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What Is Asian Theology?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Asian theology relates to the spiritual faiths that are native to the Asian continent. These include Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism as well as more esoteric philosophies, such as Zen and Taoism. These belief systems are often grouped together, especially by Western religious scholars, as “Oriental” or “Eastern philosophy.” Asian theology, however, is more diverse and complex than this umbrella title suggests, originating in nations such as Japan, China, and India, which have their own distinct cultures and histories. Some of these faiths are far more ancient than comparable Western belief systems, such as Islam and Christianity.

The Asian continent stretches eastward from the Balkan Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, encompassing the modern nations of India, Russia, and Japan, among many others. It is home to some of the oldest cultures on Earth, including those of India and China. The Middle East is sometimes considered part of Asia geographically, but in discussions of theology, it is more strongly linked to Europe and the West. Asian theology includes religions specific to one nation, such as Shinto in Japan and Jainism in India. Other faiths, like Buddhism and Taoism, have spread successfully throughout Asia and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the world as well.

Hinduism and Jainism both originated in ancient India and still have millions of followers in the present day. Each believes in pantheism, or the existence of multiple gods, and reincarnation. Buddhism was founded in India by the spiritual teacher Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, around 500 BC. Buddha taught that progress to higher spiritual knowledge, or enlightenment, could take many lifetimes, but would eventually bring freedom from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Other Buddhist teachings, such as non-violence and karma, have influenced cultures around the world.

Buddhist missionaries eventually traveled throughout Asia, with consequences for Asian theology as a whole. Buddhism was quite successful in China, where it meshed with similar philosophies, such as Taoism. Taoism, founded by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, teaches that, through wordless contemplation, one can achieve harmony with the rhythms of nature. Zen Buddhism, the Chinese form of Buddhism, has a similar view of the cosmos, which may or may not contain a god or gods. These esoteric beliefs are very different from the religions of the West; consequently, many Westerners found them strange to contemplate until the 1960s and ‘70s.

Animism and ancestor worship are important parts of Asian theology in many nations. Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, is an example of one faith that embraces these concepts. In these systems, animals, sacred places, and even objects have spirits that can influence the world and must be treated with respect; the same is true of ancestor spirits. Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand have similar traditional belief systems. All these nations are also populated by numerous members of other faiths, including Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.

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