Hinduism and other India born life philosophies are different ways to practice “dharma” which is the universal Reality. They are not “religions” in the sense Christianity or Islam are. Dharma has no equivalent word in Western dictionaries. Significant distortions have arisen by translating dharma as religion.
Dharma vs Religion
In India, people call their philosophical identities as Hindu Dharma, Baudha Dharma, Jain Dharma, Sikh Dharma, and so on. They got translated into English as Hindu religion, Buddhist religion, Jain religion, Sikh religion, and so on. It was a great translation error because ‘Dharma’ can’t be translated as ‘religion.’ In fact, there are no equivalent words in western dictionaries for ‘dharma.’ In a way, we have totally degraded dharma by calling it religion.
Religion and Dharma are fundamentally two very different things. The former is specific and applies to people who believe in a particular “belief system”; the latter is not a pre-written belief system, it is universal and is applicable to the whole humanity. Dharma permeates all Indian philosophies of life and forms their central theme. Thus, all India-born philosophies – Hinduism, Buddhism etc – are simply different ways to practice ‘Dharma’ – living according to Nature’s laws and enjoy peace and harmony. They all see humanity as “One Global family”, vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
They are all about picking up right human values and putting them into practice, regardless of belief. They all boil down to the practice of non-violence, non-greed, and understanding the natural law of Karma which means doing good deeds bring good fruits in future and harming others invite pain and misery. The focus is on developing human virtues like honesty, compassionate, gratitude, etc. Having people and communities with different opinions or beliefs is normal in Indian societies. Tolerance and plurality are inherent in the Indian culture.
Being a follower of certain saintly person doesn’t become a barrier in accepting good teachings of other enlightened persons. If the ‘religion’ permanently imprisons its ‘believers’ within the narrow boundaries of a particular so-called ‘holy Book’ the universal values of Indian philosophies allow full freedom to pick and choose. The focus is on virtues not words. There is no compulsion of any kind, there is no need to declare ‘belief’ in something or someone, and there is no need to even believe or disbelieve in God. Thus, so-called theists as well as atheists can adopt Indian ways of life with equal ease.
This is the biggest difference foreign ‘religions’ and Indian ways of life.
When the followers of Jesus and then of Mohammad first came in India people accepted them as just other human beings, but their ‘faith’ tainted minds always remained a barrier in mingling freely with the hosts. And for Indians it was weird to see their unusual attachment to what they called ‘faith’ and the bias based on it.
Let’s now explore religion a bit deeper.
What is a Religion?
Jesus and Mohammad had saintly qualities and they taught good things to people around them. Their followers compiled their teachings into Bible and Quran. Both these enlightened saints gave the best guidance to people of the contemporary societies with very little or no spiritual understanding. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of their followers got stuck with ‘literal’ meanings of they said and failed to absorb the real ‘essence’ of what was being taught.
Thus, ‘words’ vs ‘essence’ dichotomy emerged right from the beginning in the religions. Those who had the capacity to grasp the ‘essence’ behind the words of Jesus and Mohammad evolved spiritually into better human-beings. And those vast numbers of mediocre who could not comprehend the subtle ‘essence’ of Bible and Quran turned the teachings into costumes and rituals or political ideologies.
But unfortunately, in the hands of mentally deranged people religions can be highly dangerous because there are words in the ‘holy Books’ that they can interpret to mean violence against non-believers (even believers who disagree). This last category of ‘believers’ has been responsible for all the bloodshed in the history done in the name of holy Crusade and holy Jihad. These so-called ‘holy warriors’ have killed more people than rest of the wars in the human history of 2000 years. Thus, for example, between 8th to 18th century AD, the fanatic ‘believers’ of Islam plundered and looted India’s prosperity and caused the biggest holocaust of the human history. You may read the disgusting tale of their barbarism on this link: 1000 Years of Jihad in India.
Even today Jihadi terrorists have emerged as the biggest threat to humanity. Indians need to be particularly wary of the activities of the unworthy ‘believers’ – who can easily turn violent in the name of their religion and disrupt social harmony, in the already diverse society.
Fortunately for the humanity, no other ‘religion’ has emerged after Islam in last 1400 years.
Let’s now explore ‘religion’ a bit deeper.
Typically, a religion revolves around an imagined God – an entity who watches things from “somewhere above”. He reveals the so-called ultimate “divine Truth” to a Messenger (in Islam) or Son of God (in Christianity) that gets written the Holy Book – Bible or Quran. Everything outside the Holy Book is simply false.
Historically, the only tangible things are the existence of Jesus 2000 years ago and Mohammad 1400 years ago, the fact that they preached, and that both had saintly qualities. Rest was all created by their followers – the imaginary god or Allah, the idea of revelation, and the holy Book. Despite countless clashes among the ‘believers’ it is still not clear, who is superior: the God or Allah!
Essentially, a religion is no more than a fiction revolving around a fictional god.
Here are some common features of foreign religions.
By nature, a religion is restrictive and imposes a pre-fixed “belief system” on people. Thus, blind beliefs and dogmas are the building blocks of religion. As a ‘believer’ you must believe in the complete package; there is no room for disagreement or innovation. Religions are particularly comforting for people who don’t want to think with their own brains and don’t want to be in-charge of their lives.
1. Divisive and Confrontational: When a religion says that it teaches the “Only Truth”, it is giving you the final conclusion. If you believe in our theory you belong to us, else you are alien. It also implies that you are “either with us or against us” which clearly sets the stage for confrontation. A religion, thus, divides the humanity into “believers” and “non-believers”. They also offer incentives to their ‘believers’ – they are assured of some special benefits that will come after death. By not believing, the non-believers are doomed to suffer as lowly creatures.
Yes, believe it, what’s the harm!!
As part of the political agenda, a religion also ordains the believers to “convert” others into the religion. Thus, there is big conversion industry associated with Christianity and Islam. The conversion sharks employ all types of filthy tricks to lure gullible people into their fold. They particularly hunt for people in need of emotional support, assurance and security. They are the easiest ‘targets’ of missionaries and Mullahs. They normally offer some material and emotional support in exchange for ‘conversion’ into their religion. Missionaries are also notorious for staging dramas of ‘miracle’ to fool people!
Once there is sizeable numbers of Muslims or Christians in any society they become “politically significant” and they start demanding fancy things in the name of religion and if denied, they pretend persecuted! It also allows Christians and Muslims elsewhere in the world to become spokespersons of the ‘holy victims’ – this is nothing but political interference in country’s affairs. Lately, China has been facing the dirty political game of missionaries who have converted significant numbers in some parts of China. In some areas with too many ‘Muslim converts’, Chinese authorities had to cut their so-called ‘religious freedoms’ to restore social harmony.
2. Possessive and exclusionary: Becoming a ‘believer’ means you accept the authority of the religion and its clergy-class. It also means that you can’t ‘believe’ in another religion.
3. Religions Need God!
A wise man has famously said: I am not sure whether God created man, but I can definitely say that man created God with all the qualities that he wanted in him!!
The concept of God (who sits somewhere ‘up there’ and watches you) is central to the definition of religion; so much so that a “religion” is married to its God forever!! So, there is a supermanish ‘Allah’ for Muslims Islam and a ‘God’ for Christians.
There is no place for an atheist in any religion – you can’t be a “Christian atheist” or a “Muslim atheist”. In the not very distant past, when the clergymen ruled the Christian or Muslim societies, not believing in God could be a serious crime – serious enough to invite imprisonment or execution!
By now it must be clear that rational reasoning have no place in religions; in fact, you have no freedom to think and draw your own conclusions! This has traditionally put religion and science into conflict with each other. Thus, 3-4 centuries ago the Christian West began to realize the binding consequences of religious dictates on human thinking. It was the time when scientific discoveries started to emerge and people needed the freedom to think freely, untainted and un-dictated by religious (Christian) philosophy. Thus, they shifted from the narrow religious governance to broader universal principles to dictate State policies.
While doing so, they were only recognizing open ‘Dharma’ principles already known in India, without saying or knowing so!
Dharma Encourages Free Enquiry
Quite in contrast with foreign born religions, Indian philosophies encourage people to explore themselves and decide what is right for them. There are absolutely no impositions or bondages on people regarding what to believe or not believe. They can even steer clear of all mumbo-jumbo of so-called God almighty, yet lead meaningful life. People are squarely responsible for their good and bad actions (karmas) and ensuing consequences. Thus, they are their own masters.
A non-religious society may still be ethical without belief in God (for instance, the Buddhist society), but an adharmic society soon loses its ethical foundation and falls into corrupt and decaying forces.
‘God’ in Indian Spiritual Philosophies
All India born philosophies are different paramparas (traditions) that originated in the teachings of different enlightened saints – who all taught ‘Dharma’ (universal ethics) in different words and languages.
When knowledgeable people in India talk of God they may be seeing it as personified in some shape (Saakar) or without form (Niraakar) as cosmic energy that pervades everywhere. Unlike ‘believers’ of religions, they are not constrained to a specific pre-written idea. It is perfectly ‘normal’ to have different views because the ultimate focus is on the conduct and virtuous living. It is also perfectly alright to reject God, for the same reason. After all, a pious atheist is far better than a fanatic theist!
Around the world, it is fashionable to wear religious symbols or perform rituals and rites. Indulging in these things without ever questioning them is plain stupidity. This is a reflection of blind faith in something which is visible everywhere, East or West. But it is always nonsensical and considered adharmic.
The nature of Dharma is emphasized in this Doha:
“Dharan Kare So Dharma Hai, Varna Kori Baat.”
It says – Dharma is Dharma only if it shows up in the conduct, else it is useless empty talk.
Dharma described in the scriptures has no meaning unless it is put to practice and experientially realized. It certainly demands consistent hard work on oneself, sincere reflection, investigation, prayers, meditation etc. Mere declaring that you believe in Dharma scriptures doesn’t make you dharmic.
But declaration of belief in Bible or Quran is enough to make you a Christian or Muslim! Clearly, becoming Dharmic is not easy.
This is the VITAL difference between the East and the West, between Dharma and religion!
What if Jesus and Mohammad were Born in India!
Since ancient times India has been a land of Yogis, sages and rishis. As a result, spirituality and presence of saintly people has been the way of life – as can be seen from the constructs of indigenous Indian languages. Despite the onslaught of materialism and Western thinking, even today the Indian psyche longs for spiritual enlightenment. Leading a life of purity is still considered a virtuous goal worth aiming for.
Now coming to the imaginary question of what if Jesus and Mohammad were born in India. For one, they would have been respected as saintly persons with evolved consciousness and people would have looked towards them also for spiritual guidance. At the same time, they could have preached in far more subtler ways to people of already developed spiritual inclinations.
For sure, there would have been two more spiritual traditions in a country in the multitude of diverse philosophies. Their followers would be naturally respecting other saints and mingled freely with their followers. Their teachings would not have gotten ‘boxed as religions’ – instead the “essence” of their Words would have only promoted social harmony.
Then certainly there would have been no Christianity or Islam, and the resulting Holy Genocides!
Diversity and Tolerance in Hinduism
“The ideal function of dharma is to provide a sound, fundamental world-view which correctly orients the individual to the universe and thus, can serve as the basis for an intelligent guide for living.”
Coming from almost monolithic culture, Westerners are often amazed at the mind boggling philosophical diversity in India. They are left wondering, what is the binding force that holds them all together. The answer is: ‘principles of Dharma’ that unites them together. Being liberal and tolerant are its fundamental features. Hinduism, unlike Western religions, does not dogmatically assert that the spiritual evolution is possible only through its means and not through any other. It clearly acknowledges that can be several ways to reach the final goal or ultimate truth. For instance, the Rig Veda (I.164.46) explains:
Ekam sad; vipra bahudha vadanti. (while Truth is One, the wise describe it in different ways).
Even in ancient India, when the influence of Indian culture extended to most of East Asia and to Afghanistan and beyond in the West, the Western and Chinese travelers saw just “One India” everywhere, despite so much diversity. Even early Christians and Muslims who had to escape their homeland to avoid ‘religious persecution’ and found shelter on the Indian soil, had no difficulty merging in the congenial Hindu society despite their foreign appearance and ‘restrictive faith’ based mindset.
According to Swami Sivananda, “Hinduism allows absolute freedom to the rational mind of man. It never demands any undue restraint upon the freedom of human reason, the freedom of thought, feeling and will of man. Hinduism is a religion of freedom, allowing the widest margin of freedom in matters of faith and worship. It allows absolute freedom of human reason and heart with regard to such questions as to the nature of God, soul, form of worship, creation, and the goal of life. It does not force anybody to accept particular dogmas or forms of worship. It allows everybody to reflect, investigate, enquire and cogitate.”
Hence all manner of religious faiths, various forms of worship or spiritual practices, diverse rituals and customs have found their place, side by side, within Hinduism; they all coexist and grow in harmony with one another. Of course, if certain people are just following something blindly they are merely wasting their time – and for that they alone are responsible.
You can’t expect such freedom and tolerance of diversity in what the West calls religion, which merely imposes a pre-written script upon you and forces you to think within its framework unquestioningly.
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