There is a popular but false dogma about Hinduism, that it is not a religion, but only a way of life. This dogma is misleading and toxic at many levels, and this post tries to uncover and examine the many flaws of this idea.
First, when we say that Hinduism is a way of life, we are acknowledging that there are many ways of life. The indirect implication is that no way of life is superior or inferior; we cannot debate and discuss ways of life, because these are simply our choices. This idea about Hinduism plays nicely into postmodernist thinking where every society invents or creates its way of life. So, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. are simply different ways of life, and we should be allowed to lead our life in the way we want. Thereby, religion is a matter of personal choice, not amenable to rational inquiry, cannot be a subject of debate and discussion, and has no objectively verifiable truth in it. And yet, everyone is entitled to choose their way of life, as that is a freedom enshrined in a democracy. So, right from the start, “the way of life” presentation about Hinduism dances to the tune of postmodernism and leans toward a political solution to the problem of religious diversity, rather than toward questions about the highest truth, right, and good.
Second, when we say that Hinduism is not a religion, we are already succumbing to someone else defining religion. The term religion comes from the Latin term religare which means “to bind” or “to tie”. Hinduism has an identical term, and it is called “yoga”. Yoga means “to join”. There are many ways to tie two individuals; some are bound by love, others are bound by duty, others are bound by a common goal, etc. All society is constructed by the act of finding commonalities and binding people using that commonality. If some people have a commonality, or they are bound by a common purpose, love, or duty, then they are joined. Hinduism prescribes all these methods of joining. There is binding by the love of God, there is binding by a common purpose of transcendence from this world, and while we are still living in this world, we are bound together by the execution of duties. Thereby, Hinduism is a religion in every sense of the word, if we understand what the word means.
Third, when people say that Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life, they are implying that Hinduism has a unique culture. But which religion doesn’t? Culture means a certain set of moral ideals. For example, Western culture claims the equality of all men, and the Vedic culture upholds a division of society into four classes based on a person’s qualities and activities. Of course, the claim that all men are equal in Western culture is just theory. In practice, the West has considered itself superior to other races and cultures. Conversely, in Vedic culture, everyone is not equal in societal stature; they are more or less qualified based on their nature depending on the three qualities called sattva, rajas, and tamas. But this is, again, theory. In practice, many people who are unqualified consider themselves superior simply by birth in a caste, without the necessary qualifications. Nevertheless, to the extent that there are two different ideas about humanity—one that says that all men are created equal, and the other that says that all men are not created equal—Western society is more homogeneous, and Hindu society is more heterogeneous. Heterogeneity implies greater acceptance of differences, while homogeneity entails lesser acceptance of other cultures. What people mean by “Hinduism is a way of life”, is this heterogeneous and tolerant nature of a diverse society. But culture is not unique to Hinduism. All cultures are rooted in some religion, and religious differences entail cultural differences. So, the idea that Hinduism is just a way of life tries to draw an exception when it doesn’t exist. The fact is that every religion is also a way of life.
Fourth, when people say that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life, they are implying that there is no firm understanding of God or the divine, and many people speak of the divine in many ways. Associated with this idea is the false dogma that Hinduism is polytheistic. The truth is that Hinduism has a very firm understanding of God, but it describes God as having many aspects. Depending on the inclination of the person, God reveals a different aspect to the worshipper. This is, however, not unique to the nature of God; it pertains to everything in Vedic philosophy. Someone sees a knife as an instrument to cut vegetables while others may see it as a weapon. Some see religion as a process for transcendence while others see it as a way to accumulate power and wealth. The difference is due to the philosophy of reality. In Hinduism, all reality is aspected and a different aspect is revealed to us based on our relationship to that reality. Other religions either hold that there is a universal reality, or that there is no reality. God, in Vedic philosophy, is the sum of all the aspects; however, He is partially known by different individuals in different ways based on their relationship. Some relations are better than others, and accordingly, some understandings of God are superior to others. Just like the intimate aspects of a person are known to their spouse, lesser understood by children, even lesser understood by friends, and even lesser understood by acquaintances, similarly, there are many understandings of God, some better than others. There is hence a “relativism” in Hinduism in the sense that each person can know God differently. And there is an “absolutism” in Hinduism in the sense that some understanding of God is supreme. This is not polytheism, monotheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, or any such idea. A new term of “Aspectism”—that says that God has infinite aspects—needs to be coined to describe Hinduism. Again, the “way of life” claim doesn’t take the trouble to get into the details; it oversimplifies things by claiming that since we cannot find a universal notion of God in Hinduism, therefore, it is a choice about how one wants to worship or think of God, and thereby, God and religion are simply our “ways of life”.
Fifth, the “way of life” claim conflates Hinduism with Indianness. There is even a term called “dharmic way” which is expanded to include Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, that emerged in India. This further dilutes the issue, because now even more varied ideas become part of the “Hindu” way of thinking. In trying to conflate Hinduism with Indianness, then expanding Indianness to include many religions that are philosophically discordant with Hinduism, a false caricature of Hinduism is produced. Now, a geographical thesis of Hinduism as Indianness is advanced in which Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, etc. are “part” of Hinduism, because they are of Indian origin, while Christians, Muslims, and Jews are not Hindu because they are not of Indian origin. Thus, a political and geographical synthesis, which has no basis in philosophy, is mounted on the hapless people who were already confused about Hinduism.
Sixth, we have to understand the political and legal underpinnings of the claim that “Hinduism is a way of life”. Modern India has a secular constitution and politicians cannot ask for votes in the name of religion. Anyone who brings up religious issues during political campaigns is in violation of the Indian constitution, and courts can jail the politicians who use religion to demand votes. Politicians have a way around this problem: They say: Hinduism is not a religion; it is a way of life! Under secularism, you can discuss ways of life, although not religion. So, the claim that “Hinduism is a way of life” is a convenient political tool for those who want victory by appealing to Hindus for votes, never mind how false that idea is. The net effect of this political trick is that the Hindu political parties will only talk about the “way of life”, never soul or God. They never invest in advancing the Vedic philosophy or the religious understanding of soul and God, because (a) it is irrelevant to their political objectives, and (b) it is legally questionable under a secular constitution. Other political parties also play the same duplicitous game; they talk about “minority rights” when their real agenda is to get the Muslim or Christian votes. So, all political parties are involved in two-faced games. Their real agenda is getting more votes, religion is a pawn in the political game, and false ideas such as “Hinduism is a way of life” are used as legal protections under a secular constitution just like “minority rights” are used by others.
For those who might not know about this legal problem, here is some history. In 1990, Manohar Joshi, a BJP politician made the statement that “the first Hindu State will be established in Maharashtra” at a political rally. This was picked up as a violation of secularism, and the Bombay High Court scrapped the electoral victories of 9 BJP candidates. This case went for appeal in the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1995 that “Hinduism is a way of life of the people in India and is a state of mind—not a religion—and seeking votes was not illegal under the Representation of the People Act”, which outlaws poll campaigning on religious grounds. The BJP used this ruling to advance the idea that Hinduism is a way of life, undermining the idea that Hinduism is also a religion. To maintain its power, the BJP steered clear of philosophical, religious, and intellectual issues. After all, they don’t want this court ruling to be reexamined. Thus, a politically expedient formula that is legally admissible under the Indian constitution, but one that undermines Hinduism, was created. And this formula will likely remain the mainstay of political Hinduism and all public conversation as long as the current constitution exists.
Seventh, when Hindus resort to “Hinduism is just a way of life and not a religion” claim, the acknowledgment opens up Hinduism to critical historical analysis, because it is just a “way of life”. Western intellectuals are fond of such analyses, and they now start supplying an interpretation of what Hinduism truly is. Their conclusion is: It is a hodge-podge of many ideas, that evolved over time, were created by different people, and therefore, the texts of Hinduism are humanly created rather than of divine origin. Since Hindus have acknowledged that Hinduism is only a way of life, therefore, they have accepted that historical-critical analyses of ways of life in the past are legitimate subjects of critical analysis. Hinduism is no longer sacred. It is as much a subject of socio-cultural-political-historical analysis as the food habits and dress codes of people living in the past. Now, religious texts are just historical records useful for historical analysis. You cannot revert to the claim that Hinduism is sacred and divine, because you let it go initially.
In short, when the idea that “Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life” is adopted, then many things follow. First, it becomes the subject of postmodernist relativism in which religion is a cultural creation of people living in India; thereby, it is one of the many cultures and religions inhabiting the earth, not better or worse, equally temporal and relative to a geographical land as the other religions. Second, it becomes disconnected from the ideas of soul and God, transcendence, and eternity; it becomes preoccupied with life on earth. Third, as the spiritual foundation is weakened, there is no basis for upholding a traditional culture; after all, this is a culture from the past; why should it be upheld in the present when so much has changed? Fourth, people seek solace in Indianness, rather than a transcendent philosophy, thus mixing alien ideologies because they earlier existed in India; even atheism, materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are now parts of Hinduism as they existed in India in the past. Fifth, this Indian identity is co-opted by political parties as they pawn Hinduism for political objectives. Sixth, intellectuals who have no real interest in Hinduism, take on the mantle of interpreting, explaining, and expounding on what Hinduism means, filling in a vacuum created by Hindus. Finally, vested interests exploit this confusion and highlight casteism, discrimination of women, minority subjugation, following up on “it is just a way of life”, and portraying that way of life in a bad light.
The crisis in Hinduism is deeper today than it was ever before, and it deepens with passing time. Hindus are mostly to blame for it today, because they have abandoned the philosophy, science, and religion of Hinduism, and seek solace in the ideas such as “Hinduism is a way of life”. This is advanced by political parties, the legal system, the constitutional framework, adversarial vested interests, and the atheistic intellectual environment, collectively.
It is a great disservice to a tradition of perfect philosophy, science, religion, culture, and way of life. However, if we ignore philosophy, science, and religion, and limit ourselves to culture and way of life, then we open the doors to relentless manipulation, misinterpretation, and exploitation. The only way to address this crisis is to go back to the philosophy, religion, and science underlying the culture and way of life in Hinduism. But how many people are interested in such things today? Probably very few, if any at all.