The definition of ‘religion’ is foreign to the Hindus. There is no such word. The nearest definition for the Hindus describing ‘religion’ will be called the ‘way’. The closest word is ‘panth’ or ’spiritual tradition’. When Hindus talk, it is common to use the term ‘religion’ to describe about spirituality to a person of a different faith because that is how they can understand. However there is a great difference.
The so-called religions of India are not religions but ways of cultivating Dharma! They are to recognize Dharma, the underlying universal truths, and to build our life and culture around them. Jaina, Buddha, Sikh etc. are ’spiritual traditions’, based on the teachings of one or a several enlightened people. All these teachings spring from the Sanatana Dharma. Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnav etc. are different sects belonging to the Hindu system. There are many different rituals, customs and practices in each of these traditions. Some are purely cosmetic, some are superstitions and yet most of them are ‘made easy’ methods for people to live in harmony with Dharma. The path of a genuine seeker of truth is tough one. Everybody cannot travel on this path. Very few people become physicist or biologist who are searching for truth in their own fields. The rest just use the truth or knowledge discovered by the formers.
Similarly, the Hindu system is developed based on the truth discovered by rishis for centuries and is collected in many texts such as the Vedas or the Geeta or the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. For ordinary people, different paths are prescribed in the texts as well as by enlightened people like Buddha or Sankaracharya. It is to be noted that dogmatism is also present in many sects within the Hindu tradition today.
Is Hinduism a Religion?
Now, the question is does such thing as “Hinduism” exist? Since this is not a ‘belief’ or ‘ideas’ of a particular person or a group, ‘ism’ does not fit with it. This name was given by those who did not understand the system and in back of their mind they thought that theirs is the only truth and others are all ‘false belief’ or ’satanic path’! The relation of Sanatana Dharma to the Hindu system is like science to technology. What does the word “Hindu” represents? According to the dictionary: ‘the inhabitants of India’ or ‘followers of Hinduism’ are Hindus. Simply, Hindu is name of a dharmic system and a culture. How about a “Hindu religion”? Does it exist? How many different “panths” and sects can be found which is based on Sanatana Dharma? And, are they like other religions of the world? Should we adhere to Hindu system as a belief-oriented system? Is it right to call it “Hindu faith”? The answer is simple: If such a belief is necessary for certain individuals it is OK. But a system cannot stand on belief or assumption. It must have a rock solid foundation of truth, facts and logic, and it must be able to accommodate the least evolved person as well as the most evolved one.
Let us talk about Dharma - not religion. Let us understand Dharma and find out our own Dharma. One may or may not be religious, may or may not believe in God, but can be Dharmic! If we understand this system as an approach to a universal tradition, which shows how truth and spirituality can be integrated into the whole of life, then it can be of great value for formulating a global dharmic culture today.
Facts About Religions
“Religions of the world has become lifeless mockeries!” - hundred years back the famous “Hindoo monk” Swami Vivekananda said this.
Looking what religions have done to humanity throughout history, one may feel it might be better for us to stay away from religion. It appears that would save us from so many wars, crusades, hostilities and misunderstandings, such as world history is mired with. Open the newspaper today and see how often words like ‘religious fundamentalist’, ‘militants’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bigots’ etc. are used!
The believers have faith in it but almost every moment the do’s and don’ts haunt them and there are always discrepancies between many of the acts of these people and their beliefs. Non-believers want to stay away from ‘authorities’ and seek for ‘freedom’ of thinking and living. Many, especially the students try to avoid religion to enjoy a life without the restrictions put by religion. Some people say: “Religion is opium of people”. Others say, religion is illogical and unscientific.
Religion is generally associated with a belief in something unseen, miraculous or irrational. For many, religion is something removed from day to day life, and it is outside of our known world and also something supernatural. The God is sitting outside of the creation and watching us all the time with the balance of judgement! The fruits of the religious practice are often promised to be gained after death and sometimes based on some kind of fear for the unknown and unseen, and associated with the helplessness of human being. Occasionally believers are exploited by the religious heads or those forces, which use religion for social or political gains.
What is religion? It means: ‘a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes and practices’, and ‘relating back to the acknowledged ultimate reality’. Most religions around us contain three aspects. Within all religions can be found moral principles, which reflect universal ethic and truth. Religion tells us not to be selfish, do good, not to harm others, not to steal, lie or cheat; common human values that all societies require to some degree in order to continue to exist at all. Dogmatism is the second aspect of religion under which certain actions as said to be wrong which may not reflect any ethical or moral values, but only the bias of a particular belief, particularly the belief of the founder or few followers of the founder. For example, if a religion tells us that it is a sin not to perform certain rituals, or only the book of a particular religion has the so-called revelation of God is not a statement of truth but purely a belief, which cannot but lead us to ignorance. The dogma may even tell us that if we did not follow the scriptures or a prophet, one has to go to a place called hell after death and has to suffer eternal punishment. Based on the ethics, beliefs, experiences and the dogma, each such “institutionalized system” or religion introduces of rituals and practices. It may be simply praying in a church, performing “namaj” or doing meditation. Sometimes the rituals may have good value and sometimes meaningless.
Religions are said to mix the nectar of ethics with the poison of exclusive beliefs. They add hundreds of do’s and don’ts, and bar logical or rational questioning. These dogmas create disharmony through both the “believers” and the “non-believers”. The believers avoid logic and the non-believers stamp the believers as outdated or unscientific or even fanatics. Do we really need such religions? Should we discard religion altogether and follow secular and universal ethics only?
Belief is the basis of many religious traditions, especially the non-eastern ones. The dictionary meaning of the word “belief” is ‘a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing’ and not necessarily there exists a proof. As a matter of fact religion in the western world is neatly and simply defined as a “belief system” and the belief is called “truth”. There is a “belief” in one God, one prophet and one book of revelation. This is true especially in Christianity and Islam. The right “belief” is said to bring about salvation and the wrong “belief” is supposed to bring about damnation. Such religions are trying to convert the entire world to their “belief”. By doing so they hope to bring about salvation for the entire humanity!
These kinds of belief systems can state their beliefs in clear and uncomplicated terms and they often sound more like slogans or stereotypes. These are often appealing to an emotional need for certainty and security.
Life is not so simple and eight or ten formulas are too inadequate to solve life’s problems! Why should belief be asserted? Why should any truth have to be imposed as it is done by religions of the world? Does not the truth of things speak for itself if we are open to it? We know that if we protect the earth it will remain as our place for living - we don’t have to ‘believe’ it.
Do we have to ‘believe’ that Ahimsha or non-violence is a great virtue? Do we have to ‘believe’ that vegetarianism is good for our health, environment and economy or we know these for fact?
We also frequently use another word: Faith. In the dictionary faith has several meanings: ‘allegiance to duty or person’, ‘belief and trust in the loyalty of God’, ‘belief in the traditional doctrines of religion’, ‘firm belief in something in which there is no proof’ and ‘complete confidence’. If faith means an openness of the heart to truth, which looks beyond belief and the aspiration to the truth then it is appropriate. The word faith in many cases is also associated with blind faith. If by faith we mean “complete confidence” then it is fine to use. Faith and truth are not the same.
Is religion dharma?
Prof. Arvind Sharma points out that the word religion as used in the standard form carries three connotations…
1. That a religion is conclusive, that is to say it is the one and only true religion;
2. That a religion is exclusionary, that is to say, those who don’t follow it are excluded from salvation and
3. That a religion is separative, that is to say, in order to belong to it one must not belong to another.
In each of these three ways the notion of dharma, which is the original Indian concept, is very different from the notion of religion.
Dharma is not religion!
Religion is only a method of worship and is a word which came into use in the nineteenth century. The word is based on a Christian concept and rooted in a Christian background of affiliation.
Dharma is a very ancient word. Dharma is non-divisive, non-exclusive, and non-conclusive. Dharma is a quest for understanding cosmic order of the universe and consciousness order at a personal level.
Dharma: universal ordering principle from Vedic to modern times
The Hindu religion itself is called Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Dharma. Buddhism is called Buddha Dharma or the Dharma of the Buddha. Jainism is called Jain Dharma. Sikhism is called Sikh Dharma. All dharmic traditions recognize certain fundamental laws or dharmas. These include the law of karma, the process of rebirth, and the need to gain release from the ego that keeps us bound to it. They also recognize certain methods of yoga, mantra and meditation to reach this end, which can be called dharma practices.
The dharmic traditions of India share the core values of Dharma. These involve ethical principles like ahimsa, truthfulness, compassion and renunciation. They require a respect for all life as sacred and a recognition of a single consciousness as pervading the entire universe.
The dharmic traditions of India emphasize dharma first and on that basis allow for a diversity of religious beliefs and philosophies to develop. Dharma, therefore, is not an exclusive belief principle, but an inclusive attitude based upon honoring the unity and interdependence of all existence. For example, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus may disagree philosophically on the description of ultimate reality, not only with each other but among themselves, but that does not require abandoning dharma. In fact for them, the supreme Dharma is beyond words and beliefs anyway. Philosophical views and religious beliefs are only tools to develop dharma and if they take us away from dharma, they should be either modified or discarded.
Today we need a new dharmic consciousness in the world, a recognition of the universal dharmas of being, consciousness and bliss that unite all creatures. All beings have the rights to exist without interference, to develop their own awareness, and find their own happiness. Much of the global crisis today has come about because we human beings have abandoned Dharma and sought to impose our beliefs and desires not only upon other human beings, but on all of life and nature, subordinating the entire planet to our selfish ends. Unless we return to Dharma, it is unlikely that we can flourish, or perhaps even survive as a species. Restoring and reviving Dharma, therefore, is probably the most important issue today.