The inherent power of the word is a phenomenon that has been both omnipresent and essential throughout the long histories of literature, philosophy, religion and politics. The power of words has always been recognized for both its potentially constructive, as well as its devastatingly destructive, force. In the Vedic era, the potency of shabda(or the Divine Word) was lauded for its soteriological, liberating properties, as well as for its role as a means of epistemic insight into the nature of the Absolute. The word both liberated and revealed - and both of these functions were accomplished viamantra, sound frequencies precisely sequenced in such patterns as to most optimally utilize the inherent shakti - or potency - of sound resonance. The Divine Word in the form of mantra could heal illness, relieve suffering and deliver freedom. Many millennia later, borrowing from the much earlier Hindu concept of shabda, we find somewhat similar parallels duplicated in the Biblical literature, in which the Word is seen as being ontologically non-differentiated from the natura esse, or essential nature, of God. "In the beginning was the Word", the Gospel of John assures us, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Thus the power of the word has been attested to in the history of India, as well as the West.
The converse side of the positive power of words is seen in the destructive employment of words used, not to convey truth or to heal, but to obscure and deconstruct reality. Whether we speak of the sinister slogans of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbles or the rabidly dishonest propaganda ministries of now defunct Marxist states, words have been repeatedly used with pointed polemic accuracy throughout the long history of human discourse. Words have always been employed by one group of individuals to control and de-legitimize the political, social, religious, and philosophical freedoms of other groups. Academia has, unfortunately, been far from free of the use of such ideologically charged - even if infinitely more subtle - polemic terminology. For the last hundred years, if not arguably longer, the hallowed pronouncements of ideologically-driven professors and scholars have led to widespread bigotry and stereotyping of minority groups in America. Such biased and politically motivated scholarship has led in the last few decades to the necessary creation of such fields as African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Holocaust Studies, and now Anti-Hindu Defamation Studies, as new academic movements designed to balance previously perpetrated intellectual injustices.
In the following, I will explore only a few of the more insidious terms used specifically throughout the history of South Asian Studies and Hindu Studies that have been traditionally used to denote various phenomena and features of the Hindu religion. Such words have been used in the past to obscure the factual meaning of many philosophical, theological, social and ritual phenomena found within the Hindu context. I will proceed by outlining 1) the commonly used terms for these phenomena, 2) the proper Hindu view of the actual nature of these phenomena, and 3) I will offer several alternative terminological devices that will hopefully be more accurate indicators of the full nature and extent of these Hindu religious phenomena.
Sanatana Dharma: Reclaiming Our Religion’s True Name
The first two terms that we will examine are the terms usually used to indicate the overarching spiritual/cultural matrix of traditional, indigenous South Asian religion itself. These are the very terms "Hindu/Hinduism" themselves. Used often as a matter of convenience even by followers of the religion itself (including by this author), the term "Hindu" is not a term that is inherent to the religion itself. Rather, the term is known to have been first coined by the ancient Persians, who were culturally, religiously, and prospectively extrinsic to the culture. The term was first used by these ancient Persians in order to conveniently designate the ancient Vedic spiritual culture, and was mistakenly used to refer to the Vedic religion as primarily a geographic and ethnic phenomenon, more than as a religio-philosophical world-view. To the ancient Persians, the word “Hindu” simply referred to the culture, people, religion and practices of the peoples who lived on the other side of the Sindhu River. In the ancient Avestan Persian language ‘s’ grammatically became ‘h’. Thus, the Persians pronounced the name of this river “Hindhu”, rather than “Sindhu”. Thus, ironically, the currently used word “Hindu” is itself a corruption of the Persian word “Hindhu”, which is in turn a corruption of the term “Sindhu”, which is itself only referring to a river, and not a religion! Thus when the word “Hindu” is used today to refer to the ancient religion of India, the term is in actuality a corruption of a corruption of a word whose meaning is irrelevant to begin with.
The terms "Hindu/Hinduism" are not self-referential terms that the practitioners of the Vedic world-view chose for themselves or called themselves. These words are not attested to in any of the ancient Vedic or Classical Sanskrit literatures, or even in any of the many local dialects of ancient India until the medieval era. One will not find the term “Hindu” used to describe the Vedic religion in the Vedas, the Upanishads, thePuranas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or anywhere else in the Vedic scriptures. The word “Hindu” is not intrinsic to the religion of the Vedas at all. It was not, in fact, until as late as the 19th century, under the colonial rule of the British Raj, that these dual terms even acquired any legal significance on a national scale in India.
The actual term that the Vedic tradition uses to refer to itself is “Dharma”. The word Dharma is found repeatedly throughout the entire corpus of the Vedic scriptures, from the Rg Veda to the Bhagavad Gita. There is almost no scripture in the entirety of Hinduism where one will not come across the word Dharma as the preeminent name of the religion in question. Sometimes the word Dharma is used by itself; at other times it is used in conjunction with other qualifying words, such as “Vaidika Dharma” (Vedic Dharma), “Vishva Dharma” (Global Dharma), or "Sanatana Dharma" (the Eternal Dharma). The diversity of adjectival emphasis will vary in accordance with the precise context in which the word is used. Of these terms, the name “Sanatana Dharma” has been the most widely used name of this ancient religion, and is used as far back at the Rg Veda, the very earliest scripture of Hinduism, and the earliest written text known to humanity. It is also the most philosophically profound and conceptually beautiful name for our religion.
While many reading this work have no doubt encountered the term “Sanatana Dharma” before, not every follower of Sanatana Dharma is necessarily as familiar with the full philosophical implications of the term’s meaning. Thus it is necessary to explicate the term’s full meaning in depth. The Sanskrit word "sanatana" is the easier of the words to translate into non-Sanskrit languages. It denotes that which always is, that which has neither beginning nor end, that which is eternal in its very essence. The concept of eternality that the word “sanatana” is trying to convey is a radically different concept than is ordinarily understood in the Western Abrahamic religions. When the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam employ the concept of eternality, it usually means that x thing, having come into being, will never come to an end. In other words, “eternal” for the Abrahamic religions, usually refers only to the future. A more accurate term for this Abrahamic concept is thus “everlasting”, rather than “eternal” proper.
In Sanatana Dharma, however, the concept of eternality denotes something quite different from the standard Western notion. In this more expansive and bi-directional model, the concept of sanatana extends not only into the infinite recesses of the future, but into the past as well. By referring to something as “sanatana”, the idea is that not only will it never come to an end, but it has always had necessary existence. Thus, God (Brahman), the individual self (atman), prime materiality (jagat orprakriti), Truth (satya), the Veda (Truth rendered into literary form), and Dharma itself all have necessary existence. They always have been - and they shall always be.
The Metaphysics of Dharma
Unlike the word “sanatana”, the term 'dharma" is a term that can be properly rendered into the English language only with the greatest of difficulty. This is the case because there is no one corresponding English term that fully renders both the denotative and the connotative meanings of the term with maximal sufficiency. Rather than merely communicating a nominal subject for which there can be an easy word for word equivalency, dharma is communicating a metaphysical concept. The denotative meaning of "dharma" straightforwardly designates an essential attribute of x object - an attribute whose absence renders the object devoid of either rational meaning or existential significance. A thing’s dharma is what constitutes the thing’s very essence, without which, the very concept of the thing would be rendered meaningless. To illustrate the full meaning of this term, we can use the following examples: It is thedharma of water to be wet. Without the essential attribute (dharma) of wetness, the concept and existential fact of water loses all meaning. Likewise, it is the dharma of fire to be hot, the dharma of space to be expansive, etc. The denotative meaning ofdharma is easy enough to comprehend. It is, however, when we come to the connotative meaning of the term "dharma" that we then leave the more microcosmic concerns of Vaisesika categoriology behind, and then enter the realm of the overtly philosophical.
For, according to the Vedic tradition itself, the very empirical cosmos in which we find ourselves currently situated also has its own inherent dharma, its essential attributive nature, without which the universe becomes meaningless. In this more macro-cosmological sense, the term dharma is designed to communicate the view that there is an underlying structure of natural law that is inherent in the very intrinsic constitution of Being itself. The Vedic world-view sees the universe as a place that has inherent meaning, purpose and an intelligent design underlying its physical principles and laws. The world is here for a purpose – God’s purpose. The word Dharma, in this more important philosophical sense, refers to those underlying natural principles that are inherent in the very structure of reality, and that have their origin in God. Dharma is Natural Law. Thus, if we needed to render the entire term “Sanatana Dharma” into English, we can cautiously translate it as "The Eternal Natural Way". Sanatana Dharma is the true name of our religion.
The term “Sanatana Dharma” more accurately communicates the axiomatic metaphysical nature of this concept than do the less meaningful and concocted terms “Hindu/Hinduism”. Thus, when the terms "Hindu/Hinduism" are repeatedly used by both Euro-American and Indian scholars, as well as by actual followers of this eternal spiritual tradition, we fall very far short from fully communicating the metaphysical, ethical and ontological components of the world-view of Sanatana Dharma. The former term – i.e., “Hinduism” - is a word mistakenly created to describe a culture in a purely ethnic, national and social context. The latter – “Sanatana Dharma” - is describing an illustrious science of Being in a purely philosophical - and therefore highly rational, and inherently beautiful - sense. It is understandable that the terms “Hindu/Hinduism” will continue to be used periodically as a matter of convenience. After all, it takes time, coupled with continuous education, for people to break themselves of a two hundred year old habit. For the sake of accuracy, as well as to uphold the dignity, beauty and grandeur of our ancient and sacred religion, however, we must always do our utmost to use the much more meaningful, linguistically correct and beautiful name Sanatana Dharma when referring to our religion. Our religion is Sanatana Dharma.
Having examined the problematic issues of a very broad term that has been misapplied in the discussion of Vedic religion, I will now briefly examine several more specific terms that have been misemployed in the history of the study of Sanatana Dharma. The first of these more specialized polemically charged words is the term “idol”. This word has been repeatedly used by purported scholars of Sanatana Dharma (both Euro-American, as well as Indian scholars) in their study of our religion. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that the derogatory term “idol” has been continuously and unthinkingly used by even religious Hindus, as well as by supposedly intelligent Hindu leaders, to this very day. At least once a month, for example, I get notices from various Hindu temples inviting me to “idol” installations,pujas to the “idol”, etc.
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Hindus, the term “idol??? is not an innocently neutral term meant only to signify the objective reality of a religious statue or some other focal point used as a means of meditation upon the Divine. In actuality, it is a term that is historically and theologically devoid of any positive connotations. It is a word that is purely negative in meaning. First arising from a purely Christian/Islamic religious and cultural context, the theologically derived terms “Idol/Idolatry” were quite clearly designed by the creators of the Abrahamic religions to signify the misguided worship of the graven images of fictitious gods. By its very definition, the word “idol” means an image of a false god. In the Old Testament, idol worshippers are repeatedly condemned to death. In the Koran, the worshipers of idols are relegated to the category of the demonic. This theological baggage attendant upon the word “idol” was later naturally imported into the nascent field of indology by the 18thand 19th century European founders of modern Vedic studies. Thus, over time, what originated as a purely religious term, specifically meant to designate a false practice and erroneous theological view, progressed to being accepted as an academic term meant to describe the practices and views of a “foreign” religion. In turn, tragically, the greater Hindu community has itself now unknowingly embraced this term as a legitimate word meant to convey one of the most sacred and integral mechanisms of Hindu worship.
Unfortunately, when a Christian theologian, a Muslim cleric, or a colonialist-tempered scholar is using the term “idol”, they are interpreting the specific religious phenomenon of murti-puja in a radically different manner than is the typical Hindu worshipper. For the Christian and Muslim, murti-puja is nothing more than the demonic worship of abominable graven images. For the atheist academician, it is merely an instance of primitive superstition, worthy of no more consideration than any other intriguing object of anthropological study. Consequently, each and every time we foolishly call our sacred images “idols”, we are actually insulting the divinities we are claiming to worship, and proclaiming to the world that we are worshipping false gods.
For those scholars who have allowed themselves to develop a more sophisticated and objective understanding of the phenomenon of murti-puja – that is one that arises from a Hindu, and thus an insider, perspective – it becomes rather apparent that the practice that is occurring via the process of murti-puja (or what is sometimes calledarcha-puja) is something radically distinct from the stereotyped image of idol worship that is dishonestly painted by rabidly iconoclastic ideologies. Followers of Sanatana Dharma are not blindly worshipping false idols, but are using divine images whose forms have been revealed via the non-mediated intuitive perception of the Absolute experienced by the rishis (the enlightened saints and sages of Sanatana Dharma). Moreover, such images are used primarily as focal points designed as aids to meditative awareness. Archa-puja is not a superstition, a form of primitive magical fetishism, or a concocted form of worship, but rather a tried and tested soteriological and meditative device. This being the case, I urge both scholars of Hindu Studies, as well as everyday practitioners of Sanatana Dharma, to refrain from using the derogatory term “idol” and to instead use one of the more culturally sensitive, and more academically accurate terms that are used by the tradition itself. Such terms include: murti, archa, etc. Take your pick.
Is Sanatana Dharma Predicated upon Lies?
The next term that we will examine is the word “myth” as used to describe the sacred stories of Sanatana Dharma. The related terms "myth", "mythology", "mythological", etc., have had an interesting history and a very pointed polemic use in Euro-American discourse on Sanatana Dharma. That the terms are rife with very negative connotations is doubted by very few. The way the terms are used today both within academia, as well as by the general public, is to denote something that is untrue, false, a lie, "primitive" (i.e., not Euro-American). Several months ago, during a visit to the dentist's office, I saw a pamphlet on the table called "The Myths About Sexually Transmitted Diseases". The ultimate question that all Hindus need to ask ourselves is: is it really of any intellectual necessity that such a powerfully negative term as “myth” also be associated with the sacred stories, teachings and history of Sanatana Dharma?
Polemically speaking, one culture's "myth" is another culture's sacred history...and visa versa. The academic field of the study of "mythological" literature was founded by 18th century European Classicists who took their simplistic misconceptions about their own Greco-Roman, pre-Christian religious and cultural heritage, and attempted to then graft these misconceptions onto all contemporary non-Christian cultures - including that of India. These founders of "mythology" studies - including such individuals as Sir George Grey, Rudolph Otto and Karl Kerenyi - were convinced, as is unarguably evident in their writings, that the entire realm of religious story could be clearly demarcated into two radically distinct camps: Myth and History.
- The first category is "Myth" proper, that is: the “primitive” stories about gods, goddesses, spirits, demons, magic and mysticism, etc. found throughout all of the indigenous, pre-Christian, and non-Biblical cultures of the world. Such stories are all considered to be certainly no more than the ignorant "pre-scientific" attempts of primitive peoples (their words, not mine) to come to terms with and explain such frightening mysteries as natural weather phenomena (the stereotypical scenario offered by these atheistic scholars is that the inexplicable spectacle of lightning and thunder left our ancestors trembling in worshipful fear!). The study of such woefully mythologically ridden cultures was then relegated by these supposed mythology authorities to the nascent fields of anthropology, folk-lore studies, ethnic studies, and art history studies. The “myths” of all non-Judeo-Christian cultures were thus falsely portrayed as being archaic, primitive, and not worthy of serious scholarly study.
- The second category that religious stories were placed in was termed "History", that is: Biblical literature and all supposedly factual accounts of events proceeding such literature to be found throughout the history of Europe and the post-Columbian Americas. Whereas stories about Rama as the Dharma-raja (Dharmic King) of Ayodhya were considered quaint heroic myths, for example, stories of Moses parting the Red Sea were accepted as being thoroughly historical – this, though there is more archeological and textual evidence for the former than for the latter being actual historical facts. In order to study these supposed historical facts about Judeo-Christian culture, Euro-American scholars employed a very different battery of academic disciplines entirely, including philosophical, ethical, literary, psychological, etc. The only overlapping exception to this biased division of study is the field of philology, which was employed to research both the glorious history of Europe, as well as the primitive utterings of the Rg Veda. Apparently, only the “history” of Western man is a worthy enough subject for liberal arts study, philosophical consideration, and serious intellectual analysis.
There is the wonderful saying that we have all encountered that assures us that "history" is written by the victors. Consequently, the mostly improvable stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, Abraham, Moses, the Judges, David, etc. are unquestioningly accepted by most European historians - and tragically by many Indian historians! - as being incontrovertible and established fact. This, even though the evidence for these supposed historical facts are in many cases no stronger, or even less so, than the evidence supporting the historicity of the ancient stories of Sanatana Dharma. What these Western scholars and their Westernized Indian counterparts called the "mythical" Sarasvati River, for example, was later discovered to be a concrete geological fact in our century by no less empirical evidence than satellite photography. Krishna's "mythological" city of Dvaraka was, likewise, impertinently discovered off the coast of Gujarat about three decades ago (anyone out there have a crane?). The supposed myths of the Shastras seem to have the incorrigible habit of consistently allowing themselves to be proven factual.
Despite these hard geological and archeological facts, the histories of the Puranasand Itihasas are - unlike the stories of the Bible – summarily relegated by modern Euro-American scholars to the misty realm of myth. Or more bluntly: to the realm of primitive fables. If we would venture to speculate that what has brought this stark double standard about has been nothing less than European xenophobia and intellectual colonialism, coupled with a very strong element of Hindu inferiority complex, we would not be far from the mark. The terms "myth", "mythology", "mythological", etc., have been used as a powerful weapon for decades in order to delegitimizing the world-view of Sanatana Dharma, as well as the Hindu and Indian way of life.
Whether such unscholarly use of these otherwise legitimate terms will be allowed to continue as a weapon against the sacred stories of Vedic culture, or whether the use of such terms will be relegated to the same dust-bin of other such derogatory terms, is up to the will of the global Hindu community. We ourselves, as Hindus, need to stop using derogatory terms to describe the beliefs and elements of our religion. Such terms as “myth” should be absolutely anathema to every sincere and self-respecting Hindu when speaking about the sacred stories of Sanatana Dharma. If we ourselves don’t have the determination to describe our own religion in legitimate and positive terms, how can we expect anyone else to?
As a more positive alternative to these terms, I propose that scholars who study the religions of South Asia approach their purported object of research in a similar manner as do scholars who study many other formally oppressed non-Christian cultures (such as those who study Native American tribes). In these fields the religious stories of the subjects under study are often referred to by the more culturally sensitive term "Sacred Stories". I propose that we scholars of Hindu Studies owe the Hindu world no less respect. We need to begin referring to the stories of the Hindu scriptures as Sacred Stories, or divya katha in Sanskrit. We can later, as informed persons, debate over the actual meaning of these stories - whether they are literal history - which in many cases they very clearly are - or are meant to be taken allegorically or metaphorically. Let us all, in any case be in agreement that these Sacred Stories of Sanatana Dharma must never again be degraded by terming them "myth".
Reclaiming the Power of Our Words
The perennial use of politically surcharged words to stifle the aspirations of a people, to deflect the actual meaning of an action or concept, and to otherwise keep a people subservient to the dominant cultural mainstream is nothing new. Additionally, it is not new that the very people who have been the direct victims of such propangandistic terminology will inevitably come to adopt such terms in self-referential ways. We have the case of the Ethiopian Jews, for example, who for hundreds of years were termed “Falashas” – an incredibly derogatory term in the Ethiopian language– by those who persecuted them. After hundreds of years of such persistent persecution, sadly, the Jews of Ethiopia even began to refer to themselves as the “Falasha” community. If a people are called inferior for long enough a period of time, eventually that population group will start to call themselves inferior as well. Such instances of the victims adopting the polemic terminology of their oppressors has been witnessed repeatedly over the long course of human history – among the Jews, Native Americans, European Pagans, and Gypsies (Romani). Now the Hindu community has joined their ranks.
Consequently, the use of inaccurate, and often consciously and maliciously distorted, terminology has been a double-edged source of oppressive discourse. The use of such terms has been made use of by an intellectually lethargic tradition of South Asian scholars who view the religion of Sanatana Dharma, not as the noble living tradition that it is, but as their personal academic plaything. On the other hand, Hindus themselves have then blindly accepted these non-indigenous and inaccurate terms, and unknowingly adopted them as their own. Thus, while the bulk of the blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the oppressors, the victims too need to free themselves of a colonialist-induced mentality of inferiority and acceptance of their oppression. It is my fervent hope that we followers of Sanatana Dharma will stop using the terminology of our antagonists to describe our religion. We must begin to call our religion by its true name: Sanatana Dharma. We must never use the words “idol” and “mythology” to describe our murtis and sacred stories again. We must reclaim our heritage. Such positive change might come about slowly, one person at a time. Every revolution, however, begins with thoroughly grasping the power of the word.