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Soteriology: Part Two

The Way of Action and Obligation

The way of action is characterized by:

      a practical, non-dramatic approach to religion
      an ordered, disciplined pattern
      tradition and conformity

Hinduism, Islam and Judaism all follow the way of salvation by action and obligation. 


Classic Hinduism teaches that the practice of dharma (duty) will lead to a happy and moral life.  Dharma is understood as an eternally fixed moral law which is manifest in the duties and social obligations appropriate to each caste and to each stage of life. In other words, there are duties that differ from class to class in society.  Moreover, these duties change as one passes through the various stages of life from infancy to old age.  The practice of dharma ensures the stability of society and also is the means by which individuals can eventually attain liberation from rebirth.



From its beginning Islam has stressed duty and action.  These obligations are summed up in the five Pillars of Faith.

  • Confession (shahadah):  “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”  This confession should be sincere and should be recited three times each day in prayer.

  •  Prayer (salat):  While Muslims practice private, devotional prayer, there are also five times of ritual prayer each day.  These prayers emphasize adoration and submission to God and are accompanied by ritual movements. Congregational prayer takes place at the mosque (place of submission) at noon on Friday.

  •  Almsgiving (Zakat):  The practice of giving to the poor is the foundation of Islam’s tradition of social responsibility.

  •  Fasting during Ramadan (Sawm) .  During the 28 days of the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast during the daylight hours.  .

  • Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj): Every Muslim who is physically and financially able must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once.



The traditional path of life has been set forth in what is known as halakhah which consists of  the laws found in the Torah, interpretations by the rabbis and tradition. The fact that these rules govern even the most ordinary of activities means that there is not real separation for the sacred and secular. In other words, the Divine/Sacred is to be acknowledged in every part of life. The most important observances are:

  •  Keeping the Sabbath (Shabbat).  The Sabbath is a time for rest, rejoicing and worship.  The Sabbath is God’s gift, a sample of the world to come.  It is a time for renewal of one’s ties to the divine and to the community.  It is also a reminder of God, the creator.

  • Rosh Hashanah: The New Year’s festival.  This festival has  two parts:  Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, a time of confession and seeking forgiveness and Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, a time when booths are constructed as a reminder of how God preserved and protected the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.

  • Passover (Pessah): a traditional spring festival that commemorates the exodus of Israel from Egypt.  The main ritual of Passover is the family service (seder) in which the various foods of a meal serve as reminders of the Exodus.

  • Festival of Weeks (Shabuot): originally was a harvest festival and the presentation of a sacrifice of the first fruits at the Temple. Eventually it came to commemorate the giving of the Torah.  It is the time when children are confirmed through the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah service in the Synagogue.

  • Dietary Laws serve as a symbol of the sanctity of all life and membership in the community of faith.  Strict observance of these laws requires following a complex system that determines which foods can be eaten, how animals must be slaughtered, separation of utensils for different food preparations and which foods can be eaten together.  Not all Jews strictly observe these laws.


The Way of Meditation and Insight

      The way of meditation and insight asserts that spiritual freedom and enlightenment can only come through the practice of meditation.  As Livingston notes, “Meditation in these religions means a regimen of mental cultivation and development that proceeds . . .  through a  series of moral and physical disciplines to the higher levels of mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom, or insight-enlightenment.”  Two examples of this way of salvation is classical Yoga and the Eightfold Path of Theravada Buddhism.
    The Yoga Techniques of Patanjali

Patanjali was an Indian teacher who lived during the Second Century B.C.E.  In his writings, Yoga Sutras, he combined classical Indian philosophy with a set of physical and mental disciplines (yoga).  Classical Indian philosophy (Samkhya) taught that the world consists of two substances: matter (prakrti) and souls (purusha). The soul is entangled with changeable matter, and an individual’s failure to discern the absolute difference between soul and matter results in suffering.  In other words, we live with an illusion that identifies the self with matter that changes and decays. The only way to overcome this illusion and find happiness is through meditation that leads to a “superconciousness” that transcends consciousness in which one “no longer lives in time and under the control of time, but in an eternal present.” Put another way, without active thought or consciousness, the individual directly and intuitively experiences being as soul rather than matter.

In order to reach this state of enlightenment/insight, one must practice meditation. The kind of concentration required for such meditation requires that the body be suitably prepared. Thus, Patanjali prescribed specific steps for preparing the mind and body for concentration.  There then follow techniques for proper posture, disciplined breathing, withdrawal of the senses from external objects, bringing the mind to rest and finally, entering a “trance-like” state of samadhi – “union, absorption, a full comprehension of being.”  Livingston notes that the enlightenment achieved by samadhi is a “type of ‘rebirth’ into a new, yet primordial sacred order.”

    Theravada Buddhism

We have already seen that in Theravada Buddhism liberation from suffering come through the cessation of craving.  The Buddha taught that there was an eightfold path which leads to Nirvana, the extinction of desire:

Right Understanding

Right Aspiration

Right speech

Right Action

Right livelihood

Right effort

Right mindfulness

Right concentration

Of significance to our study is the fact that several parts of this eight-fold path involves meditation. In many ways the meditation that is unique to Buddhism is mindfulness meditation. In this meditation, one strives not for an altered state of consciousness, but simply to see things are they really are. In particular, the goal of mindfulness meditation (vipassana) is to directly experience the reality that all things are impermanent.