Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without – Buddha

‘Dharma and Religion’

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on July 18, 2010

[Note: “Truth and Christianity” by Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D. will be published soon.]

By Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D.

The understanding and practice of Dharma is fundamental to the inner strength. The inner strength is the prerequisite for the ‘progress’, in any sense of the word. It is a matter of open discussions, not belief.

One definition of ‘Dharma’ is – a. the search for truth (Satya), and b. ways of spiritual growth (Yoga). Thus Dharma is mainly internal and personal issue. However, it also does express in external social level as – c. issues of social harmony, and d. cultures.

A. Search for truth (Satya): Truth can be realized in intellectual, experiential and existential levels. Let us take an example of water. You may study physical and chemical properties of water, drink it to satiate thirst, and realize that our body is the expression mostly of water. Intellectual understanding is one dimension of understanding. As a chemist we may consider ourselves much ahead of a mule. However, drinking, not understanding the properties of water, will satiate the thirst. As far as satiation is concerned there is no fundamental difference between Einstein and a mule. In another level, we are the product and part of the existence. Most of our body is made of water. Instead of ‘I’ realizing ‘water’, ‘water’ is expressing itself as ‘I.’ Even the consciousness, thoughts and feelings are the creations of the existence.  When we (created) try to understand the creator (existence) we are actually going background. The framework of understanding needs changing from that of ‘created’ to ‘creator.’ The deeper answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ comes from the existence. Both the thinking process and the experience are subsets of existence. Thus existence cannot be conceptualized or experienced in the ego level. Any human concept of it is only a reflection. Thus it neither can be directly discussed nor taught. Any speculation is precisely that – speculation. However, one definition of spirituality is the “process” of realizing it. Thus, the inquiry about the truth comes from three centers of our being:

1. Intellectual – through thinking process,

2. Experiential – through direct experience, and

3. Existential – transcending to universal reality.

Truth can be sought in objective, subjective and revelatory levels. Objective understanding is independent of individuals. Subjective understanding depends upon individuals, thus differences of opinions can exist together. Both objective and subjective understandings may be clubbed together as empirical. Empirical understanding is within human faculty. There are issues beyond empirical or human faculty, which can be dealt only as beliefs or revelations. Usually such understandings are related with the concept of God and may be called ‘theistic.’ We may note that objective understanding is more rigorous and valid than subjective. However, subjective understanding covers larger areas of human faculty than objective. Similarly, empirical understanding is more rigorous and valid than theistic, but has lesser scope. Subjective issues can be discussed and understood. Revelation is valid only for the prophet. For others it is only a belief. Thus, the inquiry about the truth may be discussed within the framework of the following three paradigms:

1. Scientific – only objective methods,

2. Empirical – objective and subjective methods, within human faculty only, and

3. Theistic – methods include faith and revelations.

B. Ways of spiritual growth (Yoga\Tao\Zen\Discipline\Way): Spiritual growth is transcending – a. first from individual ego, and then b. to the universal reality. The way or practice of ‘Yoga’ begins with developing healthy body and mind, then ethics and internal values. The disciplines of yoga or spiritual

journeys ultimately lead to the salvation or liberation. There are many ways of spiritual journey and are broadly grouped into four.

1.  Way of love and devotion (Bhakti)                  2.  Way of selfless duty (Karma)

3.  Way of meditation or self-realization (Raj)      4.  Way of knowledge (Gnan)

C. Issues of social harmony: The insights, not social or legal rules, towards the social harmony. Justice is the first step toward harmony. The relationships are of two kinds – between individuals within a society, and between different societies. The secular issues like ‘democracy’, ‘socialism’, and ‘human rights’ are also part of it.

D. Cultural mosaic: The world mosaic of human spiritual heritages. It’s evolution in different environmental, historical and philosophical backgrounds. The mutual appreciation between peoples of different spiritual backgrounds and their colorful festivals.

Dharma is not religion:

Dharma is not religion, though usually translated as such. Religions parallel ‘Jati’ or caste system, but with significant differences. Religions are about straight jacketing humanity into a set of beliefs and behavior patterns. They are basically brainwashing systems towards social control. They are cultural innovations for tribal struggle and supremacy. It does by militarization of society. Similar to an army, a religion always sees another as an enemy and a source of hostility. It is a political control, not spiritual. A controlling system has to be dictatorial in nature, will practice discipline in the name of the faith and cannot tolerate difference of opinions. A controlled society cannot have multiple ideologies or leaders or cultures or views. Only a free society can have. Members of a religion have to abide by the prescribed belief, ideology and behavior; and essentially are not free. Religions do not allow its members to think through and question their premises and prescribed behavior pattern. If a person does then the person is not welcome and declared a heretic or an apostate. However, the internal freedom is the first requirement in spirituality. A religion always claims it to be the only true way and condemns all others. It always divides humanity into believers and non-believers. Then it imposes its rule over believers and creates a permanent hostility against non-believers. Believers are good, brothers and true. Non-believers are bad, enemies and wrong. Disciplining its members and fighting others is the name of the game. The relation between a religion and its member is that of a sheepherder and a sheep. A member gets the sense of belonging to a group and attendant sense of security and self worth. It is not to underestimate the human need of the society or social bonds. However, it is not to be confused with truth seeking or spiritual practices. Any time a member pauses and thinks then the member is no longer a sheep of the flock. If all the sheep start thinking then the religion will evaporate. You may study the history of Europe, Middle East, and Americas to appreciate its devastating effects. That is precisely the reason behind the political tool of ‘secularism’ innovated by the wise men of Europe after renaissance.

Caste or ‘Jati’ system also prescribes certain mode of behavior as religions do. However, it is given as social norm, not spiritual. Each caste has a set of rules and values. Castes are put in vertical hierarchy as per the behavioral norms and values it prescribes to. If a member does not want to abide by it then the member is an out caste. The penalty is only social, none other. A caste neither claims the only correct way, nor condemns other behaviors. It neither tries to convert, nor sees others as enemies. Religions do. Caste system has evolved due to job specialization, social freedom, and security of belonging to a group. However, it also comes with structural problems and is irrelevant in the modern age. It did fossilized to being social impediments. The problem of caste system can be ameliorated by education and job diversifications, communications and cultural exchanges between sub-groups, and better law and order. On the other hand, we also need to recognize the values and traditions beyond legal code for a better society.

Dharma & politics: Dharma requires inner reflection, recognizes different ways, and tries to erase existing distinctions. Dharma does not have any inherent political or social code; nor wants to impose any. However, it does affect indirectly by the internal disciplines. The Gnan yoga helps us to understand the consequences of our policies. The Karma yoga helps us to distinguish between universal and self-interests. The Raj yoga helps us to keep our views free of paranoia. The Bhakti yoga helps us to foster neighborly love. Thus our Dharma helps in defining the better framework on which the mechanics of politics operates.


Sanatana: To wonder about ultimate truth and to strive for spiritual progress is a universal phenomenon inherent in humanity. It is not limited by geography, history or culture. Sanatana is such universal principles and ways of spiritual growth, studied and practiced around the world.

Dharma: It is a set of beliefs and practices towards seeking truth and spirituality. Dharmas are subsets of the ‘Sanatana.’ A Dharma differs from another merely by emphases in different methods or by cultural backgrounds. Usually Dharmas have lot in common and their practices overlap. They are like different branches of science (Sanatana) pursuing different techniques and coming from different lineages. Dharmas are not hostile against others. Rather differences are recognized and appreciated – ‘Sarva Dharma sambhava.’ A Dharma may claim to be easy or more rigorous or explains more, but will not condemn others. It is like going to college where each student chooses different but overlapping sets of courses to study. Physicists do not condemn Mathematicians. Matter of fact, you cannot learn Physics without Mathematics. However, it is not about blind acceptance of any doctrines. Each doctrine has to pass the test of – a. the critical examination and b. the time. Dharmas are not rigid. Many masters come along redefine, interpret and innovate Dharmas to address new settings.

Dharma should not be confused with non-Dharmic issues like caste or rituals. Caste is the evolution in Hindu society as per human motivation and job specializations in the ancient times. Varieties of rituals are mostly cultural expressions.

Hinduism: It is the subset of Sanatana or collection of Dharmas evolved in Indian sub-continent, e.g. Vaishnav, Shaiva, Buddha, Sikh, Jain, Tantra, Charvak (Atheism) etc. It is a geographic definition. It can also be taken as a democratic platform where different Dharmas act. It is the collection of wisdoms from thinkers of all races, regions and times. Thus, it is inherently multi-cultural, tolerant & self-correcting.

Buddha Dharma: Dharma using methods within human faculty only and is independent of any beliefs. Thus it uses only scientific and empirical techniques. Jainism is another such Dharma. Buddhism is a major break through within the long traditions of Hinduism. That is Buddha achieved Nirvana without depending on supra-humanity or divinity. The central message of Buddha is that an individual can achieve salvation by working within the human faculty. All of Buddha’s teachings and analyses are within rational self-examination of the world including one’s mind. Buddhism is not political or social grouping. It is an inner discipline, similar to mathematics or music, practicable by any body regardless of their religious or other backgrounds.

Parampara: A Hindu family or a community follows own tradition or ‘Parmapara’, not a Dharma. A Parampara or tradition has elements from many Dharmas and also other cultural elements. These different Paramparas overlap and are not hostile against others. A Hindu learns from different schools and develops own tradition (Parampara). A Hindu is not bound by any single discipline. These individual or family traditions do evolve as new spiritual tools are added and useless ones are dropped. Thus we have growth, not conversion. Thus Paramparas coexist, do not compete, and evolve.

Practice of the Yoga:

Students of ‘yoga’ begin with the practice of the following first set of discipline. These are the basics of physical and mental well being to be practiced by every body. After these basics, the students of different ‘yoga’ will specialize in different, though not exclusive, practices.

1. Basic physical exercise (Hatha yoga) for good health.

2. Basic ethics:

A. Virtues (Dharma) to uphold are honesty, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, generosity and ascetism.

B. Self control (Yama) from violence (Ahimsa – non-violence) both physical and mental, falsehood, stealing, coveting, lust, anger, greed, infatuation and pride.

C. Proper conduct (Niyama) of cleanliness, contentment, continence, austerity, study and devotion.

D. Behavior\attitude (Byabahar) of respect for parents, teachers and others; cheerfulness, positive thinking and enthusiasm.

3. Breathing exercise (Pranayam) for better oxygen input, cool thinking and concentration.

4. Meditation (Dhyan):

Part A. Concentration: For longer attention span and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to develop discipline in thinking thoroughly, understand own biases, be objective and view an issue from different perspectives.

Part B. Non-attachment: It is not concentration. The discipline is for controlling ego related problems like passion, anger, greed, infatuation, pride etc. It leads to freer mind. It is done by isolating such human emotions and making objective analysis. For example, if a person gets a slap then it will invoke anger. The anger can be studied objectively as how the mind is designed or works, by dissociated ‘anger’ from the ‘slap.’ The slap remains a fact. The duration of anger depends upon the emotional fuel created by the ego. Then it will slowly fade away. Now the slap can be studied without encumbered by the anger.

Part C. Transcendental: It is to remain only a witness to the passing thoughts and stay unattached. The thought process is like waves on the sea of consciousness. Consciousness is not thoughts. Going beyond thinking is required to go beyond.

Four Yogas:

1. The ‘way of love and devotion (Bhakti)’ will stress on compassion, prayers, singing hymns, dances, rituals, pilgrimage etc. A simple rule of thumb to follow is ‘be good’ and ‘do good.’ The ‘way of love’ component does not require the belief in God. Mere love of all the humanity and the nature suffice. The ‘way of devotion’ component assumes the existence of the divine being. God created the universe including humanity and loves it. The divine being can be approached through love and devotion.

2. The ‘way of selfless duty (Karma)’ will look at the labor as the selfless prayer on to the lord. According to the theory of Karma, like the Newton’s third law, whatever you do will come back to you. We human beings will be acting one act or the other, and consequently we are always bound by the resultant karma. According to the Karma Yoga, when an action is committed by an ego, the karmic reaction is attached to the same ego. However, if you do your duty as if you are merely a conduit of Lord then the karmic reaction will go to Lord, not to you. Thus even when you act, you are not bound by Karmic law and remain free.

3. The ‘way of meditation or self-realization (Raj)’ will practice meditation of the very nature of self. It is about the age-old question, ‘Who am I?’ The ‘resume’ answers deals only with the ego part of it. If we study the self in depth, then like layers of onion we will find body, mind, thoughts and emotions, awareness or consciousness. So far we are within our human faculties. Deeper meditation is required to go beyond human faculties and individual ego. It may merely be pointed out that it is possible to meditate beyond memory of personal ego. It will lead to the understanding of the underlying character of the awareness itself and erase the distinction between the meditator and the object. That will lead to the realization of our very essence or the soul (Atma) or the state of Nirvana.

4. The ‘way of knowledge (Gnan)’ is about critical thinking, following knowledge and sticking to truth. The human suffering is due to the ignorance of reality. One way to achieve liberation is through understanding of our own true nature. There are many ‘Darshan’ or metaphysical views to learn. A few paradigms are: scientific, empirical, duel, and non-duel. However, a yogi has to learn from all the sources and yet stay unattached. It is to think and question bravely. Let no body, no religion, no scripture, no tradition, no ideology imprison the intellect. In every statement there are inherent assumptions. Each of the assumptions, like ‘God exist’, are also to be examined. The yoga is about keeping the mind free and to progress, guided only by truth.


Buddhism is a spiritual discipline comparable to mathematics or music. It is not a communal, religious or political grouping. Buddhism needs to be understood, not as a faith, but as the rational approach to the truth and according to the priority it assigns. Buddhist approach to truth is strictly empirical within individual, symbolized by ‘Gnan Chachhu’ or Eye of knowledge. The central message of Buddha is that salvation can be achieved within human faculty and effort, independent of revelation or divinity. He was merely showing the way worked for him. He is not denying others or claiming exclusivity. Buddha dharma is one of the ways among many within Hinduism. Since most other Dharmas are dependent upon revelations or divinity, Buddha dharma is more rigorous. Its root in Hinduism is symbolized by ‘OM.’ The ‘Om’ is the symbol of ‘Brahman’ in Adwaita, ‘Godhead’ in Dwaita and ‘Bodhi’ in Buddhism. The most repeated Buddhist mantra is ‘Om mani padme hum’ or the ‘goodness comes out of goodness.’

In practical level Buddhism’s priority is the lessening the suffering. The corollary is maximization of happiness. It is contrary to the uneducated accusation that Buddhism is nihilistic. Buddhism does, however, differentiate between temporary and permanent happiness and suffering. Majjhima Nikaya Sutta states – “If a man is struck by an arrow, then as the first order of business the arrow should be pulled out. It would not help to know the person’s caste or kind of arrow before pulling it out.”  Similarly, it is not on the view that the world is eternal or it is finite, that body and soul are distinct or same a spiritual life depends. Whether these or their opposites are held, there is still suffering, death and rebirth. How does Buddha propose to lessen suffering? Not by depending upon some external entities or irrational beliefs or behaviors? He proposes first analyzing the suffering rationally, and then solving it within our own resources. The practical application is given as the ‘four noble truths’: Attachment is the cause of suffering. The solution is cutting of the attachment. It can be done within ourselves without any external help. It needs personal discipline, ethics and efforts – the eightfold path.

The greatness of Buddha is that he is able to bring many of the truths, which were considered purely a matter of faith and revelation, within the realm of rational deduction. That is why initially many Brahman-Pundits opposed him, and once they understood the importance of the Buddhist approach they recognized him as an incarnation. It is their way of, especially from Dwaita perspective, honoring him. His way of knowledge was indeed the ignorance shattering.

The unity of the three principal sects of Hinduism – Baudha (Buddha), Shaiva (Nilkantha) and Vaishnav (Narayan) is beautifully symbolized in the popular temple in Kathmandu valley. The deity we lovingly call – ‘Budha Nilkantha Narayan.’

Buddhism and Vedanta:

The distinction between Buddhism and Vedanta is the approach they take, not the truth they seek. Buddhism takes the bottom up approach and relies on the available human faculties, whereas Vedanta takes the top down approach and relies on revelations in Veda. Vedantist would predicate their argument upon the primary reality. Whereas Buddhist would point out that by definition it cannot be conceptualized and therefore there is no basis of any argument. Since, Vedanta uses the assumption of ‘Brahma’ and Buddhism uses none, Buddhism is more rigorous. On the other hand, Vedanta will argue that with one assumption it can explain many and thus justifiable. It is a matter of fascinating debates, a practice of Gnan yoga.

Vedas reveal Brahman as permanent, eternal, impersonal, and attribute less. However, Brahman creates the transitory and conditional attributes out of itself, for itself, by itself. Brahman is one, which manifests itself as eye and makes eye see, manifest as mind and makes mind think, manifests as ego and creates personality. Thus, an individual human cannot observe or understand ‘Brahman’, because human ego itself is the transitory creation or manifestation of Brahman. However, human mind may comprehend Brahman in its two aspects, as a. observable physical entity (energy) and b. consciousness. The way to know Brahman is by transcending our ego or individuality. This may be accomplished by shedding ego using the techniques of meditation. Shankaracharya interprets the ancient texts that this truth can be directly experienced (Aparokshanubhuti – self realization) by the way of ‘Bairagya – dispassion or renunciation’.

On Buddhist concept of ‘Dharmakaya’, Dr. D.T. Suzuki writes, “It is the ultimate reality that underlies all particular phenomena; it is that which makes the existence of individual possible; it is the raison d’etre of the universe; it is the norm of being, which regulates the course of events and thoughts. We do not have any transcendental entity called ego-substance. We all are one in the ‘System of Being’ and only as such are immortal. The one shows us the folly of clinging to individual existence and of coveting the immortality of the ego-soul; the other convinces us of the truth that we are saved by living into the unity of Dharmakaya. When the clouds of ignorance and egoism are totally dispersed, the light of universal love and intelligence will shine in all its glory.”

Dharmakaya and Brahma are same, though the approaches to it are different. Most of the Buddhist statements would become clearer if we consider that Buddhism uses methods of inquiry within the observable world or ‘Samsar.’ ‘Enlightenment cannot be explained. Only the process to enlightenment can be shown.’ ‘Every existing phenomenon is transient and has cause. They would cease to exist if the cause is removed.’ ‘The Law of karma operates even upon Gods.’ ‘Any given concept of soul or Dharmakaya is not correct.’ ‘Anahata or there is no soul.’ ‘If you take any individual then his or her each and every characteristic, physical or mental, is transient and has cause. If each and every characteristic is taken off one by one, by recognizing and removing the cause, then there absolutely nothing will be left.’ ‘The reality after each and every egoistic attribute being extinguished cannot be explained nor even be conceptualized. For the lack of better word, we may call it enlightenment or Nirvana.’ ‘Nirvana is bliss.’

Satyam ewa jayate.                                          Truth always triumphs.

Vashundhaiva kutumbakam.                           World is a family.

Sarve api sukhino santu.                                  Let all be happy.

Yeto Dharma stato jaya.                                              Victory is where virtue is.

Sarva Dharma sambhava                                 Many paths to the summit

Om mani padme hum.                                     Goodness comes out of goodness.

Om shantih, shantih, shantihi.                          Divine peace, peace, and peace.

3 Responses to “‘Dharma and Religion’”

  1. […] ‘Dharma and Religion’ (via Nepal – the country of the Mt. Everest and the Buddha) December 8, 2010 by vijayshah [Note: "Truth and Christianity" by Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D. will be published soon.] By Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D. The understanding and practice of Dharma is fundamental to the inner strength. The inner strength is the prerequisite for the 'progress', in any sense of the word. It is a matter of open discussions, not belief. One definition of ‘Dharma’ is – a. the search for truth (Satya), and b. ways of spiritual growth (Yoga). Thus Dharma is mainl … Read More […]

  2. pragnaju said

    Satyam ewa jayate. Truth always triumphs.

    Vashundhaiva kutumbakam. World is a family.

    Sarve api sukhino santu. Let all be happy.

    Yeto Dharma stato jaya. Victory is where virtue is.

    Sarva Dharma sambhava Many paths to the summit

    Om mani padme hum. Goodness comes out of goodness.

    Om shantih, shantih, shantihi. Divine peace, peace, and peace.
    આજ ધર્મ

  3. […] ‘Dharma and Religion’ (via Nepal – the country of the Mt. Everest and the Buddha) Posted on December 8, 2010 by [Note: "Truth and Christianity" by Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D. will be published soon.] By Tilak B. Shrestha, Ph.D. The understanding and practice of Dharma is fundamental to the inner strength. The inner strength is the prerequisite for the 'progress', in any sense of the word. It is a matter of open discussions, not belief. One definition of ‘Dharma’ is – a. the search for truth (Satya), and b. ways of spiritual growth (Yoga). Thus Dharma is mainl … Read More […]

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