Dharma Files | Why ‘dharma’ is not identical with religion or Hinduism, though it overlaps with it

Although we have become accustomed to routinely translating the English and European word 'religion' with the Sanskrit or Indic word dharma, the semantic ambience, or even flavour, surrounding the two words is different

Arvind Sharma October 31, 2021 11:53:07 IST
Dharma Files | Why ‘dharma’ is not identical with religion or Hinduism, though it overlaps with it

Representational image. www.gujarattourism.co.in

Editors' note: In this recurring column, Arvind Sharma will share his reflections on what are called religious matters but which, in our own cultural terms, would be referred to as matters pertaining to dharma.

Although we have become accustomed to routinely translating the English and European word 'religion' with the Sanskrit or Indic word dharma, the semantic ambience, or even flavour, surrounding the two words is different. We see the problem involved here clearly if, instead of translating the European word religion into an Indian language, we set out to translate the Indic word dharma into a European language, or for that matter, into any other non-Indian language.

We would not be the first to try to do so. This situation was faced by King Ashoka as early as the third century before the Christian or Common Era (C.E.). As is well known, a distinguishing feature of the reign of Ashoka is that he inscribed his message to his subjects in the form of edicts on rocks or pillars all over India, which then included the land covered by today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In these messages, he exhorted his subjects to imbue their lives with certain values or virtues, to which he gave the name dharma. Some of these subjects, however, lived in the border areas of the north-west, where the languages they spoke were Greek or Aramaic. So he had to translate the word dharma into Greek and Aramaic.

In delivering his messages to the people who spoke these languages, he used the word Eusebia to translate the word dharma into Greek. That word is usually translated into English as piety. In rendering the same word dharma into Aramaic, he used the word dhat. That word is usually translated into English as law. It becomes clear from the choice of these words, that two words with different connotations were used to translate the same word dharma in languages that prevailed outside India.

Let us now move from the third century BCE to the first century of the Christian or Common Era (CE). One dynasty which ruled over the north-western parts of India at the time was the Kushana dynasty, whose reign is also testified by numismatic evidence. They used the word dharma on some of these coins, inscribed in Greek. So the word dharma had to be translated again into Greek. This time the word dike was used to translate the word dharma into Greek. That word is usually translated into English as righteousness. Thus the same word dharma is translated into Greek by two different words within a few centuries.

Let us now move to the seventh century of the Christian or Common Era (CE). The scene shifts to China under the Tang dynasty. The famous Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, has just returned to China with a request from King Kumar of Kamrup, a contemporary of the well-known Indian King Harsha, that the Daoist classic, the Dao De Ching, be translated into Sanskrit. So Chinese scholars conversant with both Sanskrit and Chinese were assembled to accomplish this task. But, according to one tradition, the Daoist text has remained untranslated to this day. Why? Because the scholars split into two camps. The scholars with the Daoist orientation wanted to translate the key Chinese word Dao with the Sanskrit word marga, but the scholars with a Buddhist orientation wanted to translate the word Dao with the Sanskrit word dharma. The Mexican stand-off could not be resolved. We see here the problem hinted at earlier, in reverse. (The word Dao is usually translated in English as the Way).

I hope, therefore, that the readers will not find it unreasonable that I have used the word dharma, rather than religion. The word dharma is not identical with either religion or Hinduism, though it obviously overlaps with them. This will become clear in subsequent columns.

Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.​

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