A selection of recommended books on Religion for anyone on the path to awakening and self-knowledge. These are some of the books I’ve found particularly interesting or inspiring over the years, plus links to online texts…
Karen Armstrong – The Great Transformation
This book is a fascinating exploration of the Axial Age which occurred between 800 and 300 BCE, when new religious and philosophical concepts appeared. These ideas underpin all the major religions, and their emergence during this pivotal time, marked a breakthrough in cultural development equivalent to mankind’s harnessing of fire. The ideas of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Jeremiah transformed our understanding of what it means to be human. Karen Armstrong examines why these new perspectives arose when they did, and asks why these disparate cultures had such similar ideas about humanity. It’s an account of social upheaval and a fight for survival, and shows how an idea whose time has come is impossible to defeat. The Axial Age provided a leap forward in human consciousness and its ideas are still relevant and much needed today.
Karen Armstrong – A History of God
A history of the development of the monotheistic ideas that underpin Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This book explores the evolution of belief and how ideas arise in response to a social or collective need, and how they become corrupted. The idea of a single divine being, whether you call it God, Yahweh, or Allah, has been around for thousands of years. Karen Armstrong shows that the history of this God is also a history of human struggle. Each of these religions began with a mystical vision of a different way to live, a way to unite warring tribes and bring people together. The inspiring vision was then codified into law and imposed, and the heart of the teachings were lost. Before long, the followers of the new religions were at it again – fighting, warring, and missing the point with tragic inevitability. Read this book to understand why the world of religion is such a mess.
Deepak Chopra – How to Know God
This book explores the seven different ways we experience what many call God. These experiences aren’t shaped by any particular religion, but are hardwired into the brain. The first stage starts with our ‘fight or flight’ response which gives rise to a God seen as an unpredictable parent, and the stages end with the experience of pure being, beyond thought and utterly mysterious. It’s at this seventh stage that we can develop a life-changing spiritual understanding of the world and ourselves. This is the level of the sages and spiritual masters, but every level is available to us all the time. It is up to us to focus on the level we wish to experience. We don’t have to stick with the grumpy and hard to please God of the first stage. We can choose to grow and expand our perspective into the mystery and embark on the ultimate quest.
Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy – The Jesus Mysteries
This illuminating and fascinating book draws on cutting edge modern scholarship to explore the similarities between Christianity and earlier Pagan religions, and asks: Was the original Jesus a Pagan god? Unless you’re a die-hard literalist, you’re probably familiar with this idea – the Jesus story is essentially the same as earlier saviour myths such as Mithras, Dionysus, and Osiris. This book comprehensively dismantles the roots of Christianity and demonstrates that Jesus had many imitators, most of whom lived hundreds (or even thousands) of years before him. Freke and Gandy show how the story of Jesus was originally understood as a myth by the Gnostics, and this truth was covered up by the Church to preserve its power. This book is packed with footnotes and detailed research. If you believe in the literal truth of Jesus, this book could seriously dent your faith – read it!
Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy – Jesus and the Lost Goddess
Building on their excellent work in The Jesus Mysteries, Freke and Gandy decode the secret teachings of the original Christians which were brutally suppressed by the Roman Church. These teachings relate to the Goddess Sophia (later put on an extreme diet and reduced to the Holy Spirit) and show that the gospel story is a spiritual allegory designed to bring about Gnosis, or mystical enlightenment. With more extensive footnotes and research, Freke and Gandy explore the key ideas of the original gospels. These portray Jesus and Mary Magdalene as mythic figures based on the Pagan dying and resurrecting Godman and the fallen and redeemed Goddess. The myth reveals how to turn your world inside-out and become one with the Christ within. This book demonstrates the true meaning of Christianity. Essential reading for anyone who calls themselves a Christian, or would like to touch the mystery of their true inner Self.
B.K.S. Iyengar – Light of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a collection of 196 aphorisms about the path to enlightenment through yoga, and is acclaimed as one of the most profound studies of human nature and spiritual liberation. The sutras were written over 2,000 years ago and are one of the oldest teachings we have. This book is Iyengar’s classic translation and commentary. Yoga isn’t just about contorting the body into strange shapes. The word means the union of body, mind and soul with God, and all the practices of yoga (not just the physical ones) are designed to bring about this union. The sutras are concise and sometimes hard to wrap your head around, so you need the wise guidance of an experienced practitioner. Iyengar takes you through each aphorism and explains the deeper meaning. There’s a lot of Sanskrit but he provides a glossary of the most important terms. Essential for all serious yogis or yoginis.
For another take on the Yoga Sutras, you can find an excellent commentary from Swami Krishnananda on his website, available to download or read online. Watch out for his wicked sense of humour!
Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching is a classic spiritual text from the Taoist tradition of ancient China. The edition I’m recommending (Chinese Popular Classics) was edited by Timothy Freke who gives it a modern perspective without losing the original meaning or simplicity. It consists of 81 chapters which contain the distilled wisdom of the sages, oracles and folk traditions. The verses encourage you to slow down and reflect, providing insight and guiding you to a deeper understanding of how reality works and who you really are. The Tao Te Ching doesn’t have to be read from cover to cover. You can dip in and read at random whenever you need a wisdom fix. I often pick the book up when I need guidance and open it at random – it never fails to point me in the right direction.
Another translation of the Tao Te Ching can be found on Taoism.net translated by Derek Lin. It’s a great site and worth exploring.
>Complete translation of Tao Te Ching by Derek Lin
Osho – When the Shoe Fits
This book is an Osho classic and includes commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu. Osho relates the original sutras and then takes them apart, offering his perspective and unique comments. The stories cover everything from the spiritual search for liberation, to our desire for love, acceptance, peace and happiness. With his irreverent humour, Osho uses the stories to destroy our illusions and misperceptions, push us out of our comfort zones, and stop us taking ourselves too seriously. He points out that Chuang Tzu’s teachings are different because they rely on effortlessness. “In the world of matter nothing succeeds like the ego; in the world of consciousness nothing fails like the ego.” The key is letting go. These stories will show you how to become effortless. Full review here.
Religious Texts available to read online:
This classic text is a summary of the core beliefs of Hinduism and consists of a dialogue between Krishna and the hero Arjuna in a timeless moment on the battlefield, illustrating the struggle between good and evil. This translation is by Edwin Arnold.
>Complete text of The Bhagavad Gita on Sacred Texts
A collection of sacred Vedic texts which reveal truths about the nature of the ultimate reality, or Brahman, and how we can achieve liberation by realising these truths in moksha, or enlightenment. This translation is by Max Muller.
>Complete text of The Upanishads on Sacred Texts
>Free eBooks featuring commentaries on the Upanishads by Swami Krishnananda
The Nag Hammadi Library includes some of the gospels thought to be lost in the early days of the rise of the Christian Church, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth. This site is a treasure trove of Gnostic teachings, but you’ll need to buy a book if you want commentaries.
Missed any good ones? Recommend a book in the comment section below…