“you’re just never taught when to be an asshole in life.”
“The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.”
“How graceful are your feet in sandals, / O queenly maiden! / Your rounded thighs are like jewels, / the work of a master hand. / Your navel is a rounded bowl / that never lacks mixed wine. / Your belly is a heap of wheat, / encircled with lilies. / Your two breasts are like two fawns, / twins of a gazelle…”
Try to interpret these quotes and find meanings for yourself.
Now, having done the interpretation, answer this question honestly: Which quote inspired you the most? Which quote do you think is from a religious scripture?
The first quote is from the novel Vernon God Little which won the Man Booker Prize in 2003. The second one is from the Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. And the third quote is from the Bible (Song of Solomon 7: 1-3).
I chose the quotes and you can always argue that I chose them to serve my purpose.
But please read this quote now: “There is indeed a great deal of violence in the Bible – far more than there is in the Qur’an.” This is from Karen Armstrong’s book, The Bible – The Biography. Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun. She left the convent, studied English literature, and later became a scholar of the Semitic religions. She has written a number of books on religion (two of which I reviewed earlier in my blogs).
Armstrong’s book from which I have taken the quote above argues that scriptures are not to be understood literally. She takes the example of the Bible.
In the first place, the Bible was not written by the people by whom they are assumed to have been written. For example, the first five books of the Bible are assumed to have been written by Moses. But Moses could not have described his own death as the fifth book of the Bible does. Similar is the case with most books of the Bible, shows Armstrong.
Let us stick to the first five books, for want of time (and patience!). Armstrong says that they were written much after the death of Moses by different people who assembled various traditions. There are at least three clearly different traditions which have been combined in these books. 1. the J tradition – narrated by those Jews who called God ‘Yaweh’, the Jews of Judah; 2. the E tradition – narrated by the Jews who called God ‘Elohim’, the Jews of Israel; 3. the P tradition – the layer added by the priests later. None of these narratives was written; they were spoken, oral. Later when someone (or many persons) decided to write these down they combined all these traditions.
The creation narrative in the first chapters of the Bible is a creation of the priests; it was not part of the other traditions. The Ten Commandments were not mentioned by the J and E traditions. It was Josiah who ‘discovered’ the “scroll of the law” which Yaweh had given to Moses. Faced with the victory of the Egyptian Pharaoh against the Assyrians, Judah was forced to consolidate its nationalist feelings and Josiah emerged as the leader who did the job by bringing the Ten Commandments to the Jews. (Compare this with the demolition of the Babri Masjid at a time when the Sangh Parivar was trying to consolidate its forces in the recent history of India.) Religion (and its scriptures) can and do serve a lot of political purposes.
The same creation narrative will play much havoc even in our own “civilised” times. Many counterparts of the ancient Jewish priests in America argued against the introduction of the theory of evolution in America’s schools. Even today there are Christian preachers who protest against Darwin’s science and support the Biblical narrative!
Armstrong is a religious person. She teaches religion. She is a scholar.
Armstrong argues that the scriptures are not meant to be taken literally at all. Just like literature, painting, music and other arts, the scriptures should be interpreted meaningfully by the person who is reading it. Armstrong gives a lot of examples to illustrate how the interpretations varied according to the time. Various philosophers and theologians found different meanings in the scriptures at different times.
Should the Bible, the Qur’an, the Gita, or any scripture be interpreted literally? That would be the most foolish thing to do, implies Armstrong. How can a scripture written centuries ago hold a literal meaning today when the whole vista of knowledge has expanded infinitely wider and deeper?
Yet the scriptures can inspire the believer. Provided the believer knows how to interpret it.
Let me come back to the three quotes I presented at the beginning of this blog. The first two are more inspiring as far as the life of a struggling person is concerned. The third is just erotic. But the third is from the Bible. Now, how do Biblical scholars interpret it? The woman in the Song is religion itself seen as a bride…! (Compare, again, with the sculptures in some of the Indian temples.) Religion can help the believer to ‘sublimate’ his libidinal instincts.
Armstrong argues that all scriptures must be interpreted historically. Whatever is written is written in a historical background. Unless we understand that background, scriptures may be meaningless. For example, Prophet Mohamed’s injunction to his followers (the warriors?) to marry four women was meaningful in the historical context where a lot of women were rendered widows due to the endless tribal wars which killed a lot of men. Is it meaningful today?
How valid are the scriptures? I hope I have made it clear enough.