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Why is the Sanatan Dharma Debate Creating a Divide Among Hindus

Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Kabir Das are among those who criticised the irrational and inhuman rituals followed by the Brahminical order.
Sanatana Dharma

A bitter controversy has erupted on the statement by a DMK leader against ‘Sanatan Dharma’. He was addressing a conference of progressive writers of Tamil Nadu who spread scientific temper against superstitions, irrational practices, rituals, caste-structure, untouchability and inhuman social injustice in the name of ‘Sanatan Dharma’. 

What is ‘Sanatan Dharma’? 
This term was first used by the author of the Manusmriti to defend upper caste Hindu males in the following verses:

क्षत्रियञ्चैव सर्पं च ब्राह्मणं च बहुश्रुतम् ।  नावमन्येत वै भूष्णुः कृशानपि कदाचन ॥ 135 ॥ एतत्त्रयं हि पुरुषं निर्दहेदवमानितम्। तस्मादेतत्त्रयं नित्यं नावमन्येत बुद्धिमान् ॥ 136 ॥ (A person who wishes to live healthy and peaceful life should never hit or insult a Kshatriya, a Snake, a Brahmin with knowledge of the Vedas, even though weak in body, on getting injured these three can destroy the person. So wise people never hurt the three.)

नात्मानमवमन्येत पूर्वाभिरसमृद्धिभिः । आमृत्योः श्रियमन्विच्छेन्नेनां मन्येत दुर्लभाम् ॥ 137॥ (A person should not lament being poor since he has no ancestral property, or he could not succeed in getting means of livelihood, he should not feel ill-fated or worthless, he should keep trying and trying and should not think that wealth is beyond his endeavor.) 

सत्यं ब्रूयात् प्रियं ब्रूयात् न ब्रूयात् सत्यमप्रियम् । प्रियञ्च नानृतं ब्रूयात् एष धर्मः सनातनः ॥ 138॥ ॥ (Speak the truth, speak sweet words, do not use foul words for the Truth. But do not tell lies even with sweet words. This is Sanatan Dharma.) --Manusmriti 4-135-138 

This term was also vaguely used in Shrimad Bhagwat Puraan (8.14.4).

The DMK leader (Udhayanidhi Stalin) is not the first person to denounce the inhuman acts preached in the name of Sanatan Dharma. Although the Hindu population has been divided among various sects since ancient times, but the term ‘Sanatan Dharma’ became popular only in the 19th century in opposition to the reformist Swami Dayanand Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj. He wrote a book, Satyarth Prakash, to guide his followers, and he rejected a number of irrational rituals followed by a vast majority of Hindus under the age-old grip of Brahminical order. He advised Hindus to follow only the Vedas and not the Puranaas that are full of irrational stories and myths. 

Thus, Swami Dayanand Saraswati rejected the theory of Avatar, idol worship and also caste system. He argued in the book that women and Dalits cannot be denied education and study of the Vedas because God provided them also with eyes and other organs to do what other human beings can do. 

He rejected a number of superstitions and myths of ghosts. He wrote, ‘All alchemists, magicians, sorcerers, wizards, spiritists, etc. are cheats and all their practices should be looked upon as nothing but downright fraud. Young people should be well counseled against all these frauds, in their very childhood, so that they may not suffer through being duped by any unprincipled person…(Satyarth Prakash, page 27). 

Swami Dayanand Saraswati even makes fun of horoscopes and astrology. The book is in the question-answer format, the format adopted by social reformer Jyotiba Phule in his Gulamgiri with the same perception. Swami Dayanand Saraswati makes fun of all irrational rituals that rigid, conservative Brahminical order imposes on the Hindu population, and it is this orthodox Brahminical order that is called ‘Sanatan Dharma’. 

The followers of the irrational rituals under the deep influence of Brahminism were fighting against Arya Samaj and Swami Dayanand Sarswati. Many believe that the fanatics he opposed got him poisoned with a killer chemical at Jodhpur where he died on October 30, 1883.

The DMK leader is also generating similar wrath and ire, as reflected in the call of some Ayodhya seer, an orthodox fanatic follower of Sanatan Dharma, who has declared a booty of Rs 10 crore for the head of the DMK leader. It is reported that two FIRs have also been lodged against the DMK leader. 

People should know that all religions teach some healthy human values, such as love, compassion, truth, honesty, non-violence, pity, sympathy and fraternity. Gandhi was the follower of this positive essence of Sanatan Dharma and saw the same in other religions. He had full respect for the positive universal values preached by all religions. 

But all religions also have some irrational content and rituals that hamper the evolution of scientific temper in the society. The irrational and ritualistic content in the so-called ‘Sanatan Dharma’ has been vehemently criticised by various saints and intellectuals since ancient times. For example, one can see the epic poem, Valmiki’s Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sarga 108, in which sage Jaabaali makes fun of a Sanatan Dharma ritual known as Shraddh on the eighth day of the demise of the king Dashrath, father of Lord Rama. The original ‘shlokas’(verses) are as under: 

अष्टका पितृ दैवत्यम् इत्य अयम् प्रसृतो जनः |
अन्नस्य अपवित्रम् पश्य मृतो हि किम् अशिष्यति || 2-108-14

(People say, on the eighth day, food should be provided to the dead ancestor. This is sheer wastage of food. How can a dead person eat any food through others?)

यदि भुक्तम् इह अन्येन देहम् अन्यस्य गच्छति |
दद्यात् प्रवसतः श्राद्धम् न तत् पथ्य अशनम् भवेत् || 2-108-15

(If food eaten by someone reaches another person’s stomach far away, then there is no need of carrying food with a journey. It can reach the traveler’s body when eaten at home by someone, as it is done in the Shraddh.)

 A similar critique of rituals prevailing in Sanatan Dharma can be seen in the poems of Kabir Das, a 15th century Hindi poet. However, Kabir was the first creative writer in the world who was a fearless critic of all irrational rituals performed by Hindus, Muslims and even Christians. 

Although Hindu beliefs and superstitions were criticised earlier also by many ancient philosophers, but no philosopher dared to criticise the Bible or the Quran in the 15th century anywhere in the world. It was Kabir, who, for the first time, critiqued all irrational ideas narrated in these holy books. He rejects the words of a Sanatani Pundit, saying that he is a liar, ‘पंडित वाद वदै सो झूठा’ । With his rational approach, Kabir reaches a point in his thinking and word view that he vehemently rejects the concept of Lord Rama and uses invectives in his rejection in the Lyric no.140 of his Collected Poems edited by Parasnath Tiwari: 

अब मेरी रांम कहइ रे बलइया। (I will never utter the word, ‘Rama’)

जांमन मरन दोऊ डर गइया।। ( Now Fear of birth and death gone)

ज्यों उघरी कों दे सरवांनां।    (Just as exposed fact is not worth hearing)

राम भगति मेरे मनहुं न मांनां।। ( So my mind does not accept devotion to Rama)

हंम बहनोई राम मेरा सारा।  ( I am Rama’s sister’s husband, he is my wife’s brother)  Note : This is an invective used in North India

हमहि बाप रांम पूत हमारा।। (I am father and Rama is my progeny) This also is an invective used by folks and by Hindi films also.

कहै कबीर ए हरि के बूता।  (Says Kabir on the basis of his own God’s strength i.e. Truth)

रांम रमे तो कुकुर के पूता।। (If he worships Lord Rama, he should be treated as a puppy, a progeny of a dog)

This is the harsh language that Kabir used against Sanatan Dharma. He also rejected the myth of the creation of man and woman by God that is in the first chapter of the Bible that says :‘ 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’

This myth has been adopted by the Quran also. Kabir Das criticises this myth and cites what Jaabaali said in the Valmiki Ramayan about the birth of a human being :

बीजमात्रम् पिता जन्तोः शुक्लं रुधिरामेव च |
संयुक्तमृत्युमान्मात्रा पुरुषस्येह जन्म तत् || 2-108-11

(A human being is born with the mixing of man and woman’s fluid (semen and eggs) 

Kabir, too, says the same thing for rejecting the myth of creation of Adam and Eve by God. 

आदम आदि सुधि नहिं पाई / मामा हौवा कहां ते आई ।। (Adam in the beginning did not know from where came Mama Eve.)

तब नहिं होते तुरुक न हिंदू / मां का उदर पिता का बिंदू ।। (At that time there were no Muslims nor Hindus, it was mother’s womb and father’s semen)

         —रमैनी, कबीर ग्रंथावली, सं. पारसनाथ तिवारी, पृ. 119

Then on page 120, anyone can see Kabir’s critique of so-called Sanatan Dharma, the Brahminical Order. I quote him in original verses:

किरतिम सो जु गरभ अवतरिया / किरतिम सो जो नांमहिं धरिया ।। (The incarnation in the womb is a myth, the name given is also a myth)

किरतिम सुन्नति और जनेऊ / हिंदू तुरुक न जानैं भेऊ ।। (The circumcision and the sacred thread rituals are both artifices, Hindus and Muslims do not know the truth)


पंडित भूलै पढ़ि गुनि बेदा / आपु अपनपै जांन न भेदा ।।(Brahmins forgot knowledge after reading the Vedas, they themselves know nothing)

संझा तरपन अरु खटकरमा / लागि रहै इनकै आसरमां ।।(Pouring water and other rituals keep them busy all the time)

गाइत्री जुग चारि पढ़ाई / पूछहु जाइ मुकुति किन पाई ।।(For four epochs they continued reciting Gayatri, ask them who got salvation?)

और के छुएं लेत हैं सींचा / इनतैं कहहु कवन है नींचा।।(They practice untouchability, ask them who else is so low and mean)  --ibid, p.120

The followers of RSS-BJP ideology support the irrational aspects of Sanatan Dharma because they are enemies of scientific temper. Bhimrao Ambedkar too criticised the Brahminical ideology of Sanatan Dharma and that is why he renounced Hindu religion and adopted Bauddh Dhamma. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party ideology is antagonistic to intellectuals, rational thinkers and institutions that promote true knowledge for the betterment of our India. The current dispensation supports the inhuman Brahminical aspect of Sanatan Dharma and fights against its critics who want to spread scientific temper as a fundamental constitutional duty enjoined upon all of us by Article 51A(h) of our Constitution, which says:

‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India- …..

(h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.’ 

The Viswha Hindu Parishad, a member of the Sangh Parivar, has planned a fortnight long campaign of Rath Yatras covering five lakh villages from September 30 to October 14, 2023, to recruit so-called ‘Dharma Yoddhas’(warriors of Hindutva). Will these youth be used to unleash violence against the followers of other religions and the INDIA group of Opposition parties in the name of defending Sanatan Dharma?

The RSS-BJP leadership has failed to fulfil important promises it made during earlier elections, like doubling farmers’ income, controlling price rise, building an industrial base, etc. Perhaps, religious division is the only weapon they think they have to win the coming general elections.

The present Prime Minister himself promotes superstitions with his statements and actions. His statements about surgery on the head of Ganesha by some plastic surgeon, test-tube birth of Karna in ancient India are well known. We have seen all rituals based on the ‘Sanatan Dharma’ performed by him as official acts at the inauguration ceremonies, whether it is ‘Bhoomi Poojan’ or any other occasion.

In recent days we saw these rituals at the inauguration of the new Parliament building and the Bharat Mandapam,  funded by government money that comes from taxes paid by citizens of all faiths and even non-believers. That is why Bharat’s leadership fails to lead us to light from darkness. Recall that Thomas Gray once wrote in a famous poem “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”.

The writer taught English literature in Delhi University. He is executive President of Janwadi Lekhak Sangh, an all-India Association of Hindi-Urdu writers. The views are personal.

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