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6 Unique Religions Virtually Unknown To The West

by Chris Wary May 6, 2009
Think you know most of the world’s religions? Here’s a few that probably flew under your radar.

Encountering different and unique religions worlds apart from your own is part of the travelling experience.

However, no matter how many countries you have under your belt or hostels you’ve slept in, you still might not encounter some of these extremely private, seldom heard-of religions.

1. Jainism

Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions, dating itself prior to tenth century BCE India. There are approximately four million Jains today, almost entirely in India.

The religion revolves around five central beliefs of non-violence, truth, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-possession. The principle of non-violence is particularly important to Jains, as they believe that every living thing, even microscopic organisms, has a soul that can attain enlightenment.

Because of this, most Jains eat something resembling a very strict vegan diet and monks and nuns walk around barefoot sweeping the ground in front of them to avoid killing innocent insects.

2. Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the first millennium BCE Iranian prophet Zoroaster. There are estimated to be between 150,000 and 210,000 Zoroastrians in the world today, mostly in India and the United States.

These small numbers mask the historical importance of this religion. Both Eastern and Western religions can trace ties back to Zoroastrianism, meaning the religion has most likely had more impact on the world than any other belief system.

Zoroastrians believe in one universal God, Ahura Mazda, who is in conflict with the forces of chaos, led by Angra Mainyu. Humans need to take an active role in the conflict by performing good deeds and having good thoughts and words.

The conflict will ultimately be brought to an end when Soashyant, a savior, comes to Earth and reanimates the dead.

3. Baha’i faith

Baha’i was founded in the 1800s in Persia by the prophet Baha’u’llah. It emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind and sees religious history as unfolding through a series of divine messengers, each suited for what the people of the time could handle.

The prophets of the world’s major world religions are all accepted as valid, including Krishna, Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. The social teachings of each religion, such as which direction to pray, may be revoked or changed, but some fundamental principles, including charity and neighborliness, are always unchanged.

The largest center of the Baha’i faith is India, where 2.2 million followers reside, followed by Iran and the United States. Baha’i was classified at the world’s second fastest growing religion by percentage in 2007, when it grew by 1.7 percent.

4. Yoruba

The Yoruba religion is the beliefs and practices of the people located in the areas that are now Benin and Nigeria before they encountered other outside religions.

There are no specific numbers documenting the number of followers, but many believe that Yoruba is the largest African-born religion in the world. It has also heavily influenced several Afro-American religions such as Lucumi in Cuba.

The main belief of the Yoruba peoples is that all humans have a manifest destiny, referred to as ayanmo, to become one with the divine creator, known as Olodumare.

Our destinies are determined through our thoughts and actions in the physical world. The Yoruba see life and death as cycles in the physical and spiritual realms while the spirit moves towards union with Olodumare.

5. Mami Wata

Mami Wata is another African-born religion that venerates a water spirit known as Mami Wata. She is depicted as being incredibly beautiful with long hair and is frequently accompanied by an incredibly large snake.

The religion holds that Mami will sometimes assume human form in bars or busy markets and also will abduct people while they are swimming or boating on the water. These captives are then released in dry clothes and better health, but only after agreeing to an oath of sexual fidelity to the spirit.

From its beginnings in Africa, the worship of Mami Wata has spread to many Caribbean islands and parts of North and South America.

6. Mandaeism

Mandaeism is an extremely secretive Gnostic Christian religion. Prior to the 2003 war, the religion’s sixty to seventy thousand followers were almost entirely located in Iraq.

There are now estimated to be only five to seven thousand left in Iraq, the rest having been either displaced or killed in the sectarian violence that followed the US occupation.

Mandaens believe that Jesus was a false messiah who corrupted the teachings given to him by John the Baptist. For this reason, John has a special place in their religion along with Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, and Aram. Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad, on the other hand, are all seen as false prophets alongside Jesus.

Any personal experience with these religions? Or how about a few we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments! 

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