Is Hinduism a religion or a way of life? – Swami Bodhinatha Veylanswami

Swami Bodhinatha Veylanswami“While Sanatana Dharma is, as the [19th century German scholars] observed, a family of faiths, it also stands strong and proud as a religion in its own right. These faiths all share certain common elements of culture, liturgy, scripture and basic philosophy as reflected in the core beliefs: karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity and more. Hinduism gloriously fulfills all the qualities of a religion in every sense of the word.” – Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati“Isn’t Hinduism simply a way of life?” This is a question I am frequently asked at satsang gatherings. It invariably makes for spirited discussion, as there is avid interest and a lively diversity of opinion. Years ago, Swami Chinmayananda, founder of Chinmaya Mission, gave a dramatic lecture on the subject (see video below). Here are key excerpts: “‘Hinduism is not a religion. It is a way of life.’ You can today hear it in every drawing-room wherever youngsters are sitting and discussing Hindu culture and India. You can hear them blabbering this quotation: ‘Hinduism is totally different; it is not a religion. Then what is it? It is a way of life.’ This is a false statement! No thinking man will accept it or give it any credit at all. What an abominable stupidity is wrapped up in such an attractive sentence! ‘Hinduism is not a religion; it is a way of life.’ Oh! I see! And Christianity? It is a religion? Oh! So it is not a way of life? What is religion without a way of life? How can there be a way of life without religion? Think! It is a self-contradiction to say it is not a religion; it is a way of life. If Hinduism is not a religion, it is only a way of life; then Christianity is a religion and therefore no way of life. What is religion without a way of life? Does not a religion guide us in our world, in our life? So, it is an empty, high-sounding statement.”

Swamiji goes on to explain that the notion originated with German Indologists who, in the late 1800s, translated the word mata as religion: “The Germans, who first tried to translate our Sanskrit literature, unfortunately made a great mistake. They used mata for religion: ‘Buddha mata,’ the religion of Buddha; ‘Chraistava mata,’ the religion of Christ; ‘Muhammediya mata,’ Islam. Then they came to Hindu mata, and the poor Germans got confused, because in the Hindu religion there are very many mata. It is a composite mata. Mata comes from the Sanskrit word mati, meaning ‘buddhi,’ ‘intellect.’ That which is crystallized in the intellect is called a mata. Mata only means an opinion! Hindu religion contains Shankara mata, Ramanuja mata, Madhva mata. Various acharyas who have given various viewpoints of life, and the attitudes or the thoughts of the Upanishads—they are all called mata, mata, mata. So [the Germans] they came to the conclusion that Hinduism is not a religion. Then, what is it [they wondered]? It is ‘the way of life!’”

Hindus inquiring about the merits of this infamous statement are generally not immersed in the practice of Hinduism. They may have in mind that the sum total of Hinduism is to follow dharma, to live virtuously and fulfil one’s duty, and that there is no need to do more.

Hinduism is a way of life, but it is a spiritual way of life, encompassing good conduct, worship, selfless service, scriptural study and meditation. And what is the definition of a spiritual way of life? Religion!

Swami VivekanandaWhile Sanatana Dharma is, as the Germans observed, a family of faiths, it also stands strong and proud as a religion in its own right. These faiths all share certain common elements of culture, liturgy, scripture and basic philosophy as reflected in the core beliefs: karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity and more. Hinduism gloriously fulfils all the qualities of a religion in every sense of the word.

Remember, the Germans were no friends of Hinduism. Their redefinition of our faith as a non-religion was a powerful criticism, one that unfortunately Hindus themselves adopted. It is intellectual suicide and a global public relations disaster to deny that our faith is a religion. Hinduism stands proudly with the great faiths of the world, and it does this not because it is a way of life. Vegetarianism is a way of life. Nonviolence is a way of life. But neither is a religion and neither will be invited to a parliament of the world’s religions, as Swami Vivekananda was back in 1893. He was invited and he spoke to the world from that Chicago podium precisely because he was a Hindu.

Bhagwa Dwaja: True flag of HindustanYes, there are those who think using the “H-word” demeans something. But they are wrong. They are neglecting the import of the word religion on the global stage as well as in the local community, among other faith groups. Standing together under the banner of Hinduism, we enjoy the many protections given to religions, and we have a respected, unified voice to the media, to government, to boards of education and planning departments. We have known quasi-Hindu groups who normally refuse to use the H word, but eagerly adopt it when they seek credibility in the broader community, such as in court cases.

Hinduism’s finest future is to stand side-by-side with other religions, not other ways of life. Hindus who parrot the notion that Hinduism is not a religion are not serving Sanatana Dharma well. They have failed to see how wrong-headed this posturing looks in the eyes of the world. What if the Muslims claimed Islam is not a religion but just a way of life? Or Christianity? Judaism? They don’t do that. They are proud of their spiritual identity. But for various reasons, including the persistent nuisance of the colonized mind, Hindus hold on to this self-destructive fallacy. Numerous swamis who established movements in the West in the mid 20th century perpetuated this idea as a means to teach Vedanta, yoga and meditation to Christians and Jews without provoking religious objections. As a result, such concepts have become household words but without being acknowledged as Hindu. Swami Chinmayananda said it so well: “It is an empty, high-sounding statement.” One we can all avoid.

Happily, this is changing in small but important ways. The Hindu youth we encounter today are proud of their religion, eager to learn more about it. In universities the world over, Hindu students want to stand proudly side-by-side with students of other religions. The Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign, which works to re-establish the practice as having its roots in the world’s oldest faith, is a bold indictment of the “way of life” argument.

In each satsang I hold, one basic question invariably arises: “How can I make Hinduism practical in daily life?” I stress that to know and practice Hinduism in the fullest sense, one should engage in all the areas it encompasses: dharma, worship, selfless service, philosophical study and meditation. Together these five make for a complete physical, mental, emotional and spiritual regimen to follow throughout life.

Lord Shiva wearing yoga band.Devotional practice without philosophy can easily turn into superstition. Philosophy without devotion and selfless service can devolve to mere intellectual argumentation and speculation. Taking Hinduism as only a way of life, one misses out on the inner benefits of devotion and philosophy. And without meditation, one has no way to experience the oneness of atman and Brahman, of jiva and Siva, which leads to illumination and liberation. Let’s look at these five layers more closely.

Dharma is the foundation of Hindu religion, as capsulated in the code of conduct called yamas. Yama means “reining in” or “controlling” the base, instinctive nature, such as the tendency to become angry and harm others, to lie or manipulate events in our favour  and to steal to acquire something we desire and otherwise could not have. Such expressions of one’s instinctive nature need to be harnessed, as actions based on them create negative karma and keep one constantly in an upset state of mind. Dharma also includes a wide array of cultural observances.

Seva, selfless service, is the next facet of Hindu practice. Many individuals serve through giving a monetary donation to a religious or other non-profit organization. While it is easy to open your wallet or purse and give, say, $50, selfless service offers a more serious commitment, requiring the sacrifice of one’s time. Selfless service need not be limited to the temple; it can be done at work, at school, wherever we are in the world.

Devotional practices, such as attending puja at a temple, going on pilgrimage, conducting puja in one’s home shrine and repeating a mantra on japa beads, deepen humility and raise the subtle energies to the higher chakras of cognition and divine love.

Scriptural study builds a firm foundation of philosophical clarity, an accurate understanding of God, souls and world that enhances and informs every aspect of one’s life. Such study includes the Vedas, Agamas, the texts of one’s denomination and the teachings of the saints and sages of one’s guru lineage. Choice of study material should be in consonance with one’s sectarian philosophy. For example, if one’s lineage is advaitic, that study should reinforce the idea that we are already one with God, that nothing has to happen for this to be true.

Meditation and other yogic sadhanas, the fifth aspect of Hinduism, are the doorway to personal realization. Meditation can propel the individual beyond philosophical concepts about Divinity to actual experience of those truths. This can be compared to reading about the taste of a ripe, juicy mango versus actually taking your first bite. Which would you prefer? There are two primary approaches. The first, raja yoga, consists of regulated breathing, sense withdrawal, concentration and meditation. The second, jnana yoga, is a path of scriptural study, reflection and constant, profound meditation.

These five religious dimensions are found in all of Hinduism’s diverse lineages, with each sect and sampradaya treasuring and preserving its own cultural, devotional and philosophical uniqueness. – Hinduism Today, April, May, June 2013

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9 Responses

  1. Narendra Modi, Stephen Harper, and 'Parrot Lady' sculpture

    Hinduism not a religion but a way of life, says Modi – PTI – The Hindu – Vancouver – 17 April 2015  

    “The Supreme Court has said that Hindu dharam is not a religion but a way of life… I believe the SC’s definition shows the way,” the Prime Minister said while visiting the Lakshmi Narayan Temple near Vancouver.

    Accompanied by his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday visited a gurdwara and a temple in Vancouver and said Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life.

    Mr. Modi and Mr. Harper, who arrived from Toronto, went straight to the gurdwara. They participated in the prayer meeting and were presented Saropas (gifts of honour presented by the Sikh community — usually a length of cloth for tying a turban or a scarf worn over the shoulders).

    Addressing the gathering there, Mr. Modi said the Sikhs in Canada had won respect for India through their work here.

    He talked about the teachings of Guru Nanak and the role of Sikhs in India’s Independence struggle, including that of Bhagat Singh.

    He emphasised the need for working for humanity as he highlighted how Sikhs had set examples in giving sacrifices.

    Subsequently, Mr. Modi and Mr. Harper went to the Lakshmi Narayan Temple where again he praised the Indians living in Canada.

    He talked about the need for working for humanity through Hinduism.

    “The Supreme Court in India has given a nice definition to Hindu dharam… The Supreme Court has said that Hindu dharam is not a religion but a way of life… I believe the SC’s definition shows the way,” Mr. Modi said.

    He said the Hindu religion had worked for the benefit of nature, including wildlife, through the scientific way of life. “This can show a way out of small problems of life,” he said.

    The Prime Minister also referred to the U.N. declaring June 21 as International Yoga day with a record co-sponsorship in 2014, 125 days after he made a suggestion in this regard in the world body.

    He asked the Indian diaspora to spread the message about yoga for the benefit of humanity.

    He highlighted the role of Indian-origin Canadians in developing bilateral relations at both the religious places.

  2. Sanatana dharma is not a religion like Islam or Christianity who main aim is to convert by hook or by crook.

  3. Swamiji is so right. Muslims also say that Islam is a ‘way of life’. Christian missionaries keep talking about Christian compassion, life of prayer etc. This phrase, ‘way of life’ is a meaningless cliche. Religion according to Abrahamic belief system must have a beginning, a beginner, a prophet and a Book with one or more interpreters that can not be defied. Sanaatana Dharma does not fall within the four walls of this Abrahamic definition. But Sanaatana Dharma has a value and belief system in the worldly domain and in the philosophic and spiritual domains. It is infinitely more sophisticated than Abrahamic ‘religions’.

    • Every sampradaya within Sanatana Dharma does conform to the definition of being a religion in its own right in that each sampradaya has a deity, a special sacred text, an acharya guru, a doctrine / theology, a set of special rituals, and specific pilgrimage destinations associated with the deity or acharya guru. At the same time all the sampradayas recognise common Hindu deities, scriptures, acharya gurus, rituals and pilgrimage destinations associated with different deities and saints. Hinduism is therefore both a religion and a commonwealth of religions. But this combination of singularity in sampradayas and pluralism in Hinduism itself is rather too much for the linear-thinking modern mind to grasp. The educated modern man tries to fit Hinduism into his own narrow concepts rather than trying to understand Hinduism on its own conceptual terms.

      • For IS comment of March 14:

        1. None of the Samparadayas postulate one deity to the exclusion of all others; a single and sole sacred Text to the exclusion of any other; an undefinable and sole Guru; no uncompromising exclusivist doctrine or theology.

        2. If one were to be accepted as a good and honest adherent to any of the ‘Abrahamic religions’, he has no option but to subscribe to and accept certain fundamental things as given and not open to discussion or dissent.

        It is for this reason that Sanaatana Dharma or any of its Sampradayas can not be boxed into the definition of a religion as recognized by Abrahamic faith-followers.

        • I am not comparing the Hindu sampradayas to the Abrahamic religions nor have I said that they postulate one deity to the exclusion of all others (in fact I have said the opposite, that they recognise all Hindu deities while giving a special place to the favourite deity).

          I am saying that each sampradaya qualifies as a religion by definition because it holds a particular deity in special reverence and pays special attention to particular scriptures. So Srivaishnavas worship Vishnu and Shaivites worship Shiva specially, and Shaktas give their attention to Devi, all have their own Puranas and Agamas, etc.

          Giving special attention to a deity either personally or doctrinally without excluding other Hindu deities is what is meant by the term panentheism (which both Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup favoured as a definition of Hinduism).

          • I understand. My point is why this need or willingness to say, “Hinduism or Hindu Sampradaya also is a “religion”? What is the objection to saying that Sanaatana Dharma does not fall within the definition of “religion” as it is recognized and understood by adherents to Abrahamic religions? Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel were great and fearless thinkers. We need more like them to carry forward their work. But I would ask why even the term, “panentheism” just to conform to the terms of the discourse set by Abrahamic thought?

            Should we not question the applicability to Sanaatana Dharma, of the very category called “religion”? Then there is no need to posit a term, “commonwealth of religions”. I see no need to allow the terms of discourse to be set by Abrahamic thought. This does not of course mean I have no respect for that thought.

            • A commonly accepted terminology allows a discussion to take place. As the discussion is in English, unfortunately a christianised language, accepted English terms understood by all are used.

              If you do not accept the terminology, then there is no means of communication, no discussion.

              There is nothing more to say here except to note that the point of the article above, where both swamijis are cogently arguing that Hinduism is a religion, is lost when there is a quibble over terminology.

              Having looked at your comment again, I would add that you are right that Hinduism is not a religion in the Western Abrahamic sense. We all know this. But if we Hindus want international recognition and respect — and we do want this — then we have to identify ourselves in accepted international terms. If we do not define ourselves, somebody else will define us instead to our disadvantage (as the German indologists did in the 19th century).

              There are no comprehensive English equivalents for most Sanskrit terms. So either we have to use the Sanskrit terms, which only a few will recognise, or we have to use the best English equivalents.

              It is very much to our advantage to have an internationally understood definition of Hinduism for both social and legal reasons. Therefore we have to call our dharma as a religion even though we know that this term does not properly define it.

              In fact it is Christianity and Islam that are not religions as defined. They are only belief systems, political ideologies with personality cults attached, that have no culture or way of life of their own but can be imposed on or insinuated into any culture and society. That is why they are so dangerous. They are parasitical thought systems that feed off the body of the culture they invade until they destroy the targeted culture and society completely on the inside and assume its outward form as their own (known in missionary circles as indiginisation or inculturation). This is what apostle Paul did in Greece with so much success, destroying classical Greece in the process to the great loss of humanity.

              So better we identify ourselves in recognisable terms or we will suffer the consequences of having others, mostly unfriendly others, define us instead.

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