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Indic Contribution Towards Understanding the Word Religion

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    Below is the Summary section of a paper entitled An Indic Contribution Towards an Understanding of the Word `Religion and the Concept of Religious Freedom,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 12, 2008
      Below is the Summary section of a paper entitled "An Indic
      Contribution Towards an Understanding of the Word `Religion' and the
      Concept of Religious Freedom," by Dr. Arvind Sharma of McGill
      University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada). The paper was presented for the
      Global Renaissance Conference Series in July 2002 in New York.

      Dr. Sharma does a very good job of explaining the different ways in
      which the word "religion" is used. If you are a practitioner of Yoga
      or a teacher of any form of Yoga, you may find his explanations
      extremely insightful. If you have ever asked, or been asked the
      question, "Is Yoga a religion?" you will find his paper most useful,
      although he is not directly discussing the question of Yoga itself.

      The reason I have copied below only the Summary of his paper (rather
      than the whole paper) is for brevity, so you can get an overview of
      the topic. The whole paper is well worth reading in its entirety. As I
      was exploring web links for Dr. Sharma's biography (so that I could
      share it here), I ran into his personal blog, which also has a very
      succinct comment about this topic; I have included that below as well.

      In loving service,

      Swami Jnaneshvara


      Here is the link to the entire 36-page paper:
      Also here:

      The article is linked from this page:

      Conference page:

      Dr. Arvind Sharma's personal website:

      McGill University:

      Arvind Sharma
      McGill University


      The word religion is now part of global discourse specially as it is
      carried out through the medium of English. The word, however, is
      Western in origin which raises the question: Does a Western word, when
      used in global discourse, reflect the global religious reality or does
      it in the process of reflecting it, also distort it? It is contended
      in the paper that such in fact is the case—that when the word is used
      to represent the religions of Indian origin, the religions of the Far
      East and the indigenous religions—it in fact distorts reality. The
      basis for making such a claim is the following.

      The word "religion" came into secular use in the nineteenth century
      and has since been freely used in the public sphere as if it were a
      neutral word, which could be impartially applied to all the religions
      of the world. However, the word embodies a certain concept of what
      religion is and this concept is rooted in its Christian background. In
      such a context the concept of religion implies that a religion is
      something (1) conclusive; (2) exclusionary and (3) separative. In
      other words, a religion, in order to qualify as such must hold that it
      has the final truth (conclusive); that in order to obtain it one must
      belong to it alone (exclusionary) and that in order to do so one must
      separate oneself from any other, specially prior, affiliation
      (separative). It is also separative in another sense: that religion
      constitutes a part of life, separate from the rest of it—a sense
      particularly pronounced in Christianity.

      When this word was adopted in secular discourse these orientations of
      the word were retained, with some modifications. The claim to
      possessing the final truth by Christianity was extended to each
      religion on its own, this process giving rise to the expression "truth
      claim." The idea that the membership of a religion excluded that of
      any other was retained, while the third constituent of the concept,
      that of separation (between the sacred and the profane or the secular
      and the religious) came to characterise one religion's separateness
      from another more than anything else.

      All the three orientations of the word religion as conclusive, as
      exclusionary and as separative are in effect exclusivist in nature, a
      word to be carefully distinguished from the word exclusionary which
      has been used above in the sense of indicating the fact that the
      formal membership one one religion must exclude such membership of
      another. The conclusive element is exclusivist in the sense that only
      the religion's own truth-claim is considered final, thereby excluding
      such claims of other religions; the exclusionary element is obviously
      exclusivistic and the claim that religions must be treated as separate
      entities by themselves is also obviously exclusivistic.

      Such an exclusivistic orientation however does not characterise the
      Indic religious tradition or what we might also call the dharmic
      tradition. The word Indic in this context needs to be carefully
      distinguished from the word Indian. All religions found to exist in
      India may be called Indian religions. Those religions among these
      which are Indian in origin in their self-perception, namely, Hinduism,
      Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism alone may be called Indic. 32

      This Indic religious tradition tends to be non-exclusivistic. Each
      component of it—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism—tends to view
      one's membership of it as a sufficient but not a necessary condition
      for liberation. This attitude finds further expression in the fact
      that these traditions tend to be non-proselytizing even when they
      become missionary.

      Such a non-exclusivistic attitude in terms of religion is not confined
      to Indic religions but is shared by religions of the Far East. In
      pre-Communist China it was common for people to view themselves as
      both Confucian and Taoist in terms of religious commitment. The
      example of present-day Japan is also relevant here. According to the
      1985 census, 95% of the Japanese population declared itself as
      followers of Shinto. Seventy-six per cent of the same population,
      however, also simultaneously declared itself to be Buddhist. The
      indigenous religions of the world—the American-Indian, the African and
      so on—are also non-exclusivistic in their attitude to religion.

      The use of the word religion, which carries exclusivistic overtones,
      in these three contexts—of Indic religions, of the religions of the
      Far East and of the indigenous religions, distorts their reality,
      because it means that a word with an exclusivistic orientation is
      being employed to describe "religious" traditions which are

      One might still wonder, even if one accepts this point, as to how
      consequential a point it is. Is it merely of academic interest or of
      more than academic interest? I would like to urge that the use of
      religion when applied as a blanket term to all the religions of the
      world—both exclusivistic as well as non-exclusivistic in nature— when
      the word itself has exclusivistic connotations, possesses significant
      policy implications. For instance, it tilts the concept of religious
      freedom in human rights discourse in favour of freedom to proselytize
      which is more in keeping with an exclusivistic rather than a
      non-exclusivistic concept of religion, thereby depriving the
      non-exclusivistic religions of their religious freedom—which in their
      case would consist of not being made the object of proselytization.
      The formal recognition of such a right on their part would then
      constitute an Indic contribution toward a truly global understanding
      of the [word] religion.


      Dr. Sharma wrote an additional comment on his blog on December 1,
      2008; it is a clear, succinct summary.

      8.) Indic and Western Concepts of Religion
      December 1, 2008 by arvindsharma

      During the period of the heavy interaction between India and the West
      during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the West did not
      succeed in converting Indians to Christianity on an appreciable scale.
      This fact has obscured what it did achieve—it converted its
      intelligentsia not to Christianity but to the Christian concept of
      religion—not to the West's religion but to the West's concept of
      religion. This concept of religion was employed by this intelligentsia
      both during the period of British Raj and after, to describe the
      Indian "religious" reality, which does not quite conform to it. Hence
      its use to describe this reality, in the process of reflecting it,
      also reshaped it. According to this Western concept of religion one
      can only belong to one religion at a time, while the Indic concept of
      religion permits multiple religious affiliation. This was doubly
      unfortunate: It was unfortunate for the West failed to benefit by not
      taking the Indic concept of religion into account in its
      conceptualization of religion, a failure apparent in human rights
      documents available in the West, abetting the charge that human rights
      discourse is Western, and it was unfortunate for India: By forcing
      Indian religious reality into a Western conceptual constraints it
      thereby distorted it and exported to India the problems the Western
      concept of religion had created in the West.

      The reformulation of intellectual discourse in a way in which it takes
      the Indic concept of religion as seriously as the Western might help
      solve both the problems.
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