Religion and Literature
MUHAMMAD SHAHIDULLAH is best known for his
remarkable research on Bangla language and literature. But
he is also remembered for his secular, modern mind and his
championing the cause of tolerance and peace which he believed,
could be achieved through religion. This is an edited version
of an article by Dr. Shahidullah that originally appeared
in a publication of the International P.E.N Conference in
may be defined as the expression of one or more of the sentiments
of the human mind. A Sanskrit literary critic has said "Vakyam
rasatmakam kavyam" i.e., literature is the verbal
expression full of human sentiments. Sanskrit authors, generally
enumerate eight sentiments – sringara or love,
hasya or mirth (bathos), kamna or tenderness
(pathos), raudra or anger, vira or heroism,
bhayanaka or terror, vibhatsa or disgust
and adbhuta or wonder. Some add two more sentiments
– santa or quietism and vatsalya or
parental affection. Now religion is a human sentiment composed
of love, terror, wonder and quietism. Judaism, Christianity,
Islam and Hinduism, the four greatest theistic religions inculcate
the love of God. Moses says, "And thou shalt love thy
Lord thy God with all thine heart and all thy soul, and with
all thy might." (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus Christ quoted
this and said "This is the first and great commandment"
(Matthew, 22:37,38). The Holy Quran says, "Among men
there are some who take idols in preference to God loving
them as they should love God, while those who believe are
strongest in love for God" (2:165). The Bhagavad-Gita
"Keeping Me in mind, be My devotee.
Pray to Me and salute Me.
Thus joined in heart with Me,
Devoted to Me shalt thou reach Me."
These four great religions also inculcate
fear of God. So we conclude that religious sentiment can also
give rise to literature.
In primitive minds emotion plays a most important
part. Now religion being an emotion also gave an urge to the
primitive man to compose literature. Thus the Iliad and <>Odyssey,
the Old Testament, the Vedas and the Avesta were the first
literatures of the Greeks, the Jews, the Aryans and the Iranians
In the Mediaeval world we find the writers
of Miracle plays directly influenced by Christianity. The
religious sentiment was responsible for the Paradise Lost
and "Paradise Regained" of Milton, the Divina Commedia
of Dante, the Faust of Goethe, the poetic compositions of
the Sufis and the songs of the Vaishnava devotees.
In modern times there is a strong under-current
of religious sentiment in the poetry of Browning, Swinburne,
Rossetti, Shelly, Rabindranath and Iqbal.
Religion should be a motive in literature.
I am not thinking of a book like the Pilgrim's Progress. But
faith in God and the future life combined with love and a
sense of respect for humanity should be introduced into literature
without detracting from its literary value. When I speak of
religion in literature I mean the universal traits of the
great theistic religions. I shall have no quarrel with a Christian,
if he makes Christianity the motive of his book; but it will
be good propoganda literature, and not good literature. I
believe the sine qua non quality for a piece of good literature
is its universality. If a Jew, a Christian, a Zoroastrian,
a Muslim and a Hindu can equally appreciate a book with a
religious motive, I shall certify it to be of universal application,
and as such good literature.
The Holy Quran sets forth the parable of a
good word thus "Seest thou not how God sets forth a parable
of a good word as a good tree whose root is firm and whose
branches are high, yielding its fruit in every season by the
permission of its Lord? And God sets forth parables for men
that they may be mindful" (14:24, 25). So also a good
book should be deep rooted in religion filled with high and
noble sentiments and beneficial to mankind for all times to
come. What can be more beneficial to Man than to make him
conscious of his dignity as one created after God's own image
and destined to strive after perfection as God Himself is
perfect? Did not Jesus Christ say, "Be ye therefore perfect,
even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect?" (Matthew
5:48). Did not the Holy Prophet of Islam say, "Be ye
endowed with the qualities of God?" (Hadith).
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