The Sabarimala controversy offers an opportunity to reflect on the fate of an expression often used by conservative Hindus. This expression—Sanatana Dharma—is also becoming popular among NRI Hindus and others who feel embarrassed at the “alien” origins of the term ‘Hindu’. But what does it really mean? Amarakosha, the most respected Sanskrit thesaurus dated to the 4th century AD, explains ‘sanatana’ as ‘nitya’ (literally ‘eternal’) and Hemachandra, in his 12th century dictionary, defines it as ‘achyuta’ (unfailing). The connotation in both cases is clearly ‘perpetual’. Monier Williams, in his 1899 dictionary, collates the various meanings and defines the word as ‘eternal, perpetual, everlasting’.
The term ‘dharma’, in Indic uses, refers to the inherent nature of things and beings; meanings such as universal morality, professional ethics and moral order flow from that. You have on the one hand the dharma that everyone must follow and the dharma specific to one’s function or situation—e.g. rajdharma (duty of the king or state), gurudharma (duty of a teacher) or putradharma (duty of a son). Then there is the whole complex of dharmas assigned to various caste groups.
There has always been great scope for interpretations in the ideas contained in ‘dharma’, i.e. law and righteous conduct. In the royal assembly episode of the Mahabharata, Bhishma rationalises his silence at the ultimate humiliation of Draupadi by taking recourse to the “subtle ways of dharma”. Draupadi laments: “An assembly without elders is not an assembly, those who cannot speak up for dharma are not fit to be called elders, the dharma which is not rooted in the Truth cannot really be dharma and the truth which is pierced by deceit is not the Truth at all.”
The ‘truth’, in its rudimentary form, is a verifiable description of fact; in more subtle philosophical meanings, the idea invokes values and norms that ought to be worthy of universal pursuit. Therefore, the idea of basic dignity for all humans (irrespective of creed, race, status, caste, gender) is an aspect of the Truth. Keeping Draupadi’s critique/lamentation in mind, let us ask ourselves: can anything which desires to be ever-lasting choose to remain static? Can a moral code hope to perpetuate itself without taking into account the cry for human dignity, without giving space to core human values, the evolution of human consciousness?
The compound ‘Sanatana Dharma’ provides a fascinating scope to explore such questions, provided it is encouraged to perpetually metamorphose. We find Lord Krishna himself telling Arjuna in the Gita—‘Discard all dharmas, just come to me, I will take care of everything.’ The dharma of ritual sacrifice thus metamorphoses into the dharma of bhakti. If you listen carefully to the Mahabharata or to the Buddha (among the earliest to use the expression—Dhamma), it is not difficult to realise that dharma implies continuity with change; a constant evolution towards compassion, equity and enquiry. Incidentally, the dictum Ahimsa paramo dharma—non-violence is the supreme virtue—is from the Mahabharata, which by describing an extremely violent conflict underlines the dangers of unbridled passion for power and the futility of violence as a means of conflict resolution.
Given its etymology and philosophical orientation, there can hardly be a greater irony that the term ‘sanatana’, born out of a confident tradition celebrating the dynamism of continuity and change, has come to signify the aggressive defence mechanism of a community which perceives itself as under siege.
Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati
There is a historical backdrop to this. The ‘Sanatana’ Hindu tradition faced interrogation even before the British raj, but with a crucial difference—almost all of it came from within. Kabir, the iconic critic of both Hindu and Islamic orthodoxy, even though born a Muslim, is known to be a disciple of Ramanand, and hence part of the Vaishnava cultural milieu. Despite military conflicts and destruction of temples during the period of Muslim rule, we don’t find a persistent, organised ideological condemnation of Hinduism by state or Islamic clergy. Sufis instead reached out to people by adopting many Hindu philosophical ideas and popular practices.
The difference between two historical contexts can be understood by comparing two compositions. Marathi Bhakti poet Eknath (1533-1599) composed a ‘Dialogue between a Hindu and a Muslim’ (Hindu-Turk Samvad). Here, both parties criticise each other’s faith and ritualism, but finally conclude that any claims of superiority are false, what matters is devotion to God, not denomination. ‘Jawab sawal eik Kristan aur Hindu ke beech mo iman ke upar’ (Questions and answers between a Christian and a Hindu on issues of faith) is also a dialogue; written in Hindi by a Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Maria da Gargnano, in 1751. Here, the question of consensus does not arise; the Hindu is forced by the ‘logic of true faith’ to see the ‘errors of his ancestral faith’ and to convert.
Initially, the East India Company kept away from ‘interference in native customs’ and proselytisation, but with the renewal of its charter in 1813, it was expected to support evangelical activities in order to ‘show the light to ignorant Hindus’. To carry this ‘divine duty’ as part of the ‘white man’s burden’, what historian Nicholas Dirks calls ‘cultural technologies of rule’, were used in many ways. One was to interpret observations made in one part of the subcontinent as a ‘general tradition’ applicable over the entire land. The ‘Hindu taboo on crossing the sea’ is a classic example. This was a taboo amongst the Brahmins of Bengal and Bihar, certainly not amongst the trading castes of west and south India. Hindu traders from the south traded in all of Southeast Asia, and Hindu kings established empires there. Traders from Marwar, Sindh and Gujarat regularly crossed the sea, and had contacts and settlements as far afield as Cairo and upland in Astrakhan, Russia.
Coupled with missionary proselytisation, these ‘cultural technologies of rule’ pushed Hindus into a siege mentality, and a feeling of ‘disease’ about their own faith, mythology, tradition and culture. Kenneth Jones’s observation about missionaries in mid-19th century Punjab is applicable to the whole subcontinent, “Theirs was an aggressive and uncompromising Christianity…expressed in print and through open preaching in the streets…. Christian missionaries were seen as part of a government machine that first defeated the Punjabi, next sought to govern him and then to convert him.”
This led to a set of complex responses, including attempts to remove embarrassing social practices. A tendency set in among some to attack anything traditional, often in a deliberately provocative way. But the lasting impact was of those who reinterpreted ancient texts in support of their reformist agenda. Unfortunately, most reformers had internalised the colonial reconstruction of their immediate past as decadent and vernacular wisdom as merely derivative of the Sanskrit texts. For inspiration, they went either to western modernity or straight to the hoary past, bypassing the immediate past and vernacular sources. Thus, the gap between most of the reformist intelligentsia and the public was bound to grow. Uncritical glorification of ancient India became an integral part of reform movements like Arya Samaj. Exceptions like Jyotiba Phule and Gandhi apart, the Sanskrit tradition was taken to be the sole source of wisdom and inspiration. All the exciting, refreshing examples of social and intellectual dynamism from early modern India failed to attract the attention of modern reformers.
A telling example. In 1620, Janagopal wrote a biography of his guru, Sant Dadu Dayal, in which the latter is seen to reject the practice of child marriage categorically. Unlike modern reformers, Dadu does not base this rejection on ancient scriptures or law-books, but purely on human rationality and moral wisdom.
Indifference to this vernacular wisdom on the part of most reformers contributed greatly to the transformation of Sanatana from perpetual to static, even regressive. And soon, in opposition to the reformist response to the colonial siege, there rose a trend of regressive conservatism. This claimed to defend Sanatana Dharma against the attacks of missionaries as well as the reformers. Ironically, in such attempts, customs and practices prevalent at that point in history were projected as fit to be perpetuated forever. Tradition was seen as something frozen in time, instead of a flow from past to future, in the direction of a more compassionate and just society. In this distorted view of Sanatana, every move towards a more rational value system became a threat to Sanatana Dharma. Customs like widow-burning were sought to be rationalised as being ‘Sanatana’; to argue for widow remarriage was seen as an attempt to distort it. Any critique of untouchability was seen as an attack on the fundamentals of Sanatana. Starting from the last quarter of the 19th century, a number of the Sanatana Dharma Rakshini Sabhas and similar bodies cropped all over India, and were later brought under the umbrella of ‘Bharat Dharma Mahamandala’.
In the view of such sabhas and mandalas, Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Dayananda, Vivekananda, Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru, Gandhi—everyone was an enemy of Sanatana Dharma, irrespective of their huge differences of understanding and approach. Vivekananda called himself a Sanatani, but was still not acceptable due to his critique of caste prejudices. Gandhi, who called himself a Sanatani Hindu even more insistently, was the most hated figure for some Sanatanis. So much so, the first attempt on his life (Pune, 1935) was made not due to his “over-indulgence” of Muslims, but due to his temple entry campaigns for “Harijans.” It was during this campaign that Gandhi was told by Brahmins in Kerala that, being a non-Brahmin, he is neither authorised nor even competent to talk about Sanatana Dharma. Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the moving spirit of Gita Press, who otherwise respected Gandhi, went to the extent of calling him a “mahatma of European style” because of his views on untouchability and empowering women.
The arguments against the Supreme Court ruling on Sabarimala echo exactly the arguments against abolition of widow-burning and untouchability—‘how can state interfere in matters of faith?’ The present conflict is yet another reminder of the tragic irony of Sanatana—the eternal flow of life—being forced to become a cesspool of stagnation; the fascinating idea of continuity with change being distorted into aggressive regression. Hindus like Shashi Tharoor must decide—what kind of Sanatana Dharma would they like to uphold? The one Gandhi upheld and practised or the one upheld by those who called Gandhi a ‘mahatma of European style’—incompetent to discuss the shastras as he was not a Brahmin?
(The author is a writer and academic)