It is often said, Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Or is it a religion?
What is true?
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) or Paramatma or Paramashiva or simply Tat (That) and declared that it cannot be imagined by the human mind. Nevertheless, a kind of description is given: Sat-Chit-Ananda (it means, it is Truth, Knowledge and Bliss). 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?
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 3 points I mentioned above. Yet there are significant differences.
The Supreme Being (called God or Allah respectively) of these 2 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). 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 and which is written down in a book.
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 not a religion?
Let’s look at the word meaning of religion. Religare (Latin) means to bind. Bind to whom or to what?
Does it mean to bind to the Supreme Being or does it mean to bind to the doctrine?
If we look at history, the Church (for which the term 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.
If it would have meant to be bound to the Supreme Being, then surely Christianity or Islam should not have any objection if the Supreme is called by another name, for example Shiva, and the process of being bound to Him ‘Yoga’.
So strictly speaking, Hinduism is not a religion.
But it is also not just a way of life. It has many rules how to live life in an ideal way.
So one could say, Hinduism is an ideal way of life which is helpful in realising one’s ONENESS with the Supreme Being.
This ideal way of life is not based on a dogmatic belief system, but on experiential wisdom.