09 January 2012

Exodus (יציאת מצרים)

Exodus (யாத்திராகமம்), the second book in the Bible or in the Torah (attributed to Prophet Moses), is the story of struggle of Jews under the kingship of Pharaohs, how they manage to get out of Egypt through divine intervention, how Moses helps find their promised home (Canaan), how Ten commandments are revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai and how they establish their altar of worship for Yahweh in the promised land.

The word exodus is a Greek word ξοδος, exodus) which means "way out" and the Hebrew (יציאת מצרים: Yetsi'at Mitzrayim) means "the exit from Egypt" (Wikipedia). The second book Exodus contains 1213 verses organized under 40 chapters or sections. Throughout the text, Moses is referred in third person which implies that the Book was written by someone about Moses. Because of this reason, it is difficult to consider Moses as the author of Exodus. When a later time redactor puts together existing pieces of information containing the prophetic utterances of Moses, the work naturally gets attributed to Moses. The Bhagavad Gita for instance, though called the Song of the Lord, has Viyasa as its author and not Lord Krishna though it contains sayings attributed to Krishna.

1) Moses encounters God in the burning bush

One of the significant passages in Exodus (3:1-21) is the narrative describing the meeting of Moses with God at Mount Sinai. There is no direct vision of God, but only an encounter of a different kind with God in the form of a burning bush which never gets burnt. Is this symbolic representation of divine presence of any significance or burning issue for the Jews? Swami Vivekananda refers to this incident in one of his discourses: 

What difference does it make to you whether Jesus Christ lived at a certain time?
What has it to do with you that Moses saw God in a burning bush?
The fact that Moses saw God in the burning bush does not constitute your seeing Him, does it?
If it does, then the fact that Moses ate is enough for you; you ought to stop eating.
One is just as sensible as the other. Records of great spiritual men of the past do us no good whatever except that they urge us onward to do the same, to experience religion ourselves.
Whatever Christ or Moses or anybody else did does not help us in the least except to urge us on.
(Complete Works, Vol. 9. The Gita III).

The most famous phrase in Exodus, perhaps in the entire Old Testament (பழைய ஏற்பாடு) appears in this chapter in Exodus. This is “I AM WHO I AM” (Hebrew: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, transliterated as Ehyeh asher ehyeh: Tamil: இருக்கிறவராக இருக்கிறேன்) (Exodus 3:14) which undoubtedly sounds very much like the Vedanta slogan “Thou Art That” (Sanskrit तत् त्वम् असि, transliterated as Tat Tvam Asi - Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7). Interestingly, or coincidentally, both these statements have been made during a dialogue; in the Bible it is between Moses and God, while in the Upanishad the dialogue is between sage Uddalaka and his son Śvetaketu. When Moses asks Yahweh how he should refer him to the Israelites, He declares.....

This is what you are to say to the Israelites:
'I AM has sent me to you.'

In Tamil, the phrase is translated as இருக்கிறவராக இருக்கிறேன் which literally means I exist as existing. The Tamil classic Tirukkural refers to "Reality" in chapter 36 on "Realization of Truth" with the word "ullathu" (உள்ளது) which literally means 'that which exists'. This couplet when translated reads:  "Reality once searched and seized, no need to think of rebirth" (Kural 357).  Since the objective of all major religions of Indian origin is to get freed from the misery of birth and death, it is relevant to quote the words of Christ here: "Then you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free" (John 8:33).

In monotheistic Judaism, 'I am who I am" perhaps mean God is self-existing and uncreated. Thus the phrase "I am who I am". Laura Olshansky (2000), the editor of Realization.org, places on record of what the great Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said: 

"I am" is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is indeed so well put as the Biblical statement "I am that I am" in Exodus (Chapter 3). There are other statements, such as Brahmivaham, Aham Brahmasmi, and Soham. But none is so direct as the name Jehovah = I am. (Venkataramiah, 1955) 

Like "I am", there is a practice in the Indian religio-philosophical tradition to refer God by word "Name" as He is beyond any particular name. Of relevance to mention here is the term Satnām (Gurmukhi:ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ) which means ‘True Name’ (God) in Sikhism (Mul Mantra, Guru Grant Sahib). The word 'Nām' is a symbol of all the pervading Supreme Reality in Sikhism. Interestingly, the hall of worship in the mutts of Assamese Neo-Vaishnavite movement initiated by the 15th century religious reformer Shankardeva are called “Nāmghar” (which means “House of God”).

2) Ganges, Nile and Euphrates

Exodus also contains some interesting passages of hagiographical or mythological nature that strikingly resemble episodes or codes from other civilizations or texts. Two important narratives in Exodus that attracted my attention are the story behind the birth of Moses and the Ten Commandments of Jews.

Great rivers like Ganges, Nile and Euphrates may originate in different countries, but they all have been part of a strikingly similar legend which evolved in different religio-cultural environments. The rivers were different, countries were different, the names of the respective heroes were different, but only the story was similar. I am referring to the birth stories of Prophet Moses, Avatār Krishna and warrior Karnā of Mahābāratha and Mesopotāmian King Sargon. Though all of them (assuming them to be historical characters) belonged to the pre-Christian era, King Sargon was possibly the most ancient (c. 2700 B.C.). Three of these stories, namely those of Moses, Krishna and Karna, have found their place in religious texts, namely that of Moses in the Torah of Jews and that of Krishna and Karna in the Purānas and Itihāsa’s of Hindus. Let us now compare the narratives of these legends:

Prophet Moses
(Bible, Exodus, Book 2)
Birth of Karna
Baghavata Purana
(Canto 9: Liberation)
King Sargon of Akkad
(c.2350 BC) (Source: Barton, 1920)
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.

And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink. (Exodus 2: 1-5)
(Childless Kunti, with the help of Sun god’s seed, gets conceived and gives birth to Karna, a second sun-god).

Because Kuntī feared people's criticisms, with great difficulty she had to give up her affection for her child. Unwillingly, she packed the child in a basket and let it float down the waters of the river. O Mahārāja Parīkit, your great-grandfather the pious and chivalrous King Pāṇḍu later married Kuntī. (Srimad Bhagavatam, 9.24.34-36)

Sargona, the king of Akkad am I,
My mother was a princess,
my father I did not know.
My mother, the princess, conceived me,
in difficulty she brought me forth.
She placed me in an ark of rushes,
with bitumen my exit she sealed up.
She launched me in the river,
which did not drown me.
The river carried me, to Akki
the water-carrier

Vasudeva carrying Krishna in the basket
Baby Moses being rescued by Pharaoh's daughter
All stories, including that of Krishna, tell us the infants had to be placed in a basket and dispatched for security reasons. Sargon, Karna and Moses, were abandoned down a river in a basket, later adopted by a new family and subsequently given new names. All left and moved on to become rulers and taking part in conquests (see weirdvideos.com). Mothers of Karna and Sargon were forced to let their babies drift along the river as they were ashamed of being questioned on the parentage of their sons. Kunti was unwilling to be accused of being an unmarried mother; so, she placed baby Karna in a basket and set him afloat in Ganges with the hope of him being rescued by someone else.  The birth story of Krishna is slightly different. He was taken across the river Yamuna by his father Vasudeva on the night of his birth as Krishna's maternal uncle Kansa had planned to kill all his nephew's.
Which story was copied from whom? It will be difficult to establish. King Sargon’s story is one of the earliest in history, while that of others cannot be dated with any reasonable accuracy. 

3) Ten commandments

The Tamil classic Thirukkural has ten couplets on every subject matter it deals with. Referring to this organization of TEN couplets in every chapter, Charles E. Gover (1871), one of the earliest translators of Thirukkural into English, said: “The KURAL's sentences are as binding (on Tamils) as the TEN commandments on the Jews”. The couplets in Thirukkural, however, are not actually commandments but, as E.H. Hopkins said, they stay at the level of general principles which can be called as mandatory ethics. Similarly the ten precepts of Buddhists, which I will be soon reproducing below, are not considered as commandments but only as recommendations (The Big view).  I am saying all these only to emphasize the point that the TEN COMMANDMENTS in Torah is binding on Jews as part of the covenant with the Lord of Israel (Yahweh or Elohim). These commandments therefore play a fundamental part in Judaism, just like how the five pillars of Islam is fundamental to Muslims.

The Ten Commandments is probably the first ever written evidence of divine injunction on monotheism in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They appear in two places in the Bible, once in Exodus and secondly in Deuteronomy. Let us look at these commandments, as extracted from Exodus 20:1-17

Jewish 10 commandments
In short

I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.
I am your God

You shall have no other gods but me.
No gods besides Me

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Call not your Lord in vain

You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy.
Honour Sabbath

Honour your mother and father.
Honour kindred

You shall not murder.
Not to kill

You shall not commit adultery.
Avoid adultery

You shall not steal.  
Not to steal

You shall not bear false witness.
Not lying

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Not coveting

Now let us compare the Jewish 10 commandments with similar scriptural instructions in other religions. Buddhism and Taoism have their own list of ten precepts and Brahminical Hinduism has its tenfold law of Manu.  There are some interesting similarities between these four. Worth bringing them together for a comparison:

Tenfold Law of Manu
(Manu Smriti VI: 91-92)
1.    Refrain from taking life.
2.    Refrain from stealing.
3.    Refrain from sexual misconduct.
4.    Refrain from lying.
5.    Refrain from using intoxicants.
6.    Refrain from gossiping.
7.    Refrain from praising oneself.
8.    Refrain from meanness.
9.    Refrain from aggression.
10. Refrain from slandering the Three Jewels.
(Three Jewels include Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha)
1.     Being mindful of living beings, do not kill
2.     Do not be think of depraved thoughts.
3.     Do not steal or receive unrighteous wealth.
4.     Do not cheat or misrepresent good & evil.
5.     Do not get intoxicated but always think of pure conduct.
6.     Maintain harmony with my ancestors and family and relatives
7.     Support those who do a good deed
8.     Support those who are unfortunate
9.     Do not harbor thoughts of revenge on those who hurt
10.  Attain the Tao after all being have attained it
1.    Contentment
2.    Forgiveness
3.    Self-control
4.    Abstention from misappropriation
5.    Obey rules of purification
6.    Coercion of the organs
7.    Wisdom
8.    knowledge (of the supreme Soul)
9.    Truthfulness
10. Abstention from anger
(Thus the fourfold holy law of Brahmanas, which after death (yields) imperishable rewards, has been declared to you, says Manu in MS VI:97)

The only two commandments or precepts common between these four religious traditions are (i) Not lying and (2) Not stealing. With regard to the rest, there are one or two precepts or laws common to three of these four religions and not more than four are common between two traditions. Of course I have to point out that in the Jewish 10 commandments, not killing obviously refers to ‘non killing of humans’ and not all beings including animals. Some pronouncements, though not common to all, are common between two religions. For instance, not committing adultery is common to Judaism and Buddhism but not listed at all in the Taoist list of 10 precepts. Similarly, the precept of not taking intoxicants is found in Taoism and Buddhism, but not in the Jewish list of 10 commandments. Refraining from anger or aggression is a quality emphasized in Brahminical Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, but not in the 10 commandments of Jewish. This is obvious considering the fact that principle of Mosaic law is based on the idea of retaliation (“eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”). 

Only two or three of these Brahminical, Taoist and Buddhist precepts or laws might be common to that of the Jewish commandments, but we can infer from this that differences are largely due to three or four religious precepts unique the respective religions. Let us look at the religious precepts unique to these faiths:
  • The first four commandments in the Jewish list of ten is directly a result of Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people and thus we find pronouncements on monotheism, observation of Sabbath day, avoiding idolatry etc.
  • The Buddhist list of 10 precepts seem to focus on cultivating one’s own conduct (self conduct) and thus we find precept like avoiding gossips, self praising and meanness being emphasized. The last precept of avoiding slander of the Three Jewels of Buddhism is unique to Buddhism.
  • Like the first four commandments in Judaism, the last four of the Taoist list of precepts appear to be built around the golden rule of reciprocity. Ethical principles like helping the unfortunate, not taking revenge on those who plan to harm us and supporting the good are part of this golden rule of ‘treating others the way you would like to be treated’
  • As for the tenfold laws of Manu is concerned, obeying the rule of purification and knowledge of the supreme soul (self realization) are the two rules unique to Brahminical Hinduism (and not found elsewhere)
When we get rid of these selected religious precepts, the similarities between all traditions become very evident. In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul laid their stress on five of these 10 commandments. Let us see what Jesus and Paul had to say:

Matthew 19:17-19 
When Jesus was asked what good things one should do to have an eternal
  1. Thou shall do no murder,
  2. Thou shall not commit adultery,
  3. Thou shall not steal,
  4. Thou shall not bear false witness,
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother:
Jesus summarized that all these five would fall in place if you love your neighbour as thyself. In his letters to the Romans, we see Apostle Paul also associating five of the Ten Commandments with the act of loving the neighbours. 

Romans 13:8
Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
For this,
1.    Thou shall not commit adultery,
2.    Thou shall not kill,
3.    Thou shall not steal,
4.    Thou shall not bear false witness,
5.    Thou shall not covet;
And if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself’

By asking Christians to love their neighbours as themselves, both Jesus and Paul have only restated the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. Let us find out how this list of FIVE commandments compares with the list of FIVE of various other faiths. In the following table, we compare these five Judeo-Christian principal commandments with five vows (vratās) in Jainism, the five moral percepts (pañca-sila) in Buddhism and the five virtues in Brahminism:

Table: The five commandments compared with virtues in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism
Five of the commandments
(Romans 13: 8)
Five laws in Brahminism
(Manu Smriti, X: 63)
Five percepts in Buddhism
(Mahāvagga 1:56)
Five vows in Jainism
(Saman Suttam, Sūtrā 309)
Thou shall not commit adultery,
Abstain from injury
To abstain from killing
Avoid injury to living beings
Thou shall not kill,
Avoid what has not been given
Avoid speaking falsehood
Thou shall not steal,
Coveting others’ property
Avoid sexual misconduct
Avoid things not given
Thou shall not bear false witness,
Purity (saucham)
Avoid false speech
Avoid sexual misconduct
Thou shall not covet;
Control of the organs
Avoid intoxicants
Avoid desire for possessions

Looking at the table above (similar ideas being highlighted with respective colour codes), it becomes evident to all of us that, as Swami Vivekananda said, all religions are one in the essentials and they differ only in non-essentials.



  1. Very Interesting Ashraf
    i do appreciate your hard work in reading all the referneces, understand and the most interesting thing is your own inputs by giving comparison.
    I am mailing you a seperate letter giving you my additional remarks.

  2. Thanks Godwin for your comments. I am looking forward to your additional remarks. Wish I had some more spare time to present these better.

  3. Really wondering your talent Ashraff. I need deep knowledge to understand your standard. Your comparative talent is nonpareil.