Words are our most valuable meaning making tool — we think in words, we manifest our thoughts into reality through words, and we share our realities with others through words. How much more powerful, then, are the words of those gods and divine beings who created our world? Is it too much of a stretch to say that language itself represents God, or is at least one of God’s attributes? Not for many religions, who frequently equate gods with “the word.”
In Abrahamic religions, one of the Ten Commandments is : ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Hebrew understanding of Yahweh, or “lord” is that it is much more than a name. The name was inseparable from God and referred to the essence of his divine being.
Similarly, in Christianity, Jesus is said to be the incarnate Word; God in Christ reveals himself and communicates himself to men. In Islám it is stated that God created the universe through the utterance of one word ‘Be’, which brought into existence all created things. The Qur’an itself is described as the divine word of God.
Hindus believe that the sacred syllable Om or Aum is supposed to be the primordial sound of the world’s creation. When NASA released an audio clip capturing the sounds of the sun, the internet became abuzz with assertions from Hinduism enthusiasts that they could clearly hear ‘OM’ in that short audio. Although the claim that ‘sun chants OM’ was never confirmed by NASA, the belief in the magical power of the sacred word OM is unquestionable for most devout Hindus.
Sacred words are central to religious identity and are tools to understand what religion is. Sacred words differ from ordinary words in that they are believed either to possess and convey spiritual and magical powers or to be the means through which a divine being or other sacred reality is revealed in phrases and sentences full of power and truth. Reading sacred scriptures or reciting sacred words is recommended in most religions since it is believed that it helps cleanse the mind so the person can establish a mystical connection with the divine.
Religion was originally transmitted primarily in oral form and the sacred words were later written down as sacred scriptures. In many religions, holy scriptures are said to be the embodiments of God as the Word. Even the Hebrew Bible is considered to be written in the holy language of God.
Many prophets were notoriously poor communicators. Moses had a crippling speech impediment and Muhammad was illiterate. That the Holy Books, in all their literary beauty and elegance, were supposedly revealed to and recorded by such individuals is seen as further proof that the words could only have come from God, with these human prophets as mere vehicles.
Given how powerful language is and the monumental impact it has had on the development of our species, it is no wonder that we have elevated the Word to divine status. Invoking God’s name to vouch for the truth during a legal testimony, or placing a hand on a holy book that has sacred words from God before taking oath to a prominent post is still a common practice in many countries.
Languages arose independently in different civilizations, just as the concept of God did. And just as there are many different languages united by the use of the same tool — words — we are all united by a common idea of there being a God. Our God who communicates with us through Sacred words. The orthography might look different as we try to write them down, but the messages from the divine are the same across all religions.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
— The New Testament (John 1:1–3), Christian text
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
— The New Testament (John 1:14), Christian text
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.”
— The Qur’an (15:9), Islamic scripture
“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation”.
— Rumi, A Sufi saint and poet
“And the words of the Lord are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible,
like gold refined seven times.”
— The Hebrew Bible (psalm 12:6), Jewish text
“The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
— The Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 40:8), Jewish text
“The Word of God is the noblest form of the creation of God and it stands far above the comprehension of man. Bahá’u’lláh has warned us in a Tablet never to compare the creation of the ‘Word’ with the creation of other things. He states that each one of the words of God is like a mirror through which the attributes of God are reflected, and that through the Word of God all creation has come into being.”
— Adib Taherzadeh, member of Baha’i Universal House of Justice
“Entering into every heart, I give the power to remember and understand; it is I again who takes that power away. All the scriptures lead to me; I am their author and their wisdom.”
— The Bhagavad Gita (15:15), Hindu text
“The word which all the Vedas proclaim,
That which is expressed in every Tapas (penance, austerity, meditation),
That for which they live the life of a Brahmacharin,
Understand that word in its essence: Om! that is the word.
Yes, this syllable is Brahman,
This syllable is the highest.
He who knows that syllable,
Whatever he desires, is his.”
— Katha Upanishad, Hindu text
“Though he recites much of the Sacred Texts (Tipitaka), but is negligent and does not practice according to the Dhamma, like a cowherd who counts the cattle of others, he has no share in the benefits of the life of a bhikkhu. Though he recites only a little of the Sacred Texts (Tipitaka), but practices according to the Dhamma, eradicating passion, ill will and ignorance, clearly comprehending the Dhamma, with his mind freed from moral defilements and no longer clinging to this world or to the next, he shares the benefits of the life of a bhikkhu (i.e., Magga-phala).”
— The Buddha
True words aren’t beautiful
Beautiful words aren’t true
The good aren’t eloquent
The eloquent aren’t good
The wise aren’t learned
The learned aren’t wise
— Tao Te Ching, Daoist text
“Words that speak of things close at hand and carry far-reaching implications — those are the good words.”
— Mencius, Confucian scholar
“Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.”
— The Analects, Confucian text
To learn more about other common themes across religions, visit us at uef.org/weekly-wisdom.