Colombo, Religion and faith

A Matter of faith

By Citizen

Throughout history, there have been good men who did good things and bad men who did bad things. But it has taken an unquestioning acceptance of religious doctrines or preaching or a tribal affiliation to a race, to motivate good people to do bad things. History is at best a romanticised compilation of half-truths – useful only as much as we can learn from it without giving into the temptations of using history to justify our actions in the present. The only thing that can justify our actions at present is an uncompromising sense of what is right and wrong and the voice of our moral conscience which is independent of religious affiliation. As much as it is dangerous for a nation to be constitutionally bound to protect any religion, I sometimes feel that this could perhaps even be a strength in the Sri Lankan context if only we could create a legal precedence that the only way to ‘protect Buddhism’ is to adhere to its principles and thus declare that it is illegal for the government and people (which includes every citizen including V. Prabhakaran, members of the JHU and ‘maha Sangha’) to engage in any activity that is contrary to the Buddhist doctrine! Wouldn’t that be the best safeguard of our human rights and dignity?

Don’t you think it ironic that despite Buddha’s invitation to his followers to actively question his philosophy in their search for higher truths and despite his advice to them to discover the truth for themselves, Buddhism has never gone through a reformation but has stagnated for 2500 years? Buddhists all over the world still unquestioningly believe in theories such as karma and re-incarnation without ever seeking better, more grounded evidence for their beliefs? Buddhists in Sri Lanka believe that the Gautama Buddha chose Sri Lanka as the seat of Buddhism where his philosophy would flourish and spread enlightenment to the rest of the world – but how come we are still a morally impoverished population at war with ourselves, ruled by a government that is far from enlightened and substantially funded by the proceeds from gambling?

Christianity and Islam on the other hand is based on dogma and as all monotheistic religions, demand unquestioning faith and obedience. Buddhists often cite this as a proclamation of their own superiority as adherents of a more rational doctrine. Yet the Christian faith has gone through reformations that have had a positive impact on the whole world – mostly unintentionally of course, but nevertheless very inspiringly and with wide implications. Almost every single democratic right, freedom and liberty we enjoy – or we can hope to enjoy – today is the direct or indirect result of the thoughts, philosophy and spirit of empowerment that was sparked off by Martin Luther a Catholic monk, in the protestant revolution that took place in medieval Europe. It is perhaps a coincidence of history, but as much as the negative impacts of colonialism in our country, Christianity provides the moral and practical foundations for the present day democracy, human rights, equal access to education and the encouragement of industriousness that we have inherited from our colonial past.

But I digress. This is not so much about the vices and virtues of religion in general – let alone of one religion or the other. It is more about the fact that dogmatic beliefs in religion and overly romanticised notions of ancient history have denied us the space to realise the importance of new thoughts and ideas that humanity has produced during the better part of the last two millennia. Despite the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and the so called great philosophers of ancient Greece, it was not until Thomas Jefferson did in 1776 that the universal equality of all human beings was publicly acknowledged or declared – let alone constitutionally enacted – even though it took a couple of centuries to be fully realised even in the land of its birth. It is a fact nevertheless that men like Einstein, Bhor, Plank, Feynman and Gelman have described their insights into the hidden mysteries of the universe more clearly and in more depth than perhaps any ‘Samma Sambuddha’ has ever done. The search for higher truth continues deeper and unabated long after the Buddha, by laymen and women of many faiths, out of sight and out of the consciousness of many Buddhists. While the monks are getting into politics and their followers are yet trying to reconcile themselves with a philosophy that has trickled through two and a half millennia, many of whom will read this and fail to see the hypocrisy in considering it their duty to call me a heretic.