Indic Versus Abrahamic Faiths: A Primer

  • Here is a close look at Indic faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — and and a comparison with Abrahamic religions.
  • Sajeev NayyarMonday, January 6, 2020 9:56 am IST
    A temple, a church and a mosque.
    A temple, a church and a mosque.

    In November 2019, when a Supreme Court bench headed by the then chief justice Ranjan Gogoi (three days before he retired) clubbed petitions on Sabarimala with issues related to women’s rights under Islam (entry into mosques, female genital mutilation, etc). One wondered whether issues relating to Hinduism could be compared to those in Islam? Are the two religions similar in any way?

    This article looks at Indic faiths, ie, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and compares them with Abrahamic religions. Let us start with an introduction to Indic faiths.

    What is this word Hindu?

    Scholar and ex-president Dr S Radhakrishnan wrote: “the people on the Indian side of the Sindhu were called Hindu by the Persian and the later western invaders (The Hindu View of Life by Dr S Radhakrishnan, pg 12).

    The term ‘Hindu’, according to Dr Radhakrishnan, had originally a territorial and not a creedal significance. It implies residence in a well-defined geographical area. '' (Bramchari Siddheswar Shai v State of West Bengal, 1995 AIR Supreme Court 2089).

    During British rule, the word Hindu became Hinduism. The word Hinduism is not representative of the original term ‘Sanatana Dharma’, which means ‘the eternal or universal dharma’. Because of its intrinsic nature Sanatana Dharma cannot be strait-jacketed into a definition.

    Sanatana means perennial, referring to eternal truths that manifest in ever-new names and forms. The word dharma is derived from the root dhr (in Sanskrit) which means to uphold or support. Prof K L Seshagiri Rao, Prof Emeritus, University of Virginia, says that, “Dharma is the application of Truth in Life. Truth is the Ultimate Reality, all pervading and all transcending. It is Supreme Spirit, Paramatma.”

    Philosophy is a Western word, which mainly relies on intellectual pursuit. The corresponding Indian word is darsana, which relies on direct vision of truths (experienced by ancient sages all over Bharat) and pure buddhi (reasoning).

    India has nine schools of darsanas, meaning nine ways to achieve self-realisation. These are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sakhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Carvaka, Jaina and Buddha. Others are a mixture of the ideas of these systems. Note that there is no Hindu or Sikh school of philosophy.

    Thinkers from different schools of thought lived not in isolation but debated with each other. For example, Adi Sankara and Mandana Misra. Therefore, they learnt from one another, which contributed to their development, growth and restating of thoughts. This interactive process was ongoing, meaning old ways of thinking were forever giving way to the new.

    What characteristics are common to Indian schools of philosophy?

    Pandit Rajmani Tugnait, spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, wrote in Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy that “direct experience, acceptance of authority, harmony amongst schools, parallel growth and coexistence of so many schools, open mindedness, support of logic and reasoning, belief of eternity, law of karma, moral and ethical teachings, acknowledgement of suffering, thoroughness, practicality and being inward looking” were common to all Indic schools.

    Today some forms of darsana are treated as religion. For example, I was reading a book by Munisri Nyayavijayaji. If I read it in Gujarati the book’s title is ‘Jaina Darsana’, in English it is Jaina Philosophy and Religion.

    Just like Sanatana Dharma became Hinduism, Jaina darsana became Jainism. But what does the term ‘Jaina’ mean?

    “The term ‘Jaina’ is derived from the term ‘Jina’. And the term ‘Jina’ is the common name for the supreme souls who are totally free from all the feelings of attachment, etc, that defile the soul. It is a noun from the Sanskrit verbal root ‘ji’ meaning ‘to conquer. And devotees of Jina care called Jaina.”

    So also Sikh became Sikhism. The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Shishya’, meaning student.

    Let us now compare Sanatana Dharma (SD) with the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity. For the sake of simplicity, it is presented in a FAQs (frequently-asked-questions) format.

    Q1. Does SD have a founder like the Prophet in Islam or Jesus in Christianity?

    No. SD was founded by numerous rishis and yogis. It is not based on history centric systems and does not depend on a founder for its existence.

    In his 1893 address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda said: “the Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.”

    Author and Indic scholar Rajiv Malhotra wrote in Indra’s Net that, “unlike Abrahamic religions in which prophets hear from an external God, in the Vedas there is no external voice.”

    It started with ‘sruti’ which means ‘that which can be heard’. The rishis who had perfected meditation are said to have heard in their hearts these eternal truths which were then taught to students via the oral tradition. The Vedas are revelations by the rishis, who were human beings like us and through meditation expanded their universal consciousness so they could perceive things that ordinary people could not.

    Q2. Does SD have a holy book like the Quran and the Bible?

    No. SD has numerous holy books like the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita to name a few. Ditto for Buddhism and Jainism.

    Q3. Does SD believe in one god — monotheism — and how does it co-exist with polytheism?

    Yes. A Hindu accepts the supreme being, both in his saguna (with attributes) and nirguna (without attributes) form. The Vedas call him Brahman or Parmatma. ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ or ‘That thou art’ means ‘I am Brahman’. ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ is from the Chandogya Upanishad. The Harihara icons in which Vishnu and Shiva are entwined, rest on the principle that the ultimate reality is one.

    “Hindus believe that within everybody is an imperishable soul called Atman. This soul is part of the universal soul Paramatman or Brahman.” The subjective experience of Brahman is called sat-chit-ananda, or “being consciousness, bliss”.

    It is pure consciousness or our true nature and means freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. In Buddhism, it is called Shunyata, which means atma (used for simplicity) is pure, not associated with any karma or thought that makes rebirth necessary.

    Q4. What about Hindus having 330 million gods and goddesses as against one god in Islam and Christianity?

    They are symbolic of the multiple aspects, attributes of the one supreme being. Historian, spiritualist and formerly British Council scholar, Dr Satish K Kapoor, wrote in Hinduism: The Faith Eternal, “the phrase '33 gods' occurring in the Vedas, in fact refer to 33 categories of existence. The very names of the devatas (wrongly translated as gods) are the names of the cosmic forces associated with the Creative Energy, first manifestation of the Unmanifest God.”

    Here god means the one and only unmanifest Paramatman that has no attributes and is ‘unmanifest’, so cannot have an idol dedicated to him.

    Hindus have no problems worshipping so many gods since they believe that all forms are manifestations of the one god or power.

    “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” is a sutra quoted from the upanishads. It means: “that which exists is ONE, sages call it by various names.” This idea is ingrained into the civilisation of India for thousands of years and has resulted in the extreme tolerance of Hindus on the whole. Jains and Buddhists capitalise on the idea of coexistence and tolerance.” (Source: Speaking Tree)

    Q5. What about idol-worship?

    Hindus, Buddhists and Jains worship murtis. There were murtis in the Golden Temple until 1905. However, amongst Jains and Hindus, there are many who do not worship murtis, but all forms co-exist.

    For those who criticise murti-worship, Dr Kapoor wrote, “the crucifix is commonly used as a symbol of faith in Christianity. Each godly representation has a deep symbolism to it which is meaningful in many respects. Each stands for an ideal, for example Sri Ram signifies dharma. The subtle vibrations of a consecrated image bring about inner transformation and joy, as exemplified by the Varkarai saints of Maharashtra, etc.”

    Swami Narasimhananda, editor of Prabuddha Bharata, wrote: “the word ‘idol’ cannot be considered the proper translation of the Sanskrit word murti. A murti does not merely represent a symbol of the Divine, but the murti itself is made divine by invoking the power of the Divine by a ritual called prana-pratishtha or the invoking of life.”

    On idol-worship, Swami Vivekananda said, “he will tell you, it helps to keep his mind fixed on the Being to whom he prays” and grasp certain spiritual truths.

    Q6. Why did followers of Indic faiths not invade any other country?

    The Hindu and Buddhist cultures that were adopted by the people of south-east Asia were not forced upon them by the power of the sword. The four goals of human life in SD are dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

    For self-realisation, one needed to look within, not conquer other nations. Also, India was so rich then that the need to invade other countries, unlike the Middle East and Europe, never arose.

    Q7. Unity versus uniformity

    SD encourages inner discovery through paths most suited to you whilst Islam and Christianity wish for uniformity through stern control over religious teachings to ensure conformity of practice in achieving god.

    Swami Vivekananda said, “the Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma but in realising, not in believing but in being and becoming.

    Rajiv Malhotra wrote, the goal of Patanjali’s Yogasutras “is to bring the practitioner to his sva-rupa (original or inner nature).”

    Q8. Are there any rigid denominations in Indic faiths?

    No. Here is my case. I was born into an Arya Samaj (no idol-worship) family, and I am a Shaivite by evolution who lives by the Bhagavad Gita. I connect with Buddha in a different way, and so visit a Buddha Vihara nearly daily; I am instantly connected with Bahubali Gomateshwara when I visited Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. As you enter our home, a picture of the 10th Sikh Guru, Govind Singh, greets you.

    Q9. Does SD have a head of church like the Pope?

    No. Hindu society could be a monolith if it were governed by the equivalent of a holy book and a church. It has numerous schools of thought and sampradayas, who accept there are many ways to self-realisation. It never owned property and controlled the state. Conversely, the Catholic branch of Christianity is governed by the Pope and has Catholic bishops around the world.

    Q10. Is Sanatana Dharma dogmatic?

    No. Maharshi Aurobindo said in 1919, “Hinduism is in the first place a non-dogmatic inclusive religion and would have taken even Islam and Christianity into itself, if they had tolerated the process.” Source: India’s Rebirth.

    Q11. Why do followers of SD not convert like Islam and Christianity?

    SD believes that the same divinity exists in every human being, hence there is no desire to convert. I call it ‘spiritual equality’ because every human being can realise the divinity within, irrespective of which path they choose as long as the intent is clear.

    Q12. How are Abrahamic religions studied?

    Malhotra wrote: “the Abrahamic religions depend on studying what they regard as God’s interventions with man; it is only through exclusive revelations given to the prophets that ordinary people learn the nature of God’s commands, what man’s duties are, and the ultimate truth and purpose of life. In dharmic traditions, each individual may gain direct access to the ultimate truths by using a variety of embodied tools and methods. Every human is endowed with this capacity and no one need depend on history to exercise it.”

    In Abrahamic religions, any criticism of the founder results in the entire edifice being questioned. Conversely, in SD, there is no one rishi, who is considered its founder, so criticism does not affect its core thinking. In its core essence, SD has democracy.

    Q13. Is change constant in Sanatana Dharma?

    Since SD does not depend on one prophet or holy book, its beliefs are subject to continuous interpretation. This allows diverse practitioners to coexist and respect each other without compromising on their distinctiveness. The Rig Veda says, “let noble thoughts come to us from every side”, thus the only thing ie constant is change.

    Q14. The law of karma and rebirth... And what about Jews?

    Indic faiths believe in the law of karma and rebirth. The Old Testament, ie, followed by Jews, also believes in reincarnation. “The holy Ari explained it most simply: every Jew must fulfill all 613 mitzvot, and if he doesn't succeed in one lifetime, he comes back again and again until he finishes.” The New Testament or Bible does not believe in rebirth.

    Note: The author has tried to deal with a complex subject simply and briefly. Any shortcomings are only his.

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