Asian Religions — An Introduction to the Study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, and Taoi

by Kenneth W. Morgan

Kenneth W. Morgan is Professor of history and comparative religions at Colgate University.

A publication of the American Historical Associations. Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, Collier-MacMillan Limited, London, 1964. This text was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author deals with the place of Asian religions in the study of world history. When we study the history of Europe and America we can assume at least a minimal knowledge about the influence of Greek, Jewish, and Christian religious thought and practices, but for the study of the history of Asia we must prepare ourselves by gaining a sympathetic understanding of the quite different religious ideas and practices of that part of the world.

The study of a religion other than one’s own is a modern, and Western, phenomenon. The earliest reference to "the religions of the world" that Wilfred Cantwell Smith could find after a diligent search (discussed in his recent The Meaning and End of Religion) was in 1508 in Dyalogus Johannis Stamler Augustñ. de diversarum gencium sectis et mundi religionibus. That was followed a century later, in 1614, by Brerewood’s Enquiries touching the diversity of languages, and religions through the chiefe parts of the world, which ran through some thirteen editions in the seventeenth century, in English, French, and Latin. The Enlightenment showed an interest in Asian religions, but it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century, beginning with Max Muller in 1867, that serious scholarly study of the religions of the world, of religions other than the scholar’s own, was undertaken. The first article on Buddhism in the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in the ninth edition, in 1875.

By the beginning of the twentieth century there were chairs devoted to the study of the history of religions, or comparative religions, in about a dozen European universities, and today research in at least some of the Asian religions is being done in most of the universities of Europe and America. A recent survey showed that there are over four hundred college professors in the United States giving undergraduate courses in the religions of the world. Opportunities for graduate study and research in the religions of Asia have expanded rapidly in the United States and Europe since the war, using the techniques of linguistics, history, literary criticism, sociology, anthropology, psychology, the arts, theology, and philosophy.

There has been no such development in Asia. Japanese scholars have greatly expanded their studies within the Buddhist context, covering Tibet, China, and the Buddhism of India and Southeast Asia, but have done little with Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Some work has been done in India, courses have been offered in religions other than Buddhism in Ceylon, there was a chair of comparative religions for a time in Turkey, but in general the scholars of Asia have not turned to a study of religions other than their own.

Various reasons have been given for the interest in the religions of the world. Some suggest that the very idea of religions, in the plural, came from a pluralistic society with a democratic form of government. Some attribute the interest to improved methods of communication and transportation, together with more widespread education, saying that the desire to know more about other religions is inevitable when educated people have frequent opportunities to observe their differences and similarities throughout the world. Some of the studies seem to have been motivated by a desire to establish an underlying unity in all religions, or to prove the superiority of one religion over the others, or to develop more effective methods for conversion.

The time is past for easy comparisons, oversimplifications, stress on the exotic, or smug superiority in discussing religions other than one’s own. The information at our disposal now makes so evident the complexity, the diversity, of the religious aspect of human experience in all Asian cultures that we can no longer use easy generalizations or traditionally accepted patterns in talking about other religions. As Professor Smith pointed out in the work referred to above, "Normally persons talk about other people’s religions as they are, and about their own as it ought to be. . . . Those without a faith of their own think of all ‘religions’ as observably practiced. Hence insiders and outsiders use the same words while talking of different things" (p. 49). The aim in studying another religion should be to know it as it is and as its followers think it ought to be. It is a good rule always to speak of a religion other than one’s own as if the speaker were in the presence of a good friend who is a follower of that religion. And, obviously, comparative evaluations should not be made, until one is sure that he understands accurately and perceptively the religion other than his own which he is judging -- a level of understanding rarely attained by any of us.

We are concerned here with the place of Asian religions in the study of world history. When we study the history of Europe and America we can assume at least a minimal knowledge about the influence of Greek, Jewish, and Christian religious thought and practices, but for the study of the history of Asia we must prepare ourselves by gaining a sympathetic understanding of the quite different religious ideas and practices of that part of the world. We find ourselves guilty of errors of judgment and distortions of our sources when we apply to the history of Asia our own religious patterns and evaluations. This is to assume, as I do, that religious faith -- the ways men find meaning for their lives and evaluate their relations to the natural world, to each other, and to the transcendent -- is a factor of basic importance in shaping a culture and influencing the process of history; that religion is not just one of many aspects of the history of a people, to be taken up when, and if, convenient, but is fundamental to historical understanding; that it is a necessary, but not sufficient, basis for the interpretation of history. A knowledge of the religious background of the historical process under study will give meaning to much that would otherwise be obscure, will guard against possible misinterpretations, and might, even, lead to new perspectives on our own history and culture.

There is no easy way to get the background needed in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. It helps if one has a reasonably sophisticated and objective view of one’s own religious faith, for that makes it easier to guard against attempting to force the religion studied into familiar molds. The first task in studying an Asian religion is to try to see the religion as it is seen by a believer; obviously, our judgments will be invalid if we see the religion through the eyes of German, or French, or American scholars, colored by the biases of Christian, Jewish, democratic, colonial or anti-colonial scholarship. We will not be altogether successful in gaining the Asian perspective, but we must try. For that, our basic resources are history and anthropology, with recent anthropological research proving to be of increasing value. Such descriptive studies must be the prelude to the study of the scriptures, the sacred writings, which are received as revelations or accepted as spiritual guides. Then we must turn to the other religious writings accepted as authoritative within the religion, and to the art and music when they play an important role. It may be objected that art and music cannot be conceptualized and are not therefore usable as facts in presenting religious history; from the point of view of religion, however, it must be insisted that the art and music are data which must be understood if the history is to be accurate.

As in other aspects of historical study, there is no getting away from the necessity to learn the relevant geography, to study the maps until the events have been placed spacially as well as temporally. Another chore is the learning of a new vocabulary. It is discouraging to think that one must understand the meaning of words which cannot be translated, such as karma, avatara, bodhisattva, anicca, Tao, shari’a, ijma, and dozens more; must recognize such names as Jalalu ’l-Din Rumi, Avalokiteswara, Vivekananda, ’Ali, Ananda, Ramanuja; must know the significance of such places as Sarnath, Karbala, Borobodur, Anuradhapura, Ajanta, Bamiyan, Hardwar, Mohenjodaro -- but there is no short cut. One cannot understand the religions of Asia without having learned the basic religious concepts, the accepted religious writings, the important religious leaders, and the places which have sacred connotations for the people of Asia.


Unfortunately, there is no adequate, generally accepted introduction to the religions of Asia. The complexity of the field forces oversimplification when an attempt is made to cover all religions in one volume, and the attempt to be brief seems to create an irresistible tendency to force the religions into patterns. The classic in the field is History of Religions, by George Foote Moore, a scholarly introduction done some fifty years ago and still useful for factual material. The most widely used college textbook is Man’s Religions, by John B. Noss; the author’s preferences are frequently evident, and many passages would be questioned by followers of the religion under discussion, but it is widely used because of its extensive coverage and wealth of informative material. Readily available in paperback is The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith. It was not written as a textbook but as a response to a popular demand for an introduction to world religions after his brilliant television programs a few years ago. The Hinduism section gives the impression that Vedanta and Hinduism are synonymous, and the Buddhist section overemphasizes Zen, but the book is notable for the spirit of understanding of other religions expressed throughout. It is a good book to put in the hands of a beginner, for it gives much useful information with sympathetic insight and wise counsel on how to approach the study of a religion other than one’s own. E. G. Parrinder, Reader in Comparative Religions at London University, has recently published What World Religions Teach, designed for high school students introducing them to Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucius, Taoism, Shinto, the Sikhs, Bahais, Theosophy, African religions, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has a strong Christian bias. Modern Trends in World Religions, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa, is not a systematic introduction to world religions but is useful as a general introduction for it is a collection of essays on current trends and problems in the study of world religions as seen by competent scholars who have been reflecting on the results of their research.

Teachers of Asian religions tend to look upon general introductions to the religions of the world as useful only for quick reference, and to prefer books dealing with a specific religion, supplemented with readings from original sources.

Many, but not all, of the sacred writings of the religions of Asia are now available in English translations, but the most complete collection is still The Sacred Books of the East, edited by Friedrich Max Muller, and published from 1879 to 1910 in fifty-one volumes. They are now out of print but some of them are being reprinted by Dover Publications.

Some books deal with an area, discussing more than one religion without aiming to be a general introduction to world religions. Anyone concerned with the religions of Southeast Asia would find it helpful to refer to A History of South-East Asia, by Daniel G. E. Hall, for it gives much information about the religions not readily available elsewhere. Brian Harrison’s A Short History of South-East Asia is designed for high school students, giving less detail. Southeast Asia, Crossroad of Religions, by Kenneth Perry Landon, is a lucid, readable, somewhat simplified account of the Hindu and Islamic contributions to the culture of Southeast Asia. It is a fascinating story. The Wonder That Was India, by A. L. Basham, is a cultural history of India before the coming of the Muslims, with a great deal of information in small compass on the earliest culture, political history, social organization, the arts, language and literature, and over a hundred pages devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism. As a general introduction to the culture of India, it is widely used in American colleges. For Indian religions it is a convenient introduction to Harappa culture and the Aryans and gives a brief summary of Vedic and later Hinduism, Buddhism, and some other sects.

William Theodore de Bary and others have edited three volumes which are indispensable for students of Asian religions: Sources of Indian Tradition, Sources of Japanese Tradition, and Sources of Chinese Tradition. They have included explanatory sections by the editors, sections written by contemporary Asian scholars, and both classical and contemporary writings covering political, social, and literary aspects of the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Neo-Confucianism, and Shinto. The editors and writers, basing their selections of topics and readings on their years of research and teaching, have brought together in these volumes valuable materials for the study of Asian religions which would not otherwise be readily available to teachers and students.


The people of India would never refer to their religious faith and practices as Hinduism except as a concession to Western thought, for the Western label implies a pattern of beliefs and practices which is alien to their way of life. It is used here in the sense of the religion of the people of India, as distinguished from the Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and others who diverge from the predominant religious trends of the subcontinent. The attitude of the Hindus toward what seems to them an attempt to oversimplify and to impose Western religious categories and concepts on their religion should be borne in mind when evaluating books about the religion of India.

Hinduism, with four hundred million followers, is the oldest of the contemporary world religions, dating from at least two thousand B. C. It is primarily a religion of India; although it was known in the countries to the west, its major influence outside India was in Southeast Asia where it at one time was the dominant culture as far east as Indonesia. While there are many sects within Hinduism, and numerous interpretations of the basic Hindu ideas, there would be general agreement that the world as we know it is an emanation from an original Source, Brahman, that ultimately the world as we know it will return to its Source; in the meantime, living beings go through numerous rebirths, their progress upward toward Brahman or downward toward material existence determined by the law of karma. Karma may be interpreted as a kind of cosmic justice, a moral law of cause and effect; or it may be seen as simply an orderly world in which every act has its inevitable consequence. For most Hindus, the final authority is found in the Vedas and the writings of great religious leaders capable of seeing the true nature of reality. There are many gods, all of them manifestations of the Supreme Being. Man’s place in society is determined by his actions in his previous life, and in this life he is preparing the consequences for future existences. Yogic practices are designed to free men from the attachments of material existence and to develop their spiritual faculties so they can move toward the divine source from which they came.

Charles Eliot published in 1921 a three-volume work on Hinduism and Buddhism which is still a standard reference and dependable scholarly guide to Hinduism. Hindus detect in his asides frequent evidence that the book was written by a pukkha sahib in colonial times, but join in admiration for his scholarship and insight. The index to the three volumes is an amazingly complete reference source for looking up new words, strange titles, and definitions of terms. Even those who find the books too detailed for an introduction to Hinduism will discover that they will be coming back to Eliot as questions arise in their reading. It is a westernized interpretation of Hinduism, but an unusually able, scholarly work.

Hinduism, by K. M. Sen, is a small paperback of about a hundred pages written by a Hindu to introduce Hinduism to Europeans and Americans. Although occasionally defensive and apologetic in tone, it is generally a simple, straight-forward description of Hinduism. It has the advantage that it presents the point of view of a follower of the faith. Another presentation of Hinduism by Hindus is The Religion of the Hindus, edited by Kenneth W. Morgan. After numerous interviews in India, seeking agreement as to what such a book should contain and who would be the most representative scholars to write it, the editor asked seven religious leaders to write on different aspects of the beliefs and practices of the Hindus. As they wrote, they made a conscious effort to present an accurate picture of contemporary Hinduism. The book contains a glossary of Hindu terms and a map showing the sacred places of the Hindus.

Sources of Indian Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary and others, has excellent sections on Hinduism written by two distinguished Hindu scholars, R. N. Dandekar and V. Raghavan, and readings from Hindu writings, carefully chosen to present Hindu beliefs and practices. It is one of the best available sources for becoming acquainted with the religion of the Hindus.

One of the best ways to gain an understanding of Hinduism is to study the Bhagavad Gita, especially if the reading of the Gita follows some introductory study of Hinduism so the ideas about Hinduism will be clarified and enriched as the Gita is mastered. Mahatma Gandhi found the basis for his faith in the Bhagavad Gita and found the inspiration and justification for non-violent direct action in its second chapter. One of the best editions of the Bhagavad Gita for the beginner is the translation by Swami Nikhilananda, for it is not only in good English but is provided with extensive notes, clarifying new concepts and giving a background for interpretation. The notes are Vedantic, and not all Hindus follow Vedanta, but with that warning in mind the commentary is one of the most useful available to Western students. For an understanding of Hinduism, it is better to have read a little introductory material and to have studied the Bhagavad Gita intensively than to have read more widely in secondary sources.

V. Raghavan’s The Indian Heritage makes available a carefully selected volume of the most important passages from Sanskrit literature, covering the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Dharma Sastra, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and a collection of prayers not readily available elsewhere. It brings together in one volume the passages of the Hindu sacred writings which are treasured by an intelligent, devout Hindu.

There are multi-volumed studies of Indian philosophy by Radhakrishnan and Dasgupta, but one of the clearest and simplest introductions to the philosophy of India is The Essentials of Indian Philosophy, by M. Hiriyanna. He first wrote Outlines of Indian Philosophy, a somewhat fuller treatment, and then rewrote it as the Essentials, clarifying some passages. Another book of considerable merit is An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, by Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta. Either of these books will give Western students a good introduction to the philosophy of India. Having read about Indian philosophy, the next step is to read some of the sources, and for that Charles A. Moore of the University of Hawaii and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s philosopher President, have provided A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, a carefully selected collection of representative philosophical writings from Vedic to modern times.

To enrich the understanding of Hinduism, and to provide a dimension not found in the other writings, it is useful to read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works, both edited by Swami Nikhilananda. Ramakrishna played an important role in the revival of Hinduism in this century, and his work was carried on by his disciple Vivekananda, both in India and America. The stories of their lives and their teachings provide unique and illuminating source material for understanding contemporary Hinduism. Vivekananda’s writings on yoga are useful for understanding one of the interpretations of the role of yoga in Hindu religious life.

For the study of yoga, one of the best books available is Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, by Mircea Eliade. It includes a discussion of yoga in Buddhism and in its Tantric forms and shows the relation of yoga to Hindu beliefs. It is a balanced, critical study by one of the great religious scholars of our time. For a somewhat simpler introduction, Yoga, A Scientific Evaluation, by Kovoor T. Behanan, is available in paperback. Behanan, as a graduate student at Yale, became interested in yoga and returned to India to study yogic techniques as a basis for his thesis at Yale. It is a clear statement of the basic principles of yoga, written with a Western reader in mind. Those who are interested in yogic exercises, Hatha Yoga, will find ample information in the little book Yoga for Perfect Health, by Alain, with illustrations of the postures by Sachin Majumdar.

The student who seeks to gain a sympathetic understanding of Hinduism will find that an appreciation of Indian art, literature, and music will be most helpful. For Hinduism, The Art and Architecture of India, by Professor Benjamin Rowland of Harvard University, is more than a merely adequate introduction, yet not too expensive for personal use. There are many recent novels in English, written by Indians, which reveal new dimensions of Indian religious life and illuminate the historical, philosophical, and religious studies of Hinduism: R. K. Narayan is one contemporary novelist whose works have excited students to further study of Hinduism and Indian culture. (Narayan’s Financial Expert is the only one of his novels in paperback, but his other novels are now published in the United States.) For the theater, Theatre in India, by Balwant Gargi, gives an introduction to the traditional and the modern theater, with a wealth of information and perceptive interpretations. Indian music reveals much about Hinduism that is not conveyed by the written word or by reproductions of painting and sculpture; for an introduction to the music of India, Swami Prajnanananda has written Historical Development of Indian Music which, although it bristles with untranslated Sanskrit words, can be read with profit by anyone who has made enough of a study of Hinduism to be able to recognize its central concepts. Recordings with helpful explanatory notes can be purchased from Folkways (P431, with notes by Alain Danielou) and from Angel (35468 and 35283, with notes by Yehudi Menuhin). The student of Hinduism who becomes familiar with those records by hearing them several times, who reads several Indian novels, and who becomes acquainted with some of the best examples of Indian art, will find that he understands Hinduism better and brings new insight to his study of the history of India.


The Buddha was a Hindu prince who rejected the Hindu scriptures, rituals, austerities, caste, and the Hindu teachings concerning creation and the Self, but remained close to Hinduism in his acceptance of the belief that existence continues through many lives and is controlled by the law of karma. The Buddha means The Enlightened One; he is the man who found the path by which all men may free themselves from suffering and despair. He rejected useless speculations which go beyond human experience, such as speculations about creation, God, and the nature of the future life, and urged a pattern of conduct and meditation leading to enlightenment, to freedom from sorrow. That enlightenment brings the recognition that all is change, that change ends in sorrow, that there is no soul, that man is only a combination of elements controlled by karma, and that when man is free from the illusory attachment to this world he becomes free from rebirth --what happens then is beyond our powers to know.

That basic pattern of Buddhism (now known as Theravada and based on scriptures written in Pali) was taught in India in the sixth century B. C. and spread throughout much of India and Southeast Asia. By the first century A. D., another form of Buddhism, known as Mahayana, had arisen in northern India with new writings mostly in Sanskrit, with much more elaborate speculative teachings. Theravada is found today in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia; Mahayana spread to China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet; there is little Buddhism left in India. Not counting China, where it is impossible to know the status of Buddhism, there are about 150,000,000 Buddhists in the world today. It should be remembered when evaluating sources of information about Buddhism that the division between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism has meant that there has been little communication between them for centuries, giving most writings either a Mahayana or Theravada bias.

Western scholars have been writing about Buddhism for about a century, not altogether to their own satisfaction or that of the Buddhists. Theravada Buddhists now point to What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula, a Ceylonese Bhikkhu (monk), as the best introduction to the central ideas of Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana. Mahayanists might not agree, but it is a good book to read for it presents Buddhism with the emphases one would hear if receiving instruction in Ceylon. Another book which seeks to present Buddhism from the point of view of the Buddhists is The Path of the Buddha, edited by Kenneth W. Morgan and written by eleven Buddhist scholars, three Theravada and eight Mahayana, who were recommended by Buddhists as the religious leaders best able to speak for them. Its map of Buddhist pilgrimage places and its glossary of Buddhist terms are aids to the beginner in Buddhist studies.

For general introductions, all that was said under Hinduism about Sir Charles Eliot’s Hinduism and Buddhism applies to the study of Buddhism, and de Bary’s Sources of Indian Tradition, Sources of Japanese Tradition, and the Buddhist section of Sources of Chinese Tradition are equally useful. Edward J. Thomas has written two widely used books, The Life of Buddha as Legend and History and The History of Buddhist Thought, which, although inevitably reflecting the perspective of Western scholarship and primarily concerned with Theravada, are notable for their clarity and accuracy. And a classic in the field, James Bissett Pratt’s The Pilgrimage of Buddhism, written thirty-five years ago, is still a dependable and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Buddhism. He tells the story of the expansion of Buddhism, and with it the story of his own reactions as he traveled along some of the routes of that expansion. Thirty years after he made his own pilgrimage, as he calls it, many Buddhists in Asia remembered him and spoke of his friendly openness and understanding.

The complexity of the sacred writings of the Buddhists, both Theravada and Mahayana, discourages and puzzles the Western student who expects to find a clearly defined scriptural canon. One of the best introductory guides to the Buddhist sacred writings is Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion, edited by Clarence H. Hamilton, a collection which includes the stories of the life of the Buddha, the early teachings, the Dhammapada, and representative extracts from the Mahayana scriptures. For the beginner, it is helpful to concentrate on the stories of the life of the Buddha and the Dhammapada, a summary of the teachings of early Buddhism. Another readily available and useful selection from the Buddhist writings, also a paperback, is The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, edited by Edwin A. Burtt. A larger collection of only Theravada sources is found in Warren’s Buddhism in Translations. Edward Conze has recently published a Penguin paperback edition, Buddhist Scriptures, concentrating on the central tradition of Buddhism in an effort to bring together in one volume materials acceptable to all Buddhists. Somewhat earlier Conze published Buddhist Texts Through the Ages covering sacred writings from Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric sources, arranged according to schools.

Much of the material basic to Buddhist philosophy can be found in the collections above, but Radhakrishnan and Moore in their A Source Book in Indian Philosophy included readings especially selected to illustrate Buddhist thought as it developed in India. In The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, A Study of the Madbyamika System, T. R. V. Murti of Banaras Hindu University makes a careful study of one of the most important schools of Mahayana philosophy. In reading that book it should be borne in mind that it is written by a Hindu and reflects the opinion that Buddhism is only a variant of Hindu ideas, an assumption not usually granted by Buddhist philosophers. Professor Murti has, however, undertaken a systematic exposition such as has not yet been made available in the West by Mahayana scholars. Although the exposition by the Japanese scholar Junjiro Takakusu is not by philosophic systems such as Abhidharma, Madhyamika, and Vijnanavada (or Yogacara), his The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy is a standard guide to Mahayana thought. After a discussion of the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, he discusses the chief sects of Japan: Kusha, Jojitsu, Hosso, Sanron, Kegon, Tendai, Shingon, Zen, Jodo, Nichiren, and New Ritsu. It is a concise and able introduction to Japanese Buddhist thought.

Since Buddhism has taken many forms and has adapted to different cultures in Asia, books dealing with limited areas are especially helpful as protection against too-easy generalizations. Thai Buddhism, Its Rites and Activities, by Kenneth E. Wells, for instance, by giving a general introduction to Buddhism in Thailand and then a description of the State ceremonies and the ceremonies in the temples and the homes, brings Buddhism in Thailand to life for the Western reader. Theravada Buddhism in Burma, by Niharranjan Ray, is a history of Buddhism with emphasis on Burmese-Indian relations, and written by an Indian, but it, too, conveys the special character of Buddhism in one Theravada country. For a description of Buddhism in Ceylon, which carries all the flavor of conversations in a Buddhist monastery and presents Ceylonese Buddhism as it is seen by the Bhikkhus of Ceylon, see Walpola Rabula’s History of Buddhism in Ceylon. There is also a recent journal article on Buddhism in Ceylon well worth the effort of looking up, not only for its insight into Buddhism in Ceylon but also for its value as an example of the contribution anthropology can make to the understanding of Asian religions. It is written by a Ceylonese anthropologist, Gananath Obeyesekere, and is one of the best explanations available of the relation between Buddhism and the customs of the country; it presents the Buddhism of the common people, not the Buddhism of the books: "The Great Tradition and the Little in the Perspective of Sinhalese Buddhism," The Journal of Asian Studies, February 1963.

Although Tibet does not now exist as an independent country, Tibetan Buddhism continues to be of special interest because it combines, more than anywhere else in the Buddhist world, the traditions of Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantra. Three popularly written books give an excellent introduction to Tibet: the Dalai Lama’s My Land and My People; the autobiography by his brother, Thubten Norbu, Tibet Is My Country; and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. The latter might be the first book to read since it gives a Western view of Tibet by an Austrian who lived there after escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp in India. Although the other two books deal primarily with recent events in Tibet, they manage to convey a great deal of information about the beliefs and practices of the Tibetans. The chapter in The Path of the Buddha on Tibet, by Lobsang Phuntsok Lhalungpa, an aide of the Dalai Lama, is a brief, systematic presentation of Tibetan Buddhism. A more arduous, but richly rewarding, path to an appreciation of Tibetan Buddhism would be a study of The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, recently translated by C. C. Chang. It is a classic Tibetan writing, full of stories and teachings which are part of the traditions of Tibet. For a more systematic description of the religious practices of Tibet, see Tibet and the Tibetans, by Tsung-Lien Shen and Shen-Chi Liu, two Chinese scholars who fled Tibet when the Communists arrived. It discusses the geography, history, organization of Lamas, government, customs and ceremonies of the Tibetans.

For a detailed history of Buddhism in China we will have to wait for Kenneth Chen’s book which should be published by the Princeton Press in 1964. In the meantime, Arthur Wright’s Buddhism in Chinese History gives a clear and discerning picture of the sweep of Buddhist history through the centuries and has a useful bibliography for further reading, especially in the journals. There are also two chapters in Wing-tsit Chan’s Religious Trends in Modern China dealing with the development of Buddhist thought and modern movements in Chinese Buddhism which give a great deal of information and insight in a few pages. For additional background which brings Buddhism in China to life, there are two fascinating, though rather specialized books: Reischauer’s Ennin’s Travels in T’ang China, and Waley’s The Real Tripitaka. Ennin was a Japanese Buddhist monk who traveled in China between 838 and 847 and wrote an account of his journey which our present ambassador to Japan has made available in English, an account that transports the reader to the Buddhist world of China in the ninth century. Tripitaka (or, Hsuan Tsang) was a Chinese Buddhist of the seventh century who traveled with great difficulty to India to learn more of Buddhism in its native land and returned to translate many of the scriptures into Chinese. The story of his adventures and observations reads like a novel, and in the sixteenth century was made into a novel, Monkey, by Wu Ch’eng-en. It has been translated by Arthur Waley, is available in paperback, and has awakened in many a student in our times an interest in Buddhism and Chinese history.

After World War II, the military headquarters recognized the need for some guide to the religious groups in Japan and asked the Religious and Cultural Division of the Civil Information and Education Section to prepare a concise description of Japanese religious organizations for the guidance of occupation personnel. The report was circulated in mimeographed form for some years, and then published as Religions in Japan, by William K. Bunce. It is a quick introduction, but was carefully prepared by competent researchers with the aid of many Japanese scholars and is still useful for reference. The classical introduction to Buddhism in Japan was written by Sir Charles Eliot, that fabulous British civil servant, titled simply Japanese Buddhism. The information is there, flavored with his sympathetic, but Western, point of view. For a study in more detail of one period, we have Japanese Religion in the Meiji Era, written in part and edited by Hideo Kishimoto; it gives the Japanese viewpoint by competent scholars who understand Western historical methods.

Those who find Zen the most interesting form of Mahayana Buddhism should bear in mind that it is only one small sect, considered by some Buddhists to be almost heretical, and frequently distorted in the West. One of the best introductions to Zen is The Practice of Zen, by C. C. Chang, a Chinese Buddhist who received his Zen training in China before going to study Buddhism in Tibet. It makes clear the rigorous nature of Zen training, and gives many apt illustrations from Zen literature. D. T. Suzuki, who has lived much of his life in the United States and is well-known for his writings on Zen, has published many books explaining Zen to Americans, of which his Zen Buddhism is representative. Readers of his works should be aware of the feeling of some Japanese Buddhists that he tends to Americanize his explanations. Sohaku Ogata, a Zen monk in Kyoto who has visited the United States and has had many American disciples in Japan, has written Zen for the West, an explanation of Zen with an anthology of Zen writings selected with Western readers in mind. Nancy Wilson Ross, after many years of study of Zen, has published an anthology of Zen writings and writings about Zen, bringing together all the material she has found most useful, under the title The World of Zen. William Briggs, who calls his book Anthology of Zen, has edited a book of writings about Zen by leading Japanese Zen scholars, with a few articles by Westerners; it is one of the most useful explanations of Zen thought. For Zen writings, the best book available is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of Zen and Pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps, and beautifully printed by Tuttle. There one finds the best of the Zen stories.

It is said that the Chinese were at first scornful of Buddhism -- can anything good come from India? until they saw examples of Buddhist art. Certainly Buddhism is not understood until there is some appreciation for Buddhist art. As a supplement to the reading of the stories of the life of the Buddha, and an aid to understanding the role of the Buddha in Buddhism, Anil De Silva-Vigier’s The Life of the Buddha Retold from Ancient Sources serves a unique function for it tells the life of the Buddha with illustrations of Buddhist art. For comprehensive treatment of Buddhist art, the three Penguin books on Asian art are most helpful: The Art and Architecture of India, by Benjamin Rowland; The Art and Architecture of China, by Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper; The Art and Architecture of Japan, by Robert T. Paine and Alexander Soper. Langdon Warner’s The Enduring Art of Japan is a classic introduction by a great teacher and scholar. For superb reproductions of Japanese painting and sculpture, Yukio Yoshiro’s 2000 Years of Japanese Art should do all that any book can do to explain the influence that art has had in Buddhist history.

Music is not a part of worship in Theravada Buddhism, but is used in sophisticated forms in many Mahayana sects. In Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, by William P. Malm, there is a brief chapter on Buddhist religious music, and a little information can be gleaned from the notes accompanying recordings of Japanese music by Folkways (FR8980), but the study of music in the Buddhism of China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet has not yet been written.


When studying or teaching Hinduism or Buddhism, the Westerner soon becomes aware of the rather wide differences of perspective and meaning between the Judeo-Christian and the Hindu-Buddhist ways of viewing the nature of man and man’s relation to his world. The avatara of Hinduism is not the prophet of Judaism nor the Christ of Christianity; karma is not easily equated with destiny or divine will; tantric yoga differs noticeably from Sunday School exercises. The nature of the teachings and practices of Hinduism and Buddhism reminds the Westerner of the danger of trying to force new and strange ideas into familiar patterns. Rarely, and then only in contemporary writings, do Hindus or Buddhists refer to Christianity or Judaism, arousing defensive feelings which lead us to suggest that they would not have said what they did if they understood our religion better. But the situation is quite different when we come to Islam, for there the differences are not great, and may be missed, and there the references to Judaism and Christianity are frequent, and not always complimentary. Thus, although it should be easier to teach Western students about Islam than about Hinduism or Buddhism, for there is much in common, the burden of our neighborhood quarrels -- not always impartially recorded -- and the subtle differences of interpretation make Islam the most difficult religion to present fairly.

Muslims -- who do not like to be called Muhammadans because they think it implies a misunderstanding of the place of the Prophet in their faith -- have themselves tended to encourage oversimplification by claiming that Islam may be quickly grasped by accepting the Fundamentals and following the simple list of Consequences they imply. There is unity in Islam from Morocco to Indonesia and China, but there is also diversity which must not be slighted if the appeal of Islam to more than four hundred million followers is to be understood.

The Prophet Muhammad died in 632 A. D. after having received the revelations recorded in the Qur’an and having organized the Muslim community in Arabia. Following his death, Islam spread from Spain to the Indus river in India within a century, and by the fifteenth century had completed its expansion and major theological developments. One becomes a Muslim by repeating the Word of Witness, "I witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Prophet," and accepting the Fundamentals: belief in the existence and oneness of God, in Angels, in the Qur’an as the revelation of God, in the Prophets, in the Day of Judgment, and in the Divine Order. Those Fundamentals require the acceptance of the Consequences, also known as the required Worship: repeating the Word of Witness, observing the five daily prayers, giving a fixed percentage of income to the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca if possible. There is no ordained clergy in Islam; they have as leaders men who have established their ability to guide by their learning and piety. The daily life of Muslims is guided by an elaborate code of laws worked out over the centuries, based first on the Qur’an, then on the traditions concerning the Prophet, then the consensus of the Islamic community, and finally in a limited area on individual interpretation. Most Muslims are Sunnis, but in Iran and Iraq and a few other areas there are about 30,000,000 Shi’as who believe that the leadership of the Muslim community should rest in the descendants of the Prophet, particularly through his nephew Ali.

Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey, by H. A. R. Gibb, is the most widely read introduction to Islam in English. Many Arab scholars, who have great respect for Sir Hamilton Gibb’s scholarship, are a bit hesitant about giving the book unqualified approval because of its Western flavor: one young Arab who started to translate it into Arabic gave up when he found that the Mullahs who could not read English were very critical when they read his version. It is still the most readily available short introduction to Islam. A most interesting introduction to Islam is Kenneth Cragg’s The Call of the Minaret. The first 170 pages are an exposition of Islam by a Western writer with scarcely a phrase to which a Muslim could take exception, and the rest of the book is a guide to Christian missionary work with Muslims, with which they have little sympathy. Those first 170 pages are one of the best introductions to Islam in English, a model of writing about a religion other than one’s own.

Marshall G. S. Hodgson of the University of Chicago has prepared a three-volume syllabus with selected readings, Introduction to Islamic Civilization, which brings together a useful collection of readings, with scholarly introductions, covering the religious, social, and political aspects of Islam. Islam -- the Straight Path, edited by Kenneth W. Morgan, was written by eleven Islamic scholars from six countries -- scholars selected on the basis of the recommendations of religious leaders throughout the Islamic world -- as an introduction to Islam from the point of view of the Muslims. It has now been translated into five languages for use by Muslims. The definitions in the glossary were written by Muslims.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam is out of print but a new edition is being published and will be available in a few years; in the meantime, the articles concerned specifically with religion and law in Islam have been published in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam and provide a useful reference source. For the geographical background of Islam, showing the spread by centuries and giving useful statistics, there are two good atlases: Atlas of Islamic History, by Harry W. Hazard, and Historical Atlas of the Muslim Peoples, by Roelof Roolvink.

Detailed studies of aspects of Islamic history are the next step after reading the general introductions. For the early period, the studies by W. Montgomery Watt are standard, especially his Muhammad at Mecca. Gustave E. von Grunebaum is an Islamic scholar who seeks to observe Islam objectively, neither as a Westerner nor as an Islamic apologist; his Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation is a perceptive, and at times provocative, analysis of the period of development following the initial expansion of Islam. The book he edited on the Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization is especially useful because of the papers on Iran, Spain, North Africa, Tropical Africa, and Turkey, as well as for the papers stressing the basic unity of Islam. His Muhammadan Festivals is the most convenient guide to the major holidays which play such an important part in all Muslim countries.

For Islam in modern times, Modern Trends in Islam, by H. A. R. Gibb, is a thoughtful survey by one of the most competent scholars in the field, giving the student the benefit of his extensive experience. Islam in Modern History, by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is a study of what is happening to Islam in a time of rapid transition; it is a thoughtful, sometimes disturbing, book which should be read by anyone who is teaching about Islam. Its treatment of the major areas of the Islamic world is an aid to understanding the present diversity in Islam.

Among the many books dealing with Islam in specific areas, three are mentioned here because they are of more than geographic interest. Leonard Binder’s Religion and Politics in Pakistan is a study of the interplay of Islam and politics in modern Pakistan and as such is an aid to understanding Pakistan, but from the point of view of Islam it is a case study of the problem of creating an independent democratic state in harmony with the traditional law of Islam, a pressing problem throughout the Islamic world. The Shi’ite Religion, by Dwight M. Donaldson, is incidentally a study of religion in Iran and Iraq, but it is primarily a study of the Shi’as, whose widespread influence is often slighted in general studies of Islam. The Religion of Java, by Clifford Geertz, does not even claim to speak for all of Indonesia, but it is useful to the student of Islam because it gives in rich detail a description of Islam in one village in the Far East. Geertz is an anthropologist, and this book is a good example of the valuable contributions anthropologists are making to the work of the historians and theologians. The Religion of Java deserves careful reading, not only for what it tells about Islam in Java, but for its insights into the comparative problems raised by the study of religion as it is followed in distant parts of the world.

As with the other religions, books about Islam are not enough; there must be some study of the scriptures and religious writings if the perspective of a religion other than our own is to be understood. This is especially difficult in Islam for, although the Qur’an is the final authority and is constantly quoted in discussions with Muslims, Westerners have difficulty reading translated versions with sympathetic understanding. One useful way to approach the study of the Qur’an is, after having read about Islam in some of the sources recommended above, to make a detailed study of the Second Surah, looking for the Qur’anic basis for the Fundamentals and Consequences of Islamic faith. The translation most frequently recommended by Islamic scholars who know English is Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. It has the advantage of being available in an inexpensive paperback edition. Pickthall’s translation is largely dependent upon The Holy Qur’an, translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali, but since Ali is an Ahmadiyyah, and many of his notes express the unorthodox ideas of the Ahmadiyyahs, his translation is not often recommended by Sunni Muslims. Sunnis have been known to say, however, that if the reader will be on his guard when reading the explanatory notes, the translation by Ali is one of the best. The third translation which is now widely recommended as superior is The Koran Interpreted, by A. J. Arberry. Arberry agrees with the orthodox Muslim that the Qur’an is untranslatable, that "the rhetoric and rhythm of the Arabic of the Koran are so characteristic, so powerful, so highly emotive, that any version whatsoever is bound in the nature of things to be but a poor copy of the glittering splendour of the original" (p. 24). In his version, he sought to "imitate, however imperfectly, those rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran" (p. 25). Anyone who is seeking to understand the Qur’an in English would do well to compare the three translations.

For other Islamic literature, the most useful guide is Reynold A. Nicholson’s A Literary History of the Arabs. Arthur Jeffery edited a useful anthology, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion, bringing together selections carefully chosen in consultation with devout Muslims to introduce important Islamic writings to Western readers.

Art is a special problem in Islam, for representation of any forms which might be suggestive of idolatry is forbidden. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art, by M. S. Dimand, is an excellent introduction to Islamic art. Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture, by Thomas W. Arnold, is a full discussion of the Muslim attitude toward portraying the living form.

The Religions of China

Without stopping to argue whether or not Confucianism or Taoism are religions, or even offering a definition of religion, it can be urged that an understanding of the history of China requires a good background in Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought. We have discussed Buddhism in China above, but it is also included in some of the books mentioned here.

Religion in China, by E. R and K. Hughes, is a quick introduction in the Hutchinson University Library series, giving a general sketch of the religious background of Chinese history. Karl Ludvig Reichelt’s Religion in Chinese Garment, while also a small book, gives much more detail, covering animism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Islam in China, all in concise, introductory presentations. Religion in Chinese Society, by C. K. Yang, is a recent study of religion in the family, in economic and political life, as a moral force, as an institution, and in relation to Communism. For the contemporary picture, Wing-tsit Chan’s Religious Trends in Modern China is indispensable; in addition to the two chapters on Buddhism, mentioned above, it discusses Confucianism, Islam, and the religion of the masses and of the intellectuals.

Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung, by H. G. Creel, is a widely used introduction which covers some of the religious background. For the philosophy of China, Fung Yu-lan’s Short History of Chinese Philosophy, a condensation of his two volume History of Chinese Philosophy, gives a clear discussion of Confucian, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist philosophy for the Western student who is trying to find his way. It is clear, without being oversimplified. And, again, de Bary’s Sources of Chinese Tradition provides a wide range of readings, with introductions, for filling in the background of the religions of China.

Special studies with relevance for understanding Confucianism and Taoism include Arthur Waley’s An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting and Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper’s The Art and Architecture of China, for to an unusual degree the understanding of the arts is necessary for an understanding of the religions of China. Arthur Waley’s Translations from the Chinese, an anthology of Chinese poetry, adds another dimension to the understanding of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought in Chinese culture. Of more specialized interest are some of the essays in Studies in Chinese Thought, edited by Arthur Wright, especially the articles by Derke Bodde on Harmony and Conflict in Chinese Philosophy, by W. Theodore de Bary on A Reappraisal of Neo-Confucianism, by David S. Nivison on The Problem of "Knowledge" and "Action" in Chinese Thought Since Wang Yang-Ming, and by Schuyler Cammann on Types of Symbols in Chinese Art.

Although the chief religious trends in China have been Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, some attention should be given to the influence of Motse, the radical critic of Confucius. The general writings mention him, but for a fuller treatment the best sources are two books by Y. P. Mei: Motse, Rival of Confucius, a biography and systematic discussion of his thought, and The Works of Motse.


The dates usually accepted for Confucius are 551-479 B. C. He was a wise man who spent his life as a teacher who tried to reform the government of his time. He insisted that he was not an innovator, but only sought to return to the wisdom of the ancients and his interpretation of that wisdom is given in the Analects. He taught the way of the true gentleman, respect for family ties, the importance of ritual and music in developing moral character. For centuries, a knowledge of Confucian teachings was required for advancement in government service in China. Mencius was his first great disciple.

Confucius and the Chinese Way, by H. G. Creel, is the most widely used biography of Confucius, written with understanding and admiration. For a short, brilliant interpretation of Mencius, the disciple of Confucius, see Waley’s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Arthur Waley has done a masterly translation of The Analects of Confucius with a more than adequate introduction and notes. A thorough knowledge of the Analects is a prerequisite for an understanding of Chinese religion, philosophy, and culture. There is also a translation of the Analects by James R. Ware, The Sayings of Confucius, available in paperback, and he has translated The Sayings of Mencius. Both the Analects and Mencius are translated by E. R. Hughes in Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times, an Everyman edition which has the advantage of including the writings of Taoism, of Mohism, and other writings Hughes found useful in his courses in Chinese thought, together with his introductory notes.


Taoism is based on the Tao Te Ching, dating from about the sixth century B. C. and attributed to an imaginary Lao-tse. Tao cannot be translated satisfactorily but can be understood in the context of the Tao Te Ching; it is interpreted to mean: the Way, course, method, order, norm, right conduct, reason, providence, the moral order, the physical order. It is like water, seeking the lowest place, yet penetrating the hardest substance. It is the way to be followed by those who achieve without striving; it is unassertive, inconspicuous, lowly, incomplete. Taoism teaches the way of harmony with nature, and has been the inspiration for much of the landscape painting of China. In its organized, cultic form, Taoism deteriorated in later years into a form of magic, seeking good fortune and long life, but even today the Tao Te Ching is an important element in Chinese and Japanese thought, especially in relation to Zen.

One of the best introductions to the Tao Te Ching, as well as the translation preferred by many, is found in Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power. This is not an easy religious writing to master, but it is one of the most haunting, provocative, and rewarding of the writings of the religions of Asia. No one translation will exhaust its possibilities and for the Westerner who cannot read Chinese it is desirable to compare as many translations as possible. Many years ago, Paul Carus, aided by an unknown young Japanese scholar, D. T. Suzuki, published a translation called The Canon of Reason and Virtue, choosing that title as their interpretation of the meaning of Tao Te Ching. R. H. Blakney has a translation, published by Mentor; and Witter Bynner published a poetic translation, which is at times a graceful interpretation, called The Way of Life According to Laotzu.

For Chuang Tzu, one of the early disciples of Taoism, there is an excellent introduction in Waley’s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, and the writings of Chuang Tzu are found in Hughes’s Chinese Philosophy in Classical Times and in a recent reissue of Chuang Tzu, Taoist Philosopher and Chinese Mystic, by Herbert A. Giles. The writings of Chuang Tzu are a help in understanding the Tao Te Ching. The Parting of the Way: Lao Tzu and the Chinese Movement, by Holmes Welch, is an informative interpretation of Taoism, especially useful since the latter half of the book treats of the later developments in Taoism.


Those whose interest in the religions of Asia has been aroused to the point that they want to consider some of the comparative problems raised by the study of religions other than one’s own will find thoughtful and searching discussions in two books recently published: World Religions and World Community, by Robert Lawson Slater, and The Meaning and End of Religion, by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Slater discusses problems of unity and diversity and of the developing of a "science" of religions, with applications to major Asian religions. Smith traces the use of the word "religion" in the West and argues that much of the difficulty in communication between religious groups is due to ambiguities arising from lack of discrimination in the use of the adjective "religious" and the noun "religion." It is a thoughtful book in which Smith reflects on the problems raised by the study of the religious thought and practices of the people of Asia, problems of historical method, of literary criticism, of language, of social organization, and of the values and standards by which men guide their lives.