R PANIKKAR The Times of India Saturday, January 28, 2006
Although the etymology of the word religion is closer to the meaning of dharma than it sounds to modern westernised ears, the prevalent political use of the word in the West today (spreading also over the planet) has restricted the meaning of religion to a very narrow sense, which has led many countries to defend privatisation of religion as something appertaining to the individual in his private conscience. Religion, unlike science, for instance, is still interpreted as a sect. The discussion about religious education all over Europe is ravaging many countries because education is taken as sheer information or, worst, indoctrination, and religion as a more or less arbitrary set of rules dictated by a particular organisation to foster proselytism. Here I see an important contribution of Indic culture: To enlarge and deepen the sense of religion by recovering the original meaning of the very word. The West has forgotten its roots and almost lost its own tradition as if Europe were born during the Industrial Revolution or at least at the Enlightenment (the name of which is already revealing). We in Asia should not be too proud either, because the impact of modernity is not minor. On the other hand, traditionalism is not a priori a positive asset. We need viveka, discernment. Dharma, from the root dhr (to carry, gather, sustain, unite, protect), is that which maintains and sustains the peoples as the Mahabharata says; it is the cosmic order of the entire reality: rtena, rtam, dharunam, dharayantha, "by the cosmic order the dharma is supported". It all boils down to overcoming rationalism by introducing again the tripartite anthropology of body, soul and spirit — sariram, manas and atman, very roughly speaking, because Indic culture also distinguishes cit, jiva, etc. The Indic spirit, not constrained by the individualising modern mind, includes in dharma the ultimate order of the universe and its understanding as human religiousness. This is different from universal religion in the narrow sense of some contemporary Hindu currents, uncritically imitating western fundamentalism, and closer to what Tagore called the 'Religion of Man'.
As we are speaking in English it may be proper not to give up the word religion and recover its pristine meaning. The almost sectarian notion of religion is a consequence mainly of two factors: The abuses committed by religious institutions in the name of religion, understood as a particular straitjacket which one has to don in order to be moral and reach salvation, and the individualistic trend of western culture which confines the person to the individual. Man is a person: a knot in a net of relationships. The individual (the knot) would dissolve without a net. The West tends to catalogue everything so as to gain intelligibility, uniformising differences by quantifying reality. A paramount example is modern science as a system of individualising phenomena in order to distinguish and master them.
The very word religion (not to speak now of dharma) is polysemic and has a rich etymology: it connotes re-eligere (Augustine), the effort to re-unite oneself with and choose the divine as symbol of human dignity; relegere (Cicero), as cult and honour to one's own source, the Divine, with which we are connected by our free will; and re-ligare (Lactantius) to relate and bind oneself to God by a bond of knowledge and love. As I have tried to explain elsewhere, the word religion implies the consciousness of our manifold and constitutive bonds; our links with body, soul and spirit; our links with the entire humanity; our links with the earth and the whole creation; and our links with that Mystery, one of whose symbols is the Divine. A religious person is someone who is conscious of all his connections with the entire universe, aware of all the links which relate a person to the whole reality, a fellow being of the universe. It may befall the present Indic culture to rescue the pristine meaning of that word from the monopoly of institutional religions and to restore the liberating character of authentic religiousness. Indic culture and its notion of religion prove sufficiently that religion (if we prefer, religiousness) is not tied to any organisation, although it implies an institution as a sociological complement. The word religion, in fact, connotes both the consciousness of all our links and the awareness that those bonds are not shackles that imprison us, but are rather bonds that allow us to be what we are: Conscious beings in intimate connection with the entire reality.
This very idea stands behind the Buddhist intuition of the pratitiya-samutpada and is not alien to the Hindu notion of dharma. The rest is superficiality. We should distinguish between pluralism, that respects diversity, and syncretism, that mixes up everything. One thing is relativism, which blurs all differences, and another relativity, which is aware of the intrinsic relationality of the entire reality — some of whose symbols are anatta, karma and trinity. The cultural imperative of our time, the mutual fecundation of cultures, can occur at this ultimate level only. Excerpt from a lecture by the writer, who is a religious studies scholar.