Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Expansion and Contraction: A Comparative Analysis of Sanatana Dharma and Islam

Expansion and Contraction:
A Comparative Analysis of Sanatana Dharma and Islam

Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
(Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.)

In its relatively short, and decidedly Western-centric, history, a wide variety of academic terms have arisen from within the discipline known as Religious Studies in the expressed order of assisting the field's specialists to more ably grasp the structure and outlook of religious sects and institutions. One pair of such terms that we encounter are the concepts of "Expansive" versus "Contractive". It is important to note that these two words are used, not with the intent of ascribing a superiority status to any one particular sect or religious phenomenon over another, or of denigrating any particular religious belief system, but with the aim of rationally understanding the functional and attitudinal aspects of differing religious institutions. In the following, I will illustrate the meaning of the terms Expansive and Contractive by examining two very different religious traditions: Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) and Islam.

Before we begin, however, it is important to first explain the difference between these two academic terms. An expansive religion is one that tends toward social and philosophical inclusiveness. Overall, such faiths tend to be both tolerant of internal differences of opinion, as well as open to positive contributions from outside the institutional bounds of the faith. Generally, they seek to embrace the social, political and philosophical realities that exist outside the sectarian confines of the religion. Expansive religions are inherently open, classically liberal, progressive and accepting.

By marked contrast, a contractive religion is exclusivistic in nature. Members of contractive sects tend to view themselves as being thoroughly separated from non-believers by virtue of their own espousal of the one and only true faith. Unlike expansive faiths, contractive religions tend to be highly suspicious of both internal dissent, as well as of perceived external challenges. Consequently, such faiths will often suppress any attempts at reform, change and renewal from within, and will repeatedly wage both ideological and martial war against other faiths whom they consider to be at odds with their own rigidly cherished notions of truth.

It has been argued by numerous scholars and practitioners that the religion of Sanatana Dharma is radically expansive by nature. This expansiveness can be seen, first, in the realm of traditional Hindu philosophical and theological thought. The six schools of Vedic philosophy (Shad-Darshanas), while completely united in their assessment and acceptance of the basic philosophical foundations of Sanatana Dharma, are also seemingly diverse in their respective approaches (upaya) to moksha, or the ultimate spiritual attainment of liberation. For example, while the Samkhya school of Vedic philosophy posits a dualistic ontology, juxtaposing the two distinct elements of purusha (spirit) and prakriti (matter), the school of Advaita Vedanta contrarily sees reality in purely monistic terms. For Shankara's Advaita, there is only one substance in reality: Brahman, or unbounded consciousness.

For Vedanta, on the one hand, ritual is generally viewed as being merely a collection of symbolic rites, the efficacy of which is negligible in contrast with the attainment of brahma-vidya, or the knowing of Brahman; but for the Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy, ritual in accordance with Vedic injunction is the highest religio-philosophical activity that can be performed by human beings. Despite the diversity and freedom of opinion that has existed both within and between these many schools of Hindu thought, these schools have all peacefully co-existed in South Asia for thousands of years, preferring to do battle in the realm of civil academic debate rather than on the bloody battlefields of supposed holy wars.

In keeping with this respect for diversity of opinion and thought, hundreds of various sects, traditions and schools of thought have arisen within the tolerant framework of Vedic culture, all united in a mutual respect of the Vedic literature as the highest epistemological authority for all Vedic schools. So open-minded has the Hindu outlook traditionally been that it has sometimes been asserted by some Western academic observers of Sanatana Dharma that whatever an individual's particular belief, concern or practice may be, there is (or at least has at one time been) a branch of Sanatana Dharma that embraces it. While this claim is certainly a vast exaggeration on the part of some outside observers, the existence of such a claim does at least point to the fact that Sanatana Dharma is, indeed, a religion of tolerance, diversity and expansion.

The atmosphere of tolerance traditionally encouraged by Sanatana Dharma is dramatically seen in how Sanatana Dharma has historically dealt with heterodox religious and philosophical movements that later arose within the context of the Dharmic religio-cultural milieu. The religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are three religions that originated as direct offshoots from Sanatana Dharma. Both Buddhism and Jainism began as ascetically oriented movements within mainstream Sanatana Dharma in the fifth century B.C.E. Sikhism, which was founded by the great Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century C.E., was an attempt to synthesize the profound philosophical insights of Sanatana Dharma with the zealous martial spirit of Islam. While all three of these heterodox Dharmic movements were founded as schools of thought within the greater rubric of Hindu culture, in time all three began to view themselves as religions distinct from the Vedic/Hindu world-view.

Despite several major philosophical and religious differences between these three later Dharmic sects and Sanatana Dharma, however, most of the contention between these religions have remained on a purely philosophical level. At no time in South Asian history did there occur such instances of persecution and bigotry between these religions as was witnessed in the Inquisition, Crusades or witch-hunts so well known in the sad history of Abrahamic religious expression. Consequently, while it is certainly true that no religion falls perfectly into either the expansive or the contractive category, it is rather safe to say that Sanatana Dharma has overwhelmingly displayed more expansive characteristics throughout its long history than not.

With the above caveat about the dangers of generalizing in mind, we will now explore a more contractive religion. Unlike the tolerance observed throughout the long and very illustrative history of Sanatana Dharma, Islam demands that its adherents follow a very rigidified code of beliefs, attitudes and practices. Every Muslim, for example, is required to uphold six sacred religious beliefs. Muslims must believe: a) that there is only one true god, whose name is Allah, b) in the existence of a vast repertoire of semi-divine beings called angels, c) in a specific number of recognized prophets (ranging from Abraham to Muhammad, and including Jesus and Moses) who were sent by Allah to reveal his commandments upon humanity, d) in the revelations given by Allah to these specific prophets, e) in a final Day of Judgment in which all beings will either join Allah in paradise or perish eternally in hell, and f) in the doctrine of predestination (the idea that Allah has already preordained who will be saved and who will perish).

In addition to these six obligatory beliefs, it is required that each Muslim perform five practical religious duties, known as the Five Pillars of Islam. These are: 1) Confession of the faith ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet"), 2) prayers five times daily, 3) fasting during the month of Ramadan, 4) Almsgiving, and 5) the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. All people who do not follow these commands of Allah are traditionally considered by Muslims to be unbelievers, and are subsequently subject to conversion to the one true faith of Islam.

In Islamic theo-political theory, the non-Muslim world is divided into two broad categories: a) Dhimmis, or people of "the book", and b) Heathens, or subhuman non-believers. The Dhimmis - Jews and Christians - are considered to be people of the Covenant because they are followers of the earlier revelations of the prophets Moses and Jesus, respectively. Dhimmis were therefore historically given special protective status in the Islamic world. Despite this special treatment by Islamic rulers, however, Judaism and Christianity are still considered by Muslims to be religions that fall far short of being true religion. Thus, Dhimmis are always under due pressure to convert to Islam.

Followers of all other religions that lay outside of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world-view, however, are looked upon as "heathens" by the Islamic religious law. Such "Heathens" include Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Shintoists, Pagans, and the followers of all earth-centered indigenous religions. "Heathens", up until the last few hundred years, were considered third class citizens in Islamic societies, and were subject to forced conversion, special taxation and often severe persecution. The temples and sacred relics of such "heathens" were systematically destroyed; their priests, saints and sages were killed; and their histories rewritten by Islamic scholars. Islam is considered by more liberal Muslims as being the most legitimate of all religions, and by its conservative elements as being the only true religion, all other forms of religious expression being but pale imitations of the glory of Islam.

Not only are non-Muslim religions looked upon with a very high degree of suspicion by Muslims, but internal dissent is also rarely tolerated in Islam. Heterodox movements within Islam, such as the Shias, Druze and Alawites, are considered heretical and their respective followers have historically been persecuted and killed by the majority Sunnis. In addition, strict Islamic societies are usually guided by the Sharia, the rigid code of law and rules which governs the life and behavior of all Muslims. The strict demands placed upon believers, coupled with a lesser degree of tolerance than is exhibited in more expansive religions, make for a convincing argument that Islam would be considered a contractive religion by most objective academic observers.

It is crucial that the many varied and diverse religions of the world be studied, as much as is feasible, on their own terms, and from an objectively sympathetic perspective. Like all the many attempts to analyze and categorize faith systems that have arisen from the field of Religious Studies, the Expansive/Contractive definition is but an attempt to better understand the differences between the many diverse religions of the world. These terms are certainly helpful pointers to a general understanding of the specific religions under observation, but they are not wholly perfect instruments in making such assessments. It is my hope that these two terms have assisted the reader somewhat in gaining a more objectively focused glimpse into the psychological, philosophical and social distinctions that exist between two very different, and in many ways thoroughly juxtaposed, world-views, that of Sanatana Dharma and Islam.

The Author

Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.) began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).

Sri Acharyaji is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders. Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Dr. Frank Morales represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."

Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment.

Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.

Some of his books include:

"Knowing God in the Vedic Tradition"

"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"

"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"

"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"

"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"

For more information about the life and teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, please visit his website:



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