Oct 04, 2023
Oct 04, 2023
Sanatana Dharma: Marvels of Its Survival Kit
Unlike many other cultures and religions in parts of the Old and New Worlds, the origin of Hinduism (ancient name Sanatana Dharma) was not linked to any dogma, event, prophet or group of prophets. It continuously evolved as a way of life with time over a large geographical area in the South Asia and continued till date as such adopting new customs, abandoning few old ones and modifying several others according to contemporary needs with the progression of time. Speaking in a nutshell, it has no specific or rigid belief system that every Hindu must comply; rather, it is inclusive of so many different, sometimes even contradictory, beliefs, rituals, customs and traditions with Purushartha as its central theme comprising of elements like Dharma, Kama, Artha, and the ultimate goal of life as Moksha (liberation). On the other hand, during the same passage of time, many other civilizations with specific culture and belief systems in various parts of the world perished owing to own inherent contradictions or onslaught of the later evolved two Abrahamic religions. This naturally raises a curiosity about the inherent qualities and strength of the Sanatana Dharma which ensured its survival so long despite systematic attempts by the barbaric invaders, Islamic rulers and British colonizers for centuries to destroy it. The author proposes to examine related important factors or, so to say, the "marvels of survival kit" in the following analysis.
Eternal and Ever Evolving
The culture and religion that evolved and grew in the Indian-subcontinent since the Vedic age was traditionally known as the Sanatana Dharma since inception and the term Hinduism was used much later for it. It comprises of two Sanskrit words Sanatana and Dharma; of which, Sanatana means ‘eternal’ while Dharma denotes ‘righteous duty and action’. Thus the Sanatana Dharma together conveys the purported meaning ‘the eternal righteous way of living’. However, even if it is literally translated the way “religion” is taken in the modern age in Western terminology, it may translate to ‘eternal religion’. True to its meaning, the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is now accepted as the oldest surviving religion in the world. The basic tenets or pillars of the Sanatana Dharma have been its Varnashrama-dharma and Purushartha; while the first one clearly defines the duties of an individual of the material or worldly nature specific to the particular stage of life, the second one clearly sets the goal of life including that of its transcendental nature, of which much has already been described and explained in the Part IV of this series.
Its eternal and ever growing nature could easily be illustrated through the example of the vast literature of Hindu sacred books since its early evolutionary phase. And what is true about the literature, is also largely true and applicable to other spheres of the Hinduism. Just a cursory look on the chronological progression of scriptures would unfold as to how the wisdom and learning eternally evolved and grew in Hinduism, assimilated and socio-cultural cum religious norms set and adopted in the community with the changing time and circumstances. Hindu Vedas are considered to be oldest scriptures; although a difference of opinion exists about their chronology between the Western historians/scholars and Indian traditional historians/scholars, however, there is no dispute about the order or vintage of four Vedas. The Rig Veda is the oldest which explains the nature of God and natural forces delving upon the science of their power and functions – a treasure-trove of cosmic knowledge deifying natural forces as the gods of fire, wind, water, earth, sky, and so on. The next scripture Yajur Veda encompasses art how to perform various rituals and ceremonies, sacrificial acts and worship commensurate and consonance with the nature and natural forces (deities).
Of the later two, the Sama Veda explores the nuances of human psychology through the devotional chanting, music and arts while the Atharva Veda deals with formulation of ethics and values among human beings, social subjects like marriage, cremation, diseases, science of nature and surroundings, and so on. The more noteworthy point about Vedas was their suitability only for the then priestly class. Immediately following the Vedic era, a need was felt to bring knowledge closer to human understanding which led to creation of Upanishads expanding and expounding the Vedas’ knowledge. In the post-Vedic era, when the Sanatana Dharma was threatened with the missionary zeal of Buddhism and a need was felt to make the common Hindus aware of the treasure of knowledge contained in Vedas and Upanishads, the Puranas and epics were created. In these books, efforts were made to impart the same knowledge through life stories and simple narratives thereby making it easier for the common men to imbibe and implement marvels of the Sanatana culture and religion. When the centuries of invasion, occupation and subversion nearly destroyed Sanskrit and other ancient Indian languages during the last millennium, the same literary knowledge with renewed and revised vigour was adopted in Hindi, Tamil and other vernacular languages.
The Power of Adaptability
Perhaps the greatest quality and strength of the Hinduism is its time tested attribute of adoptability with prompt commensurate changes vis-à-vis challenges faced at various points of history that enabled it to weather even the worst storms from various directions and sources. As already explained in the previous section, the nomenclature “Sanatana Dharma” itself signifies its literal word meaning ‘eternal way (of living)’ which invariably necessitates changes too with time. Perhaps no other culture or religion of the ancient world ever understood the truth “constant change is imminent”, the chief reason why most of them perished. Even the two later evolved Abrahamic religions that replaced them in most parts of the world do not even allow their adherents to question or reason with any prevailing dictums or precepts, and their relevance and applicability to the society and people with the changing times. On the other hand, the adaptability in the Sanatana Dharma is multifaceted, multipronged and ever dynamic as clearly reflected in its cultural and religious customs and traditions, literature, art, music, murals and paintings and social mores.
This could be easily appreciated with the illustration of changes occurred in religious practices and devotion methodology. In Vedic age, Vedas propounded the concept of one unmanifested God simultaneously deifying various natural objects and forces impacting the life on earth (total 33) and mode of worship primarily remained as sacrificial offerings with Agni (fire) as medium that was considered necessary for the safety and well being of individuals, family and community. In the post-Vedic age, two key changes occurred in the form of challenge posed to the Sanatana Dharma by the Buddhism with its missionary zeal and need to spread the teachings of Vedas and Upanishads to all classes of society (which was largely centred on Brahmin class in Vedic age). Consequently, the period was marked with the Saguna worship through idols and images in temples and homes. During this period, the concept of Tridev as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva basically representing three most important cosmic functions of creation, preservation and destruction respectively got acceptance and popularised, who were essentially different manifested forms of Brahman (the unmanifested God).
During the post-Vedic age, many other deities and their idol worship was accepted in different names and forms in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. Similarly, for a larger reach of the knowledge of scriptures to common people, many Puranas and two all-time great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were created by the Hindu sages and scholars. These measures proved to be of tremendous benefit and use to sustain, preserve and carry on the Sanatana culture and religion steady for a long time till the Islamic invasions started during the beginning of the last millennium. Islamic invaders and rulers posed a real threat for the survival of the Hinduism in the sub-continent as they willfully applied obnoxious methods and coercive measures to destroy the Sanatana culture by killing, forced conversions, enslaving and rape of women and children, destruction of temples, shrines, libraries, and so on. Thus threatened, this time the Hindu saints and philosophers started Bhakti movement and the measures thus taken during this age considerably helped to save and preserve the Hindu civilization.
The next threat was posed by the Christianity during the colonial rule of nearly two hundred years during the previous centuries. This threat was two-pronged: While Christian missionaries resorted to their evangelic methods to target the tribal population and lower echelons of the Hindu society, the British rulers introduced McCauley’s education to target high and middle class Indians to abandon their culture. The invasion of Christianity appeared quite somber and sophisticated but it was no less brutal in dismissing and junking the traditional Indian education and belief system. As the Christianity did not achieve much success to attract Hindus for mass conversion, they even reoriented and tried to equate their prophetic preaching as parallel, rather akin to and an improvement over the Sanatana Dharma with mere difference in god and saints. This gave rise to Indian saints of the ilk of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananad, Ramkrisna Paramhans, and many others, who not only actively tried to revive the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads but also started Hindu awareness movement in the form of the Brahma Samaj (Brahmoism), Arya Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, Ramkrishna Mission, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana, and so on in various parts of the country. During the aforesaid developments with the changing times, the Sanatana Dharama had adopted not only to changes and innovation but also discarded several practices which were not found worth continuing any long.
Spirit of Universal Brotherhood
Certain key important facts and unique features about the Hinduism originating from the scriptures and texts including the Vedas and Upanishads that differentiate it with other civilizations and are at the same time strong points too for its continued existence, involve its focus on individual, freedom of thoughts and religion, avoidance of invasion/wars on other cultures and religions, treating the entire world as part of the same family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam), insistence on peaceful living (Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah), stature and respect for women in the society and households, love and respect for the nature and natural objects, and near absence of slavery in any form. The individual focus on Purushartha and following Dharma ensures a right blend of material and spiritual life in Hinduism. Similarly, there have been great warriors and kings since ancient age in Bharatvarsha (India) but none of them ever ventured outside the sub-continent to invade and destroy other cultures and religions. Further, Hinduism has always stood for the religious freedom and Hindus have even deified animals and plants, rivers, mountains, etc., because of their usefulness for the survival and continuance of life on the planet.
Hinduism always existed as a way of life rather than any dogma or prophet driven rigid religious preaching/edicts which has never violated or ignored the sensitivities and right to life and freedom of other civilizations and nationalities. This issue was thoroughly examined and accepted even by the Supreme Court of India twice during the previous two decades which held that the Hinduism in no way violates or hurts religious sensitivities of any other religion or belief system. Another strong point in favour of the Hinduism is that it has nearly uniformly evolved over a large geographical area covering approximately 5.2 million square kilometres of the Indian sub-continent (South Asia). During the numerous invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks and other barbaric tribal forces from the west and northwest for the last many centuries, none of these destructive forces could ever conquer and subjugate the entire sub-continent at any point of time. Even during worst phase of Mughal empire, a large part of south, east and northeast India remained largely unaffected or less affected, thereby enabling the Sanatana culture to recover and evolve despite all oddities.
There have been many illustrious kings and emperors in the Indian sub-continent since ancient age but they never ventured out beyond the sub-continent to attack other civilizations and nationalities. It’s not that all Hindu kings and emperors were kind and peaceful or they did not indulge in invasion and war on others. Many of them too constantly had conflicts and wars and perhaps the largest ever war in the world i.e. Mahabharata occurred in the Indian-subcontinent. But during such wars and invasions, barring occasional exceptions or aberrations, they followed certain ethics and principles as also laid down rules which inter alia ensured safety to civilians, women, children and infirm people of the loser side. Besides, the social fabrics and cultural/religious beliefs of the people of the conquered state was seldom ever disturbed. Such practices and attributes too largely contributed in preserving and propagating the Sanatana culture and religion over the ages. Consequently, we experience numerous traditions and sects within the Hinduism itself peacefully co-exiting till date. For illustration, among the Shaivites (devotees of Shiva) alone, one would experience several sub-traditions of worship such as that of the Aghori Shiva (Kaal Bhairav), Shivalinga or suave human form (Shankar, Shiva) in various parts.
Unity in Cultural Diversity
No other civilization in the world has ever existed with so much diversity in culture and consequent variety and variation in its religion, languages, dialects, costumes, attires, festivals, worship, celebration, and so on. For instance, festivals constitute a key aspect of the Hindu way of life which are celebrated with great fanfare and passion in myriad hues across the entire length and breadth of India. They are often linked with the historical events, nature, change of seasons, harvesting of crops, living and non-living objects, and so on. The festive occasion may be same in Hinduism but the associated customs and traditions, scales, modalities and manner of celebration may widely differ in different regions yet the occasion is marked with the same enthusiasm and steadfastness all over the land. Some of the cultural festivals like Deepawali (festival of lights), Holi (festival of colours), Dussehra (Vijayadashmi) and Rakshabandhan could be illustrated as case in point presenting unity in cultural diversity.
Perhaps Makara Sankranti could be cited as the best illustration of the aforesaid category. As per the Gregorian calendar, this festival occurs as the first major festive occasion of the year usually falling around 14th day of in the first month (January). It is celebrated with different namess in different regions/states of India such as Lohri in Punjab and Haryana, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Makara Vilakku in Kerala, Shishur Sankraat in Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarayan in Gujarat, Magh Bihu or Bihu in Assam and other northeastern states, Poush Sankranti in West Bengal, Makar Sakraat in Bihar and Jharkhand, Khicheri in Uttar Pradesh, Makar Sankranti in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and so on. The occasion heralds the beginning of longer days and reaping of harvest in the fields in certain parts and above all a live instance of the cultural unity across the country with people felicitating each-other. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, making of Khichdi is common in most households on the day; Maharashtra people feast on Tilgul and Gulpilis wishing each-other peace and prosperity; Gujarat people make Undhiyu & Chikkis and fly kites exchanging wishes; Tamil Nadu people feast on wide varieties such as thai-pongal, mattu-pongal, kannum-pongal, and so on in expression of gratitude to sun, cattle and close relatives/friends; Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh people prepare and exchange beautifully made sugarcane blocks and jujube fruits and sweets respectively; and Assamese and northeast people prepare and exchange varieties of Pitha (rice cake) on the occasion.
In short, every region, state and district including those not mentioned here celebrate Makara Sankranti in their own unique way. So what is that links them such a unique way? Naturally, it is their ancient and invisible cultural thread that binds and brings them together to celebrate festivity in their own unique way with zonal and regional flavor and exchange good wishes. Also it is the same bond that gave them strength to withstand the most barbaric and cruel attacks on their civilization for centuries from foreign lands. If we put it in two words, this thread is the philosophy of the “Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam” (entire world is a family) in its own (homeland) perspective that was put forth by ancient rishis and scholars of Vedic age. This thread has not only united the diverse Indian-subcontinent in a common (diverse) culture but also enabled Hindus to welcome people from other cultural and religious backgrounds since the time immemorial. While the two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, do not see eye to eye despite similar lineage or parentage but the Hindus had warmly given shelter to Jews, Persians, Christians and Buddhists persecuted in their homeland in the past allowing them to co-exist peacefully and the majority Hindus even participate and celebrate their festivals too with the same zeal and fervor.
Survival Instinct of Sanatana Dharma
Even when most other ancient civilizations world over were polytheistic in their creedal beliefs with multiple gods, the followers of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) had clarity about one Universal God (Brahman) since the Vedic age. The oldest Hindu scripture Rig Veda has umpteen verses on the nature, attributes and functionalities of formless Brahman and worship of various forces/energies of the nature as deities, representing various attributes and functions of the same universal Divine (Brahman). Subsequent developments in the history clearly establish that the most other religions and cultures could not survive either the onslaught of the later Abrahamic religions in the post-Christ era or due to their own inherent flawed beliefs and value systems. On the other hand, the Sanatana culture and religion not only survived the barbaric onslaught and atrocities by different subversive forces for centuries but also successfully absorbed and adopted their desirable customs and traditions.
The first such threat to Hinduism was posed by one of the Indian religions viz. Buddhism much before the advent of the two later Abrahamic religions. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautam himself was a Hindu prince of Shakya clan of Kshatriyas who renounced his palace in an early age to lead an ascetic life and establish a religion on tenets largely derived from the Sanatana Dharma only. Later on the Buddhism received the state patronage under the emperor Ashoka and it gradually degenerated to become aggressively missionary in nature. The Buddhist monks and missionaries successfully carried out their conversion mission in the Southeast Asia, East Asia and some other parts of the world but their similar efforts at home was resisted by the followers of the Sanatana Dharma. As this drive was patronized by the state too, it led to an uncomfortable relationship and conflict between the two indigenous religions with occasional violent flare ups for long and ultimately Hindus were able to save their culture and religion in the main land i.e. Indian sub-continent.
The earliest threat from the Islamists began in 8th century with the invasion by Muhammad bin Qasim, a commander of the Umayyad kingdom, in the northwestern Sindh region. He had his own share of loot, violence and atrocities on women and children but had to retreat having failed to make much headway beyond limited territories. With the beginning of 11th century, Mahmud Ghaznavi made several raids in the northwest up to Punjab province including famous Somnath Temple in Gujarat inflicting similar plunder of wealth and atrocities on Hindus. Ironically, the post-Independence Indian historians like Romila Thaper and Mohammad Habib have tried to play down Ghaznavi’s excesses in India while AV Williams of the Columbia University has lucidly spoken about his recurring Holy Jihad on the alleged infidels (Hindus) in his book “History of India”. Incidentally, the Islamists did not spare even Buddhists who were equally tortured and killed along with Hindus under jihadi zeal during such invasions and occupation.
Subsequent Islamic invader, Muhammad Ghori laid the foundation of Delhi Sultanate who after his successive defeats at the hands of Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan was able to finally defeat the latter in the Battle of Tarain in 1192 CE. The Delhi Sultanate was an Islamic empire (1206-1526 CE) with successive reign of Mamluk, Khalji, Tughlaq, Sayyad and Lodi dynasties extending to large parts of the modern age India, Pakistan and some other parts. Later Babur of Chagatai Turkic origin from Uzbekistan laid the foundation of a strong and for more powerful Mughal Empire in 1526 CE lasting for nearly two hundred years, which was reduced to its influence just around old Delhi area by 1760 CE and formally dissolved during the British Raj following the 1857 Rebellion. Needless to mention that nearly 550 years of Islamic rule in large parts of India and raids of tyrants like Timur Lang and Nader Shah is a gory history of massacre and plunder of Hindu lives and wealth, enslaving and rape of women and children, large scale conversion and destruction of temples, libraries and other symbols of Hindu culture and religion. Although many post-independence leftist or left-leaning historians have attempted to glorify Islamic era by playing down excesses but such illustrated accounts are evident from the writings of many Muslim historians of that age.
The impact of Islamic onslaught and excesses too is well known with almost entire northwest and eastern part of the Indian-subcontinent existing in the modern age as Islamic nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh with many parts of India facing similar nemesis now; nonetheless Hinduism still survived. During the 19th century, yet another threat emerged from the Christian missionaries with conversions tacitly accepted by the British imperialists. They had primarily targeted the tribal population through their evangelic efforts; consequently, scheduled tribes and castes were worst effected and a large, or even majority, population particularly in northeast has converted to Christianity. But the assault on Hinduism still continues in various forms from the two Abrahamic religions in the form of coercion and terrorism, illegal migration from neighbouring countries, conversion rackets, love jihad, evangelism, refusal to adopt small family norms and modern education, and so on – largely as a consequence of negation, patronage and distortion of history, and flawed secularism as the state ideology adopted by India’s first prime minister after independence in 1947.
During the centuries of misrule and attempts of Islamic rulers to destroy Hindus culture, religion, and education and languages during the medieval period, the Sanatana Dharma responded with the renaissance of Bhakti Movement with a widespread worship culture and popularization of Hindu Puranas and two great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. This was a time when Islamists were destroying thousands of Hindu temples and shrines under the patronage of Muslim rulers, many of them replacing with Muslim shrines, imposing restrictions on the construction of new temples and imposing Dhimmi status and jijiya tax on Hindus forbidding them even to express their religious beliefs and rituals. During this period, the saints and poets like Tulsidas, Surdas and ilk wrote and popularized worship of ancient great kings and heroes Sri Ramchandra and Shree Krishna deifying them as incarnation of god; Sri Ramcharit Manas of Tulsidas having been accepted as the most popular and all time great epic poem of the same era. At the same time, saints like Kabirdas and other saints of his ilk preached amity and peace among religions and Hindu-Muslim amity and brotherhood. The Bhakti Movement and saints during the medieval period greatly motivated and influenced Hindus in various parts to keep them together in the Sanatana fold midst all danger and threats to their life and property. Thanks to these endeavours and sustained efforts, the Hinduism was saved and preserved, and despite continuing threats over a billion Hindus are still surviving as the followers of this third largest religion of the world.
Other Unique Features of Hinduism
Notwithstanding constant invasions and subversive efforts for centuries to destroy Hinduism, it has survived owing to its unique features and inner strength so long so far. Furthermore, it has not only survived but also continued to be the third largest religion and oldest surviving culture in the world with over one billion followers worldwide, although majority of them residing only in India. By no means, it could be treated as a small number because it means that there is one adherent of Hinduism out of every seven people in the world. However, since the latter half of the twentieth century, India and Hinduism have entered into yet another transitional phase of the existential threat, thanks to the socio-religious policies adopted by the Nehruvian regime after the independence from the British regime in August 1947. The country was partitioned on religious lines on the basis of the Two-Nations Theory propounded by Islamists, facilitating a separate homeland for the Muslims yet owing to constant appeasement policies of the successive governments following Nehruvian legacy especially towards the alleged Muslim minority population, serious regional aberrations and imbalances owing to demographic changes have already started showing their ill-effects. It is yet to be seen how Hinduism will adopt this time vis-à-vis the new wave of the existential threat from the Abrahamic religions in the twenty-first century.
Continued to Next Page
Image (c) istock.com
More by : Dr. Jaipal Singh