Religious conflict is often viewed as a major source of violent deaths in human history. The 2012 book Encyclopedia of Wars by Charles Phillips and Alex Axelrod lists 123 conflicts that were, ostensibly, primarily religiously-motivated, from the Crusades to the Taiping Rebellion. Considering that the Taiping Rebellion in particular took over 13 million lives, the intensity and the human cost of these wars can leave the impression that religious differences will very likely fill people with an animalistic rage that will compel them to tear fellow people apart.
In truth, religious wars account for less than 10% of all organized conflict, because many times neighboring religious communities not only live in peace, they also exchange ideas and beliefs. The very fabric of their religions can be influenced by these interchanges, altering the way millions of people view the world for millennia after.
10. Christianity Overlap with Hinduism
For those unfamiliar with Hinduism, the Vedas are transcripts from before 1500 BCE of the earliest religious leaders after they performed deep meditation. They range from outlining the protocol for rituals, to stories of mythical figures. Those mythical figures include Lord Rama, a supposed manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and according to a significant number of interpretations, Jesus Christ. Yes, there is a widely held belief in Hinduism that the carpenter from Galilee is the eighth manifestation of Vishnu as a human. He is known by some as Krishna; by others, according to the BBC, as Ishu.
There are many historians that claim this did not occur organically. For example, Sanskrit Magazine cites historians that postulate that the relevant mantras are forgeries that were put in the Vedas by British colonizers in an attempt to convert the population of India from Hinduism to Christianity. It should be considered that the origins of the ancient Vedas are themselves so murky that there are many who believe they came from Aryans in Central Asia instead of India. So, who is to say which portions of the scripture were added to advance which group’s agenda?
9. Greek Mythology Changes Roman
It’s commonly asserted that the gods of Ancient Rome are just the Greek gods with different names (Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, war god Ares became Mars, etc.). But the Romans weren’t merely cutting and pasting and then rebranding gods from across the Aegean Sea that the Greeks had brought to their Italian colonies. Before the Greek influence arrived, Roman beliefs were much less rigid and personified. It was a belief in spirits that imbued everything, which is much more similar to the kami concept in Shintoism than any popular religions that originated in the Middle East.
Romans largely distinguished themselves from their Greek counterparts in the social role that religion played. For example, the priesthood was a publicly accessible institution in Rome in a way that it was not in Greece. For another, religious rituals were prioritized over beliefs, which was why they clashed with the emergent Christians much more over the newer religion’s adherents being unwilling to perform the rituals than which God they worshiped or how many. They also had their institution of vestal virgins, which TopTenz previously covered in depth.
8. Greek Mythology Changes Christianity
Considering that the first known copies of the New Testament were written in Greek, it was inevitable that the prevailing religious concepts of Greece would influence the teachings of Christ. This was especially the case as the early translations were into supposedly common, lower class Greek instead of more scholarly Greek. As it would later be when Martin Luther started the capital crime of translating the Bible from Latin in 1517, popular consumption was more important than academic purity.
As reported by Arthur Fairbanks in A Handbook of Greek Religion in 1910, the elevation of the Virgin Mary was significantly influenced by the worship of virgin wisdom goddess Athena. The notion of having patron saints of specific groups is modeled on having gods of those same groups, such as Poseidon becoming the equivalent of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors. More significantly, the holiday Easter is, to a significant degree, modeled on Greek originals.
7. Christianity Takes from Mithraism
For our last entry on Christianity, we’re going to highlight something a tad less familiar than Greek mythology. Mithraism is Roman-influenced worship of the Persian sun god Mithra. It fell out of fashion after Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion for the Roman Empire. Yet despite being driven into obscurity by the religion from Israel, it still left its mark on the religion that supplanted it on the way out.
For example, surviving records of the cult of Mithra record him as being referred to as “the redeemer” or “the way, the truth, the light” before such labels for Jesus Christ were popularized. According to the BBC, the notion of labeling a clerical leader a “father” was also present in Mithraism. While scholars have generally rejected the notion that Jesus Christ is just an imitation of Mithra, certain phrases and terms are heavily indicated to have carried over.
6. Buddhism Changes Shintoism
Shintoism was mentioned earlier, but unlike pre-empire Roman mythology, Buddhism actually did shape the single most popular religion of Japan (which makes sense, since as of 2020 Buddhism is the second most popular religion of the island nation). Indeed, the influence of Buddhism on Shinto is surprisingly firmly established, to the extent that it has been recorded that Buddhism first arrived in Japan in 552 CE. In short order, Buddhist priests began to claim that the Kami spirits of Shintoism were manifestations of enlightened Buddhist adherents, undergoing constant cycles of death and rebirth. Over the centuries, the religions blurred to a point where Shinto shrines had statues of the Buddha and Buddhist priests maintained Shinto temples.
By the 12th Century CE, there were formal attempts to amalgamate the religions. By the 13th, a reactionary sect of Shinto called Watari Shinto attempted to purge the Buddhist elements. While it succeeded in maintaining Shintoism as separate, the Encyclopedia Britannica claims that by the 16th Century BCE, Watari Shintoism had codified into the most prevalent school of Shintoism that one could use to connect best with Kami through pursuing inner purity and enlightenment. That’s an extremely Buddhist notion that did not exist in any recorded versions of Shintoism before 552 CE. Even as Watari Shinto attempted to purge Buddhism, it codified its influence on the religion for centuries to come.
5. Islam on Hinduism
Even as Buddhism spread its influence to the East, Islam was coming from the west to have its effect on Buddhism in its own birthplace. This was often not a comfortable process, as the first recorded interactions between the cultures include the 696 CE conquest of modern Uzbekistan and conversion of Buddhist monasteries into mosques. These invasions would continue into the 10th Century CE and beyond. Still, as we said in the intro, violence can often be an effective form of proselytization.
A particularly famous way that Islam changed Buddhist lore was recorded in 851 CE. On a mountain in Sri Lanka, there was a legend that the Buddha had left a footprint. After Islam spread to the island, the myth was changed so that the footprint had actually been left there by Adam of the Torah/Bible/Koran, which was significant enough that the mountain was named “Adam’s Peak.” Most belief systems don’t leave such literal footprints.
4. Hindu/Muslim Dargahs
On a regional basis, Islam and Hinduism are two extremely contentious religions. Muslim invasions of India in particular have been leading to the destruction or conversion of Hindu temples into mosques since practically the 7th Century CE. On the hand, the regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, since 2014, aggressively encouraged persecution of Muslims to an extent that has included mass-lynchings. On a more personal level, though, peaceful coexistence has reached a level where it’s practically required by religious practice.
There are hundreds of sites throughout India where Hindus and Muslims perform their respective prayers literally just out of arms’ reach from each other. These shared places of worship are known as Dargah, which roughly translates to “doorway” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. As reported by India Today in 2017, the widespread use of Dargah throughout India is commonly used on social media to contend against the notion that Indian society is so bifurcated that amiable coexistence between the groups is impossible.
3. Hinduism to Buddhism
As seen in the first entry of this list, some sects of Hinduism have been willing to incorporate figures from other religions for one reason or another. This was also done to a much more familiar religion early in both of their histories. For as popular as Buddha, or Prince Siddharta Gautama, was among Hindu groups in the centuries after his death, overwhelmingly they were not about to convert to Buddhism. Even Ashoka the Great, the conqueror of modern India and the highest profile patron of Buddhism through his construction of many monasteries and pillars to the belief system, remained officially a follower of Hinduism.
One particular sect took this in the most practical direction. Vaishnavism contends that the Buddha was another incarnation of the god Vishnu on Earth. Unlike the murky story behind how Jesus Christ came to be labeled an avatar of Vishnu, Hindus and Buddhists have a solid grasp on who originated this notion: 12th Century poet Jayadeva. He claimed that Vishnu became Buddha largely in an effort to put a stop to the practice of animal sacrifice common among Hindu communities in Buddha’s time, which to be fair was consistent with the Buddha’s own words on the matter. Confusingly, while Christ was listed as the eighth avatar of Vishnu, Buddha was the ninth, despite living centuries earlier.
2. Muslim Sicily
In 827 CE, Islamic forces began an occupation of Sicily which ended in the conquest of the island by 902. Though the last of them were driven from the island in the 11th Century, their mark lasted in one vastly more enduring way. The force that drove the Islamic forces out of Sicily was another seafaring empire, the Normans. As much as the Norman Christians disapproved of Islam, they were much more approving of the architecture of their mosques.
Islamic architectural touches that Normans pilfered included the use of tile mosaics for decoration of chapels. And, more significantly, the also “borrowed” arches, buttresses, and even decorative facades. Another trend was to move all the really flashy decorative touches from the outside of the buildings to the interiors to help immerse believers in the sense of awe that were meant to impart. This wasn’t to say that Islamic architecture was all about being flashy and throwing gold around; to a significant extent, the more elaborate architecture was meant to instill a sense of awe despite using less expensive construction materials. Buildings such as the Palatine Cathedral in Palermo, Sicily in particular are rife with Islamic touches despite being the work of Norman architects.
1. Moors Bring Greek Philosophy
As much cultural influence was left behind by Muslim occupiers in Italy, Spain was left with far more. It stands to reason, as historians claim that they controlled between a half and a third of the Iberian Peninsula for about 535 years starting in 711 CE. It was far from utopia, with many Muslim leaders had a number of intolerant practices against the Christians that they had colonized such as raiding their churches and restricting public displays of Christianity. Still the timing of the Islamic conquests roughly coincided with a philosophical revolution in the Muslim world that they brought with them to Europe.
In the 9th and 10th Centuries CE, the previously controversial or dismissed teachings of Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, etc. received major endorsements from venerated intellectuals of the time al-Kindi and al-Razi for reinvigorating analysis of spirituality and logic. When the teachings of the Greek masters reached generations of Spanish theologians that would go on to form the schools of metaphysics throughout the Catholic Church, it was initially through Arabic translations.
Dustin Koski wrote the fantasy novel A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, and any religion that would like to be influenced by it is welcome to do so.