Hinduism and other Indian life philosophies are different ways to practice universal “dharma”. They can’t be called “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 universal and is applicable to the whole humanity and it is not a belief system, but universal reality discovered by ancient Indian sages and rishis in their efforts towards Moksha or liberation.
Thus, different India born philosophies are different paths to practice ‘Dharma’ – living according to Nature’s laws and enjoy peace and harmony. Thus, Dharma permeates all Indian philosophies of life. Regardless of differences in philosophies, say between Hinduism and Buddhism or Sikhism, humanity is always seen as a global family, vasudhaiva kutumbakam. Tolerance is, therefore, integral to ‘Dharma’, plurality is inherent in it. So, having people and communities with different opinions or beliefs is normal in Indian societies.
A person may be follower of a certain saintly person and his philosophy but that never stops him from respecting and accepting pious teachings of other enlightened persons. People of India (Bharat) were not even conscious of their “faiths” until the followers of Christ and Mohammad came in! With them came the alien concept of ‘religion’ in India.
The English word ‘religion’ evolved to describe the prophetic philosophies, of which notable examples are Judaism, Christianity, Islam. It is a narrow sectarian Western construct. So when they called people of India “Hindus” and their life philosophy “Hinduism” they were naturally looking at them through their ‘religion’ binoculars.
A religion imposes a pre-fixed “belief system” on people. Those who accept it are called “believers” and the rest “non-believers”. As a follower you must follow the system. There is no room for disagreement. By nature, religion is restrictive and binds followers to pre-fixed concepts and rituals. Thus, blind beliefs and dogmas are built into the idea of religion. Religion also imposes a ‘religious duty’ on the believers to “convert” the non-believers into the religion.
Jesus or Mohammad mere taught some good and pious things. Their followers transformed their teachings into religions, creating rules that are written in the Bible or Quran. Both these enlightened souls gave the best guidance to people of societies with virtual no spiritual evolution. So there is nothing surprising that their followers often got stuck with ‘literal’ dictionary meanings of their words and failed to absorb the real ‘essence’ of what they were taught.
However, the few who really understood the spiritual meaning advanced towards higher and pious living. The rest of the majority merely followed rituals without understanding their significance or got lost in dictionary meanings of verses and started giving weird interpretation to suit their goals.
What we see today in the conduct of Al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS followers is the most extreme interpretations of Islam. There are verses in Bible also that have led Christians to wage wars against others. Thus, religions are only as good as people following them.
In contrast, Indian people have traditionally followed dharma guided philosophies. They all revolve around good human conduct based on, for example non-greed, non-hatred, non-lust, non-ego. Therefore, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs will agree that a person should lead a moral life revolving around non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-killing, etc on one side, and being honest, helpful, compassionate, grateful, etc on the other.
Therefore, it’s all about people’s conduct. Those who lead pious life are considered dharmic and those who live life controlled by (primitive) base instincts – lust, greed, violence, ego – are considered adharmic. Naturally, if you believe in the right things, your conduct will be right, and vice versa.
Let’s now explore religion a bit deeper.
What is a Religion?
Typically, a religious ‘belief system’ revolves around the divine authority of an all-powerful and all-knowing God – a distinct and sovereign entity who governs everything from “somewhere above”. He reveals the so-called ultimate “divine Truth” to a Messenger (Islam) or Son of God (Christianity). This ‘Only Truth’ gets written in a Holy Book. Everything outside the Holy Book is simply false.
The followers are taught that God alone can salvage them from their sins. Here are some common features of foreign religions.
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. Religions, thus, divide the humanity into “believer” and “non-believer”. The believers alone are on the ‘right’ path and only they have the “Knowledge”, and only 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. It also implies that you are “either with us or against us” which clearly sets the stage for confrontation. History after Christ is full of bitter wars among followers of different religions. Since the growth of the religion depends upon growth in numbers; a religious obligation is imposed on the followers to ‘convert’ as many people as possible.
2. Possessive and exclusionary: Becoming a follower means you accept the authority of the religion. It means that you can’t believe in another religion.
Thus, religions are possessive, divisive, exclusionary and consequently, confrontational.
Religious ‘belief systems’ are often quite appealing to people in need of emotional assurance, support and security. They are the easiest ‘targets’ of Christian missionaries and Islamic Mullahs. They normally offer some material and emotional support in exchange for ‘conversion’ into their religion. Once you fell for their self serving logic, you will find them promoting something custom made for you.
Once there is sizeable numbers of Muslims or Christians in any society they become “politically significant” – their “unique identity” is further reinforced when some Muslim or Christian leader sitting somewhere in another part of the world starts speaking for them. Lately, China has been facing this political game of missionaries who have converted significant numbers in some parts of China.
3. Religions Need God !
You can’t have a religion without a Superman like God. Who knows, creates and does everything. Thus, we have a separate God for each religion, and they are all different ! Their followers keep fighting to prove that their “God” is the Greatest !
I am not quite sure who to blame – these poor “Gods” or their silly followers for this power struggle ! I also wonder who looks after people who did not invent a God for them !!
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 “Allah” in Islam who revealed the ‘ONLY Truth’ to the Prophet and a all powerful “God” in Christianity who revealed ‘ONLY Truth’ to his Son (Christ).
Regarding why the God reveals the “only truth” you can make your own story! It would be as good as any. Please don’t ask me, why so many “Only truths” !
There is no place for an atheist in any religion – you can’t be a “Christian atheist” or a “Muslim atheist”. Therefore, you have to first believe in a ‘God’ ! Not believing in god had been a grave crime in many societies, enough to invite severe punishment or even killing, in the not very distant past.
By now you must have gathered that rationality or reasoning has no place in religions; in fact, you have no freedom to come to your own conclusions! That puts them in conflicts with science.
Clearly, none of it applies to Dharma based Indian born philosophies. They don’t center on the idea of a Supermanish God having copyright on the “Ultimate Truth” which he reveals to some privileged chosen messenger as his brand ambassador! They also don’t force beliefs on you; they only point to what is good for you according to dharma, the natural laws.
For the rest, use your own intelligence and live according to it. You are squarely responsible for all your good and bad actions (karmas). By walking on the path of Dharma, you can work out your own salvation – liberation from human suffering, the endless cycle of rebirths. Thus, you are your own master. If you want to believe in some God, for emotional reasons it is perfectly alright. But don’t expect him to protect you if you are doing wrong things.
A non-religious society may still be ethical without belief in God, but an adharmic society soon loses its ethical foundation and falls into corruption and decaying forces.
‘God’ in Indian Spiritual Philosophies
All India born philosophies – say Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism – are different paths to practice Dharma. We may call them different paramparas (traditions) that originated in the teachings of enlightened saints – who all taught ‘Dharma’ in different words and languages.
There is no compulsion to believe in ‘God’. But if you do, you are fee to have your own concept. You may see it as personified in some shape (Saakar) or without form (Niraakar), or as just energy. Thus, different concepts of God are tolerated as ‘normal’, because the ultimate focus is always on 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!
World over there is fashion to wear religious symbols or perform rituals. Indulgence in mechanical and senseless rituals without ever evaluating or questioning them is all stupidity. Ritualism is a distortion that exists in all spiritual philosophies, East or West. It implies a blind faith that is going to be always nonsensical and adharmic.
The nature of Dharma is emphasized in this Doha:
“Dharan Kare So Dharma Hai, Varna Kori Baat.”
It says that 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 religions.
The Danger of Mixing Religion and Politics
Therefore, religious leaders in Christian and Muslim world can easily start dictating the society. The Christian West realized this tendency and came up with the idea of keeping the State “Secular” – which means not using religious preferences or religion based ideas to make policies. A secular state is a “religion neutral” state. It has largely succeeded in its efforts; of course, much credit goes to economic and technological advancements along with modern education.
Needless to say, when Christian societies distance themselves from religion and talk of governance at the universal human level they are only echoing Dharma principle, without saying so!
But the Muslim world appears to have miserably failed on this aspect. Muslim clerics even now talk more like political leaders than humble and pious men preaching morality, love and compassion. It appears really strange when Muslims try to see everything through an Islamic lens – something has to be either Islamic or un-Islamic, as pure black or white. For most non-Muslims it is a dead end of sensible dialog.
The most extreme form of Islam is represented by Islamic terror outfits, for whom Islam means living like tribes of the 7th century Arab world. They have zero tolerance for anything modern or different from their “frozen beliefs.” Saudi Arabia, the richest Muslim nation, should have shown the ways of rational Islam, but being founded on the 200 year old stiff Wahhabi philosophy it has only made matter worse by using its petro-dollars to propagate Wahhabism around the world through religious schools. Historians see it as the founding stone of all Islamic extremism and fundamentalism that the world has been witnessing in recent decades.
In South Asia, Pakistan fell in love with Wahhabism in the 1980s for political reasons. Today, its society is badly infected with all manners of extremists and fundamentalists – who love to hate everyone and anything they don’t like. Non-Muslims are left with disbelief when they learn that there are so many brands of Islamic terrorist; many sworn enemy of each other. All in the name of Islam!
Pakistan is actually telling the truth when it says that it has been the biggest victim of Islamic terrorism! And this is exactly what the world worries about; the possibility of its nukes ending up with extremists.
What if Jesus and Mohammad were Born in India
Since ancient times India has been a land of sages and rishis. The Himalayan region has been their favourite abode although not all saints aspired to go there. As a result, spirituality 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 virtue people should aim 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 looked towards them for spiritual guidance. Their words would have been taken as spiritual guidance to lead pious life; that’s what all saintly persons do.
For sure there would have been two more spiritual traditions in a country where having saints and enlightened people has been a common occurrence. Then their teaching would not have become socio-political movements – which the West calls “religion” – instead the “essence” of their Words would have motivated people to lead pure and pious life. Their followers would be naturally respecting other saints and mingled freely with their followers, without indulging in the cheap number game of conversions.
Then there would have been no need for Secularism!
Diversity and Tolerance in Hinduism
Coming from almost monolithic culture, Westerners are often amazed at the wide spread diversity among Hindus. They wonder whether there is really some binding force that holds them all together. The answer is: Yes, it is 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).
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, and grow in harmony with one another. Of course, if you are just following something blindly you are merely wasting your time. And for that you alone are responsible.
You can’t expect such freedom and tolerance in what the West calls religion, where you merely accept concepts created by others.
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