There is a fundamental difference between Religion and Dharma. Our failure to be conscious of this difference has resulted in the creation of several crucial problems that we, as humans, have faced in this century and continue to face even today.
In modern day language, dharma is equated, quite unfairly with religion. Hindusim is not religion it is Dharma. There is a great difference between a religion and a dharma. A religion is something that is founded by someone. A religion is where a large group of people share a common symbol, a common religious text, a common GOD and a common founder. A religion is something that consists of a group of followers who earlier followed a different faith but now are following a certain faith that they now believe in. A religion is one which was founded by a religious movement. Organized religion demands adherence of the followers to the Book and the Prophet. Anything outside the boundaries of a faith is considered irreligious, if not downright sinful. It is believed that salvation lies only through the body of the Prophet or His words. A religion has a date of origin.
Dharma, however is different. It is different because it unites. There can never be divisions in dharma. Every interpretation is valid and welcome. No authority is too great to be questioned, too sacred to be touched. Unlimited interpretative freedom through free will is the quintessence of Dharma, for Dharma is as limitless as truth itself. No one can ever be its sole mouthpiece.
Dharma is more of a way of living or a way of life followed since antiquity, i.e., since the start of civilisation. Dharma was a kind of education or knowledge imparted to a person to lead a life in a certain way. Dharma is also sometimes considered as a complete and continuous education. Dharma is based on the principle of truth. Dharma is based on various stages that a man passes through in his lifetime, i.e., birth, childhood, youth, old age and death. Dharma is the truth or Dharma is the righteousness. If Karma is the righteous action, Dharma is the righteous decision. Dharma is not preached. Dharma is learnt, followed and practised. Dharma is the role you play.
The Dharma that was practiced in the ancient times has a multitude of difference than what is practised at the present time. Now Dharma has become a synonym with the religion. A religion is not a Dharma.
Now, we will understand Dharma with two standpoints. Every man plays two roles, a social role and a private or a personal role. Socially, a man is recognised by the job or the kind of work he does, he may be playing a role of a professor, an engineer, a doctor, a politician, a soldier, a police, etc. Personally a man is playing the role of a son, brother, friend, father, husband, grandfather, etc.
or a student, learning is the dharma of the student. Mother is a villain and father is an enemy if they don’t educate their children. Just as a crane looks odd in the midst of swans, a fool looks odd in the midst of wise men. So it is the dharma of the parents to impart knowledge of the worldly affairs to their children. Even if the parents are not able to send their children to school, it is the dharma of the parents to impart knowledge that makes their children worthy adults.
For a doctor, the duties of a doctor and the Hippocratic Oath that a doctor takes become the dharma of a doctor. Similarly, the oath that a politician, a lawyer, a policeman, a soldier, etc. takes, becomes the dharma of that particular person.
For a man who accepts a job, weather as a CEO or as an executive, the job description becomes his Dharma. Promise is the dharma of a man who has promised. Oath is the dharma of a man who has sworn. Above all, honesty is the highest Dharma.
Sometimes, the role is self-chosen and sometimes the role is a result due to the karmas of the previous life.
Anything that is anti-social, anything that involves cheating and other deceiving aspects, etc., anything that involves the killing of innocent people (terrorism), anything that gets a person off the spiritual track, any ignorant and selfish act that brings grief upon others is called Adharma. Any soul due to ignorance or with knowledge that is involved in Adharma falls to the lowest of lower levels.
A man who knows about the soul, a man who has the knowledge about karma, knows that these roles that he plays are temporary and don’t belong to the soul, he discharges his duties without expecting fruits (profit and loss). He discharges his duties without attachment or aversion.
A man who starts identifying with the roles that he is playing and considers them to be permanent is deluded.
Most religions around us contain three aspects. Within all religions can be found moral principles, which reflect universal ethic and truth. Religion tells us not to be selfish, do good, not to harm others, not to steal, lie or cheat; common human values that all societies require to some degree in order to continue to exist at all.
Dogmatism is the second aspect of religion under which certain actions as said to be wrong which may not reflect any ethical or moral values, but only the bias of a particular belief, particularly the belief of the founder or few followers of the founder. For example, if a religion tells us that it is a sin not to perform certain rituals, or only the book of a particular religion has the so-called revelation of God is not a statement of truth but purely a belief, which cannot but lead us to ignorance. The dogma may even tell us that if we did not follow the scriptures or a prophet, one has to go to a place called hell after death and has to suffer eternal punishment. Based on the ethics, beliefs, experiences and the dogma, each such “institutionalized system” or religion introduces of rituals and practices. It may be simply praying in a church, performing “namaj” or doing meditation. Sometimes the rituals may have good value and sometimes meaningless.
Religions are said to mix the nectar of ethics with the poison of exclusive beliefs. They add hundreds of do’s and don’ts, and bar logical or rational questioning. These dogmas create disharmony through both the “believers” and the “non-believers”. The believers avoid logic and the non-believers stamp the believers as outdated or unscientific or even fanatics.
Dharma: The Original Indian Concept
If we have to ask ourselves the question: What is Dharma? We cannot confine the answer to the limits of a definition because the concept of dharma is too big for any definition. So, What is Dharma, in a nutshell? First and foremost it means living in harmony with nature and natural laws. It means to live by moral and ethical principles of the society without surrendering the freedom to question them. The term ‘Yuga Dharma’ signifies that Dharma itself is continually evolving and not rigid or inflexible. The continuous evolution of Dharma has been through debate, and the triumph of logic, consensus and harmony. Most importantly, Dharma is not linked to any religion or set of beliefs. The Sanathana Dharma, called Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other Eastern ways of life emphasized the right laws of living and did not insist on fierce loyalties to any particular dogma. They are not religions in the English dictionary sense of the term. Sanatan here does not mean ancient. It means ever renewing Dharma, ever fresh with time. Samaya Bhedein Dharma Bhedah. Dharma changes with time.
The need for the revival of Dharmic Consciousness
Looking what religions have done to humanity throughout history, one may feel it might be better for us to stay away from religion. It appears that would save us from so many wars, crusades, hostilities and misunderstandings, such as world history is mired with. Open the newspaper today and see how often words like ‘religious fundamentalist’, ‘militants’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bigots’ etc. are used!
The believers have faith in it but almost every moment the do’s and don’ts haunt them and there are always discrepancies between many of the acts of these people and their beliefs. Non-believers want to stay away from ‘authorities’ and seek for ‘freedom’ of thinking and living. Many, especially the students try to avoid religion to enjoy a life without the restrictions put by religion. Some people say: “Religion is opium of people”. Others say, religion is illogical and unscientific.
The world, today, is like a melting pot, where principles, handed down by the West as universal, timeless constructs, have failed to provide to the people of the world a cohesive identity. All ideologies have been found to be deficient.
Today we need a new dharmic consciousness in the world, a recognition of the universal dharmas of being, consciousness and bliss that unite all creatures. All beings have the rights to exist without interference, to develop their own awareness, and find their own happiness. Much of the global crisis today has come about because we human beings have abandoned Dharma and sought to impose our beliefs and desires not only upon other human beings, but on all of life and nature, subordinating the entire planet to our selfish ends. Unless we return to Dharma, it is unlikely that we can flourish, or perhaps even survive as a species. Restoring and reviving Dharma, therefore, is probably the most important issue today.