Editorial in the Tamil journal Kalachuvadu
This is a summary of the editorial published in the October 2023 issue of the reputed Tamil monthly Kalachuvadu which roughly means “Footprints of Time”. The magazine promotes contemporary Tamil literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and encourages debates around current social, economic and political issues. It is adjunct to a leading publishing house in Tamil by the name Kalachuvadu Publications. The free English rendering has been done by Dr Uma Shankari*.
Recently the Sports Minister of Tamil Nadu Government, Udayanidhi Stalin, in a meeting conducted by Progressive Writers and Artists Association of Tamil Nadu, made a statement to the effect that Sanathana dharma is like a disease, like malaria and dengue and it should be eliminated. He clarified that that he is not opposed to Hinduism, but Sanathana dharma is based on caste discrimination and is against equality and justice; and that he is against any religion based on discrimination by birth.
Immediately Udayanidhi and his political party, the DMK, faced severe criticism and a hot debate ensued. The ruling BJP and its supporters, mainly from outside TN, twisted his statement to mean Udayanidhi and his party DMK are wishing to destroy Hinduism and the Hindus, that he is promoting hate speech and genocide! As usual a ‘sadhu’ from the Hindutva camp issued a ‘fatwa’, and announced a prize for Udayanidhi’s head! On the other hand, progressive forces both within and outside of TN have supported the statement.
The Sanathana supporters however have no such confusion: they have simply declared that “Sanathana dharma” means “samathvam” (equality), and that a few fringe, destructive elements have acted against equality in Hinduism. They cite quotations from Hindu sastras and scriptures which reflect concepts like equality, compassion and welfare of all human beings. Actually, the word ‘sanathan’ means eternal, and unchangeable, that which has no beginning or end. Is Hinduism an eternal religion? In fact, it has gone through many changes through the centuries.
It is no surprise that the ancient Indian literature, which is as big as the ocean, has played with all kinds of concepts, including equality, compassion and wellbeing of all. It cannot also be said that ancient Hindu writers did not nurture feelings of equality. Many social reformers and rebellious voices have spoken loudly and clearly in support of social equality in the history of Hinduism. But the litmus test remains what a society selects and follows from its vast traditions in its day-to-day life, how it operates the rules of social conduct in everyday life, what norms the religious leaders preach and follow, what agitates and angers the dominant forces in a society. If we examine these aspects, there is no doubt that a hierarchy based on birth continues to operate in our society. There is no point in showcasing some progressive elements from classical literature and ignoring this stark reality (of what is being practiced).
The supporters of Sanathan Dharma argue that it is a universal religion, based on welfare and equality of all, and that hierarchy based on birth and untouchability practices are not Sanathana dharma. They contend that caste system only defines one’s duties, that in course of time, the dominant, power-hungry forces have distorted the caste system and created the high and low castes and concepts. Elimination of caste hierarchy and untouchability are our goals, they claim.
It is nice to hear all this. But the people who say all this, have they ever participated in the struggles against untouchability? Have they created and led social movements against the caste system? Have they carried out any struggle for temple entry of untouchables? Have they expressed their opposition to practices such as separate cups in tea stalls, separate cremation grounds, objections to taking dead bodies through the streets of upper castes? Recently in Villuppuram district of TN, when Dalits wanted to offer worship in the village temple, they were not allowed; and no Hindu organizations expressed support for the Dalits. In the case of Melpathi, Vengaivayal, Naanguneri incidents where Dalits were victims of upper caste violence, no Hindu organization expressed support to Dalits. They find their voice only when Dalits attempt to convert to other religions. Hindu unity and Sanathana equality are just hypocritical sloganeering, not matched by action on the ground.
Mahatma Gandhi used to call himself a Sanathani, but he was all the time declaring untouchability as a stain on Hinduism and was organizing social movements against untouchability practices. His activities were at that time opposed by the religious leaders like the Heads of Mutts. For instance, the much-respected (Late) Shri. Chandrasekhara Saraswati of Kanchi Mutt did not accept temple entry of Dalits; he opposed it on the basis of Hindu Sastras. He said there is nothing wrong with the concept that everyone must follow the work that is destined for him/her by birth. All temples are not for everyone, he said. He said caste system is good for humanity and that there is no hierarchy in the caste system. He also stated that we should correct the mistakes that have happened in history, but not reject the system itself. While he said all this, he did not do anything much about it. He only gave the following ‘valuable’ advice: “People should think, I am born into this caste. Ok, that is the decision of God. It is God’s will that I should be born into this caste and this occupation. Let me follow it and see how I can contribute to the welfare of the society. If another person gets a different caste by birth, that is the will of God, that is his destiny. Let him do his work as God’s work. If everyone thinks like this, there won’t be any high or low occupation in society- isn’t it? That is the attitude we should promote and propagate.”
This is what it is – the mindset which does not accept change. But Gandhi who called himself Sanathani embraced change; in his ashrams the upper caste workers cleaned the latrines. The lower caste people took up the administration. He encouraged women to come out on the streets to participate in freedom struggle. He undertook all the “unclean jobs” – from shaving and haircutting to washing clothes, eating with people of all castes and cleaning their shit as well. Although he called himself Sanathani, he did not think Hinduism was eternal or unchangeable. He took to change in his actions. And he did all this quietly, without making a fuss.
People like Ambedkar and Periyar put forward the view that Hinduism in its very basic structure is against equality and quoted scriptural evidence for their arguments. Instead of arguing against it on the basis of evidence, people are simply parroting that Sanathana dharma is for equality and it is good for humanity. Destiny by birth is what was understood as Sanathan dharma and this is what was opposed by Ambedkar and Periyar; and this is what people like Udayanidhi and Thirumavalavan are also opposing today.
This Sanathanist mindset essentially means that people are divided according to their birth/caste, and their social status, value and respect decided on the basis of their birth. This mindset is not confined only to Brahmins, it pervades all the dominant castes; in fact, it is found in people of other religions also. This is also found in all the political parties- Congress, Communist, Dravida parties. For instance, Shri. Thol. Thirumavalavan, (a Dalit activist, and Member of Parliament in 15th Lok Sabha and the present president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit political party in the state of Tamil Nadu) has been talking against the caste system for many years, but it never became a matter of public debate till Udayanidhi, from an upper caste, started talking about it. Indeed we have a long way to go to achieve social equality.
Today all the political parties especially from North India, have begun to equate Hinduism with Sanathana dharma. They feel embarrassed about Udayanidhi’s views and have promptly distanced themselves from his views. In Tamil Nadu his views may not have much effect as people of Tamil Nadu are, for a long time, used to rationalist organisations, their thinking and views. With general elections drawing closer, progressive sections are worried about regressive forces coming to power. Alliances are being formed to oppose such regressive forces. Alliance partners and parties should be clear and careful about what, when and how they speak at the public platforms.
*This piece has been translated by Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi. She 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. Soon, we may serialize her essays on this subject.