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The concept of Sanatan Dharma: its roots and the historical context of its use

Sanatan Dharma, equated by DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin to “mosquitoes, dengue, malaria, and corona”, is often seen as being synonymous with Hinduism. As several BJP leaders expressed outrage, party president J P Nadda described Udhayanidhi’s statement as an attack on “our religion”.

Etymology and roots of Sanatan Dharma

Sanatan Dharma is a Sanskrit term that can be translated variously as “eternal religion” or “eternal law”, “unshakeable, venerable order”, or “ancient and continuing guideline”. Mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the word “sanatan”, meaning eternal, does not appear in the Vedas.

“The word sanatan started being used in the Bhagavad Gita, and refers to knowledge of the soul, which is eternal,” Pattanaik said in a video he posted. “One can say that Sanatan Dharma refers to eternal religions which believe in soul and rebirth,” he said.

In his book, ‘Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices’ (1994), Julius J Lipner, Emeritus Professor of Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion at the University of Cambridge, wrote that the term ‘Sanatan Dharma’ was used in the Gita by Arjuna, when he told Krishna that “when the clan is vitiated, the sanatan-dharmas of the clan are destroyed”.

Lipner noted that a similar term was used by Draupadi when the onlookers did not speak up on her behalf.

Although the term is most commonly associated with Hinduism, it is also used by Jains and Buddhists because these religions also believe in rebirth. “It is not used for religions that believe in one life, that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which come from the Middle East,” Pattanaik said.

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It is only more recently, particularly since the late 19th century, that Sanatan Dharma has been used to signify Hinduism as a religion, distinct from other religions. It is used to evoke a certain homogeneity in Hinduism, without specifying how exactly that homogeneity is constituted.

Lipner noted: “Many Hindus call themselves Sanatanists, that is, those who follow the eternal dharma. But…it is far from clear what this eternal dharma is.”

He wrote, “I have yet to discover a Hindu sanatana-dharma in the sense of some universally recognised philosophy.” This, Lipner said, was not possible, because it presupposes that Hinduism is a monolithic tradition in which there is agreement about a static or universal doctrine.

Sanatan Dharma in the 19th century

Historian John Zavos in his 2001 article, ‘Defending Hindu Tradition: Sanatana Dharma as a symbol of orthodoxy in colonial India’ noted that the term gained popularity in the late 19th century with the emergence of various sabhas designed the promote Sanatan Dharma.

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The Sanatan Dharma at that time came to be understood most popularly as a signifier of Hindu orthodoxy that was a reaction to the reform movements being carried out by missionaries and reformers such as the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. This he believed was a political necessity of the period.

In Punjab, for instance, modern Sanatanist movements trace their growth to the career of Pandit Shraddha Ram. It is believed that when Dayanand Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj, toured Punjab in his efforts to reform Hinduism, Shraddha Ram followed in his wake to strengthen the forces of orthodoxy.

Similarly, in the Punjab of the 1890s, Pandit Din Dayal Sharma began defending certain religious practices such as murti puja or idol worship against the teachings of the Arya Samaj and established an organisation called ‘Sanatan Dharm Sabha’.

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The national organisation, ‘Bharat Dharma Mahamandal’ that also came up during this period stated as its first objective, “to promote Hindu religious education in accordance with the Sanatana Dharma”. The term was also used by the Hindu Mahasabha to refer to the Hindu religion.

The idea that Sanatan Dharma was Hindu orthodoxy, and that it was in opposition to reform was entrenched in the social identities of late 19th century India.

Zavos in his article cited the Punjab Census Report of 1891 in which the Census Superintendent had noted the tendency of orthodox Hindus to record themselves as “sanatan dharmis”.

“A still large number were entered as sanatan-dharmi, but I have not thought it worthwhile to record their numbers: the term merely implies that they belong to the ‘old school’ and it is generally used in contradiction to the followers of Arya Samaj. In Lahore city I found at the commencement of the preliminary enumeration that almost everybody who was not an Arya was being recorded as sanatan-dharmi,” the report said.

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Zavos also mentioned that it is not as if each of the sabhas promoting Sanatan Dharma had a common doctrine that distinguished them as orthodox. The only thing common among them was their opposition to the reformist concerns.

“Sanatanis relied on learned individuals like Shraddha Ram to travel from district to district, refuting the arguments of Dayanand and other reformers as they arose,” wrote Zavos.

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So, for instance while the Aryas criticised image worship and position of Brahmins in Hindu society, the Sabhas reacted by arguing in defence of the caste system and idol worship as being core features of the Sanatan Dharma tradition.

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