What is the Koran? – Toby Lester

Toby Lester“Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings. … More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations.” – Toby Lester

Minarets of the Great Mosque of Sana'aIn 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa’ sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave”—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran—in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments—is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

Sana'a ManuscriptLooking at the Fragments

The first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.

Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely—a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

Koran by AliCopyediting God

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context—and Muslim sensibilities—cannot be ignored. “To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it … every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam—as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books—most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977)—that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism’s controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra“); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do … reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.”) Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions—such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Gerd R. Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other—except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment—especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.) The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and … only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures. “Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book Christ (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage.

The Orientalist enterprise of Qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality—its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism—joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers—a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of Koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views—thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran. The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.

The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.” For expressing views like this in print—in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging Word of God—Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content—for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous—is much less important than its complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket … a talisman … or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland, calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion…. No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical Children of Gebelawi (1959)—a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

MuhammadMuhammad in the Cave

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter—the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty, and smolders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’ba—a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Such was the background against which the first installments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave, where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the Angel Gabriel—the very same angel who had announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite!,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorized them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet). (This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar.) In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytizing, consolidating political power, and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad—were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656)—the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad—and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.” ‘Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. ‘Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources—compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century—that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Ishmael & Abraham build  Ka'aba“For People Who Understand”

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic—for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus—born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah—works miracles, has disciples, and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets—Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Luqman, and others—whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

The School of Oriental and African StudiesPsychopathic Vandalism?

Gerd R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,

The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.

If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque,” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works— Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism—form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more—to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran—and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it—involved the

attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Dr Nasr Abu ZaydRevisionism Inside the Islamic World

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history—the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad ‘Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, ‘Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam—both Muslims and non-Muslims—in the Mu’tazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his The Concept of the Text (1990)—the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt—has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in Lectures du Coran (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid, and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course—the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilization opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them.) Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Mohammed Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings—Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran—which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century. – The Atlantic, January 1999

» Toby Lester, the author of Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012) and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), is an American writer and an editor. In addition to writing books, he is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom he has written extensively. He can be contacted through his website.

Innocence of Muslims: The Hidden Origin of Islam with Gerd R. Puin

Koran Documentary with Antony Thomas

VIDEO: Did Moses Exist? – D.M. Murdock

Prophet Moses

D.M. Murdock / Acharya SanningMoses is widely considered the main patriarch for the Abrahamic religions. Although many today regard his existence as suspect, few understand the powerful mythological resonance of the Moses figure. Moses is actually a syncretic and composite godman reaching into many ancient cultures and faiths. He is part sun-god, part lawgiver archetype, and plenty hero of a thousand faces. We enter the Myth of Moses in order to discover the censored wisdom of ancient Gnosis and the fury of an angry volcanic deity that has ruled the West for thousands of years. – D.M. Murdock / Acharya S.

Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver

The mystery of the Bible’s imaginary camels – Elizabeth Dias

Elizabeth Dias“The new study again raises the age-old question of biblical accuracy. The phantom camel is just one of many historically jumbled references in the Bible. The Book of Genesis claims the Philistines, the traditional enemy of the Israelites, lived during Abraham’s time. But historians date the Philistines’ arrival to the eastern Mediterranean at about 1200 B.C., 400 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived.” – Elizabeth Dias

Abraham and his wives and camelsOnce upon a time, Abraham owned a camel. According to the Book of Genesis, he probably owned lots of camels. The Bible says that Abraham, along with other patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity, used domesticated camels — as well as donkeys, sheep, oxen and slaves — in his various travels and trade agreements. Or did he?

Last week, archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University released a new study that dates the arrival of the domesticated camel in the eastern Mediterranean region to the 10th century BCE at the earliest, based on radioactive-carbon techniques. Abraham and the patriarchs, however, lived at least six centuries before then. The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Philistine WarriorThe new study again raises the age-old question of biblical accuracy. The phantom camel is just one of many historically jumbled references in the Bible. The Book of Genesis claims the Philistines, the traditional enemy of the Israelites, lived during Abraham’s time. But historians date the Philistines’ arrival to the eastern Mediterranean at about 1200 BCE, 400 years after Abraham was supposed to have lived, according to Carol Meyers, professor of religion at Duke University.

Then there’s the case of the great earthquake in the prophetic Book of Zechariah. Geological evidence in archeological sites like Hazor and Gezer in Israel date it to the mid-8th century BCE. But the Book of Zechariah, written several hundred years later, uses the event to talk about what will happen at the end of time, notes Eric Meyers, director of Duke University’s Department of Religious Studies and Carol’s husband.

These anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, however, do not trouble biblical scholars. People in biblical times understood and wrote about their past differently from people in the modern, post-Enlightenment world. “We expect history to provide an accurate narrative of real events,” Carol Meyers explains. “The biblical authors, composers, writers used their creative imaginations to shape their stories, and they were not interested in what actually happened, they were interested in what you could learn from telling about the past.”

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual Jewish Torahmessage about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, Bible: Religious romance or history?camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” Eric Meyers says.

The study is going to ruffle the feathers of people who believe in biblical inerrancy, a doctrine popular among evangelical and other right-orthodoxy movements that says every word in the Bible is literally true. Liberal Judaism and Christianity, says Carol Meyers, often contribute to the problem when they do not look at the complexity of how ancient narratives were formed. Instead of worrying about proving history, she offers this suggestion: “If the Biblical writers are not interested in the facts, but rather in getting a message across, then people of faith can concentrate, instead of trying to verify every last item in the Bible, on what the overall message of the story is, not whether it is historically true or not.”

Case closed. – Time, 11 February 2014

» Elizabeth Dias reports on religion and politics for Time Magazine.

BOOK: Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery – M.A. Khan

Sword of Jihad

Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery – M.A. KhanAuthor M.A. Khan writes: I was born and brought up in a conservative Muslim society. After graduating in India, I moved to the West for furthering my education. Despite my conservative Muslim background, I grew up with a liberal outlook. In my school and university days, my closest friends were Hindus and Sikhs: I felt more comfortable with them as they were more liberal, easy going and humble with fewer religious scruples. I had wholly given up religious rituals by the time I completed my university studies: they just didn’t attract me.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the U.S., I had lived in a liberal society for over a decade. I had become consciously convinced that religious rituals—prayers, fasting, pilgrimage—were all meaningless.

I should be rewarded, I felt, for working hard, and intelligently, not for aping some wasteful rituals, which brings good to nobody. Non Muslims were my best friends; shocking my Muslim peers, I ate haraam (prohibited) foods, drank alcohol (in moderation).

Despite the kind of a liberal person I had become, let me be honest that I was not excluded from those Muslims who felt that the 9/11 attacks were justified, although I felt that those perished in it died undeserving deaths. Muslim societies universally portray America as a mortal enemy of Islam, particularly for its stance on the Israel Palestine conflict. America’s mindless support for Israel has been causing terrible oppression and untold sufferings to Palestinian Muslims. There was, undoubtedly, an overriding sense of justification for the 9/11 attacks amongst Muslims; it gave the unjust superpower a bloody nose: I, so little a Muslim, thought that way too.

Weird as it may sound, I still believed in Islam. I thought that the terrorists, who are acting in the name of Islam, were misguided. After 9/11, I slowly started reading about Islam: the Quran, Sunnah and Prophet Muhammad’s biographies; I hadn’t read them in the thirty five years of my life. I was shocked.

I had been told all my life that Prophet Muhammad was the ideal human being: most merciful and just; that Islam is the most peaceful religion; and I believed it. But the Quran reads like a manifesto of open ended war against non Muslims for converting them to Islam, or for subjugating them into horribly degraded dhimmi subjects. In his prophetic career, especially during the critical last ten years, Prophet Muhammad was anything but what a peace loving, merciful and just person stands for.

My curiosity grew. Over the past years, I have done extensive research on Islamic theology as well as on Islamic history: from Prophet Muhammad to modern times. It has been a harrowing tale of forced conversion, brutal imperialism and devastating slavery. It’s a saga of great human tragedy—all in the name of Islamic holy war or Jihad, the foundational creed of Islam. This tragic tale is the subject of [my] book Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery.

» M.A. Khan is a Muslim apostate and one of the the founder-editors of the Islam Watch website. His book Islamic Jihad is available at Amazon and Flipcart.

♦ The book can be read on-line or downloaded here »

The essence of Hinduism is spiritual freedom – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N. S. Rajaram“Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is on the realisation of the divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Hinduism seeks internal growth within the individual.” — Dr. N. S. Rajaram

If there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen people. As a result, there is no division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers. All paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no such things as heresy and blasphemy.

What is Hinduism? Is it the observance of festivals such as Deepavali and rituals such as the daily sandhya-vandana? Is it reverence for the Vedas as the word of God, faith in the message of the Bhagavad Gita, or is it universal tolerance? And tolerance—does it include unlimited tolerance of the evil? Is it total pacifism, a belief that nothing is worth defending or worth fighting for? Is it some or all of these?

When faced with these questions I find that the first difficulty that a modern Hindu–especially a ‘westernised Hindu’ like myself—faces in defining Hinduism to others stems from his difficulty in defining it to himself. As a result his reaction is defensive, and he mumbles something like essential truth in all religions or sarva dharma samatva or some such equally meaningless platitude.

A basic problem that the Hindus are saddled with is that through the centuries, particularly in the last century or so, educated Indians have unconsciously acquired the habit of looking at their tradition through western eyes. These western Indologists—most of whom were Christian—applied their own yardstick to the study of Indian scriptures and practices. This resulted in a distortion of perspective. The vision and vocabulary of a revealed religion like Christianity or Islam are fundamentally unsuited to describing Hinduism, for Hinduism is an evolved tradition and not a revealed religion. It is also pluralistic, while Christianity and Islam are exclusivist—for they acknowledge no beliefs other than their own as legitimate.

The problem is not just lack of sympathy, or even the history of conflicts: it is the limitation of the concept of religion as the revelations of a book or its prophet found in creeds like Christianity and Islam in describing an evolving tradition. Trying to understand Hinduism in terms of a revealed belief system or creed is like trying to understand Quantum Mechanics through Newton’s Laws of Motion. It just cannot be done. One must try to understand Hinduism on its own terms, and not in terms of the internal and external features borrowed from other creeds. This is what I shall try to do approaching the task as a student of science who is by no means a devout Hindu.

The Rigveda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures is said to have always existed. As a scientist I find that claim hard to accept. There must have been a time in the history of the world when what is contained in the Rigveda did not exist. But there Is no period in time which we can definitely point to and say that is when the Rigveda began to be composed. In the 19th century, European Indologists like Max Mueller tried to fix 1200 BC as the date of composition of the Vedas, but this was based on their own Biblical belief according to which the world was created on October 23, 4004 BC and the Biblical Flood took place in 2448 BC. And the history books continue to use the date of 1200 BC for the Vedas.

Unlike Christianity and Islam, which are historical religions, Hinduism cannot be traced to a historical person or an era. Christianity cannot exist without Christ, nor can Islam without Muhammad, but no such historical person exists in Hinduism about whom one can say “Without him, Hinduism cannot exist.” In other words, Christianity and Islam are paurusheya religions, while Hinduism is a-paurusheya. Christianity is the religion founded by a purusha called Jesus Christ, while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. There is no such purusha of Hinduism.

Lord Ganesha being interrogated by a Nazi in an Australian play.Freedom to question

Even the Vedas are not the ultimate authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the root ‘vid’—meaning to know—and Veda simply means knowledge that was discerned by the Vedic seers. It is not a theology or a belief system that everyone is required to acknowledge. A Hindu is free to question any or all of the scriptures. One does not cease to be a Hindu if he denies the authority of scriptures. The scripture is meant only to be a guide and one is free to follow one’s own interpretation. Appeals to authority cannot be used to suppress dissent. In brief: in Christianity and Islam, scripture is the book of authority, while Hindu scriptures are guidebooks only, from which one is free to choose a particular path.

Hinduism recognises no prophet as intermediary with exclusive claim over truth. This is undoubtedly the greatest difference between Hinduism and revealed religions. A Hindu who believes in the existence of God (or Gods) can follow one’s own path. One is not required to acknowledge an intermediary as a prophet or as the chosen agent of God. In a revealed religion, one who denies the authority of this special intermediary is called a non-believer. The Bible says: “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, … and will put my word in his mouth: and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”

This feature, of God communicating through a human intermediary, called a prophet was later borrowed by Islam also. This means: in a revealed religion, a believer in God has to believe also in the intermediary. One is not free to believe in God and deny the agent as intermediary. One who does so is still called a non-believer even if one believes in God.

As a result, in a revealed religion, belief in the divinely chosen intermediary is no less important than beliefs in God. Often it is more important. The agents of this divinely chosen intermediary are called the ‘clergy,’ who take it upon themselves to enforce his diktats. Hinduism recognises no such intermediary.

Every man, woman and child has the same direct access to God through his or her own efforts. Krishna. in the Bhagavad Gita, says: “All creatures great and small—I am equal to all; I hate none, nor have I any favourites.” This rules out the claim of anyone to be the privileged or ‘chosen’ agent of God. This makes exclusivism impossible in Hinduism, for challenge to exclusive claims can be mounted from within the system.

Kanchi Mahaswami Chandrashekarendra SaraswatiA personal God

Hindu God is not an external God who reveals himself only to a chosen prophet to be imposed on others as the ultimate authority on everything relating to God. God is something that anyone can know through one’s own effort and seeking. This is very similar to the ancient Greek mysticism as practised by sages like Pythagoras and Apollonius. There Is no set of dogmas that an external agent enforces in the name of One God.

The Hindu God, like the Greek God, is a personal God—as diverse as the individual. The multiplicity of Gods one sees in the Hindu and the Greek pantheons is a reflection of the multiplicity of pathways explored by sages. It is a natural consequence of the spiritual freedom that is the right of every Hindu.

Monotheistic creeds, enforced by intermediaries in the name of One God, do not permit this spiritual freedom. Believers have to believe in what they are told to believe—they are not given a choice. It is for this reason that theocracies always claim to be monotheistic, invoking their One God in whose name His representatives enforce authority. This may be called ‘authoritative monotheism’ as opposed to monotheism of choice in which one is free to believe in One God or many Gods. Hinduism gives this freedom of choice and of conscience.

Hinduism does not recognise claims of exclusivity or a clergy. Anyone who claims to be the exclusive possessor of spiritual truth or the only ‘method’ of reaching God finds no place in Hinduism: a method or a message can only be one among many. Exclusivity divides the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non believers which Hinduism does not.

Krishna, speaking as God in the Bhagavad Gita, says. “All paths lead to me,” and also “those who worship other Gods with devotion worship me.” This leaves no room for anyone to claim to be the only true guide to God or in possession of the only path. As a result, Hinduism has no clergy to monitor and enforce the belief.

Hinduism does not force itself on others through proselytism. Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is on the realisation of the divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Hinduism seeks internal growth within the individual.

There is now a substantial interest in the world in Hinduism and its offshoot of Buddhism. But there is no central authority like the Pope who tries to monitor beliefs among the followers. Hindu missions in the West are essentially voluntary organisations. The priest or the sadhu claims to possess no divine authority sanctioned by God or His agent. He is simply a repository of learning and experience. It is for this reason, that Hinduism has attracted men and women of the highest intellectual accomplishments including scientists and artists in the West. They are attracted by the rationalism of Hinduism which is a method and not a creed; it seeks to impose no dogma and carries no authority.

The only ‘dogma’ of Hinduism is freedom of choice and of conscience. Hindu religious literature, in its pristine form, is concerned mainly with the knowledge and method necessary to learn the truth about God. This can take the form of Vedantic philosophy like the Upanishads, practical techniques like Yoga, or examples of great lives to be emulated like those found in the Epics and the Puranas. It is a serious error to compare these works with the scriptures of revealed religions which lay down the beliefs required of true believers that are then enforced by the clergy.

Gayatri DeviIf there is one feature that stands above all others in Hinduism it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen people. As a result, there is no division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and non-believers.

All paths of spiritual exploration are valid, and there are no such things as heresy and blasphemy. This is what makes Hinduism pluralistic. Any accommodation of a belief system that denies one’s freedom of choice and of conscience is fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism.

To follow one’s one chosen path calls for a guide and a discerning intellect. The scriptures—the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and others—are this guide. And the search for such a discriminating intellect the Gita calls it sthitha dhi or ‘stable intellect’—is expressed in the great Gayatri Mantra in the form of a chant addressed to Savitar so that he may ‘inspire our intellect’—dhiyo yo na prachodayat. This prayer—dhiyo yo nah prachodayat—as I see it embodies the essence of Hinduism. – Hindu Vivek Kendra, 28 April 1998

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist, historian and contributing editor to  Folks Magazine.

Jesus in India: The myth of the lost years – D.M. Murdock

D. M. Murdock“Proponents of the Jesus-in-India theory hold up a number of other texts and artifacts they maintain “prove” not only Jesus’s existence on Earth but also his presence in India. When such texts and artifacts are closely examined, they serve as no evidence at all, except of priestcraft. With one or two possible exceptions originating to a few centuries earlier, the Eastern texts regarding “Issa” seem to be late writings, some dating to the 15th and 18th centuries, based on traditions, not eyewitness accounts. Some of the “documents” are obviously fictitious, and others are downright ridiculous, such as the Bhavishya Mahapurana. A number of these texts merely relate the basic gospel story with embellishments depending on what the storyteller is attempting to accomplish.” – D.M. Murdock

Jesus as a yogi in IndiaOver the centuries, the claim has repeatedly been made that Jesus Christ not only walked the earth but also spent his early and post-crucifixion years in a variety of places, including Egypt, India, Great Britain, Japan and America. Indeed, traditions maintain that Jesus, the great godman of the West, lived, learned, loved and died in such places. Popular modern literature also purports that Jesus sired children, who then became the ancestors of various royal families of Europe, including France and/or elsewhere, depending on the author.

The allegation of Christ being a kingly progenitor is extremely convenient and useful for European royal families, obviously. Unfortunately for the European claimants, however, India also has a tradition that Jesus went there and likewise fathered children. So too does Shingo, Japan, allege that Jesus ended up there after the crucifixion, having children with a Japanese wife. Other tales depict Jesus “walking the Americas” or bopping about Glastonbury, England, with his “uncle,” Joseph of Arimathea. Not all of these tales can be true, obviously, unless Jesus is polymorphous and phantasmagoric, a perspective that in reality represents that of the mythologist or mythicist. To wit, regardless of these fables, or, rather, because of them, the most reasonable conclusion regarding Jesus and where he may or may not have been is that he is a mythical character, not a historical personage who trotted the globe.

Nicolas NotovichThe Groovy Guru

According to legend, Jesus, the great Jewish sage, spent his “lost years,” from between the ages of around 12 to 28 or 30, in India, where, per another tradition, he also escaped after surviving the crucifixion. The Jesus-was-a-guru tale was popularized over a century ago by the Russian traveller Nicholas Notovitch. Notovitch asserted that in 1887, while at the secluded Hemis or Himis monastery in Ladakh/Tibet, he was shown a manuscript which discussed the “unknown life” of Jesus, or “Issa,” as he was supposedly called in the East. This “Issa” text, translated for Notovitch from Tibetan by a monk/lama, alleged that during his “lost years” Jesus was educated by yogis in India, Nepal and “the Himalaya Mountains.”

Stating that he felt the manuscript to be “true and genuine,” Notovich maintained its contents were written “immediately after the Resurrection,” while the manuscript itself purportedly dated from the third century of the Common Era. Notovitch related that the “two manuscripts” he was shown at Himis were “compiled from diverse copies written in the Thibetan tongue, translated from rolls belonging to the Lassa library and brought from India, Nepal, and Maghada 200 years after Christ.” (Notovitch, 44)

Notovitch’s story was challenged by a number of people, which served to popularize it further. Noted Sanskrit scholar Max Müller came down hard on Notovitch, concluding that either the Russian had never gone to Tibet in the first place, and had concocted the Jesus story, or that waggish Buddhist monks had played a trick on Notovitch, as Indian priests had done in a notorious instance concerning the Asiatic Research Society’s Colonel Wilford. Others subsequently journeyed to Himis/Hemis and witnessed repeated denial by the lamas that Notovitch had ever been there or that any such manuscript existed. In 1922, Indian scholar and swami Abhedananda eventually determined for himself by visiting Himis, gaining the confidence of the lamas and having the manuscript revealed to him. Other visitors to Himis, such as mystic Nicholas Roerich, verified the same story. Aspects of Notovitch’s story checked out, and he apparently did indeed stay at Himis and was shown a manuscript relating to “Issa.”

Notovitch claimed that Indian merchants brought the account of “Jesus” to Himis, and that they had actually witnessed the crucifixion. Indeed, the text begins with “This is what is related on this subject by the merchants who come from Israel,” reflecting not that “Jesus” lived in India but that the Jesus tradition was brought to India and Tibet. (Notovitch, 32) Notovitch’s text also did not state that Jesus was specifically at Himis: In fact, the lama stated that the Issa scrolls “were brought from India to Nepal, and from Nepal to Thibet.” Yet, upon returning to Himis through later visitors, the story eventually became morphed into “Your Jesus was here,” meaning at Himis itself. The “one book” or “two manuscripts” became “three books,” which were displayed for the later visitors, with the implication that there was more to the tale.

Hemis Gompa in LadakhAlthough subsequent visitors were presented such texts, none but Nicholas Roerich’s son, George, could read them. By his translation, Roerich was evidently shown the same text as Notovitch. Thus, it appears that there was only one text at Himis, and that it did not state that Issa himself was ever at the monastery. Furthermore, that one text is based on hearsay provided by passing merchants and does not at all represent an “eyewitness” account of “Jesus” in India and Tibet, although the impression is given that this and other texts do constitute such records.

Also, Notovitch asked if “Issa” was reputed to be a saint, and was informed that “the people ignore his very existence” and that the lamas who have studied the scrolls “alone know of him.” These remarks are a far cry from Roerich’s claim that the tale of “Christ” in India and other parts of Asia was to be found widespread. They also contradict the Tibetan text’s own assertion that Issa’s “fame spread everywhere” and that Persia and surrounding countries “resounded with prophecies” of Issa, thus causing the Persian priesthood to be terrified of him. This latter element sounds like typical mythmaking, especially since there were similar prophecies of godmen for centuries, if not millennia, prior to Christ’s purported advent, particularly in India.

Moreover, the “originals” of the scrolls housed at the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, were composed in Pali, while the Himis library contained one copy in Tibetan. Yet, the Tibetan alphabet was developed by the king who “reigned in the days of Mohammed”; hence, nothing could have been written in Tibetan prior to the 7th century. Although older texts were composed in Sanskrit or Pali, it is clear that the actual physical manuscript revealed to Notovitch could not have existed before the 7th century. In fact, it would appear that very few Tibetan texts date to before the 9th century. In any event, the manuscript itself certainly did not date from the third century, although it could represent tradition transmitted over the centuries.

While Notovitch claimed the Issa story dated to shortly after “the Resurrection,” in it there is no mention of the resurrection, and the tale ends with Issa’s death. In this regard, the text depicts the “Jews,” whom it calls “Israelites,” in a favorable light, and is “the only [manuscript] ever to charge the Romans [“pagans”] solely for Jesus’ execution.” Unlike others, this account does not have Jesus being resuscitated and then returning to India, to father children and live a long life.

Notovitch’s modern editor, Frank Muccie, relates that the manuscript states, “Pilate is responsible for removing Jesus’ body from the tomb,” noting that this development somehow does not “mean the resurrection hope is invalid.” He then says:

“By the third century A.D., there were no fewer than 25 different versions of Jesus’ death and resurrection! Some have him not being put to death at all, some have him revived back to life, and some have Jesus living on to old age and dying in Egypt!” (Notovitch, 6)

Obviously, not all of these 25 or more accounts can be “true and genuine,” and such a development casts doubt on the historicity of one and all.

Rozabal TombThe Rozabal Tomb

Moreover, it is interesting that Notovitch spent six days in the “Vale of Kashmir,” in its capital, Srinagar, “city of the sun,” where the purported tomb of “Jesus,” the wandering prophet Yuz Asaf, is shown to tourists. Yet, the Russian traveller apparently never heard of the tomb, known as the “Roza Bal” or “Rauzabal” shrine, as he does not mention it in his writings concerning the Tibetan text, where its inclusion certainly would have been judicious in demonstrating that Jesus lived in India! Perhaps, however, as a believing Christian Notovitch ignored this tale, much as the devout do today and much as skeptics may do with other fables concerning Christ.

Possessing the priestly touch of sculpted footprints “with nail marks” over the grave, the Roza Bal shrine may seem convincing to the uninitiated, who are unaware of the world’s well-developed priestcraft. This “artifact” is another in a long line of so-called relics, like the 20+ shrouds or the multiple foreskins of Christ. In reality, there were many “footprints of the gods” in ancient times–and a number of Indian gods are depicted with nail holes in their feet.

Also, “Yuz Asaf” is not equivalent to “Jesus” but to “Joseph,” which was often a title of a priest and not a name. In fact, Eastern scholars such as Dr. S. Radhakrishnan state that the name “Joseph” or “Joasaph” is “derived from Bodhisattva, the technical name for one destined to obtain the dignity of a Buddha.” (Prajnanananda, 107) Thus, this tomb of a Bodhisattva could belong to any of thousands of such holy men. In like regard, the purported graves of “Jesus” and “his brother” in Japan are in reality those of a 16th-century Christian missionary and his brother.

The legends regarding Jesus’s tomb in Srinagar, and that of the Virgin Mary in Kashgar, are apparently of Islamic origin, emanating largely from the “heretical” Ahmadiyya sect. Such a creation would serve a couple of purposes: 1. That, as asserted in the Koran, Jesus was not the “son of God” but a mortal prophet, whose body was buried in Kashmir; and 2. that some presumably Moslem people are his descendants.

Proponents of the Jesus-in-India theory hold up a number of other texts and artifacts they maintain “prove” not only Jesus’s existence on Earth but also his presence in India. When such texts and artifacts are closely examined, they serve as no evidence at all, except of priestcraft. With one or two possible exceptions originating to a few centuries earlier, the Eastern texts regarding “Issa” seem to be late writings, some dating to the 15th and 18th centuries, based on traditions, not eyewitness accounts. Some of the “documents” are obviously fictitious, and others are downright ridiculous, such as the Bhavishya Mahapurana. A number of these texts merely relate the basic gospel story with embellishments depending on what the storyteller is attempting to accomplish.

Tibetan lama with scroll.Buddhist Propaganda or Christian Proselytizing?

Although some of the writings appear to be of Hindu origin, the attack by “Issa” on the Vedas and Brahmans, as in the Notovitch text, represents Buddhist propaganda. It appears that Buddhists were trying to demonstrate that Jesus, the great wise man of the West, was influenced by Buddhism, even having been taught by “Buddha,” an eternal disincarnate entity. In this regard, the Notovitch text states, “Six years later, Issa, whom the Buddha had chosen to spread his holy word, could perfectly explain the sacred rolls.” (Notovitch, 35) In this way, Buddha usurps Jesus, becoming the Jewish teacher’s guru.

That the text has been used as propaganda to raise Buddha and Buddhism over Christ and Christianity is further validated by Notovitch’s foreword, in which he related that the lama told him, “The only error of the Christians is that after adopting the great doctrine of Buddha, they, at the very outset, completed separated themselves from him and created another Dalai Lama…” This “Dalai Lama,” the monk subsequently informed the Russian, is the Pope. Concerning Christ, the lama continued, “Buddha did, indeed, incarnate himself with his intelligence in the sacred person of Issa, who, without the aid of fire and sword, went forth to propagate our great and true religion through the entire world.” (Notovitch, 20) Hence, Eastern traditions regarding Jesus are designed to show that Jesus is Buddha and that Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Eastern wisdom.

Nevertheless, the Notovitch text itself may have been composed originally by proselytizing Christians who attempted to use the natives’ belief in Buddha in order to increase Christ’s stature. These missionaries may have been appealing to women to follow “Issa,” as the text puts great emphasis on women, whose status in India and elsewhere has been abysmally low. The text would also appeal to the Sudras or Pariahs, since it has Issa preaching on their behalf. These groups are targeted to this day by Christian missionaries in India.

Considering that many missionaries, travellers and scholars have been keenly aware of the numerous and profound similarities between the Tibetan and Catholic religions, it would not be surprising if this Issa fable were created in order to show that the Tibetan religion is merely a foreign derivative of the “true universal religion,” i.e., Catholicism. The resemblances between various Indian sects and Christianity likewise led to tales about the Christian missionaries Thomas, Bartholomew and Pantaenus also proselytizing in India. Like the Jesus-in-India myth, there are other explanations for the resemblances, which are addressed in detail in my book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. In short, the major explanation is that the “Christian” religion and savior were already in India long before the alleged advent of Jesus.

Lord ShivaIs “Issa” Jesus—or Shiva?

By calling Issa “Jesus” or “Christ,” modern writers have cemented in the readers’ minds that the correlation is absolute, an erroneous conclusion. In reality, the name “Issa,” “Isa” or “Isha” is a title and simply means “lord,” “god” or “master,” often referring to the Indian god Lord Shiva: “‘Isha’ or ‘the Lord’ is another name of Siva …” (Prajnanananda, 19) Furthermore, Prof. Nunos de Santos says, “… a god variously named Issa, Isha, Ichtos, Iesus, Ieshuah, Joshuah, Jesus, etc., is indisputably originally from India.” He also states, “Ishvara (Ishwar) is widely worshipped in the Far East, being also called Isha (or Ishana) in India, Issara in Pali, Isuan in Thai, Jizu (or Jizai) in Japanese, and so on.”

“Isa” is likewise another name for Chandra, the Indian moon god, as well as for Shiva’s Egyptian counterpart, the soli-lunar god Osiris, also called Iswara in India:

“Iswara, or Isa, and Isani, or Isisi, are…unquestionably the Osiris and Isis of Egypt. Iswara, Siva, or Hara (for these are his names among nearly a thousand more) united with Isi, represent the secondary causes, whatever they may be, of natural phenomena; and principally those of temporary destruction and regeneration.” (Moor, 151)

Numerous ancient legends, recorded for example in the writings of Diodorus Siculus during the first century BCE, depict Osiris as travelling all over the East, as well as the rest of the world, during the millennia when he reigned as Egypt’s favorite deity. Osiris, or Isa, it should be noted, was put to death and resurrected, among many other correspondences to the Christ myth. Osiris/Isa too had a number of tombs in various places, especially in Egypt but likely also in India. However, Osiris was not a “real person” but a fertility and sun god. What mythologists recognize is that it was not a “historical Osiris” but his myth that made it to India and diverse places. As in the case of Osiris, the same phenomenon occurred regarding “Jesus,” who is, in the end, a remake of Osiris, among others.

The title “Isa” or “Issa” could apply to others, and is a common name even today. Indeed, some part of these Jesus-in-India tales may revolve around the famed Greek sage Apollonius of Tyana. Not a few persons over the centuries have noted the similarities between the lives of Apollonius and Christ, and even in ancient times Christians were accused of plagiarizing the Apollonius legend.

Mongolian Nestorian BishopThe Nestorians

The Issa myth apparently represents a Christianization of legends regarding Osiris, Shiva, Apollonius and other gods and “Bodhisattvas,” by the Nestorians, an early Christian sect who lived in India and elsewhere, and may well have spread the syncretistic fable to other Asian ports of call. Indeed, Nicholas Roerich himself surmised that the ancient Nestorian sect spread the tales in the East:

“We heard several versions of this legend which has spread widely through Ladakh, Sinkiang and Mongolia, but all versions agree on one point, that during His absence, Christ was in India and Asia…. Perhaps [this legend] is of Nestorian origin.” (Prophet, 261)

Roerich also stated, “Whoever doubts too completely that such legends about the Christ life exist in Asia, probably does not realize what an immense influence the Nestorians have had in all parts of Asia and how many so-called Apocryphal legends they spread in the most ancient times.” (Roerich, 89) In addition, George Roerich even proposed that there was a “floating colony” of Nestorians in Ladakh itself “during the eighth to tenth centuries,” which could well be when the Notovitch text was composed. Roerich, one of the main writers whose works have led to the Jesus-in-India theory, almost invariably and misleadingly substitutes “Jesus” or “Christ” for “Issa,” when Issa could be a number of individuals, mythical and historical.

In his account of Jesus in India, Roerich declared, “The teachings of India were famed far and wide; let us even recall the description of the life of Appolonius [sic] of Tyana and his visits to Hindu sages.” (Roerich, 119) Again, one likely scenario regarding “Issa” (“Lord” or “Master”) is that, whatever part of his tale is “historical,” it possibly refers to Apollonius.

Apollonius of TyanaPre-Christian Indo-European Interaction

As is well known, Apollonius was not alone in his journeys to the East. Decades and centuries prior to the Christian era, there was much intercourse between India and the West, including the famous journey by Pythagoras and the Alexandrian incursion. As another pertinent example, one of the seats of Mandeanism, a Christian baptist sect, was Maisan, a Mesopotamian city colonized by Indians. As Dr. Rudolph Otto relates:

“… Indian caravans passed through Maisan and likewise Nabatea. Indian merchants, wherever they went, were importers and missionaries of Indian ideas. There need be no surprise therefore if direct Indian imports are found in the syncretistic medley of Mandean Gnosis”. (Prajnanananda, 41)

Space does not permit us to recount the numerous authorities who are in agreement as to the westward spread of Indian and Buddhist concepts centuries before and into the Christian era. A number of them may be found in Prajnanananda’s book, including a “Mr. Cust,” who evinced that trade between India and Yemen “was established not later than 1000 B.C.” Yemen is very close to Israel, and by the first century CE there were plenty of Indians in the Roman Empire.

Despite the popularity of the Jesus-in-India tale, the claim is not accepted by mainstream authorities, either Christian or secular. The tale’s proponents assert that scholars reject Jesus in India because of Western imperialism and the inability to accept that Christ could have been influenced by Buddhism. In the case of mythicists, however, the reason Jesus is denied as having gone to India is because he is a pagan sun god remade into a Jewish “human” messiah. Thus, it is not a question of a “historical Jesus” being in India and the East but of a variety of solar cults that worshipped a similar deity with similar rituals, doctrines and myths.

Jesus & Mary Magdalene: Husband & wife?The “Lost Years” Are Astrotheological

Over the centuries Jesus’s so-called “lost years” and post-crucifixion life have provided much fodder for the fertile human imagination, leading to speculation, legends, traditions and myths that the great godman and sage lived and studied in a variety of places. Once the fable of Christ became popular, numerous towns, villages, cities and nations wished to establish some sort of connection. Instead of recognizing that such a significant omission as Jesus’s “lost years” is an indication of the mythical nature of the tale, individuals using typical priest craft have come up with countless extraordinary adventures of the “historical Jesus.” Unfortunately for the believers, however, not only is the gospel story itself but so too are these Jesus-the-Globetrotter tales mere deluding smoke and mirrors, and the reason for the gap in Jesus’s biography is because he was not a “real person” but a pagan sun god turned into a Jewish messiah. In the mythos revolving around the sun god, there need be no accounting for “lost years,” as the “age” of 12 represents the sun at high noon, while the 28 or 30 represents the days of the lunar or solar months, respectively.

When religions are investigated with a profound knowledge of mythology, the correspondences are clearly revealed, and it becomes evident that it is not the case that this miracle worker or that godman travelled to this place or that, as has been rumored to have occurred with just about every god or goddess. In actuality, it is the legends, traditions and myths concerning these gods, godmen or gurus that have been spread far and wide by their proponents, priests and propagandists. As was the case with the missionary and his brother in Japan, who were taken for the object of worship they were proselytizing, so has it developed in other parts of the world over the millennia concerning not only Jesus but also many other deities, such as the virgin-born, crucified Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, whose similar “life” and religion led to claims that “Jesus” was in America. The reason for the similarities, however, is because both Jesus and Quetzalcoatl are sun gods with the same attendant holidays and practices.

In the final analysis, it is not possible that Jesus could have lived years after the crucifixion, fathered children and died in several different places, as legends represent. The past explanation for such discrepancies has been metaphysical, deeming Jesus to be multidimensional and capable of simultaneous incarnations in various locations. Such an explanation, of course, will not satisfy the skeptic and scientist. Or the mythologist, who simply knows better, because she or he has studied in depth the products of the human mind. Because the basic story of Christ revolves around the sun, which was highly esteemed the world over beginning many millennia ago, the myth is likewise found around the globe. To the basic mythos and ritual were added various embellishments according to the place and era, and for a variety of reasons. In the end, Jesus the Globetrotter is a not a historical personage who magically appeared all over the world, bi-locating and flying on the backs of birds. “Jesus Christ” is mythical creature, to be found globally only between the pages of a book. – Truth Be Known, 1995


  1. Capt, E. Raymond, The Traditions of Glastonbury, Artisan, 1983
  2. Ellis, Peter B., “Our Druid Cousins,” http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=4274
  3. Huc, M. L’Abbé, Christianity in China, Tartary, and Thibet, I, London, Longman & Co., 1857
  4. Moor, Edward, Simpson, ed., The Hindu Pantheon, Indological Book House, India, 1968
  5. Notovitch, Nicholas, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, Tree of Life Publications, CA, 1980
  6. Nunos de Santos, Arysio, “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ–Comments,” http://www.rickrichards.com/jc/JesusComment2.html
  7. Prajnanananda, Swami, Christ the Saviour and the Christ Myth, Calcutta, 1984
  8. Prophet, Elizabeth Clare, The Lost Years of Jesus, Summit University Press, 1984
  9. Roerich, Nicholas, Altai-Himalaya, Adventures Unlimited, 2001

Spiritual Symbols (Karmasthana) – Ram Swarup

Sri Ram Swarup had wished the following note to be incorporated into a new edition of Hindu View of Christianity and Islam published by Voice of India. We have a copy of the note from Sri A.P. Joshi and herewith share it with readers. It will be of special interest to those who know Ram Swarup’s perceptive critique of Christianity and Islam. – IS

Ram SwarupSri Ram Swarup’s Note on Karmasthana

Prophetic religions have no worthwhile theory of self-purification. They have felt that they do not need one. They deal in ready-made truths received from their God by their prophet in a revelation and communicated to his followers as dogmas. In Hinduism there is a problem of truth itself, the problem of receiving and communicating it. In this tradition, problems relating to the message, the medium and the source are important and are open to questions and inquiry. In prophetic tradition, to raise questions about them is unbelief, infidelity and is punishable.

Prophetic religions have at best a theory of inspiration (ilham and the holy ghost). But in actual practice, this doctrine is a veritable psychological trap and has often led to much charlatanism and to excesses. Apollonius, the great saint of the Greco-Roman world advises that we should avoid philosophies and people who “claim to be inspired, for people like that lie about Gods and urge them to do many foolish things”.

In prophetic religions, the prophet is supposed to speak for God, but in most cases, it is difficult to decide who speaks for whom – the prophet for God or God for the prophet. Similarly, it is not sure where God begins if he begins at all and where the prophet ends. In the case of the prophet of Islam, it was seen that his revelations were quite accommodative and served his convenience as Aisha, his young wife, pointed out. Sometimes it also happened that words supplied by the recorder became part of the heavenly text which upset him greatly. But Umar  was flattered when he saw that some of the suggestions he had made became Allah’s injunctions.

Salman Rushdie has discussed the phenomenon of revelations of Islam’s prophet in his Satanic Verses from the modern psychological angle. He finds there is no Allah and no message. It is prophet all over. He dictates with one mind and listens to what he himself has dictated with the other.

We need not disagree with Salman’s observations about the prophet of his discussion. But we need not accept his larger intellectual format about spiritual life. Hinduism believes in Gods, in higher life and higher truth; it believes that this truth is not alien to man but is akin to him; that he is surrounded by it, lives in it and breathes in it, but to become aware of it requires a pure heart.

To a superficial look it may appear like prophetism, at least in some essentials. But a little discrimination will show that it is not so. Prophetism deals in special Gods, special revelations, special dispensation. Sanatana Dharma tradition is concerned with laws of the spirit that apply to all and are true for all time. It does not discuss historical oddities; it discusses higher life as a regular phenomenon of life. Revelation is taking place all the time and man is nourished regularly by heaven and he lives in interchange with Gods. Prophetism with its exclusive Gods and special messengers and revelations is a caricature of this truth.

Sanatana Dharma teaches that to become aware of the higher life and establish its rule, the soul has to develop new organs of perception like faith, dhyana or meditation (devout attention), discrimination and prajna. Faith is recognised in many religious traditions, but the others find emphasis mainly in Hindu tradition and those which are related to it, like the Greek Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists. Upanishads say that meditation is greater than thought and they found that the earth, atmosphere, waters, mountains, Gods as well as men, all are mediating as it were. In this tradition, spiritual discrimination (viveka) and purified intelligence (buddhi) are highly valued.

Upanishads also teach that a man becomes what he desires, aspires to, thinks and dwells upon. So it gives importance to purify his seeking, his desire and his thoughts. This can best be done by contemplating and dwelling on the objects of his seeking themselves.

In Hindu spiritual tradition, man’s seeking is for truth, for immortality, for light, for plenitude, for fullness, for the vast, for liberation. Lead me from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light, from death to deathlessness, from the small to the vast is the Upanishadic prayer. The Upanishads also teach that the best way to realise them is to meditate and reflect on them. The great truths of the spirit are also the great anusmritis and anudhyanas – that is subjects and objects worthy to be remembered and meditated upon reverentially again and again.

In Hindu Yogic tradition, there is a great emphasis on an in-gathered or recollected mind. A man can make no spiritual progress with a scattered mind. Such a mind is lost in its objects and it neither knows them nor itself properly. But once a mind is recollected, it knows what it is to be mindful. A dissipated mind is by nature sorrowful but a recollected mind is by nature joyful and luminous (vishoka and jyotishmati). A man with a recollected mind realises that he is more akin to mind than to its objects.

To conquer mind’s wanderings (vikshepa), it is necessary to acquire one-pointedness (ekagrata). For that one should practice the culture of One-principle (eka-tattva abbyasa). For this purpose, Indian Yoga has mentioned many subjects, objects and symbols for concentration and meditation (loosely rendered here as karmasthana). They help to settle the mind and a settled mind helps to purify them further.

Ultimately the best subjects and objects of dhyana are, as we just observed, the great truths of the Self itself but nothing that has a psychic and spiritual significance is ruled out. In India’s yogic tradition, friendliness, compassion, joy, passionlessness, mindfulness and equal-mindedness are considered great purifiers.

Many other subjects, symbols and objects are mentioned: elements, luminaries like fire, sun or sky and earth, any chosen deity or guru-figure, the mystic sound of Om, in short every symbol of psychic and spiritual potential is acceptable.

A karmasthana is not good enough and subtle enough to start with. But the process of meditation itself sets up a process which purifies it further, removes its blemishes and makes it a fitting channel for further spiritual progress. Under the alchemy of meditation, the symbol becomes increasingly more luminous, joyful and psychic. The process of meditation converts it into a new currency and makes it worthy of a new journey in a new terrain. Opened to higher influences, it is further purified and raised up. Unknown inner doors open and new Gods are born.

All this transformation is necessary. Any chosen symbol or figure must purify itself before it purifies others; it must become spirit-worthy before it guides on the spiritual path. The transformation takes place as a matter of course in accordance with the spiritual laws; it cannot be manipulated; it is self-determined and charters its own course. Its moving power is the aspirant’s sincerity and intensity of aspiration. On the spiritual path, nothing that is honest and sincere is lost and all lost and all threads meet and everything is added up and taken into account.

The process of meditation accepts all sattvika sentiments, objects and symbols but has no use for those which are rajasika and tamasika. Those who sit with their eyes closed but dwell with their mind on its lower attractions become worse. Strong hatreds, egoistic opinions, prejudices and preferences – whether one’s own or one’s God’s and prophet’s does not matter, for let us remember that there is lot of self-worship through worship of one’s deities and prophets – are most unacceptable. They add another danger. In a meditative mind, they appear as visions, voices and commands of one’s deity. They have deep roots, a stubborn life. A cat has nine lives, they have ninety-nine; they can remain dormant for a long time and reappear in many guises. To overcome them and to make them seedless is a great problem in the spiritual quest. But we are not taking up that question here.

Though Abrahamic religions lack the culture of meditation, pious and believing Muslims and Christians have often dwelt on their founders with great piety and reverence. This has benefited the symbols and under the alchemy of piety greatly improved them. In fact, some Sufis have given us a very different kind of prophet than the one we know in history. This prophet-figure of piety is at odds with the prophet of history. In some ways, this has produced much confusion and one figure has been mistaken for the other. It also became a source of mischief. The figure of the prophet of piety is used to sell the prophet of history and to propagate his cult.

Similarly, Christian monks have often meditated on Jesus in their monasteries. In one way, he is better fitted for this role. For in his case, there is little history to contend with and to shed. But he is a figure of theology which makes him equally intractable and impervious to light.

Meditation on historical Jesus also benefited the Jesus-figure. When dwelt upon with loving regard it tended to lose its blemishes and became more luminous. Thus it became acceptable to the meditating monks in spite of its inherent unreasonableness and untenability. And here too again as in Islam, the meditation-figure was used to promote the Jesus of theology.

For the sake of our Christian readers who lay great store by historical Jesus, let us dilate on the subject a little more. Let us say that Yoga does not care for a historical figure as such; it cares only for its psychic truth. It would suffice to say that to a man who sincerely follows the soul’s native aspiration for self-recovery, any chosen symbol, physical or psychic, historical or non-historical, any figure of a guru living or past – they are all acceptable starting points. The rest is added as he proceeds on the path and as the need arose. Therefore, a sincere Christian could, if he is so minded, adopt the figure of a historical Jesus without harm and even with profit. In the simplest way, it provides a focus for his religious impulses – in itself no small gain. And if his aspiration is pure, persistent and one-pointed, it could take him further on the spiritual path. As the believer dwells on his chosen figure with loving care, a process of change is set up which transforms the symbol. What is redundant drops and what is necessary is added. Under this alchemy, the figure thaws, becomes freer and is released from its historical and psychological confines; it turns to light above and within, absorbs it and is converted into its likeness; under this influence, it loses it opacity and becomes transparent and a reflector of truths beyond itself. [1]

If the figure of normal Jesus was allowed to run its course, it could become a channel of further spiritual progress. If a man has it in his soul and is spiritually ready, he would realise that though the figure is now lighted, it has no light of its own. He would become increasingly more aware of the forces at work within him – forces that bind and those that liberate. His soul may wake up and become a aware of its original, untarnished status. This would open up his prajna, or wisdom-eye; he would realise that salvation is a lawful act and it does not depend on a historical accident; that soul in its original status is not sinful but pure, untouched by evil (shuddham apapaviddham); that man is raised and saved by the Self, his true light and refuge; he would meet the indwelling saviour – who is in all and belongs to all. He would realise that he is nothing and God is everything, in all.

But a Christian believer operates in a very different atmosphere. He is not to find his God or saviour for himself, but both are given to him by the Church; he is not to follow his inner light – he is taught to distrust it – but be guided by an official theology. Under its tutelage, the saviour is conceived as a mediator between an offended deity and a sinful man; the figure obviously belongs to those religious cults and practices in which blood and sacrifice, both human and animal, dominate, not inquiry and contemplation.

It is obvious that such theology can have no exalted idea either of God or man. This theology is spiritually disabling in other ways too; it gives its believers exclusive revelations, exclusive Gods, exclusive saviours. It gives a God revealed to a chosen intermediary but to be believed by all; it gives a saviour who saves few but condemns many – the unbelievers invariably so. In this theology historical Jesus plays a pre-determined, ideological role. Under its influence, this figure deteriorates badly; instead of getting purified and uplifted as on the first route, it is debased and lowered in conception and spiritual quality; instead of converting into a psychic truth, it becomes a fanatic and intolerant idea; instead of becoming luminous and transparent, it becomes opaque with little capacity for receiving and reflecting higher truths.

The figure of Jesus as developed and available in Christian tradition is tamasika-rajasika. It would be difficult for it to recover whatever other possibility it ever had; it has now become a symbol – a frozen symbol – of religious aggrandisement; it is badly infected with raaga-dvesha – inwoven with its followers’ ambitions and hatred. The believer operates in the atmosphere of what is called theological odium; he learns to hate on a large scale, hate under many names and guises, hate his Pagan neighbours and the whole past of humanity. While he loves after a fashion his God – a form of self-love – he is taught to hate all other Gods or rather the Gods of others. While great claims are made for his God, Gods of others are abominated and denied. Thus the figure of a historical Jesus is made to support a huge, doctrinal superstructure of denials and arrogant claims; it presides over a vast apparatus of repression and self-aggrandisement. In this approach while history and the fraternity of believers run amuck, eternity and humanity have little place.

Christianity is a living example of a case where an innocent symbol was destroyed by a bad theology. But it does not mean there are no believing Christians now or in the past who did not overcome the faults of their theology. Many have loved their fellow believers without learning to hate their Pagan neighbours. All this shows that man is greater than his creeds and ideologies and that humanity could survive its hate-ideologies.


This process should not be confused with the process that applies to cases like Krishna or Rama. Though these too could be and often are used as karmasthana, they are differently conceived. They are spiritual realities which took birth in the hearts of sages like Vyasa and Valmiki and given a psychic earthly life. But in the case of Jesus and Muhammad, they are historical characters being invested with a spiritual significance through the alchemy of piety. Psychically they were born – one in the mind of Paul and the other in the minds of Umar and Abu Bakr.

» Sri Ram Swarup (1920–December 26, 1998) was a Samkhya philosopher and Yogi who with Sita Ram Goel founded the publishing house Voice of India. He was a prolific author and one of the most influential independent Hindu thinkers of our time. He is best known for his profound critique of Christianity and Islam from the Hindu perspective and for his study of Hindu polytheism called The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods.


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