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Spiritual Meditations ( 26 Dec 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Beyond Inherited Religiosity: Lessons From the Kalama Sutta


By Tril Shah, New Age Islam

26 December, 2012

For many, if not most, people, the religion they follow or emotionally identify with is the one which they inherit from their parents. Being indoctrinated from early childhood into unquestioningly accepting this religion, they dare not question it for fear of displeasing supposed supernatural beings—and their families as well. In the face of competing religious traditions, they typically respond by insisting that their own religion is the best. In defending their inherited religion, they generally ignore, deny or else seek to justify patently absurd or immoral beliefs, doctrines and practices that are often a part of their religion.

It is thus that millions of us are almost instinctively led to waste our precious lives in enforced conformity to the religion we have inherited from our parents, not daring to speak our minds about how absurd it is to be forced to believe that our own religion alone is true and how suffocating it is to be compelled to uphold impossible and even patently immoral beliefs simply because these are mentioned in many of our scriptures and are preached by men who consider themselves to be eminent religious authorities.

If religion is (or, rather, should be) a deeply personal search for Ultimate Truth, the almost universal tendency of blindly accepting and spending one’s life defending one’s inherited religion despite the factual and moral warts it may abound in puts a firm end to that search even before one can even embark on it. If you are brainwashed from childhood into believing that your inherited religion is absolutely true, or even that it is the only true religion, you won’t ever find the need to set out on a journey to search for the Truth in the first place—you will be firmly convinced that you already know or possess the Truth and that there’s absolutely no need to take the trouble to journey to find it. That seems to be the condition of the vast majority of religious ‘believers’—irrespective of the religion they believe in.

But someone really sincere about searching for Truth can never rest content with the religion that the community he is born into seeks to force on him. He simply refuses to waste his life defending the beliefs and prejudices of his parents. His heart instinctively revolts at the very thought of being held a prisoner of any ideology that others, including his parents, conspire to impose on him. He just cannot get himself to believe in immoral doctrines, absurd stories about ‘holy’ men, and narratives about alleged miraculous happenings and the antics of unseen beings that find mention in what his parents consider as scriptures. He cannot for a moment accept the barbaric practices and prejudices that are defended by what others consider to be venerable religious books and authorities. Being free of all conventional religious affiliations and identifying with no particular religion, he studies various religions and philosophical systems with an open, unbiased mind. If he finds anything of worth in them he readily accepts it, no matter what its origin. And he will just as readily reject everything in them that does not accord with his conscience and sense of goodness, even if it be from the religious tradition that he was born into. Conventional believers may be expected to regard such a person as a dangerous, wholly irreligious heretic. But the fact remains that he alone qualifies to be regarded as a truly sincere seeker.

When confronted by the baffling multiplicity of religions as well as the absurd and even immoral acts and attitudes that religions, as conventionally understood, sometimes promote, a true seeker responds very differently from the blind believer who has been carefully conditioned to uncritically accept whatever his religion lays down. The latter takes the easy way out, which spares him the trouble of thinking for himself and also wins for him the approval of his co-religionists. He insists that his religion is the best or even the only valid one. And in his dogged defence of his religion, he rationalizes doctrines and practices which, if they were found in a religion other than his own, he would readily condemn as barbaric. The true seeker, in contrast, is under no such obligation to follow or defend any particular religion. He analyses, picks, chooses or rejects from the various religions according to his conscience. This is how he finds his way through the multiplicity of religions and escapes from the nightmare of the abundant absurdities that are blessed in the name of religion.

For refusing to be enslaved to the religious prejudices of his parents, the true seeker will almost inevitably have to face the scorn and calumny of his family and other members of the community he happened to have been born into. But this matters not a whit to him. Others may damn him as mad, but he knows what he is doing is right. And he has none other than the Buddha to support him in his conviction, as the following story, embodied in what is called the Kalama Sutta, brilliantly illustrates.

Once, the Buddha was travelling along with his monk disciples when he arrived at the town of Kesaputta, home to the Kalama people. On hearing of his arrival, the Kalamas came out to welcome him. Thereupon, they explained to him something that they found extremely perplexing, and asked him for his guidance. A number of men, they said, visited their town, expounding and glorifying their own religious doctrines, and, at the same time, reviling the doctrines of others. This greatly confused the Kalamas. Being confronted with a multiplicity of conflicting religious doctrines preached by different men, they were uncertain about what the truth was. They wanted the Buddha to tell them which of these men spoke the truth.

The Buddha’s answer to the dilemma of the Kalamas presents a brilliant way out of two fundamental problems that every seeker of truth has to honestly face—the fact of unethical, immoral, absurd and unacceptable doctrines, beliefs and practices associated with, linked to or sanctified by a particular religion, and the fact of the bewildering multiplicity of truth claims made by different religions.

This is what the Buddha advised the Kalamas:

"When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case […] don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering' — then you should abandon them.’

One should not, the Buddha stresses here, accept anything simply because it is contained in a scripture or is taught by someone whom one considers one’s teacher or guide. If it is evident that a doctrine, belief or practice is harmful, unwise, blameworthy and leads to suffering (of one’s self and of others), one can safely assume it to be unwholesome and, therefore, one should reject it—even though it may be backed by the scriptures or taught by supposedly venerable religious authorities. 

In the same manner, the Buddha goes on, if any qualities are ‘skillful’, ‘blameless’, ‘praised by the wise’ and conduce to ‘welfare and to happiness’, one should imbibe and uphold them. It is because of the inherent merit of these qualities and the meritorious consequences they lead to that one should accept them, and not just because they may be prescribed, as doctrines, beliefs and practices, in a scripture or preached by men who claim to be religious authorities.

Faced with both the reality of ethically and intellectually unacceptable assertions in numerous religious traditions as well as the confusing multiplicity of conflicting truth claims of the different religions, the criterion that the Buddha lays down in the Kalama Sutta makes eminent sense. Reject any doctrine, belief, quality or custom that conduces to unwholesomeness, the Buddha teaches us here, even if it is sanctioned in the scripture or religious tradition that one considers one’s own. Likewise, accept and uphold every doctrine, belief, quality and custom that conduces to wholesomeness, no matter who or which religion teaches it.

This simple solution is, as far as I am concerned, easily the most sensible way out of the dilemma that all sincere seekers of truth must face when confronted with the evident nonsense often sanctioned in the name of religion as well as the babble of religious voices, each claiming to monopolise the truth.