Sanatana Dharma: The Ancient Liberal Doctrine

The Times of India | August 01, 2022
What is a ‘liberal’? I asked Google Baba. He answered that a liberal is one who ‘respects or accepts behaviour or opinions different from one's own’. Next, I asked Swami Webster. He told me that a liberal is one who is ‘not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways.’

These seem like excellent qualities to me. For most of my life, I have considered myself to be a liberal. I am committed to democracy, free markets, freedom of speech, individual rights, freedom of religion, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, and many other worthy ideas. But increasingly the word ‘liberal’ is being disparaged. It is joked that liberals claim openness to other views but are then offended to discover that other views exist.

The word ‘liberal’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘liberalis’, a word that means ‘free’. The roots of liberalism are in the writings of English philosopher John Locke and Scottish economist Adam Smith. But many millennia before Europe started the journey towards separation of church and state and consent of the governed, India already had its own version of liberalism. It was called Sanatana Dharma, or the ‘eternal order’.

Sanatana Dharma is the perfect example of a no-formula faith. There is no single church, pope or holy book that denotes authority. Sanatana Dharma allows 33 million deities to be worshipped. The path to realization can be yantra, tantra, mantra or none. You can keep a figurine of Christ or Mahavira in your puja and worship the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. You bow your head while passing a temple, gurdwara, church or dargah because within you is ingrained the idea that all faiths are paths to the divine. You can be ritualistic, spiritualistic, Tantric, Aastik, Naastik, or simply fantastic. You can worship an idol, cow, sun, moon, fire, river, the heavens, or even another human. You can pray in your home, in a temple, at a cremation pyre, or not pray at all. You can be Shaivite or Vaishnavite; believe in Shakti or Bhakti; be vegetarian or omnivore; work towards artha, kama, dharma, moksha or combinations thereof; be straight, gay, bi or whatever else you want to be. You can have 300 versions of the Ramayana, but one version does not negate another. A line from the Upanishads, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or ‘the world is one family’, encapsulates Sanatana Dharma. What is this if not liberalism? If you are Hindu, by definition, you are liberal.

So, why do we see a hardening in the stance of otherwise liberal Hindus? As I see it, the fear is civilizational. Sanatana Dharma was—and is—essentially pluralistic. But Abrahamic ideology often espouses a singular truth for a plural world—there is only one true God. This absolutism coupled with expansionism and proselytization wreaked havoc on many civilizations. Zoroastrian culture was demolished in Iran. The Mithraic cults of Rome were driven out. Egypt's Ra, Osiris and Horus died. So did Zeus, Apollo, and Athena of the Greeks. The tribal belief system of the aborigines was wiped out in Australia. The Mupuche’s Nenechen and the Incan sun-god Inti are scarcely remembered in South America. Most pre-Abrahamic belief systems could not withstand Abrahamic onslaught. Hinduism is among the few pre-Bronze-Age cultures to have survived. What disquiets many Hindus is the idea that they could join that list of extinct cultures.

Increasingly Hindus believe that they should no longer be liberal towards illiberal ideas. If Hindus can take a joke about Durga, gaumutra, or the Shiv Linga, then others should also be open to jest regarding their sacred elements. If Hindus can view all faiths as paths to a greater power, then other faiths must also accept that idea. If churches and mosques can be free of government control, then Hindu temples must also be unshackled. If secular education is the cornerstone of liberalism, then madrasa education cannot teach a strict interpretation of Islam. If gender equality is a worthy ideal, then the hijab cannot be acceptable. If Hindu personal law can be modified through an act of parliament, then a Uniform Civil Code should also be possible. If proselytization is acceptable, then so is ghar wapasi and shuddhi. If seeking minority votes based on religion is acceptable, then so is seeking votes of the majority.

The problem with this approach is that this may lead to ‘Abrahamization’ of Dharmic pluralism. That’s like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. So, what is the solution? Alas, there isn’t one single remedy. Rather, it lies in a series of smaller fixes. For example, the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code could prevent unequal legal treatment. Freeing Hindu temples from government control could allow Hindus to use donations as other communities do, possibly even resettling refugees under CAA. Reforming and monitoring the curriculum of religious schools could allow future generations to have a more syncretic world view. Settling Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura could prevent digging up thousands of historical injuries. Amending the Indian Penal Code so that its provisions cannot be used as a blasphemy-whip could lead to a more open society. But most importantly, delivering healthcare, sanitation, education, justice, security, infrastructure, and economic opportunity without bias would reduce opportunities for radicalization.

The solution lies in making illiberal ideas more liberal, not in making Sanatana Dharma illiberal.