The Religion and Philosophy of Hinduism

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Kumbh Mela - Religion and Philosophy of Hinduism

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.


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  1. Samir,
    reading your interesting article has helped me understand just a little more about Hindu´s heart,and soul. I know it will maybe take me long to really understand, but at least I´m on my way.


  2. Good article, though I have a strong objection to your saying that before the coming of Arabs or other foreigners, Indians did not quite understand the concept of their ‘religion’.

    Please just remember that India was a flourishing country, and there was lot of interaction with people of other countries, far and wide. So, Indians were definitely aware of their religion and that of the others, and the differences therein. They were not only visited upon, Indians too traveled to the far off countries.

    Remember – ‘yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati’, etc. from Geeta.

    Yes, ‘Sanatan Dharma’ was never a fanatic religion, so you can say that that the conception of this religion was different from that of the Abrahamic religions.

    Sanatana Dharma means the ‘Universal Religion’, the religion that seeks to gain the knowledge of the entire creation which is this universe, from its conception to its end, and everything contained in this universe.

    So, scope– if I may use this word– of Sanatana Dharma is much vaster than, say, the Abrahamic Religions. It is the ‘Universal Religion’ – it covers everything, anybody can follow it. There is the entire cosmology, which explains the vast Universe and the Time which has dimensions beyond our understanding.

    Mostly, these days, we try to view the Sanatana Dharma from the view point of the ‘other’ religions. If you take the position from ‘this’ side, than those religions are more ‘creeds’ than religions, as being ‘followers’ of their originators is more important than anything else.

    Hindu religion, or Sanatan Dharma, has evolved over time, and is doing so even now.

    But overall, I appreciate the spirit of your article. Philosophy is inseparable from religion here.


    1. Thanks for the detailed comment Praveen. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

      I didn’t say Indians did not understand the concept of religion, but rather that our dharma was not merely religion, and so the limited concept of religion as practiced in the rest of the world did not quite gel with our way of thinking.

      Yes Indians travelled, yes Indians were knowledgeable, but we are talking about the small section of thinkers and explorers. I was talking about the reaction of the masses to concepts that might have been a bit foriegn to them.

      I’m not arguing about whether one is better than the other, because the core Hindu philosophy is that there are infinite paths to enligtenment, so “better” has no meaning. Your point of view starts with the premise that Sanatana Dharma means ‘Universal Religion’. I disagree that that is the original meaning, because I don’t think dharma means religion. Yes, in today’s Hindi, dharm means religion but that was certainly not the original spirit of the word. For example, in the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira is called Dharmaraja. Does that make any sense if it means “King of Religion”? No, because dharma means so much more.

      We are, I suspect, both talking about the same things, and we both agree on the ideas, it is only our words which are different. 🙂

      Thanks once again for contributing to the discussion.


  3. Hey Samir,

    Nice blog. One feedback – the constantly moving image on the right as I scroll down is *very* distracting when reading a post. Please consider a different format which doesn’t include such distractions. 🙂

    1. Kaffir, thanks for your comment. I am planning a re-design of the site soon, and while I don’t completely share the point of view, I will definitely keep it in mind when working on the update.

      Thanks for your feedback. Glad you liked the site.

  4. Great Article!
    One thing I want to comment on is about your use of the phrase “few extremist zealots”. The major difference between Hindu extremists and any other religions’ extremists is vast. No Hindu extremist will ever go and change people’s religion by force, manipulation and violence. But almost every other religious extremists on earth do that. Hindu extremists only work towards saving their religion not spreading it. So if nobody bothers Hindus, they have no intentions to spread their religion and this so called extremism wouldn’t even exist. It is sad that people in the western world put every extremist in one slot and say all their goals are the same. When I point out that if they ever heard of Hindu extremists then they should know that their goal is to only save their religion and not to spread, they are shocked and they ask me “oh so Hindus don’t care to convert people?” and immediately they show more respect than what they had in the beginning. I think this is an important aspect that all Hindus should be able to communicate with people of other religions.

    Probably you are talking about hardcore Hindus that only believe in rituals, then my message irrelavant but the point I made is relevant in general.

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked the article, and I appreciate you adding your thoughts to the discussion.

      But, I do have to ask, are you seriously suggesting that “our extremists are better than their’s”?

      You say “no Hindu extremist will ever go and change people’s religion by force, manipulation and violence.” Says who? What guarantee is there of that? Also, does that mean using force, manipulation, and violence for anything other than religious conversion is acceptable? I hope not.

      I’m sorry to be the one to inform you that every violent extremist must certainly be put in one slot. The ends do not justify the means, and certainly not in this instance. Also, when Hindu extremist are going around using “force, manipulation, and violence” on other Hindus because they don’t follow their arbitrary rules of conduct and behaviour which are definitely not part of my religion, what do you call that?

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure Hindu girls visiting a bar are not trying to convert people away from Hindusm, nor are young couples kissing at a beach trying to destroy the Hindu religion.

      If you condone one form of extremism, you might as well condone them all. One soon turns into the other because people kept quiet and let it happen.

      The lack of the missionary imperrative in most of Hinduism is certainly admirable, and yes I was also talking about Hindus that only believe in rituals. But, these cannot be used as a shield for extremism of other kinds.

      When it comes to extremism, you give them an inch and they take a mile, history has shown it. So, it’s best not to give any ground, or very soon you will not be able to tell any difference between the mythical “us” and “them” that defensive Hindu’s so often like to weakly argue about. I see no difference already.


      1. Says who? What guarantee is there of that?

        People like you are the guarantee. The very nature of “Hinduism” where diversity and questioning is the norm is the guarantee.

        I’m sorry to be the one to inform you that every violent extremist must certainly be put in one slot.
        Not necessarily. An action and a reaction are both actions, but there’s clearly a cause and an effect relationship between the two actions. Without that understanding, it’s stupid to equate the action and reaction as the same.

        The ends do not justify the means, and certainly not in this instance. Also, when Hindu extremist are going around using “force, manipulation, and violence” on other Hindus because they don’t follow their arbitrary rules of conduct and behaviour which are definitely not part of my religion, what do you call that?
        Yes, that is a problem. And that problem will keep on happening as long as media is controlled by the pseudo-secularists, though blogs where people can express their views freely is a welcome addition.

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure Hindu girls visiting a bar are not trying to convert people away from Hindusm, nor are young couples kissing at a beach trying to destroy the Hindu religion.
        Are you referring to what happened in Mangalore? Just curious, what exactly are the facts of that incident?
        Re: kissing, you may be confusing a social issue with a religious one.

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