Religious texts, those dreadful, hateful, and unforgiving ancient writings that are used to keep the poor in place. Or maybe not? 

What is scripture to you? Maybe it’s a thick, musty book you were forced to read as a child. Maybe it’s the word of God. Maybe it’s some fun stories that aren’t particularly relevant to your life. Or maybe it’s something people use to judge others as wrong or inferior.  In its earliest days, scripture was none of these things. Though it’s always been intended to nurture compassion in the people who experience it, scripture has gone through countless changes across time and cultures.

Take you on a whirlwind tour of the world’s many scriptural teachings, explaining how they developed, who spread them, and what they’ve been used to accomplish – from carrying cultural memory to sowing religious division.

The Aryans’ scripture reflected their hard-boiled worldview – but also offered release through ritual.

Around 1500 BCE, nomads from the Caucasus called Aryans were getting fed up with herding cattle. They wanted to settle down, and they picked the rich Punjab region, in modern-day Pakistan, as their new home. This was very bad news for the people who already lived there. The former nomads were tough customers – hard-drinking ruffians who lived by looting. Peasants were their favorite prey.

But there was also a spiritual element to their culture. Through visions, Aryan seers called rishis transmitted the hymns of their ancient gods.

Rishis were a little different than your garden-variety holy seer: they also took part in the Aryans’ violent raids. Early Aryan scripture reflected the rishis’ brutal lifestyle. Conflict, the gods told them, lay at the heart of existence. The danger was everywhere, and the transformation was only possible through destruction. The scripture they developed based on these themes is known as the Rig Veda.

For the Aryans, the Rig Veda gave meaning and dignity to a life that would have otherwise seemed terrifying.

How? The answer lies in a little word representing a big concept: rta. The rishis believed that rta united the warring elements of the universe. Rta existed outside linear time – the rishis’ visions could relate to the past, present, future, or all times simultaneously. Rta could also be anywhere, including inside each person. By the ninth century BCE, the Aryans had refined the concept of the rta into what modern-day Hindus call the Brahman: the energy that pervades the universe.

The Rig Veda had aspects of doom and gloom. But it also offered a way out of the cosmic cycle of death and rebirth. By successively undergoing ritual actions, or karma, throughout your life, you could escape the cycle and guarantee yourself a spot in heaven.

Sort of like the Israelites’ holy text, the Rig Veda became inseparable from the ritual. People most often experienced the Veda by listening to ritualistic chanting. The sound became sacred to the Aryans – far more important than the message of their hymns. That’s because chanting imbued the words with a sensory aspect, making the text more profound to those hearing it. Writing came to be considered polluting and corrupt – even the physical text of the Veda itself!

Crucially, when rishis recited the hymns during their rituals, they were returning them to the gods that created them. Through this ritual, the Aryans developed an attitude of reverence and gratitude for the planet, and, ultimately, a concept of nonviolence.

The first Chinese scripture emerged to help rulers govern ethically.

Let’s hop over to China. Around three thousand years ago, the warlike Zhou clan conquered China’s first dynasty, the Shang. The Zhou had a novel belief system; to them, the cosmos consisted of complementary yet opposing forces. The world balanced in the middle, between these forces, and its success depended on a harmonious relationship between the two.

To justify overthrowing the Shang, the Zhou claimed they had the Mandate of Heaven. The Shang, they said, displeased heaven with their corruption and immorality, upsetting the cosmic balance. This was the first time ethics appeared in Chinese religion. From then on, politics and religion would be closely entwined.

When the Zhou took power, they established a state education system to train bureaucrats to keep the right balance between the opposing cosmic forces. The resulting principles of government eventually became a scripture called the Five Classics.

The Five Classics differ significantly from the religious texts of today. In addition to religious practices, they enshrined cultural traditions, such as respect for ancestors and artistic performance styles. Like other scriptures of the era, this text was fluid. As the centuries passed, it was continually updated to address the concerns of the time.

But it wasn’t just up to the bureaucrats to safeguard the balance between heaven and earth. Regular people played a part, too – taking part in elaborate dances, donning ornate costumes, and singing poems, among other rituals. Just like Israelite and Aryan scripture, Chinese scripture pairs text with physicality, helping people absorb it on a deeper level.

But all things must come to an end eventually, especially agrarian empires. In 771 BCE, after a barbarian attack, the dynasty began to unravel. Now began a painful era called the Warring States period. The ultimate result would be a unified central state, but it would take centuries of violence and hardship to establish.

As things calmed down, nobles began spending less time in battle and more time at court. They used the Five Classics to develop a code of etiquette. These were ritual practices that would govern public and private life, known as the li. The li morphed into a newly organized code of conduct that everybody was required to follow.

Some scholars believed the li could change Chinese nobility into a new type of humane ruler. But some of the li’s compulsory gestures of deference got a bit ridiculous – after a while courtiers began competing to see who could be the most humble!

To be continued

Olusola Bodunrin
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA. ‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.