Hermeneutics: how to read holy scriptures

The interpretation of centuries-old holy scriptures is always a challenge.  Rote learning of scriptures which was undertaken in past centuries due to lack of durable recording material is no longer required; it may improve memory but doesn’t lead us much further.  On the other hand, the academic pursuit of hermeneutics through critical thinking produces dry interpretations (as well as misinterpretations) because it is undertaken by those who without spiritual background.   What then is the method by which one unlocks the true meaning of a holy book?  It is necessarily a maieutic process, to use a Socratic term, that grows through spiritual practice and experience.  When we begin to awaken to the influence of the soul within, it gradually discloses to us the secret of the scripture.   The blossoming intuition which brings us closer to the Divine can also unlock the original intent of the  scripture.   In this post, we collect some observations by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa on how to read and interpret holy scriptures.

A gradual unfolding of knowledge

Mother Mirra Alfassa: There is one thing certain about the mind and its workings; it is that you can understand only what you already know in your own inner self.  What strikes you in a book is what you have already experienced deep within you. Men find a book or a teaching very wonderful and often you hear them say, “That is exactly what I myself feel and know, but I could not bring it out or express it as well as it is expressed here.” When men come across a book of true knowledge, each finds himself there, and at every new reading he discovers things that he did not see in it at first; it opens to him each time a new field of knowledge that had till then escaped him in it. But that is because it reaches layers of knowledge that were waiting for expression in the subconscious in him; the expression has now been given by somebody else and much better than he could himself have done it. But, once expressed, he immediately recognises it and feels that it is the truth. The knowledge that seems to come to you from outside is only an occasion for bringing out the knowledge that is within you.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1929 – 1931): 19 May 1929

The three factors in the interpretation of a scripture

(Note : the seer or drsta below indicates the author of the scripture)

Sri Aurobindo: What then are the standards of truth in the interpretation of the Scripture ? The standards are three, the knower, knowledge and the known.

The known is the text itself that we seek to interpret. We must be sure we have the right word, not an emendation to suit the exigency of some individual or sectarian opinion; the right etymology and shade of meaning, not one that is traditional or forced to serve the ends of a commentator; the right spirit in the sense, not an imported or too narrow or too elastic spirit.

The knower is the original drasta or seer of the mantra, with whom we ought to be in spiritual contact. If knowledge is indeed a perishable thing in a perishable instrument, such contact is impossible; but in that case the Scripture itself must be false and not worth considering. If there is any truth in what the Scripture says, knowledge is eternal and inherent in all of us and what another saw I can see, what another realised I can realise. The seer was a soul in relation with the infinite Spirit, I also am a soul in relation with the infinite Spirit. We have a meeting-place, a possibility of communion.

Knowledge is the eternal truth, part of which the seer expresses to us. Through the part he shows us, we must travel to the whole, otherwise we shall be subject to the errors incidental to an imperfect knowledge. If even the part is to be rightly understood, it must be viewed in the terms of the whole, not the whole in the terms of the part. I am not limited by the Scriptures; on the contrary I must exceed them in order to be master of their knowledge. It is true that we are usually the slaves of our individual and limited outlook, but our capacity is unlimited, and if we can get rid of ego, if we can put ourselves at the service of the Infinite without any reservation of predilection or opinion, there is no reason why our realisation should be limited. (He being known, all can be known – Yasmin vijñāte sarvam idam vijñātam bhavati – Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.3).  To understand Scripture, it is not enough to be a scholar, one must be a soul. To know what the seer saw one must oneself have sight(drsti), and be a student if not a master of the knowledge. (The Higher Knowledge is non-decaying – atha para yaya tad aksaram adhigamyate – Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.5) Grammar, etymology, prosody, astronomy, metaphysics, logic, all that is good; but afterwards there is still needed the higher knowledge by which the Immutable is known.

Sri Aurobindo, The Harmony of Virtue: The Interpretation of Scripture

Sri Aurobindo elucidates on the spirit with which he approached the Bhagavad Gita

Sri Aurobindo: The world abounds with scriptures sacred and profane, with revelations and half-revelations, with religions and philosophies, sects and schools and systems. To these the many minds of a half-ripe knowledge or no knowledge at all attach themselves with exclusiveness and passion and will have it that this or the other book is alone the eternal Word of God and all others are either impostures or at best imperfectly inspired, that this or that philosophy is the last word of the reasoning intellect and other systems are either errors or saved only by such partial truth in them as links them to the one true philosophical cult. Even the discoveries of physical Science have been elevated into a creed and in its name religion and spirituality banned as ignorance and superstition, philosophy as frippery and moonshine. And to these bigoted exclusions and vain wranglings even the wise have often lent themselves, misled by some spirit of darkness that has mingled with their light and overshadowed it with some cloud of intellectual egoism or spiritual pride. Mankind seems now indeed inclined to grow a little modester and wiser; we no longer slay our fellows in the name of God’s truth or because they have minds differently trained or differently constituted from ours; we are less ready to curse and revile our neighbour because he is wicked or presumptuous enough to differ from us in opinion; we are ready even to admit that Truth is everywhere and cannot be our sole monopoly; we are beginning to look at other religions and philosophies for the truth and help they contain and no longer merely in order to damn them as false or criticise what we conceive to be their errors. But we are still apt to declare that our truth gives us the supreme knowledge which other religions or philosophies have missed or only imperfectly grasped so that they deal either with subsidiary and inferior aspects of the truth of things or can merely prepare less evolved minds for the heights to which we have arrived. And we are still prone to force upon ourselves or others the whole sacred mass of the book or gospel we admire, insisting that all shall be accepted as eternally valid truth and no iota or underline or diaeresis denied its part of the plenary inspiration.

It may therefore be useful in approaching an ancient Scripture, such as the Veda, Upanishads or Gita, to indicate precisely the spirit in which we approach it and what exactly we think we may derive from it that is of value to humanity and its future. First of all, there is undoubtedly a Truth one and eternal which we are seeking, from which all other truth derives, by the light of which all other truth finds its right place, explanation and relation to the scheme of knowledge. But precisely for that reason it cannot be shut up in a single trenchant formula, it is not likely to be found in its entirety or in all its bearings in any single philosophy or scripture or uttered altogether and for ever by any one teacher, thinker, prophet or Avatar. Nor has it been wholly found by us if our view of it necessitates the intolerant exclusion of the truth underlying other systems; for when we reject passionately, we mean simply that we cannot appreciate and explain. Secondly, this Truth, though it is one and eternal, expresses itself in Time and through the mind of man; therefore every Scripture must necessarily contain two elements, one temporary, perishable, belonging to the ideas of the period and country in which it was produced, the other eternal and imperishable and applicable in all ages and countries. Moreover, in the statement of the Truth the actual form given to it, the system and arrangement, the metaphysical and intellectual mould, the precise expression used must be largely subject to the mutations of Time and cease to have the same force; for the human intellect modifies itself always; continually dividing and putting together it is obliged to shift its divisions continually and to rearrange its syntheses; it is always leaving old expression and symbol for new or, if it uses the old, it so changes its connotation or at least its exact content and association that we can never be quite sure of understanding an ancient book of this kind precisely in the sense and spirit it bore to its contemporaries. What is of entirely permanent value is that which besides being universal has been experienced, lived and seen with a higher than the intellectual vision.

I hold it therefore of small importance to extract from the Gita its exact metaphysical connotation as it was understood by the men of the time,—even if that were accurately possible.  That it is not possible, is shown by the divergence of the original commentaries which have been and are still being written upon it; for they all agree in each disagreeing with all the others, each finds in the Gita its own system of metaphysics and trend of religious thought. Nor will even the most painstaking and disinterested scholarship and the most luminous theories of the historical development of Indian philosophy save us from inevitable error. But what we can do with profit is to seek in the Gita for the actual living truths it contains, apart from their metaphysical form, to extract from it what can help us or the world at large and to put it in the most natural and vital form and expression we can find that will be suitable to the mentality and helpful to the spiritual needs of our present-day humanity.  No doubt in this attempt we may mix a good deal of error born of our own individuality and of the ideas in which we live, as did greater men before us, but if we steep ourselves in the spirit of this great Scripture and, above all, if we have tried to live in that spirit, we may be sure of finding in it as much real truth as we are capable of receiving as well as the spiritual influence and actual help that, personally, we were intended to derive from it. And that is after all what Scriptures were written to give; the rest is academical disputation or theological dogma.  Only those Scriptures, religions, philosophies which can be thus constantly renewed, relived, their stuff of permanent truth constantly reshaped and developed in the inner thought and spiritual experience of a developing humanity, continue to be of living importance to mankind. The rest remain as monuments of the past, but have no actual force or vital impulse for the future.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita: Our Demand and Need from the Gita

Related Posts

  1. Sri Krishna Prem’s thoughts on this issue were covered before in How to read holy books.
  2. Guidance by Random book opening
  3. Difference between religion and spirituality

5 thoughts on “Hermeneutics: how to read holy scriptures

  1. kalpana

    >>”It is necessarily a maieutic process… that grows through spiritual practice and experience”.
    To continue with the analogy of midwifery, it could also be compared with the period of incubation/gestation. To illustrate this point, one might have the knowledge-embryo within, but it is not ready to be born/externalised/experienced as ‘knowing’. The right environmental conditions are needed – so a scripture might act as a fertilizer at one stage, and latter as a mirror, in which the ‘baby’ now recognises itself, finally maturing into ‘gnosis’- ‘being the knowledge’.

  2. Sandeep Post author

    An interesting article by David Lose : 4 Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally

    1) Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant.
    2) Reading the Bible literally distorts its witness.
    3) Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally.
    4) Reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God.


  3. Pingback: The message of the Gita | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  4. Pingback: Sravana Manana and Nidhidhyasana | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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