Author: Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay.
The word dharma is often translated as religion. But as scholars like Rajiv Malhotra have pointed out, dharma is a Sanskrit non-translatable and cannot be translated as religion[i]. Let us first try to understand what religion is.
The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as [ii]:
- The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power
- A particular system of faith and worship
- A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion
Since religion deals with the “superhuman” and faith, there is always a clash between religion with science which purportedly deals with laws, experiments and proofs of events in our normal everyday world.
In another sense someone can also say “consumerism is the new religion”. Such a sentence is perfectly acceptable. However, one cannot say “consumerism is the new dharma”. Firstly by its very definition, consumerism is the very antithesis of dharma, a point which we will discuss later. Secondly, the sentence does not make any semantic sense.
A religion is defined by a few major characteristics:
- An external Creator God.
- A Holy Book where God’s “sayings” are written
- A Prophet or religious broker who alone can interpret God’s sayings
- A specific set of historical events where God interacted with his chosen people (history centrism)[iii]
- Everybody must believe in God, Holy Book, Prophet and historical events. Those who do not believe are termed as “pagans” or “infidels” or “kafirs”. Such people have historically been either genocided or forcefully converted or treated as second class citizens.
As is evident a religion is by default monotheistic. Moreover what has been understood by the term religion from ancient times is simply Abrahamic religions, or those that derive from the Old Testament. Those who believed in a religion were the “us” and the remaining people were “others”. Every religion thinks that their God is the only true God and all other Gods are false.
So later when religious people could not fit non-religious people like Indians, Chinese, south-east Asians, Native Americans, pre-Islamic Arab, pre-Christian Europe and so on into their categories, terms like idolatry, paganism, polytheism and Dharmic religions and so on were created.
God, Prophets and Holy Books
In religion there can be one and only One God, a creator God who created the Universe. His words are recorded in texts like Bible and Quran.
As per Koran: There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah[iv].
As per Bible: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.[v]
A religion believes in two separate realities – a Creator (God) and his creation (the universe). God is often conceived as male and as a colossal force beyond the pale of creation. God has a personality and therefore has strong likes and dislikes.[vi] There is infinite separation between Man and God, and the only way for man to know about God is through the words of a prophet.
Thus there is NO way in which creation can interact with the creator, except via an intermediary. And all the intermediaries possible have already come and gone. The 3 prominent ones are all males who were born between 500 BCE and 600 CE in the deserts of Middle East. They 3 alone could hear the voice of God. They alone know the truth, what everyone else knows is false. More importantly, no prophet will ever come again.
What are some of the characteristics of God?
- God is separate from creation – or creator is distinct from creation
- God is not sarva-vyapi – he is not all-pervading
- God is transcendent (beyond human experience) and not (reachable) immanent
- A human being can never be God or reach God – in other words, there is no concept of One-ness or even proximity
- The Only way to reach God is via a Holy Book which records the words of a Prophet who alone heard the words of God
So how do we know if what the Prophet or Son of God says is truthful or logical or scientific? There is absolutely no way.
No one can question the claims of God or the Prophet[vii]. It is considered heresy[viii] or apostasy and is often punishable by death. God has no mercy for those who don’t believe in Him (an atheist). Such people are destined to eternally burn in Hell – such has God proclaimed through his Prophet or Son.
Christianity and Islam
In Christianity, God has the following characteristics:
- God is angry and jealous.[ix]
- God does not like atheists.[x]
- God does not like non-Christians and homosexuals[xi]
- Allah is the Creator of the universe. Islam is based on the doctrine of Tawhid of One God who is unique and is separate from his creation.
- Allah is prone to anger, dislikes homosexuals and considers women inferior to men.
- Allah does not like non-believers[xii], atheists[xiii], ex-Muslims, non-Muslims and is strictly against idol-worship[xiv].
- Violent death, painful life[xv] or conversion to Islam are the options offered to a Kafir/ Non-Believer[xvi].
As Richard Dawkins summarizes it succinctly:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[xvii]
Religions have to believe in a set of historical events. For example, the story of Adam and Eve and original sin and how all humans are sinners and Jesus had a virgin birth to provide salvation to humanity must be accepted by all Christians. Similarly Muhammad’s exploits in Mecca and Medina and his flight on a horse must be accepted by all Muslims.
Thus religion as a belief system:
- Believes in a Supreme Being who is beyond reproach, doubt and inquiry
- Need not adhere to commonly accepted empirical observations and scientific laws
- Tends to “other” and often persecute a large group of people –women, homosexuals, non-believers, scientists and critics
- Has a “divinely” sanctioned mandate to expand at all costs, using whatever means necessary
As history has shown, efforts to expand any religion have caused conflicts and war. It has forced people to start believing in the “supernatural”. Religions have single handedly destroyed knowledge systems world-wide – whether it was Christian fundamentalists burning the library of Alexandria or Bakhtiyar Khilhji burning Nalanda or other Mughal warlords decimating India’s university systems. Consequently, almost all scientists in the West give up “religion” and become atheists. This is also why “Science versus religion” is such a big debate in the West.
An atheist is one who rejects religion and very rightly so. Incidentally, the present author personally identifies himself as an astika-atheist or one who subscribes to Vedic Dharma but rejects ideas like creator God, “super-human” prophets, holy books, and associated myths like “resurrection”, “flying horses”, “born sinners” or “upar-wala”.
In the next part, we will explain how systems like communism, Nazism, Fascism and even secularism are all religions in a sense. We will then discuss what Dharma entails and conclude by showing that not only is religion not dharma, religion is in fact what our ancestors would have categorically dubbed as Adharma.
Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is a civilization studies researcher with a background in data science. His writings on culture, philosophy and economics have appeared in various newspapers, online platforms and academic journals. He has authored two monographs titled “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat“, and is a recipient of the Foundation for Indian Civilization Studies award for 2017.
Malhotra, R. (2012, March 2). Dharma Bypasses ‘History-Centrism’. Retrieved from Rajiv Malhotra: https://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/dharma-bypasses-history-centrism/
Malhotra, R. (2012, March 5). Dharma is not the same as Religion. Retrieved from Rajiv Malhotra: https://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/dharma-religion/
[i] (Malhotra, 2012)
[iii] (Malhotra, Dharma Bypasses ‘History-Centrism’, 2012)
[iv] lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh (Shahahda)
[v] Isaiah 46:9
[vi] Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Corinthians 6:9-10
[vii] John 1:9-11 says: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
[viii] Quran (3:56) says: “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.”
[ix] …for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Deuteronomy 6:15
[x] The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. Psalm 14:1
[xi] If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them.” Leviticus 20:13
[xii] Quran (8:55) – Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve.
[xiii] Quran (3:56) – “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.”
[xiv] Quran (2:193) – Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme.
[xv] Quran (22:19-21) – But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads; Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron.
[xvi] Quran (4:56) – Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.
[xvii] Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.