An Indic Contribution Towards an Understanding of the Word “Religion”

The word religion is now part of global discourse specially as it is carried out through the medium of English. The word, however, is Western in origin which raises the question:  Does a Western word, when used in global discourse, reflect the global religious reality or does it in the process of reflecting it, also distort it?

It is contended in the paper that such in fact is the case—that when the word is used to represent the religions of Indian origin, the religions of the Far East and the indigenous religions—it in fact distorts reality. The basis for making such a claim is the following.

The word “religion” came into secular use in the nineteenth century and has since been freely used in the public sphere as if it were a neutral word, which could be impartially applied to all the religions of the world. However, the word embodies a certain concept of what religion is and this concept is rooted in its Christian background.

In such a context the concept of religion implies that a religion is something (1) conclusive; (2) exclusionary and (3) separative. In other words, a religion, in order to qualify as such must hold that it has the final truth (conclusive); that in order to obtain it one must belong to it alone (exclusionary) and that in order to do so one must separate oneself from any other, specially prior, affiliation (separative). It is also separative in another sense: that religion constitutes a part of life, separate from the rest of it—a sense particularly pronounced in Christianity.

When this word was adopted in secular discourse these orientations of the word were retained, with some modifications. The claim to possessing the final truth by Christianity was extended to each religion on its own, this process giving rise to the expression “truth claim.” The idea that the membership of a religion excluded that of any other was retained, while the third constituent of the concept, that of separation (between the sacred and the profane or the secular and the religious) came to characterise one religion’s separateness from another more than anything else.

All the three orientations of the word religion as conclusive, as exclusionary and as separative are in effect exclusivist in nature, a word to be carefully distinguished from the word exclusionary which has been used above in the sense of indicating the fact that the formal membership one one religion must exclude such membership of another. The conclusive element is exclusivist in the sense that only the religion’s own truth-claim is considered final, thereby excluding such claims of other religions; the exclusionary element is obviously exclusivistic and the claim that religions must be treated as separate entities by themselves is also obviously exclusivistic.

Such an exclusivistic orientation however does not characterise the Indic religious tradition or what we might also call the dharmic tradition. The word Indic in this  contextneeds to be carefully distinguished from the word Indian. All religions found to exist in India may be called Indian religions. Those religions among these which are Indian in origin in their self-perception, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism alone may be called Indic.

This Indic religious tradition tends to be non-exclusivistic. Each component of it—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism—tends to view one’s membership of it as a sufficient but not a necessary condition for liberation. This attitude finds further expression in the fact that these traditions tend to be non-proselytizing even when they become missionary.

Such a non-exclusivistic attitude in terms of religion is not confined to Indic religions but is shared by religions of the Far East. In pre-Communist China it was common for people to view themselves as both Confucian and Taoist in terms of religious commitment. The example of present-day Japan is also relevant here.

According to the 1985 census, 95% of the Japanese population declared itself as followers of Shinto. Seventy-six per cent of the same population, however, also simultaneously declared itself to be Buddhist.

The indigenous religions of the world—the American-Indian, the African and so on—are also non-exclusivistic in their attitude to religion.

The use of the word religion, which carries exclusivistic overtones, in these three contexts—of Indic religions, of the religions of the Far East and of the indigenous religions, distorts their reality, because it means that a word with an exclusivistic orientation is being employed to describe “religious” traditions which are non- exclusivistic.

One might still wonder, even if one accepts this point, as to how consequential a point it is. Is it merely of academic interest or of more than academic interest? I would like to urge that the use of religion when applied as a blanket term to all the religions of the  world—both exclusivistic as well as non-exclusivistic in nature—when the word itself has exclusivistic connotations, possesses significant policy implications. For instance, it tilts the concept of religious freedom in human rights discourse in favour of freedom to proselytize which is more in keeping with an exclusivistic rather than a non-exclusivistic concept of religion, thereby depriving thenon-exclusivistic religions of their religious freedom—which in their case would consist of not being made the object of proselytization. The formal recognition of such a right on their part would then constitute an Indic contribution toward a truly global understanding of the world religion.


Published originally at http://www.infinityfoundation.com/indic_colloq/papers/paper_sharma2.pdf. Reproduced with permission from @sankrant.


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