Dharma and why it should not be called as Religion or Mazhab

Updated: Apr 23


Bharat, home of the oldest Sanatan Hindu culture whose civilization traces its origin thousands of years back in time, where all Ved, Puraan, Smruti, Upanishadh, Mahakayva were written, even after the numbers of invasion by Mughals and British. Now we are pacing on the path towards reclamation of its true identity and root cultural harmony which we can say was somewhat lost in the time. Our ancient history, knowledge and wisdom, even today, affected by three main reasons to be acknowledged (a) lack of serious attention of Bhartiya Hindu people towards root values of their civilization and instinct to get understood or educated or be informed about it (b) deliberated ignorance of Bhartiya Hindu people towards our cultural identity and integrity under the impression of misinformation which was feed to them in the past (some modern school of thoughts are still trying to misguide) by the invaders like Mughal and British rulers (c) destruction of Bhartiya Hindu people’s scholarly texts , scriptures, temples, idols and anything that supports the existence of their cultural identity and values, destroyed by the invaders. On account of this, most of the Bhartiya Hindu people today are misunderstanding, being confused of or still unaware of their own root culture and its meaning. “Dharma”, its value and true meaning also faded in this time span and gradually losing its true sense within the social structure designed for sole purpose of desolation by Mughals and European colonizer namely British, which consciously or unconsciously accepted, adapted and endorsed by the people of Bharat without fore sighting its long-term adverse effect upon our civilization, root cultural identity, integrity and future perspective in the eyes of forthcoming generations of Bharat.

“Dharma”, on concise account in today’s understanding between most of the Bhartiya Hindu people, generalized by some school of thoughts in upholding their certain advocacy to secularize our entire history with the help of misinformation and endorsing exceptions as a fact, are believed to be holding similar values in all the senses to that of Religion and Mazhab holds in their respected originated ideas, intentions and perspectives. Simply saying most of the people in Bharat, specially Hindus have belief that English, Urdu or Arabic terms like Religion and Mazhab are direct interpretation of the term “Dharma” from Sanskrutam (Sanskrit) without understanding its idea, intention and perspective formed behind each one of them. The term “Dharma” is widely misunderstood as only a belief system of Sanatan Hindu civilization from spiritual perspective and as a synonym to Religion in Christianity and Mazhab in Islam, whereas, from legal standpoint it is connoted only as distinction between various belief systems residing in Bharat altogether. Here, before building our opinion, we need to have detailed analysis of the terms “Dharma”, “Religion” and “Mazhab” by discussing their originated past, idea, definitions, fundamental principles, intentions, perspectives, effects, differences, adoptions in theological and epistemological senses.

The term "Dharma" or "Sanatan Dharma" (the word "Sanatan" means Eternal or 'everlasting', one who has neither beginning nor end) build from "Dhru" (धृ) word in Sanskrutam language which means 'adoption' or 'to adopt'. In every Sanatan Hindu 'shaastra' (Sanatan Hindu scholarly text) we can find the mention of 'Dharma' in distinct perspective and condition similar to the 'shlok' in 'Rugved' in which some shloks broadly talks about meaning of Dharma in brief that is "धार्यते इति धर्म:" (Dharyate iti Dharmaha) significant meaning 'which has quality and is qualified to be adopted that is Dharma'. One could ask if so, then what should be adopted, what are the characteristics or qualities that should be acquired. In the next shlok it follows exactly which goes like "धृतिः क्षमा दमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियनिग्रहः। धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो, दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ॥ श्रूयतां धर्म सर्वस्वं श्रुत्वा चैव अनुवर्त्यताम्। आत्मनः प्रतिकूलानि, परेषां न समाचरेत् ॥" actual meaning is 'patience, forgiveness, being forgiving, controlling self desires, not stealing, cleanliness of defecation, internal and external cleanliness, control of the senses, use of intelligence, knowledge, craving for more and more knowledge, following the truth with true mind, good word, good deed and being calm ; these are the characteristics of Dharma. Essence of Dharma shall be, one should listen and follow it, one should not treat others that do not suit oneself. One who adheres all these characteristics is said to be a follower of Dharma'. This is the brief explanation of Dharma. If we summarize the literal meaning of it in Vedas, Puranas and scholarly texts. This is only one side or meaning of "Dharma", it has vast meaning on different levels entirely. According to Sanatan Hindu shastra, "Dharma" is highest one among the four classified types of "Purushartha" required in human to attain the ultimate salvation, ("Purushartha" means 'the ideals which were presented by ancient Hindu sages i.e. Hindu scholars for the progress of man and society are called Purushartha. Purushartha is related to both, man and society. It explains the relationship between man and society, regularizes them and their mutual relations') which are Dharma, Artha, Kam, Moksha (धर्म, अर्थ, काम, मोक्ष). 'Dharma' (धर्म) stands for righteousness or moral values, Artha (अर्थ) stands for wealth or prosperity or materialistic value , Kam (काम) for desirable conscious actions towards the well being of nature or love or pleasure, and Moksha (मोक्ष) for salvation or liberation. Among these qualities of "Purushartha" Dharma is supreme. Everyone is bound to follow Dharma, be it a "King", "Dev", "Adidev", "Tridev". This is yet another interpretation of the term "Dharma" by Sanatan Hindu shaastra. There are other brief but substantial interpretations of "Dharma" such as "Daaytva" (दायित्व) which simply means responsibility. In the context of "Dharma", "Daayitva" stands for conscious responsibility, regardless of class or sect, towards everything metaphysical, physiological, judicial and social structure, that upholds "Purushartha". Similarly, attributes, nature, beliefs, laws, rules, public authorities, worldviews, spiritual dimension, moral, ethics, customs, sacrifice and much more, which contributes to good deeds by human towards the betterment of civilization and ultimate salvation in the end on the individual scales, this can also be bracketed under "Dharma". This common perspective drawn by generalizing the term Dharma that puts emphasis on personal relations with the help of classification according to the characteristic attributes and role during their life span as a base to undertake honest responsibilities and awareness of duties not only for themselves but also toward persons who are closely related, such as responsibility of a father towards son or of a mother towards son and vice versa is called as "Pitrya Dharma" (पित्र्यधर्म) or "Matru Dharma" (मातृधर्म) or "Aptya Dharma" (अपत्यधर्म) and likewise this goes with all kind of human relationship. In the similar way "Dharma" has another dimension of adherence in the hierarchical public authority, right from the top high to the bottom low which exclusively focuses in public interest, for example, a king or queen has great duty towards his/her kingdom and people so he or she has to put "Raj Dharma" (राजधर्म) at the top most of the priority list, that is first "Dharma" and "Kartavya" of a king. Similarly, capable one or stronger one has to adhere "Dharma" if they sight any misconduct or "Durachar" against less capable one. These extensive viewpoints, in social structure, implies the meaning of term Dharma in a nutshell.

Therefore, we can conclude with the understanding that the term "Dharma" has vast and various meanings that categorize the context behind the usage which depends upon different conditions, perspectives, authorities, capabilities, that helps in advancing the civilization towards betterment with consecutive unified manner and also keeps harmony in social structures. Now, the question arises whether "Dharma" can be direct interpretation of the Western European term "Religion" or Arabic Urdu term "Mazhab". For this we need to take look into their theological and epistemological meaning in their originated past by evaluating conditions, definitions and connoted sense at the time they prevailed.

Religion And Dharma

"Religion" derived from the latin word "religio", comes from "releger" which interpreted as "re" "again" adding "lego" "read", many scholars endorse to this as the original meaning of this word. Although, some modern scholars like Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell has made an argument that "religio" is derived from "religare" which means "again blind". In fact, in ancient Greek "threskeia" was generally translated into Latin as "religio" which has multiple meanings like respectful fear or harmfully distracting practice of others or cultic practice. Here, we need to understand the word "other", according to the doctrain existed during medieval period, means non believers and "cult" is often connotated in negative sense. Threskeia is sometimes translated as "religion" in today's translations, however, the term was understood as generic "worship" well into the medieval period. The word "threskeia" was used in 1st CE by several Greek writers like Herodotus and Josephus, also it is found in the new testaments. Religion, in today's understanding, is usually defined as a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that generally relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements; however, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion. However, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contemporary epistemology of religion is still subject to debate whether or not evidentialism applies to religious beliefs. For the better understanding the context and interpretation of the term "religion " we need to dig into its originated past where the sense of freedom, practice, belief, authority and civic uniformity, on the basis of individual beliefs, understood according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church in Christian theology.

In the European history, we find the term "religion" was often associated with Catholic Church, where it often talks about its dogmatic authority over general public, in relation with affairs within the institutions as well as its intervention in the affairs of civic authorities before the "Age of Enlightenment" (The Enlightenment was a period from the late 17th century into the 18th century where new ideas about government, personal freedom and religious beliefs began to develop in Europe). The concept of religion was first used around 1500 to distinguish the domain of church and the domain of civil authorities, the "Separation of the Church and State" under this state has the authority over civic affairs which is limited to this only and had no authority in religious affairs, however,the Catholic church has authority over "religious" affairs and could also interfere in state civic affairs moreover the Catholic Church dismissed the authority of state as they believed their domain is in the spiritual world so the laws of physical world won't apply to them (here "religious" according to Code of Catholic Canon Law the members take public vows and live a fraternal life in common is religious, those living other recognized forms of consecrated life are not classified as religious, we can see an exclusive Christian framework here). A similar doctrine called the doctrine of the two swords, in the papal bull Unam Sanctam, issued in 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII teaches that there is only one Kingdom, the Church (here meaning the Catholic Church), and that the Church controls the spiritual sword, while the temporal sword is controlled by the State, although the temporal sword is hierarchically lower than the spiritual sword (the flesh matters less than the soul; cf. Mt 10:28), allowing for Church influence in politics and society at large. In this authoritarian hierarchy the Catholic Church distinctly gained its position at the top where it had directly or indirectly control over everything in the state and guarded their position that if anybody gone against them, was deemed to label as Heretic and punished under Blasphemy. We needed to discuss this here as it is directly correlate with the separation of spiritual beliefs of the Catholic Church from state's affairs under the plausible idea of religion. Hence, term religion can be understand as an exclusive Christian theological substructure used in 1500s for distinguishing spiritual and political authority to control the social construct under Catholic Christian Church's doctrine which led to discrimination of population and put the Catholic Church in dispute.

Therefore, using the term "religion" to understand the context of Sanatan Dharma will be grave unjust because by calling it a religion, one not only applies it the fundamental principles of Christian theological structure but also the originated meaning and perspective in European antiquity which was dogmatic, authoritarian, discriminating position of the Catholic Church over the general population and the social structure affected by them, it will also inequitable in the sense of epistemological meaning and institutional structure where religion often talks about blind belief on at-most worldview in the context of monolithic supreme being for the purpose of salvation while Dharma stands for duty towards everything and encourages to accept all the alternate worldviews ignoring the perspective in which position of regional and epistemological/theological differences existed. Dharma's position is always been towards endurance of civilization and not put it into stiff framework of monolithic, dogmatic, theological, social structure as religion was loosely understood. One can argue if this is so then what about its been used in the Constitution of India to distinguish the belief, in this argument one should understand that the Constitution of India is written in colonizer's language that is in British English based on the assumption that close contextual meaning for the theological belief loosely understood by the term religion and not to define its positional value in their respected theologies.

Mazhab And Dharma

Al-mazhab or Mazhab which is borrowed from Persian/Arebic word Mazhab/Madhab is a school or followership of Islamic jurisprudence. It's origin can be traced back to 9th and 10th century when they first consolidated as means of excluding dogmatic theologian, government officials and non-sinni sects from religious discourse its been asserted. Mazhab means a school of thought with principles and methods that distinguish it from other schools. When students of Islam follows the verdicts of a great scholar (Alim) or jurist (Fiqh which is Islamic jurisprudence and described as the understanding and practices of the Sharia), they became known as that scholar’s school, or mazhab. Basically there are several mazhabs which are divided under Shia and Sunni, the major Sunni mazhabs are Hanafi, Shafi’ī, Maliki, Hanbali and Shia mazhabs are Twelver, Zaidi and Ismaili.

In this context it is essential in Islam to follow a Islamic scholar in the understanding and practice of Islamic jurisprudence that is Sharia in the consciousness of that scholar. Here, it can be seen a clear framework of followership, study and practice of Islam under the guidance of specific Islamic scholar who understands Quran and Sharia by their consciousness, this is what called as Al-mazhab or Mazhab or Madhab. This term has changed its meaning through the centuries but nowadays, most people ascribing themselves to a mazhab nonetheless believe in the orthodoxy of the other three. In this understanding the term Al-mazhab or Madhab or Mazhab is directly related to Islam alone and no other interpretation of Mazhab can be validate as it lacks all the fundamental principles of Islamic theology. Now it is clear that Sanatan Dharma (which is also Hinduism, Hindu Dharma or Hindutva) distinctly can never be interpreted as Mazhab.

Although, understanding in a broader sense the value of Mazhab in Islamic jurisprudence is proportionate to the value of 'Panth' in Sanatan or Hindu Dharma, where as 'Panth' is a part of Sanatan Dharma. Here, we are exclusively focusing on its value in the talking of its theological sense and not its theological meaning. Crudely speaking Mazhab in Islam is as good as Panth in Sanatan or Hindu Dharma. Evidently, both of them has very different meaning according to their ideas, principles and methods based upon their theologies but the stated value they hold under their respective theologies is equal. In spite of the fact that the value is same, we need to understand that interpretation of Sanatan Dharma as Mazhab or interpretation of Islam as Dharma stands equally invalid.

On the account of this, we can set the seal on that interpretation of "Dharma" which is broadly explained as "Religion" or "Mazhab" is not at all justified as it doesn't holds the ideological, theological, epistemological values, doctrine and specific perspective that drawn from their originated past, which is still driving the core value of the "Religion" or "Mazhab", with this understanding, Christianity and Islam cannot be called as Dharma as well. This is to be addressed specifically here that Christianity is Religion and Islam has its concept of Mazhab and both are understood by their respective theologies only that's why they cannot be interpreted according to other theological studies other than their own so they cannot and should not be called as Dharma. Although, "Dharma" is superior to all, one just need to draw out its essence notwithstanding any class, group, location or belief because of its core sacrament, thinking, elements, theological and epistemological meaning which goes beyond it and validates inclusiveness and put emphasis on "वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्", which means 'whole Earth is a family'. It accepts all the worldviews in such a unified manner where each one of them are bound to each others yet has distinct existence as well. Therefore, "Dharma" as an duty, responsibility, moral, ethics, participation, adherence, righteousness, justice, jurisprudence, social authority, public awareness, environmental accountability and much more which gives subtle way and thought process towards improvement should be taken as primary characteristic and quality for individual and society. Whereas, "Religion" and "Mazhab" has limited scope of definition depending upon their doctrinal theologies, so calling "Dharma" a "Religion" or "Mazhab" to understand its theological sense, limits its essence up to their similar perspective, which is gravely incorrect, "Dharma" is way beyond any theology, epistemology or jurisprudence. As we discussed already there can be a question regarding usage of term "Religion" in Constitution of India to distinguish particular belief systems, its because there is no closely related terminology that defines "Dharma" in their respected language and elite class of Bharat after the independence carried on all the official government business in the language of colonizer that is in British English. To understand this in deep, we need to have look from colonizer's worldview where their thought process works according to their understanding of 'being spiritual' or 'having particular belief system' must have evidence to prove their belief system's legitimacy, example, one must have a book reference to follow otherwise it will stand myth or superstition for them. So, they applied their Christian worldview uniformly to all the belief systems existed in the world till today and this is how they understand "Dharma" as mere belief system to distinguish Sanatan Hindu culture from other in Bharat. Now that finally we have an brief understanding of 'what is Dharma' and 'how it should not be interpreted as Religion or Mazhab', let's try to avoid the use of these and similar terminology to interpret "Dharma" and other terms of Sanatan Hindu Dharma. Let's be aware of it and make people know so that we can have a clear vision for our future without forgetting our roots and culture also to sustain it, this is our responsibility and this is our Dharma.

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः ।

तस्माद्धर्मो न हन्तव्यो मा नो धर्मो हतोऽवधीत् ।।

(One who tries to destroy Dharma, gets destroyed by Dharma. One who defends Dharma, Dharma defends them.

With this fear of getting perished by the Dharma, one should not abandon the Dharma)

- Chaitanya Gautame

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