2021 Themed Reading: World Religions
As you might know, every year I try to read a substantial number of works from within a particular genre, category, or what have you. This year, for example, I focused a lot of my attention on Southeast Asian literature and on poetry (often a combination of those two). Next year, I will be focusing on world religions. I have chosen 6 texts in particular that I plan to explore, and I would love to invite you all to join me in a read-along for one or more, or all, of them, as your interest and schedule dictate.
- JANUARY: TAO TE CHING: This Chinese text is known as “the original book of mindfulness.” What better way to begin a new year than to focus on being mindful and present? The Tao Te Ching dates back to the 6th-Century BC and is purportedly written by a sage named Laozi, though this is debated. The oldest dated portion, however, does indeed date back as far as the 4th century BC. The Tao is one of the fundamental texts of Taoism, which is both a religious and philosophical practice that focuses on “The Way,” or the essential process of the universe (and our individual place in it.) Taoism influenced Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, so it seems an added bonus to start here, since the second text of the year will be a collection of Buddhist Scriptures. I will be reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, New English Version, published by Harper Perennial. ISBN: 9780061142666.
- FEBRUARY-APRIL: BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES: Buddhism has no central text comparable to the Bible or Koran; however, there is a body of scripture from across Asia that encompasses the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings range from original works in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Pali, and more. Often, they describe elements of the Buddha’s supposed origin story or of his past lives, including explorations on the qualities or qualifications of the bodhisattva, or person who attains enlightenment, including, for example Buddhist monks. Enlightenment itself is also a subject of the scriptures. The edition I’ve chosen is the Penguin Classics, edited by Donald S. Lopez. It covers all these topics through historical and geographical lenses. ISBN: 9780140447583.
- MAY: THE HOLY VEDAS: According to Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar, “The four Vedas contain the divine, infallible knowledge revealed to those primal men whose soul was specially illuminated to by the grace of god to receive and impart humanity the words of almighty god.” The Vedas of Hinduism are the sacred heritage of India. In this book an attempt has been made to bring together representative hymns which encompass all the aspects enshrined in the Vedas. The author has tried to retain the spirit of the original Sanskrit mantras in English renderings and to impart some of the holy ambience of these sacred texts which are the fountainhead of Hindu philosophy and culture.” I am using the illustrated, versified edition from Clarion books, which I recognize is not directly translated and which, apparently, intermixes the four Vedas for the benefit of western audiences. It seems a good place to start. ISBN: 9788193935590.
- JUNE-AUGUST: THE TALMUD: One of the most significant religious texts in the world, The Talmud is a compilation of the teachings of major Jewish scholars from the classic period of rabbinic Judaism. In a range of styles, including commentary, parables, proverbs, and anecdotes, it provides guidance on all aspects of everyday life. The edition I have chosen is another from Penguin Classics (because I trust them.) According to the description, this is a selection of the Talmud’s most illuminating passages. It is intended to make centuries of Jewish thought accessible to modern (western) readers. Particularly helpful, I think, will be the introduction that includes information about The Talmud’s arrangement, social and historical background, reception, and authors. ISBN: 9780141441788.
- SEPTEMBER: RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS: What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is the starting point for de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. The quest begins with the premise that supernatural claims of religion are false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. The major topics range from building a sense of community without a church, to the spirituality of travel, to finding purpose in art, architecture, and music. The edition I’m using is published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780307476821.
- OCTOBER-DECEMBER: THE QUR’AN: The final text of the year will be the foundational text of Islam and the one most important to the Muslim world, The Qur’an. I’ve chosen the Oxford World’s Classics latest edition, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, as it comes with high recommendations for its accuracy and ease of reading. In this edition, for example, dialogue addressed to the Prophet is identified to aid western readers, paragraphing and punctuation have been included, and verses are marked for reference but in superscript, which allows for uninterrupted reading. This edition’s introduction also provides a history of the Qur’an, including its important features, to aid understanding. ISBN: 9780199535958.
As you can see, three texts are scheduled in single-months, while the other three are scheduled over three months. This is because, upon examination (and in simple page length), three of them are rather short and seem to require much less time, while the other three are longer and more complex. I wanted to be sure to give myself (and anyone joining me) enough time to spend with those more complicated texts. I’ll likely be doing some secondary source reading as well, to help me understand what I’m reading, just as I’ve done when reading the Christian bible, for example.
I’m very much looking forward to reading these important voices across disparate religions and non-religions alike. I’m going to do my best to treat each text fairly and delicately, and to avoid any offense as I communicate my thoughts about them. That said, I should also explain that I’ll be reading these texts as literature and philosophy rather than taking any religious perspective on/from them.
As to the reading itself, I have no plan, yet, to compare and contrast them, but instead think I’ll take each of them at a time and see what happens as I go along. Who knows, by mid-year I might start synthesizing as my reading, and the ideas borne of it, progresses.
Care to join me?