Sanatana Dharma as a major world civilization
In this essay we will look at Sanatana Dharma (or Hindu Dharma or more popularly Hinduism) as a major world Civilization.
The emerging world order
The world today has shrunk into a global village. Ease of Air travel, the Internet, Cable TV that is available around the world, migration of people, have all radically transformed the world, within the last 50 years. There is both an economic and a cultural transfusion, occurring around the world that is clearly flattening the world rapidly. Technology has revolutionized it, and nations today are more inter-dependent than they ever were before. At the same time, the import of culture en masse is also at work causing a diffusion of the boundaries between one nation and another. India is rapidly “westernizing” adopting the cultural icons of the West, such as capitalism, competition, consumerism and entertainment. Simultaneously some 20+ million Americans are now practicing Yoga, and aspiring for some form of spiritual practice. Indian Gurus and Acharyas are also traveling around the world, sharing their special wisdom, method and practice with all who will listen.
Remaking of the World Order
Professor Samuel Huntington in his important work, “The clash of civilizations” has proposed that the boundary of “Nations” as unitary entities will diminish in importance as people move more easily about. Today we find families in which the members live in many continents and countries. People will retain more easily their loyalty and connections with their country of origin, or better still the civilization they belong even as they give their loyalties to the new countries of their settlement. The diaspora will more easily integrate with its civilization of origin, creating a bloc. The emerging world order, will be remade along the lines of the major civilizations, such as Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu and Japanese, with each civilization operating increasingly homogeneously, crossing the boundaries of many countries.
While the Nation States may continue to operate as the most important ‘actors’ on the world stage and affairs, their interests, associations, alliances and conflicts will be shaped by cultural and civilizational factors. For example Europe is striving through the instrument of the European Union, to operate as a homogeneous bloc, even though it is comprised of many nation states. Islamic countries similarly exhibit a cultural affinity with each other, (as witnessed in their support for Palestine) that is more fundamental than any temporal inter-civilizational alliances that they may create.
Human history, is largely about the history of civilizations – such as the Roman, or Egyptian. In the era of colonialism, (until 1920’s) mostly there was the Western civilization and the rest of the world which was either colonized or waiting to be colonized. In the era of communism (until 1990’s) there were the two major civilizational blocs – Western Capitalist and Communist, with the rest of the world either aligning with one or the other or struggling to remain non-aligned. With the demise of Marxist-Leninist communism in Russia, there is now emerging a multi-polar civilizational order, in which the West’s relative importance is declining. Global politics is becoming multi-polar and multi-civilizational. But first things first – We will begin by formally defining what we mean by a Civilization.
What is a Civilization?
A civilization is characterized by a continuity of culture, the sum total of its values, norms, institutions, modes of thinking, customs and practices to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance. It encompasses a world view and a way of life that is distinct and unique to a particular people and their original, creative process. It encompasses shared forms such as language, art, architecture, song, music, aesthetics, food, history, religion, philosophy, mythology and spirituality.
Civilizations may also encompass sub-groupings, that attempt to define themselves distinctly, but on the whole, the sub groups have more in common with each other, than with groups outside the civilizational boundary. While the sub-groups within a civilization may even fight with other sub-groups, they may also more easily engage in alliances with each other. A civilization is thus a totality, a union of sub groupings, which may each have a beginning and an end, but the civilization itself evolves, adapts and endures through long periods of historical continuity. Civilizations survive through time – they live through the rise and fall of empires, governments, kings and social and ideological upheavals. There is within each civilization an essence, a set of primary structuring ideas and principles around which the people of successive generations coalesce, thus breathing new life into those ideas and principles which symbolizes the civilization’s continuity.
Encounter between civilizations
Historically there were two processes through which one civilization encountered another – One was through diffusion, a largely peaceful and gradual process through which one civilization learnt about another, primarily through trade and commerce, intellectual discourse and dialogue. The other was through conquest, invasion or colonization, in which one civilization dominated another, imposing its will, subjugating the conquered and eliminating or destroying their culture.
When the Vedic religion of India spread through today’s Afghanistan, Iran and even had echoes in Egypt and the middle east (pre 2000 BCE), it was through a gradual process of diffusion – primarily a peaceful, intellectual and spiritual process. Similarly when Buddhism spread all over China, it was through a similar process of diffusion. When Islam exploded all over the middle east, (post 700 ACE) the encounter was usually a bloody affair, involving decisive military dominance. Similarly the colonial era when the West colonized the whole world, the process essentially involved military superiority, subjugation and control. European settlement of the Americas which has nearly decimated the native American civilization and rendered them into reservations, was again a violent military conquest.
But both these processes occurred at a time, when the civilizations themselves were removed from one another – characterized by a separation by space and time. Inter-civilizational encounters were few and far between, very limited and sometimes very intense. Ideas, technologies, religions, philosophy moved from one civilization to another but it took centuries. Even the conquered, did not easily give up their civilization overnight. It took a few generations to decimate and destroy their culture. In other cases, the conquerors assimilated the culture of the conquered and whole cultures metamorphosed. Today, this separation by space and time has been eliminated. Inter-civilizational encounters are taking place every day, every hour, in every nation. In every school class, there are multi-cultural students, trying to make sense of each other’s background and culture.
Every place where there is a diaspora, there are numerous inter-civilizational contacts. We are truly witnessing the emergence of a world order, in which human beings from different civilizations will have to learn to live side by side, in peaceful interchange, learning from each other, studying each other’s history and ideas, art and culture and mutually enriching each other’s lives. The alternative to this, is quite simply mis-understanding, tension, clash and eventually catastrophe. The future era belongs to inter-dependence, a co-mingling of the world’s cultures, a gradual assimilation and learning from each other, an ability to assimilate that which is true and great, no matter where it came from.
Sanatana Dharma (Hindu Dharma) is a major world civilization
Today (In 2007) Hindus represent approximately 14% of the World’s population. (Compared with Christians – 33%; Muslims – 21%; Non-religious 16%). They represent probably the world’s oldest continuous civilization that has survived through major periods of historical strife, numerous invasions, colonization, partitions, internal divisions and even the onslaught of westernization in recent times. Many authors have tried hard to make a distinction between the terms Hindu, Arya, Sanatana Dharma, Arya Dharma, Vedic Dharma and India, primarily by defining a term more narrowly than it warrants, and then proceeding to find a term that is more encompassing. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru tries hard in his “Discovery of India” to define Hinduism first as something very narrow i.e. a Brahminical creed; then as something too broad i.e. everything to everyone; and then dismisses it as nothing at all, because it is simply too vague i.e. a search for truth as Mahatma Gandhi puts it. So he uses the term Indian Civilization which is at best an even more recent creation than the term Hindu itself. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar tries to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, with the former term having a more religious orientation, and the latter term representing a more encompassing civilizational connotation. In this essay, we take the position that the term Sanatana Dharma is synonymous with the term Hindu Dharma (or Hinduism), and represents the essential nature of the Indian civilization.
The distinction between the two is difficult to make. To assimilate this point of view, we must examine the characteristics of this civilization in some detail. What are the distinct marks of this civilization? What are the primary structuring ideas and central principles that characterize this civilization? What are the great themes around which people of successive generations have coalesced thus breathing new life into this civilization? How do these central ideas differ from corresponding ideas from other civilizations that are co-extant today? Does this civilization have anything distinct and unique to offer the world? Has there been anything original and creative within this civilization that has a bearing and implication for all mankind? What is the core civilizational identity that separates the members of this civilization, from others? Without knowing clearly what these are, we will not know the future of this civilization or its role – nay, we shall also become one of a mob, become increasingly universal, westernized and alienated from our own roots.
1. Karma – Action and its consequence
Central to the civilization of India encompassing all Indian traditions, whatever name they go by, is the concept of Karma. “As you sow, so you reap” is a simple way of understanding its import, but this axiom does not go far enough. For the sowing and reaping may be separated by a great gulf of time. In its root meaning the Sanskrit word Karma (which comes from the root “Kri” which means “To do”) merely means “Action”. But the law of Karma says that any action has consequences, far in excess of what is visible to the eye. Therefore, the word Karma includes all its consequences (Phala), for they arise together, even though separated by time.
To understand the principle, let us examine a simple karma – an action such as drinking a cup of coffee. The immediate consequence is of course one is pleasantly gratified. There is another consequence that caffeine accumulates in the body with its own long term implications on the physical body, especially its nervous system. But both these are visible consequences; the not so easily perceptible consequence is that the experience of coffee settles in the deep recesses of the mind, and it begins to surface again at a later time in the form of desire for coffee. Thus sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant when stored up in the memory, resurface as desires, and stimulate action again and again. This then is the cycle of karma, action, its results both visible and invisible, and the resurfacing of desire, and the re-enactment of the same karma again. A karma involving a transaction between two individuals represents the next level of complexity. If I love my wife, she might love me back; If I neglect her, then surely I am tempting her to neglect me as well. If I hurt another, he may be incited to hurt me back; And if someone hurts me, and I am unable to hurt him back; then the hurt remains unresolved, and may show up as a need to hurt someone else. I may take out my anger against my boss on my dog. Thus in the every day interactions between people, there is a kind of continual emotional transaction going on, a kind of depositing and withdrawing – what goes around does come around. One can be a source of joy and good cheer, but equally a source of pain and suffering. So far so good; We are still within the realm of psychology, and ordinary psychic processes. The great intuitive leap of Sanatana Dharma is that the cycle of karmic repercussions transcends multiple life times – That is, I may commit an act, for which I may think I have evaded its consequence entirely in this life time, but surely it will catch up with me, in some future life.
As another example, if I did not provide for my wife and children, thereby inflicting great hurt on them; In this lifetime, the consequence for me may have been limited. But my children grow up without the role model of a good father; and this in turn impacts fundamentally how they treat their own husbands, wives and their children as well; which then continues on into the next generation. Thus the family structure breaks down over successive generations, and the consequence of Karma ripples through many lifetimes and many generations. It comes back to me, in the sense that I may in some future life be born as the child of the one who was my child in this life. Thus the main idea is that the consequence is inescapable; and one thinks that one can escape it, only by restricting one’s view to that portion of my life, which is visible to me, which is my current life. Sanatana Dharma saw that a single life with an abrupt beginning and end, without the flow of psychic impressions, which conditions future life was an inadequate view of life. Thus in its vision, human life is lived again and again, imprints of psychic impressions are carried around over and over, and thus there is a continuity. Every life at its very beginning inherits tendencies and attitudes, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses from prior lifetimes (Samskaras).
Every life is cast amidst a group of characters, with whom it has been cast before; every encounter with another has its source in the distant past. It is only the body that dies; there is a part of human life that survives the death of the body, carries with it the memories and tendencies and verily re-incarnates, assuming another body. There are even deeper dimensions to Karma, the collective dimension; In the interactions between nations, there is the force of Karma in action. Friendly nations turn into foes, actions of past generations come back to haunt the current one; Massive deficit spending only burdens future generations. Our whole lifestyle is today producing Karma that is going to come back to us. We destroy nature’s bounty, make species extinct, poison the atmosphere, blow holes in the Ozone layer at our own inevitable peril. Thus we are all trapped in this inexorable wheel of Karma, both experiencing the consequences of past Karmas, as well as unleashing new Karmas upon the universe, at the same time, both individually, and collectively. Other civilizations simply do not have an equivalent concept of Karma. This is the unique and distinctive center – the core Civilizational principle of Sanatana Dharma, a foundational organizing idea, from which all other constructs of this civilization flow.
2. Purushartha – Kama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha
Sanatana Dharma, postulated that there were four primary categories of human pursuits, four ends towards which all human endeavor is directed. And in life after life, human beings return to these, relentlessly, and literally continue where they left off. They called these human ends “Purusharthas” – which were four-fold Kama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha. Kama and Artha are easily known – for all human beings in all civilizations pursue these ends, without exception. Kama is the pursuit of the fulfillment of one’s desires and wants. Any Action we take now, that is going to result in pleasure or happiness directly, and preferably now, sooner than later is the pursuit of Kama.
Artha is the pursuit of Security and Well being now and in the future. Any Action we take now, that ensures our safety, security and well-being later, is the pursuit of Artha. Thus drinking a cup of coffee is Kama, going to the movies is Kama, visiting a favorite restaurant is Kama, enjoying some quiet music is also Kama, playing a game is Kama, in fact all actions that lead to any manner of sensory pleasures, satisfaction and fulfillment is Kama. Going to college is Artha, taking an exam is Artha, keeping a job is Artha, buying a home is Artha, starting a business is Artha, investing in the stock market and in retirement funds is Artha – And we see that in all manner of everyday actions, and pursuits we are established firmly in these two Purusharthas, as all human beings are too no matter whither they came from. In fact, much of human life is spent in these two pursuits – a vast majority of human beings simply live and die within the confines of these two pursuits.
But the real distinction of Sanatana Dharma is stamped upon its last two Purusharthas, Dharma and Moksha. In postulating these Purusharthas, Sanatana Dharma conceived of human life as an evolutionary process, a progressive refinement and uplifting, that passes through many life times, many pastures, many experiences both pleasurable and painful, many accomplishments and failures, much joy and sorrow, frequent progression and regression. And in the passage of life through these experiences, human beings grow out of their primarily animal tendencies, attain to a greater refinement of the mind and heart, begin also to inquire into the nature of human life, it limitations, and finally begin to lay the foundations of an authentically spiritual, creative and self-expressed life, which are the domains of Dharma and Moksha.
Sanatana Dharma proposed that the human being is himself capable of initiating a further evolution of his or her being, through a self-directed process of actualization, and inner realization. The whole range of possibility of being alive, did not end with mere survival and experiencing a few pleasures. Verily, there is a domain beyond, where the human being expands and fulfills a further dimension of growth – in which a much wider and greater experience and fulfillment is possible. And this wider possibility is not based upon sensory contacts with the world, but much more a matter of an inner growth and expansion. Sanatana Dharma saw the opportunity of human life, ultimately as an ascent of the human spirit, its progressive freeing up from its mortal coils, its time-bound pursuits and limitations, and as a great self-initiated uplifting into an altogether different plane of seeing, being and acting, from whence a human being can verily touch the divine. In a manner of speaking, the human being had the potential to transform himself into the divine, become divine himself as it were, and manifest the divinity in the world - and this transformation is verily the content and motivation of the last two pursuits of human and life – Dharma and Moksha. No other civilization has conceived human life I these terms. In fact, the human and the divine are strictly separated by a vast and unbridgeable gulf. The divine is separate and distant, only to be feared and worshipped, only to be approached through intermediaries, prophets and messiahs.
3. Moksha – The Spiritual end of human life
Evan as Sanatana Dharma saw that human beings come and go upon this earth, and Karma causes us to replay and re-enact the dramas of our lives over and over, through many lifetimes, it also recognized the possibility of a spiritual life and accorded a primacy to it as no other civilization has done. In its view, man is not merely a producer and consumer of goods and services; he is more than just a member of a tribe, class or community; he is verily much more than a rational, intellectual being capable of moral, artistic and aesthetic aspirations; he is all these, and he transcends all of these; indeed he abides in divinity itself, unbeknownst to himself, from whence he came and where he must return. Sanatana Dharma saw that there is indeed a way out of this seemingly endless cycle of repeated birth and death (Samsara), and called the attainment of that end Moksha (also called Nirvana by Buddhism and Kaivalya by Jainism). As the ultimate end of a human life, whether in this lifetime or in the future, and the inexorable journey that all human beings are on, no matter to what extent they recognize it, Moksha is the third most important and unique characteristic of the Hindu civilization.
This is presented by our scripture (The Vedas, Upanisads, The Bhagvad Gita, Puranas etc.) and affirmed generation after generation, as a self-realized fact, by the Rishis, Yogis and Achayras. The Rishi of ancient Bharata, discovered a means of knowledge (A pramana) beyond sensory perception and inference which becomes available when one turns one’s gaze inward, and delves deep into one’s own being. They found that when one’s outward distractions are quieted, it is possible to contact realms of being which reveal the truths of the self and the universe that are beyond ordinary reach. They called the inmost self Atman and they recognized that it is unborn and undying and is non-different than the essential truth (Sat) of all beings; indeed it is non-different than the transcendental divine principle that is the ground of all manifestation, which they called Brahman. And when one rises to that spiritual end, one sees all things in oneself, and oneself in all things, and there is an underlying unity (Ekam) amongst all things and beings, manifest and unmanifest, celestial and terrestrial, of the past, present or future. And this unity of being is not only real but it is conscious (Chit) and filled with unspeakable bliss (Ananda), and reaching this state of being one can authentically declare “Aham Brahmasmi”. The Rishis taught that the pursuit of Moksha is the appointed end for all Jivas, and even as we come and go into this world in numerous Janmas, ultimately we must tire of all things temporal, all things that captivate us of this world, and set our heart on transcending all these comings and goings. It is but ignorance (Avidya) that keeps us distracted, forever pursuing goals that are fleeting, impermanent and ultimately unfulfilling. Sanatana Dharma teaches us that the passage from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from repeated births to immortality is the principal opportunity of every human birth.
Other civilizations simply lack a concept that equals Moksha. Indeed their views of Heaven and Hell, are simplistic and primitive in comparison. Man (or Woman) begins suddenly and ends equally suddenly. He brings neither proclivities from previous existence nor carries traces and tendencies into a future life. There is a single life, which is but a brief interlude, between two eternities prior and post, and at the end of life, a single judgment and an eternal punishment – a punishment that far exceeds in length of time, the time spent in actually living. The whole religious foundation is based on the notion of a vengeful God, who eternally punishes, (with no recovery possible) and in select cases spares punishment based on whether the person surrendered to the right “Ummah” or to the right “Messiah” or even whether they were baptized or not. Hell itself is a horrible, fiery place of suffering, of unspeakable torture, pain and sorrow, of conscious and continuous torment, suffered under the wrath of a vengeful God. And when saved from their terrible Hell, one goes to Heaven which is a beatific place, where one lives in proximity with God, eternally gazing upon Him, or in union with Him.
Such a Heaven is conceived mostly in earthly terms (like a beautiful Garden) – It is free from sickness, death and tears, free from sorrow, but it will have all things pleasurable and desirable on this earth, indeed only multiplied manifold. Sanatana Dharma also speaks of a heaven and hell, (Swarga and Naraga), indeed it speaks of many lokas, many heavens and hells, but our sojourn in all these realms is also temporary, and we return to embodied life once more, replete with the Karmas that we once more have to work out and transcend, as we evolve spiritually towards Moksha.
4. Brahman – And many Devatas (Gods)
Sanatana Dharma perceived a God, who transcends all things created and uncreated, manifest and unmanifest, who was nameless, formless and attribute-less, and yet one who permeates all of creation, and called that God Brahman. (Now within Sanatana Dharma, we have called this Brahman, by many names – Parameshwara, Parashakti, Parabrahman, Purushotthama, Shiva, Narayana etc. but in this essay, we will confine ourselves to that singular word Brahman). The Yogi saw this Brahman, in all creation, in the human heart, in the lofty mountains, the glorious rivers, the bounteous earth, in every creature, plant and tree. The Rishi perceived this Brahman as the ordering principle behind the laws of nature, the seasons, the dawn and dusk, in the miracle of birth and death, in re-birth and the cycle of life. The Vedas taught that this universe, with all its forces, laws and cycles (Jagat) as being non-different than that Brahman, thus being the visible, phenomenal manifestation of Brahman (Isavasyam Idam Sarvam). Thus this Brahman is both transcendental and immanent in all his manifestation – It is not that there is one God here or many, but there is only God here, in his infinite multifarious forms. You and I are but centers and expressions of his divinity, in our phenomenal existence, but indeed one with Him, in our essence.
So Sanatana Dharma honored many forms, many Gods, all as representations and symbols of that one Brahman. It said that Brahman has no forms and no names, yet, celebrated its Gods as the source of all names and forms, with a thousand names and forms. It found the loftiness of the various Gods reflected in the depths on one’s being; it saw that our own inner qualities and aspirations reflected as outer Gods. It said that this very same God, can be invoked and worshipped in a thousand forms, since all forms proclaim his glory. Thus Shiva is a transcendental Yogi, Krishna is dancing amidst us as Ananda, Saraswati is the great goddess of learning and Rama is verily the embodiment of Dharma. Sanatana Dharma honored an individual’s or a community’s preference and selection of the God of their choice for worship (Ishta), while recognizing at the same time that in worshipping one God, we worshipped them all. Thus God was both single, multiple and beyond both as well.
A God of this conception did not become less for being amidst a multiplicity of Gods, they represented each other, and they did not abhor any new or strange Gods – for there were no strangers here. We did not need to hate other Gods in order to love our God, we saw the same God in all Gods, whether they are ours or another’s. The Gods set an example of peaceful co-existence for us, and we too aspired to co-exist peacefully amongst a variety of people with different beliefs and backgrounds, respecting our different views, but nevertheless recognizing the essential unity of all creation. Even as the Gods of Sanatana Dharma said that “Those who worship other Gods also worship me”, the God of other civilizations said that “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me”. Even as Sanatana Dharma said that there is the spark of divinity within man, other Civilizations conceived their God in the image of their own human passions, desires and jealousies. Even as Sanatana Dharma said that there is only God here, other civilizations said there is only one God, and thereby began to deny other Gods. In this denial of other Gods, they laid the seeds of proselytization, conversion, conquest, wholesale destruction of cultures and slaughter on an unprecedented scale.
Even as Sanatana Dharma proclaimed that all of this universe is one family (Vasudaiva Kutumbakam), other civilizations have found their religion best fulfilled in destroying cultures and traditions one after another. World History today is mostly about this conquest, written by the conquerors. “In the Koran there is the doctrine that a man who does not believe these teachings should be killed; it is a mercy to kill him! And the surest way to get to heaven, where there are beautiful houris and all sorts of sense enjoyments, is by killing these unbelievers. Think of the bloodshed there has been in consequence of such beliefs” (Swami Vivekananda – II.352-2) “Conversion is an act of violence, because it is a deliberate intrusion into the religious life of a person; it hurts deeply; it creates an alienation between the converted and his family, community and ancestry. The nature of this hurt is one that can never be fully healed. As an act of violence, it incites the hurt to be violent – It begets violence. (Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam).
5. Yoga – The path to re-union of the Atman with Brahman
Sanatana Dharma celebrates the soul’s yearning for God, the pangs of its separation from God, and its delights of union, in a thousand songs across the length and breadth of India. Indeed this journey towards re-union, is the central drama of human life; All human connections, attachments, separations and reunion are mere reflections of this cosmic play. Yoga treats man as a transcendental spiritual being; it invests his spirit with a human body; it accorded a primacy to the consciousness that indwells a human body, and proposed that the physical body is a by-product of processes in consciousness, not the other way around. Yoga is the way of retreating inward, the cessation of all chatter and vibration; Yoga is the transformative process, whence the outward oriented mind renounces its longings and cravings, and settles inward. This journey is an intensely personal and unmediated journey – It involves a preparation, purification, intense longing, renunciation, worship, learning, devotion, austerities, meditation, a going inward, deeper and deeper within, and ultimately an awakening to eternal wisdom and knowledge. One has to transform one’s attitudes towards outer life, and greet with equanimity, that which is pleasurable or painful (Samathvam Yoga Ucchyate – Bhagvad Gita), and take a plunge inward. There is no easy beaten track; one has to travel through a pathless land; yet there are as many paths as there are people, and one’s path is defined by one’s own predispositions (svabhava). There are many Yogas – Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Hatha Yoga and so on and on, and yet each Yoga includes others, and the difference is only in degree of emphasis. Yoga unfolds many techniques in this process – Mantra, Japa, Asana, Pranayama, Puja, Tantra, Jnana, Dhyana and so on an on. Sanatana Dharma, truly accommodates a multitude of possibilities on the path of Yoga, and a continuous customization of these eternal principles, for the specific spiritual needs of any given individual, community, time and place. Verily no other civilization, has such a rich tapestry of maps and paths representing that inward journey. Verily no other civilization has even come close to experimenting with that inner life, in so complete a manner as Sanatana Dharma has.
The western religions and civilizations that were founded upon them, lack this concept of Yoga almost in its entirety. They lack interiority, as Ram Swarup puts it, they lack a sufficient grasp of consciousness and its deeper realms. They are consumed with all things outward, with conquest and conversion, with expansion and competition. The modern incarnation of the Western philosophy, is its capitalism, which is concerned primarily with production and consumption, and endless enjoyment of the senses. The pre-occupation of Western philosophy has been with social ordering, how efficiently goods and services may be produced and distributed; as to whether power and wealth should be centralized and concentrated, or distributed, and what the mode of such distribution may be; whether abundance and affluence should be a product of state controlled process or left to the relentless neutrality of the market place.
A civilization that has not graduated beyond Artha and Kama, and does not recognize Moksha has no need for Yoga or Dharma. Western Science, has no capacity to investigate the processes of consciousness, simply because consciousness is inaccessible to perception and inference. Consciousness is not available for any kind of measurement, and therefore fundamentally confounds the scientific method. In fact, modern science regards consciousness as a consequence, a by-product of the physical body, the brain in particular, and thus the entire scientific endeavor to understand consciousness is rudimentary at best. Western psychology is confined to the study of the pathological and neurotic – it is mostly untouched by the spiritual. Yet, even in this capitalistic west, today, millions are turning inward, seeking a little respite from the mad dash of competition, the endless running hither and thither, hankering after and accumulating; getting ahead and staying ahead. Yoga in the west today is still in its limited physical form – Asana is but one of the eight angas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. Even still, it is a window, through which one may quieten one’s mind, and begin to get in touch with the stillness and silence of one’s inner being.
6. Dharma – A way of Life upholding the order of all things
Sanatana Dharma (The eternal Dharma) teaches us that the goals of Artha and Kama, (Security and Pleasure – loosely translated), are valid pursuits in life, (as they are in all civilizations without exception) but must be lived consistent with an eternal cosmic order (Ritam in the Rig Veda, Dharma in later texts), in which all beings are inter-dependent, indeed humans, animals, plants, devas and asuras are all part of this great Mahat.
Karma connects us all, inexorably. The Rishis saw that rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin, and Sanatana Dharma chose to imbue the entire Hindu culture with a clear emphasis of responsibilities and duties over rights. When the parents perform their duties towards their children, the children get their rights; when the children perform their duties towards their parents, the parents get their rights; and so it is between husband and wife, the teacher and the student, the state and its citizens. Where people live truly in conformity with their dharma, the individual rights of all others are naturally granted. So the culture de-emphasized Rights, which creates only a competitive clamoring where each group, sub-group is organizing itself to lobby and fight for its rights. Instead Sanatana Dharma taught that one must live consistent with one’s own dharma, and leave the rest to Ishwara or Bhagwan.
The Vedas tell us of our responsibilities towards all beings, ancestors and future generations, all others, neighbors and fellow beings, animals and plants, indeed all things around us. Sanatana Dharma recognizes that all life is yagna, a constant interchange. And in this concept of Dharma no one is excluded; We are indebted to all, we owe duties towards them all, to our Gods, to our ancestors, to our Rishis or yore, to our fellow beings, to future generations yet to come, to our animals, birds, to the bhutas, the earth, the sky, the air, water and fire. Our rituals are expressions of this recognition, of our acknowledgement and deep reverence for the great inter-dependence of all existence. Man is capable of authentic Dharmic action, only when he grows into the life of the spirit. In the Rig Veda, the purpose of human life is described succinctly in the phrase
Atmano mokshartham jagat hitayacha
which means the pursuit of Moksha while keeping in view the welfare of the world. The pursuit of the welfare of the world is then recognized as a distinct purushartha – a distinct goal and end of life. A man can awaken into a life of service and contribution, with a reduced concern for his own welfare, and in this selfless sacrifice, he finds his self-unfoldment and self-expression. His own spiritual sadhana then becomes a dedication, for dharma samsthapana and for loka sangraha. He becomes a model for all, a spiritual leader, a visionary, an example to be followed. We begin to revere him as Guru, Acharya, Yogi and Rishi.
In contrast, exclusivist cultures and civilizations lack an adequate concept of man, beyond his belonging to a particular creed or ummah. They are taught that they are a special chosen people, and their great virtue is to belong to a particular body of believers; they owe nothing to those who do not believe as they do; they divide the world into believers and non-believers, into the faithful and the infidels (kafir); and the great command of their God, is the willful denial and destruction of those who do not believe as they do; They should all convert and become part of their particular community of believers or die. Animals have no souls, the earth need not be venerated, they all exist for our consumption, manipulation and exploitation – Indeed production, distribution and consumption of an increasing array of goods and conveniences, without regard for the consequences, upon our earth, upon our fellow beings, animals and plants or even our own inner spiritual life, is the creed of modern society. In this we compete with one another – who can produce more, with less; who can exploit the natural resources that the earth has produced over millennia within a few decades; who is more efficient; more skilled; with newer and better technology; who can make bigger and better bombs and sell them to those who want to hurt, maim and destroy; And this new God of the marketplace devours all; We are poisoning the air, polluting our waters; and we have unleashed forces upon this planet, which will surely come back at us, with devastating consequences.
7. Rishi, Yogi, Guru and Acharya
Sanatana Dharma does not admit to an exclusive prophet – but rather opens to all the potential of Rishi and Yogi. The Vedas and Upanisads are declarations made by the Rishis and Yogis of yore no doubt, but their inner journey and realization can be replicated here and now. One can equally today, through one’s own application and devotion, arrive at the very same realization that has been taught in the Vedas; This is not some abstract idea, but a living principle attested to by every generation in India, which throws up its share of Gurus and Acharyas, Yogis and Rishis. The 20th century alone has given us Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Chinmayananda, Bhakti Vedanta Swami Prabhupada, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ammachi, Mother Karunamayi among many others. There is no first Seer – even the Rig Veda acknowledges that there were seers before. There is no last Rishi either, for who can foreclose the possibility of a new attainment, a new realization, a fresh affirmation of that age old reality? Without the living Rishi tradition, the scripture is nothing but empty words, a distant possibility. It is the living Guru and Acharya, who brings the entire spiritual tradition alive, in his being, action and example. This institution of Guru, who sustains the sampradaya and breathes new life into the tradition, is perhaps the single most important reason that Hinduism has survived the lethal onslaught of the combined wrath of Christianity and Islam, that descended upon its shores, in the last thousand years. They are the true Bharat Ratnas, the real gems of India.
Human potential and possibility reaches a zenith in the person of these Mahatmas; the soul of India and Sanatana Dharma shines in these beings; Bharat Mata herself smiles on them, and the masses of India venerate them, adore them, congregate around them, worship them and celebrate their presence. All manner of spiritual rejuvenation arises around them; many charitable works and projects; temples, hospitals, educational institutions, flower around them, and get constructed and consecrated as acts of outpouring devotion. Other civilizations simply cannot understand them; they have no categories in which to place them; for they are not academicians armed with degrees and scholastic accomplishments; they are not entrepreneurs who having made their millions have now turned philanthropists, who have founded endowments and foundations; they are not intellectuals writing papers and propounding some new theory regarding society and humanity; They receive no stipends or grants from organized institutions; There is no committee to decide whether they should be anointed as saints or not. There is no evaluation process, comparing them with others in their category; They are not awarded Nobel Prizes or other accolades and recognitions of any kind, they are not in the media, but they go on working, quietly, silently, with a prayer in their hearts, and a blessing on their lips. They live under the sky, without regard for themselves;
They surrender themselves to the will of Bhagwan; They inspire millions; And the society supports them. We have in this civilization a reverence for Sannyasa, a stage of life, in which human life finds its ultimate flowering, a person renounces all personal interests, preferences, even a concern for their own security, and abandons himself (or herself) into the realm of Dharma and Moksha, and we honor that. Contrast this with exclusive creeds, that are centered on an exclusive God, a chosen people, and an exclusive prophet or messiah. God speaks to his chosen people through a chosen prophet, and there shall be no other ever again like him. In fact human salvation (after death) is attained only through surrender to this exclusive prophet. His word is final and cannot be improved upon; He is the only one, the only intermediary; the only savior; the only communicant of God’s will and plan; His visions and revelations are God’s word, and if we do not surrender to him, and give him our obedience, we shall incur eternal hell. These creeds operate more like an army, a horde, organized for continuous and protracted confrontation with all unbelievers. They seem to have a unity of purpose and an internal coherence, but their purpose is to clash and conquer. Whatever religiosity there is inherent in these creeds, it seems to be in service of their politics, their goal of relentless expansion.
8. Sampradaya – The source of a Pluralistic Society
Sanatana Dharma has given rise to many Sampradayas, many traditions, both ancient and modern. They all arose with the advent of specific Rishis or Acharyas – like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Guru Gobind Singh, Chaitanya, Buddha, Mahavira or Swaminarayan. They each affirmed the ancient truths, but they may have emphasized different aspects of that truth. They taught the truth about life and God, as they saw it; as they deemed appropriate for the specific time and place; They made adjustments in their teachings appropriate to their social setting; They offered corrections, and restored balance where they saw imbalances. They all inspired millions; simplified and codified great spiritual teachings for the sake of easier application and practice; People gathered around them, deeply inspired by their personal charisma and spiritual presence, and began to preserve those specific teachings and thus were born these great Sampradayas. But the Sampradayas did not claim exclusivity or superiority. None said this is the last word. They all affirmed what was said before, and said it newly, for a new generation. What intellectual sparring there may have between one Sampradaya and another was confined to certain core set of philosophical principles.
But mostly the Acharyas understood, that each Sampradaya has a validity, a relevance to those who are most attracted or disposed to it. Sanatana Dharma taught that each human being begins at a different place in his or her spiritual journey; each moves in this realm according to their own unique readiness; they have different starting points, different capacities and different needs; Each has his or her own path; and the Sampradayas are mere aids, support structures that provide a homogeneity and a sense of community for the time being. Here in lies the true genius of the Hindu civilization. It recognized the need for individuation, the deeply personal and individual nature of Spiritual Sadhana and transformation; It recognized simultaneously as well the need for preservation of spiritual knowledge for inter-generational continuity, and thence a need for a tradition (A Parampara); for one does not have to re-invent everything all by oneself, in every generation. Sanatana Dharma reconciled these twin needs of its civilization – of variegation and individualization on the one hand and preservation and continuity on the other, in the form of its myriad co-existent sampradayas or spiritual traditions. This genius is enshrined in the Rig Veda (I.164.46) which states a fundamental vedic principle :
"Ekam sat vipraha bahauda vadanti".
This means “To that Truth which is one, the Wise give many different names”. This Statement represents a law, a universal principle that is unique to Sanatana Dharma, and is indeed at the heart of its innately pluralistic and accommodative nature. So it enjoins its adherents to look upon humanity as a single family ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’, who may yet subscribe to different sampradayas. In this way, Hinduism has both spawned and assimilated different traditions, different ways, different teachers, Gurus, different views and paths. We can find today, within a single family, different members following different Gurus, Acharyas and Sampradayas. So while it did not see any problem (nor does it see today in many cases) in co-existing with other creeds such as Christianity and Islam, it has a great difficulty in organizing itself to respond to the special challenge posed by these monotheistic, exclusivist and expansionist religions / ideologies. Hinduism has historically been organized for peaceful and harmonious ends – not for a continued confrontation with external enemies. The average Hindu, has no problem co-mingling with the average Muslim or Christian, and in some cases even in visiting a Church or Mosque; even praising Jesus and Allah as spiritual masters on an equal footing as many of its own Hindu Rishis (as in the song “Ishwara Allah There Naam”). But we do not on the whole perceive the wolf in sheep’s clothing – we have not adequately distinguished these civilizations as being based on theologies that are not in any sense “Dharmic” whatsoever. When we say “Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava” we are now confusing Dharma and Adharma completely.
9. Sanskrit – Shruti, Smriti and Puranas
Many thousands of years ago, before the age of writing, on the banks of the River Saraswati, the Rishis of India, spoke to the Gods and to each other in a Deva Bhasha and called it Samskrtam. And in this language, they sung their poems, their praises to the Gods of their time, they expressed their insights and visions, and they preserved their dialogues and discussions.
A most marvelous tradition of Sanskrit literature was thus born and preserved, mostly orally, through chanting and repeating, the sacred sounds of the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Brahmasutras, The Yogasutras, Dharmashastras, The Bhagvad Gita, the Puranas, the Smritis, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Grhyasutras, Shrautasutras and so on. They wrote the great epics of their time, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in the same language; and these epics got embedded into the psyche of its people; they were revered and celebrated, in dance and song; in literature and drama; in festival and ritual; in art and architecture; in poetry and philosophy in every nook and corner of the land. The Rishis gave us the major darshanas – Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Karma-Mimamsa and Vedanta.
From Sanskrit was born a variety of other languages, which each evolved locally and got specialized; Yet it is not hard to see that every language of India has had its origin in Sanskrit and derives many of its own concepts and ideas from this great language. When Europe encountered Sanskrit, it was initially bewildered and astounded – For here was an extraordinary language and it seemed to be the mother of all languages not just in India, and perhaps even their own European languages such as Latin, German and English. For a time, in the early 1800’s they were even greatly committed to the study and understanding of India’s literature. Sir William Jones who started the Asiatic Society of India, in 1784, is said to have remarked "The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either." But soon, their colonial aspirations of conquest and domination, and of civilizing the so called ‘native’ peoples of the world, took over, and they postulated wild theories of Aryan invasion, from somewhere in Asia, and called them the first invaders and colonizers of India. They said that Sanskrit itself was foreign to India; they denied India its culture, and its philosophy. This served their colonizing purpose, but these theories are losing ground, gradually, and world history itself may have to be re-written. But nowhere in the world, no culture, no civilization has an equivalent corpus of literature that is predominantly dedicated to the life of the spirit – to the varied nuances of Dharma and Moksha. In this regard, the civilization of India indeed has originated one of the most important and critical body of knowledge, known to humanity, and whatever is left of it must be preserved again for the sake of all of humanity.
10. Varna and Jati – The Caste System
In the eyes of the others, Hinduism has become synonymous with Caste. This word Caste is used to translate both Varna and Jati, so that the distinction between them is therefore easily lost. Heaps of vilification has been piled upon this system; every shade of reformer has written eloquently about how the Caste system is an evil, and that it needs to go. Every foreigner has waxed philosophically about the ills of this system; Yet the reality is that every Hindu, before even he or she recognizes themselves as a Hindu, will know themselves through a Varna or Jati identity.
In other words, the Jati identity is stronger in India than the Hindu identity. It has a reality that transcends time; It has an inherent strength and durability that cannot be easily wished away. Is survives even conversions into other religions – for even the converted hold onto their original caste identity. It indeed is a fundamental institution of Sanatana Dharma that has survived several millennia. Let us contrast this with a new idea like “Communism” or “Marxism”. These ideas held great sway for a short period of time, even Jawaharlal Nehru was very taken by these ideas, spawning a whole generation of Indian “intellectuals” who subscribed to these new found creeds; yet where is it all today? Soviet Russia, the bastion of Communism, has given up on its core ideas. These creeds have not lasted even 200 years, yet we vilify a social organizing idea, that has survived and evolved over several thousand years. So in our discussion we will not take the view that Caste is evil, but that it was a natural evolution of the Dharma, and thus a characteristically Dharmic institution. But first some distinctions based on how it was all meant to be.
"Chaturvarnyam mayaa srishtam gunakarma vibhagasah"
(Bhagwan Shri Krishna, Bhagvad Gita, IV.13)
Krishna is saying that “The four orders of society were created by Me according to their Guna (qualities/behavior/character) and Karma (profession/work/effort)”. The missing term is “Kula” (Family or Ancestry) or “Janma” (Birth). In other words, Krishna is clearly saying that the distinction of Varna is not based on birth or family; anyone whose character and vocation warrants it can belong to any Varna. Thus Varna which can be translated as ”Color”, is more precisely translated as “Varieties” or “Classes”. One becomes a Brahmana not by birth, but by turning his gaze towards Brahman, by desiring to know Brahman, by settled effort towards attaining Moksha, by being learned in the Shastra, and therefore upholding and protecting the Dharma, by being self-less in his service to humanity, by rising in Yoga.
The Brahmanas are verily the pride of our land. One becomes a Kshatriya, not by birth alone but through demonstrating valor, a sense of social justice and order, and a deep concern for the establishment and sustenance of Dharma. Similarly A Vaishya demonstrates skill in business dealings, and a deep driving ambition to expand his wealth. A Shudra, is content with serving the other classes, for the time being, but he too may turn god ward, and change his status. Varna is not at all a problem if we allow an ease of mobility across them. If people by their own effort and practice, by character and tendency, by chosen work and vocation, can move themselves from one Varna to another, how can we find fault with this classification which is universally true in all civilizations? Jati on the other hand, has much more to do with Kula dharma.
One is born into a Jati, but not necessarily into a Varna. Jati is what allowed for vocations to get passed on from generation to generation. A sculptor’s son became a sculptor, a farmer’s son a farmer and a priest’s son a priest. As for the relation between Jati and Varna, it is somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes, a Jati contained within it all four varnas, and sometimes, a Jati was wholly contained within a Varna. In any case, the proliferation of Jatis took place over time, as localized phenomenon, as natural expressions of the Dharma, without any supervising and ordering influence. The ancient civilization of Sanatana dharma based its society on the structure that aided its spirituality, first and foremost.
The whole social fabric was built up to fulfill that highest law of being – the loftiest spiritual end. Individual liberty was not its chief concern, but communal liberty was. Every community was free to develop its own version of religion, the forms of its worship, the dharma of its being – thus each community had its own Dharma and within itself it was independent; every village, every city had its own organization quite free from all political control and within that every individual conformed to his swadharma, not because he or she had no choice, but that was his highest choice. But all this was not put into an over-arching centralized political unit. The social structure was thus decentralized; Thus Jati and Varna was the ultimate expression of a pluralistic society which upheld simultaneously its spiritual principle of “diversity”, while also sustaining its practical need for inter-generational homogeneity. It is important to recognize that when everyone is free to do whatever he or she pleases, society may have reached its highest expression of individual liberty; but it also simultaneously loses its ability to transmit anything of real value and importance from one generation to the next. So we see today, that the more a society emphasizes individual liberty, (as in the Western world), the more it is losing its family structure, and inter-generational continuity.
Lastly, the whole system of Varna and Jati, was devoid of any competition amongst them. The Hindu society was organized for peaceful, harmonious and spiritual ends. Competition is a recent phenomenon; Difficult as it may be, let us for a moment imagine a society that had no notion of competitiveness whatsoever; where the different Varnas and Jatis lived peacefully together, in service of each other; providing to the whole society, their best gifts and talents all in the spirit of Dharma. Such was the ordering of the Civilization of Sanatana Dharma. Such was how it was meant to be. How did it all begin to get rigidified? Fossilized? Indeed how did it come to pass that people of different Varnas claimed a social status by virtue of their birth? How did it happen that each Varna and Jati began to resist marriages that crossed a Varna or Jati boundary? When did a concern for purity of a Varna, get expressed as a “Don’t touch me” phenomenon? How did the Castes start competing with one another, and thus losing their inherent regard for each other? It is difficult to imagine that a spiritual philosophy that so upheld the essential divinity of man, consciously engendered a social system that was unequal and unfair to its segments.
Thus we cannot find the root causes for the degradation of the Varna and Jati system, in the core values of the civilization. Western scholarship and many of the Indian Marxist “intellectuals” have taken the view that the central responsibility for this so called “degradation” of the Varnas and Jatis, lies on the doorstep of the Brahmins. We do not subscribe to this. We propose that while there may have been an occasional ‘excess’ on the part of an individual Brahmana, we cannot subscribe to the notion, that the Brahmanas got organized on a national scale, and suddenly decided to oppress all the other castes. The Brahmanas have never been organized enough; they have never been powerful enough; their influence was mostly intellectual and spiritual; On the other hand, most likely under the shock of the Islamic invasions, when the Kshatriyas fell one after another, when the rapacious force of Islam was rampant upon the land, when the decentralized social order could not offer any organized resistance to the invaders, each Varna and Jati collapsed in upon itself, desperately trying harder to hold on to its dharma, its sampradayas and samskaras, and preserve the remaining vestiges of their great spiritual tradition at all costs; from the clear and present danger and pressure to convert to Islam. Perhaps that was one turning point.
The British rule of India, further alienated the Hindus from their own spiritual source, by introducing a secular education, and drawing its Brahmanas away from their vedic studies. Perhaps that was yet another turning point. Recent westernization has brought with it a competition amongst people, and the castes of today are at loggerheads with one another, claiming special favor and status, as a minority, as an oppressed and backward caste et al. May be this was another turning point. We have legions of modern writers, mostly westernized types, who are now ready to wholly decimate this ancient system of varna and Jati – Yet their efforts are coming mostly to nought. It is all getting further rigidified, and strengthened. Coalitions amongst the castes are the new politics of Democratic India. Caste is here to stay, and it is one of the central organizing principle of Sanatana Dharma, whether we like it or not. We can transform it, but only first by owning it fully, by accepting it as what it was meant to be, and what it has become.
We have presented ten essential ideas, primary structuring concepts around which the civilization of Sanatana Dharma, has coalesced, from one generation to the next. Details have varied over time – We have had a great Vedic period, an extraordinary Upanishadic period of spiritual insight, followed by the rise of Buddhism, and the recovery of Vedanta, all strengthened by the Bhakti movements – But running through all these great eons of time, Sanatana Dharma represents a civilization that organized itself primarily to enable the life of the spirit. It valued diversity as an essential fact of life, and supported it.
Yet it allowed spiritual truths to be realized, codified and systematically transmitted for future generations to interpret and recognize. This is the essence of this civilization, and there is no other on this planet like it. Today, India is modernizing, westernizing, and there is a great inter-mingling of ideas under way. Will the essence of our civilization survive? Or will it get lost, in this mad dash of capitalism and consumerism? Will we gradually lose our future generations? Will the great body of spiritual knowledge that is enshrined in our scripture, culture, religion and way of life, slowly give way to a universal culture, a universal civilization, where India’s unique civilizational heritage is lost both to itself and to the world? The survival of this civilization is not certain, for there are grave dangers arrayed against it. If we do not recognize these dangers, and summon our will to act and address them, we will also be willful parties to its slow decay and extinction.
1. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Talks and Discourses
2. Clash of Civilizations, Professor Samuel Huntington
3. Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India
4. Ram Swarup, Essays on Hinduism
5. Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works
Last Updated (Tuesday, 16 August 2011 05:42)