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The word Sanatana, in its most fundamental sense, means eternal, pertaining to the fundamental, existential questions of life and the insights into them that the seers came upon. These existential questions are as old as mankind, and so is man’s search for answers to them.
One such question was that of suffering, which the Buddha explored. His only concern was to go to the very root of suffering and find out if there was a possibility of ending it.
The Buddha often made statements about fundamental questions of life and ended his talk with the words, esa dhammo sanatano.
For example, he says, Hate is indeed never appeased by hatred here. It is appeased by non-hatred—this law is eternal, or eso dhammo sanatano.
Politics and Religious Texts Surround 'Sanatana Dharma'
In its true sense, when we use the words 'Sanatan Dharma', it means a serious religious approach to the most fundamental, existential questions of life. Unfortunately, politicians who can never be expected to delve deep into these issues for the sake of their profession, have distorted the meaning of Sanatana Dharma just to suit their narrow purposes.
The very meaning of religion, or Dharma, is to search for the most basic meaning of life, death, and so on.
More than any other religion, Hinduism and Buddhism have gone deeply into the intricacies of these questions; they have a strong philosophical side to them, and therefore, for many, Sanatana may not be the same as Hinduism.
The popular Hindu religion, as explained in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas, is an attempt to explain in a simpler language, comprehensible to the masses – the very same fundamental truths that the Upanishads have pondered over.
They asked questions about death, discussed in a dialogue between Nachiketa and the Yamaraj, the Lord of Death, and in questions such as Who am I? The answers to these were in the form of well-known aphorisms such as ‘Tat Twam Asi’ and 'Aham Bhamasmi’.
The Gita, the Upanishads, the Ashtavakra Gita, the Yoga Vashishtha, and several other Sanskrit texts have really gone into these fundamental questions in a way that no other religion has ever done.
Hinduism and Buddhism are known for their philosophical approaches to life and its basic issues. The Buddha also represented, in a way, the wisdom of the Upanishads, sans its ritualistic aspects.
In its most fundamental sense, Sanatana is an approach to fundamental questions of life in a non-dogmatic, non-ritualistic, non-traditional manner. But the moment one adds the word dharma to Sanatana, it smacks of an attempt to organise religion and the quest for truth.
Perils of Organised Religion
The problem is not with the Sanatana; the problem is with Dharma and its narrow, selfish interpretations, which often lead to the formation of organised religions. Once our search for truth becomes organised, it ceases to be a genuine quest.
Organised religion is just a by-product of man’s search for truth, just as technology is a by-product of man’s search for truth in the scientific world. They both lead to unnecessary things, such as wars, entertainment, trivialities, ritualism, and a heavy dependence on dead traditions.
One should never forget that there has been a strong tradition of perennial wisdom in this country, and the Theosophists, who were sincere representatives of the ‘SARVA DHARM SAM BHAV’ (having equal respect or feeling for all religions), were advocates of this.
This tradition of perennial wisdom encompasses the search for truth in every religion, in every individual, and in every saint who has never become part of traditional organisations. It may even include Lokayat philosophers such as Charvak, who were atheists and didn’t believe in any of the traditional notions about life after death. Charvak himself was an atheist thinker and is considered a rishi (seer) by many. There are Hindus who even consider Marx a seer!
Sanatana Dharma In Today's Time
Whatever said and done, the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma is tentative and doesn’t lay emphasis on doctrines and intellectual hypotheses.
Unfortunately, in the name of Hinduism, only popular scriptures and thinkers are being given importance to. Popular religion gives importance to entertainment and miracles. It panders to populist sentiments.
It placates the masses that have no time or mental space for serious philosophical contemplation. It’s very unfortunate that the beauty of the Upanishads, some of the most profound texts, has gotten buried underneath a lot of unnecessary chatter.
Hinduism has its beauty and depth because of its philosophical approach to life and because of the profound questions it asks about life and death, about the purpose of life, and so on.
One should not expect politicians, or the so-called religious people working for politicians to ponder over these serious aspects of Dharma. They are interested in the immediate gain that accrues from a convenient interpretation of the word dharma. They have no permanent friends or foes, as the proverb goes.
To the one who has only permanent interests, the only purpose of life is to gain political power and retain it as long as one can; religion is too serious and incomprehensible a matter.
(Chaitanya Nagar is a freelance journalist, translator, and poet. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)