Dharma: Religion - Not A Mirror Image

December 16, 2022 Vikas Singh Panwar

The oft-repeated shibboleth ‘All religions are equal’ appears to be a hackneyed utterance which insinuates the absence of an eloquent decipherment and understanding of the true meaning and difference between the Semitic and the Dharmic worldview. Do ‘religion’ and ‘Dharma’ have the same connotations? If not, are they exclusively incommensurable with each other? Does a distinction between the two concepts legitimise unequal treatment? Let us unearth their substantive meanings which have hitherto been camouflaged under the thick soil of universally secularised notions of the West.

In a strange election-related petition, the Supreme Court was presented with a fundamental question regarding the concept of religion. The election of Shiv Sena’s leader, a regional party in Maharashtra, was contested on the grounds that Manohar Joshi's use of the word ‘Hindutva’ in his campaign was tantamount to invoking religion. Indian electoral laws prohibit the use of religion in election campaigns. The apex court was stumped with the question of the difference between the Indian concept of Dharma and the western notion of religion.1 Suffixed with the word Hindu, the word Dharma makes Hindu Dharma which is popularly understood and misconstrued as Hindu religion. In its landmark judgement, the apex court, described the Dharma as a consortium of values, propounded that the word ‘Hindutva’ cannot be incontrovertibly implied to be signifying any religion. Instead, it has to be comprehended as a ‘way of life’, and not as a ‘ way of worship’. Delivering its judgement on 11 December 1995, a Five-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by J.S Verma stated: “These Constitution Bench decisions, after a detailed discussion, indicate that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindutva’ , and ‘Hinduism’; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the context of Indian culture and heritage”.’2 The court cautioned against the commingling of the two notions of ‘Religion’ and ‘Dharma’.

According to Collins Dictionary - Religion is a belief in a God or Gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as praying or worshipping in a building such as a church or a temple.3 The Oxford dictionary defines religion as ‘belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.’4

Rajiv Malhotra, an authority on Indic studies argues that depending on the context, the word "dharma" might mean many things. The Sanskrit-English Dictionary of Monier-Williams contains a number of them, such as conduct, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good labour done in accordance with a right or norm, etc.

Dharma originates from the Sanskrit word ‘Dhri’ meaning “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” or “that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe. Many other meanings have been suggested, such as law or “Torah” (in the Judaic sense), “logos” (Greek), “way” (Christian) and even ‘tao” (Chinese).

None of these accurately capture the meaning of the Sanskrit phrase. Western lexicon has no equivalent for dharma. Deen Dayal Upadhyay, a proponent of integral humanism, made a distinction between the two. ‘Religion means a creed or sect. It doesn’t mean Dharma. Dharma is a very broad concept. It sustains society. It sustains the whole world. That which sustains is Dharma’, he said.5 The convenient but incompatible translation of the Indian word Dharma - into a commonly used word - religion is a source of serious puritanical confusion in India and all over the world. King Ashoka had to deal with this dilemma as early as the third century BCE, or the Common Era (C.E.). The fact that Ashoka carved his message to his subjects as edicts on rocks or pillars all over India, which at the time included the territory that is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a well-known characteristic of his rule. He urged his followers to live their lives according to a set of principles or virtues, which he referred to as dharma, in these messages. However, some of these subjects resided in the northwestern border regions, where they spoke Greek or Aramaic. The word "dharma" had to be translated into Greek and Aramaic as a result. He used the word ‘Eusebia’ to translate the word dharma into Greek in order to communicate with those who spoke these languages. The most common English translation of that word is "piety." He used the word ‘dhat’ to translate the same word—dharma—into Aramaic. The most common English translation of that word is "law."6 The selection of these words indicates that two words with different implications were employed to translate the word dharma in languages that were widely spoken outside of India.

Even today Indian scholars are not discreet enough in the nutrition of their language in lieu of the universalising tendency of global culture. ‘The distinctiveness of the cultural and spiritual matrix of dharma civilisations is under siege from something insidious: the widespread dismantling, rearrangement, and digestion of dharmic culture into Western frameworks, by disingenuously characterising the latter as “universal”,’ Rajiv Malhotra championed in his book Sanskrit Non-Translatables7. Dharma is an all-encompassing worldview which refrains from establishing one particularised way of worship and does not prescribe one single God. The word ‘ God’ too is understood differently in the West and the East.

Semitic religions have attempted to characterise Indian religion as polytheistic in light of the vast pantheon of godheads found in Indian culture. But Dharma is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, it is omni-theistic, meaning, it sees divinity all over and everywhere. ‘Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma’, meaning ‘Whatever is there is Brahman - the divine’, is the core message of Dharma8( Chandogya Upanishad).


In his work, Dharma - Hinduism and Religions in India, Chaturvedi Badrinath describes religion as a core belief system in which God is revered as the universe's creator and where the scriptures and commandments serve as a guide to the divine teachings. Religions in the West have concentrated upon morals and do’s and don'ts for humankind. Dharma, on the other hand, propounds a value system that unites the society and the community and provides it with a meaningful compass and a life mission. But at the same time, detaching religion from Dharma will be a Himalayan blunder and will denude our perspicacity to comprehend both in their entirety. Janaki Abhisheki in her book, Religion as Knowledge, states that organs of religion also form part of Dharma, but Dharma is not limited to or by them. It transcends and traverses beyond canons of holy scripture and their teachings and injunctions. Abhisheki then answers the indispensable question, ‘How was the man to understand Dharma?’. He explains: ‘Four sources are given by the composers of the Dharmashastras- the sacred texts, viz., the Vedas, Smritis, Sadaachaara- the good examples set by the good, and fourthly, doing that which is “good for the soul”.9 Thus, in her eyes, although scriptural prudence reinforces Dharma, it is also about one’s actions being guided by the soul.

Who are we? is an existential question that permeates all civilizations. What brings us here? What occurs after we pass away? Can we survive death, and how might we do that? How do we get to the ultimate reality or truth? The dissimilitude between the Indian and Western approaches to these questions and the answers they offer are sharper than most people realize. On most quintessential concepts, the Semitic and Western worldview is philosophically so contrarian to that of the Dharmic worldview that the monotonous humdrum ‘All religions are equal’ sounds yawning and hollow. It is no less intelligible that two things cannot be equal if their beginnings and endings are different. But both are deserving of respect and dignity.

Rajiv Malhotra in his book Being Different - An Indian Challenge To Western Universalism writes - ‘In the Judeo-Christian traditions, revelation comes 'from above.' It is initiated by God, and its content is strictly God-given. Human receptiveness is required, but this alone is insufficient. God is transcendent and must personally intervene in history in order for human beings to discern the truth.’10 Therefore, the substratum of such religions is this historical event, which causes an obsession with gathering and researching the historical information around such interventions, which is what Rajiv refer to as being history-centric. On the other hand, Dharmic faiths are not subservient to historical events in a similar demeanour and intensity as the Judeo-Christian religions. According to the dharmic traditions, truth dwells inside every human, animal, plant, and even the tiniest atom rather than being 'out there' in heaven that can only be reached through the infrequent intervention of prophets. While theistic dharma traditions like Hinduism see humankind as a manifestation of God, non-theistic dharma traditions like Buddhism and Jainism regard humanity's self-realised consciousness as the highest truth and reality. The Semitic proposition that God has already delivered the final truth is not shared on the same wavelength by the Dharmic worldview. Hinduism insisted on a rational and scientific way of life while also viewing all of creation as Leela (divine play). Therefore, seeking involves both rational thought and devotion. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his famous book, The Hindu Way of Life wrote - ‘ Hindu thought has no mistrust of reason. There can be no final breach between the two powers of the human mind, reason and intuition. Beliefs that foster and promote the spiritual life of the soul must be in accordance with nature and the laws of the world of reality with which it is their aim to bring us into harmony.’11 Thus Dharma as a value system is not static; it is not stuck in some historic past. The Judeo-Christian notion of a collective and absolute historical identity is not how the dharmic traditions communicate knowledge, values, and experience. The aspirant is instead free to start over and use his potential to find the ultimate reality in the present. Dharma does not insist upon a definite code of behaviour and action and is flexible. In the words of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay - ‘ The Vedic religion has always undergone transformation. It is dynamic and living. It is not like a stagnant pool.’12

Dharmic worldview and Western paradox

Rudyard Kipling, a famous British novelist and journalist of the 20th century in his famous poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’ penned, ‘ East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ Dharma as a view of life enumerates some conscientious and moralistic values for humankind that distinguish it from the Western weltanschauung. The Dharmic worldview propagates that the Brahman - the divine consciousness penetrates the entirety of the universe engulfing all its animate and inanimate hemispheres. On the inquest of racial, ethnic and religious differences existing and emanating in the world, Dharma establishes Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam . The world is one family. The key distinction between dharmic traditions and the West's reliance on history is that the former's meditative practices eliminate the conditioning that obfuscates one's actual self and the highest truth, whilst the latter lacks both the intellectual underpinning and the tools to do so. Both Buddhism and Hinduism refrain from imposing their own particular histories or asserting historical or spiritual hegemony over the entire world. They are composed and relaxed about the postulations of others’ spiritual antecedents and histories because no privileged period in time or place - nor any individual- can exclusively offer les droit de passage to the divine. Dharma ensconced a geneous relationship with nature. ‘ Mata bhumi putro’ham prithvyah ( Atharva Veda 12|1|12). The earth is my mother and I am her son. Whereas the western worldview cultured the notion of ‘ subduing nature’ (Genesis 1:28), the Dharmic orientation believed in milking nature just as the child draws milk from their mother. 13 The enigma of harmonising religious multiety is answered by the Dharmic philosophy as Ekam Sadvipraa bahudhaa Vadanti maatarisvanamaahuh ( Rig Veda ). Truth is one; wise men interpret it in different ways.14 The ubiquitous and universal acceptance of religious diversity as against the ‘false religion’ notion of the Semitic philosophies is the non pareil virtue of the Dharma school of thought.

Hinduism, the fountainhead of Dharmic traditions, allows for the coexistence of anthropomorphism (worship of nature), polytheism, monotheism, monism, and even atheism (represented by the Samkhya and Mimamsa schools of thought). The religion of Hinduism is not monotheistic. Religions without the idea of God at their core include Buddhism and Jainism. Being "religious" is essentially a western concept. There were atheistic and materialistic schools of thought in the Hindu heritage, such as Charvaka, which are all grouped together as "Hinduism." Obviously, if we take the Abrahamic idea of religion, atheistic religion is absurd - you can't be a " Christian Atheist" or a "Muslim atheist" - not so long ago you would be hung for heresy, an article in the online magazine Veda said.15


It is detrimental to reduce dharma to ideas like religion and law because it locates dharma study in Western frameworks and removes it from the authority of its own exemplars. Dharma has been subjected to the same restrictions as Christianity in Europe as a result of India's failed attempt to equate it with religion. Without a belief in God, a community can still be moral, but an a-dharmic society loses its moral compass and collapses into corruption and decadence.

  1. Manohar Joshi vs Nitin Bhaurao Patil & Anr, Supreme Court of India, 11 December 1995.

  2. Dr Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo vs Shri Prabhakar Kasinath Kunte &... Supreme Court of India, 11 December 1995.

  3. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/religion

  4. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/religion#

  5. Dr Mahesh Chandra Sharma , 2019 Complete Works of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Vol 15.

  6. https://www.firstpost.com/india/dharma-files-why-dharma-is-not-identical-with-religion-or-hinduism-though-it-overlaps-with-it-10099561.html

  7. Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji, 2020, Sanskrit Non- Translatables: The Importance of Sanskritization English.

  8. C.N.Shankar Rao, 2004, Sociology of Indian Society, S Chand Ltd, p.19

  9. M.K.Gandhi, 1955, My Religion, edited by Bharatan Kumarappa.

  10. Being Different - An Indian Challenge To Western Universalism

  11. S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu Way of Life, Unwin Paperbacks

  12. Sudhakar Raje, 1972, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay: A Profile, Deen Dayal Research Institute

  13. The Hindutva Paradigm, Integral Humanism and the Quest for Non- Western Worldview, Ram Madhav

  14. 14. ‘The Tenets and Philosophy of Sanatan Dharma’, https://sanatanmission.com/tag/ekam-sat-vipra-bahudha-vadanti/

  15. ‘Dharma and Religion’, Vedic Knowledge Online, http://veda.wikidot.com/dharma-and-religion

About the Writer:

Vikas Singh Panwar is second year student of Hindu College, Delhi University. He is an avid reader and has an unceasing interest for history, culture and politics. He believes in reviving the Indic civilizational ethos of the Bharatiya populace and wants to delve deeper into Dharma and its manifestations.


The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the Organisation.

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