Does religion need a language?
At a book fair organised at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university, poet, songwriter and script writer Javed Akhtar said that while all languages have a region, only Urdu has been assigned a religion. “Urdu language does not belong to a religion,” said Akhtarul Wasey, vice chairman of Delhi Urdu Academy. “None of the languages need religion but all religions need a language.” As I pursued the idea, I found a fair body of literature on the two ideas.
In Religion and Language: The Soteriological Significance of Religious Language, religious scholar and haiku poet Akira Omine suggests that ordinary words of transaction do not comprise “true language”. “…if I go to a flower shop and say, ‘Please give me that rose,’ I use those words in order to obtain a rose,” he writes. “Upon receiving the rose, those words are no longer of any use and I discard them. The realm of our everyday lives is such that, in the instant that words are born, they immediately die. There, the possibility that words could be born, become perfected, and continue forever does not arise. Words are never anything other than simple means and never become identical with the end itself. Thus, in our ordinary lives, we may seem to put our faith in language, but, in reality, we do not.”
His conclusion: “I believe that it is the inconceivable awakening to the reality that the Tathagata is, in fact, a single, true Word, that is, true and real language. No matter how much we may look upon words as being tools, which we are in possession of, language, in reality, is a gift to human beings which comes from a locus prior to humans. Original language, which is the Name of the Buddha, always exists prior to human existence. Human beings are enabled to live through the truth of language. In teaching us that the sentient beings of the ten directions are saved through the Name of the Buddha alone, the words of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life reveal to us the fundamental structure of human existence.”
With examples from 11 countries, H. Schiffman gives interesting insights into religion, language, ethnicity and isolation. “Differences between Urdu, Hindi and Panjabi are less linguistic than religious, coupled with different writing systems,” he writes. “Panjabi most recently obtained ‘language’ status under constitution of India, because sacred writings of Sikhism were in Panjabi writing in Gurumukhi script. This led (1966) to establishment of Panjabi language State; Hindus then had to have a non-Panjabi state (Haryana). Other dialects of Hindi (Rajasthani, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Bihari) have tried to get this status but haven’t succeeded.”
As far as the US is concerned, “When non-English ethnics immigrated to US, they were confronted with the ’super-ethnicity of the American Dream’, which threatened to engulf them and rob them of their ethnicity. If they had come for religious freedom they often turned to their religious group, their church for support in resisting assimilation. Church became equivalent to ethnicity: Religion = Ethnicity and church often supported ethnicity in ways it never had to at home. Previous to arrival in US, their ethnicity was their religion; after arrival, their religion was their ethnicity (many unchurched people joined churches to hold on to ethnicity; modern Korean immigrants do too).”
In a paper titled, Language and Religion, Webb Kean suggests that language is an essential tool to understand identity. “In general, the formal means by which different religions propose to interact with their respective other worlds can be diagnostic of their basic assumptions about the nature of the beings to be found there, as well as of living humans themselves,” he writes. “To this extent, linguistic practice may reflect ontological assumptions. Modernist or reformist movements may place a great emphasis on cultivating sincere speaker intentionality, as in the demand that prayer be spontaneous. But even when highly scripted texts are followed, as in the daily prayers of Muslims, reformers may insist that the speakers utter them with ‘powerful depictive imagination’. One may not be able to detect simply on the basis of speech forms whether the ideological emphasis is on personal intention or divine inspiration. In this respect, religious language does not necessarily reflect prior beliefs.”
In an essay titled, Religion and Language, Anthony Campbell shows seven close similarities between the two. “I want to suggest that religion, like language, has evolved to be easily learned by children,” he writes. “Many religions have a sacred language (Hebrew for Judaism, classical Arabic for Islam, Sanskrit for Hinduism, Pali for Theravada Buddhism). Because religions are generally ancient, the languages they use are often partially or wholly unintelligible to the laity and sometimes even the clergy, but contrary to what religious modernisers suppose, this linguistic remoteness is a strength, not a weakness.”
Further, “…very speculatively, may the origins of both language and religion go back to the very beginnings of modern human consciousness? Many people believe that there was a qualitative shift in human consciousness about 50,000 years ago — the so-called Great Leap Forward, when tool-making became more complex and the cave paintings in France and Spain first appeared. We do not know why these paintings were made but a prevalent idea is that they had some sort of religious or magical significance. We also do not know when language first developed, but again it is speculated that an elaborate form of speech first became possible to humans at about the same time as the paintings. If these ideas are at all correct, it would follow that language and religion were closely connected at their very inception.”
I do think language is a necessary condition for religion to exist. For, religion is nothing but an organisation of society through the lens of a morality of the time. So, yes, religion does need a language. But if you go beyond religion, into the space of spirituality, everything — including language — becomes redundant. That is your direct communication with a spirit that doesn’t need the crutch.