The oldest forms of worship in the world are ancestor worship, shamanism, and animism, which are thought to date back to at least around 300,000 BCE. The oldest religions that are still widely practiced are Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism. Hinduism originated in India, Jainism and Buddhism in Nepal, Judaism in Israel and Taoism in China. Shintoism, a Japanese spiritual practice that is still practiced today, dates back further, but is not strictly speaking a religion. Other very old forms of worship include pantheism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism.
Early Forms of Worship
Pre-organized forms of religion generally centered on rituals, ancestor worship, shamanism, and animism. Ritual burials are speculated to have occurred up to 300,000 years ago, and were almost certainly practiced since at least 100,000 BCE. Ancestor worship also played a major role in pre-organized worship, and was found throughout the world. Shamanism, the practice of a selected person going into an altered state of consciousness to communicate with spirits or animals, was also widely practiced, and is thought to be evidenced by cave paintings dating back to 320,000 BCE. This was closely connected to animism, the belief that all things have a soul or spirit.
As cities began to develop, god and goddess worship became more common. Around 35,000 BCE, many figurines shaped like women began to be created, which are thought to have been used in a form of goddess worship. Shinto practices began to develop in Japan around 14,000 BCE, though they weren't codified until the 8th century CE. In 9130 BCE, the first known man-made temple was built, called Göbekli Tepe. It was apparently used in shamanistic or animistic worship.
Polytheism is the belief in many gods and goddesses, and was practiced by a number of societies, including the Sumerians, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Ancient Chinese, and Celts. Though all of these societies worshiped differently, polytheistic religions do tend to have similar types of deities, like creator deities, water deities, mother goddesses, and love deities. For instance, Isis was a mother deity in Ancient Egypt, while Ninsun served a similar role in Sumerian culture, as did Gaia in Greek culture. Similarly, the role of the water deity was played by Mazu in China, Poseidon in Greece, Neptune in Rome, and Lir in the Celtic tradition.
Hinduism is the oldest organized, the third largest, and the major religion of India. It has no known founder, as it was organized from a variety of traditional beliefs from different cultures and mythologies. The roots of Hinduism are thought to date back about 5,000 years. Hinduism has two great theistic movements: the cult of Vishnu called Vaishnavism, and the cult of Shiva or Shaivism. It advocates commitment to dharma, an ideal way of life. Hindus, or believers of Hinduism, believe in karma, or the force of one's actions, and reincarnation, or the passage of a soul from one body to another body.
The religion of the Jews, Judaism is considered the matrix for Christianity and Islam. With a history of over 4,000 years, Judaism is based on monotheism, the belief in one God. The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament in Christianity, is the fundamental source of Jewish belief, notably its first five books collectively called the Torah or Pentateuch. Judaism follows a system of law, called Halachah, which regulates personal values, family relationships, social responsibility, and civil and criminal justice.
Buddhism is the religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or the awakened one, in the 6th century BCE. It was one of the most successful religious movements that spread throughout India and other Asian countries. Buddhism can be divided into two main branches: the more conservative Theravada, or "Way of the Elders," and the diverse and liberal Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle." Buddhist teaching is centered on the Four Noble Truths: suffering or duhkha, desire as the cause of suffering, suffering can end, and existence of a way to end suffering.
Jainism is believed to be founded by Mahavira in the 6th century BCE, though Jains regard him as only the last of the Tirthamkaras, or 24 founders of the religion. The philosophy of Jainism is centered on the belief that every living thing has a soul, and thus it promotes non-injury to all life-forms. Jainism is divided into two sects: the Svetambara and the Digambara. The Svetambaras wear white clothes, while the Digambaras go naked. Jain monks, however, commonly wear cloths over their mouths to prevent them from unconsciously breathing in and accidentally causing injury to a living thing.
Taoism is thought to have been founded around the 3rd or 4th century BCE, which is when the primary text of Taoism, the Daodejing, dates back to. The author of the Daodejing, Laozi, may have lived around the same time as Confucius, the founder of Confucianism. Those who practice taoism try to live in accordance with the "way" or dao, which is the completely indescribable source and flow of everything. Main concepts in Taoism are wu wei, which is the process of doing things effortlessly or non-intentionally, and the "Three Treasures," which are compassion, moderation, and humility. This religion is connected with many physical practices, like qigong and tai chi, as well as the concept of yin yang, which is the belief that opposites are actually completely interconnected.
Other very old religions include Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, mystery cults, and paganism. Zoroastrianism is thought to have been founded around the 6th century BCE, and is notable for being one of the first religions to use the concept of the struggle between good and evil. Confucianism, which is more of a philosophy than a religion, was founded by Confucius in the 5th century BCE. It posits that there is an ideal structure and hierarchy of the world, and that people have a moral obligation to fulfill their roles in that hierarchy.
Mystery cults took place primarily in Ancient Greece and Rome, and involved the secret, usually ritual worship of specific gods and goddesses. Notable mystery cults included the Eleusinian mysteries, which centered on the goddesses Demeter and Persephone; the cult of Isis, which was centered on the Egyptian goddess Isis, and later other similar goddesses; and the cult of Cybele, who was a mother goddess figure.