The term sanatana refers to that which is eternal and dharma is generally understood to be law or the order of things. Thus, the term Sanatana Dharma as it began to be articulated in the 19th century referred to an eternal law. When we look at the history of the term, the term dharman is known as early as in the Rig Veda, but it is primarily in terms of the upholding of the cosmic order, or rita that it appears; sanatana does not appear in the Vedic samhita. As a compound, Sanatana Dharma’s first appearance is in the Buddhist Mahavagga, the third part of the Suttanipata, where it is mentioned in the section called Subhashita Suttam. The text states: Sacca ve amatā vācā asa dhammo sanantano, Saveca atthe ca dhamme ca āhu santo patihitā. The translation reads: “Truth is the undying word; this is the eternal law. In truth, the good say, the goal and the doctrine are grounded” (K.R. Norman, 2001: 54).
In the great epic Mahabharata, there are several instances of the term appearing; we may note that the usage “esa dharma sanatanah” is uncannily similar to the Buddhist usage (asa dhammo sanatano) and possibly reveals a cultural device that was widely prevalent with no specific religious signification but as an assertion of validity of societal ideas and practices. Invariably, the compound usage that occurs 157 times in the Mahabharata relates to various practices, such as providing an answer when questioned or upholding truth or even being hospitable, and it indicates the common world view of those who are being addressed in the epic, and also the justification of certain behaviour or normative ideas—be they personal, social, or religious—prevalent in society.
Disaggregating the terms, we find dharma mentioned about 5,700 times and sanatana about 500 times, but these are specific usages that do not generally correspond to the compound usage although there are instances of substitution of sanatana with shaswat conveying the same meaning (Vaishali Jayaraman, 2019: 12-14). Even when used as a compound, it is not always in terms of religious beliefs; a case in point is where in the section on Rajadharma in the Shanti Parvan, the king’s duty to ensure the welfare of his subjects is termed as SanatanaDharma; in the Vana Parvan, the king is exhorted to not be like the ascetic (bhaikshacarya) or shudra but behave like a kshatriya. In a striking instance in the Sabha Parvan, Draupadi laments that the Kauravas have destroyed SanatanaDharma by her public humiliation; in the Adi Parvan, Pandu tells Kunti that earlier there was a different SanatanaDharma with regard to women in the Uttara Kuru country.
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D.N. Jha has mentioned this intriguing reference from the Adi Parvan about the abduction of the learned Shvetaketu’s mother by a Brahmin; his father Uddalaka tells Shvetaketu to not be angry as this fell within theSanatanaDharma. Jayaraman concludes on the basis of her study that the idea of SanatanaDharma when contextualised in textual occurrence reflects three things: sadacara (good conduct), sadharanadharma (universal conduct), and varnashramadharma (rules pertaining to the fourfold social categorisation of varna orders). In religious terms, there are references in the Mahabharata, such as the three eternal religions (trayo sanatana dharmah): upholding the Veda, the Smriti Shastras, and the practices of the righteous ones.
The Bhagavad Gita, a text exemplar on Krsnaite Vaishnava worship, has two references to the term. The first talks of the decaying of a family, which leads to the end of its ancient laws (kuladharmah sanatanah). The second is where Arjuna refers to Krishna in his Vishvarupa as the undying protector of the eternal laws (shasvatadharmagopta sanatanah). The Manusmriti, the most well known and commented of the brahmanical law codes, in one place speaks of SanatanaDharma as follows: “satya bruyat priya bruyan na bruyat satyam apriyam; priya ca nanta bruyad esa dharmah sanatana (“He should say what is true, and he should say what is pleasant; he should not say what is true but unpleasant, and he should not say what is pleasant but untrue—that is the eternal law”).
Despite the abundance of epigraphic sources from the subcontinent, there is only one inscription of the 6th century, issued by a Vishnukundin king, that mentions SanatanaDharma in the religious sense, as something known from the Shrutis and Smritis, while specifying the expertise of a Brahmin, Bolasvamin, who was being given a land grant. There are Puranic references to the term, and again, there is considerable variation in the context where the term appears: as something that is customary, that is timeless, and therefore unquestionable. However, and this is a point that has to be stressed, there is no treatise specifically on SanatanaDharma, either as a conceptual premise or as religious practice, and its occurrence in precolonial India may at best be characterised as sporadic and diverse.
Argument for Hinduism as sanatana
It is in the 19th century that the concept comes into prominence in the public domain, and this is in the articulation, or even what we may call the invention, of a unitary and monolithic religion that projected the primordialisation and indigenisation of both Hinduism and Hindu identity (Jha, 2001). Here, Hinduism as sanatana or eternal religion was the core argument, with the Vedas appearing as the fountainhead. This must be understood in the context of colonialism, where administrative control was sought to be facilitated through the knowledge of indigenous administrative structures as well as the culture and social mores of the people. It is in this situation that “knowledge” was sought, and the culture of India was understood and constructed in specific ways.
In his magnum opus Orientalism, Edward Said theorised the colonial knowledge production through the process of othering, where the subject was objectified and ossified at one and the same time. As several scholars have argued, the methodology for understanding Indian society, culture, and history at this point stemmed from either a blinkered vision and stereotyping or the reliance on certain sources and positing of frameworks that stemmed from Western ideas and institutions.
John Zavos’ important study on the rise of Hindu nationalism speaks of the perception of colonial administrators of their own despotic power in Bengal and other regions, which paved the way for other forms of power articulation. Around the same time, due to the influence of liberal ideologues in Britain, the nature of engagement with Indian society was also affected, leading to an organising mentality at work: how to categorise the peoples and cultures of this vast land mass that was gradually coming under their control (Zavos, 2000).
“A point that has to be stressed is that there is no treatise specifically on Sanatana Dharma, either as a conceptual premise or as religious practice, and its occurrence in precolonial India may at best be characterised as sporadic and diverse. ”
In 1772 itself, Warren Hastings had sought to understand the traditions, customs, and laws of the people in Bengal to adapt colonial rules and regulations accordingly. It is in this context that a position of authority was given to pandits in particular as the local knowledge-keepers, and this status was especially manifested in the early 19th century. It is also in such a scenario that what Romila Thapar references as “syndicated Hinduism” takes birth, and the articulation of SanatanaDharma can be traced to this period as part of this “organised” knowledge.
The process of course had its resonance and response on the Indian side. Those at the vanguard of social reform like Ram Mohan Roy talked about the Vedas and the Upanishads as the core religion of the Indians, which he claimed was monotheistic like Christianity. For Roy, the Vedic religion allowed for an unmediated relation between the individual and god, the atman and Brahman. The classifying of the time when these religious texts were composed as a golden period proved to be the basis for much of the later day emphasis on the origin of Indian/Hindu identity. The Brahmo Samaj that he founded in 1828 had a reformist agenda, where later day evils like sati that had crept into society were sought to be removed. There was also a stringent critique of Christian proselytism, and much of the expressive claims of Vedic glory were to counter missionaries calling out the evils in Indian socio-religious traditions (Christophe Jaffrelot, 2007: 6-8).
Another influential thinker of the 19th century, Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj in 1875, believed that the Vedas, which were divine revelations, provided the foundational or original religion of the Indians; he laid stress on Sanskrit as the religion’s expressive medium because it had no regional provenance unlike other languages. He also propounded the view that the Vedic Aryans were indigenous people who inhabited the subcontinent: “The Aryyavartta is the name of the country lying between the northern mountains called Himalayas and the southern mountains called Vindhyas stretching right up to Ramesvaram in the south.”
For Saraswati, caste originally was merely a social organising principle based on calibre and it was a merit-based system. He said: (originally, there was) “only one-man-class. Later on, according to the saying of Rgveda…, there became two classes, Arya, i.e., learned and virtuous, and Dasyus, i.e., evil doers and the ignorant. According to the Atharvaveda… the Aryas were divided into four classes, Brahmana, Ksattriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. The twice-born or educated persons came to be known as Aryas and the ignorant as Sudra or anadi (= anarya or non-Arya)” (Jaffrelot, 2007: 35).
Most interesting is Saraswati’s disavowal of Puranic religion and idolatory; he undertook tours and engaged in disputations with learned pandits on the issue. He argued that the use of names of Vedic sages to popularise new (navina) works, claiming these were sanatana (eternal) or purana (old), was a strategy. In other words, his position was that idol worship and other rituals and practices that were not Vedic but talked of by a certain section as SanatanaDharma were to be severely denounced. One hears that he held debates with pandits in Benares and even issued pamphlets asking those participating to only come for the disputations if they had read the Vedic texts.
What is clear then is that certain sections were positing something as SanatanaDharma, with their roots in organisations like the Dharma Sabha that had been founded in Bengal in 1831. These sections believed in the religious and social practices available in a variety of Sanskrit religious literature upholding Brahminism. Monier Williams, whose bias for Christianity is well known, refers to Hinduism as essentially “Brahminism run to seed and spread out into a confused tangle of divine personalities and incarnations. The one system is the rank and luxuriant outcome of the other.”
Another British administrator, Alfred Lyall, commented that popular Hinduism was “a whole vegetation of cognate beliefs sprouting up in every stage of growth beneath the shadow of the great orthodox traditions and allegories of Brahminism” (Zavos, 2000).
It is interesting to note that some of the early organisations with their public articulations on SanatanaDharma were from undivided Punjab; Benares was another important centre of their activity. At some point, despite the friction between the sanatanis and the Arya Samajis, there was a convergence on certain issues such as cow slaughter.
“What is clear then is that certain sections were positing something as Sanatana Dharma, with their roots in organisations like the Dharma Sabha that had been founded in Bengal in 1831. ”
In SanatanaDharma: An Advanced Text Book of Hindu Religion and Ethics, commissioned and published by Annie Besant’s Central Hindu College in 1903, it is stated that the objective behind such a manual was to unite the wide, diverse Hindu religious and ethical training with Western ideals and educate people about the vast and divergent traditions but in a non-sectarian manner. The only rules in this education were to not include non-Hindu ideas, and to refer to conflicts or contestations between various schools within the Hindu fold. This work has an explanation for the rise of the fourfold caste system. Apparently, a fully evolved being referred to as Jivatma is born and in the first stage of existence is incapable of anything but service and study; this is the shudra’s position, marked by obedience, reverence, and so on.
The second stage is the assumption of worldly duties; this represents the vaishya, on whose industry the “nation” rests. The third stage represents the latter part of worldly commitments, marked by protection, courage, and sacrifice; this represents the kshatriya. The fourth and final stage is when the wisdom and experience of age illuminates the Jivatma; this is the brahmin. Commenting on the mixing of the duties and responsibilities in contemporary times, the text advocates that each caste should follow its own dharma. The text quotes from Manusmriti and the Gita to support the caturvarnya system.
- The term Sanatana Dharma refers to an eternal law and has historical roots dating back to the 19th century. It combines Sanatana, meaning eternal, with Dharma, signifying law or order.
- In ancient texts like The Mahabharata, the term Sanatana Dharma appears in various contexts, such as upholding cosmic order, societal conduct, and normative ideas. It encompasses concepts of good conduct, universal conduct, and social categorisation.
- In the 19th century, during the colonial period, the concept of Sanatana Dharma gained prominence as a unitary and monolithic religion, primarily to project Hinduism and Hindu identity as eternal. This framing was influenced by Western colonial knowledge production and the need for administrative control.
Caste as integral element
It is quite clear from the above discussion that the term SanatanaDharma and its conceptual significance varied in early textual traditions and that its transformed and reinvented import as we know it today occurred only in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While there have been further interpretations and assertions since then, it is specifically in recent decades that we see a different kind of emphasis that seeks to not merely define religion or socio-religious identity, with caste as an integral element, but to also posit this in political terms as an Indian identity. That several regions of what constitute the modern nation state have their own concept formations with regard to identity, as for instance Dravidian politics or that in several parts of north-eastern India, that do not fit into the Aryan-Hindu-sanatani framework is unimportant in this assertion.
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From the late 19th century itself, there were political articulations against restrictive, sectarian, and communal identities for defining Indian-ness; the Indian national movement was a hegemonic force that defined freedom not merely from colonial rule but also from social inequalities, with an emphasis on integration and social harmony. Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, and Jawaharlal Nehru were among those who particularly spoke out against the caste system and its justification in any manner whatsoever. That caste continues to have a hold in modern India despite the constitutional guarantees to equality and dignity of all citizens is manifest in the atrocities committed against Dalits in different parts of the country. To critique and analyse an idea of eternal sanction for any identity is important from an academic perspective; it is particularly imperative to do so to stop discrimination and oppression of any section, Hindu or non-Hindu, and to truly uphold constitutional values.
R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.