Using beliefs as means rather than end

Most of us are products of societal learning and conditioning. Based on the communities and traditions that we have been brought up in, we grow up with different kinds of beliefs. A belief is an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof. Most of these beliefs we never question or are allowed to question and many are simply unverifiable.

An excellent example of this kind of unverifiable belief is that of a God and an afterlife. Almost every community believes in some version of heaven. In some everyone versions, everyone’s a child looking up to a God with a flowing white beard and singing hymns, and in some versions of heaven, there are rivers of milk, where God is in the form of a cowherd boy tending cows, where devotees take the form of cows, grass, trees, birds or even cowherd girls. In another version of heaven, one is promised to enter a land that has greenery all around, with rivers of alcoholic beverages where beautiful damsels serve you an unlimited menu of food, drinks, pleasure and entertainment. These are only some versions and I am sure you have heard one of your own.

For some God creates this universe like a Potter and some believe God spins this world out of himself like a spider. Some believe God is a He, while some that He is a She and some believe that God is it. There is no end to where imagination can lead us with beliefs and it doesn’t take long for beliefs to turn into superstitions.

The most important question here is: Is it wise to pass on these beliefs to your children at all? Even though they come across as childish at the least and downright questionable of one’s intelligence at the most?

There are two approaches that I personally have tried and seem right to me :

1. Until the age of 7 or 8, let children ‘believe’ in myths and if needed explain one myth by using another myth. This is how a lot of Indian mythology really is- full of tales of gods, demons and devotees, even talking beasts and their drama, adventures, battles and lessons –  something that can catch the fascination of a child’s mind and they learn some morals from them. 

2. After age 8, I don’t find it wise to introduce and rationalise mythical tales and adventures. I find them impossible and childish to believe myself and hence now that Aanya has turned 9, I have stopped justifying myths as history and reality. This way I stay true to my conscience too.

Today my approach is to encourage her to ask questions and have the complete freedom to doubt the reality of some of these beliefs. The overall idea that I have conveyed to her is that many of these beliefs are simply a means to learn and practice values. When we listen to mythical stories, rather than taking them at their face value,  we should only take from them the teaching, see the unreal as props that help us learn some real truths. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, where we don’t waste time questioning the plausibility of the two talking to each other and rather focus on what the story is trying to tell us. We pay attention to the lesson we can take from here to apply elsewhere in our lives. The same approach can hold for myths and beliefs.

I think that is something a nine-year-old can understand I think and may also appreciate our honesty.

I tell Aanya that everything that we believe but we cannot prove is simply a means to gain a higher understanding and perspective rather than an end to getting emotionally fixated about. One need not evade one’s conscience, suspended one’s intelligence or get ready to discriminate, die or kill for one’s beliefs. Once you get the learning, you can drop the props and the symbols as they have served their purpose.  If we get hung, holding tightly onto the finger that only was only meant to point towards and show you the moon, we will miss the opportunity to appreciate the moon.

This approach has worked well so far and if I have to revise this approach again, I will surely post about it.

I, for one, would not like to pass on the crutches of beliefs to my child. Beliefs cripple the mind. I’d rather give her the sails of intelligence and the compass of wisdom to tread the challenges and treacherous waters of life. She can have the freedom to choose her beliefs if she has to but let her reach her conclusions through self-enquiry, trust and reason.

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