Six Unique Concepts of Religion

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All Religions Aren’t Equal

There is a prominent misconception about religious equality under which all religions must be treated with respect. According to this misconception, sacredness is a private belief, and there is no objective sacredness in anything. Hence, either all religions must be rejected or all of them should be given equal respect.

In this article, I will discuss why religions are objectively better or worse, by dividing them into six broad categories based on their conception of reality. We will then talk about the distinction between divine and materialistic religions.

The Necessity of Religion

Every person in this world is suffering from a spiritual illness—the desire for domination and superiority over others. Everyone wants to be rich, powerful, and famous, but they don’t like others having the same richness, power, or fame. This spiritual illness is described in various ways:

  • The desire to be just like God,
  • The envy of God and other living entities,
  • Competition to be the richest, most powerful, and most famous,
  • Material pursuits to bring others under their control.

The inner cause of this spiritual illness is inferiority, and its outward projection is superiority. When outward superiority is attained, then the inner inferiority is temporarily overcome. People call this happiness. But outward superiority is always temporary. When it disappears, then the inner inferiority returns. It overwhelms a person, and this is called unhappiness. Since there is always the danger of outward superiority disappearing, therefore, even when there is outward superiority, there is always a fear of imminent inferiority.

The true goal of religion is to make a soul realize that it is a part of God. Just like the hand’s self-interest includes the well-being of the legs, similarly, the realization of the soul’s parthood puts an end to the illusory feeling of inferiority and useless pursuits of superiority. The part doesn’t equal the whole, but the benefit of the whole is the benefit of every part. Envy and competition with God or other souls end by this process. There is no other solution to the problem of inferiority, the endless struggle to acquire and project superiority over others, and living in constant anxiety of eventual downfall from superiority.

Many Kinds of Relationships

Different religions advocate different kinds of relationships with God and other souls, such as the relationships of love, respect, independence, duty, transactions, and exploitation. They are summarized below.

  • Relationship of Love: Here, the soul has no other desire other than fulfilling God’s desires. The soul and God are one in terms of their intentions, but they are still different individuals. The soul is also completely reliant on God and does not wish to acquire any independent power. In the Vedic system, this kind of relationship is called bhakti, or complete devotion to the Lord.
  • Relationship of Mutual Respect: Here, the soul and God respect each other as individuals. They often have different desires, and they cooperate with each other when their desires match and remain self-satisfied when they do not. This kind of relationship is called mukti or liberation in the Vedic system. Under liberation, the soul is almost as good as God in numerous respects.
  • Self-Absorption: Here, the soul and God remain disengaged and self-absorbed. There is neither mutual respect nor disrespect. The self-absorbed state is divided into two parts—asleep and awake. In the awake state, called Brahman, the soul is self-aware but unaware of others. In the asleep state, pursued by Buddhists, the soul becomes unaware even of its own existence.
  • Duty-Bound Relationships: These are based on the temporary roles of individuals in relation to other individuals in the material world. A duty-bound relationship does not expect any reciprocation from the other individuals in the relationship. Rather, a person performs their duty without any desire for profit or reciprocation. This system is called karma-yoga in Vedic philosophy.
  • Transactional Relationships: These are contracts based on rewards and profits. People perform their duties for a reward, which must be fair and proportionate. For instance, an employee works for an employer in return for a salary at the end of the month, and the contract is terminated in case of a discrepancy, unlike duty-bound relationships that continue even with discrepancies.
  • Exploitative Relationships: These are coercive relationships in which the person with the greater power exploits others with lesser power through unfair rewards and returns. The powerless person is subjugated and made to conform to the demands of the powerful person. Unlike the transactional relationship, the powerless person is unable to get out of the contract.

Among these six, the Vedic system accepts the first four, namely, bhakti, mukti, self-absorption, and karma-yoga, which are not equal, and yet, are progressive steps to the highest level of perfection. It also describes a materialistic system of duty performance for profit called karma-kānda. But it ultimately rejects this system of profit in favor of selfless duty. Thereby, both transactional and exploitative relationships are rejected. The exploitative relationships prevail in the lower planets of the universe, also called the planets of the demons. The transactional relationships prevail in the upper planets of the universe, also called the planet of the demigods. In the middle planetary systems, all kinds of relationships are found, although Vedic texts emphasize the first four above.

The last three kinds of relationships, namely, duty-bound, transactional, and exploitative relationships, are also called the relationships in the modes of sattva, rajas, and tamas, respectively. The relationship in the mode of sattva or the religion of karma-yoga is accepted as leading to liberation. The relationship in the mode of rajas is considered cyclical. And the relation in the mode of tamas, or the exploitative relationship is rejected as degrading.

The Unity of Reality

The above six relationships can be described as varied answers to the question: What holds everything together? Why is there unity in diversity?

The lowest answer to this question is force. Nature is held together by forces between particles. Society is held together by the force exerted by the societal elites. Ideas hang together by the force applied by religious or academic institutions. Ultimately, God holds everything together by the force of His will. He precisely tuned the laws of nature to produce life. His decrees form the definition of right and wrong. Those who obey His orders get the power to rule over others. Those who disobey His orders are dispatched to eternal hell.

The next best answer to this question is profit. Nature is held together because it benefits all its parts. Each of the parts is incomplete and inadequate by itself. Being together overcomes the inadequacy. Parts are joined together by mutually beneficial contracts, and the division of labor, with each part doing what is most profitable for it. People are held together in society because they are mutually benefited by being together. Such a system requires a powerful individual to ensure fairness, namely God, who is also acting for His own profit.

The next best answer to this question is duty. Nature acts in an orderly manner out of a sense of duty. Society is well-organized if everyone works out of a sense of duty. Coherence of ideas is maintained by giving each idea a certain well-defined role within the overall system of ideas, without universalizing any idea, and without rejecting the role of other ideas. God administers this system for fairness out of a sense of duty. Of course, everyone naturally benefits from duty performance, but they prioritize duty and reject the desire for profit.

The next best answer to this question is the self. We rely on duty, profit, and force because we are not self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled. But what if we could be? Everything would coexist if it aids self-discovery and self-realization. But, of course, we are not duty-bound to assist others, we don’t assist others for profit, and we do not force others to become self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled. The unity in and with nature, society, and God, is voluntary. It is self-centered, although not compelled by duty or expected as a right.

An even better answer to this question is respect. We can be self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled, but someone else can be more capable, aware, and fulfilled. Everything would then be held together by respect for the most self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled, namely, God. They are not attracted to God for profit. They are not bound to God by duties or rights. They also don’t expect God to aid self-realization and self-discovery. They are all respectful toward God because He is the most self-fulfilled, self-reliant, and self-aware person.

Finally, the best answer to this question is love. Everything is held together by love. In love, there is no force. There is no desire for profit. Lovers aren’t bound together by duties and rights. They are not with each other to become more self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled. And they are not constrained by the distantness of respect for the most self-reliant, self-aware, and self-fulfilled. They are together out of love for each other. That love is unselfish and self-sacrificing. But it is the most delightful and fulfilling experience.

Accordingly, there are six notions of why unity exists. They can be ranked in order as better answers to the question: What holds everything together? Vedic philosophy accepts the last four answers as godly nature and rejects those of force and profit from godly nature (we will later see that they are attributed to demigods and demons respectively, so they exist, but are not godly natures). God does not use carrots and sticks. He doesn’t mind if we disregard Him. He punishes only if another soul is troubled and not because He was ignored. Justice even for those who disregard God is God’s benevolence toward everyone. God doesn’t trade for profit because He is already self-fulfilled. But God is dutiful, self-satisfied, respectful, and loving, and the acquisition of these natures is dharma. There is no meaning to dharma other than a godly nature, proclivity, attitude, or disposition. These proclivities are also not equal. They are progressively inner moods, attitudes, proclivities, or natures of God. Selfless love is His innermost nature and selfless duty is His outermost nature.

Diverse Systems of Practice

The Vedic texts also present many practices that can be used in all the above types of relationships. Thus, the path of karma-kānda, or duty performance for profits, is modified into karma-yoga, or action without desire even for long-term results. The path of asceticism, or aśtānga-yoga, is primarily prescribed for self-absorption, although austerities can be performed even for other paths. The path of knowledge, or jñāna-yoga, is used for understanding dharma-karma, karma-yoga, self-absorption, liberation, and devotion because they correspond to the knowledge of different kinds of realities. Finally, the path of rituals, mantras, and deity worship, called bhakti-yoga, is prescribed for dharma-karma, karma-yoga, self-absorption, liberation, and devotional perfection.

The paths of karma-yoga, aśtānga-yoga, jñāna-yoga, and bhakti-yoga are also modified in various ways for different goals. For instance, when karma-yoga is practiced not just as selfless duties but also with devotion toward the Lord, then it is non-different from bhakti-yoga. Likewise, when jñāna-yoga is practiced not just as a pursuit of knowledge but also with the aim of teaching the principle of devotion, then it is non-different from bhakti-yoga. Finally, when austerities of aśtānga-yoga are performed not merely for self-absorption but also for the mystical experience of the Lord present in everyone’s heart, then it is non-different from bhakti-yoga. Thus, those who understand the different goals of spiritual practice do not make hard and fast distinctions between the various paths. They know that many paths can lead to the same destination, and these are recognized and accommodated for differently inclined people.

However, not everyone is capable of every such form of yoga, especially when abilities and opportunities begin to decline. For instance, we cannot rely on karma-yoga at present because nearly every profession is sinful. We cannot rely on aśtānga-yoga at present because a disturbed mind and a sick body cannot perform austerities. We cannot rely on jñāna-yoga at present because the intellect is contaminated by millions of false beliefs. Hence, by the method of elimination, we arrive at bhakti-yoga, namely, chanting mantras and doing deity worship, as the primary method of progress at present. A desire to follow a path without the ability and opportunity to follow that path is not useful.

This method can then be targeted toward the highest goal, namely, the practice of devotion by chanting the names of the Supreme Lord and worshipping His deities. The day-to-day duties can be performed while remembering the Lord, instead of thinking about the results we get in return. We can study the philosophy of the material and spiritual realities, with the aim to teach others about the differences. We can lead a regulated life of austerities to focus it on the service to the Supreme Lord. The expert Acharyas, who understand diverse goals and paths, tailor the easiest path toward the highest goal.

The Inequality of Different Religions

All goals are not equal because there is a hierarchy among the different types of relationships. All paths toward such goals are not equal because of varying abilities and opportunities to practice them. However, since each person can have varying abilities and opportunities for different paths toward different goals, hence, we cannot blindly endorse or reject any of the paths or the goals (except the transactional and exploitative relationships noted above).

The path of bhakti-yoga is recommended for the present age as a rule of thumb given the absence of ability and opportunity for other paths. But this recommendation doesn’t necessarily preclude the other paths of karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, or aśtānga-yoga. Which path should be used in which way for which purpose by whom is also not to be whimsically decided by each individual. Instead, one should consult an expert Acharya who understands not just the intricacies of various paths and goals but can also judge a person’s capacity and opportunity to follow that path toward the chosen goal easily and correctly.

A religion that concocts a path and a goal without a scientific understanding of the various paths and goals is an inferior religion. It may have some benefits, but it will ultimately fail to achieve its stated goals. A religion that aims for anything lower than the top-most goal of devotion, is also inferior relative to the best religion. It has benefits, but it is not the highest goal. A religion that rejects the top four goals and pursues transactional and exploitative relationships is the worst of all because it doesn’t uplift although it can degrade a person.

Various combinations of goals, paths, abilities, and opportunities can be graded from top to bottom in terms of (a) the goal, (b) the ability and opportunity to follow a path, and (c) if they are progressive, cyclical, or regressive. There is no equality. Ignorance of the differences between the goals, paths, abilities, and opportunities does not make them equal. By knowledge, we must distinguish.

The Appearance of False Religions

Force and profit are not godly natures, but those of demons and demigods, who were worshipped in pagan religions. When Abrahamic religions replaced paganism with monotheism, they substituted many demigods and demons with one God and Satan without understanding godly nature. Their God lacked godly qualities of duty, self-satisfaction, respect, and love, and exhibited the demigod conduct of rewards due to obedience and the demon conduct of punishments due to disobedience. Humans who accepted this concoction as “true religion” also exhibited their God’s philosophy of material rewards and punishments. There was no insight into godly nature, and how demigods and demons differ from God. These were just pagan creeds masquerading as monotheism.

The demon and demigod qualities exist in God as what God is not. This is a key principle in Nyāya, where the definition of a thing includes all that it is not. For instance, a cow is not a horse, donkey, bird, fish, or human. The things that a cow is not, are part of a cow but they exist as an absence rather than a presence. While the spiritual world is created by externalizing what is present in God, the material world is created by externalizing what is absent in God. The material creation is called God’s self-abnegation or tapasya, and each universe emerges from one pore on His body as His sweat. Therefore, if a religion accepts the negation of God as His definition, then it also becomes irreligion.

The material reality is described in Vedic texts as duality. It springs from a non-dual reality through the rejection of transcendent qualities. For instance, there is a force in love, but when love disappears, force remains. There is a profit in love, but when love disappears, profit remains. There is a sacrifice in love, but when love disappears, sacrifice remains. Force, profit, and sacrifice coexist in love but they are separated by the rejection of love into the natures called tamas, rajas, and sattva embodied in demons, demigods, and ascetics. Thus, sometimes the material world is called the negation of God, and sometimes it is called duality as the opposite of non-duality. When God accepts asceticism, then the demon and demigod natures are separated from His ascetic nature. When God returns to the self-absorbed state, then the ascetic, demigod, and demon natures merge within Him and are collectively denominated Brahman.

Vedic cosmology grades the universe from top to bottom in terms of the modes of sattva, rajas, and tamas. At the top are the planets of ascetics, in the middle are the planets of the demigods, and at the bottom are the planets of demons. The demarcation between these planets is not hard and fast because the qualities are mixed. Therefore, there are some ascetics in the middle and lower planets, and some demigods even in the lower planets. For instance, Yama is a demigod who punishes miscreants, and he lives at the bottom of the universe. Although most of his traits are like demons, Yama is not a demon, because he punishes demons too, which is why he is considered a demigod. The term Yama is also used in yoga to denote the don’ts of ascetics. Likewise, there are advanced ascetics even on earth who don’t mix with ordinary humans.

An ascetic life is not godly nature because God is the embodiment of pleasure. However, God becomes an ascetic—the ascetic form of God is called Lord Shiva in Vedic texts—as a matter of duty to create the material universes. Ascetic religions do not prescribe austerity as something you endure while performing a duty. Rather, they advocate austerity either for the sake of it, or to obtain greater wealth, power, and enjoyment. Ascetics often worship Lord Shiva, trying to match His capacity for austerity. They don’t know that Lord Shiva accepts austerity only as a matter of duty. Therefore, duty is primary, and austerities are secondary. Accepting austerities in the course of doing duties is godly nature while doing austerity for the sake of it, or for greater pleasure, is not.

  • Duty is not performed just because there is a gain
  • Duty is not neglected just because there is a gain
  • Duty is not performed just because there is a loss
  • Duty is not neglected just because there is a loss

Under karma-yoga (a) a ruler should not be unnecessarily violent for personal gain, (b) he should not reject necessary violence on the ground that it leads to personal gain, (c) he should not wage wars just for killing and death, and (d) he should not avoid war just because there is killing and death. All four principles are important. If any of these principles are rejected—as they were under the influence of Buddhism and Advaita—then whatever religious pretexts are used to justify their rejection are false, and the result is societal collapse over time.

Many false religions have appeared in the last few millennia by attributing demigod, demon, and ascetic natures to God. They have also appeared by disregarding the true nature of God, namely, duty, self-satisfaction, respect, and love. These include the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism, and Advaita, and their ascetic branches which are sometimes held in higher regard than the other branches. All these are not true religions because they do not yield godly nature. We understand true religion by understanding godly nature.

Definition of a Cheating Religion

A cheating religion, also called kaitava dharma, can be defined as one—(a) based on a transactional or exploitative relationship with God or the other souls, (b) that pursues goals and paths without considering the opportunities and abilities of people, (c) that concocts goals and paths bereft of the scientific knowledge of which path takes one to which goal and which goals are achievable by a path, and (d) that compromises the goals and paths to match the limited abilities and opportunities of the practitioners, instead of giving them the best path.

A religion based on a contract with God is a cheating religion because a contract is signed between two parties that need something from each other but God needs nothing from us because He is already self-sufficient. Whatever the soul can give to God is already with God. And whatever the soul can give to God has also been created by God. In giving something to God, including oneself, we are giving what is already a property of God, created by God. It is mere honesty to return someone’s property back to them. It is dishonest to demand or expect a reward for returning someone’s property back to them, although the gracious and rightful owner always reciprocates voluntarily with a reward.

A gracious religion says: Everything already belongs to God, including me. I return myself to my rightful owner without the expectation of reciprocation. If there is reciprocation, it is the kindness of the rightful owner, but it cannot be demanded. The ungracious religion says: I have entered into a contract with God in which God gives me X in return for me giving Y to God. X is always greater than Y, which means that what we are asking is far greater than what we are giving when we should be returning Y to God without asking for any X.

Many people “pray” to God asking for a job, promotion, marriage, graduation, child, house, etc. What do they have to offer in return? Generally, a box of laddoos, if anything at all. Similarly, some people think that they get to enjoy eternal life in heaven just by visiting a place of worship once a week. What they have to offer is of significantly lesser value than what they are asking for. Similarly, what they are offering to God is already His property. This is why all transactional and exploitative relations are considered cheating religions.

Similarly, when someone concocts a path and a goal without understanding the different kinds of realities and which path takes a person to which reality, they create a cheating religion. For instance, if someone imagines that they can become God by practicing some yoga, they are practicing a cheating religion. No such goal will ever be achieved because there is no path to achieve it.

Likewise, if someone manufactures a mantra without understanding the scientific effects of sound on our senses, mind, and consciousness, they too have created a cheating religion. One can keep chanting such a mantra for millions of years, but its stated effects would not be achieved because sound and its effects are related through a science of sound. It is not merely faith or belief in some mantra that makes it efficacious. One has to know the science.

Finally, if someone advocates a path or a goal without understanding the limited abilities of the practitioners, he also creates a cheating religion because even as that path or goal may have been prescribed in the past, people who cannot walk that path also cannot reach the stated goal. An example of such cheating religions is the varieties of “yoga” prevalent today. People have concocted “dog yoga”, “beer yoga”, “aerial yoga”, and “hot yoga” when they are incapable of following the first two steps of Yama and Niyama stipulated in aśtānga-yoga.

An economic transaction is called “cheating” if the cost borne by the buyer is not worth the benefits he gets in return. An economic transaction is called “fair” if the cost is proportionate to the benefits. To determine fairness, one must also consider the “opportunity cost”, namely, the best thing that one can get for the same price. A religion becomes “cheating” when it demands a high cost for low returns compared to a religion that would give higher returns for the same cost. A measure of the cost of religion is time and effort. If a lot of time and effort is spent acquiring something of low value, then the religion is cheating. For instance, people spend hours in “yoga practice” for enhanced sexual pleasure when the same time and effort spent earnestly chanting the names of the Lord would free them from the desire for such pleasure. Similarly, a religion that claims that immense value can be obtained without bearing a proportionate cost is also a cheating religion. Neither buyer nor seller should be cheated in an economic transaction. The same is true of religion too.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Six Unique Concepts of Religion," in Shabda Journal, September 28, 2022,