Hindutva derives from Sanatana Dharma
by Sandhya Jain on 04 Oct 2009 16 Comments

The land stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south, the land created by the gods, is known as Hindustan

The land which is north to the Hind Mahasagar and south to the mighty, magnificent Himalayas is Bharat, sons and daughters of this ancient land are called Bharati

In our contemporary era, possibly the most sensitive issue facing Hindu society concerns its self-definition, as opposed to the claims of hostile insiders and outright outsiders. In many ways, this is a continuation of the unresolved debate triggered by colonial rule, namely, whether India’s native communities and geographical landmass are bound by a common cultural substratum and religious continuity which makes this uniquely the land of the Hindu people, i.e., Hindustan. 

Sanatana Dharma: ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’ 

Sanatana Dharma, or the ‘eternal tradition,’ is a generic term for the eternal values cherished over millennia by the native people of Hindustan. Dharma is often used as a synonym for religion, a term best suited to monotheistic creeds which believe in a sole saviour and a single path to redemption. Sanatana Dharma is a far more complex and multi-layered concept; it embraces all spiritual experiences and quests native to this land.

Sanatana Dharma is the Hindu way of life. Encompassing the cosmic vision of ancient rishis, it constitutes a unique blend of spirituality and practicality, and is inspired by the ideal of universal welfare of all beings, both human and other creatures. Dharma is natural cosmic law, rta. Like other world religions, it has a formal structure, creed and ritual, centred round the pan-India and local gods of the Hindu pantheon. But dharma is not limited to this structure; it is not a static notion, fixed in time or space, nor does it espouse and uphold the values of a bygone era. The Rig Veda emphasises that change is the law of life.

What is unique about Dharma is that in its quest for Absolute Reality, Truth, it encompasses a vast unmapped terrain where pure Consciousness reigns and knowledge is experienced through intuitive perception. It is impossible to meaningfully conceptualize and communicate about this realm, which is best elucidated in the Upanishadic terms ‘that which is not’ or ‘that which is beyond.’

This special ability to define itself in dual terms of what it is and what it is not is dharma’s distinctive quality and sets it apart from other faiths. The distinction is important because this alone has protected dharma from the dogmatism and rigidity it could have fallen prey to if the sages had ‘capped’ the Vedic revelations as final and binding for all times, denying future generations the right to discover and experience Truth for themselves.

Arnold Toynbee observed that the principal monotheistic faiths grew on the ruins of previously extant civilizations. Sanatana dharma, however, is a living civilization while also embracing the formal Hindu dharma of the age. It is possible to be a good Hindu without subscribing to or practicing any of the known forms in which Dharma manifests itself, for dharma accepts even the atheist as morally valid, with space on the spiritual spectrum. 

Sanatana dharma is thus all-encompassing: it is righteousness, duty, and the eternal law that is not fixed in time or space or in the teachings of a human/divine agent/regent, but renews itself eternally in response to the changing times and provides for as many paths to salvation as there are individual souls who seek it.

The tradition abounds with the imagery of dharma as a river, which explains its changing nature and apparent sameness, as also its continuity. Like a river, dharma maintains a continuous flow through the ages, constantly renewing and replenishing its waters (contents); continually altering its course while appearing changeless.

Change cannot be averted and should not be feared, but ought to be experienced. This amazing plasticity of vision of the seers bestowed Hindu dharma with an incredible capacity to adapt its metaphysical principles in consonance with the social and historical realities of the era, without losing its essential character or sense of identity. It is this ability to simultaneously nurture change and continuity that saved Hindu civilization from the schisms that have often ruptured societies trying to cope with change in other parts of the world.

The ultimate goal of dharma is the realization of the Self (Atman) within, through awareness, self-inquiry, and self-realization, to bring release from the otherwise endless cycle of birth and death, the basis of which lies in man’s ignorance of the purpose of his life. Hindu dharma recognizes the possibility of salvation through Grace – the grace of God, or the grace of a Guru. But it rejects the notion of vicarious redemption through the sufferings of another being; each individual soul must itself aspire to godhead to attain nirvana (moksha, release).

Absence of Canon

Unlike monotheist traditions, Hindu dharma neither recognizes nor posits one authorized version (canon). MN Srinivas postulated a concept of “sanskritic” (classical) dharma, which “transcends provincial barriers and is common to the whole of India.” This inadvertently gave rise to voluminous scholarship regarding the ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions of India.

But this is a flawed model in the context of Hindu dharma as it tacitly implies that the Great Sanskritic and Little non-Sanskritic Traditions are separate, opposite or unrelated entities, when they belong to a unified spiritual-philosophical spectrum. The entire spectrum – the local and regional sub-cultures as also the pan-India ethos – is pervaded by an overarching notion of the sacredness of the land. Thus, a socio-spiritual-cultural continuum draws the myriad groups and regions into one civilizational ocean. 

Land and Goddess

The origins of Hindu divinity can be traced to the tribal concept of grama devta, the principal, usually female, tutelary deity of the village. Goddesses are intimately associated with the earth in the form of soil and territory. Village goddesses hold away over a specific geographical area; it is believed that Devi ascends from the earth and unites her various earthly forms within herself. Bhudevi (Earth Goddess) is the divinized earth.

According to popular legend, Parvati in her form as Sati killed herself in anguish when her father, Daksha, insulted Shiva. The grief-stricken Shiva roamed the world bearing her corpse on his shoulders until Vishnu, fearing the untoward consequences of Shiva’s sorrow, cut up the body with his chakra. The parts of the goddess’ body fell at various places, which became Shakti peeths, holy sites - eternal symbols of the Goddess’ bond with the earth and this world (India). Shakti is also the energizing power of the gods; tradition holds that the gods need female consorts (Shaktis) to spur them to action. The gods are thus usually installed in temples along with their divine consorts; images of goddesses tend to be solitary.

The ancient Kiratas revered the holy tree, Mother Goddess and Chandika Devi, the snake, stone (linga), and memorial stones. Tribal and village gods are mostly represented as uncarved stones or other simple emblems such as metal tridents, painted stones, or pots. These symbols are revered equally in tribal hamlet, village, town and city, and typify the unbroken continuity in the spiritual spectrum from primordial times.

The Kiratas venerated Mother Goddess as Devi, Parvati, Uma, Durga, Kali, Chandika, Ambika, et al. The first forms of the Mother were almost certainly linked to the mountains. Uma-Haimavati, daughter of Himavat (Himalayas) and the mountain-dwelling Parvati were venerated by Kiratas in remote antiquity. Shiva was foremost god of the Kiratas of Tipperah Hill, modern Tripura.

Scholars say that by the end of the seventh century AD, the Kiratas of Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Nepal, the Vindhyas and Uttaranchal had merged with the Hindu mainstream, while those of the Deccan joined it later. By the end of the first millennium AD, Kiratas had significantly fused with classical Hindu tradition, and contributed several gods and goddesses to classical pantheon. Hindu spiritual tradition and philosophy evolved from a synthesis of tribal and non-tribal groups.

It is pertinent that with the collapse of the Aryan Invasion Theory, there is no academic consensus over who the ancient Aryas (non-tribal) people of India were. Future scholars would do well to investigate if tribes, or sections of tribes, emerging from mountain or forest settings and settling in the plains began to perceive themselves as civilized (Arya, noble) as compared to groups remaining behind in the jungles or hills. This common genesis could explain the predominance of tribal gods and goddess among non-tribal peoples.

Kiratas made seminal contributions to the evolution of dharma - the concepts of totems, the philosophical doctrines of Atman (soul), transmigration and the law of karma. They believed in the existence of a world where spirits of the dead lived before being reincarnated according to one’s deeds in a previous life.

India: a spiritual geography

The idea of India as a distinct entity existed in the minds of the people from primordial times. Tribal place-names mentioned in the Vedas leave an impress on all subsequent literature. The Vedas refer to the king as a kind of non-territorial ruler of the Jana or Vis; they also allude to the Pancajanah. Yaska, the oldest Vedic lexicographer, suggests this refers to the four varnas with Nishads as the fifth.

Vedic poets expressed a deep love of the soil, linked inextricably with pride in the spread of a distinct (Arya) culture. It was through the extension of this culture through spiritual-cultural linkages and a community of worship, rather than through political conquest, that the idea of the nation was established in India. Geography was thus deeply enmeshed with spirituality, which could encompass and accommodate all tribes and groups, even immigrants, provided they embraced this spiritual unity, “for here culture and not race or language was the passport for admission.” The practice of common dharma created a social unity around which a group consciousness emerged.

Through the ages, from the Vedas, Brahmanas, Kalpasutras, Upanishads, Puranas and Dharmashastras, this spiritual unity permeated all tribal and foreign groups, as also the Jaina, Baudha and other streams it encountered. It became, as Sri Aurobindo stated, “a synthesis of all spiritual worship and experience, observed the one truth from its many sides, gave itself no specific name or limiting distinction, but only designations for its continuing cults and division. In its essential character, though strikingly distinguished from other creeds by its traditional scriptures, cults and symbols, it is not a creedal religion, but a vast, universal, many-sided and unifying system of spiritual culture.”

Caste was an agency of integration of diverse groups; a mechanism to resolve mutual conflicts. As the ancient customs (Acara) spread, ethnic distinctions melted and tribes and communities amicably adjusted themselves round the nucleus of caste. As this unity embraced all, caste proved the sole and sufficient bond of Indian society.

Consciousness of spiritual-geographical unity enconsced itself through an elaborate network of shrines and places of pilgrimage, the sanctification of rivers and places through Puranic literature, weaving the entire land into a cultural unity. Pilgrimage is “undeniably a most powerful factor for developing the geographical sense in the people, which enables them to think and feel that India is not a mere congeries of geographical fragments, but a single though immense organism filled with the tide of one pulsating life from end to end.” 

The Puranas accommodated the infinite diversity of dharmic practice at the tirthas and sanctified them by legitimising the myriad forms of lokacara and desacara (local custom and tradition). Tirthas evolved as an alternative to Vedic yajnas and were regarded as more meritorious than the performance of several somayajnas. Puranic tradition thus emphasized mass participation and integration; salvation became accessible to all without reservations of caste or gender, simply through pilgrimage to holy tirthas.

Hindutva – the quest for Chakravarti

It is this sub-continental vision of a united - but not uniform - religion, culture and philosophy that is threatened by predatory world religions backed by States with the will and immense resources to annihilate other traditions. The prize here is political – complete control over the land, people and natural resources of converted-victim nations.

In a fundamental sense, the assault by monotheist creeds on non-monotheist traditions – though played out on the battlefield of dharma or religion – is secular! Because the prize is political and economic conquest through control of the mind of an entire people; the inner landscape of heart and soul is simply sutured.  

From its very origins, Hindu society created the Kshatriya varna for the protection of the land, people, and dharma, from the adharmi, whether internal or external to the sub-continent. The concept of Rajdharma was the conscious assertion of State power to protect Hindu dharma, dharmi and bhumi. That is why the Hindu polity was part of, and subordinate to, Dharma. The Rajguru was an integral feature of the Hindu kingdom: Vasishta was Rajguru and prime minister to both Dasratha and Sri Rama, to cite just one example.

Hindus do not mix religion and politics in the Western sense of the term, where State power has been used to persecute those of differing beliefs. The Hindu Rashtra is a Protective and not a Predatory State; for Hindus, politics like everything else is an intrinsic part of dharma, best encompassed in the concept of Cakravartin Samrat.

The duty of the Cakravartin is total conquest of all the directions (digvijaya) by means of superior moral and political powers, to unite the country under a single moral kingdom and prevent anarchy. The Cakravartin is not merely an ideal ruler, but a powerful ancient political concept, inspired by a vision of the Hindu bhumi as a unity which was not belied by the presence of multiple centres of political power. That is why civilisational values permeated the whole land and gave the tradition its abiding continuity.

Kautilya enunciated the idea of the State as the ultimate protector of dharma. Hindu civilisation understood that Dharma could not survive or flourish without the protective shield of State power, hence the enduring appeal of Ram Rajya.

Hindutva is nothing but the Hindu quest for such a State.

The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com 

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