Intercultural Understanding and Religion – Major World Religions

The first day of this module, we talked about the role of religion in schools in our native country. The countries we talked about were Peru, Japan, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. It was interesting to hear the differences. We received quite some information about the role of religion in Norwegian schools from our Norwegian teacher. CRLE is taught in Norwegian schools, which is Christianity, Religion, Life view an Ethics. Of course, our question was why the C was in there, as religion is also a part of CRLE. Apparently, a Christian political party decided that this was necessary. 55% of the subject is about Christianity. All religions are discussed in schools, but all from a Christian viewpoint. This was interesting to hear, as I never knew that religion was such a big deal in Norwegian schools.
We were asked to come up with a definition for ‘religion’. This was extremely hard to do. My first definition was ‘A group of people sharing the same beliefs about a certain higher power/being’, but do all religions believe in a higher power? We had to discuss our definitions in small groups to come up with another definition. My group came up with “Religion is a concept in which (a group of) people share a belief system, possibly including one or more higher powers, providing guidelines to base every day’s actions on.” Which seems to be quite broad. The teacher told us afterwards that there is no clear definition of religion. All the definitions made up so far lack something or are too broad. Even the one in the Oxford dictionary.

We have had so much information about this religion. I don’t even know where to start. We learned about some of the Gods they worship and that all the Gods can be recognized by certain symbols, like an animal they carry with them or a bracelet. All of these symbols have a background story of why the God carries this. We heard a few of these stories and they were so interesting. I learned that Hinduism is actually a monotheistic religion, because even though they have many Gods, people worship only one God and see all the other ones as less important. A lot of different concepts were spoken about during the lecture, we worked from the 8 key concept in Hinduism, which are dharma, Brahman, Avatara, Atman, Samsara, Moksha, Varna and Ashrama. Now we know what all of those mean for Hindus. We played the taboo game. In where you get a piece of paper where a word is written on that you have to describe to someone else, without using the words that are underneath it. For example, you need to describe Avatara without using the words ‘human’, ‘earth’ and ‘God’.

During the lecture on Buddhism, we talked about the 3 jewels of Buddhism. These are Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. According to the myth, three Gods that are also found in Hinduism, bowed for Buddha when he was born. All the stories told about Buddhism are very interesting to listen to. We learned about the four noble truths in Buddhism and the eightfold steps belonging to one of these truths. The beautiful thing about this path is that it is a guideline given by Buddha. The path can be seen as a raft that you can cross a river with, but there are other ways to cross the river. If you find another way, that’s also fine. Buddha found this path and gives it to others to use freely.
The teacher made a shrine for us to look at, one that could be similar to the one Buddhists will use to give offerings to Buddha. Buddha will always be at the back and higher than the shrine. The first thing to give could be water, as it is accessible to most people so easy to offer. There is a lot of diversity when it comes to different movements within Buddhism. We talked about some of these differences. The thing I found nicely thought of is the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, according to Mahayana. Let’s say you climb on a big wall and see a nice garden behind it with flowers and streams. Theravada go over there to reach nirvana, Mahayana go back to the village to tell them and so help others reach nirvana.
We did an activity during class where we were divided into three groups. Every group received a story and everyone was supposed to individually be able to retell the story without looking on the paper. I got the story of Siddharta, his cousin Devadatta and a swan, which was a nice story about Devadatta wanting to kill a swan but ended up only hurting him. As the swan was still alive, Siddharta said it was his swan now. Devadatta didn’t agree as he was the one who shot him. They went to the court of the Sage to ask for the answer, which was “A life certainly must belong to he who tries to save it, a life cannot belong to one who is only trying to destroy it.” When we were ready to retell the story, we had to throw dice. The highest number retells the story and the second highest comments on the story

At the beginning of the lecture, we started by looking at a fragment of ‘Fiddler on the roof’. We had to answer the following questions while watching this fragment:
– How is Judaism presented?
– How are gender roles presented?
– Do you recognize any religious symbols?
– Do you notice other elements?
The watching of this fragment stimulated me to watch the whole musical. As I love movies like this, I didn’t get why I never watched it before. I learned a lot more about Judaism while watching this movie.
We learned what kind of information the Torah contains and that there is a written as well as an oral Torah. Also about the definition of a Jew, which according to the Talmud is “A person born by Jewish (rel.) mother.” So, what about people who convert to Judaism or children from only a Jewish father? There are geographical, ethnic and religious affiliations. Geographical meaning a group of Jews living in a certain area, for instance Ashkenazic Jews. Ethnic being for instance a person who does not believe in God, but is born by a Jewish mother, which makes this person a Jew. Religious affiliation is people who are for instance orthodox or conservative Jews. It is important to have knowledge about different definitions of religion. After the Holocaust a lot of Jews didn’t want to be Jews anymore, so in their eyes they weren’t. Other Jews still saw them as Jews as they were born from a Jewish mother.
Another thing I did not know was that Hebrew was originally written without vowels, so in the Torah, God’s name is J H W, people made this Jahweh. In English, they write it like G_d, as they find that the word God can never be wiped out. Jehovah’s mixed the vowels of Adonai (another word for the Lord) with JHW, which gave them JaHoWaei (Jehovah). We learned a lot of Hebrew names for religious objects that I had never heard of before, like Mezuzah, Tallit and Tefilin and the different festivals which Judaism has.
The student activity that we did this lesson was looking at 3 different tables. These tables had 4 different objects on them. We had to tell which one didn’t belong.
Table 1) Dreidel – Hanukah – Matzos – Mekka compass
Table 2) Torah – Yad – Kippah – Shofar
Table 3) Torah – Passover food tray – Challah – Kippah – Shawl

Hindu temple and Mosque
We’ve been to a Hindu temple and a mosque as a class excursion. Only 4 people of the class could make it (out of 10) so we were with a small group. It was extremely interesting and fascinating. Especially the Hindu temple as I have never been in one and do not know many Hindu people. We had already had a lecture about Hinduism so we had some pre-knowledge which was very helpful. In the temple, we were taught about the different Gods and their avatars they had. We listened to some stories about how some Gods looked as they did, for instance why Hanuman was orange in one of the sculptures or why Ganesha has the head of an elephant. It was truly fascinating to listen to. We had the opportunity to be blessed by the Brahmin (priest) and we took a look in their kitchen. The smells of the herbs came flying right towards us when we stepped in, it was lovely.
In the mosque, we got a Powerpoint presentation about the key elements of the Islam. Afterwards we were given a tour and drank Turkish tea in a sort of living-room. We could ask all sorts of questions if we were still wondering about some things. After this, it was time for the midday prayer. We were allowed to watch this. We were upstairs in a gallery, able to look down to the men praying. The women were praying on the same floor as we were. It was interesting to see how this was done. The previous mosque that I visited, we were not allowed to watch the men pray, so this was a new experience.
All with all, this day was wonderful. It was great to experience and very nice to actually see what we had already learned about Hinduism during the lecture. Next week is a holiday, the week after we have a lecture about Islam.

The teacher started this lecture with putting on a video called “Happy British Muslims” ( and telling us that this video is critizied by other Muslims by the way the Muslims in the video are acting and dressing.
We spoke about how Islam is represented in our home country ad our associations with Islam. Which was quite different as the Muslim society in the Netherlands is visibly present as in Peru it is not. The teacher told us some facts about Islam in Norway, e.g. the amount of registered members, the actual amount of Muslims, the different attitude of Muslims towards other religions and people speaking for Islam in Norway. We received some suggested reading, “Who speaks for Islam?” by John L. Esposito, about what a billion Muslims really think.
We learned some facts about Islam and Muhammed, the first four Caliphs (leaders) of Islam and about the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. What is also interesting is the case of Ahmadiyya Muslims, which are not considered Muslims by the general Muslims. They own the biggest mosque in Oslo, but because Muslims don’t consider this a mosque, the biggest mosque in Oslo is ‘Oslo mosque’. Ahmaddiya Muslims are not allowed to travel to Mecca and Medina.
There are articles of faith that we talked about, which are belief in God; belief in angels; belief in holy books; belief in prophets; and belief in the Judgment day. We also spoke about the 5 pillars of the Islam, which are Ash-shahada (there is one God and Muhammed as messenger); Salat (daily prayers); Sawm (Ramadan); Zakat (alms); and Hajj (pilgrimage).

For every lecture, we had to prepare ourselves by reading a chapter in a certain book about that religion. In a remaining lecture, every student have a presentation about one of the chapters in this book that we hadn’t covered. These topics were Sikhism, Chinese religions, Japanese religions, religion in Africa, Native American religions, Spirituality (my topic), New Age religion, Paganism, Nacirema People and non-religious views of life.

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