What seems to be lost on most critics of Udhayanidhi Stalin’s speech on Sanatana Dharma is that the issue is not, in fact, a religious one—it has to do with philosophy and spirituality.
Instead of compartmentalising Hindu spirituality and Hindu philosophy, I usually refer to “the Hindu mei-gnana (true wisdom) tradition” to emphasise the importance of gnana, or knowledge, in the larger scheme of religious discourse. Hinduism, after all, is neither a monolithic religious construct nor a canonically sanctioned single doctrine; it countenances no centralised authority. In fact, any attempt to establish an exclusive and singular interpretation or an authoritative central power within the eclectic practice of Hinduism is motivated only by political and not spiritual concerns. Such attempts will inevitably lead to the destruction of the whole Hindu mei-gnana tradition and therefore must be stoutly opposed by anyone committed to preserving it.
India’s age-old mei-gnana tradition is not a monolith either: it is a complex and plural body of knowledge that has evolved via centuries of intense philosophical debates; it has been enriched by the steady iteration of rebuttals and ultimate syntheses of mutually opposed points of view. The debates themselves, since they hinge on fundamental questions of life, are never likely to cease, and so the tradition, too, will inexorably continue to evolve. It is only in a space where multiple perspectives and practices jostle and nudge one another that the true seeker of knowledge can find an opportunity for enlightened philosophico-spiritual enquiry.
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Facilitating such exchange has been the common practice of the spiritual institutions that have flourished in this land for thousands of years. The voice of every belief system and philosophical school has found representation. No matter how strongly one might be convinced of the infallibility of one’s creed and its exclusive access to absolute truth, any attempt to calumniate those opposing one’s beliefs will be frowned upon as a disgraceful mark of ignorance.
It follows then that nobody with even a passing familiarity with spiritual and philosophical discourse will entertain the idea that there can be an “enemy camp” in a debate. There is always opposition in philosophical stances, but no such thing as a side that must be silenced or a voice that must be suppressed. Nothing in the realm of philosophy is offensive or insulting to the seeker of truth; nothing deserves to be forbidden.
For this reason, I am opposed to the concept of “blasphemy” as a whole. I believe that holding certain beliefs and icons as beyond criticism is fundamentally against all pursuits of the intellect or wisdom. I have held for 30 years that intellectual discourse has no place for believers, only for those who genuinely seek wisdom.
The various strands of the Hindu mei-gnana tradition may be broadly categorised into the Vedic, the anti-Vedic, and the Vedantic. The Vedic schools regard the Vedas as the primary and ultimate wisdom and everything else as their extension. They foreground scripturally prescribed yagna rites and demand strict adherence to rituals, customs, and beliefs. They may be called orthodox prescriptivists or ritualists; traditionally, they were known as the Purvamimamsakas.
The Purvamimamsa school originally recognised only Vedic gods such as Indra and Varuna. It refused to accommodate absolute deities like Siva and Vishnu, temple worship, and the path of bhakti (devotion). It promoted yagnas, or fire sacrifice, alone. However, as time went by, it slowly subsumed the six traditional faiths: Saiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Kaumara, Ganapatya, and Shaurya. It expanded to allow space for the idea of an absolute deity, temple worship, and bhakti. It is this tradition that prevails as Vedic Hinduism today.
Within the Hindu philosophical tradition, there has always been a strong anti-Vedic current. Even the orthodox schools of Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika did not fully subscribe to all Vedic precepts and practices, while the anti-Vedic posture of the Charvaka and Tarkika schools is well known.
“Within the Hindu philosophical tradition, there has always been a strong anti-Vedic current. Even the orthodox schools of Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika did not fully subscribe to all Vedic precepts and practices.”
The six excrescent sects (pura-chamayam) of Saivism were fundamentally against the Vedas, as was the Siddha tradition, an extension of these Saivite sects.
The third stream marks the Vedas as the starting point in its pursuit of wisdom but aims to advance the quest of knowledge to evolve beyond their scope. In doing so, it departs from the dictates of ritualism or fire sacrifices prescribed by the Vedas; on occasion, it even critiques Vedic tenets. This tradition is known as Vedanta.
Ignoring these nuances, many have used the label “Sanatana Dharma” as a blanket term to refer to Hinduism. However, it is only the first stream—the Vedic religion—that is being identified by that name today because sanatana means primordial or beginning-less. Its adherents value antiquity in and of itself as irrefutable proof of worth; they believe their tradition is ancient and therefore unquestionable. For this reason, it is they who primarily and emphatically use the word sanatana to refer to their faith.
It is small wonder then that their opponents use the same label too. Those who criticise the Vedic tradition use the term Sanatana Dharma to assert that their opposition is not directed at all sects within the Hindu fold. They also employ this specific term—since it is used to posit an uncontested authority derived from antiquity—to oppose customs and beliefs that are foisted in its name.
Many ancient Vedantic institutions in India became Vedicised long ago. Drawn into the vortex of ritualism, they abandoned the philosophy of Vedanta. Nevertheless, the Vedantic school experienced a revival in the 18th century under Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, Nataraja Guru, and others.
Orthodox Hindu ritualists have consistently and vehemently opposed the neo-Vedantic tradition. The original Vedantic institutions had capitulated to Vedic practices, but the neo-Vedantic tradition still sought to foreground the intellectual vision of Vedanta. It remains, in fact, the chief counterforce to Vedic ritualism, superstition and orthodoxy. Caste-based divisions and the dominance of the priestly castes are overtly and aggressively promoted by the Vedic traditionalists or Sanatanis. To this day, they have not been willing to compromise on this in any way.
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The proponents of neo-Vedanta are the only group within Hinduism who have consistently held that (a) caste-tribe divisions find no mention in the srutis (the original canonical texts of Hinduism); (b) all caste-based distinctions are merely conventional and not cardinal rules of Hindu practice; and (c) the timeless truths of the Hindu mei-gnana tradition are what belong in today’s world. The Sanatanis, or Vedic followers, who are orthodox ritualists at heart, have never conceded this point and, in fact, lash out at neo-Vedantic practice.
Reacting to the growing opposition to the Sanatanic tradition, some today claim that the quintessence of Hinduism lies not in its ritual aspect but its mei-gnana tradition, and that this tradition cannot be blamed for antiquated customs and beliefs that are themselves evolving with time anyway. One must reflect on how much such words are acceptable to true Sanatanis, or Vedic followers; commentators could perhaps try to get an avowed Sanatani to endorse them.
I have long been convinced that there needs to be consistent resistance to, and strong critique of, the Sanatanic camp, or Vedic tradition, within the Indian intellectual sphere as well as the Hindu philosophical realm. This is because the Sanatanic tradition is mere ritualistic dogma that stands upon ceremony and custom for its own sake. Its strong conservative streak believes in keeping antiquity intact no matter how anti-human the practices may be.
The Vedic, or Sanatanic, tradition argues for the continuance of every aspect of the primitive tribalist outlook and lifestyle of our ancestors solely because they have been handed down over generations. It stubbornly refuses to concede that such a lifestyle no longer exists today and that such an outlook can only perpetuate injustice since it has long ceased to be compatible with the modern ethos. It is fundamentally a parochial view of life marked by stagnation in the past. Should such a world view gain ascendancy, both spirituality and philosophy would cease to progress. Society would be engulfed in darkness; social oppression and human exploitation would be rampant, and the economy would go into a tailspin. This applies to all forms of orthodoxy. All schools of religious conservatism are, in essence, promoters of obscurantism and stagnation; they are anti-human at their core. No country dominated by them has ever flourished, as is evident even now.
I do not side with the Sanatanis, yet I regard the Sanatana tradition as only my opponent and not my enemy. I do not categorically reject the Vedic scriptures. Instead, I acknowledge the intellectual wisdom contained therein and approach them accordingly. I, therefore, belong to the third stream, the Vedantic sect.
I regard the Vedic repository of archetypes embodying profound spiritual experiences since time immemorial as a precious legacy of humanity; I try to learn from it. I repudiate, however, the orthodoxy and ritualism associated with the Vedas. I follow Nitya Chaitanya Yati, a Vedantic teacher in the tradition of Narayana Guru. Even a cursory reading will show that this branch of philosophy is one of the strongest and most progressive.
I fully appreciate the vehement objections and rebuttals by an orthodox traditionalist to my position. I am also aware that this school of thought will always exist—its votaries represent, after all, the stable static force of the Hindu tradition; they oppose all change and wish to preserve things as they are. Thanks to their efforts, some essential elements of the tradition have not vanished altogether. If the foundational texts of the Hindu mei-gnana tradition and the profound spiritual repository they contain have survived even the most hostile circumstances, it is largely due to the traditionalists’ tenacity of purpose and stubborn resistance to change.
Every movement is governed by two opposing forces: the static and the dynamic. If the static force is non-existent, the lack of stability would cause the movement to spiral out of control and ultimately to disintegrate and perish. If the static power were to dominate, the movement would stagnate and decay. The dynamic force must necessarily dominate the static in order to propel the movement forward. In the context of the Hindu tradition, this dynamic force is neo-Vedanta.
I also fully appreciate the stand of the second stream, the deniers of the Vedas. Their perspective will also remain a permanent and integral part of the Indian discourse. Their voice must continue to resonate, for the day it falls silent Hindu tradition will descend into sheer ritualism; its ethical evolution will stall, leading it to stagnate and die.
The strong current of Vedic denial dates back indeed to Vedic times. For instance, the Vedas mention that the tradition of Brihaspati rejected the fire sacrifice rites, just as they note other sceptics such as Kanada and Ajita Kesakambali. The anti-Vedic case is presented powerfully in the Mahabharata as well. After the end of the internecine war, when Yudhishthira ascends the throne, Charvaka appears there to denounce his victory. Jainism and Buddhism too adopted a profoundly anti-Vedic posture; these religions, along with their objections, are still here today. Fierce anti-Vedic sentiment was also seen in many sects of Saivism and scholars such as M.N. Roy, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, and K. Damodaran have written extensively about it.
- India’s age-old mei-gnana (true wisdom) tradition can be broadly categorised into the Vedic, the anti-Vedic, and the Vedantic. Many use the label “Sanatana Dharma” as a blanket term to refer to Hinduism even though it refers only to the Vedic tradition.
- There needs to be strong resistance to, and critique of the Sanatanic or Vedic tradition because it is mere ritualistic dogma that believes in keeping antiquity intact no matter how anti-human the practices may be.
- Any voice of resistance that emerges from non-Hindus, liberals, or Marxists is also to be taken seriously because their critique serves to counteract the conservative forces and check the anti-human tendencies within Hinduism.
During the Indian renaissance, too, English education led to the resurgence of anti-Vedic ideology in the form of reformism, liberalism, and Marxism. Thinkers such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, B.R. Ambedkar, K. Damodaran, and E.M.S. Namboodiripad became the face of this ideological turn; as a social reformer, E.V. Ramasamy is also on this list. Their complete repudiation of the Vedas is based on two premises: one, social and, the other, philosophical. From the social perspective, it is evident that stubborn orthodoxy has turned the Vedic tradition into an inhuman system that condemns fellow humans to a status beneath that of animals. Those who have been oppressed and enslaved for centuries on account of this ideology have every right to summarily reject it.
In the philosophical view, obstinate canonism means that the Vedic tradition rejects every new perspective. Consequently, it is inconsistent with liberal and democratic ideas. It is only natural that both Nehru and Lohia were dismissive of the Vedic tradition. Personally, it is my fervent wish that such voices prevail and lead the resistance against Vedic dogma.
Sahodaran Ayyappan, the principal disciple of Narayana Guru, belonged to the anti-Vedic faction. He was also the first atheist and anti-traditionalist of new Kerala; the writer and reformer C.V. Kunhiraman, his contemporary and a close disciple of Narayana Guru, was also deeply anti-Vedic.
Evidence from ancient Tamil literary texts such as Puranaanooru establishes that the Vedic tradition existed in Tamil Nadu even before the beginning of documented history. The texts also attest to the anti-Vedic sentiment in the society of that time. Songs of the Sangam period contain references that ridicule Vedic brahmins. In Silapathikaaram, the epic poet Ilango mentions a group called Velaapaarpaar (Brahmins shunning fire sacrifices) who decried the yagna rites prescribed in the Vedas and chose a hedonistic life, indulging in music and alcohol. The epic Manimekalai elaborates upon various philosophical schools of Tamil Nadu in its time, many of which were against the Vedic tradition. Jainism and Buddhism were the dominant religions of Tamil Nadu until the 7th century CE.
Both completely denounced the Vedas. According to most ancient records available in Tamil Nadu, Thiruvalluvar, the icon of Tamil ethos and morality, was a Jain and a disciple of the monk Acharya Kuntha Kuntha.
The Bhakti movement, initiated by Saivite and Vaishnavite sages, flourished in Tamil Nadu from the 7th century onwards and later spread across India. It was not aggressively anti-Vedic; it did accept the Vedas as a figurehead of scriptural authority. For instance, the Saivite Bhakti movement praised Lord Siva as Vedamudalvan (Prime Mover of the Vedas). However, it did not unconditionally endorse Vedic practices such as fire sacrifice, promoting in their place the spirit of piety and temple worship, both foreign to the Vedic tradition. As the Bhakti movement gained ascendancy, the Vedic tradition appropriated and assimilated these popular practices. That, in fact, is how it could displace Buddhism and Jainism in Tamil Nadu to become the mainstream religion.
“The Bhakti movement repeatedly dismisses rituals and beliefs associated with the Vedic tradition. Many of its leading saints were not Brahmins, and a sizeable number hailed from the most marginalised castes. ”
The Bhakti movement repeatedly dismisses rituals and beliefs associated with the Vedic tradition. Its core is a true devotee—usually a humble peasant or hunter—getting a darshan of the supreme deity Siva or Vishnu through intense piety even as the god remains inaccessible to orthodox Brahmins reciting Vedic chants and practising yagnas. Many leading saints of the Bhakti movement were not Brahmins, and a sizeable number hailed from the most marginalised castes. A striking example is Nandanar, a Dalit devotee forbidden to approach the Chidambaram temple but who gets a vision of the Lord when the stone Nandi (Siva’s vehicle) moves aside for him.
Predominantly a movement of the Shudra-Dalit masses who were permitted to neither perform nor witness yagna rites, the Bhakti movement was also called the Shramana tradition, or tradition of labour. It discarded caste norms and rituals and foregrounded pure piety in their place. Despite accepting the Vedas, Saint Ramanuja—who played a key role in establishing the Vaishnavite movement—brought Dalit people into the Vaishnavite fold and renamed them Thirukulathaar (honoured lineage). Thus, the Tamil Bhakti movement may well be regarded as rooted in Vedic denial.
The Tamil Saivite tradition is complex and multilayered, comprising 12 major sects. Many of these sects challenge Vedic authority. Siddhanta Saivism deems the Vedas sacred, but it is not its foundational or canonical code. Its primary canons are the Saivite Agamas and later philosophical treatises derived from them such as Siva Gnana Bodham. Saivite maths—the centres of Tamil Siddhanta Saivism—do not accept Vedic norms. Their chief saints are drawn from the Shudra castes while, according to Vedic tradition, Shudras have no right to be renunciates.
The mainstream religion of Tamil Nadu stems from the Bhakti movement. The Sanatana, or Vedic, tradition, is only a bit player within the Bhakti scene, exerting at best an indirect influence. The common people of the State have practically nothing to do with it.
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Further, Hinduism has a specific dynamic, operating as it does at three levels across India. At the top, it places the formless godhead called the Brahman. In the middle are the Saivite-Vaishnavite religions with a massive following. Below are the indigenous and familial deities. These provincial deities lie far outside the Vedic tradition, and many are unmistakably anti-Vedic too.
It is obvious then that an anti-Vedic strain has been at least as strong as Vedic belief in Tamil Nadu. Opponents of the Vedic religion refer to it as Sanatana Dharma. Their anti-Sanatana Dharma stance must be understood against this backdrop.
Voices of resistance against the Vedic tradition have not been as loud in north India as in the south. The neo-Vedantic movement that began with Vivekananda has not had an active presence there. The anti-Vedic sentiment of the Bhakti movement too has attenuated over time. Any pushback against Vedic dogma has not been consolidated into a steady opposition.
“Resistance against the Vedic tradition has not been as loud in north India as in the south…. This is how the idea that Vedic tradition is identical with Hinduism as a whole has been established as if it were an indisputable fact.”
This is how the idea that Vedic tradition is identical with Hinduism as a whole has been established in north India as if it were an indisputable fact. Hinduism is portrayed as a monolithic belief system with a singular authorised or canonical point of view. The dominant social forces and the prevailing political powers work in tandem to maintain this fiction. For instance, they corner random persons on the street and force them to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. A devout southern Saivite would never comply with this demand even on the pain of death. This makes him no less a Hindu.
As a Vedantic follower, I too would refuse to chant it—but I am no less a Hindu for it. The situation now, unfortunately, is that I might be lynched for it. In fact, if Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, or Vallalar were alive today, they, too, would be murdered by this rabid mob.
The manoeuvre of conflating Hinduism with the Sanatana tradition and portraying any philosophical position or social movement against the Sanatana, or Vedic, tradition as anti-Hinduism is a deliberate distortion that will prove extremely dangerous to the Hindu mei-gnana tradition itself. In the long run, it will wipe out all internal debate and curtail the reformist tendencies within the tradition. It will fossilise the entire Hindu spiritual tradition by burying it in conservatism, ritualism, and orthodoxy. Ultimately, it will prove suicidal for Hinduism.
In the Indian context, any voice of resistance that emerges from non-Hindus, liberals, or Marxists is also to be taken seriously. Their critique serves to counteract the conservative forces and check the anti-human tendencies within Hinduism. No voice, therefore, ought to be suppressed. No idea or opinion must be deemed disrespectful or blasphemous.
Sanatanic followers have the right to contradict my idea. But let them defeat their opponents by debate instead of intimidatory tactics and ad hominem attacks. A healthy atmosphere for debate should always prevail for new arguments and perspectives to emerge.
The guiding lights of Hinduism must always be learned scholars and wise sages, not bigoted politicians and violent, power-hungry thugs. Let us not forget that it was our Hindu sages and thinkers who taught us the timeless lesson that all rivers course their way to the ocean.
Jeyamohan is a writer and critic.
This essay was translated from Tamil by Iswarya V., a translator and critic who teaches English at the Department of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.