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Religious introspection through critical thought and discussions on real teachings of their founders

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“No one must use the name of God to commit violence. To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman” – Pope Francis

‘Religion’ is a complex and problematic modern Western concept. Though there is no scholarly consensus over what a religion is, in general, religion is conceived today as an abstraction which entails beliefs, doctrines, cultural systems, sacred places and that which relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental and spiritual elements. 

The link between religious belief and behavioural characteristics is a debateable link although one could say behaviour is greatly influenced by religious belief. The notion that behaviour flows directly from religious beliefs and values has been challenged by some scholars because of people’s religious ideas are fragmented, loosely connected, and context-dependent just like in all other domains of culture and life. 

In general, religions, ethical systems, and societies rarely promote violence as an end in itself since violence is universally undesirable. At the same time, there is a universal tension between the general desire to avoid violence and the acceptance of justifiable uses of violence to prevent a “greater evil” that permeates all cultures. Hanging, or any other form of legal killing, which is an expression of violence, is seen by some as such a deterrent.

Herein lies the challenge for humanity as violence perpetrated by religious beliefs and dictates, at least the interpretations of such beliefs and dictates seems to be used as justifications for violence for the “greater good” by those who subscribe to such beliefs and dictates against those who don’t.

It needs to be mentioned at this point that violence because of or for religions is not the only form of mass scale violence that has been practiced in the world and still being practiced. WW 1 and WW2, and many other wars before, in between and after, have killed millions of people driven by self-interests of countries and their leaders. In such wars, religion played no part. 


Buddhism or what is practiced as Buddhism today encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices largely based on the teachings that followed Buddha, and in some cases, centuries after the passing of Buddha and through institutionalised Buddhism. 

As the original teachings found in scriptures is about the suffering or unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha), the reasons for this, and how one may overcome this, and the method to do so, Buddhism is mentioned as a philosophy rather than a religion. While elements of what a religion might be is there in what is practiced as Buddhism today, Buddhist scholars agree with unanimity that such elements are not associated with the actual doctrine as taught by Buddha. Statistics indicate that approximately 500 million people are Buddhists.


Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and saviour of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world’s largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers


Islam was promulgated by the Prophet Muhammed is an uncompromising monotheism. The Arabic term Islam, literally “surrender,” illuminates the fundamental religious idea of Islam—that the believer, called a Muslim, accepts surrender to the will of Allah. The will of Allah, to which human beings must submit, is made known through the sacred scriptures, the Quran, which Allah revealed to his messenger, Muhammad. 

In Islam Muhammad is considered the last of a series of prophets including Adam, Noah, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus and completes the “revelations” attributed to earlier prophets. The world’s Muslim population is said to be over 1.8 billion.


Hinduism has no specific founder, and it’s difficult to trace its origins and history. Hinduism is unique in that it’s not a single religion but a compilation of many traditions and philosophies. Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organised religion. 

Hinduism is closely related to other religions or philosophies like Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. They worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognise other Gods and Goddesses. Followers believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect), “atman,” or the belief in soul. 

This philosophy holds that living creatures have a soul, and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul. Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasises good conduct and morality. There are reportedly 1.08 billion Hindus in the world.


Whether it is a religion or a philosophy, divisions have arisen in the institutions of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The contemporary divisions did not exist during the time of the founders of these religions or philosophies and there were no institutions during their time. 

While the nature and role of institutions may vary, the Buddhist institution is divided into Mahayana and Theravada schools and within them several sub divisions. In Sri Lanka, we see the Theravada school divided into the Nikaya system that has as its roots, a division by caste. 

In an earlier article, the writer went into details of the origins of this division. The Christians are divided as Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, the Born Again Christians and several other groupings. Islam too is divided as Shiites and Sunni’s and to sub sets within these. Institutional divisions exist within Hinduism as well although the fundamental teaching of Hinduism is not necessarily affected by such divisions. 

No doubt every division considers their interpretation of what their founders preached as the real teaching of the founder. The purpose here is not to go into the history or the rationale as to why these divisions came into being and why they exist, but to pose the question whether those who belong to and believe in these religions or philosophies should engage in a critical discussion whether in fact the respective institutions are promoting and adhering to the basic principles enunciated by all founders of the religions and philosophies.

Without delving deep into these, perhaps we could without any disagreement say that all founders preached non-violence, love, kindness, tolerance and respect for others. They all said we are all part of whole and that an individual cannot exist without others.


The critical thinking initiative commenced by the WRI needs to be emulated by all religions in Sri Lanka to study, question and contextualise their teachings to the cultural context of the country. A foreign cultural context or practice should not be introduced unless it can mesh with Sri Lanka’s own culture without causing tensions within the cultural mosaic of the country

Religious violence

The question needs to be asked whether the basic premise in all religions and philosophies is being adhered to by individuals and by the whole, and by institutions. If we were, surely we wouldn’t be engulfed in violence as we are today with killings being done in the name of religions, we wouldn’t kill if we loved each other, we wouldn’t displace millions (last count was in the region of 70 million people worldwide) from their homes if there was kindness to each other and we practiced tolerance. 

Something is not right if we call ourselves Buddhists, Christians or Muslims and we kill others, we are intolerant, we have no respect for others and we have no love for others and in the case of those who believe in God, we are all these in the name of God. The God in us should be full of love, tolerance, kind and respectful of others and their lives. If there are provisos for this concept, there should be a serious question about the validity of the belief in such a God.

Religious violence is a term that covers phenomena where religion is either the subject or the object of violent behaviour. Religious violence is violence that is motivated by, or in reaction to, religious precepts, texts, or doctrines of a target or attacker. It includes violence against religious institutions, people, objects, or events. 

‘Violence in the Name of God’

In the journal called Psychology Today, an article titled ‘Violence in the Name of God. Those who murder for their religion also have a claim to their religion’ (28 December 2015), the following is noted: 

“Violence in the name of religion has been a staple of human history. (Religion isn’t the only cause of violence. The three leading candidates for crimes against humanity in the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—weren’t religiously motivated.) But violence sanctified is deeply embedded in nearly every religion. Here are some examples: In the Jewish bible, God kills innocent Egyptian children to teach the pharaoh a lesson. For Jews, Hanukkah celebrates the success of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire. In the 20th century, the Stern Gang, dedicated to ending the British Palestinian Mandate and opening it to unrestricted immigration to Jews, described themselves as terrorists. Yitzhak Shamir, one of the leaders, said he found inspiration in the biblical stories of Gideon and Samson.

“Christians waged crusades under the banner of the cross. Not only did they kill Muslims, they also murdered other Christians over doctrinal matters and unleashed centuries of systematic anti-Semitism. Later, Pilgrims and Puritans, who fled Europe because of religious persecution, established violent and intolerant colonies in America, acting barbarically in the name of Christian theology. St. Michael is the saint of the police and military.

“Islam established its roots as a conquering army. Mohammed is revered as a prophet and admired as a military leader. Shia and Sunni Muslims have been killing one another for more than 1,500 years, all in the name of who rightly succeeds their religion’s founder.

“What religion is more non-violent than that of Buddhists? Yet during WWII, most Buddhist groups in Japan supported their country’s war efforts. This wasn’t the first time that Buddhism supported violence. During the 16th century warrior monks rallied to the idea that ‘The mercy of Buddha should be recompensed even by pounding flesh to pieces. One’s obligation to the Teacher should be recompensed even by smashing bones to bits.’ 

“Hinduism is built upon the precept of doing no harm. Yet in their holy text, the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna argues that violence in the defence of justice isn’t contrary to the spiritual life. In 2008, Hindus attacked more than 20 Christian churches in southern India. The point is that those who do violence in the name of religion aren’t usurpers. 

“Violence in the name of God is deeply rooted in religious texts and tradition. At the same time, denouncing those who use God’s name to justify violence also has its religious precedents. Terror and compassion are both part of religion and what is normative depends upon which strand wins over the hearts and minds of its adherents.  “The issue isn’t whether terrorists and fanatics are acting in the name of their religion but whether they are acting on behalf of humanity. It isn’t whether they are good Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus but whether they are good people. On that score the answer is unequivocal: terrorists are criminals of the worst sort and their brutality needs to be condemned by every decent person. That was the Pope’s point and I agree.”

Critical thinking

The Walpola Rahula Institute situated in Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, the administrative capital of Sri Lanka commenced a much-needed program called the WRI Critical Thinking Forum on 7 July and invited a reputed Buddhist Monk, Venerable Ajahn Sujato, who is resident in Sydney, Australia, to deliver the inaugural lecture and participate in a question and answer session. The topic of the discussion was ‘How Sri Lanka can provide an inclusive path to national and global co-existence through the message of the Buddha’.

In introducing Ven. Ajahn Sujato, the Head of the WRI and the only Monk pupil of Venerable Walpola Rahula, Venerable Galkande Dhammananda said: “We cannot think of a more suitable person other than Bhante Sujatho for this inaugural Critical Thinking Forum with his expertise on early Buddhist texts belongs to different languages and traditions and his interventions to promote Bhikkhuni order in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. We, as the Walpola Rahula Institute shares many similarities with Bhanthe Sujatho’s approach. WRI sees Sri Lankan society as a severely wounded society, hence healing is much needed intervention by all the religions. WRI introduces Metta meditation and practice as the tool for healing. It is so interesting for us to see how Bhante Sujatho promotes Metta practice as a healing tool.”

Ven. Dhammananda went on to ponder that one may think that why a Buddhist institution come forward to promote critical thinking. He asked whether it the role of a religion. In an emphatic response to his poser, Ven. Dhammananda gave an unequivocal answer: “Yes, it is our duty. Not only that, we believe every religion must incorporate critical thinking into their religious practices to understand their master’s message better and to apply into the modern society. Then only one may well contextualise the teaching and understand how better to apply in the modern society.”

Ven. Dhammananda noted that he did not wish to take time to reintroduce how Buddhism promotes critical thinking quoting passages from Kalama Sutta and from other Sutras. He said we all knew how much the Buddha promoted free thinking and questioning. He also said that the book (‘Sathyodaya’) written by his teacher Ven. Walpola Rahula had become the legacy to promoting critical thinking through the WRI. He noted that we were are passing through a time that every religious person must go back to their teachings and reflect how to contribute to the co-existence in local level and in global level. 

In his concluding remark he asked why the WRI had chosen a monk from Perth to talk on this topic. He said a Buddhist practitioner from a different country, from a different background, could see the issues from very different dimension, perhaps a dimension we could not think of and therefore, it would be an eye-opening discussion. 

The critical thinking initiative commenced by the WRI needs to be emulated by all religions in Sri Lanka to study, question and contextualise their teachings to the cultural context of the country. A foreign cultural context or practice should not be introduced unless it can mesh with Sri Lanka’s own culture without causing tensions within the cultural mosaic of the country.

Determination of religious cultural norms and practices should not be the province of politicians or political parties. It must be dealt with by the religions themselves. However, if religious leaders who have not contextualised the teachings to contemporary challenges and realities, and not recognised the need to ensure the synonymy of such teachings with the institution and who are following the cultural dictates based on a foreign influence or dictate, will not be able to advance peace amongst the communities in Sri Lanka. Cultural loyalty has to be for the Sri Lankan culture and its realities.

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