Sacred Texts Lesson 1

Sacred Texts of the World

Mike Ervin

Good Morning.  Some of you might remember back in the early 1970’s when the British Comedy Group Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to US television. One of the things that became rather common on that TV show each week was a sign that appeared on the screen as a transition between segments. And it said “And Now for Something Completely Different”. And it was very different.

Well, today and next week we are going to do something completely different. Namely we are going to Study Other People’s Sacred Scriptures. Not ours.

Many people in this room have spent most of their adult lives studying our sacred scriptures, but most Christians have never looked at any others.

This raises an important question. Why would Christians want to study any sacred scriptures other than ours? That is an important question. And the only way I know how to answer it is to tell you some of the reasons I have chosen to study other people’s scriptures.

You may have different reasons or even strongly believe that it is completely unnecessary, but here are mine:

1.   Simple intellectual curiosity.

2.   To understand why these texts are so important to so many people.

3.   A broadened understanding of what is going on in the world.

4.   The study of sacred texts is much more manageable than complete examination of each religious tradition.

First, simple intellectual curiosity. (I just want to know what is in them).

Second – sacred texts are not just significant writings in a culture, they are often considered the most important books – the kind that people are willing to memorize for years or to copy laboriously by hand  over centuries of time, or to rescue from destruction during bad times - and they are frequently in all cultures the very first texts to be translated into other languages. In many religious traditions the sacred texts significantly influence art, literature, dance, music, and even the legal systems of the cultures they support. I would like to understand that better.

Third, a broadened understanding of what is going on in the world.

Religion is a significant part of the lives of most people around the world. So I think studying various religious traditions offers an important window into understanding global politics, thought and culture. In order to understand others, we need to have some sense of how they see themselves in relation to the cosmos and tradition and other people – and in many cultures those relationships are often defined by religion.

But why study sacred texts, why not just study the religions?

Religion encompasses much more than just scripture. It includes, rituals, ceremonies, practices such as meditation, humanitarian service, ecclesiastical organizations, formal theology, sacred spaces, idols and artifacts, ethical codes, communities of believers, and on and on. This is not to mention all of the variations of all of these things within one religious tradition, such as the 900 different denominations within Christianity.

But by studying sacred texts rather than the actual religions, makes the problem of studying this subject much more manageable.

Many of the things mentioned above are not readily available to us unless we are willing to devote a lifetime of research and travel to the endeavor.

Sacred texts, though are now for the first time in history, readily available for us to read. And in English. 


And sacred texts are central to each tradition. There are many types of Judaism in the world today, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and they are significantly different in many of their practices. But they all share a reverence for the Torah. And in spite of all of the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, they all cite the Quran. And the hundreds of Protestant denominations that I mentioned earlier all are united in their reliance on our Bible.

And I would argue that studying only the sacred texts give us a basis for comparison. Not all traditions use their sacred text in exactly the same way, as you will soon see, and there is remarkable variety in the types of writings and in the sizes of the various canons of text, but at least written texts give us some common basis for comparison.

So it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the religious diversity of humankind throughout history, but scripture gives us some common ground to at least start the conversation.

What I hope to do more than anything else is help us all stretch our mind a bit and briefly step outside your own faith community, then you can return to your familiar scriptures with new questions and possibly see things in a new light, from a broader perspective.

OK – let’s briefly mention what traditions we might study. I am going to list the religious traditions that I have a lot of material on. Please understand this list is not an indication of what we will cover, because the list is far too long. But here it is:

1.   Hinduism

2.   Judaism – the Mishnah and Talmud only.

3.   Buddhism

4.   Confucianism

5.   Daoism

6.   Islam

7.   Mormonism

8.   Baha’i Scriptures

Related Traditions

1.   Sikh Scriptures

2.   Zoroastrian Scriptures

3.   Jain Scriptures

4.   Shinto

I am prepared today to begin with Hinduism, because chronologically it’s most sacred texts are considered the most ancient of the major traditions, and because it exhibits so many interesting differences from what we normally consider sacred texts. And I will continue next week with more on Hinduism.

After that I am open to any other traditions people are interested in learning about. I will let the class tell me what other traditions they might be interested in.

Hinduism and the Vedas

Let’s begin with the sacred texts of Hinduism. And our first subject will be “Hinduism and the Vedas”. The Vedas are the oldest and most sacred of the sacred texts of this tradition.


It is hard to talk about Hinduism without talking briefly about India. There are about 1.3 billion Hindus in the world today and close to 97% of them live on the Indian subcontinent. Many religious scholars identify India as the most religious country in the world. Religion still plays a central and definitive role in the life of most of its people.


But the diversity is staggering. But still there is not a single Indian language that is spoken across its length and breadth. Far from it. Hindi is spoken by a majority of North Indians, but it is not a popular means of communication in the southern part of India. Similarly, South Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam are not understood by the people of North India.

For the convenience of people, the Constitution of India has recognized 22 languages as the official languages of India. These are known as Scheduled Languages and constitute the major languages of the country. But linguists have identified 461 languages in India.

And even when we come to Hinduism itself, it is not a uniform religion across all these cultures and languages. The practice of their religion is evident everywhere, but there is no Pope, no council of churches to define how worship should be done. But worship they do. There is one common denominator though. To all these people that we call Hindus the Vedas are their most sacred scriptures. But you may be surprised to understand what they are and how they are used. That is what I will try to convey.

What is Sacred Scripture?

For starters let’s talk briefly about what our tradition tends to think of when we use the term scripture. What are its attributes?

Scripture usually refers to a written book that claims a divine origin. It tells something about the life or the ideas of the founder of the religion. It is considered especially sacred and authoritative by believers, who study and consult all of these scriptures for guidance and wisdom. And finally scriptures serve as a source of doctrine for the religion, defining beliefs and revealing truths about ultimate reality.

Interestingly, most of these assumptions about scripture do not apply to the sacred texts of Hinduism.

First of all, rather than a book, the sacred texts of Hinduism have hundreds of sacred scriptures, and most of them are valued in their oral form, and thus are seldom read. The holiest compositions, the Vedas, are believed to be too sacred to put into written form. So instead they are memorized by ritual specialists, the Brahman priests.

Secondly, there is no founder in Hinduism. In fact the term Hinduism itself was created by Westerners in the 18th century to refer to the many complex religious beliefs and practices of the people living in the Indian subcontinent. So the term Hinduism refers to a tremendous variety of beliefs, practices, rituals, and deities, but there is no one person who started it all, that we know of.

And some parts of the Hindu canon are considered more sacred than others; oddly enough the Bhagavad Gita, probably the most widely read and beloved Hindu scripture, in not in the most sacred category.

Sacred texts are important in Hinduism, but are not central to the religion in the way that the Bible is in Judaism or Christianity. In fact ordinary and even very devout Hindus are familiar with but don’t normally read their scriptures. Most devout believers consider that taking part in religious festivals, of which there are many, going on pilgrimages, worship icons or images, making devotional offerings, and hospitality or the performance of ones duty to family and community as more important in religious life than scriptures.

But perhaps the strangest thing about the Hindu scripture for people from a Judeo Christian background is that the Vedas, the very holiest and most powerful scriptures in the tradition, do not convey much cognitive information. In fact the content matters much less than their use in ritual functions, which happens constantly. At weddings, funerals, religious festivals, morning and evening prayers, etc.; the Vedas are chanted in an ancient language (ancient Sanskrit) that even the priests performing the ceremony may not understand. And what they are chanting doesn’t tell about the gods as much as it is supposed to connect those who hear the chants directly with the harmonious order of the universe. It is the sounds of the Vedas that are sacred, not the words themselves.

The Basic Framework of Hindu Sacred Texts

I said earlier that there are many types of sacred texts in Hinduism, some more authoritative than others, some appearing long, long ago, and many others appearing much later. But a useful and broad characterization of all of the texts is to divide them into two broad categories. The two categories are Shruti, and Smriti. These are Sanskrit words and when translated mean “what is heard” and “what is remembered”. Hindus believe that the Shruti, basically the Vedas, to have been revealed. Ancient sages called seers perceived these mantras (“sacred syllables”) resonating through the cosmos and passed them on to their disciples orally. According to some Hindus the Vedas were written by God, others hold that they are eternal and uncreated.

Now this can get complicated so bear with me. The Vedas consist of four collections of hymns known as the Samhitas. The Samhitas are then accompanied by commentaries (much like the Hebrew Bible has commentaries – the Mishnah and the Talmud. The commentaries are called Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.

The four collections of hymns are named:

·      The Rig Veda (knowledge of the verses)

·      The Sama Veda (knowledge of the chants)

·      The Yajur Veda (knowledge of the ritual directions)

·      The Artharva Veda (knowledge of the priests)

The Brahmanas are ritual handbooks that accompany each of the Samhitas.

The Aranyakas are books of explanation of the inner meaning of rituals.

The Upanishads (sitting near) form the basis of Hindu philosophy and with them we finally get an emphasis on ideas and knowledge rather than ritual. They teach concepts such as the soul and what is ultimate reality.

All of the above is still Shruti (what is heard). The second major category is Smriti (what is remembered). These texts were produced after the Vedas and were thought to have been written by humans, but they are still considered to be inspired.

Although they are not as holy or as authoritative as the Vedas, these texts play a much more important role in the everyday lives of Hindus for the last 2000 years.

The Smriti include the two great Hindu epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, produced from 200 BCE thru 400CE; the Dharma-shastras (200-300 CE); which are regulations for daily living; and the Puranas (400-1000CE), myths and legends about the gods.

Because Smriti play such an important role in the everyday life of Hindus we will turn to the Smriti, particularly the Epics next week.

OK – so we have been talking about how the Vedas are never read for their cognitive content and are only revered for their sounds as used in ritual activities.  But Christians, who are text oriented, want to know, what do they actually say when translated into English.

So we are going to do something a little sacrilegious now, we are going to read a Vedic hymn.  Here it is:

The Gayatri Mantra and the Vedas.

Every morning at dawn and every evening at twilight, millions of Hindus recite the Gayatri mantra, which is (when translated into an understandable language, is an invocation to the three realms of the earth, atmosphere, and sky, followed by three lines from the Rig Veda.

Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ

tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ

bhárgo devásya dhīmahi

dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt

The mantra is always recited in Sanskrit, a language not spoken in India today. It is immensely popular today, and is often referred to as the “mother of Veda”.

And because of some Hindu reform movements initiated in the 19th century, all Hindus were encouraged to recite the Gayatri mantra, regardless of their caste. That practice has continued to today.

So here is an English translation

“We meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant sun

May he inspire our intelligence.”

 Now – next week. We will turn our attention to Smriti. And as I said earlier, these are the texts that play a much more important role in the everyday lives of Hindus for the last 2000 years. And you will see that are very different than the Vedas.

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