For a long time the writer, whose task it has been to teach the history and literature of the world’s religions to college students, has felt the need for just such a book as this one. During the whole of his teaching career in the field there have been available scholarly translations of considerable quantities of sacred literature from the greater religions; for example, the great fifty-volume series, Sacred Books of the East, each volume of which contains a learned discussion of the particular segment of the literature presented. This has been of inestimable value to all teachers and workers in the field for two generations. But it is very heavy reading for the undergraduate student with little technical acquaintance with the field. Then, too, there are admirable translations, such as those of the Pali Text Society) , covering a very wide range of Buddhist literature, and others of similar nature, useful to the scholar, but not easily available for the ordinary college student.
In more recent years have appeared important anthologies in which the translation is accompanied by a minimum of introductory material which might help explain the text, which is usually printed with few or no notes of explanation. Here the outstanding example is the fourteen-volume Sacred Books and Literature of the East, a magnificently printed, well selected anthology of the best in all the great sacred literatures. Smaller, single-volume anthologies containing excellent selected material continue to appear, but most of them present only the text with almost nothing by way of explanation of its origin or meaning. In many ways admirably selected, they leave the reader with a great many questions, the answers to which would make the reading vastly more intelligible and probably more valuable
There are, of course, separate volumes discussing these literatures; e.g., on the literature of India there are at least four or more excellent, scholarly studies in existence, made by competent scholars: Winternitz, Hopkins, Farquhar, Macdonell, and others; but they are found in comparatively few libraries outside the larger centers. The same could be said concerning the literatures of other religions. What is needed by the ordinary student, it seems to the writer, is a single volume which will provide an adequate, if not an exhaustive, discussion of the great sacred literatures in non-technical language, so that he may better understand and appreciate what the anthologies so generously provide him.
One book which, for many years, served precisely this purpose was A. W. Martin’s Seven Great Bibles; but it has long been out of print, and it covered by no means all the literatures. Halliday’s Dawn of Civilization is a partial fulfillment of this need, but only partial. Furthermore, it was published many years ago, though still in print.
For years the writer has given a course which he has called "The Literature of the World’s Religions," in which he has supplied his students with much of the material here presented, while they read extensively in the literatures themselves. His students have -- so many of them said -- found such introductory matter helpful in an understanding of the nature and the outlook of the several literatures. It is his hope that a greatly widened circle of readers will find it equally helpful. Owing to limitations of space, not a great deal of illustrative material is included in the body of the text. However, page references will be found to some of the more popular anthologies where additional selections may be found. It may, therefore, well serve as a reading guide to be used with any one of the better known selections from the world’s religions.
The question may very well be raised as one reads through the book: Why was there no chapter on the Greek and Roman religions? The answer is in part that these religions developed no sacred books of a canonical sort. But then neither did the Babylonians or the Egyptians, in a strict sense, and they are included. The rest of the answer is that the author fully intended to include a chapter to be called Graeco-Roman Sacred Literature. But before it was written, the outside limit set by the publishers for the size of the book had already been exceeded, and rather drastic cutting was indicated, even if no Graeco-Roman chapter were added. Hence it was omitted. Had one been written it would have included some discussion at least of the following with brief selected passages. Among the Greeks, the Homeric Epics, the Theogony of Hesiod, which pretty well fixed the stories of the Olympian gods and their relationships; something from the extant hymn and prayer literature including the Orphic, something from Plato and possibly some of the other philosophers. From the Romans, probably much less, for much of their later religion was borrowed largely from the Greeks, but certainly selections from some of the great Roman Stoics; Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have been included. For selections see Ruth Smith, The Tree of Life, pp. 279-306; Grace Turnbull, Tongues of Fire, pp. 291-375.
Although detailed suggestions for further reading are made at the end of each chapter, it is worth while to insert here at least a partial annotated list of the available anthologies in which the reader may find ample selections from all of the great religions. Some one or more of these volumes may be found even in most small libraries, and several or all of them in the greater university or city libraries.
Sacred Books of the East, ed. by Max Muller. 50 vols., Oxford University Press, London. Contains at least one volume for most of the world’s religions. Highly scholarly. Not too readable for the layman.
Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East. 14 vols., Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, N.Y., 1917. Contains extensive selections from all the world’s religions, a volume or more for each one. Beautifully printed, very readable.
The Wisdom of the East Series, ed. by L. Cranmer-Byng and Dr. S. A. Kapadia. John Murray, London. Numerous small, well printed volumes of about 100 pp. each, one to several on each religion. Well edited, usually with a good introduction. Very readable. Pocket size.
Harvard Classics, Vols. 44 and 45. P. F. Collier & Son, N.Y.
One-Volume General Anthologies
Containing Selections from All or Most of the Sacred Literature
The Bible of the World, ed. by Robert O. Ballou. 1415 pp., Viking, N.Y., 1939. This popular anthology has been condensed to 600 pp. and published under two titles with identical text as The World Bible (Viking, 1944) and The Pocket World Bible (Routledge, London, 1948) .
The Bible of Mankind, ed. by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab. 743 pp., Universal Publishing Co., N.Y., 1939. Good selection, topically arranged. Very few long passages from any faith.
The World’s Great Scriptures, ed. by Lewis Browne. 559 pp., Macmillan, N.Y., 1946. Selections primarily concerned with ethics rather than religious teachings.
The Tree of Life, ed. by Ruth P. Smith. 496 pp., Viking, N.Y., 1942. Very much briefer selections than in The Bible of the World. Purportedly for young people.
Tongues of Fire, compiled by Grace H. Turnbull. 416 pp., Macmillan, N.Y., 1929. Excellent but fragmentary selections.
The Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, ed. by S. E. Frost, Jr. 410 pp., Garden City Publishing Co., N.Y., 1949. Very brief selections. Costs less than a dollar.
Treasure-House of the Living Religions, ed. by Robert E. Hume. 493 pp., Scribner, N.Y., 1932. Very brief but numerous selections, topically arranged.
Covering One or More Particular Religions
The Harvard Oriental Series. Many vols., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Very scholarly and magnificently printed.
Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Highly scholarly translations with critical notes, by leading Buddhist scholars, issued by various publishers.
Publications of the Pali Text Society. Very scholarly translations, with critical introductions and notes, by leading Buddhist scholars, issued by various publishers.
The Wisdom of China and India, ed. by Lin Yutang. 1104 pp., Random House, N.Y., 1942. Excellent selection, good introductions, especially to the various sections of Chinese literature. Some of the translations are by Lin himself. Very readable.
Hindu Scriptures, ed. by Nicol Macnicol. 293 pp., Everyman’s Library, Dutton, N.Y., 1938. Costs only a little more than a dollar. Good and representative selection.
The Gospel of Buddha, compiled by Paul Carus. 275 pp., Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 15th ed., 1915. Excellent and well varied selection, popular and readable. Not so easy to identify sources.
Some Sayings of the Buddha, transl. by F. L. Woodward. 356 pp., Oxford University Press, London, 1925. Pocket size. Wide and representative selection. Each selection documented for easy reference to original sources.