Hindus are often heard arguing that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Others object and see Hinduism as a religion. But between the two arguments, which is true? Which one holds more water?
It depends on how religion is defined. Most people probably would say that religion is:
- About believing in an invisible Supreme Being, which is the cause of our existence.
- About methods and rituals to worship it.
- About living according to its laws or will.
In this case, Hinduism is definitely a religion. In fact, it is the Mother of all religions, because the Indian Vedas had postulated already in very ancient times the existence of such a Supreme Being. They called it Brahman (from big, expanding) and declared it cannot be imagined by the human mind, but the best description is Sat-Chit-Ananda (means, it is true, knows itself and is blissful). It is all-pervading and therefore the essence (Latin: esse = to be) of everything, including us.
So why does the question arise whether Hinduism is a religion or not?
To discover this, we need to look at those religions where nobody has a doubt that these are religions. The term ‘religion’ was first used for the Catholic Church and later for Islam, too, and nobody has a doubt that these two are the main religions in today’s world.
These two religions also are about the three points mentioned above. Yet there are significant differences.
The Supreme Being (called God or Allah respectively) of these two religions is not the essence in all, but is a separate entity which has certain personal traits. One most important trait is that it is jealous of other gods and wants the whole of humanity to worship only Him (yes, the Supreme is clearly imagined as male by them). Both religions give out a dire warning: those who do not accept this truth will burn eternally in hell.
How do these religions know that this is the truth? Because they claim that the Supreme Being himself has revealed this truth to one person (in the case of Christianity to Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago and in the case of Islam to Prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago).
Here is where another definition of religion comes in. It is often said that religion is a “belief-system”. It needs blind, unverifiable belief in what the ‘founder’ of the religion has said, which is written down in a book and which can never be verified by human beings.
Here Hinduism is clearly not a religion. Hinduism does not require blind belief. On the contrary, an open enquiry and an inner exploration into the truth, especially into the truth of one’s own being, is necessary to discover the Divine Essence in oneself, to discover that Atman (one’s own consciousness) is indeed Brahman, as the Vedas proclaim.
So is Hinduism a religion? It depends which definition for religion is more true.
We can find out when we look at the meaning of religion. Religare (Latin) means to bind. Bind to whom or to what? If we look at history, the Church (for which religion was first used) was very adamant that those followers which it had gained through (often forced) baptism must never leave the Church. Christianity had strict blasphemy laws with terrible punishment, like Islam even has today. So it can be safely assumed that religion meant to bind its followers to the doctrine of the respective religion. The followers must ‘religiously’ stick to the doctrine.
So in this sense, Hinduism is not a religion.
But it is also not just a “way of life”.
It could be said, it’s an ideal way of live, because it is based on Dharma, doing the right thing under the given circumstances.
However, since ‘religion’ in today’s world is mainly seen as connecting to a supernatural, supreme Intelligence, usually called God, Hinduism should not give up its place among religions and rather try to make the others see sense that some of their dogmas cannot be true and actually have harmed humanity in a big way over the centuries. History is proof.