Should we call Hinduism Sanatana Dharma?

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

I often receive comments from readers that I should not call our tradition Hinduism but Sanatana Dharma or Vedic dharma, because Hinduism is a foreign word not found in any of our scriptures.

The truth is, prior to the arrival of Muslims and later Christians, Hinduism had no particular name by which it was identified by common people. People simply called it Dharma, not even Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma was used by scholars or in the scriptures. Otherwise, the tradition was known as Vaidika Dharma or simply Dharma.

Religious identity was not a public issue

When I was a child, no one in our village bothered to proclaim themselves as Hindus. Probably they were aware of their religious identities and knew what happened during the partition of 1947. But religious identity was not, yet, a public issue.

I never heard anyone using the word in conversation either in my family or in my village. I began hearing the word frequently and reading about it in the papers after I grew up and went to college.

It was not that the people in my village were irreligious or less concerned about their faith. We had a temple, a church and makeshift mosque, where people worshipped.

People attended fairs when Sivaratri came. They made tall chariot like structures with colorful papers, wood and cardboard and carried them with a lot of fanfare on the bullock carts all the way to the temple of Siva in a neighboring village.

When the festivals came, people celebrated both in public and in private. On certain occasions they decked the cattle with ornaments and bells.

People did not debate or discuss about the religious divisions in the village but they certainly preferred to listen to stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana or watch plays based on them. There were some Muslims and Christians in the village, but they went about their lives normally, as if religion was no issue at all.

As a child I knew only two distinctions, those who believed in God and those who did not. We had some relations who were atheists. Hence, I knew that some people did not believe in God, but I did not see anyone treating them as sinners. Except that, I had the feeling that all people who believed in God worshipped the same God with different names. It made perfect sense to me because I never saw people quarrelling about their faith.

What I experienced as a child was not unique to me. It had been the tradition in India for a very long time, until religious division became deeper and villages are infected with the new disease called communalism.

Is the name Hinduism justified?

As far as the name Hinduism is concerned, personally I do not see any issue with it. There is a lot in our thinking and attitude that is not entirely rooted in native traditions. I therefore do not see any justification why we have to think differently about the name Hinduism with which our religion has been associated now for over 400 years.

When some Hindu insist that we should stop calling Hinduism by its current name and use a more traditional one such as Sanatana Dharma, they overlook the fact that in Hinduism, name and from are not as important as the essence of things. I wonder how can names and forms become important when we believe that the world is an illusion and we are going to wear numerous bodies in the course of our existence?

Do not we learn from the same tradition that we are not here to form attachment to things that are impermanent and illusory?

One of the questions which I cannot answer with certainty is whether a Hindu will be born forever as a Hindu only in all births or he will also be born as a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or an atheist in some births.

People use the words Hinduism and Hindu because they are well known and commonly used. Whether we like it or not they are here to stay and that is how our tradition will be known to people in various parts of the world.

We rely upon names and words for our convenience to relate with the phenomenal world and its complexity. If you are a true follower of Sanatana dharma, you will not be attached to anything in particular, including your notions of what your religion is or what your country or nationality is.

What matters most is whether you are a good human being and whether you are progressing in the right direction towards light and liberation. Liberation is our goal, not heavenly life. For liberation we need to focus on conduct and character.

Every other indulgence is a mere waste of time, a retrogressive step in the direction of darkness (tamas), death (mrityu) and egoism (rajas) or a continuation of the state of ignorance and delusion.

Why change place names when the attitudes are not?

India occupies a unique place in the history of the world, because it is the birth place of four distinct world religions. It has a continuing civilization that is at least 7000 years old. As some historians are now increasingly inclined to believe, it is also probably the cradle of the human civilization.

Equally fascinating among the nations of the world is the USA, which is the most modern, currently the most powerful and the most advanced.

While the two nations share some common values, there is one fundamental difference between them, which is worth studying. It is with regard to how they cope with their past and preserve their identities.

A majority of Indians, especially the educated intellectuals, are very confused and ambivalent about their attitude towards their identity as a nation; while the Americans deal with the same problem with greater clarity, purpose, leadership and understanding.

For example in the name of nationalism, Indians changed many place names to erase the memories of their colonial past. (Yesterday someone said on twitter that one should not call the government "sarkar" because it sounds very British!"

Even street names were not spared. However despite this animosity, they continue to follow western ideals and western lifestyles. You will find in the same streets, whose names have been changed, many shop bearing names and brand names that are distinctly western.

In contrast, many places in the USA bear an odd mixture of English, Spanish, African, European and even Chinese and Indian street names and place names.

They let all types of people come and settle in the country. Practically everyone who lives in the country legally is an American because the law does not discriminate.

This does not mean that the Americans have no pride in their nation, or as a friend of mine once argued that they have no identity of their own. Without trying to repaint their history, they asserted their independence and uniqueness in several distinct and profound ways.

For example, the Americans do not play cricket, not because it is an uninteresting game, but because it is rooted in the class hierarchy of the British society which the Americans do not favor.

In the days of British colonialism, cricket was essentially a game of the aristocrats and the nobility who had ample wealth and time to indulge in the game, while the rest of the world toiled in the factories and shipyards to keep the British Empire rich and powerful.

As a show of their independence, therefore they rejected cricket and came up with baseball, a game that represented their temperament and attitude much better.

Again, the Americans took to football rather than soccer, because it was a game where you ignored all the gentlemanly niceties of British etiquette and mannerisms and pushed people around with brute power.

The US also maintained its independence by following a federal system, rather than the British Parliamentary system, by adapting to metric system in weights and measurements, by introducing left side driving rather than right side and following its own standards in the use of electricity, housing, business practices, judicial system and communications.

In social matters, they devised their own rules of etiquette and manners often to the amusement of the Victorian England. Although the early settlers were mostly English speaking people, they evolved their own form of English with distinct spelling and pronunciation. America's success in the field of innovation and creativity, largely stemmed from this distinct individuality they promoted and preserved.

True identify comes from expressing our uniqueness

Against this backdrop, think of what happens in India normally. People might have changed the names of places and streets; but they follow the western world with complete fascination. Cricket consumes the lives of people. Most of the films and creative work is based on borrowed or copied ideas from the west.

Many best works of Indian film and music industry are rather the poor imitations of the original works from the western world. There is no respect for intellectual property rights. People who copy the original art forms of the west are well rewarded with national and popular awards.

Historically, the British were the last foreign power to rule India. So, logically it makes no sense why the people should be obsessed only with the British names associated with the places and monuments in the country.

They have to go all the way to the Bactrian Greeks and the Kushanas or perhaps to the early settlers of the Indus Valley civilization, who seems to have come from outside during the early waves of migrations from Africa, when the Saharan region was drying up and becoming a desert or when food became sparse due to climatic changes and forced people to migrate.

The best that we can do with regard to history is to accept it and learn from it, without the compulsion to tamper with it or rationalize it to suit our modern ideologies or current beliefs.

Hinduism may be a foreign word. Yet, its value is not diminished if we use it or refer to it. It does not and should not hurt our self-esteem or our religious identities. There are over 10000 languages and dialects in the world and in every language an object goes with different names and yet remains the same in its essential nature.

An ocean is an ocean whether you call it the Indian ocean or the great Hindu Mahasagar. Whether you call Him Brahman or God, in deep sleep you do not know what you call Him.

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