Comparative Studies Insights

The  Mahābhārata is written in Sanskrit.  For millennium, Hindus have claimed that Sanskrit is a  unique, sacred, and magically powerful language. I heard this claim over and over again in India and in Ashrams in this country. But is Sanskrit really unique, so special, and so precious?  After all, it is a dead language.

Most cultures view their languages this way.  I recently heard an NPR show about the Hopi language and how the Hopi have a prophecy that when their language is no longer spoken, the world will end. But, and I know this is not politically correct, I think the Hopi language will die just like Sanskrit did and the world will continue. Languages are not sacred !

Indo-European Language Tree

I have personally seen this “my-language-is-special-and-unique” attitude among speakers of Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, and Hebrew.  Human arrogance about what is special to them is universal.

That which is dear to us is sacred.  By sacred, I mean it is not open to negotiation and thus guarded with all the unconscious intellectual vigor our brains can muster.  For many, these guarded sacred items include our nation, our tribe, our religion and our language.

We often see that naive mono-linguists think their language is unique in its ability to express deep thoughts. Well of course they do — they have never mastered another language.  A good way to cure this parochial blindness is to do comparative studies.  Using comparative linguistics researchers have learned more about the very nature of language than by studying any one language in depth.

Comparative Embryology

Likewise, we started learning much more biology when we started doing comparative biology.  Likewise, studying comparative government can open the eyes of a person about the nature of government more than by just studying all the historical details of their own government.

I feel that religious folks who have never thoroughly understood another religion are handicapped in a similar way to mono-linguists.  And no matter how deep they dive into their religion, no matter how thoroughly they know their religious history, their scriptures original language(s) or the intricacies of their religion’s theologies, it will be the rare person who will see the deep patterns of all human religious thought.  It is by comparative religious studies that people can see how much their religion shares with other religions.  Doing comparative studies helps people to see the nature of human hearts which generates their faiths.

Comparative Anatomy

So instead of trying to argue the inconsistencies of the Bible, the inaccuracies of the archeology and history,  the bigotry of many doctrines and the subtle philosophical arguments, why not encourage comparative studies of religion.  Through this people can see what they share with others.  This will set up a cognitive dissonance between that insight and their religious teaching that their religion is unique, special and superior.  This may tip the scale for that person becoming more inclusive in their religious thinking.  And moving toward inclusivness is a huge step.

Do you have experiences where comparative studies opened your eyes?

Related Posts:
1) The Mahabharata Series : posts on the famous Hindu epic
2) The Original Source Mystique:  on the misuse of the Bible’s original languages



Filed under Critical Thinking, Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion, Political Philosophy

19 responses to “Comparative Studies Insights

  1. geoih

    I think you’re correct about comparative studies. I learned more about English when I studied Russian, than I ever learned in English class.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the same interest in comparing religions. While I think it’s worthwhile, especially from the direction you appear to come at it, it just seems all a waste of time to me to study the various fantasies cooked up in people’s heads over the centuries to cope with things they don’t understand.

  2. You’re speaking my “language” now, Sabio. 🙂 As you may know, comparative linguistics is my field of graduate study, Indo-European being one of my emphases. In my second semester of Sanskrit, I had to translate the Nala and Damayanti episode from the Mahabharita. Fascinating story.

    Looking forward to the rest!

  3. “For millennium, Hindus have claimed that Sanskrit is a unique, sacred, and magically powerful language….Most cultures view their languages this way.”

    That makes it so clear why God gave English to us in America, so we would remain humble and not get puffed up with feelings of superiority due to our language. Now learning all those irregular conjugations and spellings makes more sense, and I am grateful for it. :^)

    Good points about comparative studies, the more one is exposed to outside beliefs the better one is equipped to evaluate your own beliefs. And religion is so important in the world regardless of what one believes about it. I don’t feel it a waste of time at all as noted in the comment above, but I will admit to finding it difficult to get very interested for the same reasons.

  4. Hesiodos

    Reading about the Elysian mysteries and about the cult of Asclepius helped me to see that experiences of meeting the gods and other religious experiences are a commonplace of religions around the world. This greatly decreased their revelatory power for me and assisted me in losing my own religious convictions.

  5. Pingback: When Christianity undervalues truth

  6. Excellent stuff. Your point about language resonates with me and the analogy with comparative religion was inspired.

    I must say I’ve never even thought about Hinduism, I look forward to reading your series.

  7. Ian

    I had a Latin teacher at high-school who believed Latin was the special one, so its not just first languages!

    So, to be my normal contrary self, what interests me about this discussion is how different languages are different. Are there particular sets of concepts that are easier or more difficult to express in Sanskrit rather than English? I don’t believe the strong-Sapir-Whorf view (that what can be thought is determined by your language), but I suspect that there is some influence.

    One of the reasons I’m interesting in conlangs is precisely that. Creating a conlang allows you to create a form where certain kinds of expressions are more easily expressed, have finer distinctions and possess more interesting kinds of ambiguities.

    Natural languages are of course more complete because they have to be functional in a range of societal functions. But I still (without good evidence) have the intuition that they are better and worse at some kinds of expression.

    So could, for example, Sanskrit be a fundamentally better language for expressing religious thoughts than Japanese, for example? Or Latin better at liturgical expression than English?

  8. Yes, si, oui.

    It is about being close minded. I personally believe that if a person isn’t exploring new ideas, books, places, foods, etc, the person is likely to be narrow minded and to think on tribal terms.

    I know. I used to be like that. When I came to Canada and learned English, I found out that languages shared many words (e.g. information, informacion). Through traveling I’ve learned that, for instance, rice pudding is a universal dish: most cultures around the world eat some form of rice pudding. And to think that I thought it was one of my countries ethnic dishes!

    A person who reads only the Bible and Christian books–or only the Koran for that matter–is likely to be narrow minded and ignorant. I know I was.

  9. Temaskian

    I had a friend who did much comparative studies on religions but still remained a Christian. Or at least a theist. The way to realize your religion is bunk, IMO, is to study it in depth. And test out the truths that it posits.

    Comparing only works if there is a genuine article. For example, when you compare a counterfeit note to a real one. There is no real religion, so there is no genuine note, so to speak.

  10. kat

    In looking into Arabic and Hebrew, the reason they are good languages for theology is because they have a complexity and flexibility that is suited to the richness and depth of the theology of Islam and Judaism. Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit all have a system of “roots”—that is, words are made from these “roots” creating a depth of meaning. (Latin is also similar)—this makes it easy to form new words that have recognizable meaning and many languages from the Indian languages to Southeast Asian languages use Sanskrit to form new words.

  11. General Points

    (1)Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
    re comments from kat> and Ian ! Indeed, this is what I was hinting at. I will post something on this tonight (Insh’allah). It is a very important point. Kat said the opposite of my opinion. So I will try to address. But I am not a linguist and beg for patience and suggestions. I think it is an important issue. But I want to move it to a separate post.

    (2) Insider Reading: Comparative religion is very useful if you read literature of the believers themselves and not just people like yourself, putting believers down. So Christian books on Buddhism are largely useless. Just as many atheist books of Christianity miss a huge part of the believes — you need to see my other posts to get that and I plan to post more in the future.

    (3) How the Mind works: Since religion reveals part of the workings of the human mind, you can study it not to learn all the nonsense but to see how people work. (re: geoih comment)

    @ atimetorend
    Laughing about your English joke.

    @ Hesiodos
    I love the phrase, “decrease revelatory power” — indeed, that is my point. And Hinduism kind of did that for me when I was a Christian.

    @ Ian
    Please redefine “conlang”. Kat agrees with you. I will post on this. I may be corrected. But for now, I am sticking to my guns – although I will throw out some defensive caveats for sure 🙂

    @ Lorena
    I LOVE the rice pudding example. Thanx. Your humility is also reflective of someone who has been honest in their journey. Have you studied another religion?

    @ Temaskian
    Glad you are feeling better. I am sure indepth study can help a lot. But for some, I think comparative approaches can be key. Good to see ya again. Haven’t you studied the religions in Singapore — Taoism, Buddhism and Islam a little?

    @ kat
    Hey, could you visit my “friends tab” and tell me what else I can share with readers about your mysterious web presence? 😉
    As above, I will address your claim (which I presently reject) in another post. Maybe we can work on a compromise (as I educate myself). But would you agree that no language was given by a god?

  12. Ian

    @sabio – sorry a conlang is a ‘constructed language’ – a language designed specifically for some purpose. Think Tolkien’s languages or Klingon for entertainment purposes.

    I’ve devised a couple of conlangs as intellectual and linguistic exercises. One was specifically for expressing romantic sentiments, and was therefore far better at doing that job, capturing subtleties and creative romantic expression than English.

    I don’t know whether one language is better at ‘religion’ than another (aside from the fact that the vocab is likely to be biased towards things people want to speak about). It doesn’t strike me as unlikely on the face of it though. I suspect the requirements of a language’s use to express so many different day to day things has a homogenizing effect, however. I wouldn’t want to use my conlang as an everyday language, I’d be unable to express the most basic practical things.

  13. Have you studied another religion?

    Thanks, Sabio!

    I haven’t studied any other religion in depth, no. But I have read about them some. I supposed I studied them to the point where I was sure they were also mythological. For instance, I read about Budhhism until I realized that their beliefs included (a) miracle births, etc and (2) a hell.

    I’ve come across Hinduism on my research of new age cults and positive thinking gurus, like Deepak Chopra.

  14. kat

    No language given by God—If by that you mean there is no such thing as “God’s language” —I agree with that.

    I am a (born) Muslim, grew up in Fareast, Married with 2 kids. My perspective on issues tends to be “Islamo-centric” flavored with Eastern spirituality. (theist with a panentheism bias—sort of). I like this blog because in order to understand the complex, it is often useful to define and simplify, then unify into a whole—and Sabio is excellent at that.

  15. Temaskian

    Yes, I did study the koran briefly as I tried to evangelize to Muslims when I was a Christian. Hmm… perhaps that did help. It’s hard to say.

  16. “This will set up a cognitive dissonance between that insight and their religious teaching that their religion is unique, special and superior. ”

    fantastic! there are many other stories that are similar to Christianity, like the myth of Horus who was born of a virgin, emptied out a temple, was crucified, and was raised three days later. or the idea of “no possessions” and nonattachment is found in buddhist thought. when you take a step back and look at religions, you’ll notice almost all of them have monks and astetics, what’s up with that?

    some would go “Unitarian” here and state that all gods, whether it’s christian, hindu, whatever, are actually just small pictures of a greater unknown God. we can only know parts, but not the whole God. i think that’s an interesting concept and i agree with it to a certain extent.

    i tend to steer to Jungian thought which is sorta unitarian, but more acknowledges the idea of archetypical images and story structure (human mythos) that seemingly transcends all culture.

    i’m not sure where i’m at on this particular issue.. i know that Christianity is not only my culture, but my history as well. i love my tradition but acknowledge that there are other religions out there that do equally as good of work and help as mine does. good post again Sabio!

  17. @ Ian : Does your wife enjoy your new romantic language?

    @ kat : Thank you for the compliment — that is what I attempt in this blog. May I ask further: Where did you grow up in the Far East? Where do you live now? What kind of work do you do? Is your wife of the same faith as you?

    @ Luke : Thanks. If someone only has paint, they paint. But some people are comfortable with many artistic medias. But I agree with you, it does not mean you can’t prefer one medium.

  18. My Other Feet

    As a student of comparative religion and philosophy, I love that you discuss this relatively abstruse subject in your blog.

    Thanks for writing,

  19. @ my other feet: Thanx

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