How is Hinduism different from other religions?
Question- How is Hinduism different from other religions?
Answer- It is good that the question is about how Hinduism is different (and not superior) to other religions.
First of all let us understand why there are different religions and why there are differences between different religions.
The purpose of life is to raise our consciousness from material to spiritual, i.e. to change our consciousness from lovers of material things to lovers of God. This is like climbing up a mountain. One can climb from different paths – some from left, some from right, some from center etc. However, the purpose is to climb up the mountain. The top of mountain is God, and bottom of the mountain is where we are right now. Different religions are different pathways to climb up the same mountain. Like in different paths there can be different obstacles, challenges, so similarly there are differences among different religions. These differences arise mainly due to time, place, and circumstances (i.e. desha, kaala, paatra) of different religions when they originate.
The concept of desha-kaala-paatra can be understood by an analogy. I belong to India where when we drive a car we follow certain rules – the steering wheel is on the right side, the passenger sits on the left of the driver, and the car is driven on the left side of the road. However, in America, it is completely opposite – the steering wheel is on the left, the passenger sits on the right, and the car is driven on the right side of the road. What we need to observe here is that the rules are not only different but exactly opposite in both the countries, however the purpose in the both the cases is same, i.e. to regulate the traffic. Similarly, in different religions, there are certainly differences, but the purpose is same – elevation of human consciousness i.e. to make people more selfless, kind, spiritually oriented etc. Depending on time-place-circumstances in different religions different practices may be given to the followers, which can elevate the followers from where they are to a higher level in varying degrees.
Now let us understand another important aspect of your question, which will mainly explain why some practitioners of different religions consider their religion to be the best, the only way to reach God.
This aspect is not necessarily bad, but only if it is understood in the light of the purpose. We can understand this by an analogy of a patient and a doctor. Suppose a patient is seeking a cure of a disease and has gone to fifty doctors before coming to one particular doctor. This doctor gives a diagnosis and prescribes some medicine to this patient. Now this patient starts challenging and arguing with the doctor, saying that he went to this doctor and that doctor, and this doctor said this and that doctor advised that etc. This doctor on listening to the patient may tell the patient – forget everything what you went through and just take this medicine and you will be cured. It is important to understand that this doctor’s point is not to reject all the other doctors, but what s/he’s is trying to instill is a sense of focus in the patient. Like that in all the religions, there are statements which sound as if exclusivist – just forget all other path and follow this path. If this statement is made into an absolute truth, where all other paths are considered false, then it is a problem. But if these statements are seen in the light of the purpose – i.e. to create a focus – then the practitioner will be elevated by following the directions of scriptures wholeheartedly.
It depends on the leaders of various religions to provide the right understanding of such exclusivist statements to the followers. If the leaders themselves do not understand and provide “absolute truth” kind of understanding (i.e. this is not only the best way, this is the only way, if you do not follow you will go to hell) of such statements, then it can lead to problems. Some really fanatical followers may even go a step further – not only you are going to go to hell, but we will help you getting there faster!
In this regard, we find the Hinduism is fairly broadminded. Hinduism does recognize that there are different path and different people can elevate themselves following these paths.
Also, one clarification here, Hindu scriptures like Bhagvad-gita does not use the word “Hindu” anywhere in their texts. The word “Hindu” came fairly recently, it’s a variant of the word “Sindhu”, which is a river. People from Arabia when they came to India, they referred to the people on the other side of the Sindhu river as Hindus.
Bhagvad-gita does not talk much about religion (or codes) it talks about dharma which has two broad meanings – Nature and Duty. Dharma when it means nature, it implies an inherent quality which is inalienable from us. Dharma as duty means something that we have to do. The actual meaning of dharma actually lies between the two – dharma is our duty that brings us back to our nature. Bhagvad-gita explains that we are eternal spiritual beings, at our core we are souls – aatma, which is eternal. Those activities that help us to become restored to our spiritual awareness, i.e. to realize our spiritual identity, they are called dharma.
Bhagvad-gita acknowledges different paths and recognizes that different paths are suited for different people. At the same time Bhagvad-gita concludes by recommending the path of bhakti
sarva dharman parityjya, mam ekam sharanam vraja
aham twam sarva papebhyo mokshyishyami ma shuchah
(Give up all varieties of religions and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions, do not fear)
Why bhakti is suggested to be the most recommended path?
Ultimately the most powerful force at our command that work within us is our emotions. Our intelligence should be strong, but most of the times it is our emotions that become stronger. What bhakti does is that it channels our emotions in a spiritual way. Quite often our emotions make us irrational, sentimental, put us into illusion, but bhakti expertly purifies our emotions and then it uses the power of emotions to approach supreme reality God.
Broadly speaking, within Bhagvad-gita, there are other paths are also included. One can follow these paths and can elevate its consciousness. However, if someone wants to take a rapid path up, then Bhagvad-gita recommends bhakti.