What are scriptures

Ever since language began, people have used narrative to organize human experience, to orient life in the cosmos. Narrative is part of humanity’s brilliance.
Narrative in its broadest sense means not only stories, but also the recital of accounts, information, and teachings, including
scriptures–the framework of worldviews as told in the words of authoritative texts. In this sense scriptures–Hebrew, Christian Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and others–are largely narratives. Each master narrative is a scenario orienting people to some sort of order.
Scriptures are examples of narrative par excellence–they tell origin stories, they offer expositions of teachings, injunctions, lyrics, and wisdom. Why is narrative in all its many forms so ubiquitous? Where is a coherent life that is not shaped by some story? Scriptures can be seen to function as “attractors,” dynamic system patterns channelling human energies, reminding people of their place in the scheme of things. They channel the passions.
Scriptures (from the Latin scriptura, meaning “a writing”) are sacred texts that serve a variety of purposes in the individual and collective lives of a religious tradition. Scriptures may be used to evoke a deeper connection with the divine, convey spiritual truths, promote mystical experience, foster communal identity, and to guide individual and communal spiritual practice. Many religions believe that their scriptures originated from divine inspiration. The monotheistic faiths view their sacred texts as the “Word of God” and divine revelation. Around the world, scriptures are held in the highest regard. In contemporary English usage, the term “scripture” describes any religious sacred text, such as Hindu scripture, Jewish scripture, etc..
At their best, sacred narratives serve as revered repositories storing religious wisdom. They help articulate the reasons of the heart. Thus they seem to mirror life and generate order. They provide recognizable structures (enduring answers about life’s meanings) yet allow some flexibility for new inter-pretations and applications as needs arise. They store information about ideals and make the meanings available and applicable to a great variety of situations by different people over the centuries. They are kept relevant by commentaries, new translations, and adaptive reiterations.
At their worst, scriptures can be used to promote unthinking, irrational behavior. The impact of scripture on human behavior has not always been positive. Religions themselves are critical of those who hold to a literal reading of scripture which can block
comprehension of the spirit of God behind it. The Buddha in his Parable of the Raft spoke about the scriptures as a raft—useful on the path to Enlightenment but ultimately to be abandoned on the other shore—as true enlightenment transcends conceptual knowledge (Majjhima Nikaya 1.134-35). Another issue that confounds scripture is whether it contains the whole truth or only a part of the truth. Adherents who believe their scripture is the complete and full revelation of God may well have difficulty appreciating the value of other religions’ scriptures. Yet the scriptures themselves counsel humility on this score, as when Buddha warned his follower Malunkyaputta not to question the philosophical questions that the Buddha had not elucidated—as a person shot with an arrow does not stop the doctor from removing it with questions about who shot it (Majjhima Nikaya 1.426-31).
As science is growing and new information is being discovered, we are still far from learning what it means to be a person. Therefore, we need to update our understanding of the role of the scriptures that, for so long, have oriented so many human lives. We need to assess anew the importance of scriptures, their meaning in human life. We need to understand better the processes by which we elevate them to
authoritative positions, and what is involved when they are lowered or lessened in status. Perhaps because modernity treated scriptures shabbily, fundamentalists now uphold them with a vengeance; the pendulum swings both ways.
With all the research the modern age has accumulated, people still feel growing pains of alternating pride of knowledge and power, and dismay at ignorance and chaotic change beyond control. Humans continue to face mysteries in the universe that were already long in existence when our ancestors first appeared on the scene. Common men as well as scholars are still wondering: “What is a civilization-founding scripture, and how does it remain significant? How can we begin to better under-stand the implications of scripture’s global
pervasiveness? What new awareness of common bonds and possible cooperation might grow out of respectful encounters with the sacred texts of others?”
Scripture through Ages
The scriptures of the world’s religions have provided humanity with some of the most sublime and profound philosophical insights, spiritual ideals, and values that have shaped the moral and spiritual development of humankind. The lofty ideas found in religious texts have shaped the identity of entire peoples, provided the content for their legal codes, offered individuals and communities meaning to life, and explained the purpose and destination of life’s journey for countless followers. Indeed, the impact of scripture on world cultures is immeasurable.
Scriptures (in oral form) have been an important part of human culture since the beginning of civilization. From the dawn of humanity, humans have attempted to make sense of the cosmos and to explain humanity’s place in it. Sacred stories arose to account for the bewildering variety of phenomena and feelings that comprise the human experience. Such stories developed cosmic significance and gave rise to the different religions and mythologies of the world’s cultures. Thus, the earliest use of scripture was not in the form of written texts but ancient oral stories handed down from one generation to the next. Many ancient preliterate cultures (and some modern ones) did not place a strong emphasis on recording their “truths” in written documents, preferring instead to honor their sacred stories through oral memorization and transmission. In ancient India, for example, the body of sacred literature known as Smriti was handed down orally among the Hindus before eventually being written down.
In the time before literacy was widespread, the average lay adherent of any religion would likely come to know the sacred stories of their own tradition through folklore, worship and ritual, or from literate members of the clergy who would read passages from their scriptures. While those able to read and explain the scriptures were held in high esteem—those who could recite them from memory even more so. Religious instruction in the ancient Brahmin caste of India included a set of mnemonic tools that helped students to memorize the ritual formulae found in the Vedas, which were written down relatively late in Hindu history. Similar (but unrelated) systems were used in the recording of the Qur’an. The Hebrew Bible, recorded in the ancient Hebrew language, is in its original rendering written in such a way that it is recited with a pleasing rhythm. The ascendancy of written scriptures in the world’s religions developed along side the continuation of oral traditions.
Roles of Scripture
Scripture serves a variety of roles in the spiritual life of a religious community. There are three major functions of scripture in a religion: personal guidance and inspiration, communal worship and instruction, and bibliomancy (using scripture for magical purposes). Individual use
Though limited literacy and primitive copying methods prevented the widespread dissemination of religious texts for many centuries, scripture has always had a personal aspect—at least, for those with access to it. In modern times, with the promotion of literacy and the advent of printing (and telecommunications) many individuals are able to experience the scriptures from their own traditions first hand. Following the greater access allowed by the advent of the printing press, most religious traditions now place a great emphasis on devotional reading of religious texts. For example, an individual relationship with the Qur’an has always been a focal point for practicing Muslims. A hafiz (“memorizer” or “protector”) is one who has committed the entire Qur’an to memory. Though this skill is of great use within a communal setting, it cannot be achieved without a great personal commitment. The community also sees it as a great act of personal piety.
The Lutheran insistence on “sola scriptura” (by scripture alone) highlighted the individual’s perceived need for scripture in the faith of a Christian.
Community use
In many religious communities scripture forms the basis for their social, legal and moral codes of conduct, as well as providing instruction on rituals and rites of passage. Scripture also serves as the foundation of law for some religious communities. The Qur’an and the hadith (traditions) are outstanding examples of scripture used as the foundation of law (Sharia) in Islam, as is the Torah of Judaism. In both cases we find rules for the proper conduct of the pious, including (but not limited to) the treatment of spouses, children, the poor and enemies. The Vinaya writing of Buddhism also fulfills a similar role, serving as rules for those who are practicing within a monastic community.
The use of scripture for magical ends has been widespread amongst the world’s religions, though often times not sanctioned by governing bodies or the clergy. Frequently, scriptures have been pored over for secret information encoded in a myriad of different ways, likely unrelated to the text that appears in plain sight. Those searching for secret messages are confident of the divine nature of the book, even the information that appears for everyone to see; however, they also believe that in the divine creation of scripture, secrets are planted in the text for the devout to discover. This is found in the Jewish Kabbalah tradition, which attempts to reveal mystical messages hidden in the Hebrew Bible.
In recent times there has been a surge of bibliomancy in Christian and Muslim circles, each with their own re-examination of scriptures. Most notable is the “Bible Code” phenomenon, in which passages from the Hebrew Bible are arranged in a pre-determined way (often a specific number of characters per line, without spaces) and checked for key words, found by counting letters at certain intervals. Both the number of characters per line and the intervals at which letters are counted are manipulated, often requiring a computer to handle the multitude of calculations. Sometimes the alleged Bible Code is used for predicting future events. Bibliomancy does not always fall outside of the proscribed use of scripture for the Daoist classic the Yi Jing (易經) is, at least on the surface, expressly used for divination.
Thus, attitudes to sacred texts differ between religious traditions, and can change within a faith group. Some religions make written texts widely available, while others hold that sacred teachings must remain hidden from all but the loyal and the initiate. Some religions make texts available gratis or in subsidized form; others require payment. The Guru Granth Sahib of Sikhism always appears with standardized page numbering while the Abrahamic religions and their offshoots favor chapter and verse pointers.
Scriptures in the World’s Religions
Scripture plays the central role in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that have been called “religions of the book.” In these religions scriptures are attributed to prophets: Moses as the transmitter of the Torah, and Muhammad as the transmitter of the Qur’an. Christian tradition attributes the canonical gospels to disciples of Jesus. In Hinduism, the Vedas are thought to have been recorded by rishis. Though all these traditions accept that their texts were recorded by human hands, they also believe that these works are in some way “heavenly books.” This assertion has different meanings in different traditions. The Qur’an is believed to be of complete divine origin, recited by Muhammad after having it revealed to him by the angel Gabriel. The Vedas of Hinduism are not thought to have been composed by the rishis, but rather heard. The Buddhist tradition sees the power of their scripture in its insight into the nature of reality.
The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) is comprised of three major sections: the Torah (law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Hebrew Bible is thought to have been established at the Council of Jamnia following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., though some dispute that this council ever occurred. The Tanakh is an example of a collection of scriptures written at different times by different authors in different locations. However, the various writings are thought to be equally inspired by God, and thus are said to have unity in spirit and consistency. Within Judaism there is also a strong oral tradition, preserved in the Talmud; however, there is disagreement within the Jewish community as to the importance of the Talmud. The Talmud is made up of the Mishnah, the recorded oral law, and the Gemara, commentaries on the Mishnah. Another work sometimes recognized as scripture in Judaism is the Zohar, a collection of mystical writings used in Kabbalah.
The central scripture to Christianity is the Holy Bible, made up of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the same as the Jewish Tanakh, recognized as scripture by early Christians. The New Testament is a collection of writings by early Christians, comprised of narratives, letters and apocalyptic writings. Among Christian denominations there is some disagreement about the contents of the canon, primarily in the Apocrypha, a list of works that, though not considered fully scriptural in any major Christian denomination, are regarded with varying levels of respect. As well, there exists a group of somewhat unrelated works known as the Pseudopigrapha—texts whose authorship is attributed wrongly to others. Attitudes towards the Bible also vary amongst Christian groups. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestant groups stress the harmony and importance of scripture and tradition, while other Protestant churches focus on the idea of sola scriptura, or scripture alone. This concept arose during the Protestant Reformation, and many Evangelical groups today continue to support the use of scripture as the only source of Christian teaching.
The central scripture of Islam is the Holy Qur’an, which was recorded in the seventh century C.E.. Islamic tradition holds that the Qur’an existed in its same form in heaven before its revelation to humanity by the angel Gabriel through Muhammad. There is a great deal of importance attached to the integrity of the Qur’an, especially the degree to which the original text has been preserved over the centuries. Additionally, the ahadith (the Arabic pluralization of hadith), which record the words and actions of the prophet Muhammad, is another revered text in Islam. However, the hadith are not considered as authoritative as the Qur’an. Muslims also recognize the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as scriptural, but corrupted by humanity over time, and not maintaining the purity of the Qur’an. Thus, Jews and Christians are known in Islam as ‘People of the Book.”
Hinduism is a broad and vast religion, both in terms of beliefs and time. thus, speaking of “Hinduism” is difficult, as the term itself encompasses a vast variety of beliefs and scriptures. There is a great deal of material, both oral and written, that is considered scriptural in the Hindu traditions.
The oldest and most authoritative scriptures in Hinduism are called the Vedas, meaning “Wisdom texts.” There are four collections (Samhitas) of Vedas: the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Each of the Samhitas is further connected to commentaries that elucidate these works known as the Brahmanas and Aryanakas. The highest or ultimate teachings of this corpus are known as the Upanishads, which are of great importance philosophically, and thus classified as “Vedanta” (culmination of the Vedas). The entire collection of Vedic texts is classified in Hinduism as shruti, meaning “heard wisdom.”
In addition to the Vedic “shruti” scriptures, several other Hindu writings are revered as scripture. Collectively these other writings are known as smriti (“remembered wisdom”). Included among these works are the Itihasa (Sacred History epics) of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. A chapter of the Mahabharata called the Bhagavadgita has become the most popular and widely read scripture in Hinduism today. Other smriti texts include tantras, agamas, legal sutras and shastras, and the texts of philosophical schools.
There is no set of scripture that is universal throughout all of Buddhism. Most traditions have a tripitaka (Pali tipitaka), a Sanskrit word meaning “three baskets.” These baskets refer to the three categories of scripture found in most Buddhist organizations: the vinaya pitaka (discipline and rules for monks and nuns), the sutra pitaka (sermons and teachings by and about the Buddha), and the abhidharma pitaka (a structured presentation of Buddhist teachings). The first tripitaka was the Pali Canon, recorded in the first century B.C.E. from oral tradition. This set of teachings makes up the scriptures used by Theravada Buddhists. As new schools of Buddhism developed new canons were prepared. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition produced sets of works thought (by Mahayana Buddhists) to be superior to the Pali Canon, but still a product of the Buddha. These included the Prajnaparamita sutras and the Yogacara sutras. Some of these texts were believed to have been created by the Buddha, but preserved by mystical beings known as nagas and revealed only at the appropriate time. In China and Tibet, even further canons were created,
incorporating new ideas through the inclusion of new texts. In the Tibetan Nyingmaj tradition special texts called terma are believed to be occulted and revealed in a manner similar to some Mahayana works. In Buddhism, the term “sutra” refers to canonical scriptures. The earliest Buddhist sutras are found in the second part of the Tripitaka which is called Sutra Pitaka. There are also some Buddhist texts, such as the Platform Sutra, that are called sutras despite being attributed to much later authors. The Pali form of the word, sutta is used exclusively to refer to Buddhist scriptures, particularly those of the Pali Canon.
Jainism is the religion of about ten million people in India, with its own distinctive scriptures, history, and a long philosophic tradition. Although a part of the greater Indian culture, Jainism, like Buddhism, is a non-Vedic religious tradition, rejecting the authority of the Vedas, Upanishads, and other Hindu scriptures and their deities. Noted for its rigorous asceticism, Jain thought has influenced the greater Indian culture especially through its doctrine of ahimsa, non-injury to all living beings. Jainism teaches a strict doctrine of karma, which binds a person to suffer rebirth and retribution for all evil actions. A person must therefore liberate himself or herself from the fetters of karma by taking a vow of asceticism and thenceforth avoiding all violence in deed, in word, and in thought. All passionate desire begets violence, and is itself the result of the karmas of a deluded consciousness which must be eliminated. Jainism does not accept a creator God or personal God; instead each person has within himself or herself the potential to realize perfection and become a paramatman, a soul freed from all karmic fetters and able to reach the highest point in the universe.
Mahavira, born Nataputta Vardhamana (599-527 b.c.), realized this perfection and became a Tirthankara, the Fordfinder, who discovered the Path to salvation. A near contemporary of the Buddha, he is twenty-fourth in a long succession of Tirthankaras extending back to Rishabhadeva of the Vedic period.[5] Popular Jainism venerates him to the point of worshipping him as a divine source of grace, thus adding a personal, devotional element absent from Jain philosophy.
There are two branches of Jainism, divided over whether a monk may or may not wear clothing: the Shvetambaras allow clothes and the Digambaras demand total nudity, as they each believe was the practice of Mahavira.
The canon of Jain scriptures (agamas) begins with the sermons of Mahavira, written down by his disciples in ancient languages of Ardhamagadhi and Shauraseni Prakrit, called Purvas. The oldest of these, however, have been lost, and thence the two Jain communities reconstructed different canons from the collections of surviving scriptures, now written in Prakrit and Sanskrit.
The scriptures according to the Shvetambara Jains are composed of twelve limbs (angas) and 34 subsidiary texts (angabahya). The first limb is the Acarangasutra, which contains laws for monks and nuns and the most authoritative biography of Mahavira. The Sutrakritanga is the second limb and contains Jain doctrines expounded through disputes with other Hindu and early Buddhist teachings. Among the angabahya the best known is the Uttaradhyayana Sutra, an anthology of dialogues and teachings believed to be the last sermon of the Mahavira, and the Kalpa Sutra, containing biographies of the Jinas. Other scriptures of the Shvetambara canon include the Upasakdasanga Sutra, Dashavaikalika Sutra, and Nandi Sutra.
The Digambara Jains believe that most of the original Purvas have been lost and dispute the authenticity of the Shvetambara scriptures. To the small surviving portion of the ancient Purvas they add a large number of scholastic expositions (anuyoga). These expositions constitute the scriptures of the Digambara tradition. Among them are the writings of Kundakunda (1st century a.d.): the Samayasara, Niyamasara, Pravacanasara, and Pancastikaya; the Anupreksa of Kartikeya (2nd century a.d.), and the Samadhishataka of Pujyapada (6th century a.d.). The Tattvarthasutra of Umasvati (2nd century a.d.) is a systematization of Jain doctrine into concise aphorisms in the style of the Hindu Vedanta Sutras; its Digambara commentaries include the Sarvarthasiddhi of Pujyapada, the Tattvartharajavartika of Akalanka (8th century a.d.), and the Tattvarthaslokavartika of Vidyanandi (9th century a.d.). The Tattvarthasutra is recognized as authoritative, with only minor differences, by both Digambara and Shvetambara sects. Another exposition which is accepted by both sects is the Sanmatitarka by Siddhasena (5th century a.d.), a treatise on logic concerned with establishing the simultaneous validity of several viewpoints on reality. Surviving fragments of the Purvas spawned commentaries such as the Gomattasara of Nemichandra (950 a.d.) and the Jayadhavala by Virasena (820 a.d.). Legends and biographies of saints are found in the Adipurana of Jinasena (9th century a.d.); their praises are sung in the Dvatrimshika of Siddhasena; while the Aptamimamsa of
Samantabadhra (5th century a.d.) gives philosophical arguments for the Jina’s perfection, omniscience, and purity. The Mulacara of Vattakera (2nd century a.d.) contains monastic rules comparable to those in the Acarangasutra, while the Ratnakarandasravakacara of Samantabadhra and the Sagaradharmamrita of Ashadhara (13th century a.d.) provide ethical instruction for lay people. This listing does not nearly exhaust the selection of anuyoga cited herein. Among the extra-canonical works, we include several passages from the Nitivakyamrita of Somadeva (10th century a.d.), a Jain classic on polity.
The most important work in the Sikh religion is the Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib, written in the Gurmukhi script. The Adi Granth was compiled in its final form in 1604 by the fifth Guru Arjan.
Subsequently the Adi Granth was expanded by later Sikh gurus, eventually becoming the Guru Granth Sahib as it is known today. The last of the Sikh gurus (Guru Gobind Singh) declared that the Granth would serve as guru for the Sikh tradition—a unique role for scripture in the world’s religions. Also unique is the reference system used: while many traditions (especially those of the West) use a chapter and verse system, the Guru Granth Sahib’s composition is sandardized in such a way that every instance of the book has the same number of pages (1430) and the same text on every page. Thus, when searching for a particular page in the Granth, the universal reference is a page number, rather than a chapter or verse citation. In addition to the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs hold the Dasam Granth in high esteem. This work records the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh.
The Confucian tradition does not have scripture in the sense that other religions do—that is, Confucians did not see their books as necessarily heavenly or divine. They did, however, still ascribe great value to them. The works in the Confucian tradition that are analogous to scripture are best described as “classics.” There is debate as to whether these Classics can be described as scripture, just as there is debate as to whether Confucianism itself can be described as a religion. The important books of Confucianism are divided into the Five Classics and the Four Books. The Five Classics are not
specifically Confucian, but do relate strongly to Confucian teachings and values. The Five Classics are the Classic of History, the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of Rites, the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Yi Jing (I Ching), the last also being an important text in Daoism and folk traditions. The Yi Jing, Classic of Poetry and the Classic of History were recorded (in some form) before Confucius’ work, though he is thought to have written the Spring and Autumn Annals and edited other volumes. The Classic of Rites was compiled by subsequent Confucians. The Four Books of Confucianism are the Analects (sayings of Confucius), the Mengzi (Mencius) (written by the disciple of that name), the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning—the latter two are part of the Classic of Rites.
Philosophical Daoism’s primary text is the Dao De Jing (Wade-Giles: Tao Te Ching). Attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), it is often dated to around 600 B.C.E. and expounds on themes of nature, ruling, and knowledge, among others. Also important is the subsequent work the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), written by an author of the same name. Written approximately 200 years after the Dao de Jing, the Zhuangzi addressed similar themes, which became paramount in the thought of philosophical Daoists. The Classic the Yi Jing (I Ching), though not specifically a Daoist work, would become central in Daoist practice as well. Along with the developments in Daoism new texts were written and
popularized. The alchemist Ge Hong wrote the important work the Baopuzi (“Sage Who Embraces Simplicity”), and as alchemy grew in importance in Daoist thought, alchemical works grew in popularity as well. Daoist works since the fifth century B.C.E. have been arranged and rearranged in a canon known as the Daozang, which includes a great variety of Daoist works on a myriad of topics.
Shinto is not a religion mediated by written scriptures. Nevertheless, certain writings are central to Shinto and embody its spirit. The classics of Shinto are the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, which contain the mythology of the kami, the founding of Japan and its imperial line, and the records of the early emperors. Shinto ritual texts excerpted include Engishiki on purification and the Kagura-uta, ritual dances. There are a number of oracles associated with Shinto shrines which have wide influence. The Man’yoshu is a collection of poetry from the Nara period (700-1150). Later sources of Shinto include poetry and didactic texts: One Hundred Poems about the World (Yo no naka hyaku-shu) by Moritake Arakida (c. 1525), which has been called the “Analects of the Ise Shrine” and is used in children’s moral education; Divine Injunctions (Jingikun) by Ekken Kiabara (1630-1714); Records of the Divine Wind (Shinpuki) by Mochimasa Hikita (ca. 1660); One Hundred Poems on the Way of Death (Shido hyaku-shu) by Naokata Nakanishi (1643-1709); and One Hundred Poems on the Jeweled Spear (Tamaboko Hyaku-shu) by Norinaga Motoori (1730-1801).
African South American, Pacific region religions
There are more than one hundred million adherents of the various traditional religions of Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and the South Pacific. While many of these religions are restricted to village and tribal societies, others are vigorous in urban areas, where they offer dimensions of the sacred in the midst of an industrializing society. Some are even expanding to the status of world religions: the Yoruba religion, for example, has more than 30 million adherents and has spread from its homeland in Nigeria to Brazil and the Caribbean where its variants go by the names Candomble and Santeria.
Shamanism is widespread in most traditional religions. The shaman is specially gifted with the ability to communicate with the spiritual world. Since the unseen spiritual forces are recognized as in control of many phenomena on earth, a shaman may be called upon to heal physical and mental illness, to ferret out criminals, or to discover the reason for bad luck. The shaman may go into a trance for many hours, accompanied by dancing and the presentation of ritual objects. Other participants may join in the trance as well, as they try to cure the afflicted soul.


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