Devotees at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi (Photo: Reuters)
The word sanatana means ever-lasting and eternal, without a beginning and without an end. (When transcribing Sanskrit words in English, I think it is right to have the ‘a’ at the end. I don’t write dharm or Ramayan.) There is no way to dispute this notion of permanence and perpetuity about the word sanatana. Unlike English, in Sanskrit, the meaning of a word, even if it is a noun, is gleaned from the verb. A noun’s meaning is derived. Everyone has heard the word tana, as applied to music. Without getting into complexities about accents and tones, tana means to spread and sana means always. Sanatana means something that has spread perpetually, since homo became sapiens, or even before homo arrived on the scene. There is no way to dispute the meaning of the word dharma either. The verbal root is dhri meaning to hold up or sustain. Anything that supports is dharma. The expression sanatana dharma means that which has supported since time im memorial and will continue to do so for eternity. The average insect doesn’t live for more than a year. The average lifespan of a virus, outside the body, is days. Anyone who compares Sanatana Dharma to a malignant mosquito, or a virulent virus, has timescales completely wrong and doesn’t deserve the appellation sapiens.
Across Sanskrit texts, an expression crops up—esha dharma sanatana. “This is sanatana dharma.” Any discussion on Sanatana Dharma should start with getting a fix on ‘this’ and define it. We have forgotten our traditions of debate. In those traditions of logic and debate, there were notions of purva paksha and uttara paksha. When I seek to rebut you, I first state your position, as I have understood it. That’s called purva paksha. In uttara paksha, I then counter it, point by point. Failure to do so and a blanket rejection should remind you of Aesop’s fable about the wolf and the lamb. Texts have sought to define sanatana dharma and these are of two types—shruti (revelation, that which has been heard) and smriti (with human origin, that which has been remembered). Shruti texts are Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. These are constant and perennial. They do not change from yuga to yuga. A lot has been written on what these texts contain. They are about a search for divinity, within oneself, in other beings, and in nature. They are about adhyatma, the transcendental, and search for unity in the universe. Those philosophical speculations are universal in appeal and have attracted those not born as Hindus too, be it jnana kanda (sections on knowledge) or karma kanda (sections on rituals). How can one have a crusade against these tenets? Crusade reminds me of knights, in this context, Don Quixote. At least, Don Quixote attacked windmills, taking them to be giants. Here, even windmills don’t exist.
Beyond shruti, there are smriti texts. These are yuga-specific and change from yuga to yuga. If there is a conflict between shruti and smriti, shruti over-rides. A lot in smriti texts is about ‘good’ behaviour or sadachara, such as food habits. For instance, diet depends on region and climate and state and evolution of agriculture. If sadachara is society-specific and Sanatana Dharma is universal in application, the two expressions cannot be equated. In smriti texts, there are references to varnashrama dharma, four varnas and four ashramas. Four ashramas mean four stages of life—brahmacharya (celibate student-hood), garhasthya (householder), vanaprastha (resorting to the forest), and sannyasa (renunciation), and texts describe ethical behaviour in these four stages. Examples are truthfulness, pursuit of learning, charity, sacrifices, forgiveness, non-violence, self-restraint and greed. Most people will regard these as desirable human objectives, whether they are achieved or not. Why should one wish to eradicate these pursuits? For that matter, vanaprastha (and even sannyasa) was once the norm. How many people head for vanaprastha and sannyasa today? The odd exception apart, the four-ashrama template has effectively been reduced to a two-ashrama one of brahmacharya and garhasthya, illustrating societal changes and smriti dharma’s evolution over time. For a householder, dharma consisted of nitya (daily), naimittika (special occasions) and kamya (for desires) rites. As an example, nitya rites included worship of devas, ancestors, rishis (through studying), humans (like guests) and animals and birds. While an individual might have preferences about the personal deva, what is the problem with these? Instead, we should lament that, with urbanisation and globalisation, these practices are dying out.
This leaves the four-varna aspect of varnashrama dharma— Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Before blood pressures shoot up, we need to understand several nuances. First, it is doubtful if this strict categorisation into four varnas ever existed, except perhaps as an ideal. Else, the dharmashastra texts wouldn’t have got into a taxonomy over varnas outside this fourfold structure. Several varnas are mentioned in those lists. Satyavati was married to Shantanu and Dhritarashtra and Pandu were descended from her. From that four-varna structure, what was Satyavati’s varna? There is no answer. Second, there is a shloka (4.13) in Bhagavat Gita, often quoted, where Krishna says he created four varnas, according to qualities and types of work. Echoing what is stated in other smriti texts, specific tasks were earmarked for Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, articulated clearly in Chapter 18 of Bhagavat Gita. This is a functional classification on the basis of division of labour and every society possesses it, in varying degrees. Third, since people quote Bhagavat Gita at random, how about quoting Arjuna from shloka 1.43? Arjuna speaks of the eternal dharma of kulas and jatis. Kula means family, jati is birth-based classification. Hence, in addition to four varnas, we had a dharma for the family and a dharma for the jati, with jati being different from varna. Caste is a word of Portuguese origin. To understand Bharatavarsha, imported words are often of limited utility. Is varna caste or is jati caste? You will have to scratch your head. Indeed, India’s vast number of jatis demonstrates the country cannot be straitjacketed into a four-varna structure. Nomenclature like Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) are based on British schedules, now enshrined in the Constitution. King Nala of Nala-Damayanti fame was a Nishada. Nishadas lived in hilly terrain and were often hunters. Extrapolated backwards, if someone now describes King Nala as an ST, that forced application seems ridiculous. If we are fixated on that fourfold classification, were Nishadas outcastes or outcasts? There is a difference, going beyond spelling.
Fourth, there is a ‘Yaksha Prashna’ section in the Mahabharata, where a Yaksha asks Yudhisthira assorted questions. One of these pertains to the definition of a Brahmana. A Brahmana is defined by attributes and a person Shudra by birth, but possessing those attributes, is a Brahmana. There is that ideal Brahmana and there is the pedestrian purohita or priest. Chapter and verse can be quoted from texts to show that purohitas were regarded as worst among Brahmanas. By the way, the Puranas say there are no Brahmanas in kali yuga. More importantly, till a certain point in time, there is no evidence to suggest varna was hereditary. The maligned ‘Purusha Suktam’ from Rig Veda 10.90 (from a later part of Rig Veda) has no such hereditary connotation either. There are plenty of examples (not just Vishvamitra) of people choosing their varna, understood as occupation. For example, Manu’s son was Nabhaga. As the son of a king, he was born a Kshatriya. But Bhagavata Purana tells us he chose to be a Vaishya. At some point, the choice dissipated and varna/jati became hereditary. We can speculate about the reasons. One could be the collapse of shrenis and gurukulas (which delivered skills) and therefore skill formation became a father-son transmission process. (Even in contemporary India, dynasties exist across all spheres of life.) To state it in stronger words, the varna/jati system ossified and led to oppression against those perceived to be inferior. No one denies that. This is precisely the reason there have been attempts (not merely in colonial times) to reform Hindu dharma. The pressures have often been from within, rather than from without.
But what are we reforming? Not Sanatana Dharma, but aspects of varna dharma, not always as preached, but as practised. John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about the blind men and the elephant. I will quote a bit from the last paragraph. “So, oft in theologic wars/The disputants, I ween,/Rail on in utter ignorance/Of what each other mean.” That parable can be found in many texts, including Adi Shankaracharya’s commentary of Chandogya Upanishad. I also feel like quoting something else. “He who knoweth not and knoweth not that he knoweth not, he is a fool, shun him.” Sanatana Dharma has suffered worse attacks and has survived, because of its resilience and inner strength. Critics who know should be taken seriously. Their critiques are valuable, as they have always been. The ignorant will only ride on Rocinante.