The terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’, though much in vogue in the western world, do not find a place in the ancient Indian texts and scriptures. The early Aryans preferred to call themselves Aarya to any other denomination. Then, how did these terms originate in the first place? It so happened that the early inhabitants of Persia recognized them and their civilization as one lying beyond the river sindhu and since they pronounced ‘hindhu’ for ‘sindhu’, they came to be known as ‘hindhu’ (later as ‘hindu’) and their religion, culture and civilization as ‘hinduism’. Later the Greeks called the river sindhu as ‘Indus’ and as such, the land lying beyond it was known as ‘India’. It follows, therefore, that the words ‘hindu’ and ‘hinduism’ have no origin in the land to which they purportedly belong. These terms are, as a matter of fact, foreign to us and superimposed on us by foreign people for the sake of their own convenience.
The term Aarya is quite prevalent in the ancient Indian treatises, epics, mythological stories as well as scriptures. The term Aarya denoted a civilized person of good breeding. As we find several references in the epics and other literature of that period, high society ladies generally addressed their husbands as Aaryaputra. Civilized as they were, the Aryans had their own cultural traditions and a certain way of life, which was known as Sanatana Dharma. Etymologically the term ‘Sanatan’ means eternal and the term ‘dharma’ means religion. As such, ‘Sanatana Dharma’ may be loosely understood as meaning an ‘eternal religion’ but in order to understand it more correctly, the term ‘dharma’ has to be interpreted in a much wider sense than other religions of the world are generally understood by the term ‘religion’. In ‘Sanatana Dharma’ the term ‘dharma’ denotes not only a certain mode of worship, as in other religions of the world, but a wide spectrum of duties enjoined upon a person from birth to death. It is, as a matter of fact, a way of life encompassing all the aspects of one’s life – social, moral, material as well as spiritual. There is hardly any term in English language or in any other foreign tongue, which may truly represent all the connotations of the term ‘dharma’. Limitations of the English language, however, should not be allowed to cramp the largeness of the domain of human life, which the term ‘dharma’ represents. The other term ‘Sanatana’, which means eternal, should be interpreted as perennial and universal. The way of life, which the term ‘dharma’ denotes, is not subject to change from epoch to epoch, person to person, and place to place and hence, perennial and universal. As the Aryans viewed it, it flowed, in its perennial majesty, as freely and serenely as a river from its natural source, and anybody and everybody irrespective of his/her caste, creed or sex was welcome to partake in its beauty, mirth and sweetness. It was and is a perennial and universal way of life, which is the true meaning of Sanatan Dharma.
Viewed in this perspective, Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, as it is more popularly known today, cannot be limited to a certain mode of worship or religious cult. As Dr. Haridas T. Mazumdar has put it, “The term Hinduism, coined by Occidental scholars devoted to the cult of nomenclature, is meaningless to Hindu. Religion is not an ism, not a bundle of creeds, beliefs, rituals and formulae : say the Hindus. Religion is the whole of life – it is a way of life. Hence, the Hindus call their religion Sanatana Dharma, the “Eternal Religion” (India’s Religious Heritage –Vol I). It has many unique features and some of them are being given below.
Eternal and Universal
As its very name denotes, Sanatana Dharma is eternal and universal in character. Like other contemporary religions of the world, its origin cannot be traced to any founder. It has been eternally flowing in the consciousness of the Hindus from times immemorial. A more ancient religion or way of life, as Hindus prefer to call it, which is still living and guiding the lives of millions and millions of people, can hardly be found on the face of the earth. By calling it eternal does not mean that it is static or stagnant, nay it has been ever changing and assimilating the newer forms of stating the age-old truth, and has thus managed to retain its verve and vitality like a stream flowing with ever-fresh water. As regards its universality, it can be said that it completely lacks the spirit of exclusiveness. It is a religion of the whole mankind. It is a living faith in which anybody can partake irrespective of his individual belief or mode of worship. One can hardly find any word in the Hindu scriptures, which might mean ‘exclusiveness’. Such a word is, as a matter of fact, foreign to its character.
In Sanatana Dharma one can find, through and through, a predominance of philosophic outlook. Its injunctions are based, not on any dogma, belief or authority, but on profound philosophic truth underlying them.
“Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
And love thy neighbour as thyself.”
“We must accept this injunction” says the Jew, “because the Prophets so ordained it.” “We must accept this injunction,” says the Christian, “because Jesus so bade us.” “We must accept this injunction,” says the Hindu, “because it reflects a philosophic truth that your neighbour is your own self in another form and that both you and your neighbour are a part of the Supreme Self i.e. the all-inclusive Brahma.” Religion, according to the Hindu, is a way of life in consonance with rationality and Truth.
Freedom for Belief and Enquiry
A unique feature of Hinduism comprises in its complete freedom for belief and enquiry. Herein there is no restraint on intellectual inquisitiveness as in other contemporary religions which lay too much emphasis on ‘belief’ (Imaan). Nay, they make it a precondition for being ‘religious’. Absence of ‘belief’ may brand a man or woman to be an ‘infidel’. In Hinduism no such injunctions apply. Everybody is entitled to his/her own belief and intellectual enquiry so much so that even a known atheist like Charvak is held in respect as a Rishi and an agnostic like Buddha finds a place in the pantheon of Hindu gods.
This unique catholicity in the religious attitude of the Hindus comes from the realization of a philosophic truth that revelation of Truth is a progressive process which is timeless; and though Truth is one, its perception may vary from person to person – Eko sad viprah bahudha vadanti (Truth is one but the wise say it differently). That is to say, just one perception of Truth cannot be held to be final and conclusive. It must ever be a progressive revelation. Consequently the Hindus have welcomed spiritual thoughts and ideas from whatsoever source they might come:
Aa no bhadrah krutvo yantu vishwatah (Rigveda – I.89.i)
(Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides)
Realization, not mere belief, the goal of Hinduism
A Hindu is not content with mere ‘belief’ in God. He believes in being or becoming one with Him, i.e. realizing Him. Idolatry or image-worship of the Hindus has been much criticized by the champions of Christianity and Islam. But what is image-worship and what is the significance of it? The law of association teaches us that man needs something material to correspond to the mental idea he has of one he adores. As such, idol or image-worship is nothing but an external symbol of something he considers as holy and divine. Had it not been so, how does a Christian consider a church and Cross to be holy? But the earnestness of the Hindu does not allow him to rest with idol-worship but goads him to yet higher goal, i.e. realization of God, becoming one with Him and partaking in immortal bliss. For one who has realized God, idol-worship has no meaning. It is just a stage in his journey to God-realization.
Lack of Religious Intolerance
Another unique feature of Hinduism is total lack of religious intolerance as one can perceive throughout its long history. Various sorts and shades of religious opinion and modes of worship not only within the fold of Hinduism but also of other religions have flourished side by side on the vast expanse of the land of India. No bloodshed or use of force can be found anywhere until, of course, India experienced, as a rude shock, the taste of the sword of Islam. Differences of religious opinion were resolved through healthy debates and discussions (shastrartha).
Buddhism with its philosophic outlook of agnosticism, and Jainism with its philosophic note of atheism flourished in India alongside the age-old Sanatana Dharma for many centuries both before and after the dawn of the Christian era. The Jews received hospitality in India several centuries before Christ. The Apostle Thomas and his disciples preached the Gospel of Christ and founded the Christian Church in southern India without any interference from the Hindus or the Buddhists. In the middle of the seventh century A.D. the Zoroastrians fleeing from Iran before Mohammedan persecution, were hospitably received by a Hindu prince and given land to build their temple. Not only were the Parsees given asylum and hospitality but they were also given full freedom to worship God in their own way, as the Jews had been similarly treated in the pre-Christian era in South India. The Jewish synagogue arose in India and it is a matter of historical record that the Jews have never been persecuted in India.
Had the Muslims not come to India as invaders and conquerors but as bearers of the message of the Prophet Mohammed, the impact of Islam upon the Hindu society would not have resulted in violent antagonisms. Despite mindless bloodshed and forced conversions by these crusaders of Islam, it goes to the credit of some noble souls like Ramanand, Kabir and Nanak that they attempted to synthesize the teachings of Islam and Hinduism.
To sum up, Sanatana Dharma may truly be called the ‘mother religion’ because it holds to its bosom truths of all religions as well as the elevating values of the entire humanity.