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Dharmic religions

Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, plus Japan’s Shinto.

the problem is suffering; the solution is awakening

Korean Buddhist monks of the Jogye order

Korean Buddhist monks of the Jogye order

Dharma is an elusive concept for Westernized Christians to understand. For our purposes, dharma is the worldview that is the context for the religions that developed in India 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Hinduism traces is roots even further, to texts called Vedas from India’s pre-historic Iron Age and even into its Bronze Age 5,000 years ago.

Around the time of Confucius in China and Socrates in Greece, Siddhārtha Gautama, a spiritual teacher, founded Buddhism. While he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha (the enlightened or awakened one), he is not a god in the sense that the Abrahamic religions mean God or Allah. He lived in what is now northeastern India about four or five hundred years before Jesus. Gautama’s followers became monks, forming Sangha, which, still existing today, is one of the oldest continuous human organizations.

Where Buddhists live

Where Buddhists live

As you can see from the map below left, almost all Buddhists are in countries near India, but not India itself, which is over 80% Hindu. Conversely, almost all Hindus are in India and some are in Nepal and in Guyana and Surinam on the northeast coast of South America.

Rather than “faith religions”, these are “empirical religions”. There’s nothing to believe in, in the sense that Christians and Muslims mean “belief” as a convergent consensus with carefully-worded creeds and confessions. For those who practice Dharmic religions, their experience and personal practice of meditation lead to ethical behavior and, finally, to wisdom.

Similarities: Buddhism and Hinduism share the Dharmic worldview, which involves practices — meditation and yoga — that proceed from some beliefs:

  • there is an ultimate spiritual reality beyond the illusions of the physical world
  • suffering is in the physical world
    Shinto priests

    Shinto priests

    is an illusion caused by excessive attachment to things and people

  • all living spirits will eventually achieve enlightenment and liberation from that suffering, even if it takes many re-incarnations and many different paths

The biggest difference between them: Hindus believe in one supreme being, formless and impersonal. This supreme being is viewed as the god of all other religions and equal to all existence or the ultimate reality. Everything contains the divine energy of god. Thus, Hindus are tolerant of all other religions and gods or goddesses as forms or manifestations of this one single deity or supreme being. For Buddhists, on the other hand, there is no god and thus no need for priests (intermediaries between humans and god) or rituals (to address god). Nirvana is available for everyone.

Unlike the zero-sum Abrahamic faith religions, dharmic empirical religions do not require professing faith to be a believer or a practitioner. Thus, a Hindu or Buddhist doesn’t convert to Christianity, because there is nothing to convert from. A Buddhist can profess Christianity and still be a Buddhist. Conversely, Christians can’t convert to Buddhism, because there is nothing to convert to. They will always be Christians or former Christians practicing Buddhism or Hinduism, which is not a problem to the Buddhists and Hindus.

Shinto shrine

Shinto shrine

As I noted above, Buddhists in particular believe that prostelyzing is a particularly abusive form of ethnocentrism, and when it comes to prostelyzing, Hindus don’t see the point. Your way is just fine to them. It is thus not surprising that the prostelyzing religions are the most popular world-wide.


Shinto (神道 Shintō?) or kami-no-michi, the way of purification, is “a set of practices, to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present day Japan and its ancient past.” The practices are carried out at shrines (left) with the specific purpose of memoralizing or commemorating almost any ancestor, event, and even natural phenomena like thunder and objects: mountains, rivers, water, rocks, and trees, aka, animism. At the shrines, the people dress in a style from a thousand years ago (check out those shoes in the photo above) and engage in never-changing rituals dating back 2,500 years.

Since Shinto is more a “way” than a “religion”, the vast majority who take part in Shinto rituals also practice Buddhism.