Sunday, September 10, 2023

Sanatana Dharma: A Protean Idea

In this post I hope to present a very rudimentary history of a word more to highlight how history is being invented, with a political agenda than to wade into some arcane theological debate.

A groundswell of opposition to Tamil Nadu minister Udayanidhi’s speech about Sanatana Dharma includes even those who call themselves progressives, whatever that amorphous and ill defined label means, have railed against the ill informed minister explaining that the word Sanatana Dharma merely symbolizes an “eternal truth” that nevertheless accounts for progress of reform within an ancient religion. There are the usual militant Hindutva group whose responses we need not bother with here. What I am concerned with here is the propaganda about the history of the word by the “progressives”. This latter group defines Sanatana Dharma in benign terms, borrowed verbatim from a definition by Encyclopedia Britannica, as an egalitarian and elastic theological notion and one which no one can really object to. We are also told that the word existed from yore and in popular use. THIS is precisely what I contest.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and S,N. Dasgupta wrote about Hindu philosophy (Radhakrishnan called it “Indian Philosophy”) copiously in multi-volume tomes and yet the word “Sanatana Dharma” is, as far as I checked, absent from the indexes. Nor is it mentioned by A.L. Bhasham in his “The Wonder that was India”, nor by Kosambi in his “Ancient India”. Many other books by various authors rarely, if ever, mention the word. 

I do not mean to suggest that the word Sanatan Dharma never existed. Obviously ancient textual references have been cited but, again, let us note it is not copious. I surmise, and it is clearly my surmise, that while the word existed it existed more within the priestly Brahmin class or those aspiring to be Sanskritized (about this next) and even then it existed in the margins. The word was not as colloquial as it is now implied, certainly not in Tamil Nadu. 

Dhivya Cherian in “Merchants of Virtue” talks about Marwaris, financing nearly 20 newspapers in early 19th century, “played an active role at the forefront of the sanātan dharma or “eternal religion” movement, which projected an unchanged spiritual unity, dating back to an ancient past, as underlying the heart of the many sampradāys and orders of South Asia. This “revivalist” movement of socially conservative and “high”-caste men confronted the “reformist” agenda of groups such as the Arya Samaj of north India and the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal.” 

Sanatan Dharma is more often associated with caste supremacy and exclusionary tendencies than the progressive apologists are willing to concede. Cherian cites Philip Lutgendorf on the conflict between reform minded Arya Samaj and Sanatanis. “Philip Lutgendorf has argued that the sanātan dharmīs tended to define themselves in opposition to “others.” For them, reformist projects such as widow remarriage among “high” castes, the initiation of “untouchables” into elite religious orders, and abandonment of image worship were decidedly incompatible with Hindu identity.22 At the same time, the sanātanīs needed practices and texts to unite them. The text that met this need was the Ramcharitmānas, “a bhakti work that still preached reverence for cows and Brahmins, claimed to be in accord with a comfortably undefined ‘Veda,’ offered a satisfying synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism, and in the minds of many devotees, stood at one and the same time for fervent devotional egalitarianism, the maintenance of the social status quo, and even a kind of nationalism in that it countered the British colonial ethos with an idealized vision of a powerful and harmonious Hindu state.”

Tanika Sarkar in “Hindu Nationalism in India” cites the changes made in various editions of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Ananda Math”, published in 1890s, to mark the appearance of the word ‘Sanatan Dharma”, “evoking the name that orthodox opponents of Dayanand (Saraswati of Arya Samaj) provided for Hinduism. This and Cherian’s history clearly suggest a 19th century political birth, or rebirth if you will, of an ancient word and it clearly implies orthodoxy not the egalitarian all encompassing nature implied today. Sarkar also draws attention to a large network of temples called “Sanatan Dharma” temples. I found this curious and these are latter day phenomenon. I was stunned to discover that many such temples are in US amongst, particularly North Indian diaspora. Note, I have not seen references to any such Tamil or Telugu temple. Again, the latter day recent nature of these temples points to the rise of that word in politico-religious sense in the tumultuous 19th and 20th century when religious contestations reached a feverish pitch in India.

Vasudha Dalmia in “Hindu Pasts: Women, Religion, Histories” emphasizes the conflict between Arya Samaj’s Dayanand and Hindus who called these;ves Sanatanists. While Dayanand accepts the vedas he, Dalmia writes, “dissected and dismembered the Bhaghavata Purana” and “discredited the traditions of Sri Vaishnavas, finally to dwell at some length on the doings of the Gokul Gossips, epitomes of lechery and greed of utter decadence”. The response to Dayanand came from Benares, notably from the Dharma Sabha. One of the executives of the Sabha was one Harishchandra, 1870s, whose publications on theological disputes were immensely popular in the Hindi regions. Harishchandra’s Vaishnava Sampradaya had three features, says Dalmia, one of which was “Vaishnava monotheism as the most ancient and authentic strand of the long tradition which constituted Sanatana Dharma”. Dalmia’s book underscores the importance of this conflict between Dayanand and Harishchandra in the Kashi circles. 

Wendy Doniger in “The Hindus” makes a case for the appearance of the term “Sanatana Dharma” and what it was used to mean in the colonial era. To confront the prudery of colonial era Victorian protestants who used the eroticism within Hinduism to malign it the Hindus, notably the upper caste, presented a “sanitized brand of Hinduism” that is “now often labeled Sanatana Dharma”.

The use of the word “Sanatana Dharma” to denote a rarified Vedic Hinduism as opposed to the caricature of Hinduism by Protestants in colonial era is noted by W.J. Johnson in “A Dictionary of Hinduism” (Oxford University). Interestingly he notes that reformers like Dayananda Sarasvati used it. Klaus K. Klostermaier in “A Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism” writes that Sanatanists “are those who rigidly adhere to traditional law”. Klosternaier, it must be said, was a catholic priest who lived amongst Vaishnavites for many years and wrote well regarded books on Hinduism. Jefferey D. Long in “Historical Dictionary of Hinduism” rites that Sanatana Dharma is “a Hindu terms for Hinduism typically. Used to distinguish the ancient Vedic mainstream of the tradition from the particular sectarian movements that have proliferated within it, especially modern reform movements like the Arya Samaj”. Long, converted from Catholicism to Hinduism and was a consultant to the right wing Hindu American Foundation in a lawsuit against the California Board of Education.

What emerges from what is surely a cursory and very sweeping attempt to understand the biography of the word “Sanatana Dharma” is that it was more probably a 19th century reactionary attempt to primarily contest a reformist movement and for that very reason it embodied a version of Hinduism that was not even remotely egalitarian. I want to emphasize that in the very complicated and multi layered history of Hinduism and India what a word means, literally, and what it was used to mean can be poles apart. Too much ink is spilled in using the literal meaning of the word to whitewash a complicated history.

A glaring and dangerous omission in the debates around Sanatana Dharma is the near total absence of academic intellectuals, particularly Dalit intellectuals. 


  1. Hindu Pasts: Women, Religion, Histories -- Vasudha Dalmia
  2. Hindu Nationalism in India - Tanika Sarkar
  3. A Historical Dictionary of Hinduism - Jefferey Long
  5. A Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism - Klaus K. Klostermaier
  7. A Dictionary of Hinduism - W.J. Johnson
  8. The Hindus - Wendy Doniger
  9. Merchants of Virtues: Hindus, Muslims and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia - Dhivya Cherian

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