Critical Podium Dewanand Hinduism
IS HINDUISM A RELIGION? by Anil Chawla
Sacrificer Anil Chawla
Sacrifice code wfor0419
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
IS HINDUISM A RELIGION?
Author - Anil Chawla
Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Supreme Court of India seem to think that Hinduism
is not a religion but a way of life. Here is an article that disagrees
with this view.
One often hears the question whether Hinduism or Buddhism is a religion
or not but one never hears the question, "Is Christianity a religion?".
Such a question about Christianity would not just be scoffed at but also
considered plainly stupid. It is presumed that Christianity is a religion.
One can even say that the definition of religion is primarily designed
to accommodate Christianity. Having created a Procrustean bed, there is
an attempt to fit every other belief-system or life-system into the mould
created by the Christian model. This can only be painful for everyone
except Christians and it should come as no surprise that the Christian
academicians and theologists have normally not even been aware of this.
Before we move ahead with this question, we must ask something more fundamental.
Why is this question raised? Why should Hinduism or Buddhism be a religion?
Is there an advantage in an "ism" being a religion? Will it
really matter, if Hinduism is classified as a 'philosophy' or 'way of
life' or 'culture' but not as a religion? To seek the answers to these
questions, one has to look at the socio-political-legal scenario. Constitutions
of India and USA (and of many other countries in the world) give privileges
and rights to "religions". The debate about the classification
as a religion or otherwise is rooted in the legal-political realities
and is not academic or etymological but is part of a political struggle
where the bias has been pre-loaded in favour of Christianity.
Having understood that the question is political rather than academic
or etymological or even philosophical, we must look at the historical
realities of the Christian world. Most Christian churches do not accept
that there can be more than one path to salvation. The term 'pagan' has
often been used as a derogatory term for people who were not Christians.
Denial of all rights (including basic human rights like right to property
or life) to pagans was a normal feature of the rule of the Churches in
medieval Europe. To this date Vatican refuses to even acknowledge that
there exists any other religion in the same sense that Catholicism is
a religion. The imperialist march of the White man in Asia, Africa and
America was aided for centuries by the Church by denial of the status
of 'religion' to any other belief/life-system. The essentials of the arguments
advanced were as follows:
Religion helps a person live life meaningfully and attain salvation.
It is every religious person's moral duty to help others who are not as
fortunate as oneself.
By giving religion to people who have no religion one is helping such
unfortunate people live life meaningfully and attain salvation.
Hinduism or Buddhism or other life/belief systems held by Asians and
Africans are not religions. Such systems may well be "way of life"
or "philosophy" or "culture" or "tradition",
but that is not the same as being a religion.
It is a moral and religious imperative to give religion to such religion-less
Any resistance by "uncivilized, religionless" persons stems
from their ignorance and can be met with violence and bloodshed (and possibly
even genocide) since it is in the service of God and religion.
The last millennium will be remembered for the bloodshed caused by this
argument. It is important to note that the argument is not dead and is
a very valid argument even today for the Vatican as well as for some other
In the light of the above arguments, it should come as no surprise that
"when the Kikuyu Karing'a Association, in 1929, declared its intention
of returning to the purity of tribal custom, it decided also to have nothing
to do with religion for seven years. In the same spirit, the Buganda Government
officially describes pagans as abataline ddiini men without religion".
(Welbourn F.B., Towards A Definition Of Religion, http://www.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb/papers/fred/fred1.html)
In both cases the word religion is applied to imported systems of ritual,
creed and myth, or in other words to Christianity. Across the whole of
Africa, the Church has always treated all forms of tribal cultures as
pagan and hence, without religion. For a long time (and possibly even
today) the Vatican and other Christian churches considered Hinduism, Buddhism,
Jainism and Confucianism as not being religions.
Unfortunately this mindset of the Christian clergy and the historical
background of the debate (about Hinduism being a religion) is not appreciated
by most people in India. The debate in India on this issue has been dominated
by people who have been conditioned by the Western and Anglo-Saxon pedagogical
processes. As a result there seems to be almost a consensus today to declare
that Hinduism is not a religion. Supreme Court of India has ruled to this
effect. Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the self-declared defenders of Hinduism,
are also of the same opinion that Hinduism is not a religion but a "way
of life" and nothing more. Vishwa Hindu Parishad and all organizations
of the RSS clan want to use the word "Dharma" instead of religion
without realizing that the word "Dharma" as distinct from religion
has no legal sanctity and grants no constitutional privileges. It is ironic
that RSS, VHP, Supreme Court of India and most intellectuals of India
are willy-nilly walking into the trap of the Christian churches.
Political-legal considerations apart, let us look at some definitions
of "religion", the essential characteristics of religiousness
as per some thinkers and look at Hinduism in the light of these definitions
Merriam-Webster Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com ) defines religion as
Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Latin religion-, religio supernatural
constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain,
tie back -- more at RELY
Date: 13th century
a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion)
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs,
archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
The above three definitions (excluding the third) are based on the presumption
that life can be divided into two compartments - religious and non-religious.
In the western world religion occupied a limited space in the life of
a person. So, it was possible to separate religion from the rest of life.
In such an arrangement, religion consisted of all that is concerned with
God or something sacred or supernatural. In its broadest form, religion
has been considered as a system of beliefs that is held with ardor and
Based on the above definition, the Christian theologists would accept
something as religion if and only if it involved service and worship of
God in some form or the other. This means that atheistic life/belief systems
like Jainism and Buddhism cannot be religion. Moreover, the definition
has at the outset limited the concern of religion to "supernatural"
or other-worldly. This is indeed surprising since it goes against the
basic grain of even Christianity. The commandment "Love Thy Neighbour"
is not concerned with supernatural and is indeed about something that
will normally be classified as secular.
The limitations of the above dictionary definition (if interpreted narrowly)
of "religion" can be summed up as follows:
Based on the duality of the God and the World where "religion"
is concerned with one and not the other. Presumption about the existence
of God or some supernatural is necessary condition for this dualism.
Domain of religion is service, worship, attitudes, beliefs, practices,
causes and principles but not life as a whole.
If the above limitations were seriously accepted, there can be hardly
any religion in the world. For example Protestant Christian theologists
rejected the duality of the two commandments "Love God" and
"Love Thy Neighbour" and considered a life devoted in fulfilling
one's worldly duties on the same level as a life spent in the service
of God. Under the Protestant world-view, the work of the carpenter is
of the same religiosity as that of the Bishop.
It can be concluded that the dictionary definition of "religion"
is inadequate, incomplete and is based on philosophical foundations that
apply possibly to some Christian sects and not to the various life/belief
systems that are usually addressed as "religion". Fortunately,
there are many thinkers who do not accept the dictionary definition as
"Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest
and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the
belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in
harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." William James (1842-1910),
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
"Religion is the habitual expression of an interpretation of life
which deals with ultimate concerns and values. Institutional religion
formalizes these into a system which can be taught to each generation.
Religion deals with three primary issues, or ultimate concerns:
How we find meaning in living. (What is life, suffering, and death?)
How we relate to the world. (What is my place and purpose?)
How we relate to each other. (What rules do I live by?)
Religion as experienced consists of:
The way we perceive life. (Good/bad; magical/terrifying)
The way we perceive ourselves. (I'm okay/not okay)
The way we perceive others. (You're okay/not okay)
Religion as expressed consists of:
1. A cosmogony - creation story, mythology, theology.
Doctrines - ethics, laws, and teachings.
Customs - rituals, symbols, and worship."
(portions of this are derived from "Introduction to the Study of
Religion" by T. William Hall)" James T. Cloud, Defining "Religion",
"Nevertheless, it [religion] is quite simple at bottom. There is
nothing really secret or complex about it, no matter what its professors
may allege to the contrary. Whether it happens to show itself in the artless
mumbo-jumbo of a Winnebago Indian or in the elaborately refined and metaphysical
rites of a Christian archbishop, its single function is to give man access
to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose
is to induce those powers to be friendly to him. That function and that
purpose are common to all religions, ancient or modern, savage or civilized,
and they are the only common characters that all of them show. Nothing
else is essential." H.L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods, (NY: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1930, revised 1946):
"Religion is a set of rules and understandings that provide a community
of people with a means to grasp and deal with the issues and problems
in their lives. It is comprised of traditions which help tie the sacred,
or ultimate, which is typically unknowable, to the mundane. The components
of these traditions are bound together to create the architecture of a
particular religion, and these components can be categorized into three
areas; human relationships with sacred realities, the process of transformation,
and cultural traditions and their systems of symbols."
Rob Parker, Discussion 1, HIS305, Eastern Religious Traditions - Fall
Each of the above expands the apparently narrow dictionary view. The
religion that emerges from all the above definitions and views is neither
limited by the World-God duality nor is just a bundle of beliefs, rituals
and customs. Religion now encompasses life (and possibly death too) in
its entirety. Briefly, one can list the following characteristics of a
The followers of the religion believe that they are following a religion.
A shared world-view or at least some shared basis for a world-view.
Shared concept of sacred.
Ways and means for men and women to align their lives with the world-view
and the sacred.
The above criterion are not culture-specific and aim to define "religion"
without presupposing any philosophical postulates.
Hinduism certainly satisfies all the four criterion mentioned above.
Hindus believe that they are followers of a common religion. The shared
basis for a world-view and the shared concept of sacred in Hinduism is
well reflected in the Hindu mythology and philosophy. Hindu Dharm is the
way of aligning one's life with the world as per the shared world-view
and the sacred. The arguments against Hinduism being a religion are essentially
founded on the multiplicity of deities, systems of worship and even codes
of conduct. Yet, it will be noticed that every major religion of the world
has a plurality in some respect or the other. For example, Christianity
has a number of sects that have different churches and sometimes even
follow different versions of the Holy Book. From almost the beginning
of Islam, there were many sects that had different moral codes. The plurality
of Christian and Islam was never mutually accepted and was always a point
of dispute within the followers of the religion. Hinduism accepted plurality
and evolved a philosophical system that recognized the differences in
opinion and perspectives with some underlying essential conditions.
One can conclude without an iota of doubt that Hinduism is a religion
in the same sense that Christianity is a religion, though the two religions
are different. Use of terms like "way of life" instead of religion
is an attempt to deny the legal and constitutional rights of Hindus and
must be resisted. The question "Is Hinduism a religion?" needs
to be answered with a counter-question "Is Christianity a religion?".
And rest assured that it is not stupid to raise such a counter-question.
3 January 2001
Critical Podium Dewanand Hinduism
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