How to read holy books

Sri Krishna Prem was born Ronald Henry Nixon in Britain in 1898. After service in the Royal Flying Corps, he took his M.A. at Cambridge and in 1920 went to India to pursue his interest in Buddhism and theosophy. There he met his guru, Sri Yashoda Mai, a Bengali mentor of profound mystical experience. He followed her to a remote ashram in the Himalayan foothills, took holy orders as a monk of the Hindu Vaishnava sect, and was given the name Sri Krishna Prem. After his guru’s death, he was left in charge of the ashram and reluctantly accepted the task of leading the other disciples. Teaching from his own religious insight and retaining only such ritual as he felt to be of universal significance, he became one of the outstanding figures in India’s spiritual life. He died in 1965.

This is an essay by Sri Krishna Prem (Ronald Nixon)

One of the greatest obstacles to the finding of Truth is the belief current among religious people that Truth is written down in some book or books which constitute the ’sacred scripture’ for them. The orthodox Christians consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God in spite of its making a number of statements of fact which are quite certainly incorrect, and orthodox Hindus say that the Vedas are apaurusheya, which presumably means that they have no human authors, in spite of the fact that they are quite obviously the com­positions of certain rishis. Similarly, every religion and sect has its holy books which are taken on trust without question although a great deal of ingenuity has to be expended upon attempts to make their statements square with knowledge derived from other sources.

It is by no means intended here to depreciate those ancient writings, some of which are among the most inspiring productions of the human mind and contain realizations and intuitions which are of great help to a seeker, but it cannot be too strongly emphasized that an attitude of blind acceptance of what is written in any book is definitely harmful and effectually serves to prevent the attainment of Truth.

It is sometimes argued that even if the books in question were not written by God (whatever that may mean) they were the work of great Seers whose knowledge was far greater than ours and so should be accepted on trust. But this too will not do.

In the first place we do not know who did actually write the books. It may have been the Seer himself or it may have been one of his disciples with an only partial understanding of his master’s teaching. It may even have been made up by some one who wished to gain a hearing for his ideas by fathering them on to a great name. It is for instance preposterous to suppose that Vyasa. the Hindu Sage, wrote all that appears nowadays in his name, the whole set of Puranas and Epics with all their mutual contradictions which not all the ingenuity of a Benares pundit can reconcile satisfactorily.

In the second place we know for a fact that, during the trans­mission of the books through all the centuries that separate us from their authors, all sorts of corruptions have crept into the texts. Important passages have been dropped out and new passages have been inserted.

In the third place, even if we assume that in the book in question we have the exact words of the original Seer who wrote it, it is still not desirable that we should accept it blindly. The words of the book are not the Truth he saw but the verbal expression of it that he judged suitable for the time and place. Every day we see that words mean different things to different persons and it is absurdly optimistic to suppose that the words addressed to disciples two thousand years ago will convey the same meaning to us today.

Moreover, the idea that a statement in a book can constitute knowledge is an utter absurdity. The books contain a number of black marks on white paper (or the equivalent), and what these marks signify to us depends upon the ideas in our own minds, and they in turn upon the experiences we have gone through. Without having lived through the appropriate experience, it is quite im­possible for us to understand in any real sense the meaning of what is written in any book, no matter who the author may have been.

I repeat, however, that it is not intended to depreciate the study of the ancient scriptures. I, for one, have derived great benefit from such study and would be the last person to wish for a general bon­fire of scriptures. What is wanted, however, is not blind belief but intelligent study. Belief, as the word is usually understood, is an irrelevance, a futility and a hindrance. The mind is the mirror of the universe. If that mirror is kept clean and not distorted, it gives a picture of the world which, though, as it were, a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional reality, is yet a perfectly true one. The mind works perfectly upon its own level. It is a wondrous mirror extending throughout the universe, but, if its bright images are to correspond with the facts, it is essential that it should not be distorted in any way. The great distorting forces are hopes and fears or, as we may put it in another way, it is desire, whether positive or negative.

When a man says he believes in something or other (I do not mean rational belief based on consideration of evidence) it would be more correct to say that he hopes that it may be true and, action and reaction being equal and opposite, he at the same time fears that it is not. Every belief then has its corresponding doubt lurking some­where in the shadow. It is for this reason that men of strong religious beliefs become SO fanatical. Silently gnawing at their hearts, insi­diously whispering in their ears, is an army of doubts, shadowy beings inhabiting a twilight world but corresponding exactly with the beliefs which, like so many children’s kites, go soaring up into the bright sunshine. It is to silence those whispers, to lay those ghosts in the basement, that the believer strives with all his might to convert others to his creed. Criticism he cannot stand because of the echoes that it raises down below where all should be silence; and so, just in proportion as he increases the force of his own beliefs, he magnifies the tension within and, filled with an inner hatred of himself, he vents his explosive anger upon others. Thus from a mere fanatic he becomes a persecutor.

What, then, should be our attitude towards the ancient scriptures, or, indeed, towards books in general? Books may be divided into two classes: those that are based upon inner experience and those that are mere words strung together with more or less skill. The latter class may be ignored altogether. It may be asked: how, if we are ourselves ignorant, we may know that a book is based upon genuine experience? The answer is that the Truth exists already in our hearts, however ignorant our outer personalities may be; it is a sheer fact that words that spring from deep realization raise echoes within us if we listen to them with free minds. The words, as we say, mean something to us. Perhaps there may be other books, equally the fruit of some one’s experience, which raise no echoes within. In that case it is some lack of sympathy or of experience, some knot of prejudice in our minds, that prevents our hearts from acting as resonators, and so we pnt the book aside. When that happens it is doubtless a pity but it cannot be helped; we are not ready for that particular message and its study can do us no good.

If, however, a book does ‘mean something to us’, if we have reason, inner reason, to think that it is a record of actual experience, wc should set aside all questions of its date and authorship, its orthodoxy or heterodoxy, its agreement or disagreement with other books. Instead, we should give our hearts to its study, trying to penetrate behind the words to the thoughts and realization for the expression of which those words were selected.

An instance may make it clearer. Shankaracharya, as is well known, affirmed that everything is the Self(Atma), while the Buddha proclaimed as the essence of wisdom the perception of the not-Self nature (nairatmya) of reality. The average reader has either already taken sides upon the subject and so treats one of the views as simply wrong, or else considers it a matter for argument and debates it with himself or with others, hoping thereby to arrive at the Truth. But this is quite the wrong procedure. We must remember that reality is not labeled so that a man who has seen it has merely to read the label correctly and all is well. Reality is beyond the mind and its labels. We affix them for our own convenience, but it is we who made them, and they are never more than symbolic finger posts pointing the way to what is beyond. Moreover, they are symbols that mean different things to different persons.

Instead, therefore, of assuming Self (atma) and not-Self (anatma) are things of which one is true and the other false, we must remem­ber that they are attempted descriptions in words of some charac­teristic of what was experienced without words. Instead of asking which is the true description, we should try and understand what characteristic it was of the experienced reality that led Shankara to use just the term he did, and what the characteristic which led the Buddha to use its apparent opposite. We shall then find there is no contradiction, for in fact they were not talking of the same charac­teristics at all.

I have said so much about books because, nowadays at least, books form the usual starting point of the search, and it is important that in using them we should use them correctly and not incorrectly for, in the latter case, we shall merely fill our heads with empty notions. The Truth is within us, and books are only useful in so far as they crystallize and make manifest what is, till then, only obscurely known. Such a statement as ‘God created the world’ is, for instance, entirely meaningless unless we have at least some idea of what we mean by ‘God’ and what by ‘created’. It is hardly necessary to say that, for most people who use the phrase so glibly, the words in question have practically no meaning whatever. If such a person is asked about the origin of the world he will reply ‘God created it’ and then, if asked what he means by God, he will say that God is the creator of the world. This sounds almost too absurd to be true but is nevertheless a very common reply and may serve as typical of a great many ‘explanations’ which are completely circular.

[Excerpted from the book Initiation into Yoga by Sri Krishna Prem  (see amazon)]


9 thoughts on “How to read holy books

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