Do Scriptures Mean Anything?


“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.


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16 Responses to Do Scriptures Mean Anything?

  1. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    “Yet the scriptures can inspire the believer. Provided the believer knows how to interpret it.” – This is where I have a major problem. The question that springs to my mind is, was it the scripture or knowing how to interpret that inspires. If it is the later, is there any credit to be given to scripture?

    By the way, I thank Karen Armstrong because her book on the Buddha (soon after she escaped from Christianity) just happened to be my inspiration to read up on him! But, ever since she went back to religion in whatever guise, she has written a whole lot of rubbish (sorry if that goes strongly contrary to your opinion of her writing).

    The story of the first five books of the Bible as you have mentioned comes out of the Documentary Hypothesis on how the Book got to be composed/written.


    • Raghuram, my argument is that the scriptures can inspire as well as literature. The scriptures are another kind of literature. Even Armstrong argues much to the same effect, though she adds another value to myths. Myths are a kind of liberating force for the dark instincts in the human unconscious. In other words, myths and hence religion have a psychological value. I agree with her on this.

  2. bhavanas11 says:

    I have spent a lot of time in this area–reading various perspectives, understanding and debating them. While I agree that interpretation is key, I also know that certain words which have authentically emerged from a wise person has the power to trigger inspiration and change in you without you attempting to make sense. Christ on Cross without much attempt to interpret inspires this Hindu woman no end and to tears!

    • Raghuram Ekambaram says:


      I can accept what you say (that should matter in the least to you!), but tell me does Jesus’s cry from the cross “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (in the synoptic Gospels) move you and if yes, in what sense? This is the crux (even as most unqualified I am) of what I read in his “The Last Temptation of Christ”.


    • But, Bhavana, wisdom is not the prerogative of religion alone. There are good works of literature that inspire me much more than the scriptures of any religion that I’ve read so far.
      About Christ on the Cross, that figure has dettered many from religion. I find it disgusting. It is a grotesque degradation of humanity. Why would I worship a person who died helplessly on a cross? In better words, why would I worship that form of death, the instrument of death, etc? I can admire his ideas, his vision… but why the naked body on a cross?

  3. inducares says:

    I have rad few scriptures,but i strongly believe that Gita gives us evergreen lessons of life.It is rational & pragmatic.No blind faith there.

    • matheikal says:

      Indu, I read the Gita twice, on two different occasions. It did not inspire me any more than many other books of literature. That may be because I don’t ascribe any divinity to it. The attribution of divinity to any book makes a difference to the reader.

  4. Amit Agarwal says:

    A great post Matheikal! There are innumerable instances in Hindu scriptures as well which render them ridiculousness and absurdity. The question at last is the same “How valid are the scriptures?”

  5. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Matheikal, I agree to what you say. I have read “Kamba Ramayanam” as prescribed text in school (a particular section) and the teacher’s interpretations were riveting, I can still feel. But when that literature is mentioned as scripture, the fizz goes out, at least for me. Literature is good, I would imagine, because and only because it allows you to interpret. Scriptures do not afford yout hat liberty. This is why I foused on “interpretation” in my first comment.


  6. Britul says:

    excellent. well studied and well presented.

  7. A very very interesting and informative piece that I have read lately!It is the same with Hindu scriptures-except Gita which is more on philosophy and less context specific, as a kid I never really got why the scriptures are considered so holy in the first place.Unless you are a follower and you read them with reverence, Ramayana for instance can be a tale of a chauvinist husband torturing his wife while she already had enough at the hands of a desperate demon like bruised ego Raavan.

    • matheikal says:

      The scriptures are, after all, written by ordinary mortals like novelists and so there will be a lot of drawbacks in them too. The reader should not follow them blindly accepting them as divine truths.

  8. Point very well made….look beyond the story, find the message as relevant for today’s times!!

    • matheikal says:

      Look beyond the story, find the message… Exactly! The truth you are searching for in books (other than those dealing with objective truths) is highly personal.

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