Thursday, August 6, 2009

World religions and predestiny

Reason can be used to support the concept of predestiny, an example of which is demonstrated as follows: What happened in our past was fixed (the thoughts we had, the actions we took etc.). In the present we can choose to do this or that but go a moment into the future and we can look back at what we just called the present and see that we chose to do one particular thing in that moment. Thus although we supposedly have a choice in the present, there is only one thing in the present that we are actually going to choose to do. Thus it would appear that all our choices/actions were/are predestined. 

Another way of thinking about it is by counter example. For predestination to not be true, then the present moment must be fundamentally different than all the moments in the past. It seems almost egotistical to think that our consciousness in the present moment is fundamentally different or special compared to what our consciousness was in our past. 

Now I've been very interested in using reason to study and analyze the world's major religions. Reason has led me to the concept of predestiny, which appears throughout many of the world's religions: The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all have predestiny playing significant roles. Ancient Jewish thinkers such as Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph and Maimonides have argued in favour of predestination (while simultaneously accepting the existence of free will). The New Testament has many references that imply the existence of predestiny (while not excluding free will). Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin (of Calvinist protestantism) are good examples of famous Christian believers in predestiny. Predestiny is a central concept in Islam appearing throughout Islamic religious texts and philosophy. Hinduism is a particularly diverse religion. Predestiny does not normally play a central role in the religion, which has quite an emphasis on karma (sort of a morality of the universe linked with our choices and actions) which is commonly associated with free will (which is often thought to conflict with predestination). However, the Dvaita school of Vaishnavites (Vishnu followers) do believe in a form of predestination (note that Vishnu is said to reincarnate as the Kalki and to fulfill a bunch of prophecies that are highly similar to those predicted for the messiah from the Abrahamic religions). It is commonly thought that free will and predestiny are two mutually exclusive concepts (ie. that they can't co-exist). However, I strongly disagree with this: I believe that for all intents and purposes we have a choice (complete with moral implications) but that all the choices that we make are predestined. 

The main religion in which I cannot find an associated concept of predestiny is Buddhism (interestingly a religion/philosophy whose teachings I have felt an affinity for throughout my life). Instead, the only related concept I can find in Buddhism is impermanence (which to an outsider seems like the antithesis of predestiny). Now I'm no Buddhist monk, but I have read a fair bit of Buddhism for a Westerner. One thing that has struck me about the historical Buddha are references that indicate that he had no interest in being the central figure of a world religion (which would reflect the enlightenment he had obtained - after reaching enlightenment two people/beings are said to have had to convince him to become a teacher, otherwise he probably would have just enjoyed his enlightenment and assumed no one would have understood him). Buddha also made very specific predictions that now look next to impossible to ever come to fruition: he predicted that after 500 years (later changed to 2500 years) his teachings would dwindle and once completely forgotten then a new Buddha would appear to teach the dharma (and that this would be preceded by having his remains gathered together and burned at a particular site in India). But if Buddhist teachings were all forgotten, who would collect his relics for the burning? (only a Buddhist would do such a thing, but it would be impossible for this to occur if Buddhism had been totally forgotten thus there would be no Buddhists). Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Buddhism will ever be forgotten given the nature of the internet and the existence of many hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world today. While these 'mistakes' may lead someone to believe that Buddha was making incorrect predictions, perhaps these seemingly flawed statements were part of another Buddhist teaching: Buddha was very specific about teaching Buddhists to not be married to his teachings. One of Buddha's famous lessons regarding his teachings was that they are like a raft that you use to get to enlightenment, by the time you have reached enlightenment you have to have left the raft behind. Buddha didn't want people entranced to him and his teachings as it would act as a barrier to their enlightenment.