Hinduism – Religion or Dharma?

Growing up in Bharat (India), I have heard people proclaiming time and again that

“All Religions are the same and they teach the same thing”.

Elders, teachers, great men of Bharat, leaders and intellectuals, all of them have been drumming the same tone. Naturally I believed in it till I could think for myself. I have seen that it is only in Bharat one hears the above expression. I have lived in the West for quite some time and I must say I haven’t seen any staunch Christian say the same. I have seen that practicing Christians believe that they alone are right in their beliefs and everyone else who is not a Christian have no chance of being saved. The same goes for Muslims. I have some Muslim friends who are pious and committed to Islam. But they are sincere in their belief that they alone are the chosen people and that they have the last word on Religion, Truth, God and that all non-Muslims are doomed.

It made me wonder why are Hindus so keen on speaking for the other religions? I have heard Hindus eagerly quote the mantra from the Rig Veda “Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti” to mean that truth is one and that truth is called as Allah or Jesus by different religions. They don’t quote the entire mantra. They quote only a fourth of the mantra.
The entire mantra is

Indram mitram varunam agnim ahuhu
atho divya sa suparno garutman
ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti
agnim yamam matarisvanam ahuhu

(Rigveda 1.164.46)

‘They hail him as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni or the Divine Garuda.
Truth is one and the Wise ones refer to the truth by different names as
Agni, Yama, and Matarisvan.’

To use this verse to say that all religions are the same is a blatant misuse of the profound verse.

To say all religions are the same, one must have studied deeply all the different religions. I have seen that people who claim that all religions are the same have rarely studied other religions. They are just parroting that statement they heard from someone and it is not a conclusion that they arrived at by their own study, understanding and conviction.

Also I wish to raise a fundamental question. Is Hinduism also a religion like Christianity and Islam? Why should we consider religions on par with Hinduism?

Before I begin, I want to decipher the word religion. A word means one thing in one part of the world whereas in another part of the world, the same word means something totally different. Take the instance of the word secularism. In the West it means the separation of the Church and the State. Where as in Bharat, the definition of secularism is “Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava” which means all religions will be considered equal and given equal preference. Thus the meaning of secularism is totally distorted in Bharat. And particularly secularism in the current context implies animosity towards anything Hindu.

What does the word religion connote in the Western world? It connotes that a religion should be monotheistic. In other words they should believe in One God. It should have a Prophet and that Prophet is reckoned to have been the person who started the religion at a particular point in history.

So the three main religions we have are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Of course there are other religions like Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Bahai and so on. But for the purpose of this discussion let us consider the Monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam because they are the only two religions aggressively competing for converts among the entire humanity. The rest of the religions are non converting and therefore non aggressive and non invasive. Judaism is a non converting religion. In other words, you can’t convert to become a Jew. Either you are born a Jew or you are not a Jew. But Christianity and Islam thrive on conversion. In fact they feel that if they don’t convert, their statuses are in peril. So they have perfected the art of conversion.

Another feature of the monotheistic religions is that they all believe that this One God, who they claim created the world, is located up in Heaven. And all the monotheistic religions have a ‘Day of Judgment’. In case of Christianity and Islam in particular, the theology is imposed so strongly that people are told that if one doesn’t accept their doctrines, one would have to be punished with eternal damnation or hell fire and all believers of the respective doctrines would go to Heaven and stay with God forever. That is what is meant by the word Salvation. They all believe in one birth and you have to proclaim your faith and adherence to the particular doctrines of your faith in this birth or you will burn in the eternal pit fire of hell. And there is no chance of redemption.

In the East, the word religion has a different sense all together. We call it Dharma.

There is no English equivalent for the word Dharma. Just as any given word in Sanskrit has different meanings based on the context in which it is used in and the elaboration given to it, Dharma has many meanings. It is used in the sense of duty, in the sense of what is right. It is also loosely translated as religion. But it is definitely not religion in the Western sense. Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana means timeless. Meaning there was never a time when it was not. Dharma is a profound word. It is also called Vaidika Dharma because it is based on the Vedas. The Vyakhya(elaboration) of Dharma is “Dharyate iti Dharma”. That which upholds everything is Dharma. There is a Cosmic order in the Universe. That order is manifest as everything in this Universe.

That which holds this vast and wonderful universe with all its millions of stars, galaxies, planets with all the things and beings in harmony is this Rita, the Cosmic order. The Cosmic order includes the Physical, Physiological, Psychological and Spiritual order. All these are the manifestations of Bhagavan. For Hindus, Bhagavan (The Lord) is present in the form of the Cosmic order. In fact Bhagavan is never separate from this Universe.

The Shastras (scriptures) say that all that is here is Bhagavan. “Isavasyam idam sarvam” meaning Bhagavan pervades everything like Akasha (space). Nothing is separate from Akasha. The Creator and the created are non separate like the spider and the web, like the dreamer and the dream. That which holds this Rita, this cosmic order is Dharma. So to me, Dharma is a Way of Life, Values of Life and Expression of Life that is in keeping with the Vision and understanding of Isavasyam idam sarvam.

Being committed to Dharma means having this grand vision of life that all that is there IS Bhagavan and expressing that vision and understanding through our thoughts, words and deeds. That in essence constitutes a Dharmic life. A Dharmic person never goes against the Natural Cosmic Order. Why? Because if I rub against the order, I will get rubbed in the process. If I hurt somebody, I may get away from man made laws because my brother in law is in the Police Department, but I will not be able to escape from the Cosmic law. It is this sense of Dharma that should be the basis of all our endeavors. I should not hurt anybody or anything because I don’t want to be hurt and also by hurting anything or anybody I am hurting something of which I am a part. I should not steal because I don’t want anybody to steal from me. The Mahabharatha speaks of a time when Dharma ruled the world when it says

Na Rajyam Naiva Rajasit Na Dando na ca Dandikaha
Dharmenaiva Praja Sarvaha Rakshantisma Parasparam

The verse above means that there was a time long ago where there was no Kingdom nor a King and no punishments nor a person who would administer punishments. Everybody protected each other with a sense of Dharma. In other words, Dharma was the protector of the people. Everybody acted according to Dharma. So that is our notion of Dharma.

Secondly, our Dharma was not founded by an individual Prophet like the Monotheistic religions. Bhagavan Krishna or Bhagavan Rama did not start our Dharma. They were born into our Dharma. They were born as Vaidikas. I have had a few people in the West ask me when our ‘religion’ started. I would respond to them saying that the question is like asking “When did Physics start?” Did the laws of Physics start on a particular day? Isn’t it that the laws of Physics have always been there as long as this creation has been?

Similarly, our Dharma has always been throughout the myriad cycles of manifestation (Shristi) and dissolution (Pralaya). So it is not that our Dharma originated at some particular point in History. Hence it is called Sanatana. It has always been there. It was manifested by Bhagavan at the time of Shristi and it becomes unmanifest at Pralaya.

Thirdly, our concept of Heaven is not where you go and stay permanently. Our Shastras tell us that heaven is a temporary place one goes to enjoy the fruits of one’s good Karmas (Punyas). It is said “Kshine Punye Martya Lokam Vishanti”. After ones Punyas are exhausted, one will have to go back to Martya loka or the earth where one gets another chance to work for Moksha (liberation from cycle of births and deaths) which is not salvation. Salvation means you are condemned and then you need to be salvaged. Our scriptures do not consider us as condemned. It refers to us as “Amritasya Putraha” meaning immortal children. Moksha is the outcome of Self Knowledge.

Dharma doesn’t divide humanity into believers and infidels as religions do. We also have amongst us those who are Nastikas. Nastikas are those who don’t accept the Vedas as a valid means of knowledge. The Nastikas include the Baudhas (Buddhists), Jainas (Jains) and Charvaks (materialists).

Vaidika Dharma recognizes that all forms of worship of the Lord to be true as elucidated in the Rig Vedik Mantra above. Since the Lord is not separate from this Universe, we can invoke the lord in any form. Pushpadantacharya’s Shiva Mahimna Stotram says

Ruchinam Vaichitryat Ruju Kutila Nana Patha Jusha
Nrinam Eko Gamya Tvam Asi Paya Samarnavaiva

 

According to ones disposition, one takes to a form of worship or a path of Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) which may be direct or meandering and all those paths are valid as long as they are ultimately the worship of Bhagavan which in turn leads us to Atma Gyan or Self Knowledge.

Bhagavan also says in the Bhagavad Gita “Ye Yatha Mam Prapadyante, Tans Tathaiva Bhajamyaham” (Ch 4 Verse 11) which means “In whatever form people worship me, in that form I respond to the devotees and bless them”.

That is why we have so many forms. We can invoke and worship the lord in whatever form we wish to, according to our taste and disposition. And we are not idol worshippers as the others like to accuse us. We are Bhagavan worshippers. We worship Bhagavan in the idol. So we have all the different panthas (paths) each specializing in the worship of Bhagavan in one form or the other. Thus we have the six main recognized forms of worship according to Bhagavan Bashyakara Acharya Shankara which includes Shaiva (worshippers of Bhagavan Shiva), Shakta(worshippers of Bhagavathi or Goddess), Vaishnava (worshippers of Bhagavan Vishnu), Ganapathya(worshippers of Bhagavan Ganapathy), Kaumarya(worshippers of Bhagavan Karthikeya) and Saurya(worshippers of Bhagavan Surya). Many forms of worship are of recent origin and we accept them also as long as they lead us to the Knowledge of the Atma (Self).

Above all, Dharma cannot be imposed. It can be revealed or taught, but never imposed by force. Again, to quote from the Mahabharatha ‘Dharmasya Tattvam Nihitam Guhayam’ which means the expression of Dharma comes from within a person because it is hidden deep within. It can never be imposed. Religions are almost always imposed on people either by lure or by force.

So when you consider these, it is not difficult to recognize the profound differences between religions and Dharma. How can we consider Hindu Dharma as a religion?

How can we accept that Dharma and religions are the same? People who claim that All Religions are same are ignorant of Religions as well as of Dharma. I would like to say that there may be many religions, but there is only one Dharma and that is the Sanatana Dharma or Vaidika Dharma or Hindu Dharma. We are belittling this Dharma by calling it religion or even worse, calling it faith. Religion when elaborated properly according to the Western concept turns out to be dogmatic and cannot be accepted as valid or cannot be compared to Sanatana Hindu Dharma which is vast, profound and timeless.

 

Acknowledgements
“Foundations of Dharma” – Shri Swami Iswarananda Giri
“Hinduism” – Shri Swami Dayananda Saraswathi
“Hindu view of Christianity and Islam” – Shri Ram Swarup
“Defence of Hindu Soceity” – Shri Sita Ram Goel

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