Religion and dharma are usually considered as meaning the same thing in different languages. While the two may have many similarities, as they are both related to the faith in supernatural divine powers and both relate to the conduct of mankind, they are still not the same thing, with very fundamental differences in their origin, evolution and application….
Religious Philosophies & their Evolution
The religious philosophies have evolved as part and parcel of human civilization. The various philosophies that evolved in different parts of the world and at different points of time had their own peculiar characteristics that differentiated one fromanother. They are spread across a wide spectrum, ranging from the primitive beliefs about the supernatural in pre-civilized societies, almost bordering on superstitions, to elaborate abstract visions of the universe, often with focus on the conduct of man and an intent to strengthen the moral values of the society.
These philosophies, one must add, are not always based on logic and rationality. In fact, almost invariably, it is the component of faith – a set of beliefs – sometimes without no obvious evidence or rationality, and at times, largely in contrast with our scientific knowledge, that dominate the rational component, even where it exists.
The Contrast between the East & the West
The religious philosophies that evolved in the ancient Eastern civilizations of India and China have many significant differences from the way religious philosophies evolved in the Western hemisphere. While they share a number of common features, such as the emphasis on pure conduct, faith in an omnipotent supernatural almighty Lord of universe, role of prayer and a set of rules, there are many differences too. Some of these differences are qualitative in nature, consisting of unique characteristics. Many other differences are actually quantitative, with different level of emphasis placed on aspects that are common to both.
The contrast begins with the way these religious philosophies are identified. In the East, they are generally called DHARMA. In the West, they are usually referred to as RELIGION. Thanks to the Colonial era, the globalization and the linguo-cultural fusion during the last couple of centuries, people have begun to perceive the two as the same thing. That is not true. They represent two very different streams of religious philosophies, with different origins, evolutions and characteristics. Most importantly, the values on which they emphasize are absolutely different.
DHARMA – The Religious Philosophy of the East
Dharma is a Sanskrit word that originated with the evolution of Indian civilization somewhere between Central Asia and China. Its literal meaning is “duty”. What it denotes is the duty of an individual. This sense of duty was based on a very large number of factors that include the beliefs of the society about their origin, about the way universe is organized, about the existence of supernatural powers and about human relations that form the core fabric of their society. However, in the end what matters is the “duty” of the individual and whether he or she is able to fulfill it or not. The same word in Prakrit, which was the language of the common people, becomes DHAMMA. It is this word that echoes through all religious philosophies of the East, from the so called Hinduism to Buddhism, and even Confucianism and Taoism. Their most important salient characteristic is the overwhelming precedence given to the conduct of the individual, compared to what that individual believes or has faith in. In other words, what matters most is not the faith of the person, but his or her conduct.
This emphasis on conduct rather than faith has several connotations that become apparent at every aspect in which Dharma contrasts with religion. First, it allows and tolerates differences in faith. It begins with an acceptance of ignorance, treating the almighty God as an entity which is beyond the human comprehension. Consequently, it advises people to seek enlightenment, by following those who have already attained it. The Eastern philosophies place huge emphasis on the role of the GURU, the master or the teacher, and advocates full obedience, almost bordering on a subservient existence of the disciple. It admits the human limitation of a teacher’s following and accepts the possible differences in perception of different Gurus, mostly without being offended by it. Which Guru a person follows is irrelevant till the time following that Guru helps the follower in correctly identifying his duty and fulfilling it.
Thus, in all Eastern religious philosophies, whether it is Hinduism (actually Sanatan Dharma), Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism or Sikhism, there are often sects, or schools of philosophy that somewhat differ from each other. In ancient times, there used to be structured debates, referred to as SHASTRARTHA (interpretation of the texts) between these schools. Whenever, the followers of a particular school became a large mass, they came to be identified as a religious community. Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism originated in exactly this way. Buddhism came to be called Chang in China and Zen in Japan the same way. The importance given to the Buddhist masters in China, Japan, Thailand and other Asian countries has been the subject of many fables, tales, legends and movies. Reverence for the master or the guru is a part and parcel of this tradition.
In all these religious philosophies, the followers refer to the texts, ancient as well as later ones, and use them to identify their duties. But the emphasis is on conduct, not the text that one follows. There is also the concept of Satsang, or “company of learned ones” as that is what is supposed to be the best learning for a person. Buddhist monasteries across the world are also based on this very principle. In Zen, the conduct assumes absolute importance, while words are reduced to triviality. Articulation and interpretation are almost relegated to the background.
Another important aspect of these philosophies is that they begin by accepting their limitation in perceiving god. While accepting that god is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, it leaves it to the individual to perceive him either as an abstract (NIRAKAR – without shape or features and unperceivable by mankind) or in a perceivable form (SAKAR – as an identifiable and perceivable entity). The acceptance of such ignorance means that beliefs about god can be different and those differences are tolerated, provided that they lead the individual to the same Dharma or Duty, which he is supposed to follow.
This is how in Eastern religious philosophies, what you believe is considered an option, and differences therein held tolerable. But when it comes to conduct or Dharma, the duties must be followed. The son is supposed to follow his duty (santan-dharma), and father is supposed to follow his duty (pita-dharma). Thus, a man can have different dharmas at the same time. If they falter, they are looked down upon, irrespective of their beliefs.
RELIGION – Religious Philosophy of the West
Wiktionary and many other dictionaries define ‘religion’ as “belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods”. Historically, the West had two main schools of religious philosophies. The first one was that of pre-Christian era. If one takes the religious philosophies of the Romans and Greeks, they were very different from the way religion came to be interpreted with the advent of Christianity and Islam. In many ways, the pre-Christian religious philosophies are more fluid, not based on any single text and place a far lesser emphasis on communal consolidation.
The modern meaning and interpretation of the word ‘Religion’ is in many ways an extension of the religious philosophies of Christianity and Islam. In fact, it is the common characteristics that they share, which have largely come to be identified as the meaning of religion, and logically so, as together, Christianity and Islam are by far, the most popular and all pervading religious philosophies around the world, particularly after the dominance of Ottoman Empire for many centuries and the recent Colonial era. With 3.2 billion followers,these two religious philosophies have dominated the global religious canvass during the last millennia, which, by the way also coincided with the relatively dark ages that resulted from internal civilizational decay, external attacks, invasion and plunder in the Eastern societies during the same thousand years.
What characterizes a particular religion is its conceptualization and belief about the dominating supernatural power of this universe. The single characterizing feature of Christianity and Islam is its belief in one God, something that was in great contrast to many tribal, pagan, Shamanic and other polytheistic religions were earlier prevalent in the territories where they originated. The abhorrence of Christianity and Islam for idol worship appears to have been inherited from their struggle from those days, when it had to literally compete with them for survival. In contrast, Buddha almost negates the existence of God, even though his followers, both in Hinduism and Buddhism, treat him as an incarnation of God. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Indians, Egyptians and Persians revered nature that helped them sustain, like Sun, which was treated as a divine entity, but such conceptualization of God or Gods was never the main characterizing feature of their religious philosophies.
Both Christianity and Islam are based on a certain piece of text, which represents the final truth for its followers. A follower of these religions must fully believe and have faith in it. Not having faith in even one of the aspects dealt there could lead to charge of blasphemy. This does not mean that everyone necessarily interprets each and every word therein in exactly the same way. There can be different schools of interpretation. The way Wahabis interpret Islam can be totally at odds with how Sufi scholars might be doing it, but there is one aspect common to both. They both explicitly express extreme and unconditional allegiance to every word that is written in the Holy book. The same is also true of Christianity. Catholics or Protestants, they may agree or not agree on the authority of the Church, but they would all still follow the Holy book. While Catholics do place some importance on righteous conduct, the protestants negate even that, with belief in Christ being the first and final atonement of all their sins.
Another aspect that characterizes religion, is the higher significance placed on faith than conduct. A person may not conduct himself as per the norms of a Christian or an Islamic society, but to the extent, he has full allegiance in the religion, he is acceptable. Simply put, in religion, the first and the final duty is to believe in the religion. Everything else is secondary, or even irrelevant.
Religion and Dharma – Two Distinct Entities
The relative lack of tolerance to differences in faith and belief might be the reason why religions lead to far greater communal consolidation. Christians and Muslims across the world also have a duty to convert non-believers and bring them within the community. This is one of the primary reasons for the expansion of these religions during the last few centuries. Contrast this with Eastern philosophies of Dharma, which place very little emphasis on this as a fundamental duty of its followers. In fact, the oldest of them all, Hinduism does not even prescribe a way of getting others converted into Hinduism, indicating the fundamental difference in the need for expansion between the two. This also means that in the final analysis, it is the allegiance to your religion that takes precedence over the actual conduct of the person, thereby creating huge political favors for those who follow the same religion as that of the King.
In Islam, this has even led to religious violence within the followers of Islam. Wahabis do not tolerate the existence of any other sect. Ahmadiyyas, Sufis and Shias have been their constant targets. Not only men and women, even the shrines and places of worship of other Muslim sects are not spared by the Wahabis, and these are not the tales of a long past medieval era. This is an approach, a reality in the twenty first century, which has the support of millions, in the name of religion, of course !
As one can see, religion is not the same as Dharma. The two are very distinct creatures, though they do have many similarities too. It is unfortunate that this distinction is not easily appreciated. Take for instance, Emperor Ashok, who ruled the greatest empire in ancient India, just a century after Buddha and a few centuries before Christ. He was the one primarily responsible for the spread of Buddhism across Asia. The city of Osaka in Japan is named after him. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, who created the first great Indian empire that is recorded in history, was a follower of Jainism. Ashok’s father, Bindusar was once a follower of Vedic sect (commonly referred today as Hinduism) but later began to follow the Ajivik- an ascetic sect of those times. Ashok, who was not very religious in his early life, later adopted Buddhism because of its appeal for non-violence, and spread it all around the world. It is impossible to find such an example in any of the dynasties that have ever followed the Western religions. In fact, in most of them, even an attempt to change religion would have resulted in political havoc for the king. Nothing of the kind happened in the family of Ashok, because the religious philosophy of Dharma is focused primarily on the duties of the individual, and not his allegiance with a particular school of religious philosophy.
This difference between religion and Dharma is best epitomized by the words of Vivekanand, a revered Hindu philosopher, who said, “…We not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion, praying in the mosque of the Mohammedans, worshipping before the fire of the Zoroastrians, and kneeling before the cross of the Christians, knowing that all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of them marking a stage of progress. We gather all these flowers and bind them with the twine of love, making a wonderful bouquet of worship.” (Swami Vivekananda; Complete Works, I-331). Such a statement by a Christian or a Muslim peacher may have led to charges of blasphemy. Vivekanand, on the contrary, is considered a great soul by Hindus for having said it.
What Vivekanand said is not very different from what Victor Hugo also wrote once, “Whenever we encounter the Infinite in man, however imperfectly understood, we treat it with respect. Whether in the synagogue, the mosque, the pagoda, or the wigwam, there is a hideous aspect which we execrate and a sublime aspect which we venerate. So great a subject for spiritual contemplation, such measureless dreaming -- the echo of God on the human wall!”.
Religions do not often talk in that tone. Dharma does, unless of course, it has also become a religion !! …. and it may, unless we understand and appreciate the difference between the two !!