A Kerala mural of Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra (Photo: Alamy)
A call was recently issued by a member of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, namely Udhayanidhi Stalin, to “eradicate” Sanatana Dharma. What is more, this call was made at a conference which was billed as ‘Eradicating Sanatana Dharma’. What Udhayanidhi Stalin meant by sanatana dharma, when he used that expression, is best explained by him. But it may not be out of place to examine Hinduism’s own understanding of itself, when it is referred to as Sanatana Dharma.
The word sanatana is usually translated as eternal, but in fact possesses three levels of meaning: one, something which is eternal; two, something which is immemorial; and three, something which is universal, that is to say, common to all. When the word is used in the first sense, it refers to the fact that Hinduism considers itself based on eternal laws, rather than on a founding individual. In the same spirit, it regards the truths it deals with as eternal. The reason for this is obvious: that which is real must always be real. Therefore, that which is real must always be, which is to say, that which is real must be eternal.
The other meaning of the word sanatana is immemorial. Something is considered immemorial if its origins are lost to memory. Hinduism considers itself as a continuous tradition, whose origins cannot be perceived in the mist of antiquity. In this way, it distinguishes itself from other religions of Indian origin which have a beginning in time—such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—while sharing with them the common appellation of dharma.
We will no longer be surprised, once we acknowledge that Hinduism is an immemorial tradition, that some of the practices within it seem ‘uncivilised’, because Hinduism is older than civilisation.
Readers sceptical of this meaning of the word may wish to consider its use in Bhagavad-Gita 1.40, which speaks of sanatana-dharmas being destroyed. That which is eternal cannot obviously be destroyed, so that the proper meaning of the word sanatana here has to be immemorial, as customary usages, which have been followed from time immemorial, can go out of vogue.
The third sense in which the word is used in Hindu literature is that of something universal. This point has often been overlooked and therefore deserves to be emphasised. When the duties of an individual are discussed in the Hindu texts, this discussion is carried out at two levels. At one level, the duties of an individual as a member of a class or a stage in life (varna, asrama) are discussed. These are often referred to as prithag-dharmas, or specific duties.
But Hindu ethics also lists the duties of an individual as a human being, irrespective of one’s station in life, or one’s stage in life, such as cultivating truth, non-violence, compassion, and so on. That is to say, these embody a universalistic ethic, as distinguished from the particularistic ethic of prithag-dharmas, such as those of varna and asrama. This set of duties is referred to by several names, such as samanya dharma, sadharana dharma, or samasaika dharma, and also by the term sanatana dharma.
These sadharana or sanatana dharmas play a key role in Hindu ethics. It took students of Indology some time to recognise their full significance. Until that happened, Hindu ethics was considered particularistic, because scholars of Hinduism were only aware of varna dharmas and asrama dharmas, or duties specific to one’s station and stage in life. It is when the role of sadharana or sanatana dharmas in Hindu ethics was fully recognised that a major misunderstanding of the differences between Hindu and Western ethics was corrected. Prior to the realisation of their role, it was thought that the difference between Hindu ethics and Western ethics is that Hindu ethics is particularistic, and Western ethics universalistic. It was after the doctrine of sadharana or sanatana dharmas had been fully imbibed that scholars realised that the distinction between Hindu and Western ethics does not consist in Hindu ethics being particularistic and Western ethics being universalistic, but in Hindu ethics being both particularistic as well as universalistic, and Western ethics being primarily universalistic.
The relative role of sadharana or sanatana dharmas, and prithag dharmas, or varnasrama dharmas, is a key element in the evolution of modern Hinduism. It could be argued that during the medieval period of Indian history, the varnasrama dharmas or the prithag dharmas eclipsed the sadharana or sanatana dharmas, and that one of the major contributions of Mahatma Gandhi to modern Hinduism is that he foregrounded sadharana or sanatana dharmas over varnasrama or prithag dharmas, when he emphasised the importance of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), brahmacarya (celibacy), and so on. Mahatma Gandhi may not have been alone in this. Normally when these dharmas are discussed in the Smrtis, varnasrama dharmas or prithag dharmas are discussed first, and the discussion is then followed by a discussion of sadharana or sanatana dharmas. However, when Shri Swaminarayan (1781-1830) prepared his Shiksha Paddhati in the early years of the 19th century, in Gujarat, he also prioritised sadharana or sanatana dharmas over varnasrama or prithag dharmas.
It is, therefore, ironic that some detractors of Hinduism use the term sanatana dharma as a synonym for casteism, when the term sanatana carries the opposite connotation.
It has sometimes been suggested that the term sanatana dharma is a modern invention. This mistaken perception seems to have arisen because, when Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) launched his Arya Samaj movement, many traditionalists, who opposed these reforms, started calling themselves sanatanis. This is a very specific and context-bound designation. The use of the word in this sense was already becoming obsolete during the lifetime of Mahatma Gandhi, who declared that “I call myself a Sanatani Hindu… because (1) I believe in the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures and therefore in avatars and rebirth; (2) I believe in the Varnasrama Dharma in a sense, in my opinion, strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense; (3) I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular; (4) I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.” Both literary and epigraphic evidence militates against the view that sanatana dharma is a modern term. The Puranas and the Smrtis clearly employ the expression sanatana dharma, though the precise dates of these texts are hard to determine. At this point, epigraphic evidence comes to our aid. VV Mirashi has drawn attention to the Khanapur plates found in the Satara district of Maharashtra, which he places in the sixth century. In these plates, the donee is described as “sruti-smrti-vihita-sanatana-dharma-karma-nirataya”. That is to say, the donation was made to a priest who was engaged in performing the duties of Sanatana Dharma.
Perhaps the time has come for us to recognise that the word we have been using for our tradition, namely Hinduism, is not a Hindu word and that the Hindu term for Hinduism is sanatana dharma. And then we might also realise what that expression really means, as S Radhakrishnan pointed out, that a tradition built forever must forever build.
Arvind Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, Montreal. He is the author of , among other titles, Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought and Hinduism and Its Sense of History