Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, with its followers making up 80% of the population in Nepal and India, and has other adherents spread throughout the globe. The central texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, are thought to have been written somewhere between 2500 BCE and 500 BCE. As time has passed, however, other important Hindu texts such as the Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita have also emerged. There are several schools of thought within Hinduism that vary widely in practice and philosophy: while some Hindus worship multiple deities, for example, others revere a singular god, such as Vishnu, as the manifestation of God, or Brahman. The position of women in society also varies within Hinduism. Some references to women in the Ramayana, for example, are favorable towards women. Other passages, such as those found in the Manu Smriti, place restrictions on women's rights. More than 2,000 widows reside at the Bhagwan Bhajan ashram, or Hindu hermitage, in Vrindavan, India. Despite Indian legislation providing increased rights to Hindu widows, a prevalent social stigma persists there against their remarriage. The women pictured here are praying to Lord Krishna, a Hindu God who is thought to watch over the well-being of widows.
Credit: AP/John Moore
Judaism is one of the first monotheistic religions, as well as one of the longest-running traditional faiths still practiced. Jewish denominations vary from Orthodox and Conservative to Reformed and Humanistic, with additional philosophies within each denomination. The role of women within the Jewish faith varies with different sects' interpretations of the Torah, or Hebrew Bible. For example, as seen here, Orthodox men and women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City are required to sit in separate areas during prayer with a partition called a mechitza between them. This is intended to reinforce rules of modesty between sexes that restrict women from touching and socializing with men other than their husbands or relatives.
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America's First Female Rabbi
A leader in the Reform Judaism movement, Rabbi Sally J. Priesand is America's first female Rabbi. She was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reform movement generally encourages complete gender equality in religious rituals, study, and observance; however, very few women lead large congregations, and many of the highest-ranking positions within the Reform movement continue to be held by men. The origins of the reform movement date back to 19th century Germany, and coincide with the Jewish Emancipation -- the abolition of discriminatory laws that applied to Jews in Europe during this period. Today, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination of the Jewish faith in America. In the U.K. and Israel, the movements known as Liberal and Progressive Judaism, respectively, closely resemble the Reform movement in America. Rabbi Priesand retired in July 2006 after thirty years as a congregational leader in New York and New Jersey.
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Followers of the Roman Catholic Church, which was founded by Jesus Christ, hold the Old and New Testaments as sacred texts. Catholics and all Christians believe that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God. With 1.1 billion followers at the end of 2004, the Roman Catholic Church remains the single largest organized body of religion in the world. The most dense populations of Roman Catholics live in Central and South America, with additional presence in western Europe. Currently led by Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church has a centralized body in the sovereign city-state of the Vatican City, located in Rome. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the priesthood is restricted solely to men -- a condition which was recently reaffirmed in "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," a paper released by the Pope Benedict XVI. Seen here, Cardinal James Hickey greets nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. After almost 70 years as an Albanian Catholic nun, Mother Teresa died at 87 having created a charity that currently employs over one million people worldwide. While many consider her to be a Christian saint, she never had access to the Catholic priesthood. The basis of this arrangement dates back to the decision of Jesus to call on men alone as his disciples.
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First female to lead Angelican Province
With 73 million members worldwide, the Anglican tradition has one of the largest groups of Christian adherents. The Church of England was formed in 1534, when England broke from the Roman Catholic Church over a conflict about papal jurisdiction. The Church of England remains the officially established Christian church of England, and acts as the senior branch to Anglicans worldwide. In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America voted to approve the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate. The next year, several thousand dissenting clergy and laypersons responded to this decision by meeting in St. Louis, Missouri under the auspices of the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen to express dissatisfaction with what they saw as a breakdown of faith and order within their religious leadership. Nonetheless, today, the majority of Anglican provinces ordain women as both deacons and priests. Only a few provinces, however, have consecrated women as Bishops. Seen here is Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as she delivers a sermon during the recent Episcopal Church General Convention in Columbus, Ohio. In 2001, Schori became the first woman ever to lead an Anglican province, or jurisdiction, in the United States. Only two other Anglican provinces, New Zealand and Canada, currently have female Bishops.
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Pillars of Sikhism
ollowing the teaching of ten enlightened leaders, or Gurus, Sikhs pursue salvation through disciplined personal meditation in the name and message of God, or Waheguru. The fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism has about 23 million members worldwide, most of whom live in the state of Punjab, India. In their religion's spirit of living honestly and sharing what they can with their community, Sikhs commonly hold Langars, or large all-vegetarian meals in which all participants sit down to eat as equals. Seen here are Sikhs and others of various backgrounds enjoying Langhar at a Gurudwara, or Sikh temple,in Spain. Started by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, Langar promotes the underlying Sikh value of inclusiveness and equality among ethnicity, creed, and gender.
Credit: Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha
Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion, with about 708 million adherents. The faith focuses on the teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni, who lived during the mid-6th to 5th century BCE. In a more general sense, Buddhists also use the word "Buddha" to describe any person who discovers the true nature of reality through spiritual cultivation. Variations in traditions (Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana) have spread throughout the world. The practice of ordaining Buddhist nuns began when the step-mother of Buddha Sakyamuni, Mahaprajapati, asked the Buddha for permission to live as an ordained minister. Her acceptance marked the establishment of the female monastic tradition in Buddhism that still exists today. Both monks and nuns in the Mahayana and, to a lesser extent, Theravada tradition of Buddhism maintain, translate, advance, and spread the teachings of the Buddha. While both practice celibacy, it is not uncommon for monks and nuns to live in the same monastery. Seen here are Buddhist nuns participating in the Fourth World Buddhism Summit in Myanmar, 2004.
Credit: AP/David Longstreath