Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma | Devansh Jolly

Devansh Jolly

The term ‘Hinduism’ was first used in the 19th century by European writers (King, 1999), and therefore is a modern one, unlike the tradition that it attempts to encapsulate. While the term ‘Hindu’, from which ‘Hinduism’ was derived, originally had geographical connotations, the latter has always been used to give a name to the ‘religion’ of the Hindu people. However, describing Hinduism as a religion is inaccurate for several reasons. First of all, there is a persisting argument that sects within Hinduism conform to the western sense of what qualifies as a religion, while Hinduism itself does not (Stietencron, 1997). Hinduism he concludes, at most, may be better described as an ‘umbrella religion’. Another argument, which Balagangadhara (1994) offers, is that the suggestion of Hinduism being a religion is inherently faltered, since ‘religion’ is a western concept, and it cannot possibly be used to describe traditions in other cultures and languages “where the term ‘religion’ does not exist”. It is for these reasons, and several others, that it has been such a difficult task for scholars to define ‘Hinduism’. Having introduced a basic idea surrounding the problem of designating Hinduism as a religion, this essay shall explore the inconsistencies between Hinduism, Semitic religions and the Western sense of the term ‘religion’, the appropriateness of defining Hinduism strictly in its own term of Sanatana Dharma, and briefly the idea of Hinduism as an ‘umbrella religion’.

Religion in popular and western terms has been understood as a belief system of faith and worship in one higher being or ‘God’. This creed has a founder, adheres to a single sacred scripture which renews the faith in its one ‘true God’, has a hierarchy of priests or prophets and centralised authority, regards certain practices as crucial to the said religion, is more often than not hostile to other religions, and so on and so forth. However, Hinduism doesn’t fulfil many of these characteristics. Gobinda-Dasa (Organ, 1974) lists out various essential requirements for being a Hindu, but points out that none of them are necessary, which makes it extremely complicated to ascertain who can be described as a Hindu. Diverging sharply from Semitic religions, Hinduism allows each Hindu to conceptualise his/her own God who affirms to their own belief system (Williams, 1883). A crucial difference between Abrahamic religions and Hinduism must be noted here – the former are revealed, while the latter is emergent. Furthermore, Hinnells and Sharpe (1972) argue that issues in Semitic religions can be resolved by referring to the scripture, or teachings of prophets, which is not possible with Hinduism since there are multiple and varied scriptures, and no central prophets or priests. However, there is again, a rather fundamental difference between Semitic religions and Hinduism. As mentioned earlier, the inherent fallacy in designating Hinduism as a ‘religion’ lies in the fact that the term ‘religion’ is tailor-made to define Semitic religions, whereas Asian religions, and not just Hinduism, do not conform to that definition (Balagangadhara, 1994). Balagangadhara (1994) furthers his argument by asserting that if certain aforementioned elements of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are to be considered essential for them to qualify as religions, it involuntarily invalidates the proposition of Hinduism as a religion. After establishing this, he acknowledges that the contemporary definition or understanding of religion is itself too narrow to accommodate Hinduism as a religion.

On the pretext of the previous assertion, Staal (1989) and Sweetman (2003) argue that core difference between Hinduism and the “Western pattern of religion” is that the former does not lay emphasis on doctrines but rather on rituals and mysticism, and that doctrines are secondary in nature, often being “rationalizations and generally after-thoughts“. Staal (1989) suggests that Hinduism and Asian traditions can only be categorized as religions under what he calls an “extended-Durkheim” concept of religion which includes not just doctrines, but rituals and “mystical experience”. However what is ignored here is the necessity of defining Hinduism strictly in its own term of Sanatana Dharma. There is no direct or comprehensive translation of Sanatana Dharma in the English language. The closest literal translation being ‘eternal duty’ or ‘eternal or universal order of things’, Stietencron (1997) explains the wide ranging applicability of Sanatana Dharma by pointing out that it is not just restricted to humans – whose various duties include nonviolence, patience, honesty – but also “operates on all levels of worldly existence“, like the dharma of plants is to grow and provide food for animals, the “dharma of fire to annihilate, to transform, and carry oblations to the gods”. It is essential to note here that it is this characteristic of Sanatana Dharma which gives Hinduism a certain spiritual dimension which the western term of ‘religion’ is too narrow to incorporate.

Another key argument against the idea of terming Hinduism as a single religion is, as Stietencron (1997) argues, the existence of several sects, namely Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism, among others, existing within Hinduism which are similar to an extent, in terms of structure, to Semitic creeds, and therefore can themselves be described as ‘religions’, while Hinduism may be described as an ‘umbrella religion’. He concedes that they have numerous similarities between them, but in the same breath also argues that, like Judaism, Islam and Christianity, they are distinct since they all possess their own recognised religious texts, distinct practices and rituals, and regard one God as supreme.

One remarkable feature of Hinduism, and perhaps the most noticeable divide that exists between Hinduism and Semitic religions is the unprecedented level of autonomy that it allows its followers, as discussed above. A person can be an atheist while remaining a Hindu at the same time, for Hinduism is much more than a ‘religion’ – it is also a philosophy (Chakravarti, 1994). To conclude, the fact that Sanatana Dharma is a much wider term than religion, and the additional suggestion that Hindu sects may themselves be considered as distinct religions, effectively assert Hinduism as ‘a way of life’ rather than a ‘religion’.

This is a version of an essay originally submitted to University of Birmingham Foundation Programme.


References

  1. Balagangadhara, S.N. (1994) in Sweetman, W. (2003) ‘”Hinduism” and the History of “Religion”: Protestant Presuppositions in the Critique of the Concept of Hinduism’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 15(4), 338 – 339. doi: 10.1163/157006803322697407
  2. Chakravarti, S.S. (1994) Hinduism, a Way of Life. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. 71.
  3. Hinnells, J.R. and Sharpe, E.J. (eds.) (1972) World Religions in Education: Hinduism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press Limited. 1.
  4. King, R. (1994) in Sweetman, W. (2003) Mapping Hinduism: ‘Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions, 1600-1776. Halle: Franckesche Stiftungen zu Halle. 154.
  5. Monier-Williams, M. (1883) in Sharma, A. (eds.) (2003) The Study of Hinduism. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 2.
  6. Organ, T.W. (1974) in Sharma, A. (eds.) (2003) The Study of Hinduism. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 3.
  7. Staal, F. (1982) in Sweetman, W. (2003) ‘”Hinduism” and the History of “Religion”: Protestant Presuppositions in the Critique of the Concept of Hinduism’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 15(4), 340, 342. doi: 10.1163/157006803322697407
  8. Stietencron, H.V. (1997) in Sweetman, W. (2003) ‘”Hinduism” and the History of “Religion”: Protestant Presuppositions in the Critique of the Concept of Hinduism’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 15(4), 334. doi: 10.1163/157006803322697407
  9. Stietencron, H.V. (1997) in Sharma, A. (eds.) (2003) The Study of Hinduism. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 7.
  10. Sweetman, W. (2003) ‘”Hinduism” and the History of “Religion”: Protestant Presuppositions in the Critique of the Concept of Hinduism’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 15(4), 340. doi: 10.1163/157006803322697407
  11. Monier-Williams, M. (1883) in Sharma, A. (eds.) (2003) The Study of Hinduism. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. 2.

Devansh Jolly is a student of Law at University of Birmingham. He also holds a keen interest in various fields such as Social Policy, Politics, History, Religion, and Linguistics.

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