What Is Sanatana Dharma?

Dr B.R. Ambedkar must be our guiding light in understanding what “sanatana dharma” is today – nothing more than a re-branding of the inhuman and anti-social caste system, intended to maintain and strengthen it. 

Udayanidhi Stalin’s remark that “Sanatana dharma should not be opposed, but should be eradicated like dengue and malaria” has greatly enraged Hindutva forces. They have interpreted Stalin’s remarks as a call for genocide of Hindus.

What is sanatana dharma?

Dharma refers to the values, beliefs, institutions and systems on which life, and the universe itself stands (“dharayati iti Dharma”). As sanatana means “eternal” in Sanskrit, “Sanatana Dharma” refers to an “eternal Dharma”, the unchanging order of the universe.

What is the eternal, unchanging order of the universe (sanatana dharma) according to scriptures which are accepted as authoritative by those who believe in Sanatana Dharma as a religion?

Manu states that Veda, Smriti, Sadachara and Atma Tushti are the four constitutive elements (lakshanas) of Dharma (वेद : स्मृति सदाचार स्वस्य च प्रियमात्मन:/एतश्चतुर्विदं प्राहुः साक्षाद् धर्मस्य लक्षणम् Manu Smriti, 2. 12). Manusmriti defines Sadachara as the traditional practice of Varnashrama Dharma that has been all along practiced in Aryavarta (aka Brahmavarta). Manu mandates that svadharma is varnadharma (वरं स्वधर्मो विगुणः न पारक्यः स्वनुष्ठितः/परधर्मेण जीवन्  हि सध्यः पतति जातितः ‘Manu. 10. 97).

The Bhagavada Puranam makes it clear that dharma is Varnashrama Dharma (वर्णाश्रमवतां धर्मे नष्टे वेदपथे नृणां (12.2.12)). It says that those born  from the ‘higher’ organs of Virat Purusha are exalted and those born from inferior body parts of Virat Purusha are lowly (वर्णानामाश्रमाणां च जन्मभूम्यनुसारिणी:/आसन् प्रकृतयो नृणां नीचैर्निचोत्तमोत्तमः 11. 17. 15 ).

What is varnashrama dharma?

Says Manusmriti, “Varnasharama is the hereditary order of the four varnas and those who are products of permitted inter-Varna relationships (i.e., antaralas, the product of anuloma relationships)” (तस्मिन् देशे य आचार: पारम्पर्य क्रमागतः/वर्णानां सान्तरालानां स सदाचार उच्यते, Manusmriti 2.18).

Varnashrama dharma imposes specific roles and duties on each varna. According to the Manusmriti, the Brahmin’s swadharma is study, teaching, yaajanam (receipt of gifts) and yajna (यज्ञ ). In contrast, the duty of the Shudra is service of the Dvijas (द्विजाति शुश्रूषा ). A Shudra does not have the right to accumulate wealth or to engage in learning or any other activity. Chandalas (including out-castes, the vast majority of our people) who  are considered by authors of  Dharmashastra as “walking graveyards”.

Vyavahara Mala (there are various versions, this reference is to the version in the Thiruvananthapuram Ancient Manuscripts Library) treats the performance of occupations assigned to one’s varna as Dharma. It says that every one must engage only in the occupation of their varna. Performing the occupation of other varnas will only invite disaster (सर्वेषामेव वर्णानां एवं धर्म्यो धनागमः/विपर्यादधर्मस्यान्न चेदापद् गरीयसी ). As varna is acquired by birth, Vyavahara Mala holds that acquisition of a varna different from that into which one is born, by performing the occupation of a different varna, is a punishable offence. It commands kings to punish Shudras who wear sacred threads like Brahmins (तान् सर्वान् खादयेद्राजा शूद्रांश्च द्विज लिंगिनः)

Shankaracharya’s Advaita philosophy, much admired as enlightened, accepts Chaturvanya. While interpreting the revelation in the Bhagvad Gita that God created chaturvanya” (“चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं”), Shankaracharya says in his Gita Bhashyam that the Purusha Sukta in the Rg Veda is correct — that humans are created by God in four varnas born from various organs of Virat Purusha in order of merit, “brahmins from the face, etc”., leaving out the rest as sub-human (चत्वार एव वर्णा : चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया इश्वरेण सृष्टं उत्पादितं व्राह्मणो स्य मुखमासीद् इत्यादि श्रुतेः). In Shankacharya’sBrihadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara Bhashyam, he accepts the varnashrama division and interprets the word “Brahma” as meaning ‘the source of protection of the pride of the Brahmin caste’ (ब्राहमण जात्यभिमानात् ब्रह्मेत्यभिधीयते, 1. 4. 11).

Arthashastra warns that if this dharma is violated, the result will be a world with abhorrent hybrid and impure races (तस्याति क्रमे लोकः सङकरादुच्छिध्येते).Manu holds that varna hybridisation occurs through prohibited intermarriage and inter-relationships between varnas where the varna order is abandoned (व्यभिचारेण वर्णानामवेद्या वेदनेन च/स्वकर्माणां च त्यागेन जायन्ते वर्ण सङकराः). Manu also holds that wherever there is inter-mingling of varnas, the purity of varna is destroyed and the country will perish along with the inhabitants of the country (यत्र त्वेते परिध्वंसा जायन्ते वर्ण दुषकाः/राष्ट्रिकैः सह तद्राष्ट्रं क्षिप्रमेव विनश्यति  Manu . 10. 16 ). In the Bhagwad Gita, Arjuna also worries that the caste will perish due to marriages that violate the caste order (Gita, 1.40). The Bhagavada Puranam says that Lord Vasudeva will reincarnate to protect varnashramadharma when it starts to be destroyed (तावहत्यै कलेरन्ते  वासुदेवानु शिक्षितौ/वर्णाश्रमयुतं धर्मं पूर्ववत्प्रथयिष्यते, 12. 3 . 38).

It is therefore beyond question that what the Dharmashastra and Purana texts define and interpret as Dharma, and what is meant by sanatana dharma, is varnashrama dharma, the duty to eternally maintain the varnashrama social order and world-view.

In a January 1950 lecture delivered in Sivagiri, Kerala, the renowned Kerala social reformer and thinker “Sahodaran” Ayyappan, disciple of Narayana Guru, specifically warned that the caste system is being promoted under the guise of “Dharma”. Ayyappan wrote in his poem ‘Parivatanam (Change)’ that what goes under names such as “sanatana dharma” and “varnashrama” dharma is the religion built by the Brahmins which lowers the other (those who are not Savarnas) as inferior. In an address presented to Mahatma Gandhi during Gandhi’s visit to Kerala in 1934, Sahodaran said that it is this “cruel” dharma called varnashramadharma that makes people in India destitute. Dr B.R. Ambedkar wrote, “Vedas and Shastras, which reject rationality and reject morality, should be destroyed with dynamite,” because the Vedas and Dharmashastras are the foundational precepts of maintaining the caste-violent hierarchical social system of varnashrama dharma.

Narayana Guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Periyar and Ambedkar courageously rejected the attempt to strengthen the caste system by disguising it as a ‘glorious’ “sanatana” tradition. Having embraced Buddhism along with his lakhs of followers, Ambedkar totally rejected sanatana dharma, unfazed by violent attacks by Brahmanist ideology.

Ambedkar must be our guiding light in understanding what “sanatana dharma” is today – nothing more than a re-branding of the inhuman and anti-social caste system, intended to maintain and strengthen it.

Dr T.S. Syam Kumar holds a doctorate in Sanskrit Literature from the Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, Kalady, Kerala.

The Malayalam version of this article was first published by Suprabhaatham.