Is Hinduism really a “Way of Life”?
Religion is basically a framework centered around a “messenger” & his “teaching” (holy text) and some rules which must be followed in order to be called a “believer” or follower of the religion.
However, when it comes to Hinduism, it appears so complicated because it suggests that you can be a Hindu even if you do not believe in God (“messenger”). There are millions of Hindus who have not read the sacred texts and they are proud to be Hindus. There is no need for you to follow any rule like praying or visiting a temple once in every X hours/days to be a Hindu. You can be a Hindu irrespective of whether you practice idol worship or not. And so on.
Since Hinduism need not conform to any particular framework or rules, the popular consensus is that it is not a religion, but a way of life.
But what exactly does “way of life” mean and what is the “Hindu way of life”?
We can reframe that question into “What does a Hindu do?” which in turn can be broadly divide into 2 questions:
1) What does a Hindu do to others?
2) What does a Hindu do to himself?
Every Hindu agrees that the quote “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti (Truth is one; sages call it by many names)” epitomizes Hinduism and its way of life. It is acknowledged that Hindus do not try to impose their philosophies upon others (nor do they try to convert others into their faith) because they believe that all faiths can lead to the “truth”. To put it in other words: Hindus mind their own business & do not interfere into others. They are not interested in preaching what they think is the truth to others (unless somebody goes and requests them to teach it).
Okay, that answers the first question. What does a Hindu do to others? Nothing. He just minds his own business. That brings us to the next question. If the Hindu does not do anything to the others, what does he do to himself? This is where we start going deeper into spirituality. Although Hinduism does not impose any rules, it does not mean one can do whatever he wants without facing the consequences. Every action has a reaction. Science has quantified it as “Newton’s Laws”, but Hindus have been calling it “Karma” since time immemorial.
Although Hinduism does not say this is how the society must run, it does not mean we can run it in any way we want because the concept of karma applies at the society level as well. There can be millions of ways of running a society (or nation or world), but not all methods are sustainable. If you legalize murder, then everyone will start killing each other and the karma (at the society level) would be that it becomes unstable. So, this karma at the society level ensures that the rulers follow the sustainable path, which is called “Dharma”.
When we go from society level to individual level, we go deeper but the concepts remain the same. Just like how a society has millions of people, our mind is also like a society with millions of thoughts trying to influence us into taking our lives in certain directions. But it is the awareness of Karma of each action which makes us take the best path and that becomes our Dharma (at an individual level).
This awareness of karma & upholding dharma is a continuous process, is highly contextual & requires lot of maturity & wisdom, which can only be obtained if one has the quest for knowledge. i.e knowing. i.e seeker. Not a seeker of a particular God, but a seeker of truth, to know life. One need not give up everything & go to the forest to become a seeker. A highly qualified doctor working 16 hours a day with no time even for a breath of fresh air (let alone visiting a park) can be a seeker as well as a doctor. An engineer working with gigantic machines & no time to even talk to people/friends can be a seeker as well as an engineer & do his job. All that one needs to do is keep the ego aside and get into continuous learning. Learning from mistakes, learning from personal experience, learning from others mistakes, learning from texts, learning from animals, learning from objects, etc.
(To facilitate learning, there are idols, epics, texts & tales where characteristics of different life forms & objects are epitomized. For example, inspiration is drawn from mouse as well, which is Ganesha’s vehicle. These are optional, and only to facilitate learning.)
In my opinion, this is the core of Hinduism. Being aware of the Law of Karma & Upholding Dharma. And this is possible by being on the path of a seeker to know life. When you have opened up your mind to know life, the feedback mechanism ensures that over time, you are automatically in the realm of Karma & Dharma because that is what makes life (& the universe) sustainable with minimal damage. This way of life to “know life” is the essence of Hinduism.
To put it in a nutshell:
Hinduism is neither a religion, nor a way of life.
Hinduism is a way of knowing life.