धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः। Dharmo Raksati Raksitah.

Dharma protects those who protect it.

– Veda Vyas, Mahabharat

Need I belong to only one religion?

Multi-religious symbol at entrance of Dhyanalinga
Multi-religious symbol at entrance of Dhyanalinga
Multi-religious symbol at the entry of Dhyanalinga, Isha Yoga Centre, Coimbatore

The word religion as used in the standard form carries three connotations:

(1) That a religion is conclusive, that is to say it is the one and only true religion;

(2) That a religion is exclusionary, that is to say, those who don’t follow it are excluded from salvation and

(3) That a religion is separative, that is to say, in order to belong to it one must not belong to another. In each of these three ways the notion of dharma, which is the original Indian concept, is very different from the notion of religion.

In the essay, Prof. Sharma, points out that these three notions of religion are not a universal idea and by and large do not express the reality of what are called Eastern religions [1]. For instance, the conclusive and separative notion of religion implies that one can only be a member of one religion or another. In both Eastern and many indigenous societies, this does not hold true. For instance the 1985 figures for religious affiliation in Japan were 95% professing Shintoism and 76% professing Buddhism – clearly a considerable number (over 70%) chose to suggest that they subscribed to multiple “religions.” Similar statements of non-exclusiveness can be made about Confucianism and Taoism in China, again not religions in the Western understanding of the word.

These three notions of religion – conclusive, exclusionary and separative, give Abrahamic religions a hard-edged identity. In Abrahamic religions there has been a strong emphasis on the separation of “believer” and “non-believer” and a religious imperative to move as many people from the latter category to the former. Truth has been conclusively and unquestionably revealed and captured in a book, and those that follow it are the only ones that are on the right path. Quite literally, this means that you are “with us or against us” – that the believers are right and represent the good who are “with God”; and all the others are misguided and are part of the darkness and deprived of any direct access to what is the ultimate good. The pagan, the heretic, the kafir, the unconverted represent the darkness against which the true believers are enjoined to wage war, either literally or figuratively. In the Roman Catholic Church this is enshrined in the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (“There is no salvation outside the church”), and in Islam in the clear distinction between mumin and kafir, and between dar-ul-Islam and dar-ul-harb. So in the Abrahamic world, the identity of a religion and religious group is in fundamental opposition to those that are not part of that group. This means that per the religious doctrine of Abrahamic religions, there is an inherent conflict with any other people who have not converted to their particular conception of God. Any true believer then must do his part to affect this conversion, not doing so is only betraying his faith.

By contrast, the worldview of the dharmic traditions [2] is that while scriptures can be very helpful, Truth cannot be found by scripture alone but by a path of experiential realization and Self-discovery – and in that sense religion is not conclusive. It is also not separative and exclusive in the sense of dividing the world into believers and non-believers.

A teacher can share his or her understanding of the truth; and means and ways for others to access this; but there is no underlying belief that only one such way exists. These ideas find clear expression as far back as the Rig Veda, with its famous quotation:

    “Ekam sad; vipra bahudha vadanti” (while Truth is One, the wise describe it in different ways) I.164.46 of the Rig Veda

References (inserted by this platform)

[1] Eastern religions loosely include Dharmic or Indic religions of India (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism) as well as religious traditions of Japan and China
[2] Indic religions or Indic philosophical traditions


Published originally at http://sankrant.org/2003/02/need-i-belong-to-only-one-religion/. Excerpted with permission from @sankrant.