Tuesday, August 09, 2005

From Dharma to Jihad

The Sanskrit word dharma appears frequently in Hindu and Buddhist devotional writing, but its meaning is hard to pin down. Here is a list of definitions culled at random from the internet:

1. A divinely ordained code of proper conduct.

2. From the Sanskrit - dhar for ‘hold’, ‘uphold’. There are involved entries for its meaning amongst Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists.

3. Righteousness, justice, law, duty.

4. Right action, truth in action, righteousness, morality, virtue.

5. a) The teachings of the Buddhas (generally capitalized in English); b) duty, law, doctrine; c) things, events, phenomena, everything.

The last one is the real clincher: “everything”. But, generalizing from the different sources, the meaning of “dharma” might be approximated by “religious duty”. It does not necessarily consist of actions required by the believer’s religion. Like Christian charity, it is the behavior which flows naturally when one’s religious faith is strongly and sincerely held.

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is on the road to enlightenment, but remains in the world until all the others around him have also awakened. Thus, all the actions he performs while he remains in samsara (the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) constitute dharma. Dharma is simply what an enlightened person does.

The analogue in Christianity might be “service” or “ministry”. Once again, here are some definitions of “ministry” culled from the Web:

1. Gospel-inspired activity (generally referring to an individual rather than a group), with an emphasis on the attitude and approach brought to it.

2. A service recognized, approved, and institutionalized by the Church for the [building] up of the Body of Christ.

3. Service to God rendered by the church and by individuals through the power of the Holy Spirit. All the faithful participate in ministry by virtue of their baptism.

4. Ministry is the use of a person's gifts and talents, time and energy, in the service of others. It involves the exercise of roles designated by the Church to fulfil its mission in different works of service, such as in worship, teaching, leadership, the sacraments, welfare, and stewardship.

One of the longstanding arguments within Christianity concerns “salvation though works” versus “salvation through faith”. The former asserts that it is the performance of his religious duty, i.e. his ministry, which saves a man’s soul. But the latter insists that salvation occurs by the grace of God via the Holy Spirit, and ministry is simply what a spirit-filled Christian does.

So what would be the analogy in Islam? What word best describes the Muslim’s religious duty? Browsing the internet turns up the following definitions of the word jihad:

1. Arabic for “Holy war”, that is, a war based on the clash of ideologies.

2. The struggle to establish the law of God on earth, often interpreted to mean holy war.

3. Mostly used in Muslim writing to denote ‘holy war.’ However, in mystical literature, this term was interpreted in its root sense of ‘exertion’ and came to mean an inner struggle for purification.

4. From the verb jahada, to struggle. Effort or striving in God’s path. When it refers to the individual effort to conquer himself or passions, it is called greater jihad. When it refers to the communal effort at a defensive war against the enemies of Islam, then it is called lesser jihad. A person who wages jihad is called a mujahid.

5. A striving for perfection, frequently used within Islam. Usually, the term refers to an internal struggle that a person has with their imperfections. The term is also used to refer to a defensive war. Some radical Fundamentalist Muslims and the Western media often interpret the term as a synonym for an aggressive “holy war.”

6. Is an Arabic word that means “striving in the way of God.” This striving can take a number of forms, including the daily inner struggle to be a better person. However, jihad is often used to refer to an armed struggle fought in defense of Islam.

7. (Arabic): Islamic holy war Just for laughs, go check out the MSA version, which, by the way, is a form of taqiyya*. Jihad is primarily the offensive spread of Islam and/or expansion of its territorial borders through violent force of arms. This is called jihad al mubadahah (offensive jihad). It is sanctioned in the Qur’an*, in the hadith*, and in Islamic law. It is utilized when the peaceful offer of conversion to Islam is refused. Jihad is incumbent on all able-bodied Muslims, and to die in jihad as a shahid*, fighting the infidels in God’s name, is regarded as the highest honor.

Notice the dhimmified definitions from Religious Tolerance and PBS (#5 and #6), which repeat the taqiyya that jihad prescribes a defensive war only, and that anything else is a Western “misinterpretation”. Somehow, in crashing jetliners into the Twin Towers, Islam was only defending itself.

In any case, jihad is the religious duty of every faithful Muslim. The Buddhist or the Hindu or the Christian is compelled by his faith to perform good works, but the Muslim is required to take up the sword and shed the blood of unbelievers for the sake of his faith.

It would be an interesting exercise in comparative religion to determine how the different faiths arrived at their diverse conceptions of what sacred duty entails. Islam arose in a harsh and unforgiving desert culture, and so became a harsh and unforgiving religion. Yet Judaism arose in almost the same environment, and from it came Christianity. Christianity and Buddhism flowered in completely different environments, and yet arrived at the idea of compassion as the duty of the faithful.

One presumes that new converts are drawn to Hinduism or Christianity if their hearts are already inclined towards compassion, whereas Islam would have more appeal for the disaffected, the brutalized, and the marginalized. It is no surprise that Muslim converts in America are made more readily in prison than anywhere else.

Jihad is the natural behavior flowing from the faithful of Islam. It is simply what a good Muslim does.


goesh said...

In the vernacular of flower power, right on, man!

wildiris said...

Regarding the similarities between the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, I came to the following observation back in my old college days when I was taking some philosophy classes. It started with the Greek philosopher Heraclites (around 500BC). It appears that he was influenced by the ideas of Zoroastrianism (600BC-500BC?). Some of the things Heraclites wrote were strikingly similar to the beginning of the Book of John in the New Testament, i.e.” In the beginning was the word…” What I found out was that originally the Greek term “logos”(word) had a meaning closer to the Hindu word “prana”(breath). This all seemed to go back to an ancient Greek scientific cosmology, where in all things were made of the four substances, earth, air, fire and water. The substance that was the building block for “Life” was air, i.e. logos.
Anyway, the thing that struck me was the similarities between the various religious ideas of the Greek culture and the Hindu culture, when you go back to 500BC and before. The explanation I came up with (for myself anyway) was that the similarities did not come about because people were copying from each other, but that they arose because these religions shared a common cultural (linguistic?) ancestor some time in a more distant past.
If one can consider Christianity a Hellenized form of Judaism, the circle of connections between the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity is complete.
Seems like a bit of a stretch to bring all these religions under one tent, but this is my humble attempt.

Baron Bodissey said...

The culture and language of Greeks and Hindus share a common Indo-European root not too far back in pre-history. The Vedic pantheon and the Hellenic pantheon are fairly closely aligned, and derived from the nomadic Central Asian tribal culture that was the ancestor of all the Indo-Europeans.

It may be the Greek influence which "softened" Christianity as it arose from Judaism.

Baron Bodissey said...

Also, the teachings of the Buddha bear a strong resemblance to the teachings of the Christ.

Dymphna said...

The Sufis are the least Islamic of the Muslims. That's why their literature and beliefs have found a home in the West.

There's an institute in Colorado whose name escapes me but the sufi folks there have syncretized their religion with two branches of psychology that I particularly like. Their book series, the Diamond Mind, is a particular favorite. Very mystical. Too abstruse for some.

The Sufis have an agressive streak, though -- one it does well to respect.

goesh said...

I may take up being a whirling dirvish one of these days if we can survive the onslaught of the jihadis

Dymphna said...

Try Sufi dancing. It is truly wonderful. And this from a person who thinks exercise anathema.

Baron, I have a few quibbles with your version of Christian theology --e.g., "charity" is only one form of Christian love. The truest, highest form is "agape." But that's the diff between the Latin crew and the Greeks,hmm?

Also, the roles in the Church are not supposed to be "assigned." Historically (and I mean old, as in way back) what you did was assigned by God -- it was a charism, not a role you picked.

An associated idea, that one was called to a vocation, was the underpinning of my childhood, but it's on the trash heap now.

Now, people, particularly the youong, are frozen by the plethora of choices -- and have no structure from which to choose based on what their contribution is supposed to be -- ie, what they are called out to do.

I love your fisking of "jihad." It certainly doesn't bear close scrutiny does it?

Since the final theology of any religion rests on its concept of deity, is it any wonder that Islam is so harsh? Allah is simply a black lump, a moon god who waxes and wanes but with whom there is no dialogue, no hope of appeal. Like a malign Bedouin sheik. Like a merciless caliph, the executed bodies of his subjects piled up outside the gates.

Quelle surprise!

Baron Bodissey said...

Lady Dymphna -- In order to attain one of your cherished virtues (brevity) I was forced to sacrifice another (depth of theological scholarship). But I am not unaware of the different forms of Christian love.

Incidentally, Sanskrit has karuna, usually translated as compassion. I can't prove it etymologically, but I'm betting that there is a common Indo-European ancestor for it and caritas, charity, etc.

Any experts on Sanskrit etymology are invited to weigh in. Oh, where is J.R.R. Tolkien when we need him?

Dymphna said...


You will notice from my comments today that the brevity I cherish is mostly admired in others...

I do go on.

Baron Bodissey said...

BTW -- I should have said above that "cherish" and "care" are also cognate with caritas.

To express it with charity, the care which you lavish on your writings makes me cherish them.

Charlie Martin said...

I've got my own quibbles with your understanding of dharma. You're much better off if you use the "law" interpretation, and think of it as referring to laws of nature. The Buddha Dharma is a law of nature observed and described by Buddha, just as Newton's Laws are laws of nature observed and described by Newton.

Similarly, "karma" is just "cause and effect" or "consequence". Your karma is the consquence of actions you have taken; the Buddha Dharma is a statement of the natural laws that minimize the painful consquences of your actions and thus relieve suffering.

Along those lines my understanding (with less background, I've been a Buddhist for 40 years but just an interested reader about Islam) is that jihad is "struggle", and includes spiritual struggle. (See, eg, define: jihad on Google.)

While the Wahhabist undestanding of the word is the way it's most widely used in the West, there really are good reasons (see, eg, "There is no compulsion in religion" Al-Qur'an: Al-Baqarah (2:256)) to believe that Wahhabism is essentially an aberrant sect.

The point being, really, that if you want to make this much stew from one chicken, you'd probably want to be sure you caught your chicken.

Lanny Nugen said...

My take on your last paragraph is people converts for their own sake, compassion is a factor but not a requirement.

Buddhism is the only religion that preaches the way to enlightment is through the person, not through anyone else, God included. That individualistic tendency might explain in its poor organization, poor leadership and poor cohesive as a community. That could be changed with different intepretation if Buddism could produce some talent monks.

On the other hand, in Christianity and Islam, God is the final authority which man can use to abuse. Christianity has transformed a lot to incorporate conscience in their teaching but Islam is still in the dark cage: Desire but no conscience. And it would be a long way for them to get to that level en masse, and with a lot of difficuties.

PS: Have you notice that out of the 3 major religions, only 2 prophets are clean and noble, before and after, the other prophet is suck so bad to the point of despise?

Baron Bodissey said...

Charles -- I'm an outsider looking in with respect to Buddhism (and Hinduism and Islam, for that matter), but I've read widely enough to know that there are many schools, sects, splinter groups, etc., in Buddhism, and thus many interpretations of the word "dharma". I chose 5 definitions that seemed representative from among dozens, and the common thread I have always taken from the word is "duty", recognizing, however, that it is an imperfect fit between my limited language and a foreign one. I am not the only writer who uses this interpretation, so 'twill do, 'twill serve.

Christians are known for tremendous doctrinal battles over the minutest of differences in words; I assume Buddhists are the same. Wherever two or more are gathered together in God's name, they will fight.

So let the fight rage. I chose to make a stew with my chicken; feel free to concoct a fricassee or a bouillabaisse with yours.

Baron Bodissey said...

Lan Nguyen -- I think the saving grace for Christianity may have been the idea that nothing can come between a Christian and his Savior, that the relationship does not require an authority or hierarchy to define it. This allowed the overthrowing of despotic Church structures in the Reformation, and led to the development of modern Western civilization.

Which is, of course, what we're trying to defend from the legions of the Prophet.

wildiris said...

Charles, I like the Baron am an outsider to Buddhism, but I have an observation that might help reconcile the many definitions of dharma. In pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, the notion of a moral life was one that was lived in harmony with the laws of nature. As a result the Greek philosophers spent a lot of time thinking about how the universe worked. To the ancient Greeks, there was no distinction between moral philosophy and what we call today, physics. If Buddhism is an inheritor of this view of the universe, then this might help make sense of the various definitions of the concept of dharma.

Baron Bodissey said...

Ik, I think I have read that the Sufis are regarded as heretical by the Wahhabis -- is that right?