder by being drugged, taken to gardens,...

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Asoka

(early third century B.C.E.–c. 232 B.C.E.) the third and last great emperor of the Maurya dynasty in India He is known for propagating DHARMA (Sanskrit for "right order") throughout his realm. Asoka distinguished himself early in his career by conquering the Kalingas, a people living in northeast India. The conquest of this people gave him sovereignty over almost the entire Indian subcontinent and ushered in an...

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Asceticism

Self-denial and living a very simple life for religious reasons. Seriously religious people in virtually all traditions have given up things, especially things that appeal to the senses, for the sake of religion. They have given up food by fasting, or by subsisting only on coarse and tasteless food. They have worn only rough clothes, or even gone without clothes at all. They have lived in...

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Artemis

An ancient Greek GODDESS. In mythology she is APOLLO's twin sister. Among other functions, Artemis presided over the rituals that marked a young woman's coming of age. In character, Artemis is a virgin and a huntress. In the battle of the gods in book 21 of the Iliad, she comes off poorly. In effect, Hera disciplines her physically, and she runs to ZEUS for comfort. But...

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Art, religious

Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, drama, and stories that are created for religious purposes. In its broadest sense, art refers to all that is made by human beings to convey beauty, pleasure, and meaning through its form, whether that be in matter, words, or sound. It even includes such "minor" arts as garden landscaping and jewelry making. All these arts have been given religious...

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Armenian Church

The distinctive Christian institution of Armenia. Armenia is a region in northeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran, and includes an independent commonwealth between the Black and the Caspian Seas. No one knows exactly when CHRISTIANITY fi rst arrived there. In 314 C.E. Tiridates, the king of the country, converted to Christianity. Armenia then became the fi rst nation in which Christianity was the established or offi...

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Arhat

A Sanskrit word meaning "worthy, venerable"; a person who has attained enlightenment by following the path of the BUDDHA. The arhat is an important fi gure in THERAVADA BUDDHISM, the form of BUDDHISM found in southeast Asia. Theravada talks about four stages leading to enlightenment: the stage of the stream-winner (one who will attain enlightenment in a future life), the once-returner (one who will attain...

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Arctic religions

The religions of the far northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. The term Arctic religions usually refers to the traditional religions of Arctic peoples. Today, most of them practice CHRISTIANITY. For example, the Inuit (formerly called Eskimo) of North America mainly practice ROMAN CATHOLICISM and ANGLICANISM. The Saami (formerly called Lapps) in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia practice LUTHERANISM and EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY. The former...

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Architecture, religious

The design of buildings for specifi cally religious purposes. Religious traditions have always wanted to set aside sacred places for WORSHIP, seeing them as dwelling places of gods or as locations where the presence of the divine could be especially experienced. The caves of the Old Stone Age from as far back as 35,000 years ago, with their wonderful paintings of animals located almost inaccessibly...

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