By asserting that Satya Sai Baba was only “a human being and not a God” and that “his temples should not be built”, Sankaracharya of Dwarakapeeth Swamy Swaroopanandaji Saraswati has opened himself to the questioning of his understanding of what he himself defines as “Sanatana Dharma” and his authority to issue such edicts on worship of any Hindu divinity.
Sanatana is what is old and new at the same time, i.e. it is ever-evolving—erasing what time has rendered irrelevant and simultaneously soaking in the fresh icons and symbols. The core of the message, however, remains unchanged, that is, dharma (not to be confused with religion) is central to human life. The universality and its eternity that qualifies Sanatana Dharma are inclusive, unlike in many Semitic religions.
Defining Hinduism, the New Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. It is axiomatic that no religious idea in India ever dies or is superseded—it is merely combined with the new ideas that arise in response to it. It further says, “Hindus are inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and are doctrinally tolerant, allowing others—including both Hindus and non-Hindus—whatever beliefs suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu….”
The controversial Swamy occupies one of the four revered “peethams” created by Adi Sankara in the eighth century. And normally, on matters relating to Hindu traditions, philosophy and tenets, an opinion given by a “peetham” head should be the last word. The Adi Sankara was not only the redeemer of Hinduism from what in the ninth century appeared to be an eclipse of Sanatana Dharma, but also the authoritative interpreter of Advaita school of the faith. Since then the Sankara peethams enjoy a unique status in the Hindu pantheon. However, the latest statement by Swamiji is surely inconsistent with the core value of plurality, integral to the faith he represents. His misplaced pontification is surely un-Hindu, if not outright, anti-Hindu.
Whether Sai Baba of Puttaparthy who passed away two years back or Shirdi Sai Baba who preceded him by nearly a century, deserve to be worshipped or not is for their followers to decide. Faith is not circumscribed by either reason or any text. The ageless Hinduism survived myriad challenges by other set forms and formulae mainly because it has inherent dynamism. It refuses to confine itself within set dogmas and practices. This is seen by anyone acquainted with what goes as Hindu practices, temples, saints and avatars across the country.
When Swaroopanandaji invokes the Puranas to deny divinity to Sai Baba pointing out that he is not listed among the avatars of God Vishnu he is ignoring the multitudes of belief systems of Hindu families in this country and abroad.
To take only some more recent events, there is no mention of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in the Puranic texts as well. Nor of Shri Srila Prabhupada (Bhaktivedanta Swamy) who established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement that has swept through Moscow to San Francisco. Can anyone deny their influence and claim to divinity?
In fact, it is not necessary at all for a Hindu to obtain a certificate of authentic divinity from anyone. There is no such authority at all among Hindus. Because the faith allows anyone wanting to call himself a Hindu to have his/her own version of God or his incarnation, or even none at all. To again quote from the Encyclopedia, “Hinduism is both a civilization and a congregation of religions; it has neither a beginning or founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization.” The Dwaraka Swamiji knows very well—or should know—that popular deities and doctrines claiming to be Hindu serve the diversity of people within this faith.
If Hindus do not clutch at each other’s throat in the name of religion—unlike the Christian divide that ravaged Europe for 300 years and still simmers below the peace treaty in Northern Ireland, or the Shia-Sunni suicide attacks on each other’s mosques and gatherings in West Asia—it is because under the Hindu umbrella your understanding of the divine, the Supreme Purusha, is as good or as valid as mine.
At doctrinal level, too, there has largely been accommodation among the Saivites, the Vaishnavites and others, even cross-border worship of each other’s idea of who is the supreme God, Siva or Vishnu or their numerous incarnations or appearances on earth among human beings.
Even the same Krishna is carved in milk white, blue or black figures depending on preferences of each region. All are welcome, all are right. Because that substantiates the basic Hindu faith about human understanding of the Divine, so powerfully and conclusively put down in the Vedas as “truth is one, but the learned worship him differently.” It will be presumptuous to confront so learned a man as the Dwarakapeeth seer the Bhagwat Geeta stanza that says whatever be the name with which people worship Me it all comes to Me [ye’py anya-devata-bhakta/yajante sraddhayanvitah/te’pi mam eva kaunteya/yajanty avidhi-purvakam (Bhagavad Geeta 9.23)]. Whatever a man may sacrifice to other gods, O son of Kunti, is really meant for Me alone, but it is offered without true understanding.
Swamiji is wide off the mark when he says that Sai Baba’s worship and temples is a “conspiracy of some foreign organisations which are making money. They don’t want the Hindu community to unite”. No doubt there are such outfits. But Sai Baba followers (or for that matter Ramakrishna Ashram or any other) cannot be diving the Hindus as only this faith organically is capable of accepting enormous diversity of worship within its limitless folds.
As the present international scenario exposes, the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam are killing each other in several countries. The Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere want to impose their version of Islam on other Islamic sects by brutal and barbaric violence. Even within India, there are religions or sects who continue to make repeated efforts to impose purity of religion test on others with blood. It would be wise on the part of Hindu seers and leaders not to invent such blue paper tests among their co-religionists.
Let us not Talibanise the universality of the eternal Sanatana Dharma that blends over ages the old and the new to ever renew itself and be relevant to the challenges of changing times.
Balbir Punj is National Vice President, BJP.