The English word 'religion' does not fully convey the Indian concept of religion. To me, as an Indian, the word religion is quite different from ‘Dharma’ which finds its earliest known origin in the Vedas.
The word 'Dharma' has a wide meaning. One meaning of it is the 'moral values or ethics' which regulate life. Its central points are truth, love, compassion, non- violence, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, cleanliness of self and the environment, to shun the tendency to hoard and righteous conduct.
Dharma transcends all distinctions of caste, creed, race, language, origin and demography. Dharma is ageless and universal. Dharma can be compared with the transcendent glory of the Sun which gives light and warmth to the entire universe. One need not enquire whether the Sun has risen or not. The light and warmth associated with it leaves no scope for questioning. Likewise dharma brings happiness, peace and prosperity.
Religion becomes dharma only when it encompasses in it all values that constitutes Dharma. But, somehow this is not happening because man always has been more conscious of his identity and this identity is imparted by the organised religion by way of rituals, various signs etc. At times these religious identities subordinate the values of dharma and become a cause of strife that we see today all over in the name of religion.
For most of us, Dharma and God are synonymous because we believe God is the embodiment of all that constitutes Dharma and it is He whose grace is needed to embrace the virtues of Dharma.
But, one can be virtuous without accepting the existence of God. After all, good people who do virtuous acts are in plenty even in Communist countries. We also have another section of people who feel that man himself is the creator of his world with his actions, Karma, and to them good Karma constitutes Dharma.
Ignoring Dharma can lead to an all-round impoverishment of human values; whereas following Dharma can be the path to peace, love and progress.