Hinduism and other India born life philosophies are different ways to practice “dharma” which is the universal Reality – same for the whole humanity. They are not “religions” in the sense Christianity or Islam are. Translating “dharma” as “religion” has created a lot of distortions in social an political discourse in India. It has also created a barrier for the Westerners to grasp Indian philosophies untainted by ‘faith’ conditioning.
Dharma vs Religion
In India, people call their philosophical identities as Hindu Dharma, Buddha 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. But it was a very serious translation error. In reality, no foreign language has any equivalent word for ‘dharma’ because such a holistic and wholesome culture has never existed anywhere beyond boundaries of Indian influence in the past. With this error, Indians totally devalued the very core of their life science – the ‘dharma.’
Religion and Dharma are fundamentally two very different things. Religion points to some specific pre-written “belief system” of a community; it is all about blind belief in something given by others as the “only truth.” Dharma has nothing to do with what you believe or don’t believe, it points to the universal truth that is applicable to the whole humanity, away from the maze of god-fictions that people are taught to take as “religions.” 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 to enjoy peace and harmony. As a result, they all see humanity as “One Global family”, vasudhaiva kutumbakam – regardless of different beliefs of different people. The focus is on developing basic human virtues like honesty, compassionate, gratitude, non-violence etc. Dharma is all about picking up right human values and putting them into practice, keeping in mind the natural law of Karma which means doing good deeds bring good fruits in future and harming others invite pain and misery. My-god-is-bigger-than-yours or my-god-is-the-only-god type of childish thinking has no fertile ground in Dharma.
The ‘universalism’ of Indian philosophies allow full freedom to pick and choose and evolve into better human being. 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 some unseen God. On the contrary, a ‘religion’ permanently imprisons its ‘believers’ within the narrow and rigid boundaries of the ‘holy Book’ – with no freedom of human inquiry. This is the biggest difference foreign ‘religions’ and India’s dharma based systems of living.
When the followers of Jesus and then of Mohammad first came to India, they got accepted as any other human beings, but their ‘faith’ came in the way of mingling freely with the benevolent hosts. And for the hosts it was weird to discover their unusual attachment to ‘faith identity’ and the associated 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 so that they could lead pious and meaningful human life, which their followers compiled into Bible and Quran. Both these enlightened saints gave the best possible guidance to people around them as had very little or no spiritual background or understanding. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of their followers got stuck only with the ‘literal’ meanings of they said and failed to absorb the real ‘essence’ of what they taught. Very often enlightened people say things that are so profound that not everyone can easily grasp it.
Thus, ‘words’ vs ‘essence’ dichotomy emerged right from the beginning in the religions. Another important issue is the context in which the enlightened words were spoken. Those who had the capacity to grasp the ‘essence’ behind the words of Jesus or Mohammad evolved spiritually into better human-beings. But the vast numbers of mediocres could not comprehend the subtle ‘essence’ of Bible or Quran; they got lost in the costumes, customs and rituals encouraged by the self serving clergy class. It is no surprise that the clergymen started giving political color to words that had profound spiritual meaning. It has created serious confusion for the true followers who look for honest spiritual interpretation of ‘holy words.’.
In the hands of mentally deranged or unworthy people a religion can be highly dangerous because there are phrases in the ‘Holy Books’ that they can interpret to mean violence against non-believers (even believers who disagree!). The so-called ‘believers’ have been responsible for all the bloodshed in the history done in the name of holy Crusade or holy Jihad. These twisted brained ‘holy warriors’ have killed more people than rest of the wars in the human history of 2000 years. Even today their violent acts remains the biggest threat to the world peace. It is a big relief for the humanity that no other ‘religion’ has emerged in the last 1400 years.
Typically, a religion revolves around an imagined God – an entity who watches things from “somewhere above”. He reveals the so-called “Only Truth” through a Messenger (in Islam) or Son of God (in Christianity) that gets written in the Book – Bible or Quran. Everything outside the Holy Book is simply false. And believers must believe in it entirely, unquestioningly. History is full of conflicts between Christians and Muslims – because of the my-god-is-bigger-than-your-god syndrome.
If you take away the God, a religion collapses. Or if you don’t believe in God, again religion becomes irrelevant. Therefore, religions have no relevance for atheists – who steer clear of god and god fiction.
Characteristics of ‘Religion’
Here are some common features of of the ‘belief systems’ called religions.
By nature, a religion is restrictive and imposes a pre-fixed “belief system” on people. Thus, blind beliefs and dogmas are the foundation stones of religion. As a ‘believer’ you must believe in the entire package; there is no room for editing, disagreement or innovation. Religions are particularly comforting for people who don’t want to think with their own brains and lack confidence to be in-charge of their lives.
1. Religions are Divisive and Confrontational
When a religion says that it teaches the “Only Truth”, it is giving you the final conclusion. Moreover, a religion divides the humanity into “believers” and “non-believers”. If you believe in our theory you belong to us, else you are alien. Clearly, it sets the stage for confrontation: you are “either with us or against us.”
As part of its unspoken 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.’ Missionaries are also notorious for staging ridiculous dramas of ‘miracle’ to fool people! Just google to find out how ridiculous they can get.
Once the population of Muslims or Christians in any society becomes “politically significant” they start demanding fancy things in the name of religion and, if denied, they pretend persecution! You can easily spot this tendency all over the world. So, whenever they cry persecution, their coreligionist elsewhere in the world become spokespersons of the ‘holy victims’ – this opens a new channel for outside interference in any society. Lately, China has been facing the dirty political game of missionaries who have converted significant numbers in some parts of China. In some other areas with significant population of ‘Muslim converts’, Chinese authorities had to cut their so-called ‘religious freedoms’ to restore social harmony and prevent radicalization.
2. Religions are 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. Many people say that Islam is even a one way road, you can’t come out alive!
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” are its followers are married to its God forever!! So, there is a supermanish ‘Allah’ for Muslims Islam and a miracle performing ‘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 societies and even now in Islamic societies, saying anything against the religion or even trivial criticism could be seen as a serious crime – serious enough to invite imprisonment or execution!
Separation of State and Religion
By now it must be clear that rational reasoning has no place in religions; in fact, you have no freedom to think or to draw your own conclusions! This has traditionally pitted religion against Science that demands a free and rational inquiry. Thus, 3-4 centuries ago the Christian West began to realize the restrictive consequences of religious dictates on human thinking. It was the time when scientific discoveries had started to emerge and people needed the freedom to think freely, without fear of punishment by religious authorities, the State. Thus, they dumped the dictatorial theocratic governance in favor of governance based on non-religious broader humanistic principles. This gave birth to ‘secularism’ – separation of Religion and State. Thus, secular Western democracies evolved so that people could think and express freely – they got freedom from clergy dictatorship.
Interestingly, while doing so, they were only recognizing the importance of universal ‘Dharma’ principles already in practice in the Indian civilization since ages, without saying so!
Dharma Encourages Free Inquiry
Quite in contrast with foreign born religions, Indian philosophies encourage people to explore themselves and be responsible in deciding what is right for them. There are absolutely no impositions or bondages on people regarding what to believe or not believe. People are squarely responsible for their good and bad actions (karmas) and the 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 in the hands of corrupt and decaying forces.
Dharma is all about ethics and morality. Therefore, all the India born philosophies focus on moral conduct. They can never encourage violence, oppression or misconduct – doing so is adharmic!
‘God’ in Indian Spiritual Philosophies
All the India born philosophies are different paramparas (traditions) that originated in the teachings of different enlightened saints – who all basically taught ‘Dharma’ (universal ethics and morality) 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, visible everywhere, East or West. But it is always nonsensical and and foolish; thus, adharmic.
The nature of Dharma is emphasized in this Hindi 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 or written in the Books 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! Although mere declaration of belief in Bible or Quran is enough to make you a Christian or Muslim! In reality, 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. They were all explorers of universal Truth, in order to come out of pains and sufferings of life. As a result, spirituality and presence of saintly people has been the way of life – as can also be seen from the constructs of indigenous Indian languages. Despite the onslaught of materialism and Western philosophies, 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 people 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 and their followers would be naturally mingling freely with the followers of other traditions. Thus, their teachings certainly would not have been ‘boxed as religions’ – instead the “essence” of their teachings would have only enriched the Dharma atmosphere of India! And, then certainly there would have been no cult of faith identification or faith based discrimination!
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: ‘Dharma principles’ unite 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 own means and not through any other. It clearly acknowledges that there 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, the foreign 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’ found safe shelter on the Indian soil. They had no difficulty merging in the congenial Hindu society despite their foreign appearance and very different belief system.
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 the mono-culturist religious societies, where disagreement or holding divergent view jeopardize your life.
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