There are many wonderful religious writings. Most were written in allegorical style and were never meant to be taken literally (although some people do); others are reasonably accurate records of events as far as we can tell. Some reflect the best information available at the time of writing, but were subsequently proven to be untrue. And others are downright malicious or misleading, making a mockery of truth.
Even so, religious texts can be great sources of wisdom once you know how to read and interpret them. The secret is to look for the meaning behind the words rather than the taking the words literally, and not to be drawn in by someone else’s ideas if they conflict with your own. Learning passages of scripture off by heart can be harmful if taken as a substitute for your own experience.
Many of the most spiritual people I know have never studied a religious text in their lives!
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is an excellent example of a religious text that is symbolic and metaphorical. The title means, ‘Song of the Divine One.’ It is an ancient Hindu text, written in Sanskrit between 500-50BC. It tells the story of the warrior Arjuna (who represents the human soul on the battlefield of life) and what he learns in conversation with his divine teacher, Krishna.
It begins with a plea to shed all worry and grief so that one can begin spiritual practice with a calm, clear mind. This frees the individual from the dominance of the ego so he or she can embark on a path leading to enlightenment. Arjuna finally achieves spiritual freedom, inner peace and a state of unconditional love.
The Bhagavad Gita is often described as a concise guide to Hindu philosophy. It explains that true enlightenment comes from growing beyond identification with the ego and instead identifying with the immortal Self, (the Atman). Through detachment from the material sense of Ego, the disciple is able to transcend his illusory mortality and attachment to the material world and enter the realm of the Infinite.
The Bible is a collection of writings. They were originally written over a period of ten centuries by people keen to record their notion of G_d. It has been translated, edited and rewritten many times that we no longer know what was said in the original text. Charles Fillmore, a great biblical scholar, wrote:
‘Modern research has thrown such additional light upon the original meaning of the scriptures that it is not safe to assume that a single paragraph of the Bible is understood in our day as it was intended at the time it was written.’
The Bible uses stories and events that are symbols of our own lives to help us in our individual quest for truth. When we interpret it metaphysically, we find it contains deep truths. As we discover them we change and grow, and then the meanings in the Bible evolve too.
Muslims believe that G_d’s final message to man was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad and recorded in the Qu’ran. They believe it contains the exact words of God as dictated by the Angel Gabriel. Those who accept the Qu’ran will be rewarded on the Day of Judgement; anyone who turns away from it will have a life of hardship in this world and will have to account for their actions on Judgement Day.
The I Ching
The I Ching, also called ‘Book of Changes’ is the oldest of the classic Chinese texts, dating from around 2,800BC. Its philosophy centres on three ideas:
- The dynamic balance of opposites;
- The evolution of events as a process; and
- Acceptance of the inevitability of change.
The book consists of a series of symbols, rules for manipulating those symbols, plus poems and commentary.
Warnings from history
Religious texts get interpreted by their followers. Some have been used to justify violence and repression. Muslim suicide bombers, for instance, have set out to kill innocent people with the words of their prophet on their lips. It is clear, however, that anyone claiming to be a worshipper of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful, who also claims that such terrorists die in glorious martyrdom is guilty of the clearest blasphemy.
Similar actions have not been uncommon in the Christian world down the ages. For example, a Roman Catholic guidebook published in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum (literally the Witches Hammer), was used to justify widespread torture and murder of women.
No religion has been exempt from such episodes. And they continue today, albeit in a different form.
©David Lawrence Preston, 29.1.2017
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How to Books, 2007