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Understanding (Not Burning) Holy Books

By: for on April 9, 2011
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This year is the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the King James version of the Holy Bible. Its a great work of the English language and remains loved after four long centuries. Together with the works of William Shakespeare, it has contributed many words and expressions to the English language that we still use today.

Someone sent me recently the newest edition of the New Testament. It is a new translation, written in contemporary English and avoiding any ambivalent or difficult expressions of previous versions. It reads well, but somehow missed out on the feeling of the King James.

I suppose we all have a favourite divine scripture, from whatever cultural and religious background we come. The words are reassuring and contain wisdom in a form that our great-great-grandparents would have listened to and appreciated. And their great grandparents too.

However, we live in changing times, times that do not seem to be treating religious scripture that well. Whether it is fundamentalists of any persuasion burning holy books, or the ‘New Atheists’ rubbishing them verbally or in print, nothing is sacred. Including, it appears, sacred literature.

It began a long time ago. In the 1860s there began a wave of textual criticism of the Bible, with scholars examining the Bible as a historical document and contesting the accounts found there. Beginning in Germany, it swept through Europe and continues to the present day. What was previously unthinkable – criticism of the beliefs and symbols held sacred to people – is now commonplace.

Textual scholars are scientists of the historicity of the accounts found in the holy books of mankind. Their number includes linguistic palaeontologists, experts on the archaeology of ancient language and how language changes over the years and across geographical regions. Then there are scholars of religious traditions and the shades of difference between one sect and another – and which kings and social movements helped to make them that way.

Our respect for scientists – both the physical and literary types – places them at the top of the intellectual tree. We can choose to believe what we believe in our holy books, but the scientists will tell us whether or not what we believe is valid or not.

A reader brought a current television series to my attention. A young archaeologist was bringing her science to bear on many of the hallowed stories and traditions in the Holy Bible. From the Vaishnava perspective it was interesting, since we also have opinions on the thinking processes of the ancient mind. But the Bible was held up only to the light of science, and only that which is provable historically could be accepted as truth. And for ‘provable’ that means bones, pottery shards, and the names of kings.

I wondered how those who have newly discovered Vaishnavism would cope with such textual and historical analysis applied to our own tradition. Strangely enough, I did not have long to wait. Another reader sent me a link to a BBC Radio 4 discussion chaired by Lord Melvyn Bragg. Subject of the discussion was The Bhagavad-gita. Readers can listen to it until next Thursday on the BBC website.

The scholars discussing the Bhagavad-gita are known to the Vaishnava community and, as scholars, their views are based on verifiable historical or linguistic evidence researched by themselves or other respected scholars.

However, it should be said that access to the inner spirit of the Bhagavad-gita is exclusively open to the scholar-practitioner. Access that is not readily available to those who study it only as a poetic historical document. The teachings of the Gita factually result in spiritual experiences that foster wisdom in contrast to knowledge. Not that scholars do not speak truth as they have discovered it, but that there is a higher order of truth available to those who taste what is described therein. Like accurately describing honey and then tasting it, there is a difference between the experiences of the observers.

[ religious-intolerance ]