When this column first started, each week the top of the page featured illustrations depicting symbols from various religions. I have often been asked what they mean. This answer originally aired in January 1998 and was an annual feature for a few years. A conversation in the newsroom made me realize it hasn’t aired in a while, so here’s an updated version.
Symbol: The wheel — represents the Eightfold Path
Members worldwide: 506 million as a religion. “Buddhism can play different roles in the lives of different people. For some, Buddhism is a religion. For others, it’s a philosophy. Still others practice Buddhism as a mental discipline through which they find themselves and experience inner peace,” said worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/buddhist-countries.
Members in the United States: 4,170,000
Members in Louisiana: less than 1% of the population
Holy text: Tripitaka is the oldest, but each branch of Buddhism has others.
Basic principles: It is a religion and a philosophical system, founded in India in the 6th century BC by Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). It teaches that right thought and self-denial will enable the soul to attain Nirvana, a divine state of freedom from misdirected desire. The basic doctrine is the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Noble Eightfold Path” provides a blueprint for life.
Symbol: Cross — Where Jesus, the Son of God, was killed
Members worldwide: 2.38 billion
Members in the United States: 230 million of different denominations
Members in Louisiana: 84% of the population
Holy text: Bible
Basic principles: Monotheistic religion of those who believe and follow Jesus, considered the Messiah or the Christ. Jesus is considered by Christians to be the son of God and the savior of mankind. Christians hold that Jesus was crucified for the sins of mankind and was brought back to life three days later to reconcile mankind to God. It was founded in the 1st century by the disciples of Jesus and has its roots in Judaism.
There are many different popular religions in the world. A high concentration is found in the Asia-Pacific.
Symbol: Yin-yang — Taoist symbol of harmony. There are many other popular religions with their own symbols.
Members worldwide: 405 million people
Sacred texts: In China – Tao Te Ching, Talks of Confucius, I Ching. Other popular religions have their own texts.
Basics: Many Asians do not adhere to a single religion. Taoism and Confucianism are two of the best known Chinese religions. Tao means “the way” and is based on the doctrine of Lao-tse (16th century BC). He advocates simplicity and altruism. Confucianism is an ethical teaching of Confucius that emphasizes devotion to parents, family, and friends, ancestor worship, and the maintenance of peace and justice.
Symbol: Om — the sacred syllable
Members worldwide: 1.2 billion, 95% of them in India
Members in the United States: it ranked 7th with 2,510,000 members in 2020
Louisiana: less than 1% of the population
Sacred texts: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharveda
Basic principles: Variety of beliefs and practices constituting the main tradition in India. It has ancient beginnings and countless sects. It is characterized by a belief in reincarnation, a supreme being with multiple forms and natures, and a caste system.
Symbol: star and crescent — The crescent represents Turkish or Muslim power
Members worldwide: 1.9 billion
Members in the United States: 3.45 million Muslims in the United States in 2017.
Members in Louisiana: 216 per 100,000 population
Holy text: Quran
Basic principles: Monotheistic religion in which the supreme deity is Allah. Muslims believe that those who repent and submit to God return to a sinless state, and the sinless go to paradise, a place of physical and spiritual pleasure. Chief prophet and founder is Muhammad.
Symbol: Star of David — On 7th century BC Jewish artifacts with no known meaning. In the 19th century, it was adapted as a simple sign to represent Judaism.
Members worldwide: 15.2 million
Members in the United States: 6 million
Members in Louisiana: 14,900
Sacred text: Torah, Talmud
Basic Principles: Jews believe that there is only one God, revealed to mankind through the Jews, who consider themselves to be God’s chosen or holy people. Legal and ethical standards, rituals and beliefs are revealed in the Torah. Judaism has its origins in Abraham and was the first of the monotheistic religions.
Sources: worldpopulationreview.com, www.pewresearch.org, “Ways We Worship” by William N. McElrath, The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion, tinyurl.com/4x7xtb4a