Is Hinduism a Religion?
By Maria Wirth
Occasionally I noticed that in western publications Hinduism was missing when religions were listed. Buddhism was there without fail, but its mother so to speak, was being ignored. What could be the reason? About one billion human beings are Hindus. Hinduism is alive and vibrant. There is hardly another people who are as ’religious’ and have so much faith in the Divine. Yet, what they revere and hold dear is often considered ‘only’ as a way of life.
However, the discussion is still on. Some argue, “Dharma”, as Hindus (and Buddhists, too) refer to their ‘religion’ cannot be translated as religion. It differs from western religions in many aspects; therefore Hinduism is not a religion. Others feel that since ‘religions’ are legally and socially greatly privileged in today’s world, it would be a big blunder to leave this field to Christianity and Islam who would triumphantly wade into that vacuum. They might claim (and they are experts in unsubstantiated claims) that everyone has a right to religion: therefore, since Hindus don’t have a religion, they need to be blessed with the ‘true’ religion.
To get any further, let’s look at the definition of religion. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut definition. There is however an implicit understanding that religion is about the mysterious origin of our universe, about its creator, about God and about moral guidelines for our lives. The word ‘religion’ comes from re-ligare (Latin) which means to bind back. One could assume that it means to bind the human being back to his creator or God.
In that case, Hindu Dharma is definitely a religion. In fact it is the original, most ancient religion. Many thousands of years ago, the Indian rishis enquired into the truth of this visible world. They postulated criteria for ‘truth’ and came to the conclusion that one invisible, conscious essence is the only true ‘thing’ permeating everything in this apparent universe and beyond. They called it Brahman (from big, expanding) or simply Tat (that) and postulated that it was eternal, infinite, unchanging, true, aware, blissful and the invisible basis of everything including our own person. So basically, we are that Brahman. Our essence is That. Only, we are born blind to this truth and the purpose of life is to realize it. Further, ancient Indian scriptures give many methods for achieving this Self- or God-realization.
Now, when western religions appeared on the scene, they limited this vast, all-pervading Brahman to a “God” who is personal, male, separate from his creation and with strong likes and dislikes. For example, this "God," so is claimed, greatly dislikes any human being who does not acknowledge him as "the only true God." In fact he even has decreed that any such human being will burn eternally in hell, unless he officially (through a small ritual) joins the ‘true religion’.
Now, how do these religions know what God is and what he wants? Because God/ Allah has revealed ‘the truth’ to two persons - to Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago and Prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago, and these revelations have been handed down in two books, the Bible and the Quran. And what is the proof that all this is true? There is no proof, except for the words of those two persons who are, however, not ordinary persons: Jesus Christi is the only son of God and Prophet Mohammed Allah’s final prophet.
That is what Christianity and Islam claim as truth and they repeat this claim again and again so that it looks as if proven and nobody dares to question it.
We can see by now that there are indeed significant differences between the Abrahamic religions on one side, and Hinduism on the other. The Abrahamic religions come as a ‘belief system’, which means that blind belief is required in dogmas, which have no chance to be verified. Hindu Dharma on the other hand is based on a genuine enquiry into truth, which means that there is no need to accept any claim that does not make sense.
Now, religion is also defined as ‘belief system’. In that case, the Abrahamic religions easily qualify. However, there is a contradiction. On one hand, religions claim to tell us about the truth, and on the other hand we have two different, unverifiable ‘belief systems’ about this truth from Christianity and Islam. They can’t be both true and there is a chance that none of them is true, because they contradict human intelligence. It certainly does not make sense that the absolute, eternal truth is a story about a God who is heavily biased towards one group (which one?) of humanity.
So here comes in again Hindu Dharma. It is the best possible ‘belief system’ that is not based on dogmas but based on knowledge and direct experience. It is open to scientific validation. It is possible to know that this manifold manifestation is permeated by one energy or awareness. So the Hindu claim that all including the human being is divine, because all is ultimately Brahman is in all likelihood true. “Tat tvam asi” or in English, ‘you are God’, is however fiercely rejected as heresy by the Abrahamic religions. Mystics of both Christianity and Islam, who experienced this oneness and dared to proclaim it, were excommunicated or even killed.
So does it follow that those religions even resist the truth? Could re-ligare “bind back” be better interpreted as “holding the individual back from realizing his oneness with the Absolute”? This conclusion may actually not be off the mark, especially if one sees how much effort goes into denigrating Hinduism. Every school kid in the world is taught that Hinduism is weird. Not only school kids, at the university level too, there is clearly an attempt by western academics (and that includes western orientated Indians) to badly despise Hinduism. “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America” gives ample proof how outrageously Hinduism is portrayed and how benignly the ‘revealed’ religions. Are people in the west really intellectually so deficient to believe that an irrational dogma, like “everyone has to join the Church to be saved” has anything to do with the truth? Or do they denigrate Hinduism as they know that it has the capacity to trump the western belief systems and undermine their power if only there were a genuine debate on what we can know about the truth?
However, running down Hinduism was for too long too crude and it backfired by now. Hindus realize that their tradition cannot possibly be as bad as it is made out to be. They reacted first in the US and got the syllabus in US schools and colleges changed. Slowly in India, too, the awareness that Hindu Dharma actually stands tall among religions is growing.
So is Hindu Dharma a "religion?" Well, if religions are about the truth, then Hindu Dharma (I see Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as its offsprings) is the best religion. However, if religions are meant to prevent the individual from realizing the truth, then Hindu Dharma is not a religion. But since Christianity and Islam claim to reveal the truth and will not acknowledge that they hinder their flock from knowing the real truth, Hindu Dharma needs to take its rightful place on top among the religions. So far, the two big ‘belief systems’ have dominated the scene and each one declared itself as the ‘only true religion’, even called itself ‘universal’ for the sole reason that both storm all over the world trying to impose their dogmas. Hindu Dharma should appropriate the ‘universal’ tag for itself as it is naturally universal. Everyone and all are included in Brahman.
Many Hindus will probably jerk now and call such advice unacceptable: “No, we are not chauvinistic. Even if others are, we are not like them.” But is it not true? And is Hindu Dharma not about being truthful and fearless and helpful to others? Many in the west feel oppressed by mandatory belief in dogmas, and leave the Church. They opt for atheism as for them anything metaphysical is intrinsically connected with the Church. Some, mostly educated people discover Buddhism. Hinduism unfortunately is not an option for most, as it is projected to be weird. Only few discover its value and stand by it, like Julia Roberts did. If Hindus would be forthright about the profound insights of their rishis, Hindu Dharma would surely spread across the world, as it did in ancient times throughout Asia. Of course, Hindus would need to know at least the basics of their own dharma to be able to see that Hindu Dharma is indeed the best of religions.