A Close Look at Hindu Temples – Part 3

Hinduism – Is it Sanathan?

Dr Uma Shankari*

‘A Close Look at Temples of India’ is a continuing series of articles by Dr Uma Shankari on this web magazine. You might already have seen the first part, “Who Are Hindus” and the second titled, “History and Myths in Hinduism”  In the 3rd essay, the author dwells upon the question whether the Hinduism is Sanathan i.e. eternal? In the subsequent essays, you will read about the evolution of Hinduism over the centuries. These essays are being published in an attempt to understand and appreciate the pluralistic nature of Hinduism, contextualizing it with the present times when a narrow view of this great religion is being presented to us. Readers are requested to participate in this quest for finding answers and it would be of great help if they could contribute their views in the comment box given below the articles.

Recently I received a forwarded whatsapp message which goes in a light vein as follows: “What is special about being a #Hindu?  Believe in God! – ‘Aastik’ – Accepted.  Don’t believe in God? – You’re accepted as ‘Nastik’. You can even be a devotee by hating God! – ‘ninda stuti’, ‘dvesha bhakti’! You want to worship idols – please go ahead.  You don’t want to worship idols- no problem; you can focus on ‘Nirguna Brahman’. You want to criticize something in our religion? Come forward. We love logic. Nyaya, Tarka etc. are core Hindu schools. You want to start your journey by reading the Bhagvad Gita? – Sure! You want to start your journey by reading Upanishads? – Go ahead. You want to start your journey by reading Puranas? – Be my guest. You just don’t like reading Puranas or other books. No problem my dear. Go by the Bhakti tradition.  You don’t like idea of Bhakti! No problem. Do your Karma. Be a Karmayogi. Or just a practitioner of yoga. You want to enjoy life- Very good. No problem at all. This is Charvaka Philosophy. You want to abstain from all the pleasures and find God – jai ho! Be a Sanyasi, an ascetic! You don’t like the concept of God. You believe in Nature only – Welcome. Trees are our friends and Prakriti or nature is worthy of worship. You believe in Supreme Energy. Superb! Follow Advaita philosophy. You want a Guru. Go ahead. Receive Gyaan. You don’t want a Guru. Help yourself! Meditate, Study! You believe in Female energy! Shakti is worshipped. You believe that every human being is equal- Yeah! You’re awesome, “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the world is a family). You don’t have time to celebrate the festival. Don’t worry. One more festival is coming! There are multiple festivals every single day of the year. You are a working person. Don’t have time for religion. It’s okay. You will still be a Hindu. You like to go to temples. Devotion is loved. You don’t like to go to temples – no problem. You are still a Hindu! You know that Hinduism is a way of life, with a lot of freedom. “Sarve jana sukhino bhavantu ” (May you all live happily). This is exactly the essence of Hinduism, all inclusive. That is why it has withstood the test of time in spite of repeated onslaught both from within and outside, and assimilated every good aspect from everything. That is why it is eternal!!!”

This popular understanding of Hinduism as “sanathan dharma” – eternal religion, as being a pluralistic religion absorbing all kinds of philosophies and methods of worship, is of course a hindsight view of Hinduism, looking at a long history of several centuries, as if it was one single monolith with many facets. It is now being popularized as ‘sanathan dharma’.  The word ‘sanathan’ simply means eternal, ancient, changeless. But historically speaking, all those different schools of Hinduism came up in different periods of history, and each of them was debating/arguing with other schools prevalent at that time. Each saw the other schools as at best different and at worst as rivals. Bhakti poems in Tamil boast of impaling thousands of Jains (whether the numbers are real or an exaggeration we will never know). Persecution of people of rival religions was not uncommon.

And yet, in spite of all the rivalries, there was, fundamentally, a strong thread of thinking that there can be different ways of looking at the same reality. As early as in the Rig Veda, it is declared, “Ekam sat- viprah bahuda vadanthi” – “Truth is one, the wise men describe it in different ways”. The sentence may sound contradictory. But it is like the languages; the thought and the emotion, as for example, in a sentence, “I love you”, may be the same throughout the world, but the expression or the language in which it is expressed may be different.

Here the common and popular folk story of elephant and the blind men is illustrative. Each blind man touches different parts of the elephant describes the animal differently, as a snake (trunk), as a pillar(legs), as a wall(body), as a winnowing fan (ears). Each of them was speaking the truth, his own truth, a partial truth, but the whole truth lies elsewhere.

There are no rules for minimum or maximum practice. There are no ‘ten commandments’ like in Christianity, nor ‘5 pillars’ as in Islam. If you go to the internet and search for the core principles of Hinduism, you will find different sets of principles- A set of 3, 5, 7, principles and more. They often overlap but they are not the same, nor are they commandments and certainly not a covenant. A person who celebrates Diwali, more as a cultural/community obligation rather than a sacred ritual, may call himself a Hindu as much as a person who follows all the rituals of his sect strictly.

There is also no absolute sin in Hinduism; much less ‘original sin’.  “paapam avidya”- ‘sin’/ ‘evil’ is just ignorance; as one gains in wisdom and realization, he becomes good, better and best, becomes divine himself. Everything depends on the follower’s knowledge, wisdom and the state of his consciousness. It is believed that every action will have its opposite reaction and divine punishment, either in this life or in future lives will await the person who commits a mistake or a ‘sin’ in his ignorance. No one can escape it. The gods and his devotion to them, however, may reduce it.

There is no formal conversion to Hinduism nor can one re- convert. One who is born in a Hindu family is considered for official purpose a Hindu, and once he is born, no one can deny his status as Hindu, even if he does not believe or participate in any ritual.

Is Hindu religion eternal – sanathan? Believers of all religions a priori assume, believe, and declare that their religion is the absolute eternal truth. So do Hindus. Historically speaking, Hinduism was practiced in different regions and by different communities in different ways. There are substantial differences in the religious culture of North India and South India. The Vindhya mountains and the dense forests in the region were a formidable barrier to cultural exchange between the north and the South and the regions below the Vindhyas retained much of their local traditions. For instance, Deepavali is celebrated in the South India as celebrating the slaying of Narakasura by Krishna with the help of his wife Satya Bhama. Dasserah is celebrated as Sakthi killing Mahishasura. In the North, Dasserah is celebrated as Rama killing Ravanasura and Deepavali as celebrating his return to Ayodhya after his exile of 14 years. Popular festivals of different regions of India have different myths associated with them and different ways of celebrating them.

South India was also less affected by Muslim rule and thereby preserved their ancient regional traditions. Many ancient temples in South India, built over 1000 years ago, still exist and are functional. Some of them are located within huge and elaborate complexes, with many structures- sub-shrines, pavilions and courtyards. Devotees- kings and commoners- have added to the main shrine in the course of many centuries and they are well preserved.

Hinduism also changed from time to time. Some gods, beliefs and rituals were dropped and some new gods, beliefs and rituals emerged. Substantial changes happened over the 2000 years between the Vedic period (1500 BC) to Puranic period (400 AD). The Bhakti movement emerged during the later periods. Another era of change happened later during the Muslim invasions and regimes. The British colonial period brought yet another wave of changes with the confrontation with Christianity. Post- Independence period has in its turn brought about its own debates and changes. In the subsequent articles, we will see how Hinduism evolved over time.


*Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi, has been associated with various social movements since early eighties. She has published a book in Tamil which is about the relation between temples and the Hindu religion and society.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com, which does not assume any responsibility for the same.



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