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Understanding Sanatana Dharma …. Hinduism

October 24, 2015



The Beginnings


The Indus Valley Civilization, 3000 BC to 1800 BC, vanished mysteriously leaving behind ruins of well organized cities but no written Scripture. We will skip the debate whether it happened due to the Aryans from the North  or whether the Aryans ever existed at all.. Important aspect is that another Vedic civilization rose from those ruins that  spread across the river Indus (Sindhu); and  also across the seasonal river Ghaggar (Himachal Pradesh)  as it flowed through Punjab to Rajasthan entering Pakistan as Hakra river before dissipating into the Thar desert. These rivers are also known as Vadic Sarwati rivers.


The Vadic Civilization had  the world’s first recorded scripture called the Vedas. The Vedas came through Rishis (sages) who heard voices (Shruti – revelation) from universe  or  were  written through the cultural tradition (Smriti). Vedas explained a human being’s relation with nature and included knowledge of logic, astrology and astronomy.


The four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda) contained four sections each. Samhitas contained mantras and hymns. Brahanas contained the ritualistic teachings. Aranyakas contained meditation and the famous Upanishads contained the summeries of mystic and philosohical thought. The Vedas provided a  philosophical and a spiritual  way of life with a vast array of  beliefs, practices, customs and  rituals.

The Core Philosophy

The Vedas provided a philosophy called  Santana Dharma or just Dharma – the Eternal Way or Perennial Philosophy.  Dharma is  the process for aligning one’s  body, mind and soul with the nature in search of the Ultimate Truth or Reality to find salvation in life.

The  Santana Dharma also emphasized that  there were many ways of reaching the ultimate truth or the reality in these words of  Rig Veda:


Sanskrit: Ekam Sat Vipraaha Bahudaa Vadanti

English: “Truth is One, though the Sages know it as Many.”

The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)


Sanatana Dharma, in due course, gave birth to three other Dharmic faiths namely Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism that were more definitive and with  more specificities.

Aum became the standard sign of Dharma and  swastika (the noble symbol) from the early Vedic culture. Swastika was used by the Nazis to potray  the white superior Aryan  race.

Unlike the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which had a single founder and a single book with well defined code of  life, Sanatans Dhara  did not have these attrinutes.. Even the  followers of the Dharma  had no religious identity.  All people living across the Sindhu (Indus) river were called Hindus –  an ethnic/geographical identity. After four thousand years, the term  Hinduism was coined during the British Raj. The  term Hidutva is even less than 100 years old. To differentiate Dharma from other contemporary religions, I feel Brahmanism would have been a more accute description as we shall see in the next paragraph.


The Brahman (not Brahmin)


The Brahman (or Ishvara), the ultimate truth or reality, is One that the human beings seek for salvation. The Brahman is indescribable in any metaphysical terms. And it may appear in the shape of  three main deities such as the Brahma (the creative spirit) or as Vishnu (which  keeps order in the universe) or as Shiva (which causes the destruction of one cycle of universe leaving it to be re-created again)

Therefore, Sanatana Dharma can neither be classified as  polytheistic or  monotheistic. The different gods and avatars that are worshipped by followers of the Dharma are taken as different forms of  the same One Truth, the Brahman.

There are a number of Deities, avatars and mother goddesses. The Vedic Dieties include Indra, Surya, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Yama, Kubera, Soma, Mitra, Kama, Gayatri, Aditi, Ushas and SarasvatiAvatars of Vishnu include Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Tortoise), Varaha (the Boar), Narasimha (Half Lion, Half Man), Vamana (The Brahmin Dwarf), Parashurama (The Warrior), Rama (The King and Pinnacle of Dharma),  Krishna (Purnavatar or the Full, Plenary, Ultimate Avatar), Buddha (The Enlightened One) more commonly known by Hindus as Buddhadev (Lord/God Buddha), Kalki (The Final Avatar as Man on White Horse). Relatives are Ganesha, Parvati, Karttikeya, Sita and Hanuman. Mother goddesses are Shakti, Devi, Kali, Durga, Lakshmi and Amman


The followers of the Dharma are free to choose their own Deity for worship or not chose any Deity or not worship at all.


The Scriptures


Vedas are considered the primary holy scriptures by the followers of DharmaSmitri text which has an author includes the Puranas which deal with the lives of the gods and celestial beings. Other important historical text like Rāmāyana evolved  between 300 bc and ad 200 and Mahābhārata evolved  between 400 bc to about ad 400.


The Rāmāyana describes the life of Prince Rāma, an incarnation of Vishnu.  The Mahābhārata, an epic story of 100,000 verses, is attributed to a sage named Vyāsa and considered to be the longest poem in the world. It traces the descendants of two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāndavas, whose disputes eventually lead to the Mahābhārata war.  One part of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā, describes the techniques and paths by which an individual can attain realization of the Ultimate Reality with Krishna as the guide.

Different Schools of Vedic Thought

There are different schools of Vedic thought like Nyaya, Vaishesika, Samkya, Mimamsa, Yoga, Vedanta, Bhakti and Tantric. Space does not permit discussion of all. Nyaya  school of thought believes that knowledge is required to get a release from suffering and there are four sources of knowledge such as perception, inference, comparison and testimony. Samkya school regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: purusha (soul) and prakrti (matter or nature)  and process of  equilibrium between the two. Mimamsa believes that vedic revelation must be proved by reasoning and not accepted blindly as dogma. Yoga deals with meditation. Vedanta (meaning end of the Vedas)  provides interpretation of Vedas. Bhakti (Devotional)  movement rejuvenated the Dharma through expression of faith through puja using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Or devotional songs called bhajans , kirtan (praise) and arti (fire ritual). Bhakti resulted in creation of  a mass devotional material in the form of literature, music and art. The Tantric school rejected the caste system.

The four goals of life

The four goals of life (purushartha) are  kama, artha, dharma and moksha. The human beings seeks kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, they control their desires in the  pragmatic framework of dharma or  harmony in all. The final eternal goal of happiness is achieved through liberation  (moksha) of soul  from this earthly cycle of life and death.(samsara-reincarnation).

The four stages of life

The four stages of life begin with first quarter of life  called  brahmacharya  (literally “grazing in Brahma”)  spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life’s secrets. Next stage Grihastya is the married  stage that satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. The third stage Vanaprastha is a gradual detachment from the material world by getting involved in contemplation of the truth and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sanyasa, there is a disillusionment with material life, worldly thoughts and desires; and person spends the rest of his life in spiritual contemplation.


The Rituals & Culture


The Hindu  rituals are yajña, (a sacrificial fire); pūjā (devotional offerings, usually flowers); and dhyāna (meditation). Yajñas are performed on major occasions such as marriages. Pūjā may be performed publicly or privately. Public pūjā, is usually performed in a temple with a statue of a deity and offering flowers, incense and  food. Chanting and devotional singing follow with waving of a small, camphor-burning lamp that illuminates the image of the deity (arati). And the offering of food is shared by the worshipers. Darshan is going and meeting a holy person and Satsang is learning from his/her company. 


There is a ritual of shaving the head of a newly born.  A wedding has many ceremonies including the joining of the bride and groom with a knot after which they walk around a sacred fire seven times. There is a  cremation (burning of the dead body) of the dead and ashes are collected and deposited usually by the side of or in a river. Some  rituals are performed to obtain a specific reward according to instructions in the Vedas. Such rewards include securing a suitable life partner, conceiving a child  or attaining wealth as well as warding off  bad spirits.


The Earth is considered as sacred and there are pilgrimages to Badrinath to the north, Puri to the east, Rameshvaram to the south and Dwarka to the west.  Certain parts of India are held in special veneration like  the holy: Ayodhyā (the birthplace of Rāma); Mathurā (where Krishna grew up); Haridwār (where the Ganges River widens onto a plain); Kāsī (sacred to Shiva); Kāñcī; Avanti or Ujjain (site of the temple of Mahākāla); and Puri (associated with the later life of Krishna). A number of festivals take place like the one to  commemorate the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana (Way of Rama). The timing of these festivals is related to the movements of the Sun and the Moon.


Dassera marks the victory of Prince Rāma and the festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in February or March. The people spray each other with colored powders and colored water. A family festival, Raksābandhana, occurs in July or August and renews the bonds of affection between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie lucky threads around the wrists of brothers and are rewarded with gifts. On religious occasions, the chanting the om  is considered  holy.


Ahimsa or non-violence is another concept that came from Upanishads. Though vegetarianism is not a dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle. Those who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef some even going so far as to avoid leather products. The Vedic people relied so heavily on the cow for dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a  ‘caretaker’ of humanity grew to an almost maternal figure and an honored place in Hindu society.


The Political Hinduism

Political Hinduism is a phenomenon only a few decades old in a history of  4000 years and is confined to only India. This could be termed as yet another fall out of the two-nation theory.

The Courts should normally avoid the temptation of defining faiths leaving it to the believer and the Divine. In 1966, Supreme Court of India defined Hindu faith as follows:

(a)    Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.

(b)    Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view based on the realization that truth is many-sided.

(c)    Acceptance of great world rhythm — vast periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession — by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.

(d)    Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.

(e)    Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.

(f)     Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods to be worshiped may be large, yet there are Hindus who do not believe in the worshiping of idols.

(g)    Unlike other religions, or religious creeds, Hindu religion’s not being tied down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.

The Court seemed to have over-defined the Dharma making it exclusionary in some respects. It may have been sufficient to simply state the core philosophy of Sanatana Dharma. Making accepance of the Vedic Scripture as a pre-condition, it transformed the universality of Dharma into a religious ideology contrary to the very spirit of Dharma itself. Consequently, the term  `Hindutva’ (meaning `Hinduness’), coined less than 100 years ago, gets a faith-based connotation.  So while one may agree with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) demand for a Uniform Civil Code in India, Hindutva as a political philosophy by  RSS or Bhartitya Janata Party (BJP) may be a disruptive philosophy  just as any other faith-based political ideology. 

Hinduism is the third largest religion with approximately 1.05 billion followers worldwide. Significant Hindu minorities exist in Bangladesh (11 million), Myanmar (7.1 million), Sri Lanka (2.5 million), the United States (1.7 million) Pakistan (1.3 million), South Africa (1.2 million), the United Kingdom (1.2 million), Malaysia (1.1 million) and Canada (0.7 million)

Evolution of Islam in  South Asia

 Islam evolved in South Asia rooted well in its local history and culture just as different versions of Islam evolved in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt and different Arab countries. The Sufi school of thought, which had a  similar  philosophy as the Santana Dharma, was widely popular. South Asian Islam also evolved a culture of paying homage to the saints, going to their Darbars and seeking the fulfillment of their wishes much like the Dharmic Dieties. This included the customs of laying flowers, burning candles and incense, chanting religious Qawalis and  dancing in a trance. And reading of holy scripture on food and then distributing it. Other forms of religio-cultural creations were the naats,  mercia, classical music and  classical dancing. Then there are other customs like reciting holy verses in the ear of a newly born and shaving his head, chanting of drood on holy occasions, tying the imam zamin on wrist and so on ………,   











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