Scripture in World Religions: Some Reflections

(1) Apparently, the field of world religions has its own “publish or perish” principle. Here it takes the form of having a scripture. Those religions which publish – that is, produce a scripture – have a better chance of surviving. Moreover, the spread of Islam gave further impetus to this principle because of the protection offered to ahl-al-kitāb, or People with a Book, so it might not be out of place to pursue this idea of ‘people with a book’ further.

One point to note is that the book need not be a bound book, what one needs is a text. The Qur’ān was first revealed and then written down. It was and is essentially a sonoral revelation. In what is traditionally regarded as the first revelation received by the Prophet, he was asked to recite it. If the Hindus are to be understood as a people with a book on account of possessing the Vedas, then the Vedas too are meant to be orally recited. In fact, they have been transmitted orally over the centuries. The Guru Granth Sahib is also meant to be sung – it is set to music. We tend to take a book to mean a printed book, as we live in an age after the publishing revolution which accompanied modernity. We may thus need to recover the original sense of the book here. This will have a major implication for our understanding of the presence of scripture in the primal religions, which are set apart from the so-called historical religions on account of their focus on orality. But if a ‘book’ means a text, rather than a scripted text, then they may not be quite without a ‘book’, an assumption to which the conflation of a book with a ‘printed book’ might make us prone.

The other point is that the idea of “people with a book” raises the question of the bifocal nature of scripture. In whose eyes must a text have the status of a scripture to be so considered – 1) In the eyes of the followers of the religion who claim to possess one, 2) or in the eyes of the followers of other religions, 3) or both?

The Islamic concept, to a certain extent, elides these distinctions because it accepts as scriptures those which are accepted as such by the believers themselves in the instances cited in the Qur’ān – the Tawrat (Torah), the Zabur (Psalms), the Injil (Gospel) and the Qur’ān itself. But suppose such coincidence did not occur and the “insider” claimed a text to be a scripture but the “outsider” denied it. What then?

The issue is not purely conjectural or theoretical. The Qur’ān mentions some scriptures specifically but it also adds that its listing is not exhaustive. So we may find ourselves in a situation in which, if their scripture is not mentioned in the Qur’ān, we may not be able to claim that they are absolutely a People with a Book, but we may also not be able to absolutely deny that they are a People with a Book, because the revealed books are not exhaustively listed in the Qur’ān! This could become a matter of life and death in certain circumstances for a people.

(2) Another point to consider is the uses we make of each other’s scriptures. Christianity provides a case where one tradition uses the scripture of another tradition as its own, but in the process demotes it as preparatory of its own unique revelation. Thus what to begin with seems a generous appropriation becomes a matter of acute contention from the point of view of those whose scripture is appropriated. On the question of the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Bible as a prelude to it, a witty Jewish friend remarked that, so far as he was concerned, the New Testament was a merely Greek appendix to the Hebrew Bible, and that too in bad Greek, reversing the Christian perspective.

Islam also aligns itself with prior revelations. In fact that Qur’ān mentions Moses by name more often than Muhammad, according to Professor Mahmoud Ayoub. But curiously this has little actual bearing upon how the Qur’ān is interpreted because of the doctrine of tahrīf – or the view that the texts of the prior revelations had become so hopelessly corrupted as to be virtually useless in their present state. The history of religions is full of such surprising turns.

Going back now to the case of the Hebrew Bible and its alleged demotion in the Christian Bible, the relationship which was established within the Hindu tradition within the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures discloses an opposite possibility. It is said that when the Vedic and Tamil hymns are chanted in the procession, the Tamil hymnists lead the procession on account of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava understanding that the Vedas are seeking God but the Tamil texts have found him!

One might also examine the role “holy envy” has in such a situation – a phrase coined by Professor Krister Stendahl. Others might have something in their religious tradition – which we wish we had in our own. And sometimes it could be scripture. Louis Renou has argued that the fact that Buddhist texts commence with “Thus have I heard” evokes the idea of the Vedic śruti.

(3) The relationship of scripture to salvation in the tradition is also a point which obviously merits attention. Both Buddhism and Sikhism accord the status of the Guru – the ultimate spiritual guide – to the scripture. The attitude they have towards it however merits comparison. The Buddha did not appoint a successor and indicated that his words will play the role hereafter. But the ultimate goal of Buddhism being the achievement of nirvāṇa, even the scriptures were subordinated to it, which might explain why in certain Zen circles they are stacked loose to the lavatory, as Edward Lonze tells us. Mahāyāna Buddhism could reverse Asoka’s maxim: “what is Buddha said is well said” to “what is well said is Buddha said” – thereby explaining in part the proliferation of scriptures in Mahāyāna Buddhism. But this spirit is found in the Theravāda texts itself.

“Do you agree, monks, that any given organism is a living being?” “Yes, sir.”

“Do you agree that it is produced by food?” “Yes, sir.”

“And that when the food is cut off the living being is cut off and dies?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that doubt on any of these points will lead to perplexity?” “Yes, sir.”

“And that Right Recognition is knowledge of the true facts as they really are?” “Yes, sir.”

“Now, if you cling to this pure and unvitiated view, if you cherish it, treasure it, and make it your own, will you be able to develop a state of consciousness with which you can cross the stream of transmigration as on a raft, which you use but do not keep?” “No, sir.”

“But only if you maintain this pure view, but don’t cling to it or cherish it…only if you use it but are ready to give it up?” “Yes, sir.”

Buddhism is a practical system, with the single aim of freeing living beings from suffering. This passage apparently implies that even the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism are only means to that end and must not be maintained dogmatically for their own sake. It suggests also that there may be higher truths, which can only be realized as Nirvāna is approached.

One wonders if Sikhism could permit that much of a latitude. One could argue that in principle it could because it has the concept of the jīvanmukta or one who becomes liberated in this life. It is important to refer to this fact because both Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism – though Buddhism more than Advaita Vedānta – tend to place scripture a cut below actual spiritual experience and one explanation which has been offered to explain this is the suggestion that this is so because both these systems believe in pre-mortem liberation or jīvanmukti, and this scripture can be made to take a backseat in their soteriologies in relation to experience. I wonder whether this is not the case with Sikhism because it is ultimately a theistic religion, while both Advaita Vedānta and Buddhism are not ultimately so, with Advaita Vedānta being transtheistic and Buddhism non-theistic in nature. The fact that the theistic Viśiṣṭādvaita School of Hinduism is also self-consciously less casual in its approach to scripture compared to the Advaita School may be an interesting and relevant fact to consider in this context.


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