Dreams: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Tuesday December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, celebrating the saint who would become the inspiration for Santa Claus, who is otherwise known as St. Nicholas today. The historical St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles and visited Emperor Constantine in his dreams.

We all have dreams — the alternate lives we traverse when we are sleeping. Sometimes, they seem so real, that we ponder which is true — the dream or our waking lives. Just as the night sky reveals the countless stars that are invisible during the day, dreams reveal the subconscious and unconscious realms of our minds that are otherwise hidden. There are no filters and so the worlds constructed in them can be quite revealing. They often reflect more truth than the life we live in our conscious state.

These are spaces that have a tremendous influence over our daily thoughts, impulses, and behaviors. Therefore, it is critical to be able to excavate their depths. For millennia, our ancestors have been using dreams as keys to better understand both the internal and external worlds. For, dreams exist in the blurry area between these two worlds using external stimuli as props and our hidden interiority.

Dreams reveal how we can manufacture stories — creating a world that seems objectively true and independent of our participation. The truth is, the world we experience around us is actually quite subjective. It is filtered through our conditioning and our senses. Long before we were creating literature, humans were interpreting dreams. The philosophers Plato and Zeno had suggested that the quality of our dreams help us to determine the spiritual state of our souls.

All major religions view dreams with a great deal of regard and mindfulness. There are many Biblical examples of God communicating with people through dreams, often indirectly. Joseph, for instance, was highly regarded as an interpreter of dreams, and eventually became an advisor to the Egyptian Pharaoh after being sold as a slave to Egypt.

The Prophet Muhammad began having prophetic dreams in his teenage years, leading up to his first revelation. Saint Augustine, one of the most important figures in Christianity, had high regard for the value of dreams and dream interpretation. Dreams are often symbolic and contain coded information.

On the other hand, in eastern faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism dreamless sleep is actually a sign of spiritual progress. Hindus believe that life is no different than a dream — maya — and that the reality exists beyond time and space. Most of us are unconscious dreamers. Just as while dreaming, everything appears real, in our real waking lives, we rarely suspect that there is another state of being that is more “real”. As the Hindu monk Vivekananda said, “The whole life is a succession of dreams. My ambition is to be a conscious dreamer.”

If dreams manifest our unconscious desires, a desireless person — the goal of a Buddhist — would have no dreams.

Dreams are one of the most mysterious human phenomena, seemingly rich with meaning yet difficult to decipher. This is how our world is, as well as the inner world of our minds: full of mystery and illusion, but also full of secrets and insights to uncover.

Christianity

— The New Testament (Acts 16:9–10), Christian text

Judaism

I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,

I speak to them in dreams.”

— The Hebrew Bible (Numbers 12:6), Jewish text

Islam

— The prophet Muhammad

Baha’i

— Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet

Hinduism

— Huston Smith, scholar of religion

“All these names and forms are illusory, like a dream. What Brahman is cannot be described.”

— Sri Ramakrishna, Hindu saint

Buddhism

— The Dalai Lama

Daoism

— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text

Modern Philosophy and Theology

— Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion

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