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The religious beliefs and practices of Athens, Greece compared to the Gupta Empire Essay

The great myths and religions of the world can often be traced back to a distinct few sources. The direct definition of religion is the “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Most of the time the religions of one culture are based on the beliefs of another or an earlier culture. The religious beliefs and practices of Athens, Greece can be quite thoroughly compared and contrasted to those of the Gupta Empire, because while they vastly differ, however there are remarkable similarities between the two.

Ancient Greece was comprised of an abundant mountainous terrain, which led to the development of the polis around 750 B.C.E. Ancient Athenians were a thoughtful people, who delved into the logical study of subjects like science, philosophy, and history among various other studies. The ancients Greeks were polytheistic. (Kearns) A major way that their religion was taught was through myths and legends. Their major gods and goddesses lived at the top of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, and myths described their lives and actions. In myths, gods often actively intervened in the day-to-day lives of humans.

While the Greek religion was not based on a written creed or body of dogma, certain sacred writings survived through time in the form of hymns, oracles, inscriptions, and instructions to the dead. The most well known and ornate are the Homeric Hymns. Scholars are unsure whether or not theses were composed for religious festivals, though their subject matter is almost entirely mythological, based on the religions of today. These anecdotes were used to help explain the unknown and often teach a lesson. (Kearns)

While Hinduism was clearly the religion favored by the empire’s rulers, Buddhism still flourished. Hinduism “is a diverse family of devotional and ascetic cults and philosophical schools, all sharing a belief in reincarnation and involving the worship of one or more of a large pantheon of gods and goddesses.” (Lipner) Buddhism the newly flourishing religion had “no creator, god, and gives a central role to the doctrine of karma.

The ‘four noble truths’ of Buddhism state that all existence is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, that freedom from suffering is moksha, and that this is attained through the ‘eightfold’ path of ethical conduct, wisdom, and mental discipline.” (McKnight Jr.)

Hinduism is a religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent. It was founded in the Vedic civilization, where it has no one known founder, but is a compilation of diverse beliefs and traditions. It is considered one of the world’s oldest religions. Hinduism provides a vast body of scriptures. They have been further divided and reassigned to different sects as they have been revealed, and they have been further developed and taught and retaught throughout a millennia.

These scriptures explicate a broad of range of theology, philosophy and mythology, providing spiritual insights and guidance on the practice of karma and dharma. Among such texts, Hindus revere the Vedas and the Upanishads the most, and consider these as being among the foremost in authority, importance. Other major scriptures include the Tantras and the sectarian Agamas, the Purāṇas and the epic Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā, an exposition excerpted from the Mahābhārata, is widely considered a summary of the spiritual teachings of the Vedas. Hinduism does not have an official book of the religion, but these readings are the most highly revered. (Lipner)

Ancient Greek religion is the accumulation of stories belonging to the ancient Greeks, regarding their gods and heroes, the nature of the world and their own ritualistic practices. Modern scholars referred to the myths and studied them in an attempt to shed light on the religious institutions of ancient Greece. (Fustel de Coulanges) Greek mythology consists, in part, of a large collection of narratives that explain the origins of the world, and detail the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and other mythological creatures.

These accounts were initially fashioned and publicized in an oral-poetic tradition. These Greek myths and legends are known today predominantly from Greek literature. One of the oldest known literary sources are the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, which focus on events surrounding the Trojan War. Two poems by Homer, the scribe, the Theogony and the Works and Days, contain accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes, and the origin of sacrificial practices. Myths are also preserved in the Homeric hymns, in fragments of epic poems of the Epic Cycle, in lyric poems, and in writers of the time of the Roman Empire.

The legends are all of similar origins and have nearly the same fables spreading through the tales. Impressive confirmation at Mycenaean and Minoan sites helped to explain many of the questions about Homer’s epics and provided archaeological proofs of many of the mythological details about gods and heroes. Greek mythology was also represented in ancient relics.

(Fustel de Coulanges) Geometric designs on pottery of the 8th century B.C. portray scenes from the Trojan War, as well as the adventures of Heracles. In the successive Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, Homeric and various other mythological scenes appear to complement the existing erudite evidence.

Greek mythology has had an extensive stimulus on western civilization, the arts and the literature of Western civilization and remains part of Western heritage and language. (Kearns) It has been a part of the educational curriculum from grade school, while poets and artists from ancient times to the present have derived inspiration from Greek mythology and have discovered contemporary significance and relevance in classical mythological themes.

The greatest distinction is that Hinduism as a religion that is still practiced today whereas Greek mythology has become just that, mythology. The cultures’ beliefs touch on the same general topics, such as, creation, morals, and life after death. If anything, Hinduism likely had more impact on Greek society than the other way around. The idea that Greece influenced and shaped other cultures comes from the rather ethnocentric idea that the West was right. Greco-Roman society shaped American society today, so for ages historiography took the position that the Greeks and Romans were remarkable and framed history that way.

Another difference between the two ancient cultures is that they are not necessarily both polytheistic. One sect in Hinduism, the Arya Vedas, practice under the belief that there is one true omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being, and is in fact monotheistic. (Lipner) Also, running with the idea that both are polytheistic, there are many more minor gods and demi-gods present throughout Greek religion than in Hinduism. There are some key variances between the ancient religions that prove them to be very different.

While there is not much between the religions that seems similar up front, their methods of passing down their beliefs is not very different. There is essentially no set religious book or teaching method to Hinduism, Buddhism, or ancient Greek religion. They often use songs and hymns and various lyrical structures to convey their many beliefs.

There are few that actually attempted to write down a formal set of accounts and details about the ancient times and how certain beliefs came to be. Gods in both cultures were used gods to explain natural phenomenon. A majority of the gods would possess similar powers or personalities, since they experience similar natural phenomenon. These similarities seem meek and unassuming, but they are quite interesting and rather powerful if compared to religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam, where there is almost nothing in common in these monotheistic aspects.

The ancient Athenian Greeks praised their gods and gave thanks in a variety of methods. The ancient Greeks gods were often worshipped festivals, offerings in temples, sacrifices, and through drama about the life of the Gods. (Munn) Theses gods were prayed to for everything from everyday duties to hopes for victory in a terrific battle.

The Greeks would lie out sacrifices, burn incense and had other ritualistic practices whenever they gave praise to their gods. For example, when a sailor would leave for a journey, they would offer a sacrifice to Poseidon for a safe journey or simply pray in a group that consisted of anyone who may be affected from or affiliated with this voyage. Private sacrifices were offered for fulfillment of personal goals, wishes and victories. (Fustel de Coulanges) The gods of the ancient Greek religion were frequently worshipped and praised in temples dedicated to either “the gods” or one god in particular depending on what the prayer was for and what it regarded.

The Greek worship formula was essentially to give sacrifices so that the Gods will reward them in return. Greek prayers were held in a highly formulaic and ritualized manner in temples. The Greek temples were small buildings that contained the cult idol of the deity. Most of these temples did not have a professional or full time clergy or priest, but did have people sporadically checking it. The ancient Greeks considered sacrifice as the appropriate method to worship God. ( Johnson 1-20) Other more public worships were held to obtain public blessings, rain, good harvest, military victories, and to meet other common needs of a society.

Blood sacrifices of animals such as oxen, sheep, horses, swine, dogs, birds, fish, fowl and other animals were common in the temple of Gods. The Greek temples were part slaughterhouse and part feast. During sacrifices, the people offered the blood, bones and hides of the slaughter animal to the God. The remaining portions were used up as food for themselves. If done correctly the gods would reward the people with whatever trivial task with which they needed help. The Greeks worshipped very radically but in their eyes it was effective and the best use of their time.

The Indians of the ancient Gupta Empire praised their gods in a variety of ways as well. The Gupta Empire was a golden age for the Indian society. (Lipner) There were no longer unusually cruel punishments for petty crimes. There were also less petty crimes altogether. Among civilians, the evading of slaughter that had been a part of Buddhism and Jainism was more commonly practiced because of the cultural diffusion that impacted Hindus at this prosperous time. Also at this time the prominent religions switched and Hinduism benefited from royal support and appropriations, and it retained the authority it had lost to Buddhism.

The proper and prosperous Hindu in this era tried to live by good deeds, which was thought to help the believer achieve higher reincarnations, with nirvana as the ultimate goal. In the sacred Ganges River Hindus would pour water, milk, honey, flowers, and other offerings for the gods in the hopes that they would in turn get blessings and aid in their lives. They depicted their gods in all forms of art and had statues around their homes and temples to pray to and worship throughout the day, as they were needed. Most Hindus prayed to a deity, which was usually kept in a reserved position in the home, like the bedroom or puja room.

Mostly they prayed to the particular god or goddess to bring them good luck in whatever they were doing, or for the health of another, and to invite god into their homes. They prayed by kneeling, pressing their hands together and made offerings to the god through fruits, nuts, sweets, and money which was then blessed by the god before being eaten.

These goods would have been offered to the god also. Some schools advocated more spiritual practices, such as meditation and yoga. (McKnight Jr.) While others stated that there was no need to pray but one should make sure that each act, thought, and deed, should be of the highest moral authority. Ultimately, the end goal was to rid themselves of all desires and live a life of sacrifice and service.

The goals of each of the assorted methods to worship were all for very similar goals in the short-run. They both portrayed religious work in tapestries, and pottery, and various art works. Each religion, culture, and person prayed to their god for immediate gratification and help for a problem in the near future. There were some that were more profound than other prayers, but those were few and in between when looking at the cultures as entire entities.

(Fustel de Coulanges) They also had similar ideas of offering something to their gods to help get on the Gods’ more pleasant and willing side. In both cultures if something was preformed incorrectly in insufficiently the gods would react negatively and harm the humans and do they exact opposite of what they asked. (Lawson) There are few but close similarities between the way ancient Greeks and Indians worshiped their gods.

However, there were vast differences as well. The Greeks were much more extreme in their methods of worship and praising. The Hindus would never have sacrificed an animal to one of their Gods; they were also striving for a much less superficial goal in their reasons for prayers in the long run. The ancient Greeks rarely worshipped at home and more often than not would go to the acropolis to worship. The differences are fairly stark between the two, but they helped define the cultures.

There were also very negative aspects to both societies. The ancient Greeks believed that their lives were in the hands of the gods. (Munn) They had moral codes that they lived by. The gods set down these codes. Hubris was the greatest one of the most wretched sins. It was perhaps considered the most deadly sin. Hubris left its victims believing they were impervious to disaster pushing them to do and say things that ultimately put them on the same level as the gods.

There were also societal confines that people were expected to remain in, or they were to be punished by the gods for being so disobedient and disrespectful of the rules. (Fustel de Coulanges) For instance, in ancient Athens receiving anal sex as a man was seriously condemned as it put him in the position of a woman, which was considered very degrading, and anyone performing anal sex on a man or boy was viewed as corrupting and condemned for that. The concept of sin didn’t exist in Ancient Athens. Murder was another terrible crime of which to be convicted.

To commit murder was a great offense to the gods who would mete out the most severe punishments. ( Johnson 1-20) One example is the story of the house of Atreus. It is the story of how murder affected generations of a family. A man named Tantalus murdered his son and then cut his body into pieces. The crime committed was because of his egotism and greed.

Tantalus had no remorse for his crime and the members of the family were duty bound to avenge the son. While there was no justice during Tantalus lifetime in the end the gods’ punishment was induced. If one lived a good life one went to heaven, or the Elysian Fields. If not, they one went to Hades where one would spend an eternity paying for one’s crimes. (Lawson)

The ancient Indian customs were rather excessive when it came to sins and punishment. The idea was to be a good person overall. (McKnight Jr.) However, people were always looking for ways to enhance their Karma, so one would be trying to be a good person by acting selflessly while essentially acting selfishly. A Hindu tries to be right with God and avoid “unrighteous” behavior. Otherwise they’d be reincarnated at a lower being or just have to repeat another life.

To explore each individual god would depict more similarities between the two religions than are commonly associated. Zeus, to begin with, as the head of gods of Olympus is similar to Shiva, who would be considered the father of that group of gods; Indra much like Zeus uses a lightning bolt as his weapon and is god of the skies. ( Johnson 1-20) Indian Mythological Gods live on Mount Meru. Greek gods were know to drink Fruit Nectar and Ambrosia, and Indian gods drank nectar known as Amrit.

Many of the well known gods from each culture correlate with one and other. The Greek god Poseidon is the god of water. His weapon is a Trident. The Indian god Varuna is also a god of water. One of his weapons is Trident, which he borrowed from Lord Siva. Hades and Bali control the Greek and Indian underworlds respectively. Moreover, Yama is the Hindu god of death and afterlife.

Demeter and Bhoodevi are both goddesses of agriculture. Also, they both have daughters who were kidnapped and both stories explain the reasons for the four seasons. Similarly enough both legends claim that the seasons are based on the moods of the goddesses of agriculture. Hephaestus and Anura are both the “lame” gods, because of their disfigurement. They both gave fire to the humans and they were both thrown off their respective mountains. Viswakarma like Hephaestus builds weapons and tools for the other gods and are both skilled craftsmen. Hermes is messenger to the Greek gods and Garuda is messenger to lord Vishnu.

Aphrodite and Rati, both Goddess of Love and Beauty, were also born from the waves of the sea and each wear a diamond belt. Ares is the Greek God of war. (McKnight Jr.) Muruga is the Hindu God of war. Hera is the Greek Goddess of wealth, home and Prosperity. Lakshmi is the main Goddess for home, wealth and good fortune in Hindu mythology. Athena is the Greek Goddess of wisdom and learning, whereas Saraswathi is the Hindu Goddess of wisdom and learning. There are synonymous similarities between the gods themselves within these two religions and cultures. (Lawson)

However, much unlike the Hindu gods who serve to teach lesson, and represent all that can be right, the Greek gods possessed human traits; they were capable of unkindness, jealousy, anger, and they frequently fought amongst themselves. (Munn) Some more taboo subjects in other cultures and religions are very casual things in Greek and Hindu religions. (Johnson 1-20) Homosexuality, for example, is not resented in the Hindu religion and while it’s not overly accepted in either, people are not treated like pariah for being homosexual.

However in marriages in the Hindu culture a wife is expected to jump onto her husband’s funeral pyre. Whereas in Greek society it is completely acceptable if not encouraged for a woman to remarry. Women were also treated with much more respect in the ancient Athenian culture as opposed to the women who lived in India during the Gupta Empire. Both civilizations greatly valued education, but women in the Gupta Empire were not educated as well as those in ancient Athens.

There are a great many similarities between the ancient cultures. There were several different happenstances comparable the prior that allotted for more frivolity for the ancient Greeks. The cultures prevalent during Gupta Empire were thriving but stricter in their teachings. The two cultures were
incredible in their advancements, but their religions were so similar in some facets and completely diverse in others


Fustel de Coulanges, Numa D. The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Boston : Dover Publications Inc. , 2006. eBook.

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