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Brahmin

Also spelled brahman; in HINDUISM, a member of the highest of the four varnas or RITUAL classes. According to tradition, the ideal occupation for brahmins is that of the priest (see CASTE IN HINDUISM). Brahmins descend from the priests who performed the sacrifi ces described in the sacred books known as the VEDA. Some scholars have identifi ed their ancestors as priests among the Indo-Europeans. The...

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Brahman

A crucial idea in HINDUISM, especially in the UPANISHADS and VEDANTA philosophy. Brahman refers to the reality that underlies and supports the world as it appears to the senses. Originally, brahman referred to the ritual formulas spoken during the SACRIFICES described in the sacred books known as the VEDA. In this sense, brahman is related to two other words: BRAHMIN or "priest," the name of...

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Brahma

The creator god in texts of Hindu mythology known as the PURANAS. The Puranas identify three families of deities according to function. The heads of these families are Brahma the creator, VISHNU the preserver, and SIVA the destroyer. The name Brahma is related to BRAHMAN, the word for the ultimate reality that, according to the UPANISHADS and VEDANTA philosophy, underlies all appearances. Indeed, in some...

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Bodhisattva

A Sanskrit word that literally means "a being whose nature (sattva) is perfect wisdom (bodhi)"; an important fi gure in BUDDHISM. The term is used differently in the various Buddhist schools. It is especially important in the schools known as Mahayana. In THERAVADA BUDDHISM, the Buddhism common in southeast Asia, a bodhisattva is a being who is on the way to becoming a BUDDHA. (A...

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Bodhidharma

(sixth century C.E.) known in Japan as Daruma; the fi rst patriarch of the Ch'an or Zen school of BUDDHISM It is diffi cult to separate fact from legend in accounts of Bodhidharma's life. In any case, the details of his biography illustrate signifi cant aspects of ZEN BUDDHISM. As the following shows, they sometimes resort to extreme events to do so. Bodhidharma is said...

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Birth rituals

Religious rites performed in connection with a birth of a child. The mystery of birth is recognized by RITUALS and observances in virtually all religions. It is a joyous occasion for parents and the community, yet at the same time is recognized to be dangerous and perhaps also polluting, especially for the mother. During pregnancy, often special spiritual as well as physical precautions are taken...

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Bhakti

A Sanskrit word meaning "devotion"; one of the major "paths" or forms of HINDUISM. When Hindus practice bhakti, they try to cultivate a personal relationship with a god or a GODDESS. The general religious attitude is expressed well in the BHAGAVAD-GITA, where the divine KRISHNA invites worshippers: "Abandoning all thought of proper action [dharma], seek refuge in me alone. I will free you from all...

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Bhagavad-Gita

A Sanskrit title meaning "The Song of the Lord"; perhaps the most widely revered of the Hindu scriptures. The Bhagavad-Gita is a poem that makes up a small part of the mammoth Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Its author is unknown. The epic is attributed to an ancient sage named Vyasa, "the compiler." He is said to have dictated the Mahabharata to GANESA, the elephant-headed...

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Benedictines

One of the earliest and most infl uential orders of Roman Catholic MONKS AND NUNS. Benedictines follow the rule of St. Benedict (c. 480–c. 547). This rule divides the day into times for worship, work, and study. It is moderate rather than harsh. For example, it does not greatly emphasize fasting or lack of sleep. By following the rule Benedictines cultivate obedience, endurance, humility, and gentleness. Benedictines...

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Bardo Thodol

(Tibetan "Book of the Dead") Properly, Bar do thos grol; a group of writings in Tibetan BUDDHISM that describe the passage between death and rebirth. Tibetan Buddhism envisions an intermediary period between death and rebirth known as bardo, the time "between (bar) the two (do)." Ideally the period lasts 49 days. (Forty-nine is the square of seven, which is considered a sacred number.) In actuality...

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Bar/bat mitzvah

Hebrew meaning "son/daughter of the commandment." The term refers to a person of adult status in the Jewish community. It also refers more commonly to the RITE OF PASSAGE that marks the beginning of adulthood. A Jewish boy is considered to reach religious adulthood at age 13, a girl at age 12. All forms of JUDAISM hold bar mitzvahs for boys. In the 20th century...

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Baptist churches

A variety of PROTESTANTISM especially common in the United States. Baptists accept only "believer's BAPTISM," that is, the baptism of those who have personally accepted CHRIST. Traditionally they have also been some of the strongest advocates of a separation of CHURCH AND STATE. HISTORY The Baptist churches resemble the Anabaptists of the Protestant REFORMATION in one very important respect: Both groups have insisted that only those persons should...

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Baptism

RITUAL bathing or washing. Baptism is best known as the ritual by which people become members of the Christian church. Many religious groups have practiced baptism. For example, baptism is the central ritual of the Mandaeans, who live in southern Iraq and southeastern Iran. It is so important that others who live around them call them "baptizers." The Mandaeans baptize in "living water," which they...

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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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