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Rebecca Sims

RELS 2300 Spring 2016


Hinduism as Dharma or Religion
Hinduism is often referred to as the Dharma by its practitioners, although most people
lump it in with religion. The differences between religion and dharma are small, but important.
This essay will define and explore the differences between religion and dharma, particularly as it
pertains to Hinduism. It will show that Hinduism embodies characteristics of both religion and
dharma.
Materialism defines religion as a human invention. This perspective believes that there is
only one real world, and its the material world that we live in. Anything supernatural is
invented by humans for various purposes. One of those purposes, materialists argue, is to
manipulate and control people. This idea is supported by the fact that many religions have been
used throughout history to oppress the poor and other groups. The materialist philosopher,
Ludwig Feuerbach, thought that godlike qualities are in humans, but we fail to recognize them
within ourselves. Instead, people project those qualities onto an imaginary friend and proceed to
worship it. Sigmund Freud likened it to mental illness and associated religious belief with
insecurity and guilt.
The functional perspective defines religion as tool that serves a purpose. What the
purpose is, varies somewhat. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, thought that the purpose is
to organize and unify society. Mary Pat Fisher1 states that all religions teach constructive ideas
like compassion and justice, and thus benefit society. Another possible function of religion is
1

Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008. p. 4

identity. Shared beliefs, dress, and customs help a person identify with a group, which can
certainly be beneficial. Being part of a group was essential to survival. Because of this, some
people postulate that religion serves a biological function, and is possibly even encoded in our
genes. However, this idea fails to explain certain religious practices like celibacy and
circumcision (male and female) that dont promote reproduction. Likewise, some believe that
religion is good for your health, but reliable scientific studies have been unable to confirm that
idea.

Religion often serves a psychological purpose, offering comfort in the face of death and a

sense of purpose with which to live your life.


The faith perspective defines religion as communion with a divine reality. The faith
perspective is dualistic and believes that there is an unseen reality separate from the material
realm, that is simply expressed as various religions. This perspective states that there is a way of
knowing truth beyond the physical senses and logical reasoning, and that is by communing with
this unseen reality. This is given many names, including mysticism, enlightenment, and
awakening. It is accomplished in many different ways, such as meditation, drugs, and near-death
experiences. A common idea is that you should aspire to oneness with the divine realm, which
can only be done internally.
Dharma is similar to religion, but is a distinct concept. I was surprised to learn how
many concepts dharma encompasses. It includes the ideas of duty, natural law, social welfare,
ethics, health, and transcendental realization. The different paths of dharma prescribe actions,
rituals, physical positions, breathing techniques, meditations, and ways of living, with the goal of
reaching enlightenment. I don't think any of those concepts complicate traditional definitions of
"religion". Christian and Jewish religions include many of those concepts. Rules about what
you can & can't eat are health-related. Rules about how widows, the sick, and sinners are to be

treated relate to social welfare and ethics. I think the thing that differentiates dharma from other
religions is the fact that there's not a central tradition. It seems like the practice of Sanatana
Dharma is very personal, and heavily influenced by region and social class. Whereas most other
religions outline a specific path you must follow to receive your eternal reward, practitioners of
dharma are free to pursue enlightenment by whatever path best suits them.
My Eastern site visit was to a Buddhist temple, not a Hindu temple, so I am unable to use
that experience in my arguments. However, Buddhism is similar to Hinduism in some regards.
Notably, they both offer flexibility in regards to the proper path to enlightenment. Both
traditions offer a wide variety of paths to accommodate the different lifestyles and personalities
of its practitioners.
Aspects of materialist and functional views of religion pertain to Hinduism. The strict
caste system serves to control society. Materialism states that people assign gods human qualities
a reflection of humanity. Hindus worship many different gods, representing many different
aspects of humanity. The faith perspective of religion also pertains to Hinduism because they
both believe in a divine reality that must be reached through internal struggle. Even with all of
these aspects of religion, Hinduism can also be defined as dharma because of the inherent
flexibility. Hindus believe that there are many paths to enlightenment, and that you should
follow the one that best suits you. In fact, this difference is so defining, that dharma is actually
the most accurate descriptor of Hinduism.

Bibliography
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.