Hinduism is called "Dharma" unlike Christianity or Islam, which are called "religions".
My question is: What is the difference between Dharma and Religion?
Western lexicons refer to all faiths of the world by the term "religion". Therefore, from a Western perspective, Hinduism is also known as one of the world's "religions". The reference to Hinduism as a religion is purely from a Western context. Thus, nothing is taken away when perceiving from that viewpoint.
However, to equate religion as an equivalent translation for "dharma" is incorrect. The word dharma itself has no equivalent Western word. And any translation, simplistic or scholarly, would fall short of fully justifying the original meaning of the word "dharma".
Dharma has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means "that which upholds" or "that without which nothing can stand" or "that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe." Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma ― from the electron, which has the dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man. Man's understanding of the dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics.
British colonialists endeavored to map Indian traditions onto their ideas of religion so as to be able to comprehend and govern their subjects; yet the notion of dharma remained elusive. The common translation into religion is misleading since, to most Westerners, a genuine religion must:
- be based on a single canon of scripture given by God in a precisely defined historical event;
- involve worship of the divine who is distinct from ourselves and the cosmos;
- be governed by some human authority such as the church;
- consist of formal members;
- be presided over by an ordained clergyman; and
- use a standard set of rituals.
But dharma is not limited to a particular creed or specific form of worship. To the Westerner, an "atheistic religion" would be a contradiction in terms, but in Buddhism, Jainism, and Carvaka dharma, there is no place for God as conventionally defined. In some Hindu systems the exact status of God is debatable. Nor is there only a single standard deity, and one may worship one's own ishta-devata, or chosen deity.
Dharma provides the principles for the harmonious fulfillment of all aspects of life, namely, the acquisition of wealth and power (artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and liberation (moksha). Religion, then, is only one subset of dharma's scope.
Religion applies only to human beings and not to the entire cosmos; there is no religion of electrons, monkeys, plants and galaxies, whereas all of them have their dharma even if they carry it out without intention.
Source: Dharma Is Not The Same As Religion (by Rajiv Malhotra)
Dharma and Religion are two very different things. Religion has its origin in the west, by the followers of Abraham. Dharma has its origin India. In religion we have single God, a Prophet or savior and a holy book which alone is the way of liberation, whereas in dharma we have many ways and all the ways leads to same God. In Religion if one doesn't believe in rules given by Prophet or savior then he is considered as Heathen or Kafir. But in dharma everyone has a place, he may even be an atheist like charvakas in hindu dharma. I recommend you to read these articles for details.
The four Purusarthas, or objectives, of human life are Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Here Dharma means righteousness, duty or moral order.
So dharma is more 'self-centered' in that the practice varies with the individual. Religion on the other hand is social, where the practice is the same for all people following the religion.
Religions claim that their laws are 'received' from god or agent of god and are divine in origin and cannot be questioned.
There is also the link between dharma and karma. If you do your dharma then you do not accumulate karma. For example it is not true that killing someone or some animal gets bad karma. If a teacher or a priest kills a living thing they certainly get bad karma, but if a soldier kills an enemy soldier in the battlefield, or a butcher slaughters an animal or an executioner executes a convicted criminal, they do not accumulate karma because they are doing their duty.
Organised religions do not have this concept of dharma because they do not need it. They do not have a concept of karma also because they have to convert people to their religion by forgiving their sins (something that is impossible according to the theory of karma), and they have the additional notion of 'confession' or 'tauba' where ones sins are also forgiven on a daily basis.
There is a great difference between a religion and a dharma. A religion is something that is founded by someone. A religion is where a large group of people share a common symbol, a common religious text, a common GOD and a common founder. A religion is something that consists of a group of followers who earlier followed a different faith but now are following a certain faith that they now believe in. A religion is one which was founded by a religious movement. A religion has a date of origin. A religion is a set of belief systems.
Dharma on the other hand is more of a way of living or a way of life followed since antiquity, i.e., since the start of civilisation. Dharma was a kind of education or knowledge imparted to a person to lead a life in a certain way. Dharma is also sometimes considered as a complete and continuous education. Dharma is based on the principle of truth. Dharma is based on various stages that a man passes through in his lifetime, i.e., birth, childhood, youth, old age and death. Dharma is the truth or Dharma is the righteousness. If Karma is the righteous action, Dharma is the righteous decision. Dharma is not preached. Dharma is learnt, followed and practised. Dharma is the role you play.
Each word has one 'etymological' meaning and one 'current usage' meaning. First let us see the etymological meaning of dharma.
According to the sanskritdictionary.com, the word 'dharma' originally means
ध्रियते लोको$नेन, धरति लोकं वा (धृ-मन्;) : dhriyate loko'nena, dharati lokam vA, ie. by which the world is held or which holds the world.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word 'Religion' originates from
‘life under monastic vows’,‘obligation, bond, reverence’, (perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’).
'Holding' and 'binding' are very close indeed ! So there is some similarity in the etymological meanings of the two words, there is some dissimilarity though.
Next, let us come to the current usage. The sanskritdictionary.com provides the following meanings of 'Dharma':
1 Religion; the customary observances of a caste, sect, &c. -2 Law, usage, practice, custom, ordinance, statue. -3 Religious or moral merit, virtue, righteousness, good works (regarded as one of the four ends of human existence); अनेन धर्मः सविशेषमद्य मे त्रिवर्ग- सारः प्रतिभाति भाविनि Ku.5.38, and see त्रिवर्ग also; एक एव सुहृद्धर्मो निधने$प्यनुयाति यः H.1.63. -4 Duty, prescribed course of conduct; षष्ठांशवृत्तेरपि धर्म एषः Ś.5.4; Ms.1.114. -5 Right, justice, equity, impartiality. -6 Piety, propriety, decorum. -7 Morality, ethics -8 Nature. disposition, character; उत्पत्स्यते$स्ति मम को$पि समानधर्मा
The Oxford dictionary provides the following meanings of 'Religion'
The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
A particular system of faith and worship.
A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.
Many of the 'current usage meanings' of both the words sound similar.
Some of the meanings like 'Virtue', 'Duty', 'Righoutness', 'Nature' etc are of course entirely different.
This is a site where 'Hinduism' is an accepted word 'by default' and therefore 'Religion' can be a good translation of 'Dharma'. When used in some other sense, we can easily use some appropriate word like Virtue, Duty etc.
We must remember that the two words are coming from two different societies, traditions and culture and differences are obvious. Such differences are inherent in almost each and every translation of Sanskrit words to English.
As we have accepted the English language to express our ideas about Spirituality, I think we can safely use the word 'Religion' for 'Dharma' except certain cases where the word means something different as mentioned above.
To conclude, even though they are not exactly the same, they can be used interchangeably most of the time.
In English, Hinduism is called a "religion".
In Hindi (and Sanskrit, I guess), Christianity and Islam are both called "dharma".
I'm not going to claim that "dharma" and "religion" mean exactly the same thing, because words for abstract things from different languages rarely mean exactly the same thing. Nonetheless, the English idea of "religion" is close enough to the Hindi/Sanskrit idea of "dharma" that we may as well treat them as interchangeable.