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Dharma, Religion and Worldviews: Are All Faiths Equal?

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Dharma, Religion and Worldviews: Are All Faiths Equal?
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‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’

Simply put, a worldview is how one perceives reality as ‘perception is reality’. It also applies to a community and a society at large. From this perspective, let us analyse the worldviews of ‘Dharmic’ people and ‘Abrahamic’ people and face one of the most perplexing questions of our time: Are all religious faiths equal?

It has now become fashionable to portray all religious faith systems as equals in India, particularly after liberal anachronism in post-Independence India in that all faiths are equally liberal and liberally equal! Let us delve into an analysis by ‘comparing and contrasting’ the Dharmic religious faith system originated in the Land of Bharat that is India with the monotheistic Abrahamic or Prophetic religious faith system, which accepts that God himself revealed to Abraham.

Dharma

Language makes reality and vice versa. Every word/sentence is a ‘cultural construct’, constituting a language, which is again an important part of life of any community and it’s ethnicity and identity. Thus, language has real world implications, shaping perceptions and influencing the way we treat and get treated in social life. 

Dharma as a Sanskrit term has originated in Bharat meaning ‘right way of living’ and ‘path of rightness’ or ‘righteous path of living’. Dharma has been an aspect of ‘Rta’ referring to the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. So, dharma applies to everything and every being including social human beings. Dharma is entangled with Rta- the universal principle of law, order and harmony that comes out from Brahmn/Brahman. As a path of righteousness, dharma is entangled with Satya – Truth and with truthfulness- a virtue for being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action in life. Again, as a right way of living, dharma entails both ‘Ahimsa’ – Non-violence to other beings and ‘Anrishansata’ – Non-cruelty to other beings. With the passage of time, dharma became more and more nuanced and inclusive with different dharmic faith systems originated in Bharat – Sanatana Hindu dharma (Hinduism), Jaina dharma (Jainism), Bauddha dharma (Buddhism), Sikh dharma (Sikhism), and so many localised ethnic dharmic faiths. Here the dharmic faith system is mainly represented by the Hindu dharmic system which is so complex to be defined in definitive terms.

Religion

Now, the pertinent question: Is dharma what religion is in the West? Religion specifically refers to the “to reconnect” to God and “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods”. That is why religion is related to the “other” worldly life, not “this” worldly life as God is presumed to be out of “this” life. In this sense, religion and secularism in the West have been more or less antithetical in nature. 

The fundamental premise of religion in the West is based on the monotheistic Abrahamic faith and belief system, which considers the “Divine” as “One and Only one” having only “One Form/Formless” and only “One” worship system. Though like different dharmic faith systems, Abrahamic faith system has different faiths like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but all Abrahamic faiths follow the basic tenets of monotheism.

Comparing and Contrasting

Then come the basic differences between Dharmic and Abrahamic faith systems. Let us discuss both faith systems on various theological dimensions like eschatology, soteriology, theophany etc.

Truth, Reality and God

While the dharmic religious system is basically ‘inductive and experiential’ in nature to acquire divine knowledge, Abrahamic religious system is ‘deductive and revealing’ in nature. A dharmic follower is entitled to experiment with the ‘paths’ to the ‘Truth’ as is the case in modern experimental scientific methodology.

In Dharmic epistemology, dharma is an all-inclusive concept for all things and all beings. The reality of truth as perceived in dharmic traditions is: ‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’ – That which exists is One, sages call it by different names. The Truth is ‘One’, but it is manifest differently and appears as per the perceptions of perceivers/observers. This proposition appears more consistent with modern scientific knowledge of Quantum Mechanics. From that viewpoint, dharma ‘not only tolerates but also accepts’ different aspects of truth, reality and life. As per dharmic viewpoint, life is a continuum between ‘this’ and ‘other’ world, and dharma beholds all human lives in a meaningful way to both this worldly society and other worldly divinity. A dharmic person doesn’t differentiate between this life and other life and considers both lives as the ‘two faces’ of the same ‘truth and reality’! 

But religion is so specific in monotheistic nature that religious life demands a very specific worldview of a religious person, who considers only a specific version of life and reality. Abrahamic religious faith always differentiates between ‘this’ mundane ‘fallen’ world and ‘that’ divine world. Truth is so ‘fixed’ as revealed by a ‘Personal’ God that the followers have been so ordained to divide the whole mankind into ‘Believers’ and ‘non-Believers’ of the monotheistic Abrahamic ‘God’!

In the Dharmic universe, Divinity is all pervasive Brahmn/Brahman, pervading all things and all beings. Brahmn is the very essence – the Ultimate Reality that is Truth, which is both personal and impersonal, limiting and limitless, form and formless – AbangManasaGocharam – the undefinable unexplainable entity. Brahmn is both manifest as well as an unmanifest entity. So, divinity is not separated from its creation. That is why the Hindu dharmic faith can’t be explained so easily as pantheistic worldviews exist alongside panentheistic, polytheistic, monotheistic and even atheistic worldviews in Hinduism. 

Brahmn- the ultimate reality is also considered the Supreme Being and Soul- Paramatma with All-Consciousness pervading all beings, and all beings have Atman- spirit/soul having the true “self”. So this “Atma” or “Jiva atma” is basically identical to and inseparable from the Supreme Being “Paramatma”. When the supreme being is perceived so personally, it is viewed as Ishvara, Bhagavan or Parameshwara and worshipped in different Divine Personalities like Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, Shakti or other personalities, depending upon the sect. That is why Brahmn as Bhagavan is Blissful. So, Godin Hindu dharmic faith system is “One Unified Principle” (Ekam Advay Tattva) of the Absolute Truth- brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate- the Brahmn that is Paramatma that is Bhagavan is the same and one Absolute Truth. And then, God that is Brahmn that is Paramatma that is Bhagavan has always been Sat-Chit-Ananda-swarupa meaning simultaneously Truth-Consciousness-Blissful. 

Hindu God creates, sustains and destroys the universe in different Divine Forms of Deva/Devi. In Hindu Dharmic traditions God may be male or female as per devotee’s way of perceiving divinity. So, polytheism in Hindu dharmic faith system can’t simply be explained with the worship of multiple Gods or Goddesses as it is generally made out to be. Every God/Goddess is a particular manifest form of the One- Brahmn. 

But, the Divine/God is completely separated from the world and his creations including human beings in Abrahamic monotheistic faith. All things and all beings have no divine attributes out of their Creator God who is essentially a Male God who is transcendent, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and creator of the universe. Of course, there have been few differences in conceptualising God in that Yudaic God- Yahweh has no duality or trinity and God is personal as per Torah. But Christianity follows the doctrine of monotheistic Trinitarianism- Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit of God, and considers Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of God as a human being. But in Islam, God is strictly singular (Tawhid) and Jesus is no God, but a prophet, and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet.

So, truth, reality and God have been perceived so differently in the Dharmic faith system from that in Abrahamic faith system.

Life, Soul and Satan

In Atma Tattva of Dharmic theology Jiva is the human being having atman- the true “self” of every person- that is the soul or spirit, which is ultimately indistinct from Brahmn, the supreme spirit/soul. So, every human being is Jivatma, actually a part of Paramatma that is Brahmn. Then human beings are Amritasya Putra – sons and daughters of the Divine. So, every human being is born virtuous and born-free. Man can never be born as a sinner but bound by desires.

But, in Abrahamic theology, man is not born-free but bound, who is sinful by birth as the progeny of the original sinners – Adam and Eve, who had been cursed and banished to this mundane “fallen” world from the Eden for their sinful acts on the inducement of Evil/Satan. 

While there is no theological basis of Evil or Satan in Dharmic faiths, the reality of Evil/Satan is ever present in Abrahamic faiths. As every soul or atma is originally divine in nature, there can be no evil spirit in the dharmic faith system. God in dharmic Hindu faith is so benevolent to everyone that Bhagavan can never be so curseful and no one can be condemned to be evil forever. Atma or soul in the dharmic system goes through “many” lives till the attainment of liberation or Moksha. But the human spirit/soul has only “one” life in Abrahamic faith system which would attain either joyous or painful condemned afterlife forever. 

Liberation, Salvation and Time-Scale

In terms of eschatology also, there remains basic differences between Dharmic and Abrahamic faith systems. Let us delve into the area.

What are the purpose and objectives of human life? In dharmic ways of life, the ultimate goal of life is Moksha, Jivamukti, Kaivalya, Nirvana or Samadhi – all of which are collectively termed as “Liberation” in English. 

Moksha/Jivamukti/Kaivalya/Nirvana/Samadhi can be understood in several different ways. It may be: the realisation of one’s union with God; the realisation of one’s eternal relationship with God; the realisation of the unity of all beings and all things; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; the attainment of perfect mental peace; detachment from all types of worldly desires etc. Through righteous actions or Karma (Karma Yoga), unflinching love and devotion or Bhakti (Bhakti Yoga), knowledge and wisdom (Jnana Yoga) and meditation (Raja Yoga) one can liberate himself/herself from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth of Samsara, where Yoga is both means/methods as well as end in itself in that “yoga”is union with God. 

The faith in the indestructibility of the soul- atma in the dharmic faith system is so unique that atma in human life comes through different types of subhuman lives in an evolutionary way. That is why the concept of reincarnation and Avatars has been a strong premise in Hindu dharmic life. If God is omnipotent, why can’t God manifest himself/herself as different forms including human forms in his created world? So, in theophany, the Dharmic faith system has endorsed the “true” omnipotent power of God in manifesting himself as so many manifestations or Avatars in principle throughout the timeline of Kala. 

So, Kala- time is eternal and cyclical in dharmic life. From Paramanu- a fraction of second to Brahma- billions of years and Kalpa- aeons, Hindu time-scale is so vast, limitless and cyclical that dharmic life has been conceptualised in eternity with atma, avatars and moksha. Then liberation in Dharmic ways of life is not just salvation as conceptualised in Abrahamic ways of life. 

Salvation under the soteriology of Abrahamic faith is the saving of the soul from sin and its consequences. As man is a sinner by nature, man musts be saved by God. In Judaism the people must observe the Ten Commandments for salvation individually and collectively. But in Christianity salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ as the plan of salvation by God on the Fall of Adam and it would be completed on the Day of Judgement. Salvation in Islam is the eventual entrance to Paradise for Muslims only who die believing in the One God (Allah) and his message in Quran by following Five Principles. And, this salvation in Abrahamic faiths has been ordained at the Last Judgement following the linear scale of time in terms of days.

In short, Dharmic faith follows the principles of liberation of atma which is not a sinner but virtuous in nature as a part of Paramatma and all beings are divine in character. Thus, liberation in Dharmic religions is always self-attained by sadhana or self-effortsand termed Moksha in Hindu tradition, Siddha in Jaina tradition and Bodhisattva in Theravada Bauddha tradition. But Abrahamic faith follows the principles of salvation considering human beings as sinners and to be saved by God who is graceful and merciful only for his ‘believers’.

Revelation, Knowledge of God and Scriptures

Scriptures are “sacred texts” related to a religious tradition, passed down through memorisation from generation to generation and finally written down on various material forms of seals, stone inscriptions, parchments etc. in ancient times.

In Dharmic faiths Rig Veda is considered the first scripture and the oldest surviving scripture in human civilisation. Veda is Jnan meaning to some extent knowledge. Actually, jnan is the realisation of the Truth and vidya is the knowledge of a subject. Four Vedas and Upanishads are considered apauruseya– “not human compositions”, “directly revealed”, and termed as Shruti – “what is heard and revealed”. Shruti is actually the realisation or jnan of the Brahmn- the Ultimate Reality through contemplation and meditation. Apart from Shruti we have Smritis- memory comprising an enormous volume of texts including Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Tantras, Yoga Sutras, Agamas and many Dharma Shastras including Manusmriti. The Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata is considered as the essence of the Vedas. Other Dharmic religions also have sacred texts. Like Angas and Samaysara of the Jains, Tipitaka/Pali Canon of the Buddhists, and Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs.

But the moot point of Dharmic scriptures is that all are ‘descriptive and non-judgemental’ in nature, not ‘prescriptive and judgemental’ as in Abrahamic scriptures where every sacred texts like Tanakh/Hebrew Bible and Torah of the Jews, the Old Testament and New Testament of the Christians, and the Quran and Hadiths of the Muslims are beset with ‘dos and don’ts’ type of decrees on human life. Because, the Abrahamic scriptures are considered as the “Revelation of a personal God” and this revelation is a process by which a personal God reveals knowledge of himself, his will, and his divine providence to the world of human beings. The Abrahamic scriptures don’t subscribe to the concept of realisation or Jnan of the Truth or Ultimate Reality or God by a human being. 

In Dharmic faith one can “question” the very path of Knowledge of God as the process is basically inductive and experiential as shown by Rishis or seers, a concept similar to the concept of prophets, and Rishis can be both male and female seers who are believed to have composed the hymns of Shrutis by entering into communion with the Supreme Being through meditation. Dharmic faith endorses the concept of “Continuous revelation” as a very logical essence of Knowledge of God as God is All-Being revealing to his creatures in a continuous manner. But, as Abrahamic faiths have been basically deductive and prophetic, “Revelation” has been final, and the Knowledge of God has also been “fixed” as per the scriptures.

Pratima, Idol and Worship

One of the biggest controversies from the perspective of Abrahamic faith is about the “Idol” worship practiced particularly in the Dharmic faith. But as Dharma is not like Religion and Guru not like Mentor, Pratima is also not like Idol as conceived in Abrahamic faith. The Sanskrit term Pratima is not only an “image” or “likeness” of a deity but also a sacred image or depiction of a deity. Pratima is like a vehicle through which the infinite and unmanifest God willingly takes a definite and manifest form for the devotees. The deity, when invoked through Mantras (sacred hymns), is believed to be present in the icon. So, an idol is not merely an idol in Dharmic faith as is made out to be in Abrahamic monotheism. 

If God is omnipotent, then why can’t He manifest himself either as a Murti or Vigraha or as an Avatar (incarnation)in different forms? Hindu dharmic theology did not delimit the power, omnipotence and omniscience of God. Every Being including Devas is Kana-angsh Avatar (tiny manifestation) of God the Supreme Being in the Dharmic faith system. 

That is why no single fixed type of worship is prescribed and pronounced in the dharmic worship system. From the manifest form of deities to unmanifest formless Brahmn a dharmic may resort to any types of methods to worship Brahmn/Paramatma/Parameshwar as per the tendency and disposition of the devotee. 

But the way and form of worshipping God have been ordained in the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths and the followers have to follow strictly the rituals and practices of traditions of worship. 

Rishi, Guru and Prophet

Is there anyone to mediate between a devotee and God? Here comes the roles of Rishi and Guru in Dharmic tradition, and Prophets in Abrahamic tradition. Rishis are “self-realised” persons- “sages” in English. There have been thousands of Rishis, especially the Saptarshi (the Seven Sages) and their clans having both male and female seers who have composed sacred hymns through divine communion in Dharmic traditions. From this tradition arose the Guru-shishya parampara and so many Sampradaya and Dikshakarana (Initiation) systems in Dharmic traditions. Guru is the one who “dispels the darkness of ignorance”. But the question is: whether a Guru is a necessity in the journey to liberation? The answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in the Dharmic theology. As a Jivatma or human being is indistinct from the Supreme Being Paramatma by nature, a human being can attain moksha with or without the guidance of a Guru but with his/her own righteous way of living with God’s “grace” or “Kripa” of Bhagavan. 

But in Abrahamic theology a prophet is not like a Rishi in Dharmic theology. A prophet is not a “self-realised” person but a “chosen” person as the prophetic messenger of God to pronounce God’s law (i.e. Revelation). Here the prophets play the roles of mediators in the Day of Judgement. In Christian theology Jesus the Christ is the only “Savior” for mankind who is like the incarnation or avatar of God in human form. 

Inclusionary or Exclusionary 

How far are both the faith systems inclusionary or exclusionary? Dharmic faiths, particularly Hindu dharmic faith, don’t divide the whole mankind into two groups of ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ as is ingrained into the Abrahamic faith system. As all things and all beings including human beings are divine in nature, there arise no question of ‘heresy’ in Dharmic faiths. Because each and every person is basically ‘dharmic’ in the sense that dharma is an essential property and characteristics of human beings, not related essentially to divinity. Then dharma signifies broadly to humaneness. If someone opines contrary to dharmic religious doctrine, particularly in Hindu dharmic faiths, the person may at most be levelled as Bhranta or preposterous but not as a ‘heretic’ and punishable as in Abrahamic faiths. 

Anyone can formally abandon and renounce any dharmic faith without being levelled as an ‘apostate’ and being punished for this apostasy as is the case in Abrahamic faiths. All non-believers are infidels and termed as ‘heathens’ in Christian faith and ‘kafirs’ in Islamic faith who are not entitled for salvation. Any action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God is ‘blasphemy’ in Abrahamic faith and the person concerned is to be punished. 

But, Dharmic faiths don’t endorse these types of exclusionary principles and punishment to so-called non-believers of dharmic faiths. 

Conversion, Competition and Conflict

Simply, all religious faiths can be categorised into two types: converting and non-converting. There is no doubt that every religious faith is essentially ethnic in nature with both particularistic as well as universalistic attributes and characteristics. Dharmic faiths, particularly Hindu faith, are basically non-converting in nature. But Abrahamic faiths, particularly Christianity and Islam, are essentially converting in nature in that both faiths endorse the followers to convert ‘non-believers’ into ‘believers’ and get duly ‘rewarded’ afterlife. 

Of course, there is a misconception regarding the Hindu faith that a person becomes a Hindu by birth only. It is a partial picture in that Hindu way of life has gone through many evolutionary phases where Hindu faiths have been adopted by the people throughout the length and breadth of the Land of Bharat and by the people in the East Asian countries so many centuries ago. This process of assimilation, acculturation and culturisation of Hindu way of life can’t be compared with the conflictive conversion process of the Abrahamic converting faiths. 

We know that every faith system of denomination has so many sects within its basic fold. Hindu dharmic faith has sects like Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta etc. But each sect of Hindu faith is not conflictive but competitive to other sects and tries to include other sects in a pyramidal power structure with its own deity in the topmost position through a co-opting process. Thus, Dharmic faiths not only “tolerate but also accept” other faiths.

But the case is completely the other way around for Abrahamic faiths in that they are not only conflictive to each other denominationally externally but also conflictive to each other sect-wise internally. Mutual acceptance and peaceful co-existence have been missing in the Abrahamic faiths system due to their inherent exclusionary theological paradigm. 

The End Note

In the broad spectrum of religious faith systems, we have Dharmic Hindu faith in one end and Abrahamic monotheistic faiths in the other end. At one end of the spectrum we have a worldview of Hindu Dharmic faith which pronounces “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”- ‘World is a Family’ spiritually, philosophically and denominationally on the basis of the divinity of mankind, and at the other end we have Abrahamic faiths which divide the whole mankind and the world into two mutually exclusive domain of “Believers and non-Believers” on the basis of adherence of God. 

So, all ‘faiths’ are neither liberally equal nor equally liberal in their worldviews and practices.

Featured Image: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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Sujit Roy

A Research Analyst with PhD and authored research articles, books and articles on socio-cultural issues.