Religion and secularism are both hot topics of discussion in India today. With rare exceptions, commentators on all sides of the debate in India, suffer from a general malady – that of using Western[i] terms, categories and worldviews to understand an Eastern society. We explore how adopting Western worldviews and nomenclature has distorted the Indian reality, to the extent that we have ceased to understand ourselves.

The confusion starts from basic concepts such as the difference between religion and dharma. We look at the pluralistic nature of Indian dharmic traditions and how they have both changed and stayed consistent through the centuries. Understanding these constructs, and ourselves, will allow a better framework for approaching the situation in India today.

Is religion dharma?

black_emblemProf. Arvind Sharma is a professor of Hinduism and Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal. In a landmark essay[ii] he points out that 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. 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”)[iii], 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 is that while scriptures can be very helpful, Truth cannot be found by scripture alone[iv] 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. The dharmic worldview is that there are many tribes throughout the world, and many teachers and teachings. Each tribe has good and bad people in a continuum; people that have a greater degree of access to truth and “goodness” are worthy of respect; and others less so. Since there is a continuum of “goodness” among individuals of each tribe, the need for converting other tribes to a particular conception of God as a religious imperative is not really there. 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

So dharma itself does not create a religious identity. One’s worldly self-identity in the dharmic model derives from one’s local community, profession or ancestry, jati or kul, but that identity is not a religious identity, fundamentally opposed to the existence of the identity of the “other” as a manifestation of falsehood.

While, in my personal experience in a practice of both a form of esoteric Christianity and Sufism, there are dharmic truths found in higher interpretations of both Christianity and Islam, mainstream understanding of both these systems have a strong focus on the uniqueness of religious identity, in a manner quite different from dharmic ways, which do not establish identity in the religious sense of uniqueness and virtue in contrast with the “other”. In the discussion below we continue to refer to religion in the mainstream sense and dharma as the universal conception of what is right and true, understood by different cultures and cultural concepts in different ways or panths.


It is also worth examining this related term – panth. Even the idea of panth (as in “Sikh panth”) does not equate to religion. Panth does have a sense of identity, as in the followers of a particular teaching or teacher, but is again quite different than the strongly exclusive identity of Abrahamic religions. The idea of identity in panth (or way) is an inherently non-exclusive conception of itself as a “way” among many and hence without the injunction to regard those outside that particular way to be inherently on the side of darkness and ignorance, and thus needing to be converted to the “right side”. The Buddhist terminology of sangha(community of the followers of the Buddha) is quite similar to the notion of pantha as well.

Harmony between panths: the principle of dharmic pluralism

The recognition that multiple legitimate paths exist, by itself, precludes the kind of religious conflicts that have distinguished Abrahmic religions. In the dharmic approach, conquest, conversion or continued conflicts are not the only options in an encounter with a new tribe or civilization. A dialogue of understanding is also a possibility. Thus we find in the dharmic history of India a multiplicity of dialogues within and between different individuals and panths.

While the panths followed different enlightened teachers and had different favored expressions (or “Ishta-devas”) to relate with Reality (including agnostic and atheistic schools) these doctrinal disputes were more often dialogues in a process of deepening the understanding of Truth, than in the establishment of political hegemony. To assure that these doctrinal differences stayed within the limits of civil discourse, the Indian sages enunciated a vital corollary to the principle of One Truth most clearly:

“Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Sarva Panth Samadar” (Each one’s dharma is of equal value, all paths are worthy of equal respect)

This in a nutshell is the principle of Indian pluralism, articulated by the Indian sages centuries before the West had understood the need for secularism.

Note however, that the principle of “Sarva Pantha Samadar” can be understood both as a statement of truth, as well as a treaty. And as a treaty it works only if all the participants in the fray accept it as valid. As we shall see later, this provides us at least one of the clues to religious conflict in India.

When dharma meets religion: the creation of Hindu identity

When we begin to understand what dharma is and that it has been a very different concept than religion, it follows then that the concept of a “Hindu” religious identity, if understood in the image of Abrahamic religions is not really an original dharmic concept. Neither is “Hinduism” a religion in the same sense that Christianity is a religion.

To understand how most of the Indian dharmic community came to be called “Hinduism” it is worth recalling the origin of the word Hindu. It is well recognized among scholars that Hindu came from the Sanskrit word “Sindhu.” In Old Persian the ‘S’ became an ‘H’ and the word become Hindu, a geographical designation of the place beyond the Indus, i.e. India. On a recent trip to Mexico, it was interesting to find that Indian food is called “La comida Hindu.” Even now when it is considered archaic (and extremely politically incorrect) to call all Indians “Hindu”, etymologically the words are the same – Hindustan is a synonym for India. In some ways this sense was retained all the way up to the 20th century when Indian Muslim poet Iqbal wrote a national song that inspired many in the freedom movement:allama-iqbal


          “Sare jahan se acchha,


    stan hamara…”



So how did “Hindu” become a religious designation? It was in the encounter with the adherents of two major proselytizing Abrahamic religions – first Islam and then Christianity that the idea of “Hinduism” successively took shape in the form of an Abrahamic religion. The question of religious identity was first posed to the dharmic community in its encounter with Islam, which had a very clear separation of believer and infidel, of us and them, in a way that was alien to the dharmic way, and was not a party to the dharmic truth treaty of “Sarva Pantha Samadar.” “Hindu”, which started of as a geographical term, was turned into a religious identity mainly by negation, first in contrast to the Islamic invaders[v]; and later on by the British.

At the same time, dharmic society’s natural response to the Abrahamic threat was to harmonize it in accordance with the eternal dharmic principles – and to attempt to appeal to the higher interpretation, to “Indianize” them, or to broaden their worldview and have them accept the treaty of “Sarva Pantha Samadar.”

It is no surprise then, that during the Islamic rule emerged great teachers such as Guru Nanak, who again reinforced dharmic truth and downplayed the idea of religious identity.

“Neither Hindu nor Muslim, all our bodies breathe a life from the same God, called Ram or Allah.” Similarly, experiments by Akbar and Dara Shikoh in Din-I-ilahi were attempts to bring Islamic religious ideas into harmony with the dharmic traditions of India.

The many Indian bhakti poets like Kabir, Rahim and Raskhan played their part in this effort. The reign of Aurangzeb was a setback to this to integration – religious identity was the determining factor in applying the “jaziya” tax, so the population needed to again be clearly categorized as “Muslim” and “non-Muslim” aka Hindu. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that in the absence of disuniting political forces, Indian Muslims had been on a path towards being integrated within the dharmic panoply of Indian traditions.

Enter the British: Fomenting religious conflict

Even while the influence of dharmic traditions had partially been in the process of healing from the shock of the Islamic invasions, along came the British. It was a time when India was in a politically vulnerable and fragmented situation with the decaying Mughal Empire. The British with their policies opened up some wounds that had not yet completely healed. In consolidating their rule over India, British employed three techniques. The first was the policy of divide and rule, the second was the destruction and replacement a of well-developed native education system with a system for educating the elite in their own language and worldview; and the third was to denigrate native traditions and establish their “natural” superiority in the minds of the elite, to make the country easier to rule.[vi]

Much of the British divide and rule between different communities is well documented in historical accounts. There is a fascinating book “Richer by Asia” written by Edmund Taylor, an American intelligence agent posted in India during World War II, which gives us another insight into understanding religious strife in India. Edmund Taylor was in the division for Psychological Warfare. Being both a professional in the field and detached from contemporary British and Indian politics gave him a unique vantage point to study British policies in India. He writes:

      “… when the Sikhs rose up against British domination, a young British officer, Lieutant Edwardes, won fame ‘by availing himself of the hostility which he knew to exist between different races of the Panjab’ to raise against the Sikhs a levy of Moslem Pathans … the British during the Great Mutiny of 1857 ‘afterwards armed the Sikhs against the Mussulmans and Hindus of Delhi. …“The British assault on the Indian psyche has sometimes escaped the notice of Western historians… not because it was committed in secret but because it was committed too openly… The flames of civil strife … were constantly being renewed by the incendiary results of British state policy. …

“If the United States Army had the policy of balancing every white regiment by a Negro regiment, if it systematically employed Negro troops to quell riots or uprising among the white population and white troops to quell Negro disturbances, then race-relations in America would be a good deal worse then they are. A more effective program of psychological warfare against the American people could hardly be devised. Yet, for fifty years after the Great Mutiny, according to Garratt and Thompson, this policy of racial ‘counterpoise and division’ governed the employment of the Indian Army.[vii]

The creating and denigration of Hindu identity

With the native schooling system and economy destroyed, there was a huge demand for English education among the Indians for government jobs. In their education system, the British trained an intermediary ruling class from among the natives. This ruling class learnt first to understand religion in Western terms, including the use of the term “Hindoo” as a religious designation to refer to a large part of the dharmic community, and then later learnt the antidote of secularism for this peculiar, but apparently universal, disease of religion.

Education was largely in the hand of the missionary schools, even though it did not always involve explicit preaching for conversion. However, one goal of both the missionary and the secular administrator was to denigrate native religions and practices – the former to convert to the one true religion and the latter to instill in the natives the aura of Anglican superiority.

So firstly there was the creation of a “Hindoo” label for much of the indigenous dharmiccommunity and then the systematic destruction of the “brand-value” of the label within the elite by holding “Hindoo-ism” to be responsible for a large number of social ills. Along with the use of the Manusmriti in the pattern of the scripture-based interpretations of Christian law, the idea of a homogenous religious identity with conclusive doctrines in the image of Christianity was perpetuated. This is not to suggest that everything that the British did was deliberate – this would imply more agency to them than they possessed, but that they could not transcend their experiences and ideas of what religion is, or the self-conceived superiority informed by their religious beliefs. They operated from the worldview of fixed laws handed down by revelation and interpreted by centralized church authorities and believed that was how religions must operate. They were largely unable to comprehend the dharmic system — that shared an acceptance of diverse worldviews with considerable flexibility of interpretation among different social, regional and linguistic groups.

Over time, the denigration of the “Hindu” brand created a natural force for communities like the Sikhs to gradually cease to self-identify as Hindus (the notion of the Khalsa Pantha, was similarly understood as an Abrahmic religion with a separative identity), and a number of people from within the dharmic communities to develop a distaste for “Hinduism” amid considerable confusion, that continues today, about what that term really means.

Hindu identity in Contemporary India

The forces in play during the Indian freedom struggle, and the events leading up to and including the partition, had a significant role in continuing to shape religious discourse and conflict in India. That period, ending with the partition of India, is a testament to the cumulative failure of the political leadership in bridging the religious divide in a meaningful and effective way.

The politics of independent India have played a part in the continued formation of the Hindu identity along religious lines, largely by exclusion. After having accepted Western categories of religion and having just emerged from the terrible religious conflict of the partition, the political elite of India was highly sensitized to assuring a religiously harmonious India. So they swore by the secularism that they had dutifully learnt was the antidote for the disease of religious conflict and “minority rights” the antidote for “majoritarianism.”

Unfortunately, the constitution and, more significantly, the politics of independent India, served to make the situation worse rather then better. The perception that the constitution of India has afforded to the minorities privileges apparently denied to the “Hindu” majority, for example the right to run educational institutions without interference from the state, steadily led to both a pull away from the Hindu label, as well as a backlash against that pull. A famous example in this regard was the case by the Ramakrishna Mission that claimed they were not Hindu to avoid persecution from the communist government in West Bengal (they lost).[viii]

Finally, the entire spectrum of political forces in contemporary India, those that exploited minority fears to create religious “vote banks”, counting on a caste-based division of the Hindu populace to win, and those that opposed it by forging a pan-Hindu identity, as well as much of the discourse in the intelligentsia, have contributed to the rise of the Hindu religious identity in the form of Hindutva.

The rise of Hindutva is an expression of the majority dharmic community in pro-actively claiming a religious identity, instead of constantly being defined by negation. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword – while it may serve to protect, if it takes the form of an exclusivist religion, instead of a pan-Indian shared ethos, that would itself be a defeat for the dharmic traditions.

Thus, for our dharmic plurality, there is an anguish in this encounter with separative, exclusivist religions in either direction – the option of not having a religious identity has not really been available in the encounter, since the “other” is insistent that they do have a clearly defined religious identity; yet the option of taking on an identity in the image of “religion” is equally a cause of anguish, since it is a lie to who we are. This anguish is the very source of the debate and ambivalence in the Indian society towards the idea of “Hindu identity” that is present in the rise of “Hindutva.”

Is it necessary to belong to only one religion?

Despite all the assaults on the Indian psyche and a pressure for conformance into the Abrahmic modes of religious identity, deep down we remain a deeply pluralistic people. This is surprisingly true on both sides of the Hindutva debate. Secularism has succeeded in India precisely because of our pluralistic dharmic roots. But even now, when we have mentally accepted Abrahamic religious categories and its antidote of secularism, these categories continue to disturb our sensibilities. We understand what they tell us what religion is, but deep down we cannot accept it as our way.

Let us take some examples from contemporary India that show this ambivalence.

Kushwant Singh is widely hailed as a liberal secular journalist. In a recent article, he writes:

      “There was a time when filling up forms against the column ‘religion’, I would triumphantly put down ‘none’. It would be more accurate if I wrote ‘khichdi’ i.e. a mixture of a few. I am by no means the only one who is confounded by the demand that we specify the one and only one religion we belong to. Many people take what they believe is good from different religions and make a tasteful pot-pourrie.“This was brought home to me by my neighbour, Reeta Varma, who is an Assamese Goswami Brahmin. When her husband died, there were Hindu, Buddhist and Christian prayers at his cremation. Last month she rang me up on Id-ul-Fitr and asked me cheerfully, “Sir, can you guess how I celebrated Id?” I replied: “You may have gone to a dargah, or simply eaten sayviyaan (vermicelli pudding) as most Muslims do on Id. “No,” she replied triumphantly, “I went to Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Chandni Chowk. You think I am going nuts?”

“I found it most bizarre: a Hindu celebrating a Muslim festival in a Sikh temple. But why not? Then I got a letter from Kulshreshtha of Faridabad. It started with a question: “Is it a must to belong to one religion only?” It went on to say that a neighbour who is Hindu likes to fast during Ramzan and offer namaaz; and another neighbour, a Muslim is a regular visitor to the Ayyappa temple. In the first census of Gujarat in 1911, the census superintendent recorded 35,000 ‘Hindu-Mohammadans’. He was soundly ticked off by his superior.[ix]

Now this kind of flexibility in religious practice and designation is a particularly dharmic formulation, which has largely been alien to Abrahamic society outside of India. However, it is not unrepresentative of the conflict that religious identity has created within the Indian mind. Unfortunately, as we are accepting Western categories, we are going backwards from a dynamic dharmic pluralism in a direction where a Hindu-Mohammadan designation will indeed seem absurd to us and our “Abrahamization” will be complete.

Nonetheless there is hope for the dharmic worldview from all quarters. This is what Suma Verghese, an Indian Christian, writes in her essay “Indian Christian: In Search of the Christ Within” about her discovery of dharma:

      “Discovering this wisdom in our own backyard awoke in me a passion for India and the Indian way of life. I was Indian whether or not a Christian.”Adds Raimondu Pannicker, author of A Dwelling Place for Wisdom: “If we as Christians… could succeed in undergoing the Advaitic experience… then Christians, at least of Indian origin, would be automatically enabled to live an advaitic-Christian faith, which makes possible both a fully Hindu and a fully Christian life—without the pain of a split personality.

Similarly many Indian Muslims are not only culturally Indian, but have also connected in a deep way with their dharmic roots. Of the numerous examples here, I will choose a recent one, an article by Saeeq Naqvi in the Indian Express, where he waxes nostalgic about the dharmic pluralism of India:

      “…In fact in this long poem, ‘Lamp in a Temple’, Ghalib describes Varanasi as the ‘Kaaba of Hindustan’, somewhat in the same vein as Iqbal’s description of Lord Rama as the ‘Imam of Hindustan’. …Krishn ka hun pujari/ Ali ka banda hoon/ Yagana shaan-e-khuda/ Dekh kar raha na Gaya (I am a pujari of Krishna and a devotee of Ali/ I cannot help myself when I see the wonders of God).” …

Visit Ustad Alauddin Khan’s house in Maihar and you will be witness to one of the great spectacles of composite culture. The great master said his namaaz five times a day but his music he derived from Saraswati, who adorns all the walls of his house.[xi]

The sad part is that we are nostalgic for pluralism — wasn’t secularism, the antidote for the disease of religion, supposed to make us “more plural”? Why do we then find ourselves less so after 50 years of taking secularism pills? Or are we suffering from a misdiagnosis instead?

In contemporary intellectual analysis, the RSS is considered the main threat to India’s pluralism. Did this organization single-handedly change India’s pluralistic traditions? Do we need to imagine it so powerful that it can change our very nature? We checked the RSS website and found the following statement as the first point in their mission statement:

“a) The truth is one but can have plural manifestations. This plurality need not be in conflict with one another; it can be cooperative and complementary. To understand, appreciate and realize the unity in a tremendous vortex of diversities, should be the humanity’s goal of life.

Isn’t this backwards from what we’ve been taught? In the Western worldview and terms of discourse, it is naturally assumed that the “Hindu Right” (another Western category) must be doctrinally opposed to pluralism, just as the religious right is in the West, or the orthodoxy is in Islamic countries. But if dharma is, by its nature, pluralistic, can any organization that claims to be Hindu be anything other than pluralistic?

On the other hand, if RSS is truly pluralistic as it claims here, we need to hold it to its stated objectives. We cannot condone violent inhumane actions by anyone irrespective of religious or organizational affiliation. Such action can neither uphold dharma nor be considered dharmic. But the larger question is, what is the conflict about? Is the conflict between Hindutva and secularism, as we are currently led to believe, or is the real conflict between pluralism and the ideologies of exclusivism?

The seeds for dialogue

The surprising finding here is that the positions of the “liberal” Khushwant Singh, the “Christian” Suma Verghese, the “Muslim” Saeed Naqvi and the “Hindu right-wing” RSS, at least on paper, don’t seem all that far apart – in fact they all point towards the ethos of Indian pluralism. The hard-liners on all sides will be shocked that these different constituencies are even quoted together, but our hopes for peace don’t lie with the hardliners. They lie in having truly pluralistic Indians discarding pre-conceived labels and beginning dialogues that shed light on current issues. Dialogue, rather than sticking to pre-conceived ideologies and positions about who we can or cannot talk to will lead to real change. Not simply by the enforcement of the law, not by writing articles about the “fascist saffron” threat to Indian secularism in the international media, not by labeling people as “pseudo-secular”, none of these will help us to move towards a genuine peace. If we desire peace, we need to learn how to talk to each other directly and to understand ourselves. This has been the Indian Way that we must reclaim if we are to live together in harmony.

What is required then is for truly pluralistic Indians to gather together and change the parameters of this debate. The battle is not between Hindutva and secularism. The battle is between all those who support the dharma of a pluralistic and diverse society vs. all those extremists who would convert us to an exclusivist creed. Pluralism is our natural state and pluralistic Indians are found across the political and religious spectrum. And these pluralistic Indians must speak up against the actions of extremists and exclusivists of all hue whether they be found among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Communists or any other affinity. If the pluralists don’t speak out, the extremists will control the discourse, as has been happening so far.

Finally in pursuing this dialogue we must recognize that we have been looking at each other through the tinted glasses of a Western world-view which has distorted what we see and know about ourselves. We have been fighting with shadows without even understanding the source of our conflict. Understanding ourselves as truly as possible on our own terms then becomes a crucial first step towards sustaining this dialogue for building a harmonious society.


[i] We use the term Western here as a generalization. One could more specifically use “Judeo-Christian” or Western European or Occidental, denoting the general civilizational origin of these concepts.


[iii] Some examples of the numerous Roman Catholic sites that explain how this works:

In Protestant denominations the quote from the bible
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6) is most typically used to justify exclusiveness. In the book “Christ, the Yogi” Prof. Ravi Ravindra explains why this is an erroneous understanding of Christ’s teaching.

[iv] The Bhagvad Gita itself clearly denies that Truth can be limited to the religion of a book:
When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion,
Thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.
When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures,
Shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation,
Then the goal of Yoga is thine.
Juan Mascaro, The Bhagavad Gita 2:52-53

[v] It is interesting that even after the Islamic conquest it was more common to refer to people by their jati, and geographical origin, as in “Turks”, “Pathans”, “Arabs”, Rajputs, and so on, till a gradual process of religious differentiation as a major distinction took place.

[vi] The book, “Masks of Conquest” by Gauri Vishwanathan is a fascinating study of the reason for the introduction of English-medium schooling and English literature by the British in India.

[vii] Richer by Asia, by Edmund Taylor. ©1947 and 1964. Time Life Books.

[viii] This provides a particular interesting contrast to the case of the Ahmediyas in Pakistan that are campaigning to be counted as Muslim. See, for instance: