Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma?

Sanatana Dharma

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay presents the historic context in which the names Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma became popular and which name one should use for the faith


Most people who are familiar with Hinduism know that it is a not a religion in the western sense. The name was originally invented by people who lived outside India to designate its geographical location, culture and ethnicity. The word became associated with native faiths of India much later.

The truth is Hinduism is not a religion, but a basket of multiple faiths. Each of them may stand in its own right to be recognized as a religion by itself. The name Hinduism gained popularity during the medieval times and became the norm during the British rule to distinguish Christianity and Islam from the native faiths. Today, Hinduism represents all the faiths that originated in India, except Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. During the British times, for academic purposes they were also considered part of Hinduism.

Today, Hinduism stands in its own right as a major world religion, although at times you may keep hearing the confusion associated with it. For instance, in 2012 the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal of Nagpur, India, refused to give tax exemption to Hindu religious institutions, stating that Hinduism was not a religion but only a technical term, unlike Christianity and Islam which were religions. Its decision was widely criticized by many Hindu groups, since the tribunal conveniently overlooked the prevailing customs and traditional nomenclature. At the same time, one can see that Hindu marriages in India are guided by The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which distinguishes Hindus from Christians and Muslim by their “religion in any of its forms.” However, it extends the same law to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs also, at the same time legally identifying them as separate communities.

Thus, while the world at large may not understand what Hinduism is or what it represents (many American Television channels would not even care to mention it when they talk of religions), those who are born in Hindu families or those who study it or practice it know what it means. Many nationalist Hindus have an aversion to the use of Hinduism because they believe it is a foreign word.

It is true that the word came to us from Persia. The Persians identified the people who lived south of the Indus river as Hindus. The word Hindu came from the root word Sindhu and overtime it became Hindu, form which came Hinduism. The Greeks interpreted it as “Indos.” Hence, the Europeans used the name India for the subcontinent. For long, the Indian subcontinent was known in the Islamic world as Hindustan, or the land of the Hindus.

Those who do not like the name Hinduism prefer to call it Sanatana Dharma. No one knows how this name came to be associated with Hinduism. It was certainly not a popular name until the last few decades, or at the most a century. If there is any word which should rightly be used to designate the faith, it is Dharma, which is a very complex word with multiple meanings. The word has been traditionally used in the Indian subcontinent for millenniums to designate any faith. Dharma denotes faith, sacred knowledge, duty, morality, moral obligation and divine law. Sanatana means eternal. Sanatana Dharma means the eternal religion. Since, God is an eternal being, whatever knowledge that arises from him and whatever laws he enforces in his creation are equally eternal.

Hence, Hinduism, which is mostly derived from the sacred knowledge as revealed by God, as personified by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva or Shakti, the faith is justifiably an eternal teaching or Sanatana Dharma. Although the Vedas are considered revelatory or the heard ones (sruthi), the truth is that Hindu scriptures such as the Agama Shastras, Tantras, Bhagavadgita, many Puranas and even the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are presented to us as revelations or conversations between the divinities.

The Bhagavadgita is a conversation between Krishna, an incarnation of God, and Arjuna, a devotee. Many Upanishads contain fragments of conversations. The Tantras and Agamas are conversations between Shiva and Parvathi or Vishnu and Devi. Therefore, the name Sanatana Dharma is justified, although we cannot say that it was historically used to designate Hinduism. Since God is eternal and we are eternal souls, the idea of eternal knowledge perfectly fits into belief system of Hinduism.

However, as stated already the world Dharma is not exclusive to Hinduism. It has also been traditionally used in India to designate other faiths namely Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Even Shaivism and Vaishnavism are known as Shaiva and Vaishnava Dharma. Each of them is traditionally known as Dharma only to their respective followers. To distinguish them from each other, outsiders may refer to them as Buddha Dharma, Jaina Dharma and Sikh Dharma, but to the followers of each Dharma the word Dharma represents the whole faith without a qualifier.

For example, for a Buddhist, three truths matter most in his life, the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma. For him Dharma or Dhamma represents the teachings of the Buddha regarding the Four Noble Truths about suffering and the Eightfold Path which represents the Middle Path to achieve salvation. Some Buddhist accounts suggest that the name Sanatana Dharma was originally used by the Buddha to denote the eternal nature of his teachings or the knowledge that would lead to Nirvana and cessation of suffering.

While it may be true, the word Sanatana does not go well with the teachings of the Buddha because he originally taught that there was nothing eternal about existence since everything was subject to decay and destruction. He taught no-self or the nonexistence of an eternal Self. He also refuted the existence of an eternal God. Therefore, from a Buddhist perspective, it is hard to accept the notion that there can be an eternal Dharma when there can be no eternal Self or no eternal God or eternal anything.

The discussion so far leads to this question, what name should Hindus use to designate their faith and their community? The answer is if you are a spiritual person, you should not become caught in the snare of names. You may use either of the names with which you are comfortable, without insisting and demanding that other should agree with you or follow your norm. Your true allegiance is to God and his Dharma or duty, not to your religion. The religion is a mere shell which protects you from sin and sinful actions. It is not a cloak or a crown which you should wear to enhance your identity, status or prestige.

You may call yourself a Hindu, a Sanatana Dharmi or even a Bhakt, which some irreverent people in India derogatorily use to mock the nationalist Hindus on social networks. In the end, names do not matter. The word Hinduism was never in popular usage in India until the last few centuries. Yet, millions of people practiced the faith. If you are a Hindu, you should be familiar with the concept. Hinduism teaches that names and forms are illusory and do not represent God or soul or eternal truths. They are the means to grasp the truths of our existence, but not the ends in themselves.

Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism are mere names which we use for convenience to identify our faith. As long as you have the right knowledge and the essential knowledge of it, it does not matter what you would call it. It is better if you use the popular names so that people know who you are or what you believe in. It is equally important to know that your faith is different from other faiths. You cannot practise any other faith under the illusion that all religions are the same, and still consider yourself Hindu. To be a Hindu, you must practise the faith according to its tenets.

If you are interested in this topic, you may also check these essays which are available at Hinduwebsite.com

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