In an earlier essay, I had remarked that the only way to “understand” Santana Dharma is to live it. What had once been akin to breathing to Hindus has now become a thing to “understand.” Let it also be said that you cannot “learn” Hinduism by reading any number of books. The deep and profound emotional content that’s at the core of the practice of Sanatana Dharma is one of the best keys to open this rich and joyous world of Sanatana Dharma. You can read a wonderful book or poem praising say, Ganga or Mathura or Palani or Rameshwaram or Draksharama and you might come away moved or elevated by it. But the real connect to it comes only from the kernel of your feeling–in one sense, that is what is meant by living Hinduism.
Look at the transformation that has occurred in the manner in which our successive governments have treated our sacred spaces. Perhaps there’s nothing more offensive and repulsive to me than hearing or reading the word “spiritual tourism.” How did the land that gave the world the vast array of Vedantic Rishis, Kalidasa, Banabhatta, Adi Sankara, and Ramana Maharshi produce a body politic that is peopled by folks who coin and popularise this term of abuse? It was these Rishis, etc who knew how to fuse Darshana, Jnana, Bhakti, and art with geography to attain and maintain territorial and cultural unity. More on this at some other time.
We find the expression of this underlying unity and order in almost every sphere in this country. But to my mind, the best expression is in the cultural unity of India. Recall what I mentioned about the Europeans declaring India as not a country but a subcontinent and why it was a reflection of their mental confusion? The other face of this confusion is a myth that holds that India was never one united country in the political sense. However, throughout its existence, this question has never bothered Indians simply because they were inextricably bound by a cultural unity. Here are some facets of that unity that binds the nation even till day, to whatever extent.
- The veneration for India’s sacred geography that we find in the Vedas, Manu Smriti, the Puranas etc has continued till date as I wrote in what I witnessed at the Ayodhya Dipotsava. Indeed, there’s a reason that even an agenda-driven Western scholar like Diana Eck gets it right when she titles her book as “India: A sacred geography.” By all accounts, she treats Bharatavarsha as a zoologist does when he dissects an animal. The findings are accurate but to obtain those findings, one essentially needs to suspend emotion, feeling and compassion. But what have we as Hindus done to this sacred geography?
- Second, the four mathas established by Adi Shankara in the four directions of India continue to function in much the same way, follow the same traditions, rituals, and rules for succession, etc. They continue to remain places of pilgrimage even today.
- Vaakyarthas (philosophical debates) continue to be held in all major centres of traditional learning in all corners of India. Scholars from distant corners of India visit these centres year after year (sometimes many times in the same year) and engage in debates. Every scholar understands the other. The texts they refer to are familiar to all these scholars. There’s no ambiguity. How’s this possible? Answer is simple: because Sanskrit is the link language.
- The Granth Sahib is a compilation not just of the Sikh Gurus but of various seers and saints—Trilochan, Namdev, Beni, Ramanand, Dhanna, Ravidas, Kabir, Mirabai, Surdas, etc. Krishna is mentioned 10000 times and Rama, 2400 times. It invokes Parabrahman more than 500 times, and it relies on the authority of the Vedas, Puranas, and Smritis.
- The Bastar tribals make images of the Vedic Shiva (a fierce archer) and Krishna even today.
- Thousands of folk renderings of our epics continue to be told and retold and enacted even today.
- The image of the Lord Jagannatha at Puri is actually the image of a tribal God, which was first consecrated by Adi Shankara. Even today, Puja for this Deity is done by a tribal priest and then the Brahmin priest.
- Only Namboodiris from Kerala can become the priests at Badrinath.
- Similarly, only Brahmins from South Canara can become priests at the Pasupathinath temple in Kathmandu
- Likewise, only Maharashtrians can become priests at the Rameshwaram temple
- The sari for the Goddess at the Kamakhya temple in Assam comes from Kanchi
- Every Diwali, the sari for Goddess Amba at Kolhapur comes from the Lord at Tirupati
- When an incredulous American or Brit (I forget which) journalist asked Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya how the enormous crowd for Kumbh Mela was assembled, how people were informed, etc, the Pandit simply showed him a Panchangam.
….and I haven’t even scratched the surface. One can find hundreds of such examples. Indeed, this cultural unity is most visible in our festivals, temples, epics, sculpture, music, dance, and literature. There’s an equivalent of almost every festival across India—Sankranti, Yugadi, Rama Navami, Krishna Janmashtami, Ganesha Chaturthi, Dusshera, and Deepavali, to name the major ones. They are celebrated for the same reasons, too.
Equally, there’s hardly any North Indian who has not heard of the temple at Tirupati nor a South Indian who is ignorant of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Most Indians know the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the names of at least the major Puranas. Most definitely everybody has at least heard the name of Kalidasa. The music of North India is based on the same seven-swara system upon which Carnatic music is based. A viewer from Andhra Pradesh would instantly recognize that an Odissi danseuse is performing an item about Yashoda and Krishna just by looking at her performance.
Even if we forget all these, our obscenities, our swearwords, even the vilest of them, show a cultural unity like nothing else. The BCs and MCs and variants thereof in different regional languages share the same cultural idiom and in several cases, have an almost 1:1 equivalent.
Yet another area we can discern this unity is in the felicity with which rooted Indians can jump to the general from the particular. For example, Ravana’s death is not the death of an individual but merely a phenomenon in a cosmic play. Put another way, Indians believe that there’s nothing like absolute evil. Good and evil are merely two sides of the same coin—the story of Hiranyakashyipu illustrates this best. Both Hiranyakashiypu and his son, Prahlada, pray for Vishnu albeit in different ways. This thinking is part of the same civilizational and Vedantic continuum that sees unity in everything.
Yet another way we can discern this continuum is in what is known as the Vidya parampara—or the Tradition of Knowledge where everything is passed down from generations to generations and knowledge is built upon the foundation of past masters. The corpus of learning in almost any field in India is the largest in the world. Even the amount of the ones that have survived is staggering. In the realm of religion—the Puranas, epics, dharmashastras, vedas, etc, the total (including commentaries) runs up to more than 70 lakh verses. In the realm of secular subjects, this number is greater than 40 lakhs. There is for example, an elaborate treatise on the art of making Paan (Tamboola Manjari if I’m not mistaken), which contains 700 verses. A good way to get an idea of this is to try and do some research on works dealing with the 64 arts.
The Kailasnath temple at Ellora also illustrates this continuum very well. This temple was built over 150 years, i.e. over 6 generations of sculptors and artisans. The distinction of Kailasnath temple is that it was carved into the mountainous rock, instead of getting the rock transported from elsewhere. I shall leave it to your imagination to work out what such a mammoth project spanning over 150 years means.
I’ve so far just traced an incomplete outline of the countless sacred bonds that bind Bharatavarsha which all rooted Hindus—irrespective of caste, religion and community—continue to live, and not merely just follow. I use the word “live” because this cultural inheritance manifests itself in various ways in our everyday lives.
And so, this cultural and civilizational Oneness and unity is the basic essence of this sacred land. The preservation of all the best traditions that promote and foster this unity is its grammar. I recall the story of a grandmother and her grandchild who had gone on a trip to the Himalayas. The child was wonderstruck by the majesty and beauty of the Himalayas and like a typical child, asked, “Granny, this is so beautiful! Can we take it home?” The grandmother smiled at her and said, “We can child, but we won’t. If we take it home, how will other people watch it and enjoy it like you and I have done?”
This then was the attitude of our ancients which made India what it was for nearly 2000 years—a preeminent center of learning and high philosophy, the home of the arts, the heart of refinement and a thriving and wealthy nation.
It was nitya, satya, and Sanatana.