Religion 101

Religion 101


Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries (Part One)

posted by Reed Hall

Religions and scriptures. Can you have one without the other?

Well, yes, actually — you can. The classic example of non-scripture-based faith is the broad category of “indigenous religions” (the myriad native religious traditions of various local, often tribal ethnic cultures). Many indigenous cultures are “pre-literate” or “non-literate”; their cultures simply haven’t invented the art of writing.

No writing, no books; no books, no scriptures.

Instead, such cultures typically preserve and pass down their traditional religious lore through media other than that of the written word. Memorized oral traditions, verbal storytelling and chants are supplemented by painting, sculpture, music, dance, songs, masks, tattoos, and many other means of artful non-verbal expression, all of which contain and convey spiritual truths.

However, the majority of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions rely upon the written word as a primary means of expressing and preserving their own religious revelations and spiritual insights. Religions in literate cultures tend to produce substantial documents which contain, clarify, codify, and further elaborate upon their core foundational beliefs and practices. Insofar as such documents are held to contain divinely revealed or mystically intuited truths, they are regarded as being especially sacred in character.

Such uniquely sacred texts come to enjoy a special status within their respective religions; they are elevated to the status of “holy scripture.”

In order to better understand a religion (and the people who follow it), one must gain some understanding of that religion’s sacred texts — its own “holy scriptures.”

This is not necessarily a particularly easy thing to do. For one thing, many such “sacred texts” are not really just one single text or book, but actually an entire anthology of them — a “mini-library” of shorter individual texts or scriptures, all assembled together between the covers of a single volume (the Bible, for example, is such an anthology; its very name derives from the Greek ta biblia, “the books”). And some religions do not rely upon such concise one-volume “mini-libraries” as the whole of their sacred canon, but instead really do have entire actual, literal libraries of sacred texts comprising their own far more massive canons of scriptures, often composed of hundreds of separate volumes.

Christianity has its Bible; Judaism has its own Bible; Islam has its Quran. One religion, one “book.” (A traditional Islamic saying refers to both Jews and Christians as being “People of the Book.”) So far, so good?

Alas, things are not necessarily as simple as they may seem.

Sure, Judaism has its Bible (the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh), and Islam has its Quran (sometimes transliterated Koran). And both are regarded by their adherents (Jews and Muslims, respectively) as being divinely revealed scriptures — the very “words of God,” as it were.

But both of these two faiths additionally possess a number of secondary (but extremely important) religious writings, which also enjoy exalted status. Although such supplemental works may not quite enjoy the same uniquely supreme status as such divinely revealed works as the Bible or the Quran, nevertheless such secondary works do contain and convey additional essential religious truths, and in a sufficiently authoritative and reliable manner as to likewise share scriptural (or at least quasi-scriptural) status.

For example, Judaism supplements its Bible with the Talmud (“study”), a massive work containing extensive rabbinic analysis and commentary upon the Bible, and preserving supplemental oral traditions not found in the Bible (the so-called “oral Torah”). Likewise, in addition to the Quran, Islam has its extensive collections of hadiths (“traditions”), anecdotal accounts of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, who as the prophet par excellence serves as an ideal role model for Muslims to understand and emulate.

By drawing out the unstated implications and merely hinted-at ramifications of scriptural passages, by unpacking how to interpret and apply scriptural principles in uncertain contexts, and by further fleshing out and making explicit what might have been somewhat unclear or merely implicit in scripture, works such as the Talmud and the hadith collections serve as essential guides to life and belief for faithful Jews and Muslims. As such, they are regarded as secondary in importance only to divinely revealed scripture (Bible or Quran); and given their expansive and supplemental nature, such secondary sacred texts can run far longer than the works of divine revelation they serve to supplement. For example, a recent English-language printed edition of the complete and unabridged Talmud runs a whopping 73 encyclopedia-sized volumes!

If all of that makes things seem less simple than they might have first appeared, then beware: things get even more complicated in other religions.

Hindu scriptures really do constitute an entire multi-volume library of sacred texts. Hinduism has its four Vedas (the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda), all regarded as divinely revealed scriptures. Supplementing the Vedas are thirteen principal (but actually 123 total) Upanishads, two major epic poems (of appropriately epic length: the Ramayana is seven volumes, the Mahabharata eighteen volumes), the twelve-volume Laws of Manu, eighteen Puranas, numerous Tantras, and more.

To give readers some idea of the scope and scale of Hindu scriptures, the Mahabharata alone is four times longer than the Bible, running about 1.8 million words and over 200,000 verses. (The popular Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad-Gita is actually just one small 700-verse section of the Mahabharata.) The most important of the eighteen Puranas is the Bhagavata Purana (sometimes also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam), and it alone runs 18,000 verses over a total of twelve volumes.

Buddhism likewise has its own library of hundreds of sacred texts, made even more complicated by its texts being spread across three separate and distinct canons of scripture, each corresponding to Buddhism’s three major branches or divisions: Theravada (popular mainly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, e.g. Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand), Mahayana (popular mainly in East Asia, e.g. China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam), and Vajrayana (popular mainly in Tibet, but found elsewhere too).

The Theravada canon, commonly referred to as “the Pali Canon” (because it’s written in Pali, a language related to Sanskrit), is also known as the Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”) since it consists of three main large sections or categories of texts, each such category constituting a modest library of its own. One popular standard printed edition of the complete Pali Canon runs some 57 volumes.

The Mahayana canon is generally referred to as “the Chinese Canon,” and contains some of the Pali texts while adding numerous additional works of its own (stories, treatises, commentaries), for a total of over 1700 texts collected in over 60 volumes.

The “Tibetan Canon” (written in the Tibetan language and relating to the Vajrayana branch, which characterizes Tibetan Buddhism) added additional original Tibetan works to the older received Buddhist canon, and is divided into two main parts: the Kanjur or Kangyur (ordinances) and the Tanjur or Tengyur (doctrines). The Kanjur alone is comprised of 689 books, contained within 108 volumes; the Tanjur consists of another 3626 texts in 224 volumes, making for a complete Tibetan Canon of some 333 volumes.

Taoism likewise possesses a library-sized canon of Chinese scriptures of its own. In addition to the well-known Tao Te Ching (alternately transliterated Daodejing) and the Chuang Tzu (or the Zhuangzi), the Taoist tradition has an immense collection of additional sacred texts of various sorts also associated with it. The entire Taoist canon (the Tao Tsang or daozang, “Canon of the Way”) includes nearly 1500 separate texts; the latest printed edition runs for some 1120 individual volumes!

Compare the bookcase-filling Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu canons of scripture with the single-volume scriptural canons of Christianity (the Bible), Judaism (the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh), and Islam (the Quran). Then compare all of those literary scriptural canons, large and small, with the complete lack of any written scriptures whatsoever among many non-literate indigenous religions. The contrasts are stark and striking, and suggestive of the staggering degree of diversity that exists among the world’s living religious traditions and spiritual pathways.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)

 



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