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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What is meant by Sacred?




Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana and Roma,

I am sure you remember my previous blogs on Reading Sacred Texts. I decided to write this section since the sacredness connected with religious symbols and scriptures is the cause of so much human conflicts. All traditions have their own sacred symbols and scriptures. We have to understand them and respect them. I am asking for more than just tolerance of sacred symbols of "others". I am asking for acceptance.

 If all people of all traditions are allowed and trained to develop an open mind, they will see that all traditions teach the same universal values. They need to understand the meaning behind their sacred symbols and respect them. They have also to understand that other traditions have their own symbols that deserve our acceptance and respect. Such an understanding will reduce much of cruelty by man against man, particularly in the name of religion. I wish to contribute a little towards that goal. I am an optimist and wish to see all of you live in a compassionate, loving world.

To accomplish this purpose, I need to make clear what sacredness is. That is why I am writing this section. I wish to define sacredness, review some current research in this field and offer some ideas to reduce conflicts based on sacredness. In the next blog, I plan to quote a few selected passages from different traditions to show how similar or identical the teachings are.

What does the word sacred mean?

The word sacred has its roots in the Latin sacre, to set apart.  It is set apart from the secular, temporal, profane and commercial values. In Sanskrit, the corresponding word is Pavithra. In Tamizh, it is punitham.

When we use the word sacred, it is contrasted with or opposed to words such as secular, temporal, profane or commercial. The words temporal and secular are synonymous.

Sacred also means “belonging to God or holy” or “other-worldly” and thus different from secular and temporal. Secular means “pertaining to this world, pertaining to the laity”. Temporal means related to time, transient and this worldly. Sacred also means worthy of high respect as opposed to profane. “Fane” means a temple and profane refers to common items that are “not from the temple”.

Finally, the word sacred implies an item that has deep emotional value which cannot be measured. Sacred values are not for sale; even life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the sacred. That is how many of the religious conflicts arise. This has become a subject for deep academic study ever since conflicts in the name of religion have become more common in recent times.

Atran and Axelrod  point out that “Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential or core values, such as the welfare of their family and country, or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable”. 

Many a war has been waged in the name of protecting the sacred. Many a conqueror has subdued the vanquished by destroying their sacred sites and symbols. Look at the fight for Jerusalem. Since it sacred for all three Abrahamic faiths, one would think it is superbly sacred and everyone will share it.  Look at the recent fight in India for the site in Ayodhya.  One civilization held it as sacred site. Another civilization destroyed it and tried to show its supremacy by building its own “sacred” site. Now the earlier one says “I want my sacred site back”.  Sacredness seems to demand exclusivity. 

The word scripture is invariably connected with the concept of Divine origin and sacredness. The Bible is sacred for the Christians; Koran for the Muslims and Bhagvat Gita for the Hindus. Jesus is the sacred figure for the Christians, Prophet Mohammed for the Muslims and Lord Ganesha for the Hindus. Look what happens when one group wants to insult the other or provoke. It belittles or draws a caricature of the sacred book of the other. This sets up an intense reaction from the “insulted” group which starts a “war of words” or an actual war in response.  This goes on for generations. Sacredness seems to breed ancestral hatreds.

The word scripture is invariably connected with the concept of Divine origin and hence its sacredness.  Prophets from every tradition say that their scripture was “revealed” to them by God. Such a statement certainly gives the scripture a special place in the minds of the followers.  But, what about the scriptures given to other prophets in other parts of the world? 

“Think of all the gods and the God that humanity has cleaved to. Each has told its believers what is sacred. Whatever your own beliefs, what are we to make of these other beliefs? Either we all worship the same real and supernatural God in different names, or these gods and God are our own invented symbols” says Kauffman in his book on “Reinventing the Sacred”.

All of us were born into our traditions and inherited “our” scriptures not by our choice. We do not own the scriptures and nor do they own us. Our parents and teachers taught us scriptures they were born into and familiar with.  They did not teach us to harm or belittle anyone who believed in a different scripture. Anyone who asks you to do that is not a true teacher. Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Lord Buddha and Sage Vyasa taught us love and tolerance and taught us to live in peace and harmony.  

Scriptures are sacred documents for sure, but not for the reasons preachers would like you to believe. They were written centuries back trying to answer questions all civilizations have asked. The answers were appropriate for that time. But, the context has changed. The meanings of the words have changed over time. For example, Diana Eck points out how the word “belief” is the translation of the word “credo” in Latin. The literal meaning of the word credo is “I give my heart”. It is a statement of certainty but has since become a statement of uncertainty as opposed to reason and objectivity.

When we read old texts we have to be careful about how words are interpreted. The translation of words from one language to another adds another layer of confusion and new concepts. Diana Eck points out how “ruach” in feminine gender stands for the generative breath of life. Later it became pneuma in Greek, in the neutral gender. Eventually it became spiritus in Latin, in masculine gender with all the implications.

When a text is translated from the original to another language, there may be no true equivalent word in that language. The best examples are dharma of Sanskrit/Vedic religion and religion of the western/Latin tradition. Dharma denotes several concepts such as virtue, duty, morals, what is appropriate for one’s station in life etc. It also implies flexibility. There is no equivalent word in English. Similarly, the word religion is more rigid in its implications than the corresponding word in Sanskrit, darshana which means point of view. The exact equivalent Sanskrit word for religion will be yoga since both of those words imply joining the part with the whole, individual with the universal.

The meanings might have changed in the process of translations. For example, St. Augustine discusses the meaning of the word “Love” in his book on Confessions. He points out that during translation from Aramaic or Greek to Latin, this word can mean love, charity, respect or regard. He points out how Jesus asks Peter whether he (Peter) loves Jesus, and Peter keeps saying that he has regard for Jesus.

A foot-note in a Bible I read says that the Hebrew word for “justice” sounds like (phonetics) the word for “bloodshed”. The words for “righteousness” and “cry” sound similar. The word for a “woman” and a “virgin” are the same. How did these words change during years of translations?

There are similar examples in Buddhist and Vedic  texts. The most recent example I read relates to the word “Sri”. The commonest meaning is Goddess Lakshmi, wealth, prosperity. The other meaning is poison. That is why Siva is called SriKantan which is the same as Neelakantan.

When you read old texts, it is good to ask whether the words were translated correctly and they mean what they were intended to mean and whether someone translated wrongly due to lack of knowledge or even wantonly in support of their positions.

 Finally, interpretations of the words of scriptures  by scholars, philosophers and theologians have created several schools of thought even within the same religions.

Section 3:7 of Qur’an starts with “ It is He who has sent this Scripture down to you (to Prophet Mohammed). Some of its verses are definite in meaning – these are the Mothers of the Scriptures. And others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and pin down a meaning of their own; only God knows the true meaning”……..

Recent research on Sacredness:  Quarrels between nations and ethnic groups within nations are often based on conflicts with sacred values held by one or the other. Academicians interested in conflict resolution and negotiations have been interested in this topic since World War II. Earlier theories were based on “rational actor” models assuming that the adversary parties will make rational choices based on risks and benefits. However, the current trend is for a group of people with strong views willing to make extreme sacrifices, even of their own lives. This has led to the concept of “devoted actors”.

“Devoted actors” are willing to do anything, including killing innocent people and themselves, even without any prospect for success, often in the name of “sacred” values. They believe that devotion to these core values ought to be absolute and inviolable leading to seemingly irrational actions.  For these individuals, their “sacred” values outweigh other values, particularly monetary values.

Sacred values are often private. Some are general and define “who we are” such as country, ethnic group, collective identity, sense of fairness, and territory. Some are specific such as one’s religion, blood relative, prophets and sacred books and even cows. 

Sacred values take on special significance only when challenged. Political leaders exploit this weakness by using sacred values to mobilize people to action or to convert people to accept their policies. As pointed out by Atran and Axelrod, appeal to sacred value can motivate both war and peace.

Based on their extensive research and review of the literature, Atran and Axelrod suggest that just as sacredness of an object results from framing it as sacred by the involved party, it should be possible to reframe these core values in such a way that psychological barriers can be overcome. They offer several ideas to help reframe issues involving conflicts in sacred values.

First, everyone involved will have to know what values are sacred for the other involved parties. Next, each party has to recognize and acknowledge the validity of the values of the other party. For example, Atran and Axelrod point out how at the end of world war II, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead advised the American army command that respecting the special place the Japanese Emperor holds in the psyche of the Japanese people be acknowledged and respected. This symbolic gesture helped build stability in post-war Japan.

Symbolic concessions can help start goodwill and discussions. Ping-pong diplomacy between USA and China is an example of symbolic concessions as a first step in negotiations. Symbolic concessions should be sincere. It should not include monetary compensation which is often taken as an insult. Concessions and apologies should be followed by actions and further negotiations on material issues.

Some suggestions to reduce conflicts:

If you consider scriptures as “maps” they were fine for travel in the “territories” of olden days. The territory has changed over the centuries. It is foolish to travel in any new territory with old maps. If you travel from Kabul to Mumbai today using the map made during the British Raj, you will get into deep trouble.

 Scriptures are "sacred" for sure; but each and every word  need not be followed literally without context and without thinking. Even the prophets who shared their wisdom with us would not want us to do so. Buddha and Adi Sankara said so clearly.

Buddha says:  “Do not simple believe what you are told, or whatever has been handed from past generation, or what is common opinion, or whatever the scriptures say. Do not accept something as true merely by deduction and inference, or by considering outward appearances……. Or because  your teacher tells you it is so……… And when you yourself directly know, “These principles are wholesome, blameless, praised by the wise; when adopted and carried out they lead to welfare and happiness”, then you should accept and practse them” (Quoted by William Hart in The Art of Living 2008, page 14, Original source Anguttara Nikaya III: vii: 65)

Adi sankara says: “Gnaapakam hi shastram na thu kaarakam……” which translates to “Scriptures are for keeping you informed (of eternal Truths) and not for issuing commands on (what you should do and should not”.

He adds: “Na hi prathyakshavirodhey shrutheh pramanaam” which means: “ Veda cannot be an authority as against observed facts” and adds that “even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold they cannot become an authority on this point”. (pages 72-75, Sankara’s Teachings in his own words by Swami Atmananda .  Bhavan’s Book, 1964)

In Bhagavat Gita (Chapter 18: sloka 63) Lord Krishna tells Arjuna “Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully; and then do what you wish to do”.  

The Bible says that too. Psalm 19:27 states: “Stop listening to teachings that contradict what you know is right”. Another passage from the Bible ((Thessalonian 3:13) says: “Do not stifle the spirit. Test everything; retain what is good”.

Read the scriptures of other religions with respect and understanding.  Gandhi pointed out that it is the sacred duty of every cultured man and woman to do so if we want others to respect our religion.

Go to the source, not the interpretations.  If you have to learn Sanskrit, Latin, Arabic or Aramaic, consider it an opportunity to learn a classic language. Make sense of the Scriptures by yourself. The original documents were written in simple language; scholars and a few fanatic followers made them complicated and dogma-driven.

Scott Momaday, is a Native American poet who has written an essay on “Re-inventing the Sacred”. This was also used as the title of a book by Stuart Kauffman. The essence is that we all have our own private items that are sacred. Obviously, once an idea or an image becomes sacred, it becomes inviolable. It is an “isolated” or exclusive sacredness, to one person or to one group. Both Kauffman and Momaday suggest that we reinvent the sacred, a “shared sacred” to replace the isolated, parochial one.

Scriptures deal with several topics. They try to answer metaphysical questions in the form of mythology and metaphors. They teach moral values and give guidance on how to live. In addition, scriptures are full of historical details, geography and documentation of living conditions and customs in historical times. Therefore, I suggest that the future generations read all Sacred Texts from several points of view.

Personally, I have had problems accepting many things mentioned in some of the Puranas (epics) from India. However, as Kanchi Pariyaval pointed out, the main purpose of these Puranas is to teach dharma (virtues, morals and duties) to ordinary people in a simple language. Therefore, these texts will have stories of several kings, queens, saints and warriors. However, the most elaborate stories will be about characters who have a moral to teach based on their lives. For example, Rama teaches respect for parents, keeping promises, performing one's duties with patience and humility. The history portion may or may not be true. But, the lessons these texts teach go beyond history, geography and astronomy. 

 If you read the scriptures with an open mind, you will see more than a demand for blind faith.  There is so much knowledge, wisdom and emotions enshrined in these books. There is so much language, literature and poetry in them. You will be amazed at how much more you learn and how much more your minds open.

Finally, a note of optimism. Although, the idea of sacredness evokes conflicts, humans also are capable of empathy. One of the ideas worth trying in your immediate surrounding is this. If you feel negative about someone else in your neighborhood or at work on the basis of religion (or political philosophy), try to look for something both of you share. May be both of you like the same brand of coffee or  the same basketball team. Starting a discussion on a shared interest may help open the mind  and remove negative feelings.