Seven Important Lessons From World Religions Everyone Should Know

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

It doesn't matter if you're an atheist, devout follower of your faith, an agnostic or something in between — there's wisdom to be learnt from the world's religions. Here are some of the most important, universally applicable teachings from sacred texts everyone would benefit from learning.

Pictures: jeh_somwang (Shutterstock), oskay, San Jose Library, Moyan Brenn, North Charleston, Celestine Chua, Brian Hillegas

I'm not a theologian by any means, but comparative religion has been an interest of mine for more than two decades. Reading The World's Wisdom by Philip Novak, The Enlightened Mind compiled by Stephen Mitchell, and other such compilations of the world's religious traditions, the one thing that has struck me most is the common themes running through them all — stories of community, of treating others with respect and of finding your purpose in life.

Putting aside differing beliefs — about the afterlife, the nature of the divine, and religious rituals — we can all glean life lessons from ancient scriptures. Here are some of the most notable ones from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (I'm choosing the most "popular" religions here based on the number of people adhering to these faiths and my familiarity with them, but also including other religions like Judaism and Sikhism where I have more information.)

1. The Golden Rule

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

If there's any universal truth or common teaching across various religions, it's probably the golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. As TeachingValues.com points out, this tenet is expressed in Christianity, Confuscianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism and Zoroastriantism.

The Jewish Talmud, for example, says:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.

The Hindu Mahabharata declares:

This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.

And from the Islamic Sunnah:

No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.

In the secular world, this is called empathy, one of the most important skills you can learn both for your career and social life. It's about understanding where the other person is coming from and, even more important, treating their concerns the way you would your own.

2. Work for the Happiness of Others, Especially the Poor and Unfortunate

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

This teaching is similar to the golden rule, but expressly asks us to look out for others less fortunate than us. Studies have found that the most successful people tend to be givers rather than takers, and religions advocate this idea of selflessness and charity.

Buddha's final instructions on "the mission" set before us, for example, is to work for the happiness of others:

Go your ways, oh monks, for the benefit of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit and happiness of gods and men.

The Bible also preaches concern for the unfortunate:

If…there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy…

Albert Einstein went so far as to declare that Judaism isn't really a religion, but a tradition that celebrates the beauty of every single life:

Judaism appears to me to be almost exclusively concerned with the moral attitude in and toward life. […] The essence of the Jewish concept of life seems to me to be the affirmation of life for all creatures. […} There remains, however, something more in the Jewish tradition, so gloriously revealed in certain of the psalms; namely a kind of drunken joy and surprise at the beauty and incomprehensible sublimity of this world, of which man can attain but a faint intimation. It is the feeling from which genuine research draws its intellectual strength, but which also seems to manifest itself in the song of birds…

Caring for the unfortunate is one of the founding tenets of Sikhism, as CNN reports:

"(Founder) Guru Nanak said that if you want to meet God, serve the poor people," Johar says.

Gurdwaras around the world variously incorporate clinics, schools, guest quarters and community centres, which Sikhs say is a sign of the religion's values of service and equality.

And, as Zeeshan Rasool shared with me, Islamic prophets also emphasise the importance of being a beacon for others (and turning the other cheek, as Jesus exemplified):

"Be like the flower that gives its fragrance to even the hand that crushes it." - Imam Ali ibn

3. Focus on the Present

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

As much as religions preach about the afterlife, they also emphasise making the most of the time we have available now (and isn't that the point of all our productivity hacks?).

Buddhism's emphasis on mindfulness and meditation might be the most prominent examples, but other religions also encourage us to savour the moment and sharpen our awareness.

Tyler Lear, a former theology student, notes, for example, that Hinduism is hinged on your "rightful stage" or life priority at the time:

In Vedic Hinduism (there are significant aspects in modern versions of Hinduism and Indian culture in general, but it's not as hard-and-fast as it's represented in the Vedas), there are four life stages: student, householder, retiree, renouncer. [...] These stages do not necessarily have to all be completed in a lifetime; in fact, it could take several lifetimes to work through a single stage, depending on the person. When one was acting within one's rightful stage (i.e. a householder doing their best to raise their family, work hard, and earn lots of money or a renouncer praying and meditating, having as little to do with other humans as possible), then one is actively contributing to the cosmic order. In other words, if you do what you're supposed to do according to your stage (among other things, like caste, etc.), you're helping hold the universe together.

Bottom line: Everyone's at a different place in life, with different priorities, and that's a good thing.

The Hindu Svetesvatara Upanishad recommends the "quiet retreat of Yoga":

Find a quiet retreat for the practice of Yoga, sheltered from the wind, level and clean, free from rubbish, smouldering fires, and ugliness, and where the sound of waters and the beauty of the place help thought and contemplation.

And Jesus told his followers:

Take therefore no thought for tomorrow: for tomorrow shall take thought of the things for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

In other words, worrying is a pretty useless pasttime. The only things you'll actually regret on your deathbed are things like not expressing your feelings and sacrificing family time for work.

4. Aim for Achievements, Not Money

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

More money doesn't always mean more happiness — an idea most religions are happy to point out. Stop running after material things, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism agree.

Imam Ali ibn abi Talib says:

"The parable of this world is like your shadow - If you stop, it stands still. If you chase it, it distances itself from you."

Money can also distract you from the bigger picture, as Jesus said:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

That's not to say we have to cast off all material possessions. Buddhism teaches the joy of not being in debt and finding your career path. Still, the things that make us happiest in life are not things we can add up with a calculator.

5. Interact with the Community

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

Religious practice forces you out of your shell (if you're the type, like me, to have a social shell). That's a good thing, because shared religious beliefs or not, we all depend on each other to not just survive but also thrive.

A Jewish rabbi, through Tyler Lear, pointed out that community is the defining trait of Judaism:

There are many different ways to be Jewish, including atheist Jews, but the people are really what bring everything together. They share a common history and (in most ways) a common culture. [Side note: this is one of the biggest issues with people converting to Judaism; if you have to convert, you weren't part of the community to begin with, which makes sharing in that common background far harder.]

Bottom line: Life is about the people you're with, a sense of community with those around you; nothing else matters nearly as much.

Other religions also emphasise this. Islam's five daily prayer practices, for example, bring followers together throughout the day, as do other religion's formal, regular services. My favourite part of Catholic mass has always been that "peace be with you" shaking of hands with the strangers in your pew — I bestow peace on you, you bestow it on me, and at least in that moment everything is right with the world. Being an active participant in the community might not come naturally to many of us, but at the very least, religion reminds us that we are not alone.

6. Take Responsibility for Your Actions

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

"What goes around, comes around." Most religions have their own interpretation of karma and warn followers that your choices and actions have consequences.

Karma yoga is perhaps the central teaching from Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita. It's not the action itself that matters, but the quality of mind behind your actions that bind you. Act for the sake of acting, without desire for the rewards (Getting started is everything.):

If one identifies with one's actions, desiring certain results, one is bound to that action-pattern and doomed to rebirth. However, if one acts earnestly but without attachment to results, performing every action as an offering to God, knowing that God alone is the only Actor, one proceeds on the path to liberation.

The core doctrine of Buddhism also teaches in the Eightfold Path that:

All beings are the owners of their deeds (karma), the heirs of their deeds; their deeds are the womb from which they sprang…Whatever deeds they do — good or evil — of such they will be the heirs.

GotQuestions.org interprets karma for Christians — essentially, you reap what you sow:

The Bible talks a lot about reaping and sowing. Job 4:8 says, "As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it."Psalm 126:5 says, "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." [...] In each of these instances, as well as all the other references to reaping and sowing, the act of receiving the rewards of your actions takes place in this life, not in some future life. It is a present-day activity, and the references make it clear that the fruit you reap will be commensurate with the actions you have performed. In addition, the sowing you perform in this life will affect your reward or punishment in the afterlife.

7. Know Yourself (Make Up Your Own Mind)

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

Many people associate religion with indoctrination, but if you study the texts from the world's major religions, they actually advocate looking within yourself to make up your own mind — and maybe find your spiritual core within yourself.

My favourite Zen story is this:

A monk asked Seon Master Un-mun, "What is Buddha?"

The master replied, "Dried shit on a stick."

And also:

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Even though religions have very structured practices, self-reflection Is strongly encouraged.

John Calvin's Christian writings in Institutes proclaims:

Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves (Institutes, 1.1.1).

Calvin argued that one could not truly know God without knowing oneself and that one couldn't truly know oneself without knowing God. Calvin acknowledged the obvious dilemma in saying, "which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern."

And Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib advises:

"One who often thinks and reflects develops his foresight and vision."

Stay curious and keep questioning — but also don't discount the wisdom of the ages.

Bonus: "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Seven Important Lessons from World Religions Everyone Should Know

~ Master Yoda

Special thanks to Zeeshan Rasool and Tyler Lear for helping out with this article.


Comments

    Not very smart putting a religious article here..!
    Very few of those things has anything to do with religion, and most could be applied to most circumstances without it..!
    Going by current and past religious activities, I would have thought, Kill anyone who does not believe in your God should be high on that list..!!

      I don't intend to kill anyone. Nor is such taught to me by my religion. Don't you think it kind of unfair to lump all religious people with the few extremists? Would that not be like me lumping all atheists with Mao Zedong or Pol Pot?

        I think you're conveniently forgetting history... The inquisition, the Holy wars etc... There are a lot of examples of all religions doing great harm throughout history, because they wanted to force their beliefs on others..! As for Atheists, the point there is that they don't believe in a deity... there are bad people in all walks of life, those you mention are the exception, not the rule..!

          I put it to you that you have a double standard. The largest genocide in history was against a religious group by someone who called Christianity "fit for slaves." The second-largest genocide was committed by someone whose express intention was to wipe out religions entirely. (These two genocides, plus those alluded to earlier, by best estimates, are *orders of magnitude* worse than all the deaths caused in the names of religions.) You say I ignore history: I say you're being selective. If you should be allowed to exclude from your reckoning atheists who have done wrong, saying that other things motivated them (in spite of their own words) then I should also be allowed to exclude from my reckoning religious people who have done wrong, saying that other things motivated them (in spite of their own words).

          Just as there have been terrible religious people in the past, so too have there been terrible non-religious people in the past. Just as it is unintelligent to write off atheism due to some bad atheists, so it is unintelligent to write off religions because of some bad religious people. I'd say that bad religious people are the exception to the rule in the same way that you say bad atheists are the exception to the rule!

          All philosophies (religious or not) should be judged first and foremost on the philosophies themselves, not the actions of those who only claimed to live by them.

          Last edited 02/08/14 10:27 am

            You need to cite some more info than "Christianity fit for slaves", I have no idea what that was about nor the other "someone whose express intention was to wipe out religions entirely"..!
            Afaik, Religion has a lot to answer for in the name of a magical dude in the sky, who grants wishes if you put your hands together and make a wish. Now obviously I am biased and unashamedly so... but putting a religious article on this site is just asking for trouble..! Personally, none of those so called lessons mentioned above, need to be religious, so the point is moot..!

              They don't (need to be religious), yet, however, are (part of the collective and beliefs). This is the point of the article, which I believe you have missed. There is nothing in here which dictates or even slightly influences my beliefs either way. I say there is nothing unintelligent about the article whatsoever. Especially in this Capitalist age, and with the status of worldly current affairs.

                I didn't miss the point, I made my own..! and that is what everyone should be doing, when they post articles with a religious tone..!

                Last edited 04/08/14 7:59 am

          There are a lot of examples of any group, secular or otherwise, doing horrible things. There's one common link: power or resources. The Crusades used religion to bind people to the cause, but if you think it was really about anything other than controlling more land and resources then you're deluded. Invoking Godwin's Law here, but the Nazis didn't need religion to justify their crimes. World War 1 didn't need a religious trigger.

          The view that religion is at the root of all wars is just as misguided as the religious zealots that say atheists are inherently immoral. The reason religion featured so prominently in human wars is because it was part of the state as a means of control. Today we have plenty of other causes for going to war that are secular in nature. #Communists #Oil #Kony2012

            if you think it was really about anything other than controlling more land and resources then you're deludedI agree wholeheartedly with that, and I never said "all" wars are religious..! BUT.. an awful lot of them were, and a lot of people died or were persecuted, because of it, be it a grab for power or whatever else, religion was the catalyst..! :)

          I think you need to do a little more research there, champ. As far as a religious death toll vs non-religious death toll goes it's pretty equal, so your argument lacks substance. For example, if you consider the deaths caused by communist groups (Stalin, Po Pot etc), which incidentally is vehemently anti-religion, they too did so in order to force their beliefs onto others.

            And we'll conveniently bypass the whole religion is supposed to be of benefit to mankind, not bloody minded and murderous... Champ...!!

            Last edited 04/08/14 4:04 pm

              It hasn't been bypassed at all. I'm commenting directly on your claims about
              There are a lot of examples of all religions doing great harm throughout history, because they wanted to force their beliefs on others
              which is true, yet as I pointed out there have been equally (if not more so) horrible atrocities committed for the exact same reasons your mention by anti-religionists.

              The best you could honestly argue at this point is that people do evil things, especially given that their religions (or at least most of them) teach the exact opposite.

                Yeah, I'm done with this nonsense now, ditto with 'yer next comment... I'm not fighting a battle of wits with an unarmed man..! :)

                  ditto with 'yer next comment

                  You mean the one where you insulted me? It's pretty cowardly to do that and then run away.

                  Again, these "generic and ubiquitous, so called lessons" appear to have not made such of an impression on you, indicating that they're not all that ubiquitous?

                  Maybe you should get some religion?

                  Last edited 06/08/14 10:23 am

      It's not really preaching. It's more showing the common theme of humanity in the texts and teachings of the religions shown, as well as implying that most others share those same key values that link us all, and make us - with or without religion - better people.

      If it was "seven hateful things religion is responsible for", or "seven ways religions have contradicted their own values", then it would be a different matter. In that case, feel free to bring up the inhumanity brought forward by members of a religion ignoring the key values of their own faith.

      dot-dot-exclamation

        My point is that none of those lessons needs a religion behind them to be relevant..!

          Out of interest, can you point to a non-religious text that is as widely read and distributed as a religious text that also has those same (or similar) teachings?

            I don't need to stupid, they are generic and ubiquitous, so called lessons..!
            Careful now, your religious bias is showing..!!

            Last edited 04/08/14 4:06 pm

              Given that human history displays the exact opposite of what most religions teach, it seems to me that they are not "generic and ubiquitous, so called lessons".

              I don't need to stupid, they are generic...
              And given that you decided to insult me personally over this, I guess the lessons you claim to be "generic and ubiquitous, so called lessons" must have escaped your (presumably non-religious) notice (since you've certainly not understood them).

      Non-religious ideologies haven't exactly had a shining record in avoiding genocide either. Stalin's purges and the Long March come to mind. The big wars of the 20th century were fought on nationalistic, not religious grounds

      That's not to claim that theism is perfect by any means, but those who claim that religion is the root of all worldly evil have clearly not been paying attention.

      That said, I agree that there's really no reason to tie the principles expressed in the original article to religion as such. It is somewhat interesting that most religions agree on a few basics. Unfortunately there are a raft of other things they disagree on, at times (but rarely) to a homicidal degree.

        Religions, in general, are supposed to be of benefit to man... So you really can't compare their wars to non religious war, in that they (religion) should not be a detriment, whereas non religious wars etc, are generally fought for the same reasons except without the religious imperative..! I hope that makes sense..? :)

          Religions are, on the whole, supposed to be beneficial to their adherents, not to man in general (with a small number of exceptions.) However, almost all religious wars are not primarily about religion but about culture on a more general basis and frequently about issues that have at best fleeting acquaintance with the religions in question. Religion is frequently the excuse for a war, not the actual reason.

          I make no claims that religion is all sweetness and light, only that the non-theistic alternatives are, in terms of expressing violence for their own purposes, not really any better.

    Clarification on point 1: I think you're conflating the Silver Rule and the Golden Rule.

    Silver Rule: Don't do to others what you don't want done to you.

    Golden Rule: Do to others what you want done to you.

    The Silver Rule is a rule against harming others, but the Golden Rule is a compulsion to help others. It (hopefully) shouldn't take much reflection to see the sharp distinction between the two. If he'll is needed, ponder this: Should I actively go out to help someone who is suffering a situation that I never will?

    To my knowledge, of the world's largest four religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam), only one - Christianity - has a universally-applicable Golden Rule. The rest have only a Silver Rule or, in the case of Islam (as far as I'm aware) a Golden Rule applicable only to fellow adherents.

    If you believe in the genesis account of creation then your church has lied to you, if you believe in miracles then your church has lied to you, I could go on but......

      If you believe the Bible is a science book, then you are listening to the wrong people.

    I see lessons related to humanity, but I don't see how they are related to religion any more than philosophy, psychology and good old experience

    To take a Christian perspective, a lot of these lessons are from the post-enlightenment age - in other words the quality of human thought developed, and a set of beliefs that was being used to justify holy wars, slavery etc began to change into what we know today

    If anything I see the lessons teaching religion

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