I have a problem with the word Hinduism, for ‘ism’ means a closed book of thought or a set of dogma or a blind belief system. I may use Hindu Dharma or Hindutva for that matter, instead of Hinduism to denote India’s innate belief system. Hindu Dharma is not religion; it’s a way of life. Religion is that which leads one to god. The Sanskrit word Dharma is derived from the root dhri which means “to hold together”. It’s the glue that holds the society together, families together. There isn’t a word in English that could be capture the whole meaning of Dharma, the core civilizational idea that has provided coherence to the Indian mind.
Hindu Dharma doesn’t lead to god but it seeks union with the Reality. It’s said – Shivo bhutva, Shivam yajet – to worship Shiva, first become Shiva. There is no binary or duality between the god and man. This is the universalistic vision of Hindu Dharma. It doesn’t believe in the division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of faithful and infidels. As Dr S Radhakrishnan puts it, “Dharma is what which binds society together. That which divides society, breaks it up into parts and makes people fight one another is Adharma. Dharma is nothing more than the realisation of the supreme and acting in every small act of your life with that Supreme present in your mind. If you are able to do so, you are performing Dharma. If other interests pervade you and you try to translate your mind into other regions, even though you may think you are a believer, you will not become true believer. The real believer in God has his heart always lifted to Dharma.”
Hindu Dharma doesn’t give primacy to any particular scripture or a path. Even the Vedas, revered by Hindus, are not the ultimate authority in the Hindu Dharma. A Hindu is free to question the authority of the Vedas.
Hindu Dharma gives a seeker freedom of thought and choice. He is free to question, accept and deny. Swami Sivananda says, “Hinduism allows absolute freedom to the rational mind of man. It never demands any undue restraint upon the freedom of human reason, freedom of thought, feeling and will of man. Hinduism is a religion of freedom, allowing the widest margin of freedom in matters of faith and worship. It allows absolute freedom of human reason and heart with regard to such questions as to the nature of God, soul, form of worship, creation, and the goal of life. It does not force anybody to accept particular dogmas or forms of worship. It allows everybody to reflect, investigate, enquire cogitate.”
Hindu Dharma doesn’t give primacy to any particular scripture or a path. Even the Vedas, revered by Hindus, are not the ultimate authority in the Hindu Dharma. A Hindu is free to question the authority of the Vedas. Adi Shankara in his introduction to Sankara Bhashya notes: Sheto agni aprakasho va ithi bruvan shruti shatamapi na pramanyamupaithi (If a Veda says that the fire is cold and doesn’t emit light, I would reject it.) In some instances, even the Bhagavat Gita questions the authority of the Vedas. Hindu Dharma grants primacy to personal experience and it disapproves of claims of individuals as sole possessors of truth. The Upanishads, the Vedas are just spiritual guides. Every man or woman is free to select one’s own path. Erudite and the unlettered have equal right to celebrate his experience and follow the path they have chosen. Caste, creed or panth don’t matter in the larger Hindu scheme of things. There is perfect equality. No one can claim to have the exclusive possession of spiritual truth or the only method to reach god; a method or a message can only be one among the many. That’s why we say Hindu Dharma is not an ‘Only-ist faith but a philosophy that promotes ‘Also-ism’. Bhagwan Krishna elucidates this beautifully in the Bhagavat Gita: ye yathā māṁ prapadyante tāṁstathaiva bhajāmyaham, mama vartmānuvartante manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ. (As men approach Me, so I accept them to My love (bhajāmi); men follow in every way my path, Oh son of Partha. Sri Aurohindo’s translation.)
So with confidence one can say that no belief system that denies one’s freedom of choice and of conscience can be part of Hinduism. There is an interesting saying about Hindu Dharma: the only dogma that Hindu Dharma admits is the one that does not permit of a dogma.
A few years ago, during a conversation with senior RSS pracharak Mananiya R Hari, former Chief Secretary of Kerala Dr D Babu Paul, a Christian, said, “Hindus becoming more and more fundamentalists would be a boon for the humanity.”
Hindu Dharma has a remarkable power of accommodating and assimilating even conflicting ideas and belief systems while keeping its philosophic core intact. It never abhorred new ideas; on the other hand it was receptive to new ones irrespective of from where they originated. Ano bhadra kritavo yantu vishwathah (Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides). It welcomed new ideas and experimented with them, standing firm on its foundations. Its scriptures are instinct with a spirit of inquiry, of an unending passion for finding out the truth about things. It has never been in conflict with science because it adopted a scientific approach in its search for truth. Our great seers did not see the mystical and rational wisdom as separate. They developed methods and practices like Yoga to realise and experience the truth.
Dharma guided the economic activity and fairness was the buzzword. The kings encouraged trade and commerce. The government’s share was one-sixth, and “this proportion was carried into the tax levied by the state on the produce of the land as well as on other economic transactions”.
The world view of the Hindus is shaped by the Advaita philosophy, which says the universe is made of one substance whose form is perpetually changing. We are but a part of the universe and our lives are in continuity with the cosmos. According to the Hindu Dharma, the universe is God’s body, all non-living and living beings are but a part.
Akhanda manadalakaram, vyaptam yena charaacharam
Tadpadam darshitam yena, tasmai Sri Guruve namaha.
(God, he whose form is one whole which is indivisible, present everywhere, pervades both animate and inanimate worlds. Guru, he who has seen the feet of such Lord, Salutations O blessed One.)
Therefore, a Hindu has a strong ethical commitment to keep this relational continuity in balance, as harming nature amounts to harming oneself.
Before Islamic invasion, India was a rich and prosperous country. In our Dharmasastras, profit was never a bad word. The king intervened in the market only in public interest. Dharma guided the economic activity and fairness was the buzzword. The kings encouraged trade and commerce. The government’s share was one-sixth, and “this proportion was carried into the tax levied by the state on the produce of the land as well as on other economic transactions”. One-six roughly works out to 15 per cent. “For this reason, there was outrage all around, but especially among the Vaishyas, when the Mughal Empire raised the tax rate to 40 per cent,” writes Gurcharan Das in the introduction to The Dharma of Business.
The most eloquent tribute to the Hindu Dharma or Indian culture was given by historian Arnold Toynbee when he said, “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation is the Indian way.”