Dharma Vs Religion – The Debate


The word ‘religion’ evokes many images; many of them dissimilar and quite opposite. These images may range from peaceful to violent; from superstition to science; devotion to fanaticism; obscurantism to exploration; from provoking strong desire to the stage of desireless-ness.

Religion also elicits the entire spectrum of emotions from fear, anger, and sadness on one end, to joy, trust and exhilaration on the other.

These responses make the task of any seeker quite difficult in analyzing and understanding what religion is?

Is religion the force of peace? Or the force of war? Is it good? Or is it bad? There are evidences to support both arguments.

Religion has resulted in some of the noblest of human drives, campaigns and achievements. It has enabled nobler drives in human beings, uplifted them from basic instincts and made them strive for greater causes. It has been a force of philanthropy and has encouraged one man to help another. It has been a force of harmony, partnership and cooperation. It has been a harbinger of peace and love.

But on the other hand, it has also been a force of violence. It has led to some of the greatest, bloodiest and cruelest wars that humanity has ever known. It has led one group of human beings to oppress and kill another. It has led nations, countries and armies to fight. It has made neighbors to clash. It has led to riots and many other forms of violence.

So what is it?

The answer lies in a subtle distinction. Religion is not a homogenous category. All religions are not the same. There are some fundamental differences between one set of religions and the other. And actually, some religions that we know by the name of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. do not come in the category of religion at all, but an entirely different category, which we have been confusing with that of religion for a long time.

Scientists and thinkers in modern age have also remarked on these two different categories of ‘religions’. A noted American ecologist Jared Diamond says: “There have been long-standing debates among scholars of religion about whether Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism should be counted as religions.” Hinduism is also said to belong to this category.

Before analyzing the reasons as to why Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism and Hinduism do not come under the category of ‘religion’, it is imperative to discuss what ‘religion’ actually is.


Let us begin with a few dictionary definitions and definitions by great philosophers to understand this phenomenon:

1. “Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience.” (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

2. “A propitiation or conciliation of superhuman powers which are believed to control nature and man.” (Sir James Frazer)

3. “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church.” (Émile Durkheim)

What these definitions stress, the necessary constituents of a religion are: a personal God and the urge to control Nature and man. What is even more important is that religion is characterized by its dependence on a historical event, a historical revelation by God to a Prophet who is the mediator between God and man. This God is an extra-terrestrial, angry, jealous and vengeful male God. He has created this world and made man (not woman), the lord of the universe and has given him dominion over all things and beings which are his for exploitation.

This God can neither be heard, nor seen, nor felt by man. He communicates with man only through his Chosen Prophet. The Prophet is the divine mediator. The God has revealed the Truth, once and for all, to his Chosen Prophet, at one point of time in history. This Truth has been codified in One Book which contains this revealed Truth. This Book is the only source of Truth for man. He has no choice but to accept the Truth given in the Book. Those who believe in this Truth are considered believers and will attain salvation in Heaven. Those who do not believe in this Truth, contained in the Book are called non-believers and they are eternally damned to burn in Hell.

The day when the believers and non-believers will be segregated and sent to their respective fates is called the Judgment Day, when the Prophet will arise again and will make the Final Judgment. But the date of the Judgment Day is dependent upon the status and numbers of believers and non-believers in the world. The judgment day cannot arrive until the whole world is converted to the said religion, until everyone becomes a believer. This is why it is incumbent upon the believers to convert the whole world to their own religious belief. Until they achieve this end, the Judgment Day will not arrive. Hence, the non-believers, by just existing, are delaying the trip of believers to Heaven.

To sum up, Religion believes in One God, One Prophet, One Book, Divided Humanity (believers and non-believers), Linear View of Time, Last Judgment and exclusive revelation of Truth at one point of time in history.

Three important world religions are best representatives of the category called religion: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Judaism does not believe in conversion and has evolved over time so practically Christianity and Islam belong to the category of religion.

It is very hard for the followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other dharmic traditions to correlate with any of these features, features which are central to the category of ‘religion’. A dharmic seeker is perplexed being confronted with such a set of assumptions; they seem completely alien to his dharmic tradition.

The question then naturally arises, what is dharma? We need to define, what is dharma, what is religion and what are the differences between the two.


The word which seems most fundamentally inalienable to India, Indian culture and civilization is ‘dharma’. The question naturally arises. What is Dharma? What is its definition?

The dictionary definition of dharma is: that which sustains everything; supports everything; bears everything; and which is the foundation of everything. Dharma is the harmony in the universe that sustains greater good. Dharma sustains the universe. It is the underlying principle at the foundation of all life.

By definition, dharma protects one who protects it. Depending on the context, dharma can mean one or more of: virtue, moral principle, law, righteousness, duty, path, state, etc. It is one of the four purusharthas; goals of human life.

Shatavdhani Dr. R. Ganesh says that in order to understand dharma, we need to understand two other words: rta and rna. He defines them as:

Rta - “The word ‘rta’ is derived from the root ‘ऋ,’ which means dynamism, vibrancy, seasoning, and a sense of belonging. In the Vedas, rta is often held supreme. The whole of creation is called ‘sat’ and it has an inbuilt cosmic law, rta. If ‘sat’ or existence of this world is the fact, the value that we realize out of it is ‘rta.’”

Rna – “Once we realize rta, the cosmic order, the value of the whole creation, become naturally humbled and concerned. For our sustenance, the whole universe is supporting; for our existence the whole creation is toiling. Is this awareness not sufficient to infuse immense indebtedness in our hearts? Such a positive guilt of indebtedness in our sensitive minds is called as ऋण (rna) in the Vedic language. Any human being by birth itself will carry this baggage of rna. His or her basic duty is to clear off these debts without which he or she cannot become meaningful.”

Dharma – “The way of clearing off these debts given by the Vedas is धर्म (dharma). Thus, the awareness of rta leads to the realization of rna, which in turn motivates a person to pursue dharma, the global ethic or the righteous way of life.”

Dr. Ganesh also says that there are kinds of dharma, samanyadharma and visheshadharma.

Samanyadharma contains all the basic values which generally never change with space and time. It includes values like truth, non-violence, freedom from greed, purity of thought, word and action, self-control, etc.

Visheshadharmas according to Shatavdhani Dr. R. Ganesh include:

1, Varna dharma (duties of different social sectors)

2, Ashrama dharma (duties of individuals at different stages of their life)

3. Raja dharma (duties of political authority)

4. Apaddharma (alternative duties and exemptions during odd and critical times), etc.

Another noted scholar of Hinduism, Padma Bhushan David Frawley, (Shri Vamadeva Shastri) says that Dharma or Sanatana Dharma is the Eternal Tradition. Throughout history, wise people all over the globe have sought a Truth which is Universal and Eternal. Dharma is the quest for this Universal Truth. Dharma is a way of Truth, natural law.

It is the essence of all human culture. It is the tradition of knowledge which reflects the Universal Truth and allows people of every generation to connect with it. The highest form of knowledge is Self-knowledge. It is a way of developing higher awareness. Dharma is the tradition of Self-knowledge. Frawley says:

“Dharma as the nature of things is the eternal constant, the Self-existent Reality. No one doubts that fire burns, its very existence proclaims it. Each thing similarly proclaims its dharma or place in the universal order through the qualities which compose it. Each person has his or her own dharma, a unique place and function in the cosmic rhythm. To know the Dharma is to discover not only the unity of Truth but all of its variations upon this overflowing oneness of Self-existence.”

Though dharma has universal principles or elements, it manifests in the world in diverse forms, subject to the conditions of a particular people, place and culture. In case of India, this dharma is called Sanatana Dharma, more popularly known as Hinduism or Hindu Dharma. It has many regional features, such as particular gods and goddesses with other regional Indian elements like food, dress, language etc. but it has a universal core which it shares with other dharmic traditions like Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Shintoism, and various pagan traditions all over the world. In the past, dharmic traditions were everywhere with ancient Greeks and Romans, indigenous Africans, Native Americans etc. practicing a form of dharmic tradition.

In the past two thousand years these dharmic traditions were swept away by religions like Christianity and Islam. In the present scenario, there is no other dharmic tradition as vast, as evolved and as codified as Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma. Hindu Dharma can be considered a model for Sanatana Dharma.

Sanatana Dharma means “eternal or universal truth”, or “perennial wisdom”. In the words of David Frawley: “It is a tradition inherent in the cosmic mind, arising with creation itself. Sanatana Dharma is a set of teachings which comprehend Universal Life and Consciousness, including religion, yoga and mysticism, philosophy, science, art and culture as part of a single reality.”

Frawley says that Sanatana Dharma is not limited to any spiritual path, name, group. “Yet the idea of Universal Truth is inherent in the very concept of Sanatana Dharma.” This Truth cannot be possessed by anyone and is a matter of direct experience for each individual. Sanatana Dharma does not tell us the Truth, but provides us the paths, or equipment with which to realize this Truth.

But Sanatana Dharma does have unchanging universal principles. What are those?

1. It recognizes the great laws of Nature and Consciousness.

2. It recognizes the law of karma and rebirth – the idea that we sow so shall we reap.

3. It respects the cosmic intelligence working through Nature and thus seeks to harmonize human life with the Nature through worshipping the Diving principles through Devatas, representing aspects of Nature.

4. It enables us with practices to discover Truth for ourselves, practices like yoga, rituals, mantra and meditation.

Sanatana Dharma as Hindu Dharma or Hinduism has similar features like:

1. It has the greatest diversity and freedom in the spiritual life.

2. It allows the Divine to be worshipped in any name or form, or beyond form.

3. It allows us to see God as father, mother, brother, sister, friend or master, and ultimately requires that we see God as everything, above all as our very own Self.

Though it is hard to define Dharma, it is necessary to do so for two reasons: one, there are some universal unchanging principles which makes Sanatana Dharma eternal and perennial. Second, if it is not defined properly, it will be destroyed and digested by enemy traditions and ideologies, as Rajiv Malhotra explains. He sheds further light on characteristics of Dharma, which are as follows:

1. An open architecture – for spiritual quest, as well as guidance for one’s mundane living.

2. Modular – a variety of components that fit into the architecture based on individual choice. Once can choose one’s personal deity, rituals, pilgrimage, festivals, sacred texts, cosmological worldview etc.

3. Pre-packaged solutions – pre-packaged ‘religious’ systems available from many competing sampradayas which provide total life solutions for the practitioner.

4. Customization – a do-it yourself option for the sophisticated practitioner which bypasses all suppliers. This practitioner has to be advanced in sadhana.

5. Ongoing research and evolution – various ongoing R&D houses that periodically come out with novel ideas and practices and introduce them.

6. No centralized control mechanism – there is no center, owner or founder. There is no singular authority that has ever decreed and enforced what is ‘right’ for all practitioners. Nobody has been able to destroy the other options.

7. Not history centric – it is not required to study the history of the system itself.

Dharma is also characterized by constant updating and evolution in its visheshdharmas. The society is dynamic; in flux. It faces new challenges every day. It is impossible to create a moral code which is eternally relevant. Some things have to be left to human discrimination. The Indian rishis called this ‘wisdom of discrimination’: viveka. Though dharmic scriptures are available for guidance, viveka is crucial for taking decisions according to the specific needs of time and place. The Dharma that Indian rishis expounded incorporated this wisdom. It never allowed any centralized authority to govern every minute aspect of man’s life.

Dharma belongs to the category of untranslatable words, words which cannot be properly translated into other languages. Dharma was wrongly translated and identified as religion. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism etc. are not religions. They are dharmic traditions. They are dharma.


Needless to say, religion and dharma are very different. Their differences are the purpose of this work and this website. But to mention the most crucial difference: religion believes that Truth is exclusive and is revealed to the Chosen Prophet of God at one point of time in history. This Truth, coded in the Book has to be accepted by the believers. They can never experience the Truth first-hand. They always have to receive it through the Prophet, as codified in the Book. They have no other option.

Dharmic traditions recognize the innate divinity in every human being, every creature and even in inanimate objects. It recognizes the Supreme Consciousness which is indivisible and is the One which becomes many in the myriad creatures of this world. This Oneness, this Truth, is to be experienced by each and every person by himself. No other can do it for him. He cannot read it in a book or be told about it from someone. Everyone has to experience it himself.

Religion believes in one life but Dharma talks about many lives. Religion teaches truth confined to historic time whereas Dharma teaches truth not bounded by time. It is puratana (ancient but also ever-new). Religion teaches that man is a sinner and needs salvation by the Prophet. Dharma teaches about inherent divinity of human being and stresses the fact that no other person can attain salvation for you. One has to do it himself, by meditating and concentrating on one’s inner strength.

These categories are opposite of each other. Religion is not dharma. Dharma is not religion. Not only that, religion is the opposite of dharma in many respects. It is because religions like Islam and Christianity have an agenda to destroy dharma and dharmic traditions for achieving their end goal. In modern times, Dharma faces challenges from two dominant religious beliefs: Islam and Christianity.

Christianity began 2,000 years ago by distorting the language of spirituality of ancient Greece and Rome. These pagan sects had practices similar to dharmic practices of India and modern pagan sects all over the world. They were all experiential systems. They judged people by their actions and not by their beliefs.

Christianity did not negate spiritual systems altogether. By using spiritual symbols, it distorted the original teachings of native spiritual masters and imposed a political ideology upon the unsuspecting followers. This process began with the distortion of language. The very first word it chose for distortion was ‘religion’ itself. Christianity appropriated and digested the pagan concept of religion for its ideology and propaganda.

‘Religion’ was pagan word that derives from Latin religare “go through again”. A well-renowned Indologist Dr. Koenraad Elst traces the Latin religare to Cicero, “who explains it as meaning “to reread”, and its related meaning: “with utmost attention”, or what they nowadays call “mindfully”. It is used in that sense even in English: “to do something religiously” means doing it “with utmost attention”.

He elaborates on historical evolution of this word remarking that, “It was a normal pagan term much before Christianity. But the latter infused it with the new meaning of ‘doctrine’, “system of beliefs and concomitant practices”. In that sense, its application to Hinduism in the historical broad sense does complete injustice to the Indian religious landscape. It tries to capture pagan religious phenomena as a Christian category.” 

Such unprecedented appropriation of the universal concept of ‘religion’ for particular and exclusive ‘doctrine’ could be seen as the very first revolt against spirituality and ancient practices of Europeans. Spiritual concepts were re-cast and re-interpreted in Christian themes and were imposed on the natives through education.

For practical purposes, we have used the word ‘religion’ for Christianity and Islam for the purpose of identifying them as a separate group, which they are. However, it is necessary to remember that the word ‘religion’ was also once a pagan word with positive meanings and meant something which was completely different from what Christianity and Islam have come to mean.

Christianity introduced the idea of religion in India and other parts of the world. In India this distortion was propagated through English education system, which was mostly controlled by the Church. In Indians, one dangerous effect of this distortion is the loss of discrimination between religious traditions on one hand and dharmic traditions on the other hand.

They have been taught that religion and dharma are same. The word, ‘religion’ was translated as ‘dharma’ and as a result, modern Indians think that religions like Christianity and Islam are just another form of dharma. Through the agency of English education, religion was presented as dharma to Indians.

These fundamental beliefs based on opposing premises can never be reconciled as they arise from two very different psyches; one dharmic, another adharmic. Clubbing dharma and Religion (or adharma) in the principle of sameness often arises from the loss of discrimination.

Dharmic traditions in India include Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – of which Hinduism is the oldest and the largest. Taoism, Shintoism and many other pagan sects around the world can easily be placed along dharmic traditions. Various indigenous traditions and native creeds like those of the pre-Christian Europeans, the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, the Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and African groups are also included among the dharmic traditions.

Religious traditions include conversion-based religions of Christianity and Islam. Each maintains that it is the only true faith for humanity and solely represents God’s plan and God’s will. Christianity and Islam became the dominant religions of the Western world over the centuries through a long process of struggle and warfare. They cruelly displaced all other ‘religions’ (pagan traditions) that they encountered.



The current project namely Dharma vs. Religion aims to extensively study the sources of Dharmic tradition in comparison to Christianity and Islam. It aims to study the causes behind the loss of discrimination between dharma and religion. The study is divided into two categories – 1) Dharmic traditions and 2) Religious ideologies.

The objective is to focus on the differences between dharmic traditions on one hand and religious traditions on the other. It includes the study of original sources of these two traditions to understand moral and ethical values they impart. It is also important to study the historical journey of these traditions and how they implemented their basic belief systems.

Most of the work on this website is based upon the work of the great scholars of Indian civilization: Ram Swarup, Sita Ram Goel, David Frawley, Koenraad Elst and Rajiv Malhotra. Many a times their words are picked as it is from their works as it is rarely possible to summarize or paraphrase these great scholars.

In the first phase of this project, we have presented the most fundamental differences between dharma and religion. Besides that, differences in 12 major categories have been outlined. Outlining these differences will help in understanding how dharma and religion operate on opposite principles. So let us have a look at those DIFFERENCES.