The Vedic Faiths all stem from India, with origins in pre-history, growing to become Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. They share a belief in continual reincarnation until moksha (escape) is achieved by gaining enlightenment, in a 'samsaric' (cyclic) system, controlled by the rules of karma. As such, although there are various powerful spirits, the cosmic doctrines of both Buddhism and Jainism is atheist1,2,3. Predating these belief systems are the Vedas including the Rig Veda and some of the Upanishads. There is immeasurable depth to the cultures surrounding these religions and each and every tenet has a long history of critical debate behind it.
“The Vedic traditions include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, linked by a common root in the Vedic culture of ancient India and by a belief that all existence is cyclical: Universes arise, exist, decline, and fade to be replaced by other universes, just as every being in these universes passes through many existences of reincarnations.”
“The Veda is a collection of some of the oldest religious texts in India and is divided into four sections; (1) the Rig-Veda (the oldest part), (2) the Sema-Veda (a collection of chants), (3) the Yajur Veda (liturgical prose) and (4) the Atharva Veda (chants, songs and spells).”
Hinduism is the name given to the cultural religions5 of India and encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices6 which are similar to those of other Vedic Faiths. It is polytheist, with many gods taking many forms6, and represented by many names in a kaleidoscope of symbolism and meaning. All living creatures embody a spark of the divine ('atman') which is carried into a new body after death6. There are many shrines, points of pilgrimage and places of reverence, such as the river Ganges, "especially where it flows through the city of Varanasi (Benares)"6. There are also many texts and scripts that are considered sacred, mostly written in Sanskrit6, one of the oldest written languages of mankind. In fact, most things about Indian religion are sourced from pre-history, and thus it represents one of the oldest traditions of belief that humanity possesses. Hinduism is counted as one of the great world religions7,8.
Historically, religion in India was decentralized and disparate rather than a single belief system. A process of cultural homogenisation had already centered along trade and pilgrimage routes9 but real change came under the influence of Western categorisers from the 18th century, who simplified all of India's culture under the single title of "Hinduism", an identity which Hindus now accept7. During the period of colonial rule Christian powers at first tolerated Hinduism but over time used harsher and harsher language towards it, labelling it as heretical10. Over the last decade or two a "Hindu-ness" movement, Hindutva, has seen a rise in intolerance of non-Hindu culture10 including physical attacks on Muslims and Christians11,12,13.
The historical evidence does not make it easy to trace the beginnings of Buddhism except that it sprung out of, and shares many basic beliefs, with Hinduism and other Vedic Faiths. "During the reign of emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) Buddhism became a major Indian religion and was subsequently established across the whole subcontinent and beyond"14 and is now counted as one of the great world religions15,16,17. It has grown so diverse that it is very hard to define its core nature - in 1913 one scholar pointed out that "in Japan alone it has differentiated itself into thirteen main sects and forty-four sub-sects". Buddhism is a well-liked and respected religion in the West; many attend Buddhist retreats, meditation centres and classes, and western Buddhist communities nearly all run such events for the general public. But in the West many who put "Buddhist" on census forms have merely attended some of these and who have an interest, but are not committed Buddhists, which artificially inflates the numbers.
Jainism is a 'Vedic' religion alongside Hinduism and Buddhism. Jainism is one of the great world religions15,8. It was founded in India in the 5th or 4th century BCE18 and was most popular between the 5th and 12th centuries CE19. Jainism, like other Vedic religions, embraces the concept of karma20, and although historically Jains took the idea to an extreme and sought to reduce and remove all desires and all effects of actions to become as passive as possible, modern Jains largely take into account the motives of actions, and so embrace a more moralistic form of karma21. Jainism is divided into two main factions (Digambara and Shvetambara) and the smaller Sthanakavasis; their main point of divergence is the extreme to which they take asceticism (plain living) and self-denial22.
Jainism is most famous for its fundamentalist stance of ahimsa (non-violence)19,23 and this key part of their doctrine even has staunch critics of religion such as Sam Harris speaking positively of Jain's peacefulness24 and its clear and inspiring stance managed to influence all of Indian culture19, and has adherents such as Mahatma Gandhi19. Critically speaking, the rest of Jainism is largely nonsensical and its stories are ahistorical; its doctrines of eternal cycles and 24-teachers-per-cycle (all of which happened to spend their lives in India) is daft, and even non-violence becomes counter-productive when faced with crop parasites and defending communities against violent attackers - Jainism only works as long as others maintain society for them.
Karma is an important concept in a range of Vedic religions and cultures, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, all stemming from Indian beliefs. Karma is a universal principal and cosmic law, like the Tao of Taoism25. Unlike Taoism, individual beings (and the entire universe) go through a large number of incarnations. It is closely linked to the concept of continual rebirth (reincarnation)26. Original Jain beliefs had it that all actions had negative karma and only complete serenity and detachment could help the situation21. Later Jain beliefs came closer Hindu and Buddhist ideas: Acts of merit such as pilgrimages and worship can improve your next fate27. Eventually, beings can break free from the cycle and scape the evil world in which we all are trapped. In Hinduism and Jainism this liberation is called moksha and in Buddhism the result is the attainment of enlightenment and nirvana. Western New Age movements have also taken on the concept "though sometimes with a degree of misunderstanding"27. All in all, more people on Earth believe in Karma through a series of rebirths than in any other religious principle.26,21,27,6,28,29