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Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part VI
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

The Sanatana Dharma

Continued from Part V

The author had earlier mentioned that the culture of open debate and dissent as also the freedom of choice and expression since the ancient times led Hinduism to develop into a complex and composite religion instead of taking the shape of a syncretic or codified religion like those of the Abrahamic religions in the world. Followers of the Hinduism are known as Hindus and the land is called Hindustan along with other existing names. Ironically, in India a significant population comprising of the members of some minority communities, political parties, and self-proclaimed secularists and liberals in India find no issues with the ‘Hindustan’ but they become apprehensive and agitated with the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism. In fact, if any Hindu individual or organization even genuinely talks about nationalism or ancient cultural heritage of the land, the same is often vehemently opposed by the same elements citing it as a serious threat to the secular fabric of the nation.

Reportedly, fourteen of the top universities in Germany teach Sanskrit and Indology, and such courses are stated to be quite popular. Sanskrit is the original language of the land since Vedic period and most of the ancient scriptures and texts are in Sanskrit only. Obviously, it cannot be just enamour for the South Indian history, instead it is the quest for the oriental philosophy, sciences and culture in the original Sanskrit texts which is fascinating many Germans and other Europeans to join these courses. Both India and Germany are secular countries. Germany has only about fifty-nine percent registered Christian population yet it is categorized as a Christian nation and no controversy has ever been raised from any quarter. On the other hand, India has over seventy-nine percent Hindu population and a continuity of at least four thousand years but any reference to Hinduism or Hindu nation invites sharp reaction and vehement opposition from the stated groups and individuals.

The question is Hinduism represents the ancient culture of the original inhabitants of this land which some sources even claim it to be five to ten thousand years old civilization. The term Hindu or Hinduism, however, does not find a mention in the scriptures including Vedas and Upanishads. Hence quite obviously this name came much later. In fact, today’s India or Hindustan has more than a dozen terminologies in ancient scriptures and text, some of the more popular terms being Bharatvarsha, Jambudvipa, Bharata, Nabhivarsha and Aryavarta. Of these, the most popular names was Bharatvarsha and Bharata that find a mention in Vishnu Purana after the Vedic age king Bharat.

It appears that after Muslim invaders of the Arab and Turkish origin started invading Bhratavarsha in the 11th Century, later established Muslim dynasties centred around Delhi and started calling the land as Hindustan (in Persian/Arabic language) after the Sindhu (Indus) river. They ruled large parts of the northern part of the Sub-continent for more than six hundred years and various rulers also tried to greatly influence and alter the indigenous cultural and religious beliefs through persuasion and coercion. Perhaps not many people know that Mughals had adopted Persian as the official language during their regime. This is how the original indigenous terms referred to above were gradually replaced by the term Hindustan and original inhabitants got the nomenclature ‘Hindu’ and their culture/religion as ‘Hinduism’. Later British gave it the name ‘India’ which is now in common use worldwide with universal acceptance.

In view of the above, whatever particular communities, politicians or the said secularists and liberal say or hold against the terms Hinduism and Hindu due to their vested interests, it would be difficult for any person of sound logic and rationale to justify the said objections and opposition by certain people. If the nomenclature of the land is okay as Hindustan, why should certain elements have issues with the original inhabitants as Hindus and their culture/religion of Hinduism? Also, if the Hinduism is a much later term then what is the original cultural/religious identity of the land? The author intends to explore the answers of these questions in the following piece of writing.

Knowing Sanatana Dharma

As already mentioned earlier, the term ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ do not find a mention in the ancient scriptures and text of this land. The exact origin is not known but it is widely believed that the nomenclature is of Persian origin given by the Muslim invaders/rulers to the people and their culture living east of the Indus River. Muslim dynasties stayed for more than 600 years over with large parts of the Indian sub-continent under their subordination and these terms gained larger acceptance for the whole country over a period.

The ‘Hinduism’ became the common term used to identify the religion practiced by the original inhabitants of the country. However, the original name of the Hinduism is the Sanatana Dharma (the eternal truth) as per ancient records and traditions; the followers are called Sanatana Dharmis which means the ‘followers of the eternal truth’. Although the terms Hindu and Hinduism are widely used by the foreign countries and many Indians too, the majority of Hindus still prefer to call their religion as the Sanatana Dharma.

Thus Sanatana Dharma is the original name of what we now call Hinduism in common usage. The two terms come from the Sanskrit language, of which ‘Sanatana’ means Anadi (without beginning), Ananta (without end), eternal and everlasting. Similarly, Dharma too has no corresponding single meaning in English, instead it connotes to sustain and hold together the principles of reality which are inherent by nature and design of the universe. In a way, the Sanatana Dharama is a code of ethics, a way of universal living through which one may attain moksha (enlightenment, liberation). It could be stated without hesitation that the Sanatana Dharma represents the world's oldest surviving culture, spiritual, religious and social tradition of over one billion of the world’s population.

Besides, the Sanatana Dharma is not a simple syncretic or codified religion like those of Abrahamic religions, instead it is more like a code of conduct and a value system with spiritual freedom as its core element. It has no single known founder and the earliest reference is found in Rigveda, the oldest known Hindu scripture, as a recorded synthesis of ancient sages in the quest for the cosmic truth through the learning about the universe and humans’ place in cosmos. Subsequent constant enrichment of the Sanatana Dharma continued through scholarly works of sages and rishis through three more Vedas namely Atharvaveda, Yajurveda, Samveda, many Upanishads, and other scriptures and texts.

Moreover, the Sanatana Dharma is God (Brahman) centred instead of being prophet centred as in the case of Abrahamic religions and it is more of a practice and experience based rather than being belief based. Scholars define it as a religion which is ingrained and transcendent, inherent and inclusive of all, from within the world and above the world, and system of faith that has love for every living being, excluding none.

Basic Ingrained Philosophy

Enormity of the Sanatana Dharma influencing not only the faith but every walk of human life is such that many scholars treat the it more as a cultural way of living rather than simply a religion. In fact, many tenets of the Sanatana Dharma such as dharma, karma, samsara, maya, trimurti, moksha, yoga etc. have no corresponding English terms conveying the exactly same meaning. For instance, dharma is much more than religion and, similarly, moksha is much more than salvation though the corresponding English terms (religion and salvation) are being loosely used by everybody to define dharma or moksha.

According to a metaphoric illustration, the Sanatana Dharma is visualized as a fruit tree where the roots represent the Vedas and Upanishads; the trunk is seen as the spiritual experiences of sages, rishis and saints along with other scriptures and texts; the branches represent various theological traditions; and finally the fruits symbolize as the various sects and sub-sects. Such is the complexity and compositeness of the Sanatana Dharam aka Hinduism. For these very reasons, it defies any fixed definition and holds that the major portion of the human religious aspirations has always been unknown, undefined and outside the institutionalized belief.

Ancient sages and rishis while endorsing the Dharma, for these reasons, always honoured the individual spiritual experience over any formal religious doctrine. According to their vision and wisdom, wherever the universal truth is observed by a person or community, there is Sanatana Dharma – irrespective of the field of human life viz. the religion, economics, art or science. The Sanatana Dharma does not endorse any belief system, instead its spiritual laws regulate the human society in the same way as the natural laws affect the physical phenomenon. To further amplify, it is just like the gravitational force that already existed before it was discovered; the spiritual laws of the Sanatana Dharma too are eternal laws that existed as universal truth before being explored by the ancient sages and rishis since Vedic age.

The Sanatan Dharma holds that the universe is dominated by three basic gunas (qualities), namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattvic qualities are good, pure, wholesome, clean, calming and peaceful that could simply be put in the upper bracket; Rajasic qualities are active and moving yet indecisive and forceful and thus occupy the middle order; and Tamasic qualities are inert, dull, lazy and dark at the bottom. Everything in the universe is a mix of these qualities and even a sage who is primarily sattvic may have some rajasic and/or tamasic tendencies. Hence the Sanatana Dharma affirmed faith in yoga, pranayama and dhyana since ancient ages to curb and minimize the harmful effects of the Rajas and Tamas that may hinder the path self-realization and attainment of liberation (moksha).

The Sanatan Dharma specifically lays down certain universal ethical and moral Principles for the followers. Since Vedic era these were codified as Yama or restraints and Niyama or practices. The restraints included ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (patience), Kshma (forgiveness), dhriti (steadfastedness), daya (compassion), arjava (honesty), mitahara (moderate appetite) and suchita (purity). The practices included hri (remorse), santosha (contentment), dana (giving), astikya (faith), Ishwara-pujana (worship), Siddhanta Shravana (scriptural listening), mati (cognition), vrata (sacred vows), japa (recitation) and tapas (austerity).

Worth Knowing Tenets

Following are some basic tenets of the Sanatana Dharma around which the life cycle of a Dharmi (follower) evolves, revolves and meets its ultimate nemesis.

  • Certain vital disciplines of the Sanatana Dharma, namely Varna System, Ashram System, Purusartha and Sadhna (worship) have been dealt with at length in the previous parts of the current series.

  • Brahman is the Supreme Soul, also known as the Supreme Self or the Universal Consciousness or Supreme God, who is commonly addressed as Bhagwan or Ishvara or Parameshvara or Sachchidananda in the Sanatan Dharma. Brahman is the indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute, infinite existence, and the ultimate entity Who is without a beginning and end, Who is hidden in all and Who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe.

  • Atman is the Individual Self or the Individual Consciousness distinct from the manas (mind) and the sthula sarira (physical body). This Self is the real entity without any name, gender, race nationality etc. that passes through the karmic cycle in repeated births and deaths till it attains moksha.

  • Dharma does not simply mean religion, instead it signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accordance with the principle of universal order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. It includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and right way of living. The Sanatana Dharma has accorded highest value for an individual to conduct according to dharma, a universal virtue that encompasses all aspects of human life.

  • Karma literally means action, work or deed but at spiritual level it also refers to the principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future impact on that individual (effect). As per Bhagavad Gita, karma is also closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life by leaving its imprints on the Self (Atman).

  • Samsara, another Sanskrit word, literally means ‘wandering’ or ‘world’ with its origin in the Vedic literature that denotes the cyclicality of life through material (or mundane) existence deeply linked with the cycle of rebirth in tandem with transmigration, karmic cycle and reincarnation. In fact, the Samsara doctrine is closely linked to the Karma Theory of all Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism etc), and the liberation from Samsara is considered as the chief spiritual quest in all Indian traditions.

  • Trimurti (Trinity) literally means three forms which in the Sanatan Dharma represents three chief manifestations of Brahman, each with a specific set of cosmic functions. Lord Brahma relates to the creation of the universe; Lord Vishnu acts as the preserver, protector and adherent by ensuring the order and regularity of the world thus created; and Lord Shiva destroys and withdraws everything into himself preceding re-creation. Although metaphysically the three deities appear to be different but in reality each of them is Brahman only in their highest respective aspect and worshipped as such by the Sanatana Dharmis.

  • Maya literally means ‘illusion’ which has multiple meanings in Indian philosophy depending on the context. In the present context, Maya is a spiritual concept connoting the illusionary material world which exists but is constantly changing and thus it is spiritually unreal, including the power or principle that conceals the true character of the spiritual reality.

  • Guru literally means teacher who is a spiritual instructor in the Sanatana Dharma that guides and steers him (or her) on the right path. He is accorded high esteem and reverence in Dharma and his centrality is absolute and unquestionable.

  • Dhyana in the Sanatan Dharma means contemplation and meditation which is exercised by the ordinary person to achieve concentration, Samadhi and self-awareness. In simple term, it could be defined as the focused attention on a specific spiritual idea through the sustained meditation. In higher form, it is also exercised by the yogis (ascetics) for the realization of Self (Atman, soul), connectivity with other living things and the Supreme Self.

  • Sadhana is a generic term and product of the yogic tradition relating to any spiritual exercise which is aimed at progressing the person (sadhak) towards any intended object in ultimate expression of his (or her) life in a realm. In general terms, Sadhana does not mean any specific activity but in spiritual terms, it is the means of self-realization through the devotion of God leading to the enlightenment or spiritual knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

  • Satsanga is the practice of seeking the blissful presence of the wise and knowledgeable, whose company makes it is easier to learn and practice for the spiritual attainment.

  • Yoga finds a mention in Rigveda, the exact timing of its acceptance as an elaborate practice among the followers of the Sanatana Dharma is not firm but it is widely believed that it was developed in a mass practice around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. This old tradition from the ancient India is practiced both for the spiritual and physical attainment and well-being through various exercises, breathing techniques and meditation.

  • Moksha or mukti has a unique position in the Sanatana Dharma with no exact synonym elsewhere, though it is loosely referred to as salvation, liberation or emancipation in the Western literature. In Hinduism, it connotes to the freedom from samsara, the cycle of the birth and death through the self-realization. The Hindu dharma refers to four goals (Purusartha) of life, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha, the last one being the ultimate. These goals have been dealt with at length in one of the previous write ups in the current series.

  • Mantra is a sacred utterance, a syllable, word or phonemes, or group of words in Sanskrit practiced by the practitioners to have psychological and spiritual accomplishment. They are usually repetitively practiced during the meditation or auspicious social, cultural and religious ceremonies and syllables could be both vocalized or inaudible.

  • Prana refers to the ‘life force’ or ‘life energy’ comprised of the cosmic energy, permeating the universe at all levels. This life energy finds the mention in the Vedas and Upanishads at many places. The life energy is believed to enter the human body through the breath from the atmosphere and is a source of force behind all body functions.

  • Srishti refers to the material creation implying the universe or entire world.


Much more than just a Religion

The Sanatana Dharma, apart from being the oldest surviving religion, does not have any single founder as in the case of the codified religions like Christianity or Islam. Consequently, it does not mandate or force its adherents to accept any single idea or concept. Besides, the Hindu scriptures are not just limited to the spirituality, instead they carry rich legacy of the other secular and cosmopolitan pursuits like economics, science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and so on so forth. In that sense, it became more cultural than remaining simply creedal assimilating and evolving ethos in terms of the beliefs, customs and practices of every contemporary group or society since Vedic age. Therefore, it goes beyond the simple classification as religion.

Common Misconceptions and Truth

The Origin of Faith in Sub-continent:

The earlier belief of the Aryan descent and civilization mainly based on the Western view has been found shaky and discredited by many historians and scholars. It’s so because the kind of the composite culture and complex religion, the Sanatana Dharma evolved into, is not possible through a single race or set of people in a limited geographical and demographical expanse. Instead, it clearly appears to be the synthesis and meta-faith of various races including Indus Valley Civilizations like Mohanjodaro, Harappans, Dravidians and many more other prehistoric groups in the sub-continent. Although due to various constraints, the Hinduism is estimated approximately to be about 4,000 years old but the possibility cannot be ruled out that it existed from a much earlier date possibly between five to ten thousand years ago in the pre-Vedic age.

Hinduism is a Polytheistic Religion:

The broad outlook and theory that the Hinduism is a polytheistic religion due to multiplicity of deities has the majority takers due the dominant Western influence world-wide. It is a fact that the Sanatana Dharma permits worship of multiple God and Goddess forms with different looks, attributes and powers.

However, the ultimate truth is that the Sanatana Dharma considers Brahman as the only Supreme Soul or the Universal Consciousness or the God of gods and the much talked about Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - are His three different aspects or manifestations. Similarly, various other deities too are various aspects of Brahman only. Because of the following of Brahman as multiple Gods in multiple roles, the Sanatana Dharma gives an impression of a polytheistic religion while in essence it is the one and same Brahman whom the followers remember as Bhagwan or Ishvara as also call Him by different names like Lord Vishnu or Lord Shiva in different aspects.  The Vedas and ancient sages held that every divine entity in the universe is some aspect of Brahman Himself.

Hindus are Idol-Worshipers:

Idol-Worship is associated with the Hinduism but that simply does not connote that Hindus are idol-worshipers. In reality, the Hindus actually worship the Supreme God and its various aspects while the idols merely serve as a medium for the concentration. The science of temples and idols has been dealt with at length in the Agama Shastra and the energised idols or images of the gods and goddesses are used for concentration in meditation and prayer. It is like you pay same reverence to the image of your father or guru as of his actual persona, knowing well that the image is not the real father or guru.

To illustrate the above point, the concept of Sadhak, Sadhya, Sadhna and Sadhan is relevant in the Sanatana Dharma. Here the Sadhak stands for the devotee, Sadhya for the Divine, Sadhna relates to devotion and Sadhan is the enabling medium of devotion. To understand this in a plain and simple term, one needs to understand that it is difficult for the ordinary subject (devotee) to understand the complex nature of the universal consciousness. Therefore, while an accomplished and higher level devotee may easily concentrate on the formless God, an ordinary devotee finds it easier to offer his prayer (Sadhna) if an energised idol or image (Sadhan) is available before him as a symbol of the God (Sadhya). Thus in essence, it is a simplified method of achieving the same goal.

There has been a long history of anti-idolatry sentiments in Abrahamic religions even with the stated instructions in the holy books to the followers to oppose it and even destroy temples and idols. It is rather a strange dichotomy how in Christian tradition the image and idols of Christ are treated as sacred icons and revered by the followers but the image and idols of Hindus are treated with contempt and often ridiculed as superstitions by the same Christians. Similarly, many followers of Islam hold that they cannot pray to any entity other than the Allah (God) yet they visit tombs and graves to pray and place offerings. Many conflicts in India arise because Hindus pray and chant for the mother land and other national symbols but many Muslims refuse to do so for the given reason.

The Caste System:

The Sanatan Dharma had broadly divided the society into four classes (Varna) in the ancient times namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (artesans and labourers) strictly based on the division of labour (work). People belonging to one of these classes were called savarna while certain tribes and outcasts including sinners were called avarna (untouchables). However, during the long history at some point of time, the work based system degenerated into the birth based one giving origin to the caste system further multiplying into discriminatory layers and numbers over a period.

This is, however, more of a social and cultural issue rather than being a religious point. In the modern India, a lot has been done by the government, NGOs and responsible citizens to improve the social fabric through interaction and convergence among different groups by legislation, empowerment, economic packages and reservation including in job opportunities. Discrimination is now seldom seen in the occupation, working, dining and sharing leisure time. Even inter-caste marriages are now taken with relative ease in the society. India, however, still needs to go a long way to completely eradicate the caste-based inequalities from the society.

Followers Worship Cows:

In the Sanatana Dharma, scriptures do not ask followers to worship cows nor in reality they do so. Actually, this is a common misconception because of the manner in which cows are reared, venerated and protected in a typical Hindu household. A cow provides protein-rich milk, cream, curd, cheese and butter, and its milk is even used by the humans as the substitute of the mother’s milk for the new born and toddlers. Even the cow dung is used as fuel and fertilizer in homes and agriculture. As against this, all that they take in return is just some grain, grass and water from the owners. In fact, the Sanatana Dharma teaches love and respect to all living beings and non-living objects of any use to mankind. Following the same tradition, Hindus love and protect many animals, especially cow which is symbolically treated as a maternal figure by many households. Because of their sensitivity, cows are protected by law also in several states in India. However, the entire issue becomes a cause of disinformation and conflict mainly because Muslims hold a religious belief that the resources (including cows) have been created by Allah for their consumption.

The Bhagavad Gita is Hindu Bible:

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular, read and analysed Hindu texts in India and the Western world and some scholars relate it akin to the Hindu Bible. The Gita indeed includes many important tenets of the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) in the form of the narrative dialogues between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna but it is certainly neither akin to Bible nor it is compulsorily mandated. As already explained, the Sanatana Dharma is not based on any single codified text (book), instead a whole range of scriptures and texts, of this Vedas and Upanishads being the original and oldest, constitute the teachings of the Sanatana Dharma on various disciplines of which the religion is one. The Gita incorporates several tenets from Vedas specially the theory of Karma and Dharma and is considered as a guide and allegory for a person’s ethical and moral ethos and struggle.

A Religion with Difference

The Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) was so called because the Vedic doctrines encompassed universal principles based on truth independent of any particular race or culture. It is unique because of its time tested veracity of knowledge and experience as against the prevailing dogmas and beliefs in other faiths. It existed as a peaceful value based system yet without ambitions since the Vedic age. It never taught its followers to influence or convert anyone through evangelism or coercion; it never taught its followers to forcefully expand its boundaries beyond Bharatvarsha. It never asked its followers to abandon reasoning and logic in favour of the blind faith and gave options to the followers to worship the divine in its all manifestations while being tolerant and peaceful towards other faiths.

While in Abrahamic religions, God is said to be kind and compassionate to the believers but unkind and unmerciful to non-believers who are sent to the eternal hellfire, the Sanatana Dharma allows complete freedom of expression and tolerance. While it tends to accommodate different philosophies of the existence of Brahman and His manifestations, it is tolerant enough to even allow the atheism too to be its part. While it accepts the idol worship, it also accepts worship of the formless God. There is no other religion in the world which is so diverse with the vast freedom of practices, choices to make and pantheon to follow. In Hinduism, no God is known to be unhappy and harmful if someone doesn’t worship; any rewards or punishments in life are the results of good or bad Karma and not due by birth or belief.

Continued to Part VII 

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