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Those Speaking Against Sanatana Dharma Today Are Fighting 2000 Years of Oppression

As Ambedkar often reminded us, there is no concept of fundamental rights for individuals in Hinduism. Rights and privileges accrued only to communities, based on their birth.

In India, that is Bharat, we are born not Indians or Hindus but Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. That is the immutable fact of life. Then Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism (for the limited purpose of this article, the two terms are used as co-terminus) envelopes us as we grow from infancy to childhood and adulthood. That forms our categories of perception, thinking and behaviour. We know we are either the upper castes, the middle ones, or the Shudras and Ati-Shudras – the ‘Panchamas’, those that exist outside the ‘Chaturvarna’ system.

Societies are held together by social structures, and caste became the foundational unit of ours. That base was rationalised by the superstructure of dharma, and people living within the confines of their respective varna dharmas believe that this is ‘sanatana’ – the eternal reality. What is truly sanatana, however, is that “discrimination was internalised as much by its victims as its beneficiaries, on ‘an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt’ to the point that it was accepted as the natural order of things and required little or no physical coercion to enforce,” as noted by Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Though Sanatana Dharma has been challenged right from the time of Buddha (500 BCE) to the age of Basavanna in Karnataka, and various other saint-poets of the Bhakti movement in the north and east from the 12th century to the 15th century, to Ambedkar in the 20th century, the structure of inequality and injustice has become more entrenched than ever. The Dravidians and the Dalits have always had a problematic relationship with Sanatana Dharma not because they suspect its philosophical core but because it creates disabilities by institutionalising violence against them and offers no hope of redemption from their unjust and oppressive station in life.

As Ambedkar often reminded us, there is no concept of fundamental rights for individuals in Hinduism. Rights and privileges accrued only to communities, based on their birth. There is no notion of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ for and among citizens in Hinduism. Equality did not exist, liberty was defined and restricted by one’s caste or status, and the absence of these precluded fraternity among people. Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas could enjoy the liberty to pursue their ‘Jati Dharma’ and were entitled to equality and fraternity within their own communities and, as per convenience, between members of those communities. Left out of this possibility of fraternity were the Shudras, who were not equal and who did not have liberty. They only had duties, and those were to serve all other castes above them.

Photo: The Wire

One might argue that judging our ancient scriptures by the values of European enlightenment and modern ideas is incorrect and that they should be measured for their own intrinsic worth. But then, should they continue to guide the lives of Hindus in the 21st century?

There is a more important question as to whether the dharma shastras and sutras were applied in real life even in those times or whether they were merely envisaged as norms to be applied in an ideal world. Scholars widely disagree on this. While the famed Indologist Pandurang Vaman Kane, in his five-volume History of Dharma Shastras (1930 to 1962) implicitly asserted that the texts provide a true picture of social life in ancient India, Govind Das, in his work The Real Character of Hindu Law (1914) called these texts as nothing more than “a pious wish of metaphysically minded, ceremonial ridden priestly promulgators, but seldom a stern reality”.

What mattered more to the mass of Indian people, however, were the opinions of the then British rulers. In fact, Max Mueller, the leading educator of Europeans on Hinduism, held that even for those not involved in the administration of India, “They (the Hindu scriptures) were of great importance for forming a correct view of the old state of society in India.” In 1772, Warren Hastings, as Governor of Bengal, unwittingly made a revolutionary promulgation to “prevent Indians from being subjected to English Law” and enacted a decree to the effect that “in matters of inheritance, marriage and other religious matters, the Gentoos shall be governed by the Laws of the Shaster; the Muhammadans by the Laws of the Koran”.

In other words, from 1772 onwards, the entire undefined body of the dharma shastras was elevated en bloc to the rank of law books to be used by the Anglo-Indian courts. This resulted in ludicrous attempts to appoint some Sanskrit pandits, who had their own interests, as advisers to British judges to interpret the dharma shastras and sutras.

In a recently published book, Caste Pride by Manoj Mitta, there are some insightful, researched findings on how the dharma shastra-led legal codes and mindset have influenced our society since 1795 and how caste inequities continue to play out even today. Here are a few gems:

1829: Defying the pressure and clout of the upper castes, William Bentinck abolishes ‘Sati’ by enacting a law that those who abet it shall be deemed guilty of ‘culpable homicide’.

1850: Protecting the inheritance rights of any Hindu who is ‘deprived of caste’, Lord Dalhousie enacts the first-ever national law on caste disabilities.

1855: The London-based Privy Council upholds the claim of Rajputs to the varna status of Kshatriyas, thereby rejecting the Brahmin theory that they had all been annihilated by sage Parashurama.

2018: The Narendra Modi government repeals the 1850 law on ‘caste disabilities.’

The 1850 Act permitted a ‘converted Hindu’ or one who marries outside their religion and their successors to inherit property, and that right was taken away in 2018 by repealing the enactment of Lord Dalhousie. The Modi government thus restored the power of the Hindu patriarch to ‘deprive caste status’ and deny his children the right to inherit property if they married outside their caste or religion. Thus, a dharma shastra code that even Lord Dalhousie found abhorrent was restored by the Modi government.

It is ironic that Prime Minister Modi is now accusing others of “restoring 1,000 years of slavery”. He should realise that those who are speaking up against sanatana dharma today are fighting the very slavery they have suffered for 2,000 years.

Ravi Joshi is a former Cabinet Secretariat official.

This article was originally published in the Deccan Herald.