Sacred texts are spiritual and religious writings that were kept hidden and guarded for centuries because they conveyed information handed down from people who were considered very wise and holy. They were also kept hidden and guarded because there were no duplicating machines back then. Making copies required the help of a person who was literate (a scribe). Also, it was a very laborious and time consuming task to translate and transcribe many of the texts because they were often written in foreign languages. So the scribe not only had to be literate but also be able to read and write foreign languages. Such as person was rare and literally worth his weight in gold. Today, all of these texts can be read in English and even are on audio tapes, CDs, and the internet. Anyone serious about wanting to know what these texts say should read them for themselves and not rely on someone else to interpret them and tell you what they mean.
Many years of painstaking work, contemplation, and inspiration went into making these texts. As you read through these short synopses of the texts see if you can detect a common theme or thread that runs through them all. The texts are in ascending order – from the most ancient of the texts to the more recent. The years in which the texts were written are only approximate and are referred to as B.C.E. (before Common Era) or C.E. (Common Era). Basically BCE is the same as B.C. (before Christ) and CE is the same as A.D. “Anno Domini” (the year of our Lord). These abbreviations are done all over the world today so as not to offend any one particular religion.
The Vedas, written in Sanskrit, dating back 1500 BCE are the oldest written texts known to man. There are four Vedas and they are the primary texts of Hinduism. They contain poems, hymns, rituals, and metaphysical writings having to do with how to live life. There is much wisdom in these texts and they were written a thousand years or more before the birth of Christ. Then, people had to exist the only way they knew how. Staying alive had a lot to do with having faith in God, praying, practicing rituals, singing hymns, and anything else that could possibly make life a little bit happier and easier. Looking over these writings gave me a sense of appreciation for what these ancient people had to endure.
The Rig Veda contains ten books of hymns that have to do with prayers, sacrifices and the worshipping of Indra (God). Each book contains hundreds of hymns that make very little sense to modern man. These hymns were probably sung by groups of people who gathered in meetings places much like our modern-day churches.
The Soma Veda contains holy songs that were used by priests while offering juice from the Soma plant to the various deities they worshiped during that period. Both the Rig Veda and the Soma Veda were translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith in 1895.
The Yajur Veda is a lengthy and detailed manual on sacrificial rites (including mantras) that go along with the sacrifices. This text was translated by Arthur B. Keith in 1914.
The Atharva Veda contains all kinds of incantations and metaphysical sayings to charm away just about any kind of disease or sickness. There are also many chants for living a long life, charms to keep enemies at bay, to secure harmony among neighboring tribes, to avert evil and just about anything else in life. This Veda was translated by Maurice Bloomfield in 1897.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament of the Holy Bible was written between 1400 and 500 BCE. The first five chapters are said to have been written by Moses and are considered to be the book of the Jewish law (the Torah). The Old Testament has to do with God’s commandments and what will happen to man if we don’t obey them. The Ten Commandments can be found in Deuteronomy 5:17 – 21. There are many stories in the Old Testament about diseases, pestilence, wars, famine and a whole host of other bad things to support the idea that God is supreme and that it is best to fear him and obey him.
The next oldest texts are probably the Upanishads that were written by many wise sages 800 to 400 BCE. They tell stories and give advise on how to be pure in mind and spirit. These writing are relatively short saying and very interesting. I highly recommend reading them.
The Four Noble Truths and the Dhammapada
The Buddha was born around 560 BCE at the base of the Himalayan Mountains near Nepal into a very rich family. His given name was Siddhartha Gautama. He had everything a boy could want: the finst clothes, horses, servants and a palace. Practically anything he wanted he could get, but he gave it all up to roam the countryside and teach about how to live in peace with oneself and to gain enlightenment. He taught for 45 years and accumulated many disciples who wrote about his philosophy of karma, selflessness and suffering. He is probably best known for his teachings of the four noble truths; 1) recognizing the fact that every living being suffers, 2) the origin of suffering lies in our false belief of a permanent self or ego-clinging, 3) suffering is temporary and is realized only when nirvana (a fully liberated mind) is reached, and 4) the eightfold path which teaches the eight ways to perfect discipline, meditation and wisdom.
The Dhammapada is an anthology of 423 short, poetic verses spoken by the Buddha and is worth reading. In it, the Buddha speaks of hate, love and the mind. The Buddha spends much time talking about the wonders of the mind and how to control the mind through meditation. He encourages people to seek awareness and enlightenment through good deeds, mindfulness and meditation.
The Mahabharata The Bhagavad-Gita and the Ranayana
The Mahabharata and Ramayana [the national epics of India] were written around 500 BCE. They consist of some of the longest poems ever written and are based on oral traditions passed down from one generation to the next.
The Mahabharata, the longest and one of the most ancient Sanskrit epics of India was written by Vyasa, one of the characters in the poem. This magnificent piece of work is over 100,00 verses long. One of the major and most popular pieces in the story is the Bhagavad-Gita which is a beautiful poem about a reluctant warrior going to war against his relatives. The Mahabharata, in brief, is about the struggle for dominion over a kingdom within a single family, the Kuru. It’s a story of the elders in the family pitted against the younger members. It is rather complex but interesting story of their marriages, conflicts, fights, wins and losses including a lot of Hindu mythology. It is a very sad yet philosophical story that ends in a tragedy, but not really. Near the end there is a long, bloody battle whre the youngsters end up victorious until they view the carnage and decide it wasn’t worth it. They feel so bad they renounce everything and go up into the Himalayas where they die one by one and ascend into the heavens.
The Bhagaavad-Gita or Celestial Song is one of the main chapters in the Mahabharata and is considered a sacred text of Hinduism. It consists of 700 poetic verses depicting a conversation between Arjuna (a warrior) and Krishna (God). The story line between Arjuna and Krishna takes place on a battlefield near New Delhi, India about 1,000 years ago. Two of my favorite lines in this story are; ‘when we see that the God in ourselves is the same God that exists in all that is, we do not hurt ourselves or others and it is in this way we reach the Supreme.”/”All creatures, although they appear separate, are truly only One.” The main theme in this epic is the idea that life is nothing but an illusion and one must detach oneself from that illusion by getting rid of desires and become a person of discipline. Krishna explains to Arjuna that he has nothing to fear or to feel sorry for because all of the people on the battlefield are already dead anyway.
The Ramayana is another sacred text of India that is still used today by the Hindu community in India for making astronomical almanacs that are used as calendars for astrological predictions and to organize events. It also establishes a code of conduct that is considered to be the benchmark for morality, ethics and posterity. Its importance could probably be equated to the Old Testament for the Jews and New Testament for the Christians. The Ramayana consists of no less than 24,000 verses contained in seven chapters originally written in Sanskrit by Valmiki about the same time Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata. The story was handed down generations after generations by sages and was finally written down by Valmiki 2500 years ago (500 BCE). From all of the astrological descriptions in the story, experts have placed it as occurring many thousands of years ago, possibly as far back as 50,000 years. I find the story very interesting, not because of its moral and ethical implications, but because of how the names of the people in the story resemble the names of various animals that depict their characters.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947 some goat herders looking for their lost goats among the cliffs along the Dead Sea came upon some old, earthen jars in a cave. The jars contained seven scrolls that dated back some 2,000 years. For the next nine years archaeologists scoured the hillsides and found ten more caves containing all kinds of artifacts – more scrolls, pieces of scrolls, pottery, cloth and other items of archaeological interest. A total of 800 manuscripts were found dating from 200 BCE to 68 CE. The caves are known as the Qumran caves and the people who lived in them are now called the Qumran community that consisted of mainly Jewish people. The people who wrote the manuscripts were probably priests or people closely connected to the priesthood in some way. The writings are mainly in Hebrew and Aramaic containing much of the same material found in the Old Testament that we have today. For the most part, the writings contain rules and regulations on how to conduct life in a Jewish community. Some new understandings about early Jewish culture were learned and how that culture may have helped give rise to Christianity.
The New Testament
The books in the New Testament were written around 60 CE, about 2,000 years ago, by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter and James. They tell the story of Jesus and his teachings. Jesus was born in Palestine, a region in the Middle East just east of the Mediterranean Sea. in Bethlehem in the year 4 BCE give or take a few years. He grew up poor and worked as a carpenter in and around Nazareth; and according to scripture, began teaching the word of God when he was about thirty years old. Jesus left no writing about what he thought or preached and there are no pictures, drawings or sketches of what he looked like. Life the Buddha, he had followers or disciples that evidently took notes because the scriptures that were laid down in the New Testament were written by people who were with him, knew him or knew people who knew him. Therefore, our knowledge of jesus consists of what people wrote about him. We know that he was a man of modest means, owned nothing, wrote nothing, was a healer, a teacher, spoke often about the power of the Holy Spirit and had a tremendous influence on the world.
His sermon on the Mount conveyed what he was all about. His message was simple but demanding – always tell the truth, do not lust even in your heart, forgive those who have wronged you, love your enemies, give without expecting anything in return, don’t be judgmental, and always strive for peace. He also taught that some of the things in the Old Testament were not necessarily correct, such as rather than to not kill it is better not to hate; and rather than take an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth, it is better to turn the other cheek. He also said that all people were equal in the eyes of the Lord – slaves, Gentiles, women, everybody. When the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, heard what he was preaching they became outraged and soon began plotting ways to get rid of him. The Pharisees wanted a Messiah that was a conquering hero not someone speaking love and peace. They soon convinced the Romans to kill him by crucifixion – a slow, torturous, agonizing death. Before they crucified Jesus, however, they beat him mercilessly with lead-tipped whips, a process called scourging, and made him carry the cross to his place of crucifixion.
Jesus died at the age of 33, only three years after starting his ministry of preaching love and peace. To many people the cross symbolizes total helplessness, total vulnerability, exhibiting all of humans limitations (sickness, pain, mental illness, imprisonment, or whatever), the inability to move – limitations at its greatest. One then becomes non-limited by moving through it and letting it be. According to John 19:30, Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” The duality of suffering and non-suffering is finally united as one and is symbolized by the crucifix.
The things that were written about Jesus were put together as time went by and were held as sacred texts by various people over various parts of that area. The Romans continued to dominate the land but slowly turned toward the teachings of Jesus. Their turning point was probably led by Saul, a Roman diplomat and an enemy of the Jews. Saul’s name was changed to Paul and later became known as St. Paul. He established many churches throughout the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. He later wrote letters to these churches and the letters were put into the New Testament along with the writing of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Emperor Constantine was basically the person who decided which writing went into the New Testament and which ones didn’t. Around 330 CE he eliminated hundreds of writings he considered against the church doctrine and classified them as heretical, dangerous and corruptive. Those that were included in the New Testament are said to be canonized, meaning they are the only ones that are recognized by the Catholic Church as authentic or sanctioned by the Church as to what Jesus actually said. All other writings are said to be non-canonized texts, which include the gospels of Peter, Mary, Philip, Thomas, James and the Secret Gospel of Mark.
In 1945 thirteen volumes of sacred texts were uncovered in an abandoned dump near Nag Hammadi, Egypt by three young men who were digging for fertilizer. The writings were sealed in a large earthen jar. One of the boys took it home with him and his mother used some of the texts to make a fire for the cold evening. The boy’s name was Muhammad ‘Ali. Fortunately the young man had sense enough to hide the remaining texts thinking that maybe they were worth something. He sold the texts for a few Egyptian dollars and fortunately they finally ended up in Cairo and the museum. It was discovered that these writings were of great importance because most of them were written by the Jesus’ disciple Thomas. It is thought that the people who had the scrolls 2,000 years ago were Christian Gnostics who were being chased and hunted by the Romans. The Gnostics regarded the texts so sacred that they guarded them with their lives until they could no longer afford to be caught with them. They wrapped the scrolls in sheepskin and sealed them in the clay jar and buried them deep in the ground. Since they lived in caves, they knew that the Romans would look for them there; so burying the scrolls on flat, unobstructed ground was the smartest thing to do. They probably hoped to return to the spot later and retrieve them but that never happened. More than likely they were all killed by the Romans.
The texts were written in Greek and the translation into English took fourteen years. Like the New Testament, they tell the story of Jesus and his teachings but in a different light. These texts, of course, are not in the New Testament but are well worth reading. They are rich in spiritual quotes from Jesus written by Thomas. Thomas is the disciple called “doubting Thomas” because he wants to touch Jesus after he comes back from the tomb to see if it is really Jesus. He touches Jesus’ side where he has been speared while on the cross and realizes that it is truly Jesus.
The Yoga Sutras
When Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras 2,000 years ago and suggested reading the sacred texts, I’m sure he was referring to the writings of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and Ranayana and possibly even Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. He may have even included the Old Testament which had been set down at about the same time. However, Patanjali could not have known about the many gospels about Jesus because they hadn’t been written yet. None-the-less, they are still sacred texts as much as the ones mentioned earlier.
No one really knows who Patanjali was. He may have been some saint or wise person or possibly even several people. There is no hard evidence for his identity. In any event, these writtings mention very little about how to do yoga poses (asanas). The Yoga Sutras deal mainly with the process of reaching samadhi – a state of total unity with all beings. The word sutra means linking things together as in sewing. The Yoga Sutras linked short and to-the-point thoughts by describing how one relates to the next. It is the relationship that all things have that forms the basis of yoga. The word yoga means union, primarily the union of the mind with the body and the spirit.
When the Yoga Sutras were written, spirituality was more important than doing exercises to reach samadhi. In most western yoga classes today, the opposite seems to be the case. We seem to be afraid to teach or discuss spiritual and ethical matters in yoga today out of fear of offending someone. The first two limbs of the Yoga Sutras, the Yamas (self restraint) and the Niyamas (self observation) are very similar to the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments. One might wonder if this is coincidental. Being non-violent, always telling the truth, practicing moderation in everything, not being greedy and being pure in mind and body are also very similar to what Jesus taught as well.
The Yoga Sutras encourage internal purity which goes along with moderation in all things. Internal purity in yoga is an important thing because the body is basically the temple in which the Spirit lives. The Self is the caretaker of th body and the job of the Self is to keep the body pure and healthy. To the yogi this means refraining from excessive alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and food. The use of drugs and stimulants is a no-no. Fresh, clean water, teas, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish are the mainstays for a yogi; but actually a yogi can eat anything as long as it’s considered healthy. Moderation is the name of the game in being a yogi.
The Koran was written by the Prophet Muhammad over a period of twenty-five years during the first part of the seventh century. According to Muhammad, he was instructed to write the the Koran while living in a cave. The word of Allah (God) came to him through the Angel Gabriel. Muhammad wrote the word of God wherever he was. He wrote on cloth, rocks, palm-leaves, skins and just about anything handy at the time. The many verses that he wrote were eventually bound into the form of a bible between 644 and 656 CE. Islam was born and Muslims, the world over, consider the Koran the infallible world of God. The word “Koran” comes from the Arabic word al-quar’an which means a recitation.
The Koran teaches that God is compassionate and merciful and there is only one God – the true God and only God. There are no other gods, never were and never will be. Any one who believes otherwise and doesn’t follow the world of Allah is considered an infidel, a non-believer. According to the Koran, the two major non-believers are the Jews and the Christians. The Jews heard the word of God but failed to follow His word. The Christians believe that Jesus is God. The Koran teaches to take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another.
The Koran puts a lot of credence in the Old Testament and paraphrases many things from it. The Koran speaks highly of Moses and Abraham, the prophets of God. The Koran says that it was Moses and Abraham who brought the word of God to the people of Israel but the people failed to follow it.