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Distinction between Dharma and Religion

Vishal Agarwal (17 June 2009)


 1. Religions are Proselytizing, Dharma is Self-Transformation: Why does Religion breed fanaticism whereas Dharma does not? This is explained very succinctly by David Frawley [1]:

“Perhaps nothing more so than religion that stimulates the passions of humanity toward either higher or lower actions. This is because religion introduces absolutes into human life. Religion sets up a standard of judgment that goes beyond life and death and all the limited values of our transient existence. Such a standard can deepen our sensitivity or can breed fanaticism and bigotry, depending upon whether we use these absolutes to provide a higher standard for our own behavior or to become harsher in our criticism of those who think differently than we do. True religion directs us to the Absolute, which requires that we cleanse our minds of our limited opinions and judgments. False or imperfect religion tries to make absolute these very prejudices, opinions and limitations.

 To understand religion, we must look at religion as a whole, not as a belief system but as a way of life, a system of ethical, mental and spiritual culture – what is called in the Eastern world, dharma or the guiding law of our being. Otherwise we will be unable to extract the essence of religion from its mass of conflicting beliefs. This requires that we look at our own lives as a whole, and that we examine religion as a living phenomenon, as part of our greater human potential, our inner dharma, from whatever different land or culture it may arise. We must learn to look at religion as a way of connecting with Reality through our own consciousness, which is the view of the science of Yoga. This is the view of religion that India has given us, the land wherein human beings have spent the most time in pursuit of the sacred, not to convert others, but to realize the Truth.”

2. Religions demand belief, Dharma stands for Self-Realization

“In the Western world religion is associated with a belief in something unseen, miraculous, or perhaps even irrational. For the Western mind religion is something removed from ordinary existence, and apart from the world of Nature, something super-natural, like the miracle of Christ of turning water into wine. The fruits of our religious practice are gained after death, in heaven, and seem little related to the events of this life. Such religion is different than religion in the Eastern or Hindu sense, and appears artificial and imaginary, rather than the product of any profound meditation.”[2]

 “There is no such term as religion in this sense in the teachings of India. The term for a spiritual teaching is Dharma, the natural law of Truth and its universal and eternal principles. The so-called religions of India – like Hinduism and Buddhism – are not religious belief systems but ways of cultivating dharma, ways of developing higher awareness. To follow the Dharma is possible only through direct perception, which requires freeing the mind from its conditioned responses. It does not rest upon belief or speculation. The cultivation of Dharma….means developing an awareness which is clear enough to perceive things as they are….”[3]

 “We could say, therefore, that there are two basic types of religious teachings in the world.

The first (type) are the belief-oriented systems that predominate in organized Western religions, which emphasize sin and salvation leading to either hell or heaven. Their idea of cosmic law is something imposed from above by the will of God, which may appear to be arbitrary or even vengeful. The world of Nature is looked upon not as part of our own being but as a hostile reality to be controlled or conquered, or as a realm of temptation.

 Second (type) are the dharmic traditions of the Eastern world which emphasize natural law, meditation and Yoga leading to Self-realization. Dharmic traditions seek to know the truth of things and do not set any dogma over our own enquiry….”[4] “Dharmic traditions are experiential rather than belief-oriented – as we see among Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists. They are open, creative and meditative in their approach, an attitude often shared by Western pagan religions and philosophies as well. Such experiential traditions have a great appeal to the inquiring spirit, with their knowledge of deeper levels or consciousness and extrasensory powers. They have a greater history of tolerance and respect for other beliefs, a necessary attitude in the multi-cultural world order in which we live today. Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma has always been able to accommodate many different religious and spiritual approaches. From its standpoint, religious beliefs are not absolutes but merely theories, working models, guides to practice, which must eventually be left behind.”[5]

3. Religions advocate Monolithic Beliefs, Dharma Accepts Diversity of Approaches to the Divine:

“Such [Abrahamic] religions identify religion with the belief in One God, one primary representative of him, and one book of revelation from him. The right belief is said to bring about salvation. The wrong belief is thought to be the worst of all sins and bring about damnation. Such religions are trying to convert the entire world to

 While such monolithic belief systems can state their beliefs in clear and uncomplicated terms, they often sound more like slogans or stereotypes – absolute statements that appeal to an emotional need for certainty and security but fail to deal with the complexity of life itself. Is Truth really that simplistic or have we narrowed it down according to our own bias which, however well intentioned, falls short of what life in its abundance really is?”[6]

 “A statement of such exclusive absolutes about religion is not possible for dharmic traditions like Hinduism, nor would Hindus find it desirable. Coming from a universal background such restrictions appear arbitrary. They appear not as a deep understanding of the Infinite but as the attempt to arrive at a mental or emotional formulation that satisfies not the soul’s longing to merge into the Divine, but the ego’s need for certainty, security and control.”[7]

 “As part of Sanatana Dharma, Hindus are not restricted from studying other religions or respecting Truth wherever and in whomever they see it. Hinduism does not have any word like heretic, pagan or kafir. Hindus have never invaded any country and tried to force people to adopt their religion. There is no excommunication in Hinduism, nor do Hindus ever condemn anyone to eternal hell. Hindu leaders do not issue proclamations restricting the forms of worship that can be practiced by Hindus. Hindus do not have blasphemy laws that prevent anyone from criticizing Hindu teachings.

 Hinduism does not require that we all have the same view of Divinity but encourages unique and diverse ways for the full unfolding of creative intelligence. It says that there is something unique about each person, which is their special connection with the Divine, and that there should be no standardized religion for all people.

 Hindus are not required to agree with one another on religions matters but are encouraged to develop their own insights. Hindus respect original and honest thinking, rather than merely parroting what someone else, however great, has said. If two Hindus do not follow the same guru, worship the Divine in the same form, or study the same scripture, it is not a problem. They will not fight with or try to convert the other person. They respect their diversity as part of the great abundance of life.”[8]

 “Hinduism is not merely a single religion, one among many, but a harmony of many different religious teachings that maintained a peaceful coexistence with each other as parts of a universal tradition. It has not forced or molded these different teachings into uniformity, in fact this diversity itself has manifested because of the universality of the Hindu view, which is that it is not the many who became One but the One that expresses itself as all. This recognition of the One in all and all in One is the basis of the creative and yet synthetic Hindu vision that can produce ever new teachings without losing track of the underlying eternality of Truth.”[9]

4. Religions divide Humans into Believers and Infidels, Dharma does not:

 “Belief oriented religions, when they formulate themselves in an exclusive manner, project their own particular theological ethics which may be apart from, or even contrary to any universal ethics. They hold that if a person does not believe in a particular formulation of God, in one specific representative of him, in one book which contains his word, or other such particular dogmas, that person will suffer or go to hell, whatever else the individual may do – however good, kind, compassionate, generous, or selfless he or she may otherwise be. This is what could be called “theological ethics”, or the judgment of people not by their behavior but by their beliefs, which makes not having certain beliefs on par with doing good harmful actions……Sanatana Dharma does not accept any particular theological morality. It says that we raise ourselves by good actions and lower ourselves by actions which are bad. It does not matter what we believe in but how we live. Hinduism says that a person who leads a good life, even if he or she has never come into contact with any scripture, and has no religious beliefs at all, will come to a good end. On the other hand, a person who leads a bad or harmful life will come to a bad end even if he believes in what he thinks is the true religious.”[10] “Theological ethics divides humanity into the believers and the non-believers, which may be Christians and heathens, Muslims and Kafirs, or simply the people of God and those of the devil, or whatever the religion decides, including condemning different sects within one’s own religion as heretical. This division is equated with a real division in behavior between good and evil, holy and unholy, as if only the members of a particular religion can be truly good and those of other beliefs must be evil, however good they may appear.

Dharmic traditions on the other hand, differentiate human behavior into dharmic and adharmic actions, actions which further the Truth and those which promote ignorance and illusion. There is no division of humanity into dharmic and adharmic souls because the soul, our inner nature is inherently dharmic. The soul is our dharma. The only division is between people who know their true nature and those who do not. Knowledge or ignorance is a capacity of all human beings, and we must all move from the ignorance to the knowledge, if not in this lifetime than in a future one. Hence Dharma can never divide people into warring beliefs.”[11] All this does not mean that Hindu Dharma has no place for faith and devotion.

“Sanatana Dharma accepts faith and devotion but not the limited form in which it is identified. Sanatana Dharma accepts all sincere efforts to find truth or to help other human beings. In this regard, Hinduism can honor atheists, if they are doing good or searching for the truth. Hinduism values doing good more than the mere (having) belief in God, which can be used as a mask for doing harm. It holds that a person who does good, be he an atheist or agnostic, is better than a person who does harm, be he a firm believer in God. Yet beyond valuing what is good, Hinduism values spiritual knowledge. It says that a single person of real spiritual perception is more significant than any number of mere believers or good people. All the good and bad actions of people are ultimately illusory as the Divine is the only true reality. One who knows that is the real teacher.”[12]

5. Religions are History Centered, Dharma is Eternal:

“The [Hindu] religion has no founder. Many of the scriptures are anonymous. Their dates vary several centuries, if not millennia, in scholar’s accounts. The Hindu ideal has always been to downplay the ego, and dedicate all action to the will of God. Thus, although authoring a book has been considered important, mentioning the name of the author has, many a time, not been seen as appropriate. With the offering of the little ego on the altar of the universal self, i.e., God, for centuries, the Hindu lost also his love for historical details. In spite of the drawbacks that the process might have had on him in history, he has not yet forgotten his goal of reaching to a universal unity beyond all differences, where the small ego falls off, as Sri Ramakrishna says, like the bark of the coconut tree, leaving only its mark of a past existence behind.”[13]

Hindu Dharma has a vast literature on philosophic disputations between different schools. In most cases, the author does not even mention the name of his philosophic opponent when criticizing him. Such a practice was considered against scholarly etiquette, and it also kept philosophic discussions depersonalized, and focused on ideas alone. In the Abrahamic religions however, there have been major conflicts and schisms on matters of historical events – matters which would be considered very trivial from the perspective of Hindu spirituality, and not worthy of generating such long-lasting hatreds and enmities.

6. Religions are Exclusivist, Dharma is Inclusivist:

“Sanatana Dharma as an open tradition does not exclude any useful way of approaching the truth of the vast universe in which we live. It does not define itself against something else but includes all that is useful to the spiritual life. Yet this does not mean that a universal tradition accepts other religions as they see themselves. This is not possible, as exclusive views which insist that their point of view alone is correct are mutually contradictory. In accepting the value of all sincere approaches to the Divine, Sanatana Dharma cannot sanction the exclusivism of any particular group. That Sanatana Dharma accepts Christ as a great saint, for example does not mean that it accepts the Christian claim that Christ is the only Son of God.

7. Religions are ‘Organized’, Hindu Dharma is ‘Disorganized’ (Unorganized):

“Hinduism is not an organized religion such as we ordinarily consider one to be. There is no Hindu church, no Hindu Pope, no Hindu messiah, or prophet all Hindus must revere, no one Hindu Bible all Hindus must read. Hinduism has no prescribed day of the week for worship, no one prescribed mass, ritual or call to prayer that everyone must do. The different sects within Hinduism have their different ashramas, temples, leaders, holy places, holy days and holy books, but there is no one set of these for all Hindus. We could say therefore that Hinduism is the greatest disorganized religion in the world. It has never organized itself along monolithic lines, with a set dogma and specific canon of beliefs. It has remained decentralized and localized, which is perhaps why of all the ancient imagistic and mystical religions, it alone has survived through the millennia. Therefore, Hinduism is an open tradition with a great diversity of teachings that does not require any exclusive loyalty. Hinduism is the religion of the individual and allows each person to choose his or her own approach to Divinity based upon various teachings that encompass all human capacities. However, Hinduism is organized in the sense that it contains systematic teachings for all manner of temperaments and all stages of life. As Sanatana Dharma it has teachings that encompass all of human life and culture from medicine and science, art and music, occultism, spirituality and Yoga. In this regard, Hinduism has probably the best organized and the most complete teachings of all religions and has addressed in details all aspects of our existence, including those considered to be outside the domain of religion in other cultures. The literature of Hinduism in these different fields is both much older and much larger that that of any other religion. Hinduism is not organized as a belief or social institution but as a vast set of teachings that we are free to approach from our own angle.”[14]

8. Religions are Monotheistic, Hindu Dharma is Monistic:

“Western religious thinkers generally identify universality in religion with monotheism – the idea that there is only One God and hold that all truly religious beings should worship this same Supreme Being. Yet this insistence on monotheism is exclusive, not universal. It rejects polytheism, pantheism, monism (the idea that there is only one Reality), and other forms of spiritual experience. Such extreme monotheism reduces the Divine to a single book for all people. Such a One God is not a truth of unity, which is universal, but the assertion of a single thing, which is opposed to all else. True unity is universality; it is not one thing as opposed to other, but the One that is everything.

The partiality of exclusive monotheistic belief is revealed in how it fragments itself further into warring monotheistic creeds….Not surprisingly, historically Western monotheism has appeared as the religious counterpart of political imperialism and empire-building, and its expansion to absorb all other countries and cultures. History has revealed how monotheism has been allied with invasions, colonialism and genocide, which may not be an accident but the very end result of a rigid, one-sided and therefore ultimately violent view of the Divine.

The One God becomes an abstraction to which actual people are sacrificed. He becomes jealous, wrathful and communal and promotes such action among his special followers. He is opposed to any creativity or spirituality and insists upon his law, ritual and theology as the unquestioned truth. While this may not have been the intention of the mystics who emphasized the One, it has often become the behavior of his literal-minded followers. Such monolithic views are out harmony with the cultural diversity of the modern world, and represent a medieval and authoritarian standard that usually has a patriarchal bias.

Hinduism, on the other hand, contains the diversity needed for a global age. Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma cannot be limited to belief in One God, but it acknowledges monotheism as an important approach to the spiritual life. In this regard Hinduism is also a monotheistic religion but not exclusively so and has created a number of wonderful monotheistic approaches including that of the Divine Mother. While accepting monotheism as one major approach, Hindus do not always regard it as the highest. Many Hindu teachings regard monism, or the idea that there is only One Truth, as the highest truth and as transcending any monotheistic or personal God.”[15]

[1] Frawley, p. 29        [2] Frawley, p. 40

[3] Frawley, p. 41        [4] Frawley, p. 45

[5] Frawley, p. 56        [6] Frawley, p. 46

[7] Frawley, p. 47        [8] Frawley, p. 74-75

[9] Frawley, p. 77        [10] Frawley, p. 49-50

[11] Frawley, p. 51      [12] Frawley, p. 57

[13] Sitansu S. Chakravarati. 1991. Hinduism a Way of Life. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited (New Delhi). pp. 17-18

[14] Frawley, pp. 62-63          [15] Frawley, pp. 70-71


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