Skip to main content

Difference Between Dharma and Religion

This piece is an after-thought on my “The Myth of Similarity Between Religions” where I argue that all religions are not the same. I continue here and argue that Dharma is different from religion as understood in West.

I’ve based my understanding of religion mainly on the perspective of practitioners, to confirm if my understanding of the religion accurately represents its true position.

Fate of a good atheist

We shall consider an atheist who is a man of certain values, law-abiding and treats others well. But, we repeat, he does not believe in any religion.

From a Hindu perspective, this man’s fate is entirely dependent on his karma [roughly sum-total of his deeds in life]. His lack of belief does not interfere with the law of karma, and if his conduct is good, post-death he may in all probability get a human life again with better material prosperity.

However according to Islam and Christianity, the person’s lack of belief on Prophet Mohammed and Jesus Christ respectively, qualifies him for eternal hellfire after death. The atheist’s good work notwithstanding, his lack of belief renders all positives useless.

Please note that by belief we specifically mean belief-in-Jesus-ONLY or belief-in-Prophet-ONLY. These religions are categorical in naming only their Saviour’s God as one and reject Gods of other faiths. They do not believe that salvation is possible outside their faith.

Fate of a Hindu

We analyse here the fate of a Hindu from various standpoints.

From a Hindu perspective, a Hindu’s belief on Hindu principles is of little influence on his fate. His belief does not absolve him of any sins he has committed. If one is a sincere Hindu, he must automatically seek the welfare of world and should not hate/harm others. However, if he harms others, (except as defence) he must face his karma however pious he might have been. A Hindu who kills innocent people of other religions too faces retribution for his deeds.

To both Christianity and Islam, a Hindu just by virtue of being one, is worthy of contempt however lofty he might be in human terms.

A case in point is the opinion of Maulana Muhammad Ali (an important Muslim leader of Khilafat movement of 1922, India) on Mahatma Gandhi: "However pure Gandhi's character may be, he must appear to me from the point of view of religion inferior to any Mussalman, even though he be without character”. He repeated it later, saying, 'Yes, according to my religion and creed, I hold an adulterous and a fallen Muslim to be better than a Mr. Gandhi."

According to core scriptures of Islam, it is a pious to destroy Pagan temples, forcefully convert them to Islam, and kill those who refuse to obey the rule of Allah. Likewise, a pious Christian feels justified in exploiting poor people or those mentally weakened by problems and forcing them to convert in lure of material benefits. Social-service has always been the mask under which the missionary apparatus seeks to convert “heathens”. If conversions are banned, the whole “healing” will end instantly.

Fate of a Muslim and Christian

The Hindu position with respect to Muslim and/or Christian believer follows the pattern of an atheist. If this believer performs good karma he will reap good harvest, his non-belief in Hinduism has nothing to do with his fate. However, if this believer kills innocent people in the name his religion, he will face due negative karma. Hinduism doesn’t absolve any sin committed in the name of converting others. Unless necessitated by dharma [for larger good of mankind] and purely as a defence against atrocities, war is not scripturally sanctioned.

This cannot be misinterpreted by anyone for his selfish cause and needs proper examination beforehand [like all efforts were made to avert Mahabharata war and only as the last resort when all discussions fail, is war declared].

On the contrary, a Christian and Muslim are actually urged to go around the world and “help” people realize their truth. All means are justified to convert the unbelievers. While Islam is still pre-modern, Christianity post-reformation is more subtle and intelligent in this endeavour. But the root motivation remains the same.


Let us imagine a hypothetical situation where the whole world forgets the past and there is no way to regain knowledge of history. What happens to Islam and Christianity in such a situation? Because both cite their authority on truth, based on historical references, these religions are sure to fall apart.

But Hinduism is like a scientist’s discovery of nature’s laws. Just like if Newton would not have discovered the law of gravity, it could have been discovered by someone else although it might have taken more time. Extending the same logic of mass-amnesia to this concept, we can be sure that the same law can be reached again through independent enquiry which is not subject to prior knowledge or belief.

The principles of Hinduism are universal and open to anyone to wishes to gain from them. It is not the political affiliation of religion that matters. One may call himself a Muslim, Christian or Hindu, but what does not change is man’s relationship with his activity. This has little to do with politico-religious organization and depends on self-realization.

One line sums it all: Hinduism: Liberation through Knowledge. | Abrahamic religions: Salvation through Faith.

So what is dharma?

Dharma can be termed as an intrinsic nature of each matter whether animate or inanimate. It is the dharma of tiger to hunt down other animals and eat them. The dharma of inanimate objects when studied in detail becomes what we term of Physics today, like it is dharma of earth to revolve around the sun.

Likewise, irrespective of one’s political affiliation to a cause which differs with space and time, one’s dharma is deeply interweaved with one’s activities from which none is exempt. The intrinsic nature of human community also has a dharma and each varna contributes towards maintenance of universal dharma by performing its sva-dharma (personal dharma) well. A non-religious society can be ethical. But a non-dharmic society cannot be ethical.

Contrast this with the Monotheistic Prophetic religions – they appear like an imperialist ideology that provides a garb under which its people indulge in wanton exploitation. The rapid rise of these religions and its longevity is explained by its apologists as a vindication of its truthfulness – I contend that longevity isn’t necessarily a measure of a theory’s correctness. Sometimes, a theory is just too useful as a tool for many people who abuse it for their own selfish purposes.
I conclude by offering two paradigms that contrast Indian and Western culture.
  • Two millenniums ago, Emperor Ashoka of Maurya Empire surrendered to Buddhism [which I consider as an offshoot of Sanatana Dharma]. Here, the warrior surrendered to the faith and changed himself for better to became a benevolent ruler.
  • Sometime later, Constantine the Roman Emperor, accepted Christianity. Instead of the Christianity changing the warrior, the warrior manipulated Christianity to further his imperialistic designs.

That helps understand to a considerable extent the difference between Dharma and Religion.


  1. What I like in your writing is the Clarity, Substantiation and the flow of words.. The Universality of Hinduism is beautifully explained in your History Centrism..

    But.. I m obliged to float my observations here..
    The moment we separate Religion and Dharma,.. it gives us a wrong message that a Religion may exist without Dharma.. As Humans started forming community (as they started Farming and settling), necessity for commonly agreed terms among the members rose and hence came the practice called Religion. What Religion spoke was Dharma. May be, the Creator of Religion could have either intentionally manipulated it for internal exploitation or unknowingly could have spread a wrong message (which is against Dharma - as being proved in Islam and Christianity). But, Dharma couldn't be a different entity from Religion. I want to quote your own writing here.. As you have mentioned, a perfect example is Hinduism that fosters Dharma. And another perfect example of a Religion misnomer that goes against Universal Righteousness is the Western Origination.

    1. I had a mixed feeling after reading this. I agree with you on certain points , while others seemed too narrowed, misconceived and biased. What you said on Islam could be 100 % true (but not practed by all the muslims), But those Christians you referred were mainly the Evangelical kind off religious fanatics, rather than the whole community itself. This ideology that all Non-Jesus Followers will rot in hellfire is generally seen among the ultra religious groups of Catholics who tend to live life as prescribed in the Bible. Now coming back Hinduism although everything seems to be fine now ............ but we had so many shameful practices in our society in the past like Untouchability, Sati, abjuration of widows etc etc. Which are unseen by us people living in the cities but are still practiced customarily in many unknown parts of the villages in India. I am an atheist but spiritual, when you look at each religion objectively and rationally you actually can notice how much of every religious practices tend to be more anthropomorphically fascistic than sheer acts for attaining gods spiritual glory.

    2. Ramesh,

      Thanks for commenting.

      while others seemed too narrowed, misconceived and biased.

      We shall presently examine whose opinions are "narrow, misconceived and biased".

      What you said on Islam could be 100 % true (but not practed by all the muslims)

      Despite your sincerest convictions on one's ideology, all followers cannot implement them always due to various reasons such as impracticability, formidable enemy etc. While most Muslims aren't terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. Most Muslims still believe that their God is the one-and-only-God.

      But those Christians you referred were mainly the Evangelical kind off religious fanatics, rather than the whole community itself. This ideology that all Non-Jesus Followers will rot in hellfire is generally seen among the ultra religious groups of Catholics who tend to live life as prescribed in the Bible.

      As late as 2000, Pope John Paul II, clearly specified that "there is no salvation outside Jesus" (itself a modification of "no salvation outside Church"). Vatican is the seat of Roman Catholics, far from being a fringe group is the most original and largest group.

      New converts to Christianity in India are specifically told that Hinduism is witchcraft. That they should disown idol worship and Hindu culture. Most converts will never enter a temple or take prasadam. Not that they have to, but eating prasadam certainly does no harm to anybody's faith. Most Christian converts are culturally alienated.

      Far from being an ultra religious view, the most common/normal view of any Father, Pastor, etc. is that Hinduism is devil worship and doesn't offer salvation. I request you to quote a single instance of any Christian Father/Bishop/Pastor that Hinduism also offers salvation. [ Clue: You won't. Else, how can they justify conversions if Hinduism is equally good?]

      Now coming back Hinduism although everything seems to be fine now ............ but we had so many shameful practices in our society in the past like Untouchability, Sati, abjuration of widows etc etc.

      On untouchability and Caste System, I've written this Controversial Caste System of India

      Do check it up and let me know if you concur. Also, Hindus have been second-grade citizens for past 1000 years (800 years of Islamic rule and 200 years of British). They were not in a position to reform themselves. As soon they got the opportunity the corrected it via reservations.

      am an atheist but spiritual, when you look at each religion objectively and rationally you actually can notice how much of every religious practices tend to be more anthropomorphically fascistic than sheer acts for attaining gods spiritual glory.

      I do not observe this in Hinduism. Can you quote me just one Hindu scripture from which Hindus seek inspiration and explain how it encourages fascism? Do not bring in Manusmriti, as no Indian ever seeks any inspiration from it in real life. A simple google search can bring dozens of results regarding Islam & Christianity.

      Do read this earlier blog Caste System and Conversionswhere I explain why all religions are not the same.

      Politically correct notions are intellectual laziness. Just because few notions appear trendy, doesn't mean they're right.

    3. Balasanjeevi:

      Thanks for commenting.

      Most ardent scholars of Sanatana Dharma consider these religions are political ideologies. My point was that Dharma and religion are not the same. West understood Hinduism the way it understood its own religions i.e. they mapped dharma with their western counterpart.

      Since, both have different origins, we cannot go into who is *right*. Since, all these days, Hinduism was being evaluated in Western template, I am reversing this and evaluating Western religions in Dharmic template.


Post a Comment

All-time Hits

The Controversial Caste System of Hinduism

Imagine concepts like feudal system, slavery, capitalistic exploitation and anti-Semitism being used to define the core of Christianity! Christians will be outraged at this inappropriate mixing of the core universal values of Christians and societal & historical aspects which merely existed in a Christian world.
Now this raises the question – why is caste system defined as the core of Hinduism? Especially as “caste” itself is a western construct. Sounds irrelevant?
Okay. Now imagine concepts like slave-trade, war on infidels, brutal subjugation of masses, temple destruction, and forceful conversions marking the core of Islam.
It is considered sensible to first understand what the core scriptures speak about the religion and its universal values. The ills of the community & its societal aspects are differentiated from its core philosophy.
Now, this brings us to the most interesting question – why is Caste System (caste based on birth) propagated to be the defining feature of Hindu…

Chetan Bhagat : His Literary Style and Criticism

Chetan Bhagat’s (CB) recent column created a furore, chiefly because of his audacity to speak for Muslim community and what many people conflate with his support for Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions.  
But what interested me most - and what this post would focus on - is questioning of his literary merit (or lack of it). Many journalists ridicule CB’s style of writing and his oversimplistic portrayals of characters sans nuance or sophistication. But I suspect this has more to do with the fact that his readers alone far outnumber the combined readers of many journalists - a point that many don’t appear capable of digesting.
No takers for layman’s language!
When Tulsidas rewrote Ramayana in Avadhi (a local contemporary dialect then), many conservative sections of society came down heavily upon him for defiling the sanctity of a much revered epic (originally written in Sanskrit). When Quran was first translated in Urdu (by Shah Abdul Qadir in 1798), it faced intense opposition by …

The concept of Dharma in Ramayana

The concept of Dharma is not adequately understood by Hindus themselves, not to mention others. Dharma is not a set of do’s and don’t’s or a simplistic evaluation of good and bad. It requires considerable intellectual exertion to even begin understanding Dharma, let alone mastering its use.

Is Dharma Translatable?
Few words of a language cannot be faithfully translated into another without injuring its meaning, context & spirit. English translations of Dharma are blurred and yield words like religion, sense of righteousness, discrimination between good and bad, morals and ethics or that which is lawful. All these fall short of fully grasping the essence of Dharma.
Every language has an ecosystem of words, categories and grammar which allow a user to stitch words together to maximum effect such that meaning permeates the text without necessarily being explicitly explained at each point. Sanskrit words such dharma, karma, sloka, mantra, guru etc., now incorporated in English, lose thei…

Trending Now