Sacred Books

Revealed Sacred Texts: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Today, when we “live stream” something, we are receiving information from a faraway invisible source. The fact is that all religious teaching and divine truth was believed to be essentially live-streamed into prophets and mystics, who were then expected to pass them on. The sacred texts of all religions are said to be the result of these direct revelations.

In the Jewish tradition, God revealed to Moses the teachings of the Torah, the Jewish sacred text, on Mount Sinai. The words of the Qur’an were dictated from God to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel.

But it was only relatively recent in history that writing became a widespread form of transmitting information. Early in the histories of religious and wisdom traditions, the substance of the sacred texts we have today were transmitted orally.

In the Hindu tradition, sacred texts are divided into two broad groupings: Smriti (“that which is remembered”), texts attributed to particular authors which were transmitted through writing; and Śrutis (“that which is heard”), which are considered to be more direct revelations, transmitted orally, but not originally composed, by human beings.

Smriti include the two great Hindu Epics (the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana), The Purānas, and other scriptures corresponding to various schools of Hindu philosophy. The Śrutis are deemed to be more foundational and authoritative for all Hindu sects, most notably the Vedas and Upanishads.

The wisdom of great sages like Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha were memorized by their followers and transmitted orally for many years before being committed to writing.

This is why so many Buddhist scriptures begin with the phrase “Thus have I heard,” and why Hadith—the words of the Prophet Muhammad—begin with a similar introductory clause, reminding us that it was not the Prophet himself who wrote down these words. Likewise, the Christian Bible was not written by Jesus but instead was written over many years, going through many different versions and revisions, to codify the accounts of his life and deeds left by his followers.

Finally, in the Hindu tradition, sacred texts are divided into two broad groupings: Smriti (“that which is remembered”), texts attributed to particular authors which were transmitted through writing; and Śrutis (“that which is heard”), which are considered to be more direct revelations, transmitted orally, but not originally composed, by human beings.

I used to believe, as my mother still does, that God incarnated on Earth as Lord Krishna to deliver sermons, which we can read today in the form of texts like the Bhagavad Gita. But in fact, the Gita was of course written over time by multiple human authors, just as the Bible and Qur’an were. All these texts, even if they were inspired by revelations from God, all were mediated by fallible human minds, mouths, and hands.

Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the sacred texts of religions have maintained their degree of importance and popularity for so many thousands of years.This is because the sacred texts across religions undoubtedly contain many truths that human beings across the world continue to derive meaning from,such that a person in ancient Rome and another in present day Africa could derive an equal depth of meaning from the same words.

But we should remember that what we have today, for all scriptures, is the word of God translated into the words of men. And the human authors of sacred books had to resort to indirect methods of teaching their messages, like storytelling, which today call for metaphorical interpretation.

Christianity

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

—The New Testament(2 Timothy 3:16), Christian scripture

Islam

“And We have revealed to you, [O Muḥammad], the Book [i.e., the Qur’ān] in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method.”

—The Qur’an(5:48), Islamic scripture

Baha’i

“The Heavenly Books, the Bible, the Qur'án, and the other Holy Writings have been given by God as guides into the paths of Divine virtue, love, justice and peace. Therefore I say unto you that ye should strive to follow the counsels of these Blessed Books, and so order your lives that ye may, following the examples set before you, become yourselves the saints of the Most High!”

—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader

Hinduism

“The root of the religion is the entire Veda, and (then) the tradition and customs of those who know (the Veda), and the conduct of virtuous people, and what is satisfactory to oneself.”

—The Laws of Manu, ancient codes of conduct

“The Bhagavad Gita is a true scripture of the human race, a living creation rather than a book, with a new message for every age and a new meaning for every civilization.”

—Sri Aurobindo, Indian philosopher and mystic

Buddhism

“Do not go by revelation;

Do not go by tradition;

Do not go by hearsay;

Do not go on the authority of sacred texts.”

—The Buddha

“Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma [teachings] as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

—The Buddha

Daoism

“The Book of Poetry has the Tao of the will, the Book of History has the Tao of events, the Rites has the Tao of conduct, the Music has the Tao of harmony. The Book of Changes has the Tao illustrating the yin and yang and the Spring and Autumn Annals has the Tao of titles and procedures. These teachings are found across the face of the whole world, and in China they are mentioned by many of the hundred schools of philosophy of the Tao.”

—The Book ofChuang Tzu, Daoist text

Judaism

“Books may not be thrown about from one place to another, nor may they be treated disrespectfully. A man is required to have a scroll of Torah written with good ink, a good quill, by competent scribes, on good sheets of parchment made out of the hides of deer. He is then to wrap it in beautiful silks.”

—The Talmud, collection of Jewish writings

Confucianism

“Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites and be perfected by music.”

—The Analects (8:8), Confucian text

Philosophy and Theology

“What you learn or find in a book will not be the real. But you can experience it, you can watch yourself in action, watch yourself thinking, see how you think, how rapidly you are naming the feeling as it arises—and watching the whole process frees the mind from its centre. Then the mind, being quiet, can receive that which is eternal.”

—JidduKrishnamurti, philosopher and speaker

“The custom in many cultures of the past was to ascribe a book to a great figure from the past. By doing so you were not necessarily trying to claim that they had written every word. But neither were you too worried if people thought so, so long as they read it! […] Thus, for example, the five books of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were ascribed to Moses, despite the fact that they record his death! That this happened to the book we know as Chuang Tzu is without doubt.”

—Martin Palmer, translator

“Like the earlier paradigm, the emerging paradigm sees the Bible as sacred scripture. But unlike the earlier paradigm, the emerging paradigm sees the Bible’s status as sacred, as ‘Holy Bible,’ as the result of a historical process, not as the consequence of its divine origin.”

—Marcus J. Borg, New Testament scholar and theologian