Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > The Constitutional Irrelevance of Sanatana Dharma | Andimuthu (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

The Constitutional Irrelevance of Sanatana Dharma | Andimuthu Raja

Saturday 4 November 2023, by Andimuthu Raja


Law and Religion have evolved as social institutions throughout history, not only in Indian society but also in Rome, Judia, in the Christian and Islamic lands and elsewhere in the world. India’s theological contributions were subjected to intense scrutiny of European scholars during the colonial administration. The book, Sanatana Dharma: An Elementary Text-Book of Hindu Religion and Ethics, published by the Central Hindu College, Benares in 1916, says, the term ‘Hindu’ referred more to ethnic identity than religion. The Persians and Greeks used it to describe the people living on and the above Sindhu river. The book’s opening remarks are axiomatic, ‘Sanatana Dharma means the eternal religion, the ancient law and it is based on the Vedas, sacred book given to men many long ages ago. This religion has also been called the Aryan religion because it is the religion that was given to the first nation of Aryan race….’

WHAT IS SANATAN Dharma really? The definitions and contents of Sanatana Dharma have never been placed for public scrutiny visibly in the land where it originated; so far, most explanations have come from non-Indian, non-Hindu Indologists, especially European scholars. Yet, in twenty-first-century India, attempts are always being made to project any discussion on the subject as an object of fissiparous communal politics. The recent debates on Sanatana Dharma have also been marred by abominable remarks made by the Prime Minister and others, which were myopic and flagrant.

Let us go back to the 1916 text book explainer. The book says that ‘Shruti’ signifies ‘that which has been heard’, while ‘Smriti’ signifies ‘that which has been remembered’. The book also asserts that the Vedas’ contents, including Mantra, Brahmanam, Upanishad and Manusmriti, which served as a significant compendium of Aryan law administered in the region of AryaVarta, later assimilated into the Hindu traditions. In the 1960s another book on Sanatana Dharma was published by Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, Bombay; this was edited by the distinguished member of the Constituent Assembly, K M Munshi with similar explanations. Undoubtedly, these books also presented noble ideals as ‘standards of ethics’.

In both the texts explaining Sanatan Dharma, a strict ‘Division of Labour’ is mandated, based on one’s birth, under the name of ‘Varuna’, categorising as Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriya (ruling class), Vaishyaas (trading class) and Sudhra (serving class – ungrudgingly serving the other three classes). While emphasising the duty of honoring and adorning women in various roles, these two texts say that this dharma places women in a subjugated, inferior position. Upon reading them, one can easily concur with Ambedkar’s interpretation of the Caste System as a vertical division of society, characterised by an ‘ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt’, a dharma that rigidly separates individuals into water-tight compartments, based on their birth and gender.

Ambedkar viewed ‘Hindu Religion in a very broad sense; not in the limited sense in which it would apply to a person who believed in the Vedas, also who believed in the infallibility of the Vedas, who believed probably in the Chaturvarnas and who also believed in the performance and sanctity of Yagnas as means of salvation…. We are using this word in a large sense to include Buddhist, Jain, Sikhs etc. who do not believe in these dogmas…. Buddha and Mahavir differed from Vedic Brahmins; their difference was limited to matters of creed. But they did not propound a separate legal system for their own followers’.

In addition to western scholars, Sir C P Ramasamy Iyer, in his work, Hindu Faith and Culture, acknowledges ‘the fairly advanced civilisation of Dravidians in the South’ and the ‘commercial and cultural interaction of Aryans from the North with them’. He also noted that despite linguistic and racial differences, a comprehensive legal system prevailed throughout this region.

In light of these historical contexts, also considering the materials of framing the Indian Constitution, Hindu customs and practices in existence and debates of the Constituent Assembly on Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill, the nation has to revisit the relevancy of Sanatana Dharma in free India’s written Constitution to preserve our secular values without fear and favour.

Even before these considerations, when the National Flag of free India was designed and placed before the Constituent Assembly on 18 July 1947, for approval, the ‘Ashok Chakra’ was placed in the middle of the flag as Nehru’s choice and he said on that occaision, ‘I should like you to think that the Ashokan period in Indian history was essentially an international period. It was not narrowly (just a) National period. It was a period when India’s ambassadors went abroad to faraway countries, not in the way of an empire and imperialism, but as ambassadors of peace, culture and goodwill. He did not fail to mention, ‘It is folly for any nation or race to think that it can only give to and not receive from the rest of the world. Once a nation or race begins to think like that, it becomes rigid and it becomes ungrowing; it grows backward and decays. In fact, if India’s history can be traced, India’s periods of decay are those when it closed and refused to receive or to look at the outside world’.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan also spoke in a powerful voice in favour of this National Flag, forecasting the need of a ‘shift’ in the country’s approach to its Dharma. He emphasized, ‘the Ashoka’s wheel represents to us a wheel of the law, the wheel of the Dharma….There are ever so many institution which are worked into our social fabric like caste and untouchability. Unless these things are scrapped, we cannot say that we either seek truth or practice virtue. This wheel, which is a rotating thing, which is a perpetually revolving thing, indicates to us there is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. Our Dharma is Sanatana, eternal not in the sense that is a fixed deposit, but in the sense that it is perpetually changing. Its uninterrupted continuity is its Sanatana Character. So even with regard to our social condition, it is essential for us to move forward…. This flag tells us ‘‘be ever alert, be ever on move, go forward, flexible, compassionate, decent democratic society in which Christians, Sikhs, Musalmans, Hindus, Buddhists will all find a safer shelter”. Thus, even before enacting the Constitution, through the National Flag, there was an inclusive call from our leaders for new interpretation of Sanatana Dharma and for it to introduce radical changes to establish a Dharma of dynamic and egalitarian nature, inviting the perpetual move and changes. This idea of revolving and evolving Dharma was later incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution itself.

The significance of Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill, introduced in February 1949 in the Constituent Assembly, was profound. On this occasion he did not mince words and said, ‘To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul of Hindu society untouched and go on passing legislation relating to economical problem is to make a farce of our Constitution’. Neither the proponents nor the opponents of the Hindu Code Bill relied on Dharmashastric sources of Hindu personal law; rather both sides advanced their arguments on rational approach of reasons and gendered identities. Only a few who argued using Hindu religious texts against the Bill, claiming, ‘it went against the tenets of our shastras and the Vedas’ and that ‘granting women greater rights would upset the balance of Hindu society’.

Interestingly, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee of the then Hindu Mahasabha, initially expressed his apprehension that sources of the Hindu law such a smriti, shruti and sadachara etc. were going to loose theirs relevance and importance; he, however, acknowledged, ‘I am prepared to admit, however there be opposition to this code, that this marvelous piece of work on the part of Dr Ambedkar is a most thorny subject he has gone through with much ability’.

Even the opponents of the Bill argued that the Hindu religion is known for tolerance and absorption of ideas of excellence from the outside.

Ambedkar countered, ‘No doubt, one of the greatest qualities of Hindu society is to absorb something from those who oppose it. But, my point is this. Has the Hindu society changed in structure as a result of absorption of the Doctrine of their opponents? What did Buddha preach? He preached equality. He was a great opponent of ‘Chaturvarna’ and the‘Vedas’ because he believed in reasons and did not believe in the infallibility of any Book. He believed in Ahimsa, acceptable to Brahminic society. But they opposed his beliefs and teaching of equality… whatever else Hindu society may adopt, it will never give up its social structure for enslavement of Sudras and Women. It is for this reason that this law must come to rescue, in order that the society may move on’.

Similarly, when the question was vehemently posed on the competency of the Parliament to interfere with personal laws of a community, Ambedkar firmly to declared, ‘I want to assert in this House that I shall hear no argument from any community to say that this Parliament has no right to interfere in their personal law. This Parliament is absolutely supreme and we deal with any community, so far as their personal law is concerned apart from their religion.’

Endorsing this view, Nehru on 15 August 1948 observed in the Constituent Assembly, ‘I do not wish the House to think in the slightest degree that we consider this Hindu Code Bill of no importance, because we do attach the greatest importance to it, as I said, not because of any particular clause or anything but because of the basic approach to this vast problem in this country which is intimately allied to other problems, economic and social’.

At the end of the debate, Ambedkar concluded, ‘Therefore, looking at the matter as a lawyer, I have not the least doubt about it, that unless the Hindu law is not only codified but also modified so as to bring it in consonance with the provision of Article 15, parts of Hindu law (in vogue) will be declared to be void in view of the Article 13 of the Constitution’.

Admittedly, Article 15 says, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’; and Article 13 stands for ‘that all laws in force immediately before the commencement of this Constitution – so far as they are inconsistent with the provision of this part – shall to the extent of such inconsistency be void’.

Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet on the question of postponing the passing of the Hindu Code Bill in October 1951. However, after the General Election in 1952, the Bill was split into four parts and was passed between1952-’56. It is interesting to note that much of the staunch opposition to the Bill did not come from r parties like the then Hindu Mahasabha and the then Jan Sangh, who had together had just six members in Parliament but from within the Congress Party itself. Even Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, engaged in a dispute with Nehru over the Hindu Code Bill. Prasad hinted in his correspondence with Nehru that, as the President, he might consider exercising his option to disapprove any of the Bills, if they were passed in Parliament. Nehru’s response to such a threat was that such a move would precipitate a constitutional crisis that India’s fledgling democracy might not withstand.

Thus, the traditional journey of orthodox Hindu customs, shastras and other outdated ‘sacred’ texts thereto, were put to the test of reasoning under the Constitution which stands for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The definition for ‘Hindus’ and enacted laws for their civic life are in force, therefore, the Constitution says, there can be no room for anymore shastrical interpretations, whatsoever thereafter. Thus, whosoever be at the exalted positions on the orbits of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary of this great Nation, looking back and patronising outdated ‘Dharmas’ in any form and in any nomenclature is not only legally irrelevant but also an attempt to defame and defile our Constitution.

(Author: Andimuthu Raja is a former Union Minister and currently a Member of Parliament. Views expressed here are the author’s)


ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.