Equalating the Hindu Dharma with Abrahamic monotheistic religion in the fundamental flow leads us to conflicting binaries between ‘Religion & Sprituality’ or ‘Science & Sprituality’
David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Hindu Dharma can perhaps be best described as humanity’s most in depth and diverse repository of spiritual knowledge and practice. It covers all aspects of human life, inwardly and outwardly, relating to the universe as a whole, following the great teachings of Yoga, Vedanta and the exploration of higher consciousness.
Hindu Dharma combines the essence of science, art, culture as an inner pursuit of Self-realisation from all possible angles in a way that groups, communities, individuals of all temperaments can access and benefit from. This has produced a great variety of gurus, sampradayas, deity forms, rituals and sadhanas. Yet it extends to a vast culture that finds a deeper value in every human activity and expression, starting with how we move, breathe, see and think, taking up our entire human potential towards a higher aspiration.
Religion is a western term patterned after Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, which are presented as what religion is supposed to be—a way of faith and belief, emphasising one God, one primary savior or prophet, one book, sin and salvation, heaven and hell. Along with this code of belief is a code of conduct that presents certain moral principles on one hand and religious duties on the other, consisting mainly of prayers.
This monotheistic belief is organised into churches, institutions, orders and hierarchies that one must join. Salvation is gained by belief in the prophet, book, institution and its creed and being loyal to its cause. The main work of the saved is to convert others, aiming at eventually bringing the entire humanity into its fold, even if it requires removing their long held cherished spiritual ways of life that may not follow proper monotheistic guidelines. Such religion is often best described as organised religion and has become a dominant social and political force in the world since the colonial period that promoted it.
Spirituality is another western term used to denote the inner dimension of religion as an inner or mystical experience, which occurs more at an individual level. A spiritual person need not be religious in the outer sense of following a religious dogma, routine or being part of a religious institution. Recently, there has been a worldwide movement away from organised religion to more adaptable spiritual teachings.
Many people today, recognising the limitations of organised religion, now claim to be spiritual but not religious. They reject organised religion for being narrow, divisive, wrong or even bigoted. They feel one can benefit from spiritual practices, even deriving from various religious backgrounds, without having to formally join or follow any particular faith. They may look to new spiritual movements beyond the old religions and their boundaries.
Hinduism & Dharmic Traditions
While this distinction between religion and spirituality may be valid relative to western culture, it is not accurate relative to dharmic traditions. The dharmic traditions of India, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh, are inherently more spiritual teachings than organised religions as just described.
The western model of religion is very different from Hindu Dharma. While it regards Hindu Dharma to be polytheistic, imprecise, anarchic and unstructured, Hindus find it to be narrow, divisive and lacking in any deep spiritual search or vast cultural expression and attunement to nature. The western model of spirituality is closer to Hindu Dharma but Hindu Dharma contains a more clearly defined yogic spirituality, extending to a comprehensive understanding of cosmic intelligence and universal law.
Hindu Dharma formulates itself as an eternal tradition or Sanatana Dharma, based upon the unitary consciousness that pervades all existence. It teaches karma and rebirth, with yoga sadhana and meditation, to take us beyond our outer consciousness to the divine essence of truth within us. The goal of Hindu Dharma is Moksha or liberation of Consciousness, not simply personal freedom or going to heaven. Such Self-realisation or God-realisation is often regarded as the essence of experiential spirituality, which is to know the Divine within oneself.
Dharma as a Way of Knowledge
Hinduism’s first formulation is Veda as a way of knowledge, not as a belief or faith. In this regard, Hinduism recognises two forms of knowledge; the lower knowledge through which we can know the outer realm of name, form and number, time, space and causation; and the higher knowledge through which we can know the eternal and infinite that constitutes the Self of all beings. Hindu thought reflects dharmic principles rather than beliefs or commandments. Non-violence or ahimsa, for example, is a universal principle of respect for the sacred nature of all life. In Hindu thought, faith (shraddha) is regarded as of different qualities, sattvic, rajasic or tamasic, as enlightened, egoistic or ignorant. Faith is not a way of knowledge but indicates the type of knowledge that we are seeking and aspiring towards.
Hindu Dharma is a pluralistic tradition, recognising One truth but many paths, allowing it to encompass many points of view. But Hinduism teaches that to attain that unity tremendous discipline is needed, requiring a special power discernment or viveka, as sharp as the edge of a razor as the Upanishads say. This is a matter of sadhana or individual spiritual practice, not quickly taking upon a belief or a new identity.
Hinduism has much in common with spiritual and mystical paths worldwide, though it has more defined practices and teachings through the continuity of its teachings over thousands of years of numerous great yogis and rishis. Mystical philosophies of the unity of consciousness whether from the ancient Greeks, Druids, Taoists, Christian mystics, Sufis or modern scientists all point in the direction of Hindu Dharma and its Vedantic teachings.
Dharma as More than a Religion
Hinduism can be looked upon as a religion, but only in the broader sense in that it uses the outer dimension of religion, taken in a free and diverse formulation, as a means of an inner spiritual realisation. In this regard, Hindu Dharma contains a much greater variety of religious and spiritual approaches than perhaps any other tradition.
Hindu Dharma contains the largest literature of any religion, the largest number of monks and priests, the largest number of temples and sacred sites, the largest number of festivals and holy days, and the greatest diversity of names and forms of the Divine. It has the largest number of people engaged in regular pilgrimages like the Kumbha Mela and in spiritual and religious practices at home or in temples, from rituals like puja and Yajna, to Yoga, mantra and meditation.
Hindu Dharma has an inward view of religion, aiming at an inner change of consciousness, not just an outer change of belief, identity or social organisation—what could be best called “Yogic Spirituality”. That is why the outer forms of Hinduism are so diverse and adaptable. For this reason, Hindus have not engaged in proselytisation, or religious wars of conquest and conversion.
Such Yogic Spirituality combines the best in world spirituality and in world religion. Once we understand Hindu Dharma, the clash between religion and spirituality, or between one religion and another, will come to an end, as will the clash between science and spirituality. Our inner Self or Atman contains the entire universe within us, as the Upanishads proclaim!
(The writer is a Vedic Scholar and founder of American Institute of Vedic Studies)