There’s a lot more to Sanatan Dharma than caste

There could not have been better evidence for Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s prescience than his candour on the spectre of caste in India (‘Tradition and its discontents’, IE, September 6). The prescience is crucially about the helplessness that the institution of caste finds itself in – its inability to shed the sandbags that entrap caste from becoming a modern source of social coalescence. However, perhaps the only two catches in otherwise apposite blitzkrieg deserve an elaborate response. Mehta surmises that the societal anxiety lies in the thought of a Dalit who might reject the “abstract pieties” of dominant Sanatana Dharma once empowered. Interestingly, and germinating from the limits in Mehta’s first thesis, is the dereliction in neatly delineating what version the author chose while chalking out the moral hazards of an otherwise great religion, though the expression “Sanatan Dharma” is not in the Vedas and is mentioned in Shiv Puran.

Let us start by responding to the second concern by situating the debate within the confines of what Mehta has described. Has the attempt been to camouflage Sanatana Dharma as limited to the narrower version of Hindutva, rather than the tolerant and liberal idea of classical Hinduism? Some public dismay may have been justified as there are scholars who believe not only that Hindutva is different from Hinduism but also that Sanatan Dharma is distinct from Hinduism and is much narrower. If Hinduism and Hindutva are distinct, the question is: Do they ever intersect with Sanatana Dharma? Is Hindutva a subset of Hinduism or do both operate as the natural subsets of an all-encompassing Sanatana Dharma? The questions certainly are rather foul, for they conflate theistic intellectualism with gaudy objective observations. The easy answer, however, is that there exist countless versions and votaries of Sanatana Dharma, and therefore, instead of warring over what it is and what are its constituents, the predicament is better dealt with by asking whose Sanatana Dharma it is or it should be.

If it is Krishna’s eternal religion, no one may object to it. The father of the nation described Hindu Dharma as Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma was the philosophical sobriquet meant to depict the “vastness of an ocean” (alluding to the greatness of Hinduism), whereas Udhayanidhi Stalin deprecated Sanatana Dharma for being just a trove of caste-based discrimination, oppression, and an indomitable boulder in the path of fulfilling the ideals of social justice. A Raja went a step ahead with the HIV analogy. Sanatana Dharma is fundamentally the spirit and value of aatmiy swavalamban (self-sufficiency of the soul). This helps interpret Sanatana Dharma as a transcendental philosophy. Such amorphousness rocks the cradle of Sanatana Dharma between multiple extremes. Why extremes are given more importance than the core is difficult to understand. Islam, too, is not about violence and – jihad means peace and its core is mercy and compassion.

It is, thus, nobody’s Sanatana Dharma and everybody’s Sanatana Dharma. Mehta’s terming what in practice is personal metaphysics as a “mendacious abstraction” goes against the liberties inherent in the Indian philosophical dialogical traditions.

This brings us to the sketchiness ingrained in the first concern flagged earlier. The question of Dalit empowerment is no more a recent one. B R Ambedkar never said his act of leading the mass conversion to Buddhism was a consequence of his empowerment. It was an act of defiance, the loudest and the most strident step towards Dalit metamorphosis. It will be an injustice to perhaps one of the greatest intellectuals of our times if his revolutionism is seen as a mere projection of his academic accolades.

Even if Ambedkar quitting the Hindu fold is ascribed to his “empowered” sense of self, what explains the act undertaken by half a million of Ambedkar’s followers on that very day and in subsequent decades? Who empowered them? Did they derive their empowerment from Ambedkar’s? And what about those Dalits, who, by choice, despite having been empowered in their own ways, continue to take pride in what Mehta has remarked as the “dominant” Sanatana Dharma? One of the silent inferences of Ambedkar’s undelivered (and later published) speech at the Jaat Paat Todak Mandal’s conference is his ceaseless effort to reform the Hindu religion.

As liberal scholarship suggests, questions of conversion are matters of personal choice. Poverty and illiteracy in the Dalit community are matters of deep concern and thus the justification for the continuance of affirmative action policies. The response, irrespective, cannot rob the Dalit person of the identity of her choice, where only a particular act of defiance will reflect the degree of her empowerment. There can be no disagreement with Mehta’s claim that a country cannot move forward without confronting the oppressions that lie at its heart. However, it is equally disingenuous to claim that “there is oppression at the heart of various versions of Sanatan Dharma”.

By pejoratively coupling “some” models of Sanatan Dharma with the horrors of caste-based discrimination in India, Mehta’s account declares oppressions emanating from caste as the pivoting lexicon of “every” shade of Sanatana Dharma. It is true that religious scriptures (not divine texts like the Vedas but legal treatises like Manusmriti) sanctioned violence in the name of caste and repeatedly entrenched the notions of purity, but in this long travail, the Indian constitutional project suddenly emerged and tried to address the travesties inflicted in the name of integrity to religion. That is the nature of principled reform that modern India craves. The Constitution opened all Hindu temples to all sections of the community, explicitly abolished untouchability and included non-discrimination provisions. Thus, instead of burning the holy scriptures or deleting verses, our law severely punishes conduct and practices that are incompatible with ideals of equality and human dignity. The new trend of criticising the Quran or Ramcharitmanas is in bad taste.

Justice N Seshasayee of the Madras High Court rightly observed recently that free speech should not devolve into hate speech, particularly in the sensitive matters of religion. He also termed Sanatan Dharma as a set of eternal duties including the duties of the King or state. “Untouchability cannot be tolerated even if it is seen permitted within the principles of Sanatan Dharma… since Article 17 has abolished it.”

Hinduism, just like some of its Abrahamic counterparts in India, has its share of unnerving complexities of discrimination and injustices. The response to these should not be moral indignation against the entirety of these religions, rather than specific practices. That will miss the wood for the trees. The question of reform outside the constitutional courts cannot be fulfilled by punching down on an average believer-practitioner. One of the major straws that broke the colonial back and finally materialised into the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 was the high-handedness of East India Company rule, which also involved forcing socio-religious reforms.

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Neglecting even the option to reform the religion by enabling the community to acknowledge its shortcomings and correct them over time will lead us nowhere. A downright dismissal of religious practices or religions just weaponises social cleavages further. Moral grandstanding will widen the chasm between the masses and intelligentsia, likely resulting in the hardening of such practices.

Drilling down any reform from the top will probably only exacerbate the condition of those who continue to suffer at the hands of these community-specific social and economic elites.

Sangi is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India and Mustafa is vice-chancellor, Chanakya National Law University, Patna. Views are personal

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