Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, are based upon faith and belief that is not to be questioned. They hold that accepting their belief immediately brings salvation and the right to heaven or paradise. Their main activity is to convert others to their belief by a variety of influences, incentives and intimidations.
Historically, Christianity and Islam have often promoted their beliefs with threats of the wrath of God, fatwas, jihads and inquisitions. In modern secular states, their intimidation is less overt, but still present, with good works and charities often a mask for conversion.
Faith-based religions do not aim at an unmediated experience of the Divine within us, but emphasize an external savior or prophet, creed or book. God is an object of faith and belief, not a matter of questioning, examination or inner observation.
Dharmic traditions, as have arisen in Bharat, are very different. They are knowledge-based, not faith-based. This is not an outer knowledge of name, form and number but an inner Self-knowledge and understanding of the unity of existence.
Dharmic traditions do not insist upon a belief but direct us to examine the nature of our own consciousness. This higher truth cannot be gained by an en masse belief but only by individual practice. The path is different for each person. Dharmic traditions have more in common with science as ways of knowledge. To speak of the Hindu or Buddhist Dharma as faiths can be misleading.
As faith-based religions dominate the world today, they tend reduce the discourse on spirituality to matters of faith. This is why we have “interfaith” conferences bringing different religions together. Such gatherings first of all accept the validity of faith and belief as defining religion, which gives an unfair advantage to Abrahamic traditions and their circumscribed ways of thought.
Dharma, Faith and Religion
In the Bharatiya context today the term Dharma is commonly used for religion. However, to call faith-based religions dharmas is as misleading as to call dharmic traditions as faiths.
Dharma is based upon universal truth, not faith or belief. Dharma starts at the level of the forces of nature. Fire has the dharma or quality of heat and combustion. The burning quality of fire does not rest upon faith but is a matter of experience. God is not punishing you for the sin of putting your hand in a fire by burning you. You are simply experiencing the potential harmful nature of fire.
Dharma extends to a spiritual level, where it is rooted in the law of karma, the cause and effect relationship between our actions. The law of karma does not depend upon any commandment of God but reflects the laws of nature and how the mind works.
Our thoughts and actions have consequences according to their inherent qualities, just as natural forces. Anger, for example, can easily result in violence and destruction as a fiery force. There is no punishment in karma but the natural consequences of the forces that we set in motion. Understanding the law of karma we take responsibility for our lives and learn to be more conscious of our actions.
Belief is not Dharma
Belief-based religions are not dharmas, or universal truth principles. That Jesus is the only Son of God or Mohammed the last prophet are matters of belief for a particular community, not dharmic principles that are valid for everyone or for all time.
Faith based religions encourage belief in that which is irrational. In Christianity, faith is required in the virgin birth, the salvation of all humanity by the blood of Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection of the dead on the Day of the Last Judgment for Heaven or Hell. We cannot call these beliefs as dharmas.
Faith and the Three Gunas
Dharmic traditions recognize the importance of shraddha, often translated as faith, which also refers to dedication and devotion. Yet shraddha, like all the powers of life, is affected by the three gunas of nature as sattva (harmonious), rajasic (egoistic, passionate) and tamasic (darkened, ignorant). The Bhagavad Gita examines these three qualities in detail, as do many other Hindu texts.
Faith in what is universal, a faith in truth, or the Divine presence in all beings, which is selfless and peaceful, is sattvic, whose nature is light, harmony, balance and intelligence.
Faith that is egoistic, localized as a faith in one person or group as opposed to another, or used to gain power over others, shows the turbulent qualities of rajas, which is aggressive, proud, emotional, and agitated. When a faith promotes hatred and violence in its practice or propagation, then it becomes tamasic, blind or dark.
Monotheism is not necessarily sattvic. Monotheism based upon an emotional belief and exclusive orientation promotes rajas. Motives of converting others and conquering the world for a belief are clearly rajasic and reflect aggression and egoism, not the higher truth of oneness.
Rajas can give energy and passion, appealing to the wishful thinking of the ego, but blocks us from a deeper universal consciousness. It can easily lead to tamas or violence.
Need for Discernment
Dharma does not rest upon faith or belief but upon direct perception and discernment, viveka. Such deep discernment cannot accept any mere faith, belief or imagination of the mind as truth. It requires that we question the very nature of our mind and ego, penetrating through all the veils of Maya (illusion).
The highest dharma for human beings is the liberation of consciousness beyond the boundaries of time, space and karma. This is not a faith-based belief but experiential spirituality through yoga and meditation.
In discussions of religion and spirituality, we need a clear vocabulary that avoids any superficial equation of terms. Let us be clear. Faith-based religion should not be equated with Dharma. And Dharma is not something reducible to faith.
Faith is not enough; faith must be questioned and subordinated to an inner experience of higher consciousness, or it can be an obstacle and a liability. The history of the world and the rampant global conflict today attests to this fact. Competing armies and even terrorist groups are proclaiming their faith with passion and determination, but not with a respect for Dharma.