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Old February 24th, 2015, 11:41 AM   #1
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Lack of Arabic knowledge did not hurt Islam but lack of Sanskrit hurt Hinduism


Historians often say having prayers in Sanskrit never helped Hinduism yet Christianity with Latin (for a long time under the Romans) and Islam (with Arabic in non Arab areas such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India etc.) flourished. Why did these two faiths not face the lack of knowledge of their religious languages as hindrances and why did Hinduism always get criticized for the same with regards to Sanskrit.
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Old February 24th, 2015, 12:29 PM   #2

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Which historians say this? If anything I would say Hinduism... with it's focus on ritual and 'right practice' would be right up there with Christianity and Islam in this way.

The flourishing of Christianity, atleast, was done through imagery and ritual, preaching from the learned class. You could be Christian during the medieval ages and never have read a single word of the Bible.

With Hinduism, imagery plays a crucial role, the very reason Hindu temples are so colourful and murtis filled with so many symbols is that it's a visual culture meant for an illiterate and literate community. Plus, although Sanskrit is important as a written medium, consider that the Vedas and Upanishads were mostly oral. Same with the Epics, all oral, meant to be heard and performed. This was the same way Christinaity and Islam are at certain points in history. Sure, yes during the early years of Christianity when it was an underground cult, written words were important for preserving and saving the religion... and it was the elites who were mostly literate and used the medium of the written word, but when it was established I would argue that the visual and ritualistic elements were more important.
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Old February 24th, 2015, 07:51 PM   #3
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Which historians say this? If anything I would say Hinduism... with it's focus on ritual and 'right practice' would be right up there with Christianity and Islam in this way.

The flourishing of Christianity, atleast, was done through imagery and ritual, preaching from the learned class. You could be Christian during the medieval ages and never have read a single word of the Bible.

With Hinduism, imagery plays a crucial role, the very reason Hindu temples are so colourful and murtis filled with so many symbols is that it's a visual culture meant for an illiterate and literate community. Plus, although Sanskrit is important as a written medium, consider that the Vedas and Upanishads were mostly oral. Same with the Epics, all oral, meant to be heard and performed. This was the same way Christinaity and Islam are at certain points in history. Sure, yes during the early years of Christianity when it was an underground cult, written words were important for preserving and saving the religion... and it was the elites who were mostly literate and used the medium of the written word, but when it was established I would argue that the visual and ritualistic elements were more important.
I would have to disagee with that. The ealiest Christians gathered in peoples homes to read the scriptures, and listen to preachers explain the meaning of the scriptures. We see Jesus, and later the Apostles, always preaching, and while rituals were important, preaching was also. Even written works, like Paul's letters, were expected to be read out loud to the congregation.

Knowledge of Sanskrit, unlike the bible, was always confinec to a very small literate elite. At no time did the average Indian know Sanskrit, and some would agree that Sanskrit never was a "pass the butter" language of ordinary speech, but was always a special language confined the knowlegeable elite. Certaibly, in at least the last 2000 years, the ordinary Indian farmer and worker does not know Sanskrit. The Latin of the Bible was originally the language of the people, not just a special elite, and it was only gradually that it became confined to just the few literate elite.

And after a few centuries, the Bible was actively translated into the everyday language of the people in a way the great Hindu works were not. I don't any great movement to ensure that all Hindu believers could read their sacred scriptures in the daily language they spoke, but*that was certainly the case with Christianity, at least among Protestants. Even among Catholics, there would be a reading of a scripture passage, and a homily (sermon) that would often explain the passage.

Then too, while Indian temples are full of images, do they correspond to specic passages of Indian scriptures the way images in Christian churches correspond to specific passages in the bible? In medieval western churches, they are full of images, but almost all could be related to some specific story or passage in the bible. The medieval stain glass windows frequently display some bible story.

Unlike Islam and Judaism, where right practice was what was important, right belief rather than right practice is what was always important to Christianity. Hinduism has nothing equivalent to Christian confessional creeds like the Apostle's Creed, where Christians confess what they believe. Most Hindu worship services have nothing equivalent to to the weekly sermon of both Catholic and Protestant services, where there is almost always a reading of a bible passage, and then a lecture (sermon) on the Christian faith, often explaining the passage that was read. Ritual is important to Christian worship, but there is more than just ritual.

Last edited by Bart Dale; February 24th, 2015 at 07:59 PM.
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Old February 24th, 2015, 08:25 PM   #4

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I would have to disagee with that. Knowledge of Sanskrit, unlike the bible, was always confinec to a very small literate elite. At no time did the average Indian know Sanskrit, and some would agree that Sanskrit never was a "pass the butter" language of ordinary speech, but was always a special language confined the knowlegeable elite. Certaibly, in at least the last 2000 years, the ordinary Indian farmer and worker does not know Sanskrit. The Latin of the Bible was originally the language of the people, not just a special elite, and it was only gradually that it became confined to just the few literate elite.

And after a few centuries, the Bible was actively translated into the everyday language of the people in a way the great Hindu works were not. I don't any great movement to ensure that all Hindu believers could read their sacred scriptures in the daily language they spoke, but*that was certainly the case with Christianity, at least among Protestants. Even among Catholics, there would be a reading of a scripture passage, and a homily (sermon) that would often explain the passage.

Then too, while Indian temples are full of images, do they correspond to specic passages of Indian scriptures the way images in Christian churches correspond to specific passages in the bible? In medieval western churches, they are full of images, but almost all could be related to some specific story or passage in the bible. The medieval stain glass windows frequently display some bible story.

Unlike Islam and Judaism, where right practice was important, right belief rather than right practice is what was always important to Christianity. Hinduism has nothing equivalent to Christian confessional creeds like the Apostle's Creed, where Christians confess what they believe. Most Hindu worship services have nothing equivalent to to the weekly sermon of both Catholic and Protestant services, where there is almost always a reading of a bible passage, and then a lecture (sermon) on the Christian faith, often explaining the passage that was read. Ritual is important to Christian worship, but there is more than just ritual, while as far as I can see ritual is all there is i Hindu worship, although I wouldn't be surprised if some Hindus adopted a sermon like lecture in their worship.
Excellent post, and I think you raise some crucial questions and points. It's late, and so I hope this comes out making sense instead of mangled. I agree with all you have to say, and I don't disagree with you at all...if we look at it from a certain perspective. If we look at it from the belif point of view, you are right, 'right belief' was far more important than correct practice... but for over a thousand years of Christianity's history... right practice was as important as right belief because it reinforced the central dogmas. After the Fall of Rome, Latin was not the common language of the people. It was the language of the elites. This is where, I would argue, ritual comes into play because even though a person might speak French or German or Italian, if they attend a Latin mass... even though they may not understand Latin or may only know a few words...the pantomime of the ritual will allow them to know where they are in the mass and follow along. This is a unifying piece.

In an illiterate society, and lets be honest the majority of Europe after the Fall was mostly illiterate...the Catholic mass and the importance of Transubstantiation in the Sacrament was utmost, because it was a ritualized reinforcement of Church beliefs in an era where literacy was confined to an elite. In that medieval world then right practice and ritual fuelled the power of the Church and maintained a person's connection to it. The imagery on the walls, stained glass, was a reinforcement of the oral preaching from the Priest. In this way, a medieval Christian's experience of religion was no different from a medieval Indians. The common person didn't need to read the Bible's words in order to know what the church expected of them, BUT and this is where I agree with you, ultimately those expectations and the authority flowed from the Bible. Now, I cannot speak for orthodox Christianity where Greek was both a vernacular and religious language, so in that case study I might be completely wrong.

With Hinduism, right practice is paramount over right belief in most sects I understand, because belief doesn't come into it. Ofcourse, people believe and have beliefs when they are conducting their rituals, but sanskrit is a language that is very rhythmically pleasing...just like Latin. And, it lends it's self very well to chanting. To come back to that idea of oral preaching, I would argue that a Hindu religious life was no different than their Christian counterparts in Europe.

Now, as an aside, I'm not sure what the levels of literacy were in medieval India... I've half read that they were higher in some areas, lower in some areas...so to be safe I won't make a comment on the why, but the what. The what being: Hindu ritual involves mantras where correct pronunciation is important, many of these mantras are syllables and don't mean words per se... but are syllables which string together sounds that have religious and spiritual meanig. The recitation of the vedas was oral and kept to a small elite class intentionally, but when Hinduism changed from the Vedic to the Brahmanic and Puranic age, we see the same things as happening in Christinaity. We see plays and performances of religious mythology/history/legends... so that even the illiterate could watch and learn. We have oral preaching by Gurus and religious teachers.

We have rituals where everyone, even from different regions, could see generally what was happening and know what was expected of them. And, most importantly, we have images depicting scenes and figures and symbolism of the faith in the same way that Christianity had/has. Infact, the way the two faiths operate I would argue are far more similar than dissimilar. Hinduism has sacred texts, many of them, and for that elite circle of religious philosophers and theologians they were crucially important. But, I don't know who these historians are the OP mentioned, but they must be off their rockers if they say that not having a central written scripture was a hindrance to a religion that is the 3rd ot 4th largest in the world.

The focus on the Bible and scripture only really came about during the Reformation. I know there were earlier movements like the Lollards and the Cathars who advocated vernacular translations, and I know Alfred the great also commissioned translations. But, generally speaking, the importance of direct contact with the written scripture is really only a recent one. In a way, Protestantism has had a huge affect on Hinduism and Buddhism over the last 150 years, but thats another topic for another thread.

Last edited by BenSt; February 24th, 2015 at 08:42 PM.
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Old February 24th, 2015, 08:28 PM   #5

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The debate on the spread of Sanskrit in society is probably going to be never ending. Gupta inscriptions in Sanskrit would indicate that in that time period Sanskrit was very much a language that was widely known, since inscriptions in India were invariably issued in a language that was likely the language spoken by the locals (as with ashoka and his inscriptions in Pali and Kharoshti). There are still villages in India where Sanskrit is and remains the daily language. Plus Hindi is largely a simplified evolution of Sanskrit. It probably wouldn't have come about if Sanskrit was totally absent from local discourse.

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Old February 24th, 2015, 08:41 PM   #6

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I'm not sure if I directly answered these questions in that massive, and probably overwritten missive...

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And after a few centuries, the Bible was actively translated into the everyday language of the people in a way the great Hindu works were not. I don't any great movement to ensure that all Hindu believers could read their sacred scriptures in the daily language they spoke, but*that was certainly the case with Christianity, at least among Protestants. Even among Catholics, there would be a reading of a scripture passage, and a homily (sermon) that would often explain the passage.
Over the paast 150 years there have been large movement to do this, but I would argue that before hand there was no need. The nature of scripture in Hinduism is different from Christianity. In Hinduism, regionalism is important, and its much more of an oral culture historically. So, though the regular folk may not have been able to read the words, the stories were acted out and retold and sung around campfires and in village gathering grounds all over the land. I would argue that they are holy writings, not scriptures in the Biblical sense. The vedas are not parables or stories, they're hymns meant to be sung. I believe, actually, that for the majority of Hinduism's history...the vedas were never written down. What we do have are the Puranas which are almost encyclopedic and outline the major myths of the Gods, why such a such flower is used in worship of Shiva... the origin of such a such temple, etc,. The Epics are not scriptures because again, they exist as narrative poems. Even the Bhagavad Gita, the most widly known Hindu spiritual work in the West, is 'the Song of the Bhagavan" (The Song of God).

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Then too, while Indian temples are full of images, do they correspond to specic passages of Indian scriptures the way images in Christian churches correspond to specific passages in the bible? In medieval western churches, they are full of images, but almost all could be related to some specific story or passage in the bible. The medieval stain glass windows frequently display some bible story.
Majority of them do. The figures of the Gods called murtis will usually have stories attached to them. So Vishnu reclining with Brahma emerging from his naval sitting on a lotus blossom is a scene right from the Puranas. These are stories that Hindu kids are brought up with and they know instinctively what a symbol is and it's meaning. In temple art, both ancient and modern, scenes are directly lifted from the various myths and legends to be used as decoration. For example,

Click the image to open in full size.

This is a depiction of the wedding of two gods, Shiva and Parvati from the ellora cave temple. If you grew up listening and watching plays and hearing the legend that this depicts then you would know what this is without even thinking. same way a Christian looking at a stained glass window showing a man crucified upside down would instinctively know that it was Saint Peter.
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Old February 24th, 2015, 10:56 PM   #7

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I don't think the case with Arabic and Islam is a case where language was easy to learn....In Islam, all religious conduct (prayers and reading the Quran) has to be in Arabic....for non-Arab regions, recital in Arabic is normally the case, sometimes without fully understanding (or partially) the context, this doesn't mean that all those people can can speak or know Arabic....

However, the reason why, despite the difficulty for all those masses in the muslim world to digest a new religion and the use of new language, to still come to a reasonable comprehension of Arabic is due to historical reasons....Islam was not limited to Arabia and its followers have taken it to all conquered lands, such expansion transferred Arabic to a large realm of land in the Caliphate, this remained despite a constant change in Islamic dynasties since the relation of Arabic to Islam is a profound one.....On the contrary, since Indians were not an expansionist nation, nor it was considered a mission to spread Hindu all over the world, Hindu was not breached or expanded in a similar way like Christianity and Islam, therefore this factor was more favorable for the languages of Christianity and Islam....
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Old February 25th, 2015, 01:55 AM   #8

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Over the paast 150 years there have been large movement to do this, but I would argue that before hand there was no need. The nature of scripture in Hinduism is different from Christianity....
Vernacular translations of Puranic literature dates back to the Pre Islamic time. I don't know about each and every language but atleast Andhra Mahabharata composed by Nannaya and Pampa Bharata composed by Pampa - Telugu and Kannada versions of Vyasa's Mahabharata respectively, are more than thousand years old. Even Javanese translation is more than thousand years old. Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas in Hindi and Krittibasi Ramayana/ Sri Ram Panchali in Bengali were composed around 14th/15th century. So the trend is definitely much older than 150 years. Basically as the dates of above works suggest, one of the earliest work written in any Indian language as soon as it emerged &/or become popular are translations of Puranic literature. (Even the first Bollywood film was made on the story of Harischandra).
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Old February 25th, 2015, 07:42 AM   #9

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Vernacular translations of Puranic literature dates back to the Pre Islamic time. I don't know about each and every language but atleast Andhra Mahabharata composed by Nannaya and Pampa Bharata composed by Pampa - Telugu and Kannada versions of Vyasa's Mahabharata respectively, are more than thousand years old. Even Javanese translation is more than thousand years old. Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas in Hindi and Krittibasi Ramayana/ Sri Ram Panchali in Bengali were composed around 14th/15th century. So the trend is definitely much older than 150 years. Basically as the dates of above works suggest, one of the earliest work written in any Indian language as soon as it emerged &/or become popular are translations of Puranic literature. (Even the first Bollywood film was made on the story of Harischandra).
Ahhh. See I only know of the trend within India for focus on reading scriptures by the lay people, through reform movements like Arya Samaj and the various movements like the Theosophical Society etc,. Thankyou!
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