Ven. Dr. P.Gnanarama Thero
Religions and the Value of Life
Being a global phenomenon, religion is identified as a tenacious social institution that exerts a formidable influence on society and individuals. Even the primitive man, who lived some hundreds of thousands of years ago, had their own religious systems of beliefs, rituals and worship practised in their daily life. Anthropologists have excavated among the fossilised remains of cave dwellers some artifacts buried with them to be used in their journey to the next world, which reveals that survival in some form or other after death or cycle of births and deaths was a fundamental tenet of their religion. Evidently, even at present all the world religions uphold this credo of faith with modifications according to the doctrinal standpoint of those religions. There is yet another aspect of religious belief evolved on the basis of seeking protection and fulfillment of wishes in the present life itself. Thus a practitioner of a particular religion may worship God or gods, ancestors, spirits, through practicing meditation, prayers, rites and rituals particular to his network of religious beliefs.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the sociologist, who explored the social foundation of religion critically, observed that the religions in the world can be divided into two mutually exclusive categories called the ‘profane’ and the ‘sacred’. He remarked that these two categories were radically opposed to one another and differentiated profoundly. By ‘profane’ he meant the empirically observable things in our everyday experience. Things which are beyond our daily experience, but knowable only by extraordinary experience are the ‘sacred’. Sometimes, an awe-inspiring object, an animal or place can also be sacred.
These analyses show that man is bound with religion, and some way or other, it is a part and parcel of his life and it is integrated into his livelihood. All world religions continue to exist as long as these divisions continue to be viable in human society. Sociologically speaking, religion is a communally shared system of beliefs, traditions and rituals oriented towards a sacred or a holy state beyond the empirical sphere. Religion being the focal point of man’s concern, it evaluates human life in high regard with the objective of elevating his condition on earth and hereafter. This being the case, every world religion has defined man’s position and predicament with emphatic terms.
There is another aspect to be mentioned in this regard. It is the mutual influence between religion and culture. Different religions in the world are products of diverse cultural traditions. But due to close contact to one another there may be similar features among some of the religions in the world. Human beings living everywhere on the globe face common psychological, physical and environmental problems. Natural calamities and diseases are man’s common experience. Religion, therefore, according to sociologists, has evolved to fulfill a fourfold social function: a) brings satisfaction to individuals, b) promotes social cohesion, c) provides a world-view and d) acts as a form of social control. Hence religion is an integral part of human life. Even the so-called ‘free-thinkers’ have their individual belief systems. Although the psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (1918-1928) asserted that religion is an irrational phenomenon, he has gone to the extent of suggesting that religion is helpful for man to come to terms with anxiety, guilty consciousness and such other negative impulses.
When we analyse the aspects of the ‘profane’ and the social function of religion, we observe that all of us who profess different religions; namely, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity or Islam are on a sound footing of brotherhood.
I would like to confine myself to Buddhism, the religion I profess and on which I think I am more qualified to speak. I will outline how Buddhism evaluates human life for a better living in this very life and after.
Buddhists believe in cyclic existence and stresses the fact that the opportunity to be born as a human being is very rare. To illustrate this fact, the Buddha has drawn the Parable of the Blind Turtle and the Yoke. The Buddha addressing the monks says:
“Suppose a man throws into the sea a yoke with one hole in it, and the east wind carries it to the west, west wind carries it to the east, and the north wind carries it to the south, south wind carries it to the north. And suppose there is a blind turtle that comes up once at the end of each century. What would you think, O, monks? Would that blind turtle be able to put its neck through that hole in the yoke?”
“It might, Sir, sometime or other at the end of a long period,” the monks answered.
The Buddha continues:
“O, monks the blind turtle would take less time to put its neck into that yoke with a single hole in it than a fool, who once gone to perdition, would take to regain the human state, I say. Why is that? Because there is no practising of good there, no practising of what is righteous, no doing of what is wholesome, no performance of meritorious deeds. There prevails only mutual devouring and slaughter of the weak.”
As emphasised in Buddhism, the fact to be born as a human being is an extremely rare event for two reasons. Firstly, one realises the enormous suffering that a person has to undergo in his wandering in the cyclic existence of birth and death, and therefore, strive to escape from the cycle of birth and death. Secondly, in order to inculcate an awareness of urgency in the mind of humans to practise what is righteous, just and wholesome, which leads to liberation from the cycle of birth and death. In other words, one should be good and do good during his lifetime deriving the best out of living a human life.
Since Buddhism is an ethico-philosophical religion, its ethical aspect dominates from beginning to end. The Path to attain the goal is called Middle Path and characterised by eight constituents qualified as ‘correct’ or ‘right’. All verbal, bodily and mental actions of an individual should be ‘right’ in the sense that they should not be harmful to oneself and others. For instance, Right Thoughts are thoughts of letting go, loving kindness and non-violence. Right Livelihood is living by wholesome means of livelihood. On the other hand, wrong livelihood means gaining a living by earning wealth through ways and means that are detrimental to other beings and it is considered as a transgression of social and ethical norms.
The Pali word for man is ‘manussa’ (Sanskrit: manusya, Gothic: manna). Hinduism connects the word to a mythical ancestor called ‘manu’ and gives the meaning ‘offspring of manu’. But the Buddhist scholiasts as far back as in the 5th century have given an ethical twist to the word and defined it in conformity with Buddhist ethics as “man is called manussa because of the fullness of the mind”. Buddha says in the Dhammapada that everyone trembles at the rod, life is dear to everyone, therefore, one should not kill and also should not cause to kill. (Dhammapada 197)
In order to highlight to how Buddhism evaluates human life full of love and compassion I would like to relate an incident recorded in the Buddhist scriptures:
Once a battle ensued between the Sakya and Koliya clans in India over the waters of a river called Rohini. These two clans lived on the either side of the dam of the river. The dam had been constructed across the river and they had been in the habit of cultivating their fields with the waters of the Rohini River. When there was a severe drought, a violent quarrel arose between the two peoples and gradually it turned into a battle. Then the Buddha appeared there in the nick of time and convinced them of the folly of killing each other for the sake of some water. The Buddha questioned the two contending parties:
“Why are you clansmen in battle array?”
“For the sake of the waters of the Rohini River, Sir.”
“Tell me what is more valuable, water or human lives.” Buddha asked them.
“Human lives.” They answered.
Thereupon the Buddha asked them whether it is proper to kill each other for water, which is of less value than life. Being thoroughly convinced by the Buddha’s timely mediation and pertinent explanation of the value of life, they gave up the battle, reconciled and re-established friendly relations.
Ven. Dr. P.Gnanarama Thero
Princpal Buddhist and Pali College of Singapore
30 Jalan Eunos