Among the most insidious causes of deviation from the religious path is the lure of false teaching, or heresy. The scriptures of every major religion warn against it. "Heresy" means opinion, and the wisdom of orthodox tradition is not something to be denied or perverted on the basis of mere opinion. The orthodox tradition carries with it the deposit of wisdom inherited from the founders, prophets, saints, and sages who have had the surest and deepest insight into truth. It is rare that a novel teaching can hope to attain the same level of insight.
Yet every genuine religion, when it was first born, was branded a heresy by the leaders of the orthodox establishment. The founders of religion gave their teachings based on profound religious insights or new revelation, not mere opinion. But how could members of the establishment orthodoxy know that? How, beyond the criterion of orthodoxy, do we distinguish a false teaching from a true one? This requires careful discernment.
The fundamental error of heresy is that it deceives innocent people by leading them to deny the truth. A number of the passages gathered below also attack false prophets and heretics for having base motives: they are hypocrites using religion for worldly gain (although orthodox teachers could have the same flaw). Others point to their rotten fruits: licentious living, greed, and the sowing of dissension. Still others attribute these false teachings to the work of demons and evil spirits. But some heresies deceive through advocating a standard of conduct even more austere or a faith even more extreme than what is called for in the correct path. These selections conclude with two examples: First is the schism of the Buddhist order led by Devadatta, who advocated extreme austerities beyond those of the Middle Path. The second is the con- flict between Jeremiah and the false prophet Hananiah; while Jeremiah expected God to judge Israel for its sins, Hananiah had such extreme faith that he believed God would defend Jerusalem at all costs.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.
Christianity. Bible, Matthew 7.15-16
God's Messenger is reported as saying, "In the last times men will come forth who will fraudulently use religion for worldly ends and wear sheepskins in public to display meekness. Their tongues will be sweeter than sugar, but their hearts will be the hearts of wolves. God will say, 'Are they trying to deceive Me, or are they acting presumptuously towards Me? I swear by Myself that I shall send trial upon those people which will leave the intelligent men among them confounded.'"
Islam. Hadith of Tirmidhi
The prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths.
Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Micah 3.5
There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who brought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep.
Christianity. Bible, 2 Peter 2.1-3
Some shameless men, becoming monks, propagate a doctrine of their own. And others believe in it, put their faith in it, adopt it, saying, "Well, you speak the truth, O brahmin or O sramana! We shall present you with food, drink, spices, and sweetmeats, with a robe, a bowl, or a broom." Some have induced others to honor them, and some have made their proselytes to honor them. Before, they were determined to become [genuine] sramanas, poor monks who would have neither sons nor cattle, to eat only what should be given them by others, and to commit no sins. But after having entered the religious life they do not cease from committing sins, they cause others to commit sins, and they assent to another's committing sins. Thus they are given to pleasures, amusements, and sensual lust; they are greedy, fettered, passionate, covetous, the slaves of love and hate; therefore they cannot free themselves nor free anyone else.
Jainism. Sutrakritanga 2.1.18-19
Matthew 7.15-16: Cf. Matthew 7.16-20, p. 465; 1 John 4.1, p. 380. Sutrakritanga 2.1.18-19: Cf. Mark 7.6-7, pp. 489f.
Thus have We appointed unto every Prophet an adversary--devils of humankind and jinn--who inspire in one another plausible discourse through guile.
Islam. Qur'an 6.112
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared.
Christianity. Bible, 1 Timothy 4.1-2
Brahma and Vishnu were arguing, each shouting that he was supreme. In anger, Brahma cursed Vishnu: "You will be deluded and your devotees will have the appearance of brahmins, but they will be against the Vedas and the true path of release."
Hinduism. Parasara Purana 3
Mara, the Evil One, may come along in the guise of a teacher, and say, "Give up what you have heard up to now!... What you have heard just now, that is not the word of the Buddha. It is poetry, the work of poets. But what I here teach to you, that is the teaching of the Buddha, that is the word of the Buddha." If, on hearing that, a Bodhisattva wavers and is put out, then one should know that he has not been predicted by the Tathagata, that he is not fixed on full enlightenment. But... an Arhat, a monk whose outflows are dried up, does not go by someone else whom he puts his trust in, for he has placed the nature of Dharma directly before his own eyes.
Buddhism. Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines 17.2
Indeed, the causes of discord and rebellion against religion are that in opposition to the laid-down orders of the Book of God, people follow dictates of their mind and introduce innovations and schism. Consequently, in spite of the commands of God, such persons are considered heads of religion who know nothing about religion.
The fact is, had falsehood been allowed to show separately from truth, seekers of truth would have easily discerned it, and would have kept away from false- hood. And had truth been allowed to appear distinct from falsehood, people would not have found [it] easy to criticize religion. But unfortunately men started mixing parts of truth with falsehood, and Satan exploited this situation, and got complete control over the minds of its followers. Only such persons can escape its trap, who have advanced with the help of God towards sober and rational ways of meditation.
Islam (Shiite). Nahjul Balagha, Khutba 55
1 Timothy 4.1-2: Cf. 1 John 4.1, p. 380. Parasara Purana 3: In this passage the sectarian feuds in Hinduism--here the devotees of the Vaishnavite bhakti sects are labelled heretics--have their origins in quarrels among the gods. The very human quarrels and jealousies of the gods in Hindu popular traditions should be counterpoised with the philosophical Vedic and Upanishadic doctrine that all the gods are transcendentally One. Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines 17.2: Cf. Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom 382, p. 441.
Be not those who ascribe partners unto God--those who split up their religion and become schismatics, each sect exulting in its tenets.
Islam. Qur'an 30.31-32
The demons, led by Prahlada, had stolen the sacrificial portions of the gods, but they were so full of svadharma, Vedic worship, and asceticism that they could not be conquered. Vishnu created a man of delusion to lead the demons from the path of the Vedas; the man was naked, bald, carrying a peacockfeather fan; he went where the demons were practicing asceticism at the banks of the Narmada and made them all into Arhats, discouraging them from their asceticism and teaching them contradictory tenets about dharma.... Then the man put on red garments and taught the rest of the demons that the sacrifice of animals was an evil act. He taught, "If the animal slaughtered in the sacrifice is assured of arrival in heaven, why does the sacrificer not kill his own father?" Then the demons became Buddhists, and they caused others to become heretics, abandoning the Vedas and reviling the gods and brahmins, discarding their armor of svadharma. The gods attacked them and killed them.
Hinduism. Vishnu Purana 3.17-18
Qur'an 30.31-32: The schismatic, by exalting in human opinions, is in effect joining other gods with God. Vishnu Purana 3.17-18: In Vaishnavite Hinduism, the Buddha is regarded as an avatar of Vishnu who teaches heresy in order to delude the demons. Thus, begrudgingly, Buddha is honored as a savior against the demons while his teaching is condemned. In this passage the Buddha avatar is a composite figure: he walks naked like a Jain, and he also teaches a second heresy recognizable as Materialism by its satire on the traditional rationalization for animal sacrifices. In this case, as in Mahabharata 13.40, p. 433, spiritual beings of high status are jealous of other beings with superior virtue; compare Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10, p. 405; Isaiah 14.12-15, p. 439; Qur'an 17.61-64, p. 440. In Hinduism, traditions about demons aspiring for divinity are often metaphors for people of inferior caste aspiring to a destiny beyond their station; sometimes they are successful--cf. Matsya Purana 180.5, p. 710, and Vishnu Purana 1.17-20, pp. 889f.--but in this case their aspirations are foiled.
As Devadatta was meditating in private, a reasoning arose in his mind thus: "Whom could I now please so that, because he is pleased with me, much gain and honor would accrue to me?" And he thought of Prince Ajatasattu. Throwing off his own form and assuming that of a young boy clad in a girdle of snakes, he became manifest in the prince's lap. Terrified, he asked who he was.
"I am Devadatta."
"If that is really so, please become manifest in your own form." And Devadatta, throwing off the young boy's form stood, wearing his outer cloak and his robes and carrying his bowl, before Prince Ajatasattu. Greatly pleased with this wonder of psychic power, morning and evening he went to wait on him with five hundred chariots, bringing five hundred offerings of rice cooked in milk as a gift of food. And in Devadatta, overcome by the gains, honors, and fame, his mind obsessed by them, there arose the longing to be the one to lead the Order of monks. But at its very occurrence Devadatta declined in his psychic power.
Moggallana then warned the Lord of Devadatta's longing. He replied: "Moggallana, this foolish man of himself will now betray himself. The teacher who is not pure in moral habit, or in mode of livelihood, or in teaching Dhamma, or in the exposition, or in the vision of knowledge... pretends that he is pure, and that his moral habit, etc., are pure, clean, untarnished. Although disciples know this about him, they think, 'If we should tell this to householders, he would not like it, and how could we speak about what he would would not like? Moreover [by his reputation] we receive the requisite of robes, alms food, lodgings, and medicines...' Disciples protect such a teacher and such a teacher expects protection from them. But I, Moggallana, am pure in moral habit, in mode of livelihood... Disciples do not protect me and I do not expect protection from them.
"Do not, monks, envy Devadatta's gains, honors, and fame. For as long as Prince Ajatasattu goes to him morning and evening, Devadatta's wholesome mental states may be expected to decline, not to grow, just as a fierce dog would become much fiercer if a bladder were thrown at his nose. Devadatta's gains, honors and fame bring about his own hurt and destruction."
Now at that time the Lord was sitting down teaching Dhamma surrounded by a large company which included a king. And Devadatta got up, saluted the Lord and spoke thus, "Lord, the Lord is now old, stricken in years and at the close of his life. Let him be content to abide in ease here and now, and hand over the Order of monks to me. It is I who will lead the Order of monks."
"Enough, Devadatta, please do not lead the Order of monks. I would not hand over the Order even to Sariputta and Moggallana. How then to you, a wretched one to be vomited up like spittle?"
And Devadatta, angry and displeased at having been disparaged, went away. The Lord addressed the Order of monks, saying, "Let the Order carry out a formal act of information against Devadatta, to the effect that whereas Devadatta's nature was formerly of one kind, now it is of another; and that whatever he should do by gesture or by voice, in that neither the Buddha nor the Dhamma nor the Order is to be seen, but only Devadatta."
On hearing the news Devadatta sought to deprive the recluse Gotama of life. He saw the Lord pacing up and down in the shade of Mount Vulture Peak, and having climbed it he hurled down a great stone. But two mountain peaks, meeting, crushed it and only a fragment fell down; but it drew blood on the Lord's foot. Looking upward he said to Devadatta, "You have produced much demerit, foolish man, in that you, with your mind malignant and set on murder, drew the Tathagata's blood."
Then Devadatta appealed to some friends of his, saying, "Come, we will approach the Lord and ask for five policies, saying, 'Lord, the Lord in many a figure speaks in praise of desiring little, of being contented, of expunging evil, of being punctilious, etc. Lord, the following five policies are condu- cive thereto: Monks must be forest dwellers for as long as they live; whoever should abide in a village, sin would besmirch him. They must be beggars for alms; whoever should accept an invitation to a meal would commit sin. They should wear rags; whoever accepts a robe given by a householder, commits sin. They should dwell at the root of a tree; whoever should go under cover commits sin. They should never eat fish and flesh; whoever eats fish or flesh commits sin.' The recluse Gotama will not allow these five policies, but we will win the people over to them."
Devadatta's friends replied, "It is possible, with these five policies, to make a schism in the recluse Gotama's Order, a breaking of the concord. For, your reverence, people esteem austerity."
So Devadatta and his friends approached the Lord, and put the matter of these five policies before him.
"Enough, Devadatta," he said. "Whoever wishes, let him be a forest dweller, whoever wishes, let him stay in a village; whoever wishes, let him be a beggar for alms; whoever wishes, let him accept an invitation; whoever wishes, let him wear rags; whoever wishes, let him accept robes given by a householder..."
Devadatta was joyful and elated that the Lord did not accept these five policies. He entered Rajagaha and taught them to the people, and such people as were of little faith thought that Devadatta and his friends were punctilious while Gotama was permissive of profligacy. But the people who had faith and were believing complained to the monks that Devadatta was creating a schism, and the monks told the Lord. He said to Devadatta, who acknowledged the truth of the complaint,
"Do not let there be a schism in the Order, for a schism in the Order is a serious matter, Devadatta. He who splits an Order that is united sets up demerit that endures for an eon and he is boiled in hell for an eon. But he who unites an Order that is split sets up sublime merit and rejoices in heaven for an eon."
Buddhism. Vinaya Pitaka ii.184-98
In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord. Thus the Lord said to me, "Make yourself thongs and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to... Zedekiah king of Judah, 'Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concern- ing any nation which will not serve the king of Babylon? Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, "You shall not serve the king of Babylon," for it is a lie which they are prophesying to you. 'I have not sent them,' says the Lord, but they are prophesying falsely in my name, with the result that I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you.'"
In that same year... Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the House of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, "Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord's House, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon."
Then Jeremiah the prophet spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the House of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words which you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the House of the Lord, and all the exiles. Yet hear now this word which I speak in your hearing and the hearing of all the people: The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet."
Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, and broke them. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, "Thus says the Lord, 'Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.'" But Jeremiah the prophet went his way.
Sometime after... Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, "Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord, 'Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.'" In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.
Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Jeremiah 27-28
Vinaya Pitaka ii.184-98: Cf. Itivuttaka 11, p. 273; Digha Nikaya i.167, p. 950.