The Koran, Gita, and Tripitaka
Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have their own distinct approaches to their sacred writings. A SCHOLAR'S VIEW
SINCE all of the world's major religious traditions have produced written documents, it is possible and legitimate to ask: What are the equivalents of the Christian Bible in those different traditions? What and where are the historic copies of their scriptures?Answers to these questions, however, quickly indicate not only the expected diversity of documents, but also very different significances that have been ascribed to the documents. The written word does not always have the same function in the lives of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or others as it does for Christians - even acknowledging that there is variety among Christians themselves. Verbal literacy has been variously valued in different times and places, and the unique authority that Christians, particularly Protestants, ascribe to a book is elsewhere: in a charismatic individual, in certain ritual behavior, in a self-authenticating mystical experience. In short, to ask a seemingly simple and obvious question is to move immediately into the fascinating field of the comparative study of religion.Skip to next paragraph
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Questioning our assumptions The first step in attempting to answer these questions is to reexamine the assumptions that lead us to ask them. As William A. Graham, a historian of religion, has noted, we in the modern West "stand on this side of the epochal transition accomplished to large degree by about 1800 in the urban culture of Western Europe, and now still in progress elsewhere, from a scribal ... and still significantly oral culture to a print-dominated ... primarily visual culture. Our alphabetic 'book culture,' like our 'book religion,' is not even the same as the 'book culture' (or 'book religion') of sixteenth- or seventeenth-centur y Europe, let alone that of classical antiquity, the Medieval or Renaissance West, or the great literary civilizations of Asia past and present." It is therefore impossible for us to find any "book religions" precisely parallel with those of the modern West, because the quite specific conditions that have produced our "book culture" have not existed elsewhere. Even as literacy rises around the globe, its significance is shaped by local cultural factors, which are virtually always very different from those of European and American life of the past two centuries. The following brief overview of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist "Bibles," therefore, can only hint at what the relevant documents are - and at the more interesting and complex matter of their religious significance for those who value them.
Islam: the 'corrective' scripture The Muslim situation is closest to that of Jews and Christians, and for good reason: The religion of Islam sees itself as the fulfillment of the two older traditions, which, like Islam, are rooted in the faith of Abraham. This fulfillment focuses explicitly on scripture, the Koran (or Qur'an; meaning "the recitation"). In Muslim understanding, this scripture was revealed piecemeal to the Prophet Muhammad, in the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina, between AD 610 and 632. The words are understood as the flawless word of God himself, not as Muhammad's personal utterances. The Koran stands as the corrective to the faulty scriptures of other "People of the Book": the one God (Allah) had previously spoken through a series of prophets to Jews and Christians, but his message was distorted in the course of writing it down. The Koran serves to amend these previous partial misunderstandings and to provide comprehensive guidance for human conduct, both individual and social. Islam is in many ways the most "scriptural" of the world's religions, not just in the comprehensive significance it ascribes to the Koran, but in the rapidity with which a definitive version was assembled. Within 20 years of Muhammad's death, the third caliph, Uthman, had a definitive codex completed, thereby setting a norm for recitation. Oral transmission remained crucial, however, because of the incomplete system of writing Arabic, and it was nearly three centuries later that a text with vowel pronunciation was produced. The Uthmanic version, with very minor variant readings, remains standard throughout the Muslim world. So, too, does emphasis on the Koran's oral, recited quality; a great many Muslims who are functionally illiterate carry the entire "text" verbatim within their hearts.