No one can argue that the colonial mindset be retained and we must continue to live as a slave in India that is witnessing Amrit Kaal, as it moves fast-forward to celebrate a hundred years of getting rid of the British.
The trouble starts when the history of the subjugation of proud Bharat is pushed back millennia and one is constantly reminded of the oppressions and humiliations the foreign aggressors and invaders have made us suffer. This opens the floodgates where muddy waters of myths and fantasy mingle with the stream of history that has never been undisputed.
The problem is, whether we like it or not, we can’t wish away the past. And the language used taints our minds in hues, feeding prejudices and inflaming emotions. This is what the Sanatan dharma controversy exposes. ‘Lost in translation’ can’t be pleaded all the time. Our leaders never tire of unravelling ‘colonial conspiracies’ that cripple us and warn us of the perils of the English educational system. We, however, happily brandish translated terms coined by erstwhile rulers in dangerously divisive political discourse.
Sanatan isn’t easy to translate into English. Is it perennial or eternal? Dharma is even more fraught. It isn’t religion in the sense that Aramaic religions are. Is it the cosmic order that transcends any historical religion? Is it a moral code? It certainly can’t be substituted for creed or sect. Can one conveniently, and opportunistically, appropriate the suffix for Hinduism? The moment we mention Hinduism, we are confronted with riddles. Is it a religion or a way of life? Can it be taken as what the ancient Indian practised at least in the geography of Aryavarta—with the kernel of Vedic dharma? Or, did it emerge as a challenge to the complicated ritual of yajnas that the sublime metaphysics of the Upanishads represents?
What most Indians, who recognise themselves as Hindus by birth and belief, would identify with is arguably the Bhagwat dharma, which crystallised after the decline of Buddhism in India in the early centuries of the Common Era. This was the time when the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh was transformed into different manifestations of Shiva, Rama and Krishna. Common people found it easy to worship these gods who could be identified with. From art and architecture, dance and music, classical to folk, the Trimurti has dominated the Indian imagination. Even beyond the subcontinent, Shiva and Vishnu have a powerful presence—in Indonesia and Cambodia.
It is impossible to assert dogmatically that it is only Hinduism, in its different manifestations, that can be termed Sanatan. Buddhism, which challenged the primacy of the Brahmin priesthood, caste system and expensive rituals involving animal sacrifice, also registered impressive peaceful conquests. When the Enlightened One used the word dhamma, it carried a different charge. Buddha was incorporated as one of the dash avatars in the Hindu pantheon as his teaching was too stark for the masses after the schisms that changed the path shown by him to merge into the way of tantra and bhakti. India has always had heretics who challenged orthodoxy. Buddhism and Jainism started as atheistic creeds, but with the passage of time swerved towards the dominant Bhagwat dharma.
In less than 500 years, we have forgotten the shared heritage of Sanatan in our lives. The words like saint, seers and pontiffs are abused daily. Before attaining sainthood, a long process of canonisation and beatification has to be undergone. Miracles have to be documented and certified. Seer is the translation of rishis—one who could foresee that others could not. Pontiff refers to the Pope in Christianity. The terms are not interchangeable with the Indian words jogi, fakir, siddha etc.
Suddenly we have saints, seers and assorted Hindu pontiffs claiming privileged space on political centre stage. Dharma sansad sessions are convened at the drop of a hat to ‘guide the government’. The greatest irony is that these dharma gurus issue fatwa for beheading those who commit blasphemy—a concept alien to Hindus who can be nastiks.
India has always experienced sectarian strife. Not only between Hindus and non-Hindus but also between Shaivas and Vaishnavas, Shaktas and others. Devotees of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti have spawned countless subjects and cults. What is glorious about Sanatan dharma is that it has happily absorbed diverse influences. The Bhakti movement was enriched by Sufi Islam and the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, who strove to build bridges between practitioners of different faiths. ‘Saint poets like Kabir and Dadu raised their powerful voices against the caste system and superstition. Social reformers in the 20th century, Narayan Guru, Periyar and Dr Ambedkar, have kept this sadaneera stream flowing.
When Narendra Modi first took the oath of office, he proclaimed that the only book he considered sacred is the Constitution. The reassurance is urgently required that polarising controversies regarding sanatan dharma will not be allowed to distract and divide Indians or derail the largest democracy in the world. Hate speech can’t be allowed to annihilate tolerance of dissent.
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University