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Morality in Sacred Texts:
A study in similarities
Although many site the concepts of faith and belief to be of paramount importance in the study of any major religion, especially with regard to study originating within any particular religion, there remains a striking aspect of similarity between most major religions when the concept of morality is introduced. Indeed, although the theological basis of the four major world religions -- Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often cited as divisive (again, especially in the collective imaginations of the members of each faith), the similarities of the moral precepts contained within the defining texts of each religion seem to underscore a fundamental unity.
The concept of "morality" is generally defined as that which constitutes virtuous conduct, or right behavior. Of course, given the vast cultural, economic, and societal differences between the majority populations practicing the aforementioned religious traditions, one might expect the moral precepts of each faith to be strikingly different. Interesting this is not the case. In fact, one can clearly observe that in the areas of human behavior and responsibility toward others, (again, as opposed to injunctions concerning belief), including violence, truthfulness, sexual purity, the avoidance of greed, and the importance of devotion and worship, the main religious texts of all four faiths are almost identical.
To begin a brief examination of the holy scriptures of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam with regard to personal morality, one can begin with the Bhagavad-Gita, most commonly referred to as simply "The Gita." Known to Hindus as a "song of God,"( Isherwood, Prabhavananda, 1987), it is a text detailing a discussion between Krishna and Arjuna concerning both the nature of humankind, as well as life itself. As such, The Gita is rich in moral teaching. Consider, for example, the following lines from the text, enjoining the importance of the avoidance of selfishness, and the pure merit of divine devotion and worship:
One who does all work as an offering to God abandoning selfish attachment to the results remains untouched by Karmic reaction or sin as a lotus leaf never gets wet by water (5.10) ....I am easily attainable, O Arjuna, by that ever steadfast devotee who always thinks of Me and whose mind does not go elsewhere (8.14) ....I personally take care of both spiritual and material welfare of those ever-steadfast devotees who always remember and adore Me with single-minded contemplation. (9.22) ....Engage your mind in always thinking of Me, be devoted to Me, worship Me, and bow down to Me. Thus uniting yourself with Me by setting Me as the supreme goal and the sole refuge, you shall certainly come to Me. (9.34) (BBT, 1998)
Clearly, within these excerpts, one can see the immense moral responsibility charged to the reader to abandon selfish striving in favor of devotion and worship. Of course, not only does this illustrate the theological importance of religious devotion within the Hindu faith, but it also underlies the tremendous emphasis on the moral virtue of the abandonment of selfish "worldly" desires and concerns -- a theme one can see in all four religions.
In addition to the merit of selfless striving toward the divine as a moral attribute of the faithful, so too, the Gita emphasizes the importance of the avoidance of "sinful" behaviors. Chief among these are lust, anger (especially violent anger) and greed. The text reads:
The one who sees the same eternal Supreme Lord dwelling as Spirit equally within all mortal beings truly sees (13.27) ....Lust, anger, and greed are the three gates of hell leading to the downfall (or bondage) of the individual. Therefore, one must learn to give up these three. (16.21)
Here, the reader is presented with the idea that every living being is imbibed with the essence of the "Supreme Lord." Of course, this implies that not only all are equal before the Lord or the creator, but that all are entitled to respect and good treatment (i.e. worthy of the same treatment one wishes for oneself). Further, one can clearly see that the states of anger and lust (sexual impurity) are to be avoided as essential steps toward achieving the divine life. Finally, the reader sees that the concepts of truth and kindness are also of paramount importance with the following, "Speech that is non-offensive, truthful, pleasant, beneficial, and is used for the regular study of scriptures is called the austerity of word. (17.15)
If the moral concepts of faith in the Gita include the merits of non-violence, truthfulness, sexual purity, the avoidance of greed, and the importance of devotion and worship, so too are these themes just as clear in the books of Genesis and Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. Consider for example, that there are numerous references in Genesis as well as Exodus to the importance of worship (Gen 22:5, 24:26, 24:48, 47:31) to name a few. Further, perhaps one of the most famous is contained in Exodus, 7: 16, " ... Let my people go, so that they may worship me ... "(NIV, 2002).
Additionally, it is also in Exodus that one finds references to the avoidance of violence, sexual excess, greed and dishonesty -- particularly in the following "Commandments" -- enjoining that the Jewish people not commit murder, adultery, theft or false testimony (i.e. lying) (20:13), further, in 20:14, the faithful are enjoined to avoid envy in all things (indicating the merit of avoiding greed).
When one moves on to explore the Christian faith, one can note the importance of the very same values as those discussed above in the Gita and the Hebrew Bible within the lines of the Gospel According to Matthew. Again, within this text one notes the merit of the worship of the divine, "And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him ... (KJV, 1988: 2:8)." Further, the text also echoes the above two in its prohibition against sexual misconduct, "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: (5:27) ... But I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart ... (5:28)," non-violence, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God ... (5:9)," truthfulness, "Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths (5:33) ... But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; (5:34)," and finally, greed, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal ... (6:19)."
Finally, with reference to the Islamic holy text, the Koran, there are also several references to all of the above moral principles. Consider, for example, some of the numerous references to the importance of worship:
It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a Way that is straight (3:51) .... 3:43 "O Mary! worship Thy Lord devoutly: Prostrate thyself, and bow down (in prayer) with those who bow down (3:43) .... Christ disdaineth nor to serve and worship Allah, nor do the angels, those nearest (to Allah.: those who disdain His worship and are arrogant,-He will gather them all together unto Himself to (answer)( 4:172) ... (Yusef Ali, 2002)
So, too -- like the other three holy texts, the Koran also cautions against greed, "In the bounty of Allah. And in His Mercy,- in that let them rejoice": that is better than the (wealth) they hoard (10:58)," sexual misconduct and lying, "The believers must eventually win…[continue]
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