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The historical roots of Sanatan Dharma

Sunyata, Sanatan And An Ominous One- The Ingenuity Of Brahmanical Pragmatism


“That said, their self-description of “sanatana dharma” dates to the nineteenth-century Hindu reform movements. In this sense, it is useful to consider “sanatana dharma” alongside other terms coined in the colonial era, such as “Hinduism” and “Brahminism.” No doubt this contextualization will surprise some followers of “sanatana dharma” who, after all, use that neo-Sanskrit phrase precisely to project their tradition as “eternal” and “universal” – Audrey Trushke, Professor of South Asian History. Hinduism’s appropriation of Buddhism’s Sanatana began in the colonial period: Prof D N Jha observed that “not until the nineteenth century did it (Hinduism) come to be labelled”.. they had appropriated and homologized as many elements of His (Buddha’s) teaching as they conveniently could, to transform their old Brahminism into Hinduism..I Incidentally, it may be observed that The teaching of the Buddha had been called Dhammo the Buddhists more than thousand years earlier.” – L.M. Joshi To understand the full extent of Santana’s journey that began as a Buddhist expression to its present-day usage as a Hindu identification, we will need to dig a bit deeper into the philosophical battlefields of history, when an emerging brahminism was not only fighting an intense battle with Buddhism for socio-religious supremacy.

Singularity of Sunyata

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee In recent times, the icon of martial arts, Lee Jun-fan otherwise known as Bruce Lee, gave one of the most searched quotes on the internet that beautifully summarized a profound philosophical thought from ancient times that revolutionized human perspective around the world. Lee’s lines simplified Nagarjuna’s concept of Emptiness (sunyata) and entrenched it in modern popular culture.


Nagarjuna’s philosophy represents something of a watershed not only in the history of Indian philosophy but in the history of philosophy as a whole, as it calls into question certain philosophical assumptions such as the existence of stable substances, the linear and one-directional movement of causation, the atomic individuality of persons, the belief in a fixed identity or selfhood, etc. All such assumptions are called into fundamental question by  Nagarjuna’s unique perspective which is grounded in the insight of emptiness (sunyata), a fluid and changing Singularity.

Fallacy And Futility Of Fixed Identity

“All dharmas in self empty nature are (svabhavashunya)” – Nagarjuna Arya Nagarjuna’s central concept of the “emptiness (sunyata) of all things (dharmas),” pointed to the incessantly changing nature and fluidity of all phenomena. Identity in the “Selfless (Anatta) Singularity of Sunyata” is not seen as fixed or bound within the constructed permanency of a self or constrained within any social hierarchical order. Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika offers a sense of liberation through demonstrating the interconnectedness of all, things, including human beings and the manner in which human life unfolds in the natural and social worlds.

The identity that we ascribe to things is only a fictitious one, established by the mind, not a peculiar nature belonging to what we’re talking about. – David Hume, Scottish philosopher and historian.

Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in main self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection man has created God For self-preservation, man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman(or Self), which will live eternally. In his ignorance, weakness, fear, and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. – Ven. Rahula Walpola

The advent of Advaita And Non-Duality

The stories that provide us with meaning and identity are all fictional, but humans need to believe in them. It’s obvious why humans want to believe the story, but how do they actually believe? How do we make the story feel real? Priests and shamans discovered the answer to this question thousands of years ago: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real. The essence of ritual is the magical spell “Hocus-pocus, X is Y!” –Yuval Noah Harari, historian.

Advaita Vedanta philosophy is the foundation of modern Hinduism. Sankaracharya is considered to be the founder of the 9th-century Advaita or the non-dual school of thought. 

Unlike the fluidity of a fictional identity proposed by Madhyamika, Advaita relies on the rigidity of an unchangeable, fixed identity of self (Atman). Advaita confines self-nature (svabhabhava) while Madhyamika views self-nature as inherently empty (svabhabhavashunya) meaning the identity of an individual is not constrained but constantly changing. An individual’s identity is not bound to one’s birth.

Self, Society And One-ness Of Non-duality

Self is often defined in relation to non-self viz. ‘The other’ and in Advaita thought, all forms of otherness are manifestations of ignorance created by illusion, the concept of an equal other is unacceptable in it. Buddhism’s non-self or selfless (Anatta) was seen as the ‘deviant other’ in the Advaita social model.

Advaita’s Non-duality and its Insidious  Socia! unplementation was imperative to preserve a farcical ‘social unity’ within the Brahminical hierarchy. Buddhism was explicit about duality. Advaita was against an equal other or an equity-based social order. It couldn’t tolerate the intrinsic Buddhist value of equality and the inherent selfless (Anatta) nature of human beings. Advaita’s Non-dual “One-ness” was fundamentally different from the “Singularity” of Buddhism’s Madhyamika. The One-ness of Advaita sought to hammer all differences into One homogenized model. A single monolithic social structure served by obedient, unquestioning individuals with fixed “divinely” mandated duties. The duty of each entity was the external expression of worship and a way to experience the “divine” One.

Realpolitik Behind Social Sanatana

The 19th-century hostility towards Buddhism suddenly changed in the 20th century, and a pattern emerged that endlessly repeated anachronistic lines declaring Buddha as Hindu and Buddhism as a part of Hinduism, indicating a deep socio-political compulsion. 

“The wider context for these new developments was the rise of Hindu organizations (sabha, samaj, etc.) as the premier means through which “representative communities” accessed the state and voiced “public interests”. Although these organizations had made up Indian civic life for more than a century, they truly lossomed after the 1910s when constitutional reform introduced by the colonial government instigated a new “politics of numbers”..Under this new scheme, Hindu leaders quickly realized that demographic majorities based on census classifications were key to amassing political power.’ This radical shift in the governance model hastened a change in the socio-political outlook of Hindu organizations. “One outcome was the reformulation of “Hindu tradition,” which by the 1920s was being articulated through terms like Sanatan Dharma, or the “Eternal Religion”. To expand their base by including “those communities that did not neatly fit into the existing religious boundaries’ The old Buddhistic term “Sanatana” was reformulated and coined as kind of a ‘meta religion’ by the Hindu organizations.

“The (Hindu) Maha Sabha’s promotion of cow protection and of the Devanagari script, their service to widows and, later, shudras and untouchables although, again, WITHOUT CHANGING THEIR STATUS—were supposed to reflect the unity and consensus of modern Hinduism. As the Hindu ideologue, M.S. Golwalkar (1906-78), contended, “diversities in the path of devotion did not mean division in society. All were indivisible organs of ONE common dharma which held [Hindu] society together”

The argument meshed well with the most powerful new symbol of Sanatan Dharmi Hinduism: the Hind: nation. For the Maha Sabha, the term Hindu was essentially synonymous with “Indian-ness”. Under the influence of intellectuals like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), “Hindu-ness” or Hindutva came to represent a combination of territorial, racial, religious, and cultural characteristics…The idea of including the scriptures of Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and all the other “troublesome” indigenous critics (nastika) of Vedic authority within a Brahmanical complex was a radically new way of conceiving of Hinduism. This was a profound break from a more scriptural Puranic Hinduism that spurned any Brahmin who entered a Buddhist temple.. Savarkar’s landmark text… Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923), better captures the prevailing sentiment: “The Buddha—the Dharma—the Sangha. They are all ours”.’- Douglas Ober

In actuality, this was also the subtle and practical umplementation and fulfilment of the socio-religious and political models envisioned by the Advaita structure of Brahminism. Once again, Brahminism displayed its acute sense of pragmatism and tackled the challenges of a constantly shifting socio-political and religious landscape with realpolitik. It was the intersection of Advaita’s philosophical “One-ness” with the social “Hindu-ness”. The term, Santana, in the early 20th century British-India, was reimagined as the culminating point for a single Poli-religious marker with one culture, one identity, one region, one religion, one race, one language, etc. divided only by fixed “divine duties, but serving one structure.

Afterthought: One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them; In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie. R.R Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings

Written by artinchow

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