Buddhist Sacred Texts: The Sutras

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Sacred Texts in World Religions

Some sacred texts form the cornerstone of a religion, instilling law, character and spirituality in its people; some are narratives of historical figures in the faith. A text might be viewed as the unchanging “Word of God;” other texts are revised and expanded by later generations. Texts can be literal, or metaphorical, or both. This guide shows you how to find online versions, commentary and historical context of scriptures for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

Buddhist Sacred Texts: The Sutras

The Buddhist canon consists of the Sutras: the words and teachings of the Buddha. There are also a number of noncanonical Buddhist texts that provide supplementary teachings, rules of conduct and commentary on transitional states after death. The Tripitaka (Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are three major noncanonical Buddhist texts. The Pali Canon, which means “the word of Buddha,” includes some of the Buddha’s discourse, but it also incorporates the teachings of his pupils. Different sects of Buddhism follow canonical and noncanonical scriptures to varying degrees.

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  • Unlike other Buddhists, Zen Buddhists don’t emphasize the sacred texts. The very nature of Zen Buddhism is transcending intellect, logic and language, drawing nearer to the meaning of life through meditation.

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Christian Sacred Texts: The Bible

Christianity combines the Jewish Old Testament with the New Testament to form the Christian Bible, which followers refer to as the Holy Scriptures. There are many noncanonical texts in the Christian religion as well. Protestants believe in the preeminence of the Holy Scriptures, as the Reformation was a return to the early days of Christianity prior to the policies and creeds developed by the Catholic Church hierarchy.

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  • The New Testaments for Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox are the same. However, the Old Testaments differ: Catholics and Orthodox use more books from the Old Testament than the Protestants do; the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, unlike Protestant Bibles, are based on the “Septuagint” (explained in the links below).

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Hindu Sacred Texts: The Vedas

The Vedas, or “Books of Knowledge,” are the foremost sacred texts in Hinduism. These books, written from around 1200 BCE to 100 CE, began with four vedas, or mantras: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. These expanded over time to include Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.

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  • There are two kinds of Hindu texts: sruti ("heard") or smruti ("remembered"). According to ReligionFacts, sruti are “considered divinely inspired and fully authoritative for belief and practice, while smruti are recognized as the products of the minds of the great sages.”

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Islamic Sacred Texts: The Quran and Hadith

As the third of the Abrahamic religions, Muslims respect the Old and New Testaments, and consider Jews and Christians to be “People of the Book.” But the basis of Islam is the Quran, divinely revealed to Muhammad over a period of 22 years, beginning in 610 CE.

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  • The Quran is considered the word of God, and as a result, many people feel that the only way to experience the text in its full form is to read it in the original Arabic. Of course, if this isn’t a viable option, there are plenty of interpretations available in other languages.
  • The Quran and the Hadith are the two major texts of Islam. The Hadith, of lesser importance than the Quran, means “narrative” or “report,” and collects the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his followers.

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Jewish Sacred Texts: The Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash

Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, and its primary sacred text is the Tanach, or the Jewish Bible, which is composed of the Pentateuch (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). Tanach is an acronym for these three books. Learn all about the Tenach and Jewish commentaries in the links below.

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