1. Sarva Dharma Samabhãva
or Sarva Dharma Sambhrama?
(Unity or Confusion of Religions?)
David Frawley

A common tenet of Hinduism is “Sarva Dharma Samabhãva,” which literally means that all Dharmas are equal to or harmonious with each other. In recent times this statement has been highlighted as meaning that “all religions are the same” - that all religions are merely different paths to God or the same spiritual goal. Based on this logic the religious path that one takes is a matter of personal preference, like choosing whether to eat rice or chapatis in order to fill one’s stomach. One’s choice in religion is merely incidental and makes no real difference in the spiritual direction of one’s life.

From this point of view whether one is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or whatever, religious belief is not important. Whether one goes to a temple, church or mosque, it is all the same. Whether one prays to Jesus or Allah or meditates upon Buddha or Atman, the results will be similar. All religions are equally valid ways of knowing God or truth. The outer differences between religions are merely incidental while their inner core in one, knowledge of the Divine or supreme reality. Therefore, members of all religious groups should live happily together, recognizing that there is no real conflict in what they believe in but only superficial variations of name and form.

This view of Sarva Dharma Samabhãva has been turned into a political principle in modern India. However, other countries, notably Pakistan and Bangladesh, have not taken it up. Religions espousing an exclusive or final revelation like Christianity and Islam have almost uniformly opposed it. Nor has the idea served to create equality of views even within Hinduism where different sects still compete with one another. Therefore, one is compelled to examine this issue further. Is the equality of all religions a spiritual principle that is fundamentally true or a wishful statement designed to try to create harmony in spite of actual differences between groups? And is it the real meaning of Sarva Dharma Samabhãva?

Let us first examine what Sarva Dharma Samabhãva really means. It is a statement that all Dharmas are equal. But what are Dharmas? Dharmas are universal truth principles and natural laws that are eternally true. For example, the Dharma or property of fire is that it bums. One cannot imagine a fire that does not burn. Similarly there are ethical and spiritual principles or Dharmas. Such ethical Dharmas are Yogic principles like non-harming (ahiMsã), truthfulness (satya), control of sexuality (brahmacharya), non-stealing (asteya), and non-hoarding (aparigraha), the Yamas and Niyamas of Yogic thought. For example, since no creature wishes to be hurt, to cause suffering to others is a violation of Dharma, while to seek to alleviate the sufferings of others promotes Dharma. These are principles of right living valid for people of all societies and walks of life.

Another such Dharmic principle is the law of karma that tells us that what we do has consequence both in this and in future lives, both for ourselves individually and for our world collectively. Understanding the law of karma we act in such a way as to promote the good of all, regardless of our outer beliefs or appearances of name and form. Generally traditions that call themselves Dharmic, like Hinduism and Buddhism, regard religion as a way of meditation designed to bring us to union with God or to enlightenment, and to release from the cycle of rebirth. This could be called the Dharmic way of spiritual development.

Hence the question must arise: Is everything that is taught in religions throughout the world a Dharmic principle? Certainly all religions teach us in some way to be good, to tell the truth, to control the senses, and other principles which are Dharmic. Such principles should be accepted by whoever they are said, yet these do not require any religious belief to follow them. They are universal ethical principles and largely self-evident if we look deeply into the interdependence of all life.

Yet beyond this, religions do not have so much in common. Some religions have a creator God, while some, like Buddhism and Taoism, do not. While Dharmic traditions look to enlightenment or Moksha as the goal, for other religions salvation from sin and heaven and hell are ultimate realities. Some religions regard the world as only six thousand years old, others see it as billions of years old. Some allow the use of images in religious worship, others vehemently oppose these. Some religions are tolerant and accepting of other beliefs, others are militant and proselytizing. Religion is as varied as any other cultural phenomenon like dress, language or art. It is hardly of one piece only, or only occurring at the highest level. In fact religion is often a place where worn out superstitions and discriminatory practices are allowed to continue and often appears among the least enlightened aspects of human life.

Many religions contain beliefs and dogmas that are not universally true and some which are not Dharmic at all. Otherwise separative religious identities and the whole history of religious conflict, holy wars, and the effort to convert others would have never occurred. There are adharmic principles in all religions and in some religions, at least at some times, adharmic principles predominate.

Therefore, the question must arise: Are the dogmas and beliefs of all religions Dharmas or universal truths? Clearly not. The Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the only son of God is not a Dharmic principle, an eternal or universal truth, but a belief or imagination of certain people over a limited period of time. It is an idea conditioned by time, place and person that cannot be acceptable to everyone. The Islamic belief that Mohammed is the last prophet is also not a Dharma, but an identification of truth with a particular person and a specific historical revelation. Nor is the belief that an historical revelation like the Bible or the Koran is the Word of God a Dharma or universal law but the opinion of a particular community.

An eternal heaven and hell are also not Dharmic principles. This idea proposes an eternal reward or punishment for transient deeds, which violates the law of karma. While one could argue that such beliefs can be employed as a means to lead people to Dharma, instilling moral and ethical virtues on the ignorant, it is also clear that they can be used for adharmic principles of social domination. Even within Dharmic traditions are things which are not Dharmic. For example, a caste system determined by birth is not Dharmic. It does not reflect the nature of individuals, of which birth is only one factor, and not necessarily the main one.

So clearly some of the fundamental and primary tenets of different religions are not Dharmic or universal but limited and therefore sectarian and divisive in their application. Above all we must recognize that dogma is not Dharma. That we should respect all Dharmas should not translate into respecting all dogmas and refusing to question them, which itself is adharmic. That all Dharmas are one should not be used as an excuse for adharma to hide itself or place itself beyond question. That Dharma is one does not mean that adharma should be able to hide itself in the garb of religion.

While we should respect Dharma wherever we find it, we need not accept dogma in order to do it. In fact where there is dogma there is no Dharma. Dogma is an unquestioned belief held to be true by faith alone, even if it is irrational. Dharma is a universal law that we can discover through objective inquiry, questioning all dogmas and preconceptions. To uphold the unity of Dharma we cannot sanction and protect all dogmas. To raise the banner of Dharma we must question dogma and the darkness of religious belief, not just in our own religion but in all religions.

Hinduism is the only religion in the world that has defined itself as Sanatana Dharma or the universal and eternal Dharma.  It does not require belief or dogma, though it does have its culturally conditioned forms and vehicles to promote Dharma. Hindu Dharma has tried to accept all Dharmic principles and to include all these within itself. Buddhism and Jainism also are called Dharmas and aim at Dharma, sharing the basic principles of karma, enlightenment, and Yogic practices as Hinduism, though defined differently.

However, Western and specially missionary religions have never accepted the Dharmic traditions of India as valid. They are continuing a campaign to discredit and displace dharmic traditions. They generally insist that even a good person cannot gain salvation unless he has the proper religious belief. A good Hindu, by this account, cannot gain Divine-favor unless he converts and becomes a Christian or a Muslim. That is, the Dharma or nature of a person is not the deciding factor in missionary religions but the belief or the dogma that people accept.

Sometimes the further point is made by certain thinkers that, though religions do have their differences that can be major, they also contain an inner dimension of mystical teachings that are the same. However, if we look deeply, we do not find unanimity among mystics either. There are different views of Moksha and NirvãNa within Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Christian and Islamic mystics seldom accept the law of karma and often insist upon heaven or paradise as the highest. There are many levels and stages of mystical experience between ordinary human consciousness and the highest Self-realization which can be quite varied and not free of illusion. Hence while mystics in different religions may have more in common, they hardly teach the same thing. In fact some mystics have been missionaries or taken militant roles in crusades and jihads.

Other thinkers hold that what the original teachers of religions taught was the same but that their followers later misunderstood or distorted the teachings, for example that what Jesus, Mohammed and Krishna originally taught were the same. Yet if we look closely at the existent teachings of such religious leaders we find very different approaches. Books like the Koran and the Gita are hardly alike either in their tone or teaching. If religions differ so much in the world, there is no reason to believe that their founders must have taught the same thing. Besides if the majority of the believers today see their religion in a certain light we must take that as the measure of the religion, not some mystical view of the religion that most of its believers regard as heresy.

That we might not regard all religions as the same, however, does not mean that there is no value in different religions. We can honor religions for what they have to offer historically, culturally, and intellectually, without having to make them into something Divine and not to be questioned. The Bible, for example, is an extraordinary book with much great history, poetry, and wisdom. But it is hardly the Word of God, true in all respects or for all time and all people. In this regard all religions are part of our human legacy and must be understood, just as all the events and leaders of a nation must be examined to understand its history.

While we should be open to truth wherever we find it, this does not mean that we have to accept all religions as true in order to do so. That there is some aspect of truth in all religions does not mean that all aspects of all religions are true, or that all religions are essentially the same. There is an aspect of truth in art, science and non-religious aspects of human culture. Does Sarva Dharma Samabhãva require equating all these as well?

Hence we must be careful in associating Dharma with religion and insisting that different religions are inherently as harmonious as different Dharmas. In fact different religions have inherent disharmonies that will require much time, study and communication to sort out. These have caused much of the misunderstanding that exists in the world, in which prayers to God have regularly accompanied the call to war and aggression.

Hindu votaries of Sarva Dharma Samabhãva often tell a Christian to be a better Christian or a Muslim to be a better Muslim, and would not encourage them to become Hindus, as if these religions contain the same teachings and have the same value as Hinduism. This they think is being liberal in religious matters and will aid everyone in their quest for God. However, it only consigns people to the limitations of their religious beliefs. A religion that does not recognize Self-realization, God-realization or have any Yogic sãdhanã, such as most Western religions, cannot lead people to Moksha in the Hindu sense. If one wants to help a person find Moksha, which should be one’s real Dharmic concern, it is better to tell them to follow what is true, to seek out the Dharma, even if it may require going against their religion as it is commonly understood to be.

Sarva Dharma Samabhãva has also been equated with the idea that “Truth is one but the paths are many.” There is indeed One Truth and many paths to it. However, this does not mean that all paths must lead to truth. There are paths that lead to falsehood and paths that lead only to partial truths. A path can only lead us as far as it goes. A religion that does not teach any experiential path to Self-realization cannot take us there. It can only take us to its idea of heaven or salvation that is its stated goal. Nor are the unity of Truth and monotheism, the idea that there is only one God, the same teaching. Monotheism is often an exclusive formulation that divides humanity into the believers and the non-believers and refuses to accept truth that falls outside of the boundaries of its belief. The unity of Truth cannot limit itself to monotheism of a particular persuasion but must honor all spiritual aspiration whatever form it takes.

The correct term for the common Western idea of religion, which is a particular belief, in Hindu thought would not be Dharma but “mata” meaning a belief, view or opinion. There is no such possible statement as “Sarva Mata Samabhãva” or the equality and unity of all opinions. Opinions are as diverse as the minds of creatures. Nor need we seek to make all opinions one and the same. Diversity of opinions is necessary as part of freedom of seeking the truth.

Opinions are various and even contradictory. Some may be right, others may be wrong. They are speculative views that must be proved in practice. That fire bums is a Dharma. It is its natural quality. If some one has the opinion that fire does not burn we don’t have to respect that idea in order to maintain the universality of all Dharmas. We should allow everyone to have his or her own opinion about religion, because the minds of living beings are unique and move in different paths, but we don’t have to sanction all religious opinions as true in order to do this.

Religions as we know them from the Western world are largely belief systems which state that truth belongs to a particular person, group, holy book, or name of God and that those who do not share this belief are wrong or evil. I challenge any Christian or Islamic leaders to contradict this statement and say that Hinduism, Buddhism or other Dharmic traditions are as good as their religions and that therefore all efforts to convert followers of Dharmic religions are misguided and should be ended! If all religions follow the same Dharma let all religious leaders say that they accept the law of karma as valid and Self-realization as the real goal of life. Let a pope, bishop, mufti or mullah proclaim that one can find God without Jesus or Mohammed, the Bible or the Koran. If they are not saying such things, how can anyone, state that all religions are the same?

Belief-centered religions based upon time, place and person contain much that is not universal or valid. The exclusivism of their beliefs has historically led them to forceful efforts to convert others, which can be called adharmic. Hence religious exclusivism is the real bar on social harmony between religious groups. Making all religions the same has not ended this but, on the contrary, has allowed it to continue without question. It has placed exclusive beliefs on par with more tolerant traditions. While there is much adharmic about the social evils that have arisen in the context of the Hindu religion, there is no adharma in its core formulation that transcends time, place and person, and emphasizes the eternal over the historical element in religion. It does not require an exclusive formulation of truth but is open to diversity and multiplicity, in fact welcomes it.

Political Ramifications

Sarva Dharma Samabhãva has become a political principle in India - that in order to create social harmony we must honor all religions as the same, so that religious differences do not fuel social conflicts. Unfortunately the religious conflicts have continued. This is because pretending religions are the same, which is all that this principle is doing, does not address the real differences and misunderstandings between them.

Sarva Dharma Samabhãva has been used to court the favor of various religious groups and to uphold vote banks based upon religious belief. It is often a one-way street. Hindus are told to accept Sarva Dharma Samabhãva which means that they should not mind if Hindus are converted to Christianity and Islam and should avoid criticizing these religions even if what they believe appears to be a violation of what Hindus hold to be true. On the other hand, under the same principle, Muslims and Christians are not expected to reciprocate, stop their conversion efforts, or to become Hindus. The result is that Sarva Dharma Samabhãva has only served to erode the Hindu view of truth and encouraged Hindus to give up their critical faculties in matters of religion. It is contrary to the spirit of the Yogis and Rishis in which all manner of debate was encouraged in order to arrive at truth. Please note the Shad Darshanas, the six systems of Hindus philosophy, for such a tradition of free, lively, and friendly debate.

While we should all strive to be kind and respectful people and not interfere with the religious views of others, this does not mean that we have to cease thinking in order to do so. To create social harmony Hindus need not give up defending their religion or critically examining the religions that oppose them. The logical result of this thinking would mean that Hindus should give up their religion altogether. Yet whenever Hindus try to defend their religion, which is still under siege even in India, they are accused of violating the principle of Sarva Dharma Samabhãva. On the other hand, when other religious groups violate this principle, which is what all missionary conversion efforts are essentially doing, there is little criticism of them for doing so. When have Christians or Muslims in India ever been criticized for violating Sarva Dharma Samabhãva?  Does this mean that they have never done so? If the principle of Sarva Dharma Samabhãva does not apply to them then why should we interpret it as meaning that all religions are the same?

Under the guise of religious tolerance this idea of equality of religions is used to prevent scrutiny of religious dogmas. Hindus are encouraged to accept the Bible or Koran as true like the Gita, for example, even without looking into what these books really say. Should Hindus look at other religions in a critical light, however intelligent, courteous or objective their views, they are called communal. Rather than uniting all religious groups, this principle of religious equality serves to sanction existing religions as they are. Aggressive religions are allowed to continue to be aggressive. Passive religions are expected not to try to defend themselves. Each religion is given sanctity for what it has historically done, and religions are given the freedom to act without question under the veil of belief.

What then is the alternative? What is the way of bringing understanding on the level of religion and social harmony between religious groups that often have very different, if not hostile beliefs? For this what is really needed is tolerance between religions, which requires that we respect diversity in the religious realm, not make all religions the same. Members of different religious communities must recognize that other religions may teach something very different about God, truth, salvation or liberation than they do. Rather than pretending these differences do not exist we should acknowledge them and allow people the freedom to examine them.

Equality of religions should not be confused with tolerance. We should tolerate all people, even if they do not agree with us. Tolerance of differences creates harmony, not pretending that differences do not exist. In fact if we only tolerate people if we make them the same as we are, we are not really being tolerant at all. Similarly, members of other religions should learn to tolerate Hindus and respect the fact that Hindus do not always agree with them on matters of religion - that Hindus have their own spiritual and ethical views which other religious groups must consider as well. Should Hindus seek to redress the historical wrongs committed upon them by aggressive attempts to convert them, members of the religions involved should be willing to hear the Hindu point of view and honor it as they would their own grievances.

In a free society religious belief should be a personal matter. There should be no government enforced religious beliefs or dogmas. There should be political tolerance of all religious views as long as these do not involve violent or anti-national activities. On the political level it should not matter whether one believes in any religion at all, much less what religion a person may believe in. Political tolerance of all religious views, however, does not mean that individuals have to accept all religious views as right or good. In a free society one can be an atheist or agnostic or believe in any religion. Does this mean that we have to respect atheism as equally valid as religion in order to truly practice Sarva Dharma Samabhãva?

In Western democracies there is a growing recognition of a multi-faith and multi-cultural society. But there is no idea that all religions or all cultures are the same, that for example there is no difference between Christianity and Hinduism. Nor are religions, including Christianity, placed beyond question. In Islamic countries there is still the attempt to impose Islam upon everyone and little respect for other religions. In multi-faith dialogues throughout the world there is a recognition of certain commonalities in religion of moral goodness but a recognition of the many differences as well, particularly in regard to metaphysical beliefs. These differences are too significant to simply cover over. Hindus must recognize this fact as well and learn to act accordingly. Not the Equality of Religions but the Freedom of Inquiry. A truly free and tolerant social order should be based on respect for all people and respect for all life. This means respect for the individual and not imposing any collective or politically enforced idea of religious truth upon them. We should recognize our unity as human beings, even though our religions may have as many differences as they may have commonalities. The correct principle of a truly free society is not the equality of religions but freedom from domination by religious beliefs. This means that everyone should be free to follow or to question religion as they so chose. Religion is no more beyond question than any other aspect of human life. While a government should not criticize religions, it should not prevent their critical examination in society. In the modern world no one can pretend that their’s is the only language or culture. True religion should be like science, a seeking of truth, not an attempt to impose a belief without any examination. This requires that we do not accept the boundaries of religion but open the field of religion, all religions, to deep examination. In this regard a new Hindu critique of religion is necessary to expand the religious views presented in the world today. A respectful but honest Hindu examination of other religions is essential to bring out a balance of views today.

What is necessary is a return to Dharma or universal truth principles, not respect for all religions as they exist today, which with their dogmas are often sordid affairs. One must seek to uphold Dharma even if all the organized religions of the world have to be discarded. It is time for religions to bow down to Dharma, not for Dharma to be made in the image of religious beliefs and institutions.

Hinduism as a religion of Dharma rather than dogma should lead the way in this revolution, which also means clearing up the adharma that can be found among Hindus today. Unfortunately, the superficial universalism of the new Sarva Dharma Samabhãva is only serving to create a smoke-screen for adharmic religious beliefs and dogmas to perpetuate themselves.

One could draw an analogy. That justice is one does not mean that all governments are good whether they are democratic, fascist, or communist.  It does not mean that one should not challenge oppression done under any existing government. Similarly, that spiritual truth is One does not mean that all religions are necessarily good and correct. Spiritual truth transcends organized religion, which mainly serves various political and social aims. Sarva Dharma Samabhãva means the harmony of Dharma or truth-principles, not the equality of religious beliefs, dogmas or institutions. Those who use the term otherwise are misusing it.

We are entering a new era in civilization today, in which religion must be radically recast, if not discarded. Only those religions willing to undergo a radical transformation are likely to survive. This change will be in the direction of experiential spirituality, in which the individual’s direct experience of God or truth becomes the most important thing, and religious dogma and institutionalism is set aside. This is the real Sarva Dharma that no group can claim to own or dispense. One should not forget the Dharma in Sarva Dharma Samabhãva.


This article has been taken from Prajna: A Journal of Indian Resurgence, January-March, 1997, published by Prajna Bharati, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

Back to Contents Page   Back to VOI Books   Back to Home