Indian View on Religion, Dharma and Life – 1

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A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of ancient Indian culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. Sri Aurobindo explains that Indian culture not only made spirituality the highest aim of life. But it even tried, as far as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to turn the whole of life towards spirituality.

Our ancestors also recognized that in the human mind religion is the first native, if an imperfect form of the spiritual impulse.

This necessitated a casting of thought and action into the religious mould. It also required a persistent filling of every circumstance of life with the religious sense. It demanded a pervadingly religio-philosophic culture. In such a culture, every ordinary activity of human life must be turned into some form of religious ceremony. A religio-spiritual colouring is given to the rhythm of life and nature itself.

The Indian outlook on religion is derived from this religio-philosophic cultural view.

According to Sri Aurobindo, religion, as per the Indian view, tries to facilitate an individual’s gradual inner evolution by placing before human life four necessary conditions:

  1. The mind must believe in a highest consciousness or state of existence universal and transcendent of the universe. It is the state from which all comes, in which all lives and moves without knowing it. And it is the state of which all must one day become aware, returning towards that which is perfect, eternal and infinite.
  2. It lays upon the individual life the need of self-preparation by development and experience till the individual is ready for an effort to grow consciously into the truth of this greater existence.
  3. It provides it with a well-founded, well-explored, many-branching and always enlarging way of knowledge and of spiritual or religious discipline.
  4. For those not yet ready for these higher steps it provides an organisation of the individual and collective life. This means a framework of personal and social discipline and conduct, of mental and moral and vital development by which one could move within one’s own limits and according to one’s own nature so as to become gradually ready for the greater existence.

While the first three of these elements are to be found in any religion, Indian view on religion has always attached to the last also a great importance. It has left out no part of life as a thing secular and foreign to the religious and spiritual life.

But despite this emphasis on organisation of outer life, the Indian religious tradition is not merely the form of a religio-social system. The core of Indian religion is a spiritual, not a social discipline. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol 20, pp. 181-182).

Photo by the author

Religion in India, a Way of Life?

Readers must note that when we speak of “Indian religion” we are not speaking of any particular religion here, but are using the phrase “Indian religion” to indicate the Indian outlook on Religion. The phrase implies a general view or understanding of religion that emerged or developed in India as a natural/organic outcome of the Indian spiritual culture and its view of existence.

But it will not be wrong to say that this Indian outlook on religion is most visible – both in spirit and practice – in that vast system of ancient, dateless and still vigorously living, growing, all-assimilating, open, non-dogmatic, non-credal and diverse religious traditions we now know as Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma.

We may also include under the latter term the other two religious traditions which evolved out of the Indian religio-spiritual culture, namely Buddhism and Jainism, as well as the more recent tradition of Sikhism.

It [Indian religious culture] gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavour of the human spirit.

An immense many-sided many-staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, sanātana dharma. It is only if we have a just and right appreciation of this sense and spirit of Indian religion that we can come to an understanding of the true sense and spirit of Indian culture.

~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 179

But why is the organisation of individual and collective life such a concern for Indian religio-spiritual culture?

The short answer is that because the ancient Indian spiritual thought clearly perceived and recognized two key aspects of human nature:

  • Nothing is more difficult than to bring home the greatness and uplifting power of the spiritual consciousness to the vast majority of the humanity. This is because the majority’s minds and senses are turned outward towards the external calls of life and its objects and never inwards to the Truth which lies behind them.
  • This external vision and attraction are the essence of the universal blinding force, termed in Indian philosophy as Avidya (often translated as Ignorance).
  • Ordinarily, human beings live in a state of Avidya and have to be gradually led through its imperfect indications to a highest inmost knowledge.

To facilitate this gradual leading of the outward oriented mind of an individual, our ancestors developed forms and rhythms which coloured all outer aspects of life with religion or at least some type of religious influence.

It is not only the Indian literature, arts, music, dance, etc. which were expressive of the spiritual view of life. But all human pursuits, including all activities of ordinary life – from the time a child is born to when he or she is ready to be enrolled in a school to getting married, having children, becoming a grandparent, and leaving the earthly world after death – all became occasions to remember the higher, the spiritual view of life and existence.

According to Sri Aurobindo this is why even the highest and deepest concepts of Indian spiritual thought such as maya, lila, divine immanence became as familiar to the man in the street and the worshipper in the temple as to the philosopher in his seclusion, the monk in his monastery and the saint in his hermitage.

Photo by Suhas Mehra

Also, for a vast majority, the deeper spiritual views of life, existence and reality are realised more readily through the fervour of devotion than by a strenuous effort of thinking. This is because the heart of man is nearer to the Truth than his intelligence.

This explains why we see an abundance of external forms, rituals, ceremonies, and practices that help individuals ‘feel’ the deeper truth in a more tangible manner, through direct participation in various symbolic acts of worship, adoration and devotion. We shall take up this aspect in more detail in Part 2.

Dharma or Religion?

It is time to explore another important question – does the word “religion” as understood in the most ordinary sense of organised religion really make sense in the Indian cultural context? Or should we invoke the uniquely Indian word “dharma” to speak of the religio-spiritual nature of Indian culture?

Dharma is often mistranslated as religion. But dharma is not same as religion, unless we really understand the word religion in the sense as described above – that is, as per the Indian integral outlook on life and human development.

If the Infinite or seeking for the Infinite is the major chord of the Indian culture, the idea of the dharma, says Sri Aurobindo, is only second to it. Dharma essentially is the foundation of life, only next to the spirit.

Dharma is that which we hold on to and also that which holds together our inner and outer activities. (The word Dharma is derived from the root ‘dhr’ which means ‘to hold’.)

In its primary sense it [dharma] means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal. . .

Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice.

And in this growth Dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress.

~ CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 171-172

The ancients knew well about the infinitely diverse and complex human nature which comes into play as human beings pursue different goals of life through different stages or phases of life.

So, they came up with the ideal of dharma which would sustain and hold together all this diversity and complexity. The concept of dharma covered basically all natures, all aspects of life, all situations and stages of life. It also allowed for maximum freedom, continuity and greatest possibility of contextualization, adaptation and adjustment.


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