Human rights, ‘doctrine’ and religion



by Susantha Hewa


Reams have been written about Buddhism, Buddhist vision, Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist rituals, priests, and protecting Buddhism. Most of them make a distinction between Buddhist doctrine (or, vision, philosophy) and Buddhism as a religion. Some argue that Buddhism is a philosophy, a way of life, and not a religion.

There is one undeniable fact about any religion. Whatever the doctrine of a religious teacher – be it the Buddha, Christ or anyone else, it is impossible for any society to take his—unfortunately, we can’t use ‘her’ to maintain gender equality here—teachings as pure doctrine or vision or philosophy until religious indoctrination continues.

So long as religious indoctrination of children continues, curbing their freedom to choose their religion later perceptively when they reach a certain level of maturity, no one will be able to separate rituals from what is called ‘doctrine’, for the rituals drive any religion on earth. Can philosophy exist without ritual? Yes! Can religion exist without rituals? No!

There is no doubt that all those who write about religion mean well; they wish to separate wheat from chaff. They want to see a better world, a more ethical world where there will be less violence, less injustice and less selfishness. However, they don’t seem to realise that what makes any doctrine a religion is the indoctrination of the tender minds of children in the name of teaching religion.

Let’s consider how you can teach Buddhist doctrine or any other religious doctrine to children from their infancy. What sort of doctrine can you teach them? The only way you can admit them to their parents’ religion is to make them perform rituals, take them to temples, get them to listen to sermons which they don’t understand, expose them to religious festivals, etc.  Hardly anybody asks whether this kind of programming isn’t a violation of their rights; it is against the models of education of a civilised society? We see nothing wrong with such a method, which is principally based on initiation of small children to rituals and any other wrappings and, subsequently, grumble about the disregard of the core of religion and running after cosmetics aspects reiterating that the Buddha was against rituals, etc.

Of course, religious indoctrination is universal. No society has been able to do away with the programming of children. All societies, whatever their dominant religions may be, believe that the foundation of religion and its perpetuation rests on this method of programming of young brains. However, after adopting this modus operandi with no questions asked, we are worried about not being able to propagate true doctrine.

The fact is, there is no point in blaming the rituals, kapuralas, corrupt priests, commercialisation and colourful Katina Pinkamas while accepting that indoctrination of children. If anyone wants what we call religion to exist, let him or her remember that there cannot be a religion with no customs, rituals, festivals, worship, holy places or priests.

We lament the loss of tranquility in places of worship. However, visiting such places itself is a conventional way of practising religion. Should one necessarily visit such places? Why can’t one stay at home and find time and space for religious reflection? For years, we have been visiting holy places, complaining about loss of tranquility, loudspeakers, commercialisation, extravagance, impious priests, absence of morals, ethics, etc. The question is how many more generations after us will be doing the same thing, given that we keep propagating the practice of indoctrination, which is the very stuff of religion – ‘popular religion’, if you like, which has no escape from or survival without holy places, the so-called commercialisation complete with flags, buntings, and all that jazz.

As a society, we are still reluctant to accept that our religious faith is the direct result of indoctrination and that under different circumstances we would have been fervent practitioners and propagators of any other religion or doctrine to which we happened to be initiated in childhood. Having had no opportunity to escape this compulsory programming, we talk about pure doctrine and the need to separate it from the mundane embellishments. This is absurd.

Anybody is free to study, learn, explore, investigate, do research on any doctrine, be it Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu or any other religion. They all are teachings out there in society. No one has an intrinsic connection with any of them and your faith totally depends on where you are born. What makes you an insider or outsider of a religion is not its ‘truth’, so to speak, but the fact that it happened to be the only religion which you were exposed to as a child. However, when that happens, we are ready to embrace it, admire it, propagate it and fight for it.

The point is that when we speak of ‘our’ religion, we forget about the millions of people of other faiths. We don’t want to think of the reality of having different faiths and the overall repercussions of that diversity of faith as our history has amply demonstrated. The very fact that we can’t think of social wellbeing in terms of ethics not labelled by this or that religion has its roots in our exclusive childhood exposure to one religion—our parents’ religion.

Surely, anyone can learn any established religion, or for that matter, any of the teachings of any philosophers. However, understanding any philosophy as an adult is totally different from understanding any philosophy under the label of a religion. As an adult you can learn the teachings of any one philosopher or many. It will only make you think more. You may argue, try to compare and contrast, analyze and try to take a balanced view of those teachings. However, such learning will not make you a person with a closed mind; instead, it will make you an inquiring person, which perhaps would help society to find that tranquility, which now many of us cannot think of without religious connotations.

It is all well and good if your purpose of learning a religion is to understand the teachings of a revered religious leader. However, except those religious leaders who have expressed different views on life, morals and society, there are many other thinkers who have expanded the boundaries of thought of millions of people. However, what makes the difference is that we learn the latter as adults with no previous indoctrination. On the other hand, what we learn as adults as the teachings of our religious leaders is already coloured by premature programming. It is altogether a different affair. The results are different just as much as the methods of learning are. If learning philosophy is synonymous with comprehending, ‘knowing’ a religion is synonymous with unconscious acquisition, like language acquisition.

Today, we complain of the commercialisation of religion, extravagance, uncouth priests, etc. because everything in our life including religion is influenced by the broad social, political and economic forces. Our religious thoughts are mostly confined to abstract reflections of doctrine in compulsory tranquility. Thrown in the midst of life, we are governed by everything except religion. Sadly, the average person struggling for mere survival can’t even afford that luxury of, what some of us call, ‘reflecting on the doctrine in tranquility’. What they are left with is unalloyed faith mainly built on practicing habit-forming rituals.

Can any practice, however sacrosanct and firmly established, be expected to produce good results, if it fundamentally violates the right of children to remain free of any programming, until they become capable of choosing, or not choosing, any vision, philosophy, or doctrine.