The Koran, Gita, and Tripitaka

Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have their own distinct approaches to their sacred writings. A SCHOLAR'S VIEW

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor. Thomas B. Coburn is Charles A. Dana professor of religious studies and classical languages at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

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.

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.

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Hinduism: primacy of oral tradition The Hindu situation could not be more different. The symbolic center of the tradition is the Rig Veda, a collection of 1,028 Sanskrit hymns, composed for liturgical use over 3,000 years ago. They are among the earliest compositions in any Indo-European language. Yet Indian culture has consistently affirmed that the power of these (and most other) words lies in their oral and aural quality, and so has resisted reducing them to writing. The Rig Veda was not, in fact, publicly accessible until its first published edition appeared in the mid-1800s. That work, significantly, was accomplished by an Oxford professor, F. Max Muller, and is of virtually no religious consequence for Hindus themselves: The Rig Veda's significance is symbolic, a cultural and religious reference-point, not literal or applicable to daily life. In modern times, partly in response to imported Western ideas about "religions" having "scriptures," efforts have been made to present the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's instruction on knowledge, morality and devotion, as the "Bible" of Hinduism. This text has become, after the Christian Bible, the second-most translated book in world history. The Gita has doubtless been widely prized over the course of the past 2,000 years, but it has never commanded the exclusive attention of Hindus as a whole. As it is with gods in Hinduism, so it is with scriptures: There are a very great number, and which one is in the ascendant depends on region, time of year, family tradition, caste, language, century, and so on. Certain texts may attain a near-canonical status in particular contexts, but the core of Hindu religion lies, not in its texts, but in its stories about deities: Rama, Shiva, the Goddess, Krishna, and others. It is these stories that lie in Hindu hearts and that get told, and retold, interpreted, and amended, and reinterpreted over and over and over again.

Buddhism: melding the word and experience Buddhists lie somewhere between Muslims and Hindus in their attitudes toward holy writ. Like Muslims, they have a notion of a standard text, a canon, but like Hindus, they have an open-ended and expansive attitude toward what may appropriately be considered standard. The decisive measure is what is consistent with "the word of the Buddha," but this does not mean slavish fidelity to the historical founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563 to 483 BC). Rather, it means teachings that accord with the experience of enlightenment, as taught by the historical Buddha and as lived by later followers. This dynamic quality gives the Buddhist canon great diversity. The Pali canon of Theravada (South and Southeast Asian) Buddhism was composed and written down by the 1st century AD, but it remained in manuscript form until the 19th century. It consists of 31 texts, of varying antiquity, grouped into three "baskets" (Tripitaka): rules for monastic practice, sayings of the Buddha, and scholastic analysis. The rise of Mahayana Buddhism, and its spread to East Asia, produced a Chinese canon, whose first block printing was completed in 983. It includes some 1,076 items, and is approximately 70 times the length of the Christian Bible. However, sectarian and individual practice has tended to emphasize one particular text, and such scriptures as the Lotus Sutra have been enormously popular. Tibetan Buddhism also has a massive canon of over 300 volumes, dating from the 14th century, much of it consisting of translations of Indian sources now lost. Here too, the daily life of both monks and laity focuses on a few, selected texts for meditational, ritual, or philosophical elaboration. To inquire into "Bibles" elsewhere in the world thus reveals a stunning variety of content, of attitudes toward texts, and of what it means to be religious. This discovery should caution us against a simplistic cross-cultural comparison of scriptures. At the same time, it should invite us to think more deeply about the distinctive features of the Bible, and of Christian attitudes toward it, while pondering other traditions, and other expressions, of religious faith.

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