THE profoundness of Dharma as the overarching basis of life transcended all Indian religions – namely Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Says Professor Gavin Flood on Hindu concepts: “Dharma is an important term in Indian religions.(1) But a concept like Dharma is entirely absent in other civilisations. Because of that the colonial scholars wrongly perceived ‘Dharma’ as equivalent of religion. But religion is a Western concept; the Indian concept is neither religion nor even Hinduism nor any ‘ism’ — it is Sanatana Dharma, the eternal law of the universe, which cannot be formulated in any rigid and final set of tenets.”(2) The West knew religion but it had no familiarity with the idea of Dharma. In India people knew that Dharma was common to all religions in India, which was known to all in the country down to illiterate villagers through wandering priests, bards and the like.(3)
Therefore Guruji had been arguing, emphasising and asserting that Dharma, which is an overarching idea, should not be equated to religion which is a narrower concept. Yet the Indian intellectual discourse ignored his plea and the Constitution which was amended three years after Guruji’s life time actually legislated Dharma as equal to religion. When Guruji was endeavouring to explain to the people of India the truth about Hinduism, Hindus, their past and their history, and about the difference between Dharma and religion, particularly in the context of the Semitic religions and their attitudes, secular intellectuals refused to understand the deeper and profound implications of his thoughts. This was essentially because of the basic belief of the people of this country that all religions are alike, leading to the well meaning but not so correct use of the principle of the word “Dharma” in the concept Sarvadharmasamabhava in the sense of equal treatment for all faiths. This idea of Sarvadharmasamabhava had led to total intellectual and political confusion in the mind of even informed people about the very meaning of what ‘religion’ was and what ‘Dharma’ meant. There was a popular tendency to equate ‘Dharma’, which was common to all faiths in India, with ‘Panth’, that is religion.
The principle of Dharma commonly shared by different religious tenets made religious differences minimal. In the process the religion itself also became known by the suffix “Dharma” like ‘Hindu’ Dharma, ‘Jaina’ Dharma, ‘Sikh’ Dharma, ‘Buddha’ Dharma, which meant that there was nothing like separate dharma for each religion, but the common idea of Dharma was interpreted by different religions and masters in their own way, namely Dharma as interpreted by Buddha was Buddhism, Dharma as perceived by Mahavira was Jaina Dharma, Dharma as understood by Guru Nanak was Sikh Dharma and so on. Then came the intervention of the Semitic faiths, which having had no experience of sharing any common idea, much less anything akin to the concept of Dharma, with other religions – even with other Abrahamic faiths with which they shared common history – brought in a different, and exclusive, concept of a religion. Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher statesman of India had described the exclusiveness of the Semitic religions as debilitating. Not only the idea of different religions in India never suffered from any exclusiveness, as none of them denied the right of the other to exist, the idea of Dharma was common to all the Indian faiths. But with the advent of the Semitic faiths in India in addition to the Indian religions, the very common idea of Dharma got mixed up with religion. This was how the Dharma got substituted for religion in popular Indian parlance. So, despite the fact that Dharma was common for all religions in India, the word Dharma itself became synonymous with religion. This is where the catch came.
Dharma equated to religion in the Hindi version of the Constitution
The meaning of Dharma in the distorted popular discourse that followed the Semitic religious interpretation of Indian religions later entered the Constitution of the country though after Guruji’s life time. When the Constitution was amended in the year 1976 to include the word “Secular’ as one of the attributes of the Indian State, the Hindi version of the Constitution of India translated the word “secular”, that was considered neutral to religion, to read dharma nirapekshata to characterise religion neutral state, namely the secular state. But this had perverted the meaning of Dharma in the Indian context. Dharma nirapekshata — which was intended to convey that the Indian State is religion-neutral – in effect had the effect of making the Indian State Dharma-neutral, namely neutral to Dharma. Neutrality to Dharma meant keeping equidistance from Dharma which would mean that the State would keep equal distance both Dharma and Adharma! The State in our conception cannot be neutral to Dharma and Adharma. But the State has to adhere to Dharma – Rajadharma. By wrong popular use, the great concept Dharma got mixed up with religion for lack of clarity between the two.
‘Dharma’ as different from ‘religion’ was the far reaching message of Guruji
The first challenge that Guruji faced in his struggle against the popular notion that Dharma was equal to religion was how to preserve the concept of Dharma as common to all sections of the people of this country regardless of their faiths and how to make everyone understand that Dharma in this sense is different from religion in the sense in which the Semitic/Abrahamic faiths have been understood in the West. To initiate a debate on this fundamental issue, Guruji had go into elementary things about what was ‘Religion’ and what was ‘Dharma’. He struggled all alone and fought relentlessly to keep the difference between Dharma and religion in the discourse. He kept on insisting and repeating, as is evident from his discourses, that Dharma is not religion in the sense in which the latter word is meant in the West. It was in an utterly confusing situation that Guruji had to initiate the process of clearing and recovering the mind of India. He saw that the restricted meaning given to the idea of religion in the Abrahamic/Semitic parlance had begun influencing the different belief systems in India and created differences among them. Guruji compared the Semitic idea of religion which was based on one single book, one single prophet and one single God(4) with the Hindu view that all religions were different paths to reach the same God, and pointed out how the Hindu society itself, thanks to the influence from outside, has begun to perceive its diversity in worship as differences. Guruji said that “the narrow concept of religion [meaning the Semitic concept] seems to have had its effect upon us” and that “the Semitic concept of religion bred intolerance and divided people in the name of religion.” Guruji explained how Hindu Dharma had integrated and assimilated the diverse streams of faiths and beliefs by the idea of Dharma.(5) While Guruji was endeavouring to raise the level of debate to important issues and not persons or politics, the discourse in the country, either intellectual, political or judicial, never rose to the heights to which Guruji had endeavoured to lift it, even though it had shown enormous propensity to misunderstand and misrepresent Guruji. Guruji thus had to struggle against the shallow discourse that had no objective other than immediate political or other gains, even though it risked and prejudiced the long term interests of the nation. The impediment that Guruji faced in his mission to recover the true meaning of Dharma was more from the Indian intellectual establishment’s colonial training to mix up ‘Religion’ with ‘Dharma’.
Guruji’s views on Dharma accepted by judiciary and in politics decades later
But it took a long long time for the Indian establishment to realise the difference between Dharma and religion. Only after Guruji’s life time, the general Indian discourse started becoming conscious that there is a world of difference between Dharma and religion and that Dharma is a higher, overarching principle of life on earth. With the result, in the judicial pronouncements as well as in political discourse today, Dharma is freely and unreservedly used as different from religion and worship. The highest judiciary in India today speaks about Dharma thus: “‘Dharma’ is that which upholds, nourishes, or supports the stability of the society, maintains social order and secures the wellbeing and progress of mankind.”(6) It is precisely in these terms Guruji expounded the idea of Dharma, namely, “the power which brings individuals together and sustains them as a society is called Dharma.”(7) The understanding about Dharma as distinct and different from religion permeates in the political discourse of India. Many political leaders including a self-professed non-believer like M. Karunanidhi, who heads the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] that has clearly visible anti-Hindu tendencies, talks of “Coalition Dharma” in politics.(8) Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, spoke of “Raj Dharma”.(9) So Dharma is not only a national idiom for value based order in the society but also a political idiom for an ethical and moral principle that stood above religion and worship.
So, despite the Hindi version of the Constitution continuing to equate Dharma with religion, the highest judiciary has accepted that Dharma is not but above religion – though long after Guruji’s lifetime. Likewise the Indian political discourse which had distorted the meaning of Dharma as religion too has begun talking of Dharma as a higher principle than religion.
 Michel Danino French Scholar http://veda.wikidot.com/dharma-and-religion
 Sociology of religion in India Volume 3 of Themes in Indian Sociology Volume 3 of Contributions to Indian Sociology Series; Author: Rowena Robinson; Editor: Rowena Robinson; Contributor: Rowena Robinson; Publisher: SAGE, 2004; ISBN 0761997814, 9780761997818
 Bunch of Thoughts 1980Ed p137
 Ibid p135-37
 The Global Ethic by Justice M Rama Jois (Former Chief Justice, Punjab & Haryana state, India) available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/8499774/Dharma-Global-Ethics
 Bunch of Thoughts p.60
 The Hindu newspaper dated 31.10.2006