Questions of philosophy vs religion are as old as the human ability to question. Today people wonder about the balance of power and reconciliation between science & religion. It’s a valid issue to think about, but to get a better handle on the subject, it might help to look at the relationship between religion and science’s great-grandfather, philosophy.
My friend Paul always puts interesting questions to me. After tackling truth, this time we were having a conversation about how I reconcile religion and philosophy from an Indian or Hindu perspective. Some interesting points came up, which I have not seen expressed often, so I thought I should share my thoughts here. Indians take much of our own way of thinking for granted, but the fact is, the relationship between religion and philosophy in India has always been quite unique when compared to the West.
There are many levels of religious devoutness in every faith. I do come from a Hindu family, but this is where definitions get complicated because “devout” is a nebulous term when it comes to Hinduism. If you look at the Hindu faith from the eyes of someone from one of the other major religions or the majority of the modern followers, then devout would mean people who are strict followers of the ritual side of the religion. By that measure my family is not devout, although my Dad’s family (at least at the time of his parents) was from that vein of the faith.
The question of reconciling philosophy with Hinduism is a tricky concept to communicate, but I will try. If you have any Hindu friends of the kind who will not look at you strangely if you asked them about religion and philosophy in their culture, they will likely tell you that connecting with philosophy is easier to deal with in Hinduism. But, that “easier” is their particular understanding of their faith. As far as my personal understanding is concerned, in Hinduism, there is no reconciling to be done with philosophy at all. The thing about Hinduism is that at its core it can barely qualify as a faith or religion in the same mould as the other major faiths, especially the Abrahamic religions.
In some forgotten past, Hinduism might have started as simple nature worship but it soon grew into much more, and ultimately into a complex philosophical system. The strange and slightly unique aspect here is that it didn’t do so by discarding its more colourful naturalistic and mythological aspects, but rather by simply building upon them. The idea of philosophy and logic as being this sterile discipline separated from belief, parable, and faith was a Greek concept and not an Indian one.
The term Hindu is actually a descriptive label coined by the Arabs for the people who lived beyond the River Indus. So the very concept of the “religion” of Hinduism is an external imposition which has eventually become accepted by even the “Hindus” themselves. The original name for this philosophy or belief system or whatever you wish to call it, was Sanatana Dharma. Dharma is the same concept as, and the source of, the Buddhist idea of duty, but really that word just does not have an adequate translation in English. It means duty, belief, life, and in its broadest connotation simply “the way”. So Sanatana Dharma would translate to something like “The Ancient Way” or “The Eternal Way”, and even those are gross simplifications.
The Indian culture has always been pluralistically monolithic, if that makes any sense. Let me explain. In India before the coming of the Islamic invasions and Catholicism, we don’t really seem to have had a very strict idea of Religion-A, Religion-B etc. Rather we just had one large body of belief we simply called “Dharma”, which encompassed the vast variety of supporting and conflicting belief systems. They were still all part of the greater Dharma, and the concept of there being many valid paths was one that held great importance.
You can see a similar phenomenon in the sciences. Today the common wisdom is that Yoga is a bunch of bendy exercises from India that are good for you. In the original Sanskrit, it was simply Yog which translates to science or knowledge. This encompassed all scientific knowledge, specifically to do with human beings. One of the multitude of sub-topics in Yog was Hatah Yog meaning the Science of Discipline. That in turn comprised of various systems, one of which were the Asanas, the body positions and exercises that have today become popular as Yoga.
I hope you’re beginning to see what I mean. To try to understand Indian knowledge systems through the lens of Western faiths and philosophies is futile and only leads to misinformation. Sanatana Dharma became “Hinduism” over the millennia, possibly because the Indians kept getting asked by visitors what their religion was, their dharma. They probably didn’t quite understand the question because there was only one Dharma. So the concept of Hindusim took root. Then the Abrahamic religions came and asked them what their religious book was, and they didn’t quite understand that question either. To the ancient Indian, all books were “dharmic”, from the medical volumes of Charak to the love manuals of Vatsayana. So in later times, the Bhagavat Geeta was shoe-horned into the proceedings as our one true book. It is not.
The main thing to understand about Hinduism is that there is no minimum entry requirement, and you can forget what a few extremist zealots might say on the subject today. You don’t have to do anything in particular to be a Hindu. No specific prayers, no rituals, no mandatory temple visits. You cannot really be made a Hindu ala baptism (although in the last 2 centuries a Hindu “conversion” was invented as a counter balance to all the missionaries that went on a converting spree through the length and breadth of the land), nor can you be excommunicated (other than on a purely social level). At its core it is a highly evolved philosophical construct with an almost relativistic, quantum mechanical view of the universe, but at its surface level, you can satisfy yourself by simply paying homage to the Sun and the God of Rain. You can subscribe to either of those belief structures, or the vast range of mediums in between, and you’re still a Hindu, and no one can say otherwise.
Some ancient Indian literature actually tackles this subject. It mentions how some people only have the capacity to worship the creative force as humanised idols, all the way up to understanding the entirety of creation as one singular and differentiated entity, which is beyond the comprehension all but the most adept. The recommendation is to let each one worship, believe, and understand as per their own capacity, and using their own models and metaphors. An elegant system, I think, and one that has resulted in one of the longest continuous and unbroken systems of knowledge and faith in existence. The reason it never broke was because it was always adapting.
I don’t know if I’ve actually answered the original question about reconciling religion and philosophy, but I hope I have created a vague summary of the landscape of traditional Indian thought, a landscape where that question is simply irrelevant. India and everything to do with India is commonly misread and misunderstood by many, because unlike many other cultures you cannot grasp what makes it tick by scrutinising the details. Once you train yourself to see the forest for the trees, while also admiring that line of ants on the earth at your feet, simultaneously, you might begin to start seeing the world through Indian-coloured glasses.