Analytical and Traditional Approaches to Sacred History
Questions relating to the historicity of the personages and episodes mentioned in religious literature have been vexing scholars for at least two centuries. It is difficult for some to take as a historical fact that Moses met with God and received the Ten Commandments personally from Him. Many papers and volumes have been written on the historical Jesus. Dispassionate scholars, even with great reverence for the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have explored the genesis of these marvelous works which strike them as impressive poetic creations of the human spirit.
But the upholders of orthodoxy find such stances impertinent, perhaps even disrespectful because such inquiries cast some doubt on the miracles and magical feats associated with the religious personages mentioned in sacred texts. This causes unhappiness and anger in some. Some fear, not without reason, that the knowledge unraveled by scholarship might shake the stability of ancient icons and practices. There is therefore a derision on the part of traditionalists for no-nonsense cold-blooded scholars whose concern is for solid facts more than for soothing feelings.
All this is a cultural manifestation of the perennial conflict between the head and the heart. All through human history, in practically every society touched by civilization, the behavior and beliefs of traditionalists have been challenged by inquiring minds. This has resulted in new insights and understanding about the past for an elite minority. But they tend to cause pain and shock and even discomfort to a great many people. The conquests of the mind in religious matters tend to upset the joyful heart. An impeccable proof to the effect that no anthropomorpic God lovingly holds His protective hand over our heads when we go to sleep could result in restless and worrisome insomnia in some.
Whether one should accept the evidence of carefully gathered data and the logic of arguments, or respond to the call of a deeper faith that endows us with peace and spiritual ecstasy is the dilemma that we sometimes face. Some make a decision, and claim their preference to be the right one. There is perhaps no right or wrong choice in this matter, if only because one is as human as the other, and both have contextual significance..
This dichotomy is an illustration of what is called the principle of complementarity in physics: Reality is recognized as consisting of apparently contradictory, but in fact mutually complementing features. Niels Bohr used to say that there are two kinds of truths, small and great ones. A small truth is one whose contrary is obviously false. That milk is white is a small truth, because to say that milk is black is clearly wrong. But a great truth is one whose contrary is no less true. To say that religions have done much good is as true a statement as that religions have done much harm. That the electron behaves like a particle as that it behaves like a wave.
As long as we are experiencing one side of a coin, we cannot perceive the other. But it would be simplistic, if not a grave error, to imagine that the coin has only one side. For the analytical scholar to maintain that the spiritual dimension of a scriptural work is without significance would be as partial a vision as the claim of the religious devotee who doesn’t realize that chants and psalms have evolved over the ages in human culture, and are meaningful modes towards a greater goal, rather than reflections of objective truths in the physical world.
The charm of Aesop’s Fables lies, not in the conversations of animals but in the morals they spell out. It is not impossible for one to drink deep of the spiritual fountain of any religion, especially if one is brought up in the tradition. Yet, it is also possible to look upon the framework as a creation of inspired poets and enlightened sages. However, it is good for the analytical thinker to recognize that scholarly perspectives are not the only or even the best mode of approaching religious works, even if they themselves are enriched by them.