Sanatana Dharma- A Universal Dharma and a Way of Living
Hinduism is the only religion which is non-dogmatic, amenable to criticism, adaptable to new situations and has the power to reinvent itself. Hence it does not hinder a practicing Hindu to live according to changing times and in different parts of the globe. It is these qualities which has helped Hinduism to survive the onslaught of Semitic religions like Christianity and Islam.
In its journey in pursuit of Reality, Sanatana Dharma has come a long way. In the beginning our sages looked at nature with awe and showed reverence to various forces of nature like wind, fire, thunder and lightning. In the next stage they composed hymns to propitiate these nature forces and expected boons from them. In the third stage they composed elaborate rituals and believed that if correctly conducted the gods will be forced to give them the boons so desired. The fourth stage was the stage when they transcended from the materialistic plane of worship and contemplated on concepts like karma, rebirth, soul, ultimate reality and (moksha) salvation. The result of this contemplation was the Upanishads, the essence of Hindu philosophy.
Sometimes it may appear strange that the way majority of Hindus worship is in contradictory to the philosophy of Upanishads. Why did our spiritual leaders allowed the continuation of the ritualistic practices instead of encouraging the practice of contemplation and meditation as enunciated in the Upanishads? This is because our wise seers knew the nature of human mind. Men have different aptitudes, mental set-up, desires and goals which in total was called gunas by our ancients. These gunas were categorized into sathvika, rajasika and tamasic. The practice of contemplation and meditation could have been followed by those possessing the sathvika guna, but what about others? If our seers had insisted only in one medium as a path for realization for a spiritual aspirant, a large number of people with rajasika and tamasic gunas could had turned irreligious. Hence they allowed the continuation of the old rites and rituals so that at least they do not turn into atheists.
Different Paths for Salvation
In fact the Bhagavad Gita gave a death blow to the performance of Vedic yajna and nishkaama karma (activities without expectation of results) took the place of kaamya karma. But the Vedic mantras survived as it was uttered by the Brahmins during their daily prayers. In imitation to the Vedic worship, the tantric form of worship came into vogue and was adapted by all class of people. In this form of worship devotion is the chief element. While the Upanishads propounds the Jnanamarga (knowledge path), the Bhagavad Gita Karmamarga (activity without expectation of results), the most popular form of Self Realization was enunciated by the saints of south India, the Alwars and Nayanmars, which is Bhaktimarga (devotional path). It was the saints who followed this path who tried to reform the Hindu society and spoke against the futility of caste inequalities and meaningless rituals associated with Hinduism. They created awareness among the masses the need to develop true love towards god and consider all men as the children of god. These saints played an important role in unifying the Hindu society and strengthening its morals.
Hinduism is the only religion which has shed practices considered obnoxious. One may point out that Hinduism too had their share of prohibitions and discriminatory practices as evidence in their dharmashastras and smriti texts. But just notice the so called ancient texts of the Hindus. It comprises of the Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads, Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, epics (Ramayana and Mahabharatha), Dharmashastras and Aagamashastras. Of these only the Dharmashastras which are works of Brahmins prohibits sea travel, inter caste marriages and dining; and has expiratory rites and rules for worshiping manes, all meant for Brahmins who form a minuscule percentage of the Hindu population. This has nothing to do with Hinduism. The reactionary views on women and non-Brahmins found in these works were written by unscrupulous persons with an intention to protect their interests. One may find offensive and derogatory remarks against women and non-Brahmins even in the epics and Bhagavad Gita. This is due to the interpolation done at the time of putting the texts into writing or during subsequent revisions once again by unscrupulous persons. At that time few people knew Sanskrit and hence only after these texts were translated into English that we know these kinds of omissions done to our religious texts by a microscopic minority for selfish ends. The real philosophies of the Hindus are contained in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta theories propounded by our Acharyas. While Buddhism and Jainism denied the infallibility of the Vedas, they did not repudiate the philosophy of Upanishads. The main grouse of these two religions was against the burden of ritualism and domination of the Brahmins in the religious sphere.
Hinduism has no qualms even in adapting practices followed by religions which grew as a protest against the Vedic practices of ritualistic worship. Under the influence of Buddhism and Jainism, Hindus gave up animal sacrifice and adapted idol worship. The devotional form of worship as enunciated in the tantra form of worship also gave impetus for idol worship. Hinduism gradually incorporated the folk gods into its fold and these folk gods were associated with the Vedic gods. For instance Thimappa of Tirumala became Venkateshwara or Balaji, another name of Vishnu and Manjunatha of Dharmasthala was associated with Lord Shiva and in these temples the Vedic form of worship was introduced. Today new gods like Ayappa and Shirdi Sai Baba has crores of adherents who come from all castes and classes of the society. For devotees who take vows to visit the shrine of Ayappa at Shabarimalai, the initiation is given by mostly non-Brahmins.
Universal appeal of Hinduism
The uniqueness of Hinduism is its philosophy contained in the Upanishads which has a universal appeal. One may be an atheist, an agnostic, may question the infallibility of the Vedas, could be a theist but anti ritualistic, may be a follower of any faith; but still by adapting the path enunciated by the Upanishad could realize his true nature and obtain salvation. Over-all the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is
- Universally applicable for all times
- Have different paths for people with different temperaments for achieving self-realization.
- Hinduism does not believe in attracting adherents by using force, by inducement or by trickery.
- It is not a religion with dogmatic rules and regulation. Even followers of other religions without giving up their faiths can obtain salvation by following the teachings contained in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.
- Hinduism does not believe in a God sitting in the cloud, dictating people to do this and not to do that and punishing those who do not obey him or promising a place in the heaven for sense indulgence for those who obey his orders.
- Normally in all religions an adherent prays and begs God to fulfill his/her wishes; seek blessings and repents for his/her sins so that he may seek a place in the heaven. But in Hinduism one can transcend from this materialistic mode of worship and seek for the ultimate bliss by knowing his true Self. Who I am, is the enquiry a Hindu makes and finally realizes that he is a part of the divine.
- While in other religions it is a sacrilege even to praise or show reverence to gods of rival religions, Hinduism believes that everything (animate and inanimate) is a manifestation of Brahman (God), Sarvam Brahmamaya. This was a bold declaration by our ancient seers. When each one of us is God, where is the need for fear, to feel guilty or even the need to put efforts for salvation? The only thing is to realize our true being and this realization happens through contemplation and meditation.