Eternal Changes

Why the Sanatana Dharma must be opposed

Bajrang Dal Party workers hold torches during “Shorya Divas” on 6 December 2006, the fourteenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in Ayodhya. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
31 October, 2023

On 2 September, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Udhayanidhi Stalin compared the Sanatana Dharma—which translates to “eternal religion”—to diseases such as dengue and malaria, arguing it was not enough to oppose it but that it should be eradicated. Immediately, several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and upper-caste journalists were up in arms, claiming Stalin had hurt the sentiments of all Hindus. Hardeep Singh Puri, the union minister of petroleum and natural gas, said the Sanatana Dharma was “India’s culture and civilisation,” and called those who were speaking against it “brain-damaged.” Jyotiraditya Scindia, the civil-aviation minister, said it was “the foundation of India.” Another union minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, resorted to threats, stating that Hindus would “pull out tongues” and “pluck out eyes” of people who spoke against the Sanatana Dharma. Shekhawat was repeating the forms of punishments prescribed for various caste transgressions in the Manusmriti. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself jumped into the fray. On 14 September, in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, he took aim at the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, the coalition of 28 opposition parties. “It’s the intention of INDI alliance that it shall destroy the idea, the sacraments and the traditions that united India for thousands of years,” Modi said, claiming that the opposition wanted to “disintegrate” the Sanatana Dharma.  

There have been many think pieces ever since, with various conservative thought leaders exalting the virtues of Sanatana Dharma. For all intents and purposes, the Sanatana Dharma gained ground as an idea in the nineteenth century in colonial India, in opposition to the religious reforms sought by the Arya Samaj. One of its main tenets was adhering to the caste hierarchy enshrined in Hindu texts. 

In his nine years as prime minister, Modi has not hesitated to position himself as a ruler who upholds the authority of religious dogma above his position. This was evident when he laid the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, paraded priests while inaugurating the new parliament building or performed aarti on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. The Modi government has spent crores of rupees in rebuilding and renovating Hindu temples such as the Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi, and the Jyotirlinga shrines in Ujjain and Kedarnath, among others. It is not an exaggeration to suggest Hindu theology guides Modi’s social, political and economic decisions. And now, with Modi attacking the coalition over Stalin’s remarks, there is no doubt that defending the Sanatana Dharma is going to be a campaign strategy for the BJP in the 2024 general election.