Animals in nature never disobey their instincts. They can’t. By definition, animal behavior is pre-determined almost completely, by genetics and environment. Humans are different. Our essence is that we can overcome these pre-programmed instincts. How was this achieved in humanity? Of course this is one of those unanswerable questions, but we have myths that hint at the deeper truth. The story of Eve and Adam is one of those myths. God told these adult-infants that they were to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, except the tree of knowledge. Now the slightest effort at objective thinking will reveal God’s intent to use reverse psychology to entice Eve and Adam to eat that very fruit. Duh. Self-evident truth. Of course, self-evident truth is not available to the casual observer!
If you are still not convinced, imagine a puppy in your kitchen. You hold up a piece of steak. You call your puppy. “Fido! Here Fido!” You hold up the steak in front of Fido’s nose. “Here Fido! Don’t eat this meat! No Fido! Don’t eat this meat!” Be sure you are using a pleasant, friendly, and nonchalant voice-tone when you say this.
Do you really think Fido is going to walk away, before he eats the meat, or tries to?
God might be infinite and omnipotent, but it would have been self defeating to remove all of the layers and layers of self-preservation instincts from the new beings. God knew his creations, and that’s that. Eve and Adam were set up to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, but no parent is going to tell his or her kids the Truth about this. No. Because then the parental authority that allows the “younguns” to survive infancy will be undermined. Becoming an adult requires the discernment to know when to disobey. Disobeying, whether after proper discerning thought processes, or flawed ones, is the first step toward adulthood, and the promised freedom that humanity is working toward.
The Old Testament is hardly the only sacred literature to promote the idea of disobedience. Jesus tells his followers to disobey their cultural customs, which are basically experienced by most people as laws, and “leave the dead to bury the dead,” at the same time he insists that he has not come to change the law. If you are a Christian, or if not, but you believe that maybe those old texts have something to say about the human condition, pay attention here. There’s more than meets the eye.
The self-evident truth is that there must be another way to obey the fourth commandment to honor one’s parents. My personal take on this is that we honor our parents by living our lives in accordance with whichever of their values we can. For example, my parents probably don’t like my theory of how to deal with money, but they were pleased that I chose to become skilled at my chosen profession, and that I used my skills to promote the life of intellect and social justice. Jesus, whom my culturally Jewish parents didn’t study, understood the necessity of disobedience.
Moving on to India, the Ramayana tells the story of Ram, a powerful deity who decided to come to earth as a man to “re-enforce” the religious laws. He incarnated, the story goes, as a king. He married a beautiful woman, who loved him very much. Of course. Duh. But then, the evil demon king kidnapped his beautiful wife. Sita, the queen, remained faithful to her husband, and the evil demon king never forced her to sleep with him, although he invited her every night. Eventually, Sita was rescued and returned to her husband, as the property that most of the ancient laws considered her. But Ram had incarnated for the sole purpose of enforcing the laws, and the laws said that Sita must undergo a trial by water. She did not drown, proving her statement of fidelity to her spouse. But Ram was not satisfied. He feared that the other men of the kingdom would interpret his acceptance of Sita back into his household as weakness, that would undermine the cultural integrity of the kingdom. He made up more tests. Finally, after passing them all, Sita walked outside of the palace grounds, and called on Mother Earth to swallow her up, since Ram obviously did not deserve her as his queen. Any thoughtful person can see that Ram, god and king, the upholder of the law, was acting like a jerk. Plain and simple.
Of course these examples seen in this light do not mean that the stories are not sacred. They are all sacred and the persona of God depicted in each one sheds light on how humanity saw itself at a certain time. God can only reveal God’s self in a way that at least the most enlightened humans of the time in question, have at least a thin hope of understanding. (Blue text added for clarification after initial publication.)
Cultural laws are never perfect for every situation, because laws are always being made in response to particular situations. Being a human means that we must cultivate the discernment needed to know which rules and laws to break, when.
The concept of disobedience being a good deed, rather than a sin, was indeed difficult for humans to grasp. As we look around us, it’s clear that, for humans, blind obedience to cultural norms has taken over blind obedience to natural instinct. But obedience to cultural laws is only an intermediate step in our spiritual evolution. This step has been and continues to be necessary, as Mother Nature was so thorough and redundant in making sure her creations would be able to survive.
For example, in order to ensure propagation of a variety of human societies, Mother Nature endows us with hormones that drive us to find mates who are attractive to us. But the criteria of attraction vary widely. Then we are provided with hormones that attach us to our mates, and their families and friends. Then we are given different sets of skills, making us more and more reliant on each other. We have a very extended time of dependency as we learn what it takes to survive in the climates and terrains that we are forced to inhabit, as we become more and more numerous. Our need for each other must be made strong indeed, to overcome the already robust instincts for individual survival. The choice facilitating urge to disobedience is a latecomer to the game, and struggles for acceptance.
Really, at some point, humanity as a whole will realize that we must give up the entire idea of the “dis/obedience dichotomy,” and substitute a “sliding discernment skill scale.”
Let’s look at a few more examples of teaching stories on the subject of obedience. In Genesis, we find another of God’s attempts to teach humans that blind obedience is not always a good deed. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his favorite son of his beloved wife, Abraham is supposed to figure out that he is supposed to disobey. In one way, we can see that the whole point of God telling Abraham to get the hell out of Ur was so he could create a new culture that substituted love for fear, and the first step on the path forward on that was to eliminate sacrifice of one’s fellow humans.
Even many rabbis agree that Abraham was supposed to disobey. But he didn’t get it. Perhaps it was too much to ask. Of course, if God was to find a new prophet, he had to pick someone who could hear him. The words hear and obey are related in many languages. So poor Abraham. He failed this test. And this set up the poor daughter of Japthah to later be sacrificed, which then necessitated the sacrifice of Jesus, as the son of God, so that God could prove that he wouldn’t refuse to do what one of his subjects was willing to do. This time, again God tried to make it clear. No more human sacrifices.
However, we still believe in Holy War. So once again, we can see that we have not come to the end of the spiritual path, or even that short section called “love your neighbor.”
As the great Swami Vivekananda said, had it not been for the horrible demons of sectarianism and fanaticism, which continue to lead to war, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.
Step one on a spiritual path is for “spiritual” leaders to start acting like spiritual leaders, and tell their “flocks” that humans are meant to creatively disobey. There will always be consequences of disobedience, sometimes extremely painful. But that is a result of the human condition. Learning to think for ourselves is the foundation of living the fullest possible human life.