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Dharma vs. Religion – Part I

August 11, 2020 Authored by: Sita Ram Goel

When the European scholars in 18-19th centuries (CE) began to translate the literature of India in their own languages, they felt a special difficulty with regard to one word. That word was ‘dharma’. In European languages, there was no one word which could completely express the essential nature of dharma. So the European scholars had to make use of different words relative to the context in which the word had been used in Indian literature. In the English language, dharma was translated as religion, righteousness, law, tradition, moral code, etc., according to the context. Thus European scholars confirmed that great saying of Bhishma Pitamaha in the Mahabharata: (the dynamics of dharma is deep).

But the modern scholars in India did not have to experience any such difficulty in the context of translation. They heard the word ‘religion’ of the English language and decided instantly and unanimously that this word should be translated as ‘dharma’ in all Indian languages.

The performance was very economical, so that all the sects of Sanatana Dharma – Smarta, Jaina, Bauddha, Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Saurya, Ganapatya, Siddha and Santa on the one side, and Islam and Christianity on the other, were brought within the circumference of one common denomination – dharma.

Among the schools of Sanatana Dharma, the tradition of mutual tolerance and equal regard was as old as the schools themselves. This tradition was now extended to Islam and Christianity without any doubt or hesitation. This extension (of equal regard) was quite correct from the Sanatana Dharma point of view, if Islam and Christianity were dharmas similar to the dharmas of the schools of the Sanatana Dharma.

But Christian theologians and missionaries and the ulema and mullahs of Islam could not wholly agree to this reciprocal exchange of equal regard. They liked it very much that the schools of Sanatana Dharma cultivate respect towards their religions, but they could not agree to the proposition that their own religions should manifest reciprocal regard for Sanatana Dharma or for any of its schools.

Christian theologians and missionaries said that all schools of Sanatana Dharma carry the message of Satan, and that they did not conform to the divine message given by Jesus Christ. Muslim ulema and mullahs gave fatwas that all schools of Sanatana Dharma were kufr and had nothing in common with the unique revelation from Allah, conveyed through Prophet Muhammad.

The demand of discrimination was to find out a solution to this dilemma. An attempt should have been made to know why Islam and Christianity had nothing in common with Sanatana Dharma. But Indian scholars paid no heed to the statements from the spokesmen for Christianity and Islam. These scholars contented themselves with this much only that the scriptures of Islam and Christianity contained some sentences which sounded consistent with Sanatana Dharma. And by publishing collections of such stray sentences with their own comments, these scholars proclaimed that they were experts on Islam and Christianity as well.

It is needless to say that this was a presumptuous attempt the evil consequences of which the Hindu society has had to suffer. The more strongly the Hindu society pronounces its goodwill towards Islam and- Christianity, the more sharply increases Islam’s persistence to convert India into dar-ul-Islam (the land of Islam), and Christianity’s harangue that until India becomes the land of Jesus, India’s salvation is impossible.

In this situation, the right course is that expositions of Islam and Christianity be heard from the mouths of their own spokesmen, and then alone a decision be taken whether, in the context of their religions, the notion of equal regard towards them is justified or not. The Hindu society should shed the illusion that it alone is competent to speak on behalf of all other societies.

The Two Traditions of Worship

History stands witness that both Islam and Christianity have been in conflict not only with Sanatana Dharma but also with many other ways of worship which have flourished outside India. In fact, conflict with regard to mode of worship commenced with the emergence of that psyche which Christianity and Islam carry within them. Before the rise of Christianity, no trace of any bloodshed regarding mode of worship can be found in the history of the world. With the advent of Islam, even those areas of the world were also drenched in blood where the sword of Christianity had not reached. Therefore, first of all we should get acquainted with the psyche of Christianity and Islam, and then compare that psyche with the other psyche which has been nourished in those traditions of worship which have been destroyed by Christianity and Islam or which they want to destroy.

A bird’s-eye view of the history of the world tells us that there have been two traditions of worship. We will call one the tradition of Advaita, and the other that of Monotheism.

The tradition of Advaita is found prevalent particularly in the ancient cultures of India, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and Japan. Before the spread of Christianity, the Celt, German, Frank, Slav and Scandinavian peoples of Europe were also followers of Advaita. In the cultures of the original inhabitants of South and North America, the stamp of Advaita is clearly visible. In those communities of Africa also which have not yet been converted to Christianity or Islam, consciousness of Advaita exists. In ancient Ethiopia, the shape of Advaita was sufficiently refined.

On the other hand, Monotheism rose first of all among the Jews who, after a long spell of nomadic life, had settled down in Palestine. A detailed exposition as well as the history of their Monotheism is available in the Old Testament of the Bible. Among them was born Jesus whom some of his disciples proclaimed as the ‘Christ’ after his death. Christianity’s exposition is available in the New Testament of the Bible. After organizing a powerful Church, Christianity seized the Roman Empire in the fourth century (CE). That empire had expanded far and wide in Europe, West Asia and North Africa.

Thereafter, Christianity spread in other parts of Europe from the fifth to the fifteenth century and, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, Christianity along with European imperialism reached the countries of America, Africa and Asia. Many countries among them became completely Christianized. Now this faith is steadily spreading in the other countries.

The rise of Islam occurred in the first half of the seventh century (CE). This faith had spread in its birthplace, Arabia, in the life-time of its founder, Muhammad. Thereafter, Arab armies carried Islam up to Spain through North Africa on the one side, and to Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Khurasan, Central Asia and Sindh on the other. The armies of Turkish imperialism strived for several hundred years to spread Islam in Europe on the one hand and in India on the other. In Europe, this effort (to spread Islam) remained wholly unsuccessful except in some regions, so much so that the well-established rule of Islam in Spain was also uprooted. But in India, Islam gained significant success. The present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, once parts of India, are the living examples of that success. In addition to this, in Indonesia, Malaysia and several countries of Africa, Islam has spread its tentacles far and wide.

Spread of Faith and Use of Force

In the tradition of Advaita, one characteristic is particularly noteworthy. In the long history of this tradition, not a single instance of spread of faith by use of force is available. Among the countries and communities following the tradition of Advaita, many wars have been fought due to many kinds of differences and hostilities. But never has any war been fought for the spread of faith. In this context, the spread of Buddhism is particularly notable. In the spread of this dharma, not a single soldier ever played any role. The monks of the Dharma Sangha alone carried this faith far and wide. And in the countries where Buddhism spread, it never came into conflict with the ancient modes of worship prevalent in those countries.

On the other hand, the whole history of the spread of Monotheism is the history of use of force in various ways. The expansion of Christianity and Islam took place only through the use of armed force or economic power or a combination both, by some imperialism or the other. In the process of this expansion, three facts stare us in the face:

Firstly, the followers of Monotheism destroyed the religious places of other faiths, broke or defiled the sacred images of their gods, burnt their sacred scriptures, killed their priests and saints or dishonored them, and made untiring efforts to destroy their cultures, root and branch.

Secondly, the Monotheists converted the followers of other faiths at the point of the sword or by tempting them with money or privilege or by humiliating them in other ways.

Thirdly, the Monotheists slaughtered in cold blood the defeated warriors of other faiths, enslaved and sold their innocent families in far-off lands, and plundered all their movable, immovable and other properties. Those followers of the other faiths who still survived after all this mayhem, were made second class citizens, burdened with many disabilities and trodden under foot in various ways by the Monotheists in power.

The apologists of Christianity and Islam attribute the blame for these horrors of history to the innate barbarism of this or that conqueror tribe, and pronounce that in principle there is no place for use of force in Monotheistic faiths. And in support of this contention, these scholars quote a few lines from the Bible or the Quran. Hindu exponents of sarva-dharma-samabhava never tire of supporting this apologetics. Therefore, it is a subject for enquiry as to how much substance there is in this apologetics. History stands witness that whenever and wherever the followers of Monotheism have used force, its use has been openly praised by their clerics and historians. They state quite clearly that the use of force is sanctioned by their religion, and quote the relevant commandments from their scriptures.

At the same time, we have to see as to why, in the traditions of Advaita, there is no provision for use of force for spreading faith.

To be Continued…

Centre For Indic studies
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