The Challenge to Sanatana Dharma from a Radical Politics of Emancipation

Udayanidhi Stalin’s statement that he’s prepared to furnish the writings of Periyar and Ambedkar to defend his comments on sanatana dharma indicates the larger context of radical, anti-caste critiques of religion in India, then and now.

On September 2, 2023, when film actor Udhayanidhi Stalin, son of Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin and a minister in the state government, spoke about the need to “eradicate” sanatana dharma during his talk at a Sanatana Abolition Conclave organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association in Chennai, his comment drew an immediate response of political outrage from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Reacting to Udayanidhi’s statement that “[s]ome things cannot be opposed, they should be eradicated…,” for which he gave the examples of dengue, malaria and Covid, adding, so should sanatana dharma, BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya hit out at him on social media. He alleged that Udayanidhi was calling for genocide of 80% population of Bharat. Home minister Amit Shah said Udayanidhi had insulted the country’s “culture, history and Sanatana Dharma,” and in Delhi an advocate filed a complaint with the police commissioner, saying that the comments presented a clear case of hate speech.

Udayanidhi, who holds the youth affairs and sports development portfolio, also reached out through posts on X: “I never called for the genocide of people who are following sanatana dharma. Sanatana Dharma is a principle that divides people in the name of caste and religion. Uprooting sanatana dharma is upholding humanity and human equality.”

He stated his position clearly: “I stand firmly by every word I have spoken. I spoke on behalf of the oppressed and marginalised, who suffer due to the Sanatana Dharma. I am ready to present the extensive writings of Periyar and Ambedkar, who conducted in-depth research on Sanatana Dharma and its negative impact on society in any forum.”

He also added that he was prepared to face any legal challenge that came his way.

This is not the first time that the idea of sanatana dharma has been at the centre of a political argument, no matter what the level of the debate or articulation may be. In fact, by referring to E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, or Periyar, and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Udayanidhi was seeking to indicate the lineage of his views. But to understand this controversy, it is important to unpack the term sanatana dharma.

The faces of B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar on a wall in Chennai. Credit: ferozfoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The faces of B.R. Ambedkar and Periyar on a wall in Chennai. Credit: ferozfoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sanatana is an adjective meaning eternal or unchanging, often employed by those Hindus who view their faith as timeless, universal and immutable. To them it describes the essence or core of Hinduism as timeless and universal.

Hinduism is a modern term (from the early 19th century) that accommodates a vast diversity of religious and cultural phenomena found across the country. It is not a single or unified religion but a collection of various sects, schools, philosophies, and traditions that share some common elements such as belief in reincarnation, karma, and the Vedas. Sanatana dharma and Hinduism are terms that are often used interchangeably.

Kim Knott, professor of religious and secular studies at Lancaster University, defines sanatana dharma in her book Hinduism: “Many describe Hinduism as Sanatan Dharma the eternal tradition or religion. This refers to the idea that its origins lie beyond human history and its truths have been divinely revealed (Shruti) and passed down through the ages to the present day in the most ancient of scriptures, the Vedas. Many share this faith perspective but varying opinions arise when it comes to interpreting human history in early India.”

At various times sanatana dharma has been contested by social reformers and activists who have exposed the oppressive and discriminatory aspects of Hinduism, especially its caste system. Among them, two prominent figures stand out: Periyar and Ambedkar. Both:

  • were born in the late 19th century, witnessed colonial rule, the freedom movement, and the post-independence era;
  • belonged to the so-called lower castes: Periyar was a non-Brahmin from Tamil Nadu, and Ambedkar was from an oppressed caste from Maharashtra;
  • challenged the hegemony of Brahmins and upper castes in politics, culture, and religion; and
  • advocated the rights and dignity of the oppressed castes, especially the Shudras and the Dalits.

Most importantly, both rejected sanatana dharma, seeing it as the source of injustice and inequality, and both envisaged a society based on equality, the dignity of every individual, and democracy.

Periyar’s critique of sanatana dharma

Periyar was a radical social reformer who founded the Self-Respect Movement in 1925.  Arguing that the idea of sanatana dharma was used by Brahmins to exploit and oppress the lower castes, he denounced the concepts of karma, reincarnation, varna, dharma, and moksha as a means to justify the caste hierarchy and to keep the lower castes in perpetual servitude. To that end, Periyar challenged the authority of the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Manusmriti, among others, saying those texts were the result of human output, and biased.

Ridiculing the myths, superstitions, and rituals that were considered part of Hinduism, he advocated  a scientific temper, a rational outlook, and critical thinking among his followers.

Periyar’s critique of sanatana dharma was not only intellectual but also political and cultural. He opposed the Brahminical influence in education, administration, media, literature, art and language in Tamil Nadu, demanding equal rights and opportunities for all in every sphere of life. To secure this aim, Periyar supported social justice measures such as reservation, representation, education and empowerment for the so-called lower castes.

Periyar came to be known for his sharply articulated campaigns against caste discrimination, untouchability, child marriage, dowry, widowhood, polygamy and superstition. Promotion of gender equality, women’s education, inter-caste marriage, birth control and family planning were an integral part of his lifelong work.

At the political level, he was strongly anti-imperialistic and anti-fascistic. He laid the foundation for Dravida ideology in Tamil Nadu, which was based on several vital strands: championing of Tamil culture and calling for a Dravida nadu, opposition to Brahminism, and the domination of the north (in terms of Hindi or its Aryan culture) as exemplified by Sanatana Dharma. The foundation of Dravidian politics was laid in the 1940s with the Dravida Kazhagam (when the Justice Party and the Self-Respect movement came together), with political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ( AIADMK) being later offshoots.

Ambedkar’s critique of dharma

The other strong trajectory of opposition to the idea of Hinduism as a sanatana dharma came from Baba Saheb Ambedkar. His own life exemplified the dehumanising aspect of caste society – despite being a brilliant scholar, lawyer, and leader he faced immense discrimination and humiliation due to his caste background.

Articulating that dharma was the root cause of his misery and that of millions of Dalits, especially the so-called untouchables, he argued that dharma was not eternal but historical, not universal but particular, not immutable but changeable.

Also that Hinduism was not based on reason, morality or equality.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Ambedkar’s critique of Dharma was theoretical but also practical and legal. He fought for the civil and human rights of the marginalised and Dalits in various forums and platforms, leading movements and agitations such as the Mahad Satyagraha (to assert that ‘untouchables’ had the right to access water in public places, and the Kalaram Temple Entry.  We know him as the moving spirit behind the drafting of the Indian Constitution and the Hindu Code Bill. But the fact is, his disillusionment with the entrenched inequality of the caste system was so acute that he renounced Hinduism, embracing Buddhism as the only way out for himself and his followers in the quest for human dignity and equality.

Interestingly, Periyar gave a call in 1922 to renounce the Manusmriti, while Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti in 1927 during the Mahad satyagraha, to signify his rejection of the religious underpinning for untouchability.  Periyar and Ambedkar were two of the most influential and radical thinkers and leaders of modern India. Their sharp critique of sanatana dharma exposed the oppressive and discriminatory nature of Hinduism and its caste system, proposing alternative visions of society based on rationality, humanism, and democracy. In doing so they inspired generations of activists and spurred countless movements for social change and justice. Moreover, in the contemporary context of caste violence, communalism, and fascistic tone in dominant politics, the relevance of their ideas and quest remains undimmed.

Udayanidhi’s query, “What is Sanatana? Sanatana means nothing should be changed and all are permanent. But the Dravida model calls for change and all should be equal…” and the BJP’s response to the remarks made by him underscore one fact. Regardless the level of political discourse in our times and its purely instrumental nature (in this case, the salvos of the BJP and Udayanidhi reflecting the contestation between NDA and the INDIA alliance, which DMK is part of), the fact remains that this controversy has once again exposed a fundamental fault-line of Indian society.

The controversy also reveals that at this moment, when the dominant political project of our times is concerned with crafting an idea of Hinduism as a monolith and as a sanatana dharma, the significance of the ideas of towering figures like Periyar and Ambedkar is increasing.

Dr Sandeep Yadav is a University Gold Medalist in PG. He has been teaching English as an Associate Professor in SLC(E) at the University of Delhi for the last 15 years. He has been a permanent faculty member at the Central University of Jharkhand for four years.