Differences between the terms Religion & Dharm

The entire idea of this article is to clarify and define the usage of these terms. Both the terms religion and dharm are used for philosophical and spiritual systems. Broadly, the major spiritual systems of the world can be divided into two categories. The first is the Abrahamic religions that originated in the almost lifeless scarce desert regions of the Middle East such as Judaism, Christianity & Islam and the other are Dharmic philosophies or systems such as Hinduism (Sanatan Dharm), Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism that originated in the lush green plentiful sub tropical lands of India. The term religion is appropriate for Judaism, Christianity and Islam whereas the term Dharm is appropriate for Hinduism (Sanatan Dharm), Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The terms Religion & Dharm are used interchangeably by the general public. Both these terms have a specific meaning especially the term Dharm has a very specific meaning & usage in Sanskrit, Hindi and other Indian languages. The term ‘Dharm’ has no equivalent in English and other western languages and hence must be used as it is, while the term ‘Religion’ has no equivalent term in Sanskrit, Hindi and most Indian languages and should also be used as it is. Unfortunately, they are used interchangeably by Hindus which causes much misunderstanding while westerners erroneously call Hinduism a religion. It would be inaccurate to term Hinduism or Sanatan Dharm a religion as compared with Christianity or Islam due to numerous points of divergence in all these systems.


  1. This article uses the term ‘Hinduism’ to mean Sanatan Dharm and the term ‘Hindu’ to mean its followers.
  2. It is also important to note that Hindus refer to themselves as Sanatan Dharmis and to Hinduism as Sanatan Dharm. The term Sanatan means eternal and often implies unchanging as well.
  3. The term Dharm is usually misspelt as Dharma with an extra ‘a’.
  4. Sanatan Dharm or Hinduism is a term that is used to represent both the terms Dharm & Adhyatam. Dharm can be understood as a base for Adhyatam in not only the Vedic tradition, but in all other offshoots of the Vedic culture including Buddhism as well. The term Adhyatam can be understood to denote spiritual philosophies, practices and values.

The British & European languages especially English, its expressions and words have been dominant in usage for legal & common terms in India, however in most cases they do not correctly define or represent the Hindu tradition. Additionally, there have been various confusing statements made by Hindus that have defined Hinduism rather poorly and can even be misleading such as ‘Hinduism is a way of life’.  The question to ask is--- Is Christianity or Islam NOT a way of life too? Therefore, this definition is a very poor one that does not befit Hinduism. Some readers may wonder why I have included this definition. Fact is that some sections of the Indian Judicial system seem to be using this to deny Hindus their rights by misusing this definition. The term Hindu has also been used by some persons to define the people living in a certain geographical boundary, however, in this article and in general usage, the term Hindu is used to denote the followers of Sanatan Dharm or Hinduism. The Indian legal & constitutional system before the Indian Independence was biased against Hindus due to British colonialism & racism, but, it is rather appalling that even after Independence it has still remained biased against Hindus. However, the deeper problem lies in the philosophies and attitudes of Sanatan Dharm/ Hinduism itself, especially as most Hindus tend to see all people and cultures as a diverse yet unified stream due to the core concepts of Hinduism. This has created a lot of confusion. Whereas, Hindus often look upon all people and religions as a unified body, the other religions and people do not think so.

It should be noted here that this article & discussion is a philosophical one. From the perspective of the Indian Legal system, the Indian Constitution, and the Government of India, the term ‘Dharm or Dharma’ is equated to the term ‘Religion’. The two positions should therefore not be confused. The reason I point this out is because some people in India would be rather happy to discredit Hinduism by proclaiming it not a religion in legal terms, to suit their misdirected agenda, so as to further persecute the majority population of India namely the Hindus by additionally taking away their rights and legal status.

While writing this article, I tried quite hard to stay solely with the explanation & discussion of the terms, but, eventually came to conclude that this was almost impossible, without skipping some basic understanding of the term religion. So some discussion and inclusion of religions and its details became quite important to establish a clearer picture of the differences, hence somewhat unwillingly, I was forced to address this aspect as well. Hope the reader will understand the dilemma & pardon me for this. Therefore, the article does to some extent create a comparison of sorts between religions and Dharmic systems however it is not a specific or an exhaustive comparison of the Religions with Dharmic systems. For example, a comparison between Hinduism versus Christianity or Islam and that of Buddhism versus Christianity or Islam would entail a much deeper and more specific study while raising numerous other points of comparison & discussion that have not been covered by this article. In some places, in the comparisons between the two terms, the majority view of these spiritual systems has been accepted, especially in the case of Dharmic systems.

An explanation of the Terms:

The term ‘Religion’: is considered to originate from atleast two different sources. From the Anglo-French word ‘Religion’ meaning piety, devotion, religious community and from Latin ‘Religionem’ (nominative ‘Religio’) meaning respect for the sacred, reverence for the Gods, moral obligation, faith, fear of the Gods, etc. Cicero defines it as the proper performance of rites in veneration of the gods.

The term ‘Dharm’: originates from the Sanskrit root ‘Dhri’ meaning to uphold or to uplift. Dharm means any act which upholds the individual and society while including human values such as Justice, Moral values, Noble values, Correct Behaviour and actions, etc,.

Dharma propagates all noble qualities & moral values such as Non-Violence, Truth, Sincerity, Uprightness, Honesty, Lack of Sensuality, Control on Sexuality, Patience, Perseverance, Forgiveness, Simplicity, Humility, Sacrifice (Tyag), Non-attachment (Vairagya), Courage, Respect, Kindness, Love, Mudita (empathetic joy), Generosity, Benevolence, Charity (Daan), Compassion, Tolerance, Faith, Tranquillity, regular spiritual practice, devotion to the Guru, Study of the scriptures and many more.

As an extension of Dharm, the duties and responsibilities of an individual and society are also included often in the scope of Dharm.
From this one can logically conclude that Dharma is being Humane, upholding Human and Humanitarian values and actions or one could conclude that Dharm results in being Humane and upholding Human and Humanitarian values.

Comparison Table between the two terms ‘Religion’ & ‘Dharm’:




  1. Type of Belief System

Faith based system

Value based system

  1. Type of Belief System

The desert Abrahamic religions have a strict set of laws or beliefs that should be followed by the followers without any questions.  Hence it is a closed system.

Dharm is a system open to questioning and debate. It welcomes debate to decide the right values.

  1. Constancy of system with regard to individual & community

Religion changes with reference to the Individual or Community.

The broad content and understanding of the term Dharm in its entirety is a constant and it does not change with the individual or community.

  1. Compatibility with Modern Science

Religion is not compatible with modern Science.

The eastern concept of Dharm and Adhyatm are very compatible with modern science.

  1. Logic

Religion does not promote logic and makes one close minded.

The tradition of Dharm promotes logic and makes one open minded.

  1. Type of System: Closed Vs Open.

Religion is closed and dogmatic.

Dharm and Adhyatm are open and have a tradition of debate.

  1. Kind of Origin.

Religion usually has a single Prophet or an originator.

Dharmic systems do not have a single prophet or originator. There were numerous Rishis or Seers and Siddhs or perfected masters who saw the scriptures during their meditations and perfected numerous spiritual techniques.

  1. Number of Heads.

Religions usually have one religious head such as the Pope, Shahi Imam, etc.

Dharmic systems have numerous spiritual heads that are free from each other’s control.

  1. Structure of the System.

The structure of religions is organized.

The structure of Dharmic systems is unorganized and free.

  1. Holy Books.

They each have a single holy book that is the guide for their faith, beliefs, customs, traditions, practices, prayers, philosophy and understanding of God. Each of these belief systems is rigid and closed to any outside change being considered as perfect by the followers, as they consider their holy scripture as the word of God. It is not open to being questioned and has to be accepted as it is.

Dharmic systems have multiple holy books or scriptures. (Hinduism too has numerous scriptures). Sometimes these scriptures may contradict each other so there is a system of debate.

  1. Different groups.

All groups within a religion follow the same scripture and have the same Prophet.

Separate groups follow different scriptures, while some groups may follow the same scriptures. Separate groups may often have numerous different seers, Rishis, or Siddhs as their guides.

  1. Quality of Human at Birth.

Christianity believes that Humans are born Sinners. Islam believes that Humans are born Pure.

Dharmic traditions believe that Humans are born divine.

  1. Redemption

Religions believe that the only way to redemption is by believing in Jesus Christ (Christianity) and Allah (Islam).

No such belief. Each person by his effort and correct deeds can evolve and attain liberation.

  1. Converting others to one’s own system (Proselytization).

Religion believes in  Proselytization.

Dharmic systems do not believe in Proselytization.

  1. Method of Propagation.

Religion has spread using force, violence, deception and bribery. They have waged wars, holy crusades, inquisitions having persecuted & murdered countless humans who disagreed to convert.

Dharm spreads by the fragrance of its beauty, simplicity and qualities. It depends entirely on the individual whether he/she chooses to accept or reject it.

  1. Belief regarding Proselytization.

Believes that Proselytization leads to a possibility of being awarded heaven.

Dharm has no such belief.

  1. Tolerance & respect for other faiths.

The act of Proselytization and forced conversions shows that they do not respect or tolerate others.

Respect and Tolerate other belief systems.

  1. Belief of resurrection.

Religion (Christianity & Islam both believe in Resurrection).

No such belief.

  1. Belief of evolution through the repeated cycle of Birth and Death

No such belief.

A basic fundament of Dharm is that each person by one’s positive effort can evolve.

  1. Belief in Liberation.

Religion does not have any such belief.

Dharmic systems believe that a person can achieve Liberation or Moksha/ Nirvana.

  1. Understanding of Guru and Guru-Disciple Tradition.

They do not have any understanding of Guru and neither have the Guru-Disciple tradition.

Dharmic systems have a tradition of Guru-Disciple relationship.

  1. Binds or connects with.

Religion binds one to God, to, the Prophet, to the holy book that contains the word of God, all the rigid beliefs, behaviour, customs, traditions & prayers mentioned in it.

Dharm binds one to noble qualities and actions, to Humaneness, Human & Humanitarian values.

  1. Belief in God.

Religion believes in God. One cannot be religious without believing in God.

Dharmic spiritual systems may or may not believe in God.

  1. God vs. Human Values

One can be Religious without observing correct human values.

One can be Dharmic without believing in God, But one cannot be Dharmic while having incorrect Human values.

  1. Reward according to the system.

Will be rewarded if the person has a blind faith in God. God shall resurrect the believer.

Has to work on one’s self to evolve. Shall benefit based only on one’s good deeds and not based on blind faith.

  1. Concept of God

Have a very specific belief in a certain form of God.

The concept of God is open to questioning and is expressed in different ways by different Dharmic traditions. Technically, this is a part of Adhyatam & not of Dharm as Dharm is unconcerned with God.

  1. Unity of God

Have no concept of unity of God and believe in a specific form of God as a god of the given holy book.

Dharmic systems may or may not believe in God However systems that believe in God consider God as a single unified concept or energy that is represented by various forms.

In Conclusion:

The comparison between Religion and Dharma is like the comparison of a desert cactus with a lush green plant.
From the point of view of the Indian Dharm based spiritual systems and Hinduism, the term ‘Religion’ will be seen as a restricted and dogmatic approach to a primitive communal system based on a confused or an imperfect mixed bag of values and an underdeveloped, immature and imperfect spiritual system that comes along with its many illogical, sometimes even controversial beliefs.

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