Hindus have to give Sanatana Dharma profundity

Meanings are not constant; they are added, deleted, built upon, twisted, overturned. The import of a word also changes with place, time, context, and reason

September 12, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 09:21 am IST

Tamil Nadu minister Udhayanidhi Stalin is welcomed by supporters at Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district.

Tamil Nadu minister Udhayanidhi Stalin is welcomed by supporters at Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district. | Photo Credit: PTI

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste contains hard-hitting critiques of Hinduism. He writes, “I have... no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed, and I say there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion.” Was that a call to eliminate Hinduism? No. He was targeting the Hinduism that is practised thoughtlessly, controlled by a select group, and is casteist at its foundation because he also goes on to suggest ways in which Hinduism can be reformed.

Many from Brahminical castes believe that caste is a natural social order based on occupation and an inherent feature of Hinduism. The progressives among them call for an end to the violence perpetrated around caste, not caste itself. They tie themselves up in knots trying to explain the differences between varna, jati, and caste, while ignoring history and reality. To them, Ambedkar’s words, read alongside his other frontal attacks on Hinduism, would have been, and remain, offensive.

How any strong criticism of a thought or idea is comprehended depends on the environment, place, time of utterance, and its interpretation. Some among those who are today accusing Tamil Nadu Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin of demanding the end of their belief system have been comfortably appropriating Ambedkar who once said, “I will not die as a person who calls himself a Hindu.” Ambedkar did not mean that he was a believer at any point of time. But he was a member of Hinduism’s ugly social order because of the accident of birth. Before he died, he gave up that membership.

Use of the term

The expression ‘Sanatana Dharma’ today is used as a synonym for Hinduism, its ritualistic and philosophical practices, and sometimes as an umbrella term that encompasses all the religious and spiritual traditions of pre-Islamic ancient India. These overarching usages are new. That these have been propagated mainly by Brahminical sections is also undeniable. Meanings are not constant; they are added, deleted, built upon, twisted, overturned. The import of a word also changes with place, time, context, and reason. This is true of Sanatana Dharma too. I grew up in a Brahmin home where most religious functions of the caste were conducted. I learned shlokas and verses from the Vedas and Upanishads. Stories from the Puranas and epics were part of my upbringing. I was not told that this faith was Sanatana Dharma. It was Hinduism to me. Some would call it Brahminism, not Hinduism. That too would be accurate.

The term Sanatana Dharma was mainly used by seers and scholars at theological or spiritual lectures, or within deeply ritualistic circles. These individuals also mainly belonged to and catered to Brahminical sections. Pious non-Brahminical Tamils do not call themselves sanatanis. They worship Mariamman, Kamatchi, Siva, Muruga and other dieties and see themselves as part of the Hindu madham (faith or religion). So, the general usage of this term as a synonym for Hinduism is duplicitous.

Over the past century, and more so in the recent decades, Hindutva extremists have weaponised the term Sanatana Dharma. The meanings that they have given to this phrase is what has led to the pushback. Sanatana Dharma has not been used as a compassionate, welcoming, and introspective phrase. It is used to offend, or in a self-congratulatory manner to prove that it is better, older, and more sophisticated than every other way of believing. The words Sanatana Dharma and Hindutva have been coupled by the Hindu right wing. Many who spout these words carry out attacks on Muslims, Christians, and Dalits. But the blame does not lie only with the perpetrators of these specific crimes. Those who use political, religious, spiritual, and social platforms to instigate them must take responsibility. This kind of Sanatana Dharma is expressly a tool for discrimination.

Recognising casteism

There are those who defend this term who refuse to recognise their own casteist nature. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said, “There has been a history of social inequality in our society. We kept our own people backward based on a social system. Even when their life became akin to animals, we didn’t bother. And this continued for at least 2,000 years. So as long as this discrimination exists, reservation must continue.” But he speaks of caste discrimination only in relation to reservation. Where is the acknowledgement that caste is a living evil that needs to be annihilated? Every caste-privileged Hindu must recognise their own instilled ‘casteness’, and change. There are Hindu pontiffs and spiritual seekers who continue to justify varna. There is no critical examination of the texts or calling out of caste discrimination, which is established and propagated by textual and practical methods.

Many spiritual commentators address individuals with caste privilege, but never force them to recognise their own bigotry. Those who now claim that Sanatana Dharma encompasses all Hindus distance themselves from caste violence which originates from someone belonging to another caste. They do not accept any responsibility for the actions of their sanatani brethren.

Those desirous of protecting Sanatana Dharma must realise that people from within the Hindu faith have to work towards giving it profundity. As Ambedkar said, “Hindus must consider whether the time has not come for them to recognise that there is nothing fixed, nothing eternal, nothing sanatan; that everything is changing, that change is the law of life for individuals as well as for society.” He was not referring to cosmetic changes, but demanding a philosophical churn.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.