Hinduism is Dharma is Religion (But Not That Kind of Religion…)

I stumbled upon a confusing and contradictory explanation of Dharma, Hinduism and religion on the website About.com, a platform that (according to the website) provides “high-quality information” written by experts.


In the following article, Religion Vs Dharma: Why Hinduism is a Religion of Freedom, the writer explains why the Hindu concept of ‘Dharma’ as well as Hinduism is not religion, but still equates ‘Adharma’ (the opposite of Dharma) with ‘non-religion’ and continues to talk about Hinduism as a religion anyway, as well as making several other interesting claims. This article is therefore worth attention not because of its contradictions, but because it’s a good example of interests at stake (social, political, etc.) when using ‘religion’ and related categories such as ‘Hinduism’.

As many social theorists have emphasized, classification of the social world is never neutral since it (as opposed to classification of the natural world) affects the social world itself. The claims and explanations made by this writer is therefore best understood as a social act of using and reproducing classification in certain interests, as a discursive strategy of using specific categories to construct a timeless continuity of a distinct worldview or identity.

In Religion Vs Dharma he begins by claiming, “Religion literally means that which leads one to God”. He then explains that ‘Dharma’ is wider than ‘religion’, meaning “that which binds society together”, and writes “In this sense, Hinduism is not a religion; it’s a ‘Dharma’.” But then we learn about the opposite of ‘Dharma’ in the following statement: “That which divides society, breaks it up into parts and makes people fight one another is Adharma (non-religion)”.

That last parenthesis is interesting: ‘Dharma’ is not religion, yet somehow the opposite of ‘Dharma’ is equated with ‘non-religion’? Furthermore, despite these definitions and claims, he continues to refer to Hinduism as a religion anyway, for example: “Hinduism, unlike other religions…” and “Hinduism is a religion of freedom”. Also worth mentioning is the statement “The real believer in God has his heart always lifted to Dharma”, which is, ironically, pretty close to the very specific definition of ‘religion’ he started with. Here we might also want to pay attention to how some idealized “true believer” enters the picture (reminding us of a semantic evil twin: “the not-so-true believer”).

So, perhaps the obvious question is: what was the point of saying that Dharma (and Hinduism) is not religion in the first place? Or, to put it differently: If the categories ‘Dharma’ and ‘religion’ so clearly overlap and slips into similar use and meaning, why is it so important to declare their dissimilarities, worth an article polemically titled “Religion Vs Dharma”? Well, I have some guesses.

Just as with today’s highly popular ‘Spiritual but not religious’-talk, there is probably a lot to gain from arguing why concepts and worldviews is ‘not religion’. I don’t blame them, it must be impossible (if not foolish) for a promoter of Hindu/Indian concepts not to “cash in” on the lucrative ‘not religion’-market.

hindostan-map_2The problem is, of course, that it would be impossible to imagine anything as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ at all if it weren’t for the 18-19th century Western discursive invention of ‘World-religions’. Through this system of classification the subcontinent of India – with all its diverse cultural practices; identities; groups; institutions and traditions – was generalized under the single label ‘Hindoosim’ (deriving from ‘Hindu’, which in turn simply designated ‘Indian’ as in “those in India”). Consequently, this laid the foundation for the abstract idea of some uniform, homogenous and cross-cultural (Indian) sameness, which in turn provides the possibility of presuming some distinct ‘it’ to refer to whatsoever.

What is particularly interesting is how the writer of these articles tries to include a historical-critical approach to the term ‘Hinduism’, but keeps both the term and some underlying ‘it’! This can be found in the article Common Myths About Hinduism: Much More Than Just Another Religion!  (titled “Hinduism is NOT a Religion!” in the link that’s on the first article). Under the heading “Hinduism: A Modern Term” he writes: “Words like Hindu or Hinduism are anachronisms. They do not exist in the Indian cultural lexicon. People have coined them to suit their needs in different points of history. Nowhere in the scriptures is there any reference to Hinduism.” Then, right after that, he simply continues with “Hinduism does not have any one founder…”, as well as claiming that (my favorite for sure) “Evidence that Hinduism must have existed even circa 10000 B.C. is available”.

The paradox for writers like these, I would argue, is that they obviously have a lot to gain from pulling out the ‘not religion’-card, considering the contemporary negative associations with ‘religion’ as well as the widespread ‘Spiritual but not religious’-discourse (particularly common, it seems, among people interested in Hindu/Indian philosophies). But at the same time, they are referring to (i.e. reproducing) a concept that depends so heavily on the discourse of ‘World-religions’, which predicate the possibility of assuming there being some distinct worldview whatsoever.

As for ‘religion’, what we get is a sliding between different meanings of the word, which I’m guessing signifies something like: “not that kind of religion, but a higher, more advanced, spiritual kind of religion”. Perhaps a good analogy would be ‘The Force’ in Star Wars: religion being some universal force-field that’s just out there, but depending one’s interpretation and practice of this force-field, it has an evil/wrong way (the dark side) and a good/right way (the light side).

Anyway, before I end this text, consider the following two quotes from this writer’s second article, how “it [Hinduism] defies classification as a religion per se”, yet somehow “Hinduism is a unique faith!”. This rhetoric of always-changing-but-still-the-same is a contradiction that is unavoidable from, on the one hand, the interest of keeping a classification of an exceedingly vast diversity of cultural practices as somehow being homogenous and identical, but, on the other hand, keeping within the modern liberal discourse of openness and individual freedom – as in proclaiming “Why Hinduism is a Religion of Freedom”. In other words, contradictions that emerges from the strategy of constructing a continuity of ‘Hinduism’ as a cross-historical essence.

Text: David Westerberg


Homophobia, Gay Conversion Therapy and State Restrictions

To counter anti-gay forces the website “Gay Homophobe” takes advantage of one simple fact: every now and then a known anti-gay advocator are caught in a “scandal” which reveals their homosexuality (hence, a gay homophobe). The website has a counter that keeps track of how many days that have passed since the last time such an event took place. Of course, one could question the ethical aspects of hanging out people on a website like that. The owner of the website explains that the criteria for posting about it are when it concerns (a) people in power that (b) uses that power to advance anti-gay agenda. The purpose of the website is described as a combination of having fun and, on a more serious note, to make it easier for gay conservatives to come out and harder for anti-gay advocators to be taken seriously. (¹)

In other words, even in the midst of strongly homophobic contexts it’s just a matter of time before the next outspokenly anti-homosexual advocator comes out/are revealed to be gay. As I write this, the website says “days since the last prominent homophobe was caught in a gay sex scandal: 98”.

One could hope that such “scandals” makes it more difficult for anti-gay ideologies to thrive. However, for a lot of anti-gay groups homosexuality is something that you can “treat” with therapy. The idea of using therapy to “cure” or “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuality is called conversion therapy (or reparative therapy by some of its proponents), a practice that goes way back and have, at least historically, by no means been an exclusively religious practice. Sigmund Freud indicated that homosexuality could be changed through hypnotisms, and the endocrinologist that influenced Freud, Eugen Steinach, transplanted testicles from straight men into gay men in attempts to change their sexual orientation. Somewhat later Anna Freud claimed to be “successful” in treating homosexuals as a neurotics. Conversation therapy has been more or less well established within psychology and behavioural sciences for a long time. There is of course an obvious parallel here between the overall historical stigmatization of regarding homosexuality as an illness and the scientific interest of “curing” homosexuality into heterosexuality by therapy (just to give an example, when Sweden “removed” homosexuality from being regarded an illness in 1979 it was the first country in the world to do so).

Today conversion therapy is not supported by The American Psychoanalytic Association and many other professional organization while it is not uncommon among some Evangelical or Conservative Christian groups. The question is: should the practice of conversion therapy be forbidden by law? This brings us directly to the heart of liberal paradoxes of freedom vs. state control. In September 2012, as a result of the active work of the largest LGBT-organization in the U.S., California was the first state to sign a bill to ban the practice of conversion therapy or “gay converting” altogether. Governor Jerry Brown who signed the bill explained:

“This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery” (²)

This first-of-its-kind law to forbid conversion therapy, set to apply from January 1th (2013), was later blocked by a federal court that issued an “emergency order”, putting the law on hold. This federal court that blocked the bill consisted of a three-judge panel that was backed up by licensed counselors who practices reparative therapy and two families claiming their teenage sons had benefited from it. This conflict of interests will surely continue and if this law will ever see the light of day remains to be seen. (³)

godhatesfagsTo what extent the state should impose restriction applies not only to the practice of pseudo-scientific and mentally damaging therapies, it is in fact a question that extends to homophobia and anti-gay propaganda in general. Such restrictions could become reality for one of the most infamous fundamentalist churches: the Westboro Baptist Church. This group has probably not gone unnoticed by many, it’s the group that are holding those big signs with the slogan “God Hates Fags”. The church is in fact a very small group of people consisting of only 40 members. Despite their size they are constantly put in the spotlight and given attention, on the internet and in media, something that could de-emphasize the wider problem of homophobia as a broader structure and institutionalized ideology. That being said, the Westboro Baptist Church is of course a relentless attention-craving homophobic group. They actually travel around from state to state, ruining funerals and picketing (protesting) whatever they think is “sinful” (which is of course just about anything). So to return to the question of freedom vs. state control, how should one deal with groups such as Westboro Baptist Church? What would Jesus do? Would he turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) or would he go berserk and ruff up their place (Matthew 21:12)? The Westboro Baptist Church are actually facing serious opposition. A petition on the White House’s digital platform that calls the U.S. government to officially designate the Westboro Baptist Church a “hate group” has been the most popular petition so far, with more than 265 000 signatures. Other petitions calling the government to revoke Westboro Baptist Church’s tax-exempt status have also been immensely popular. (4)

If this becomes a reality (fingers crossed) it will surely be followed by interesting debates as well as people defending their “fundamental” liberalist right to exercise and spread homophobia. All while the counter on Gayhomophobe.com keeps being reset.

Text: David Westerberg
Photo: Elvert Barnes @Ipernity

Interview with Ronald Inglehart

Ronald Inglehart, Professor in Political Science at University of Michigan, gave an open lecture on “Evolutionary Modernization and Social Change” at University of Gothenburg in 21st November 2012. In connection, Utblick’s David Westerberg met with him to discuss issues of politics, religion and secularism.

Q: Is religion an independent variable?
Inglehart: Yes. I would say yes because religion has been around for a long time. It has autonomy, it is clearly shaping things, and my cultural analysis indicates that having a Protestant, Catholic, Islamic or likewise heritage is a strong predictor of all kinds of values.

Q: Is it not problematic to identify and analyze religion as independent from politics or economics?
Inglehart: No, I think that we can measure religiosity empirically, first of all by what denomination people belong to, and secondly by how important religion is in their life. That is actually a very powerful predictor of attitudes because you can predict a whole range of other attitudes from those two things, like their stand on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, child upbringing, and so on, so there are all kinds of things linked to religion. When people do not think religion is important it usually predicts the opposite set of things, so the fact that religion is unimportant is itself a powerful predictor.

Q: Do you see any problems with translating the term and concept “religion” to non-English speaking cultures?
Inglehart: I hate to be simplistic, but no. The concept of religion is almost universally recognized.

Q: But surely measuring religion in different cultures must be dependent on what concept one uses and what it means in that context?
Inglehart: It’s not entirely unproblematic, but I would say that this is one of the things that are more or less universal, that religion is almost universally recognized. Even if you don’t like it you know what it is.

Q: During your lecture you referred to Marxism as a ‘belief system’. Do you see any overlapping between religion and political ideologies?
Inglehart: Very much. I think that Marxism was a secular religion, and it went to great lengths to repress religion since it was a competing belief system. As long as people believed in the Russian orthodox faith they weren’t good communists, since they had to believe in the whole worldview of communism which actually, in some ways, was modelled after Christianity, especially the notion of a judgement day, when history will end, the good will triumph and the revolution of proletariat will be the last trumpet blowing, and so on.

Q: What about political ideologies in general?
Inglehart: In extreme forms, it sometimes claims to have absolute truth, which, in my view, is always wrong. In politics absolute truth is usually a balancing act between too much of one thing or too much of the other thing.

Q: To what extent do you view the separation of religion and politics an ideological function of the state?
Inglehart: Traditional religions claimed to have the absolute truth in all spheres, and traditionally the Catholic Church claimed the right to define and legitimate political authority. It became compatible with democracy only when it gave up that claim. I think democracy necessarily does not claim absolute truth. It is, in my view, a very modest claim: whoever wins the election has the right to rule.

Q: How should we understand the concept of “secularism”? Is secularism an ideology?
Inglehart: It can be an ideology. For example, the Soviet version of secularism was an enforced ideology. In the United States the separation of Church and State are pushed to an extreme by some people where it would be wrong or even criminal to mention God or have prayer in schools. That would be a kind of secular ideology in my view. Extreme secularism can be totalitarian; some totalitarian states force secularism on people just like some totalitarian states like Iran force religion on people.

Q: How does democracy as an ethos, whether religious or secular, accord with the political system of the state?
Inglehart: In a very general sense every state depends on some belief system. I think every state, if it persists for any length of time, has a legitimating myth. Any social order requires an underlying belief system. That is, any political order, if it’s going to be stable and persist rather than simply be based on naked force, needs a legitimating myth. A warlord may come around and be able to get things simply by pointing bayonets at you, but any state that persists for a long time has some legitimating myth. By myth I don’t mean that it’s false, but simply that there is a set of beliefs which is supposedly rooted in deep history which indicates that this is the right way to rule, or this is the right way to choose your rulers, whether it is because God gives divine right to Kings or because elections are almost holy. In the United State, and I suppose in Sweden too, children in primary school are brought up with some reverence with democratic institutions, which then helps to support them.

Q: Does the democratic ethos necessarily depend on the state, or the other way around?
Inglehart: Generally democracies have a strong national myth. It can be things like “we are a great democratic country” and being proud of democracy and social institutions; although Swedes are probably proud in a more subtle version than Americans, they nevertheless share this. I think that any society draws on a sense group of group cohesion which may be nationalism or class conflict, or even racism. But to get people to rally behind you, I think you need some kind of unifying story.

Q: Could the political system of the nation-state undermine democracy?
Inglehart: I think the ideal notion of democracy might not require any coercion, but in reality any society requires some measure of coercion. If you have criminals, you have to deal with them.

Q: Do you see any similarities between belief in religion and belief in the nation-state?
Inglehart: Oh yeah, sure, it is certainly similar in some ways, especially in terms of “the righteous in-group” vs. “the unrighteous outsiders.”

Text: David Westerberg