Colombo Telegraph

Halt Religious Indoctrination: 18 Should Be Made In Law The Age Of Ordination To Clergy

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ismail Aslama, a seven-year-old male child of Muslim parentage, is no more. He is now Rathnapure Siri Sudarshanalankara/Sudarshanalankaram. The conversion took place recently when his father, Hameed Ismail, brought him to the Dimbulagala Forest Monastery (Aranya Senasanaya – there is also the Dimbulagala rock) and subsequently Chief Incumbent of the Monastery, Millane Siriyalankara ordained him as a monk in the Buddhist faith. The boy’s mother is abroad (working as a housemaid in the Middle East) and allegedly reported to be missing (or perhaps not in touch). According to Siriyalankara, the child is now residing alongside children from different ethnic groups such as Sinhala, Tamil and Veddah children who have been ordained into the sasana/sangha (monkhood/clergy). The indoctrination complete, consent be damned, all seems well in the earthly kingdom of organized and institutionalized religion. The scourge of poverty and parental neglect of children has once again reared its ugly head.

In 2001 June, within a house with a well-manicured lawn in an affluent suburb of Houston, Texas, United States (US), a cast and crew of Biblical characters were found dead. They were namely Noah Jacob, John Samuel, Paul Abraham, Luke David and Mary Deborah and were between the ages of six months to seven years. Some of them lay prone, floating face down in a bathtub while some lay in it supine like overturned puffer fish, marinating in a boggy murk of their urine, feces and vomitus, bloated and snug in their amniotic grave, and still some more lay supine on a bed (sister in the crux of a brother’s arm and the arm of the brother slung over her protectively), all physical forms of the elfin like cherubim tattooed with a stigmatic rictus of contusions. Cause of death: asphyxia by drowning. Was the tragic and unfortunate incident, a case of death by misadventure, in this instance one due to overzealous skinny dipping gone awry? What it eventually turned out to be was a killing/murder for the purpose of obtaining eternal salvation for the deceased. The flotsam and jetsam, damned to eternal life. The family dog caged, the husband, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer called at work, the mother of the dead, a registered nurse and high school valedictorian proceeded to confess of her flesh and blood and of youthful innocence snuffed.

Of interest to the Sri Lankan case mentioned above is the fact that their infanticidal and filicidal yet loving and sacrificial (“I didn’t want my kids to go to hell.”) mother, who for years had been on the long days’ journey into madness, a clinical case of severe post-partum major depressive disorder with psychotic features and suicidal and homicidal ideation, during a disoriented and cryptic rambling made as a series of responses to questions posed by a psychiatrist while in Police custody, made mention of her children stumbling and of a burdensome feeling of guilt of having placed a stumbling block on their path. In a particularly satanic verse she is quoted as saying “It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren’t righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them, they could never be saved. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell.” The Bible in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is littered with references to the fate befitting those who cause little ones to stumble – thrown to the sea necklaced with a noose of millstone. All is not so well in the earthly kingdom.

What, one may ask was the stumbling block placed on their path and what if at all is the parallel between the two narratives of delusions? The parallel is religious belief.

In both the cases, religion has proven the stumbling block. All religions theistic or otherwise, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, are a volatile mélange of superstition and dogma. Should the right to think freely or to exercise free thought be sullied by being taught what to think instead of how and worse still being taught drivel which stunts and maims cognitive action, is prejudicial to the imagination and stifles independent thinking, not to mention giving birth to paralyzing neuroses? In the case of the latter, the vividly perceived consequences of concepts of sin and karma, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, (fire and brimstone), have for centuries held back individuals from giving expression to their destinies and from turning their natural curiosity piqued by education and wanderlust inwards towards traipsing the terra incognita of their inner life of the mind and the heart and the outer world. Children have a right to be protected from thus and all are duty bound regarding such.

Religion is the bully at the pulpit, the totem which is the main culprit behind the thought process of telling individuals what to think, usurping passion by breeding masochism through prostration, veneration, submission and subservience, all the while providing the illusion of choice whilst feeding the potion of faith. That religion is the foundational basis of ethics and the bedrock of morality has been confidently proven as being not only a historical fallacy of fact but also a logical fallacy. Morality and ethics existed prior to the formation of religions and religions at a later date sought dominion over such matters. Also of note is the fact that all religions do not say the same. There are a plethora of inconsistencies and incompatibilities between them. Some of it is simply bad ideas and crooked are its ways. Temples, churches and mosques and the like are apothecaries of dogma and superstition.

However, this does not vindicate not teaching religious texts which have much in the way of literary and aesthetic value (in for an example iconography) and socio-cultural and anthropological interest in terms of religious rituals, traditions, heritage and practices, to appreciate their meanings and participate in either requires no belief in a religion. Being educated of and being in full possession of the facts surrounding such including information about available alternatives (studies in comparative religion) are helpful in this regard.

What is the impact of religion on the child’s right to education?

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has held that the State is obliged to provide the right to education. It is through the knowledge and training gained via education (primary, secondary, tertiary/higher and one’s own life thinking and experience) whether imparted by way of institutional education, homeschooling or the practice of auto-didacticism, all of which is essential for the preparation of citizens to participate effectively and productively in the life of his/her unit of society and its systems and with regard to learning about the diversity and complexity around one, that one not only survives through the engagement in a vocation thereby earning a livelihood, but most importantly is vital to articulating their will and being the master of their own destiny. Ignorance in such matters does not constitute bliss. Religious convictions however deep and sincerely held beliefs cannot trump this or infringe on this right. The parents have the right to educate in a manner which nourishes and encourages physical and most importantly, mental and intellectual growth. They do not have an inherent or afforded right or license to bring up their children with a religious upbringing (values and practices and personally chosen ways based on faith) in a contrary manner and direct such solely on the basis of their dispensation which would lead to an abridgment of the children’s education – a state akin to one’s whole life ending up like Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, being ‘scarce half-made up’. They cannot insist by way of sanctions backed by threats that such be followed. The object or recipient of the education and upbringing too has a say and preference on whether s/he wants their standard education curtailed for a religious one or whether they want to continue on with a certain religious faith that is of equal validity to those held by the parents and authority figures. They must be allowed to come to their conclusions regarding religion on their own. In the case of tiny tots, who simply don’t possess the ability to make a judgment call by virtue of their age being an impediment, they should not be indoctrinated by the parents in their faith. Children reflect parental values and mirror back their upbringing in many ways. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to understand the fact that the children of today themselves become the parents of tomorrow’s children and a vicious cycle of dogma, superstition and indoctrination being passed on to generations to follow may ensue unless right thinking prevails.

Meanwhile, in the land like no other, rationalists in Sri Lanka opposing religious indoctrination called for laws to be put in place to prevent children under the age of 18 being ordained into religious orders.

The Sri Lanka Rationalist Association (SLRA) added that the incident regarding the child of parents of Muslim faith was absolutely ridiculous. Unfortunately, there is no legal way of stopping this practice. It is a strictly wrong thing to do, he noted.

The father has taken the easy way out by dumping the child at the Monastery as he neither has the resources nor the inclination to look after the welfare of the child and also maybe because the mother might not be coming back to the country. In countries like the US, there are State run orphanages which take children in such a predicament in, and proceed to put them up for adoption or give them to foster homes. This is for the protection of the child.

A Life Member of the SLRA, Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga explained that action should also be taken in this regard as allowing the act of ordaining the said boy constituted a violation of the Government’s duty to protect the temple.

Temples are not orphanages, he added. Temples should not be dumping grounds for those whom society deems, albeit wrongly, as flotsam. No human being regardless of the extenuating circumstances surrounding one’s birth or upbringing is flotsam.

The temple should be a place for those intellectually interested in becoming a monk and not be a place for those who don’t want to become one or have never thought of becoming one. When the temple is populated with the latter, it degrades the environment of the temple and creates frustration as seen in the case where monks run riot in the streets engaging in politics instead of being monks, Dr. Ratnatunga said. He also pointed out that religious indoctrination did not work as those ordained in such a manner as exemplified in the case cited below would eventually runaway and leave the piriven/pirivena (religious educational institution/seminary/monastic college).

“Three years back, at a temple down Vihara Road, Mount Lavinia, 19 children between the ages of seven and 12 from impoverished backgrounds and households in Badulla were ordained following a massive tamasha ceremony attended by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa. Three years later, only three out of the 19 are left. When the Buddha was asked what was the age someone could become a samanera (a novice male monastic), he is noted in a sutra (an aphorism) in a pitaka (division) {the vinaya pitaka or tenets and rules of the vinaya code regarding discipline} of the Tripitaka (the Pali Canon), as saying that if a child can chase a crow, s/he can be ordained, which would mean that the child can be even four-years-old. The Government however won’t bring in legislation in this regard,” he elaborated.

Elsewhere, Professor at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, Ittademaliye Indasara whilst confirming the analogy of the child chasing the crow and the age of ordainment, added that there were pirivens/pirivenas which ordained children for the sake of continuing the pirivena by way of having students, which led to social issues including of monks disrobing. As per wathawath such as upasagga/upasajja watha and acharya watha, the relationship between the chief incumbent of a temple and a novice monk should be like the bond and love between a father and son, he explained, adding that if the newly ordained monk was brought up in a temple or monastery from an early age and was well treated and looked after in such a manner with love, care and protection (and not abandoned to grow up on their own) and with their needs, wants and hopes being continuously looked into, they would not disrobe and leave the sasana during adulthood.

“In the time of the Buddha, his son from when he was Prince Siddhartha, Prince Rahula and elsewhere, Sivali were ordained at the same age as the said Muslim child. There is no age limit placed on entering the sangha/sasana, provided that the child consents voluntarily and the child is able to conduct his/her affairs (day to day matters involving excretory functions and the consumption of food among others) on their own and the child’s parents (includes both mother and father and not just the consent of one) or guardian/s (legal or otherwise) consent to voluntarily,” Prof. Indasara added.

The Quranic verse 256 in the Surah, the Surat Al-Baqarah, ‘La Ikraha Fid-Deen’ quotes Allah as stating that there is no compulsion to become a Muslim.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) explained that the choice of faith to be a Muslim or not was not something anybody could be forced into but added that the handling of this particular incident and situation was the responsibility of the Buddhist clergy.

Judge of the Supreme Court of the US, Associate Justice William O. Douglas in a partial dissent in 1972’s Wisconsin v. Yoder, a case which dealt with whether the fundamental right to the freedom of religion (in this case of the parents) outweighed the State’s interest or obligation in compulsorily educating children, the Court ruling in favour of the former (the case is now used as grounds for the right of parents to educate their children outside traditional public or private schools – such as through homeschooling), whilst calling for children to be heard on the matter of ensuring the right to education and exercising the freedom of religion, even added that education was a matter on which children would often have decided views on, emphasized that there was no particular reason to give the parents’ religious views special status when deciding upon the degree of deprivation of education of their children.

What about the child’s right to the exercise of the freedom of religion?

To take up any path including even to take up a certain religious faith, willingness and desire should be there, Media Secretary of the ACJU, Ash-Sheikh Fazil Farook noted, adding that such should come from the individual in question. According to Farook, Islam made no mention of the age limit imposed on becoming a member of the Islamic faith and thereby a Muslim.

He also emphasized that unlike in the case of Buddhist clergy where monks lived in monasteries and sacrificed enjoyments including entertainment, the Muslim clergy and scholars of Islam in practice of their faith led lives similar to the common man in terms of having a family life, being married with children, earning a livelihood and participating in communal and social life and activities.

“All persons work according to their own beliefs and acceptances. Whatever the choice, in this case the one made by members of the family, were a calling made towards the future of the child,” he further elaborated.

Should our children, despite the accident of birth and the merciless circumstances into which they are sometimes born, and in spite of the gift of tabula rasa or as some would argue the lack of it, in this enlightened age which is in possession of worldly wisdom yet is often condemned to repeat the past from which it learns not, be the sacrificial lambs of the superstition of well-meaning parents or a dysfunctional education system? They should not. Should their future be imperiled? It should not.

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