Hinduism – Religion or Dharma?

published on March 1, 2009




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Sunil Tuppale

Growing up in Bharat, I
have heard people proclaiming out 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
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

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
. 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



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. It is 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 likeAkasha (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


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


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

Vaichitryat Ruju Kutila Nana Patha Jusha

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
or Self Knowledge.


Bhagavan also says in the
Bhagavad Gita



“Ye Yatha Mam
Prapadyante, TansThataiva 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 BhagavanKarthikeya) and Saurya(worshippers
of BhagavanSurya). 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. 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.




“Foundations of Dharma”–
Shri Swami Iswarananda Giri

“What is 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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