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Jesus of Nazareth (circa 7 BCE-36 CE)

With more than a billion followers world-wide, Christianity remains the largest single religion on Earth, making this an easy pick. Even if it wasn’t the largest religion, however, it is beyond serious debate the impact this itinerant rabbi from Galilee has had on the planet. What is especially remarkable about this is that his public ministry lasted little more than two years, he never had more than a few thousand followers during his lifetime, he left no personal writings, and was even executed for sedition by the Roman authorities, all of which should have made him little more than a footnote in history. Instead, today he is venerated not only as a great prophet and moral teacher, but is believed by many to have been the literal, physical manifestation of God on Earth—a status he demonstrated by allegedly resurrecting from the dead three days after his death. It is also believed he later ascended to heaven, which is why hundreds of millions of Christians today anxiously await his promised return and the advent of a thousand-years of peace. (And you wondered why the Left Behind series of novels did so well.)
Honorable mentions: Lao-Tzu (great Chinese philosopher and writer of the Tao Te Ching), Isaiah (8th century BCE, important Old Testament prophet), Paul of Tarsus (circa 5-67 CE, driving force behind first century Christianity and author of much of the New Testament), Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891, founder of the theosophy movement), L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986, founder of Scientology), and Bahá’u'lláh (1817-1892, inspiration behind the Bahai Faith).

Mohammed of Mecca (571-632 CE)

It’s hard to underestimate the impact this middle-aged merchant turned mystic turned religious leader turned military commander has had on history and the role he continues to play in the lives of nearly a billion people around the planet. Considered by one sixth of the world’s population to have been the last and greatest of all the prophets, he is best remembered as the man who penned the Koran, one of the best known and most widely read sacred writings in the world. (Of course, he didn’t actually write it himself. According to legend, the writings were given to him by the angel Gabriel through a series of visions over a twenty year period, which eventually were recorded and codified into the book we know today.) In any case, in recording these mystical writings, he instituted one of the most stridently monotheistic religions in the world and set the stage for the rapid spread of Islam throughout the then known world.

Muhammad ( c. 26 April 570 – 8 June 632;), sometimes called Muhammad ibn Abdullah was the founder of the religion of Islam, and is considered by Muslims to be a messenger and prophet of God, the last law-bearer in a series of Islamic prophets, and, by most Muslims the last prophet of God as taught by the Quran. Muslims thus consider him the restorer of an uncorrupted original monotheistic faith (islām) of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets. He was also active as a social reformer, diplomat, merchant, philosopher, orator, legislator, military leader, humanitarian and philanthropist.
Born in 570 in the Arabian city of Mecca, he was orphaned at an early age and brought up under the care of his uncle Abu Talib. He later worked mostly as a merchant, as well as a shepherd, and was first married by age 25. Discontented with life in Mecca, he retreated to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God. Three years after this event Muhammad started preaching these revelations publicly, proclaiming that "God is One", that complete "surrender" to Him (lit. islām) is the only way (dīn) acceptable to God, and that he himself was a prophet and messenger of God, in the same vein as other Islamic prophets.
Muhammad gained few followers early on, and was met with hostility from some Meccan tribes; he and his followers were treated harshly. To escape persecution, Muhammad sent some of his followers to Abyssinia before he and his remaining followers in Mecca migrated to Medina (then known as Yathrib) in the year 622. This event, the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, which is also known as the Hijri Calendar. In Medina, Muhammad united the conflicting tribes, and after eight years of fighting with the Meccan tribes, his followers, who by then had grown to 10,000, conquered Mecca. In 632, a few months after returning to Medina from his Farewell pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill and died. By the time of his death, most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam, and he had united the tribes of Arabia into a single Muslim religious polity.
The revelations (or Ayah, lit. "Signs of God")—which Muhammad reported receiving until his death—form the verses of the Quran, regarded by Muslims as the “Word of God” and around which the religion is based. Besides the Qur'an, Muhammad’s life (sira) and traditions (sunnah) are also upheld by Muslims. They discuss Muhammad and other prophets of Islam with reverence, adding the phrase peace be upon him whenever their names are mentioned. While conceptions of Muhammad in medieval Christendom and premodern times were largely negative, appraisals in modern history have been far less so. His life and deeds have been debated and criticized by followers and opponents over the centuries.

Gautama Buddha (circa 563-483 BCE)

We tend to use the term “Buddha” as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment or wisdom, but there was a real flesh-and-blood person behind the mythology. Siddhartha Gautama (“Buddha” being a later acquired title) was a prince who spent the first 29 years of his life in opulent luxury before giving it all up and embarking on a quest for understanding. Becoming a hard-core ascetic who survived on a handful of nuts a day, after several years of living in complete destitution, he realized that too was futile as a means of coming into “awareness.” One day, while sitting beneath a bodhi tree considering his dilemma, he suddenly realized the key to enlightenment was the elimination of all desire, which is what made it possible for him to achieve enlightenment or, more precisely, a state of Nirvana. Quickly attracting a legion of disciples, his teachings laid the foundation for one of the world’s great eastern faith structures, Buddhism, which as of this writing claims nearly 400 million adherents worldwide.

Krishna (circa 3228-3102 BCE)

Like the Buddha, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historical fact and metaphor when it comes to some of the most ancient religious figures. This is especially true of Krishna, who appears to be part man and part supernatural entity capable of all sorts of remarkable things (as would be expected from the most powerful incarnation of Vishnu, the Godhead of the Hindu Trinity of deities). What is generally accepted is that there appears to have been a real person behind the mythology—a nephew of the hated king Kamsa of Mathura (in northern India)—who lived, by most accounts, a somewhat care-free life (he was especially adept with the flute), though one marked by all sorts of extraordinary events.  For example, as a child he allegedly killed numerous demons and did things like purify the poisoned holy waters of the Yamuna River. Though he didn’t actually found the modern religion of Hinduism—it’s basic tenets already being in place prior to his arrival—among all of the Vishnu avatars, he is the most popular and the one closest to the heart of the people, which is why he remains so venerated five thousand years later.

Tulsidas ( 1497/1532-1623 BCE)

Tulsidas (तुलसीदास,also known as Goswami Tulsidas), (1497/1532–1623) was a Hindu poet-saint, reformer and philosopher renowned for his devotion for the god Rama. A composer of several popular works, he is best known for being the author of the epic Ramcharitmanas, a retelling of the Sanskrit Ramayana in the vernacular Awadhi, which is a popular Hindu scripture often referred to as the Bible of North India. Tulsidas was acclaimed in his lifetime to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, the composer of the original Ramayana in Sanskrit. He is also considered to be the composer of the Hanuman Chalisa, a popular devotional hymn dedicated to Hanuman, the divine monkey helper and devotee of Rama. Tulsidas lived permanently and died in the city of Varanasi. The Tulsi Ghat in Varnasi is named after him. He founded the Sankatmochan Temple dedicated to Hanuman in Varanasi, believed to stand at the place where he had the sight of Hanuman. Tulsidas started the Ramlila plays, a folk-theatre adaption of the Ramayana. He has been acclaimed as one of the greatest poets in Hindi, Indian, and world literature. The impact of Tulsidas and his works on the art, culture and society in India is widespread and is seen to date in vernacular language, Ramlila plays, Hindustani classical music, popular music, and television series.

Confucius (551-479 BCE)

Confucius (the Latinized version of his Chinese name, Kong Zi) was not a religious leader per se, but more of a philosopher whose teachings on personal and governmental morality, justice, and sincerity deeply influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese thought and life. His ideas eventually developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism, which was introduced to Europe by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century, and has since become popularized in the West. Since none of the man’s writings survive—his teachings being recounted by his students many years after his death—scholars continue to debate whether there was a real flesh-and-blood person named Confucius or if Confucianism isn’t just a term for a collection of ancient teachings from multiple sources all brought together under a single philosophical construct. In either case, he was the first to express the well-known principle, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”—an early version of the Golden Rule—so whoever (or whatever) he was, he was onto something big.

Zoroaster (Unknown. Anywhere between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE)

Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, was an ancient Persian prophet who founded the first historically acknowledged world religion known, not surprisingly, as Zoroastrianism. According to the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster was born in northern Persia, probably in the seventh century BC, although some scholars put the date for his birth much earlier. He is said to have received a vision in which he became aware that a great cosmic war was being fought between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the principle of evil. According to the prophet, man had been given the power to choose between good and evil, and it was this dualism that became the driving force behind monotheism in the Middle East while Zoroaster’s teaching became the guiding light of Persian civilization. Additionally, elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through Judaism and Platonism and has even been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy. (Among the great Greek philosophers, Heraclitus is often referred to as having been inspired by Zoroaster’s ideas.) The religion began to die out after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, but it survives to this day in India where it serves as the basis for the Parsi faith.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

While Christianity is wrought with dozens of individuals who played a major role in shaping its doctrines and making it the faith structure it is today, few men had a greater impact upon the church in general than this fiery German theologian from Eisleben. Initially a dedicated Catholic priest, Luther eventually grew disenchanted with the abuses he saw going on within the Roman papacy and finally called the Church out on it by nailing his 95 thesis (points of doctrinal disputes) on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31st, 1517. In doing so he started a debate that eventually evolved into the reformation movement that split the church in two and initiated four centuries of religious strife and, at times, armed conflict, that continues to reverberate throughout Christianity to this day. His biggest contribution to modern Christianity came in his insistence that salvation came from faith in Christ rather than through obedience to the Pope, which changed everything and made salvation more obtainable, thereby initiating a period of unparalleled church growth. Though the movement he unwittingly started (Luther had not intended to create a schism in the church but to merely reform Catholicism) was itself to fracture into smaller groups—thus the preponderance of denominations we see today—it is difficult to argue that without Luther the church and the history of western civilization would look very different than it does today.

Moses (circa 1391-1271 BCE)

While the history of Judaism is filled with famous prophets and leaders-from Kings David and Solomon to the prophets Elijah and Ezekiel—no one man had more impact than did Moses, without whose guidance and leadership the modern Jewish religion would not exist. Something of a political heavyweight as a young man (having grown up in the Pharoah’s house and even being considered a shoo-in to ascend the throne one day) Moses apparently forsook all that and, being a Hebrew himself, decided to champion his own people in a quest to possess their own nation. This took him on something of a forty year odyssey, during which time he led—by some estimates—as many as a half-million men, woman, and children (though those numbers may be mistranslated or overblown), in a brutal trek to not only survive the harsh life of the desert, but restore the Jews to the land of Canaan. Supposedly responsible for penning the Torah (the most venerated of all Jewish writings and the basis for the first five books of the Old Testament), while Moses died—at the ripe old age of 120, no less—before  he could set foot in the promised land, it was he who gave the Jews the moral and ethical underpinnings that would constitute the next thousand years of Jewish thought. By way of example of just how important he was—and to some extent remains today—to western religion and philosophy is that his ten commandments (there were actually many more than ten but who’s counting) remain the bedrock of western religious belief to this day.

Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844)

Easily one of the most controversial figures from the first half of the nineteenth century, it is difficult to imagine how one man, persuaded that he was a prophet of God, could start a religion—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (officially the LDS but commonly referred to as the Mormon church)—practically single-handedly, that would one day grow to over fourteen million worldwide followers. Not bad for a man with limited education, a fairly short ministry, and a penchant for violence. A controversial figure in his own right, his polygamy (no longer practiced by most modern Mormons) and insistence that he was a prophet sent to restore the church from the apostacy it had, according to God, fallen into, often put him at odds with his non-Mormon neighbors—an enmity which frequently resulted in violence and ultimately ended in his own unwanted martyrdom at the hands of his less enlightened fellow citizens during a shootout in an Illinois prison in 1844. Of course, his lieutenant, Brigham Young, is better known as the man who, in the aftermath of Smith’s death, led the few hundred Mormons that remained on an arduous trek to present day Utah and largely establishing the church we know today, but it was Smith who laid the foundation by writing (or, more accurately, “translating”) the Book of Mormon from golden plates given to him by the angel Moroni. He also penned several other “inspired” texts that were to serve as the basis of Mormonism, making him  the driving force behind the fledgling denomination. Clearly, without his literary bent, the LDS church would have had little basis upon which to build after his death, making him in many ways as important to western Protestantism as Luther (see number 7 below) was to Roman Catholicism. As such, he is venerated by Mormons around the world and is today considered its chief prophet whose status is only likely to expand as the church continues to grow at an exponential rate.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)

Though the founder of Christian Science doesn’t have all that many followers any more (only around 30,000 or so as of late) her impact on American religious beliefs in the nineteenth century cannot be underestimated. Her controversial perspectives on everything from the illusory nature of the material world to her de facto rejection of a personal God and the concept of hell definitely put her somewhat outside of what is usually referred to as “orthodoxy”, though many of her ideas survive and can still be found in some New Age churches and other metaphysical and mystical traditions today. To be fair, much of Baker’s theology did not originate with her, but appears to be a rehash of the beliefs inherent to the ancient Gnostics, a mystical branch of Christianity that was all the rage during the first few centuries A.D. before being driven underground by the larger and more powerful church in Rome. She also reflects much of the theological bent of the famous fourteenth century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who is today rapidly growing in popularity among many spiritually-inclined people. Today her followers are better known for refusing medical treatment in the belief that disease and illness—being part of the “illusory material world”—can be treated purely with prayer, resulting in a number of lawsuits over the years as Christian Science parents ran afoul of the authorities for refusing treatment to their children. All-in-all, however, she should be remembered for her willingness to challenge the traditional beliefs of her era and as something of an early feminist for her views on woman’s suffrage.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa (26 August 1910 – 5 September 1997), born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was a Roman Catholic nun of Albanian ethnicity and Indian citizenship, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, in 1950. For over 45 years, she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity's expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries. Following her death, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II and given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity at the time of her death had 610 missions in 123 countries including hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children's and family counselling programmes, orphanages and schools. She received numerous awards including the Indian government's Bharat Ratna in 1980 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

Sai Baba of Shirdi

Sai Baba of Shirdi (around 1835/1838 – October 15, 1918), also known as Shirdi Sai Baba (Marathi: शिर्डीचे श्री साईबाबा, Hindi: शिर्डी के श्री साईं बाबा, Urdu: شردی سائیں بابا), was an Indian guru, yogi, and fakir who is regarded by his Hindu and Muslim devotees as a saint. Many Hindu devotees including Hemadpant who wrote the famous Shri Sai Satcharitra consider him an incarnation of Lord Krishna while other devotees consider him as an incarnation of Lord Dattatreya. Many devotees believe that he was a Satguru, an enlightened Sufi Pir, or a Qutub. He is a well-known figure in many parts of the world, but especially in India, where he is much revered.
Sai Baba's real name is unknown. The name "Sai" was given to him upon his arrival at Shirdi, a town in the west-Indian state of Maharashtra. Mahalsapati, a local temple priest, recognized him as a muslim saint and greeted him with the words 'Ya Sai!', which means 'Welcome Sai!'. Sai or Sayi is originally a Persian title given to Sufi saints, meaning 'poor one'. No information is available regarding Sai Baba's birth and place of birth.
Sāī is also of Sanskrit origin, meaning "Sakshat Eshwar" or the divine. The honorific "Baba" means "father; grandfather; old man; sir" in Indo-Aryan languages. Thus Sai Baba denotes "holy father" or "saintly father".
Sai Baba remains a very popular saint, and is worshiped by people around the world. He had no love for perishable things and his sole concern was self-realization. He taught a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, and devotion to God and guru. Sai Baba's teaching combined elements of Hinduism and Islam: he gave the Hindu name Dwarakamayi to the mosque he lived in, practiced Hindu and Muslim rituals, taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions, and was buried in Shirdi. One of his well known epigrams, "Sabka Malik Ek " ("One God governs all"), is associated with Islam and Sufism. He always uttered "Allah Malik" ("God is King").
Sai Baba is revered by several notable Hindu religious leaders. Some of his disciples became famous as spiritual figures and saints, such as Mhalsapati, a priest of Kandoba temple in Shridi, Upasni Maharaj, Saint Bidkar Maharaj, Saint Gangagir, Saint Jankidas Maharaj, and Sati Godavari Mataji.

Sathya Sai Baba

Śri Sathya Sai Baba (Telugu: సత్య సాయిబాబా), (Tamil: சத்ய சாயிபாபா) born as Sathyanarayana Raju (23 November 1926 – 24 April 2011) was an Indian guru, spiritual figure, mystic, philanthropist, and educator. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a spiritual saint and miracle worker who died in 1918 and whose teachings were an eclectic blend of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. The materializations of vibhuti (holy ash) and other small objects such as rings, necklaces and watches by Sathya Sai Baba were a source of both fame and controversy; devotees considered them signs of divinity, while skeptics viewed them as simple conjuring tricks. Photos of him are displayed in millions of homes and on the dashboards of cars, and lockets bearing his photo are worn by many as a symbol of good fortune.


Mahāvīra (Sanskrit: महावीर "Great Hero", Kannada: ಮಹಾವೀರ Mahāvīra, Malayalam: മഹാവീരൻ Mahāvīran and Tamil: அருகன் Arukaṉ) is the name most commonly used to refer to the Indian sage Vardhamāna (Sanskrit: वर्धमान; traditionally 599–527 BCE) who established what are today considered to be the central tenets of Jainism. According to Jain tradition, he was the 24th and the last Tirthankara. In Tamil, he is referred to as Arukaṉ or Arukadevan. He is also known in texts as Vira or Viraprabhu, Sanmati, Ativira,and Gnatputra. In the Buddhist Pali Canon, he is referred to as Nigantha Nātaputta.

Guru Nanak Dev

Guru Nanak (Punjabi: ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ, Hindi: गुरु नानक, Urdu: گرونانک Gurū Nānak) (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539) was the founder of the religion of Sikhism and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus.
The Sikhs believe that all subsequent Gurus possessed Guru Nanak’s divinity and religious authority, and were named "Nanak" in the line of succession.