Two Kinds of Religious Texts

When studying religion, either on your own or in university, it is helpful to recognize that there are, almost always, two types of literature associated with a religion, that is, if the religion has a written tradition.


detail of unnamed sacred Hindu texts from collection of prof Klaus Klostermaier

The two types of religious texts are 1) sacred scripture, and 2) non-sacred, but cherished, traditional writings and commentaries.


The distinction between these two types of written traditions is simply that the first is considered to be of a divine, revealed or other-worldly origin.

The second type of literature is considered to be extremely important, edifying texts, often of a known author, and can be held as authoritative for the faithful.

For example the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, are the sacred texts of Judaism. The secondary texts of Judaism are an enormous corpus of writings collectively referred to as Talmud and Midrash.

There are many other texts important to Judaism, collections, compilations and commentary on talmudic studies, and the writings of great Jewish theologians such as Maimonides. There are also works of the middles ages and late antiquity such as the Zohar and Sepher Yetzirah.


Talmud with commentary and commentary on the commentary

In Hinduism, the body of literature is so large that it takes a great amount of effort just to memorize the titles. The sacred canon of Hinduism is referred to by the Hindi word ‘sruti’ (pronounced shrutee) and consists of many separate literary works. The texts that are not considered divine in origin are called smriti.

The complex arguments concerning which Hindu texts belong to sruti and which belong to smriti, are beyond the scope of this introduction.

The Vedas are central to Hinduism and are thought to have been committed to writing only 2000 years ago, after a millennium of religious practice and oral transmission. This is a very large collection of scripture, which traditionally includes the Upanishads, and informs the majority of sacred and non-sacred texts that came after.

The Mahabharata is an ancient epic poem of over 3000 pages and contains classical stories that are often isolated as separate texts, such as the better known Bhagavad Gita.

Among other texts of Hinduism are the Puranas, which comprise dozens of texts concerned with specific gods and their cults, the Sutras, which are instructional texts on many different themes, the seven books of the Ramayana, the Laws of Manu, and the vast collection of customs and laws called Dharmashastras.

In Christianity, the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament) and the New Testament are considered to be of divine origin and are sacred texts.


extant fragment of Gospel according to Matthew, third century

The secondary texts of Christianity consist of the writings of the doctors of the church, saints and holy men and women, innovators and Christian thinkers from across the many centuries of Christianity.

In Islam, The Qu’ran is sacred scripture and the main body of secondary writings are called Hadith. The Hadith are collections of written traditions about the Prophet Muhammad, his life and sayings and of his companions.

What survives of Zoroastrian texts is often presented as The Avestas, the divine texts,  or with the commentary, the Zend-Avestas. But much of Zoroastrian literature has been lost and it is difficult to get a clear history of the texts that remain.

For the Sikh religion, the texts referred to as Guru Granth Sahib are sacred scripture and are considered to be the ultimate Guru, teacher and leader of the Sikh adherent. Secondary literature includes stories about the founding guru Nanak, and guides for prayer and practice.

The two major groups of Jains in India are differentiated by two very different views of Jain scripture. The great sect of the Skyclad Jains (so called because most of them live without clothing) consider all connection to the oral tradition containing the sayings of the Mahavira to be lost because of a calamity that destroyed the Jain people early on in their history.


Copy of the Jain Kalpasutra, 15th century

The majority sect, sometimes called the Whiteclad (as they dress in simple white robes) maintains over three-dozen written texts, which they believe preserve the true teachings of the Mahavira and the Tirthankaras.

Among the most important Buddhist texts are the Dhammapada, The Tripitaka (Pali Canon), and the many Sutras, which include the more well-known Lotus Sutra, The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra.


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Filed under Religious Literacy, Revelation, Ways to Learn the World Religions

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