Tradition as ‘Essential Religious Practice’ under Sanatana Dharma

Post independence, the Hindu dharma, or more appropriately sanatana dharma, has been the focus of “reform” both by our ruling dispensation and by the judiciary. Our Constitution itself provides for such a reform by mandating it as a clause under the Right to Religion.

Due to this attitude, the Hindu religion has been constantly targeted for “reform”. The biggest casualty of this attack has been our traditions and rituals. Right from the practice of appointing priests in temples to the bursting of crackers during Deepavali — not a single practice has been left untouched.

Of late, the attacks on our practices have intensified further, under the garb of individual, and in many cases animal, rights. Whether it is the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple or Shani Singapur temple or the tradition of Jallikattu or even the celebration of Dahi Handi during Janmashtami, all have been restricted in one way or the other. The courts of this land have applied the “essential religious practice” test to these traditions and ruled them as not being essential.

On the other hand, there has been a steady and increasingly vocal demand from the followers of sanatana dharma that the practices of our religion should not be curtailed, under the garb of social reform. The #Core group has been consistently asking for changes in the Constitution that recognises the ritualistic and pagan nature of Hindu society and hence protection for its practices. Making these practices immune from attacks via the PIL route is the specific demand.

The key question under these circumstances is — is there any sound religious principle based on which Hindu religious practices can be taken away from PIL scrutiny? How do these practices qualify for having higher protection? Or is it only because Hindus are a majority in this country, and therefore there need not be a sound basis for this ask?

Religion vs Dharma

It is very inappropriate to recognise ‘Hindu dharma’ as a religion in the same manner as is done with, say, Abrahamic religions. One, or a few, books — and the gospel word in them — does not drive the practice of sanatana dharma. For this very reason, the traditionalists amongst Hindus prefer the phrase ‘sanatana dharma’ rather than ‘Hindu religion’.

The crux of Hindu religion is in the practice and furtherance of dharma. The ultimate goal of all sanatana dharmicas is obtaining liberation — moksha. Moksha is placed on the tripod of dharmaartha and kama. And even artha and kama — wealth and desire — are qualified with the need to be sourced from dharma — righteousness. Dharmika artha and dharmika kaama are what is allowed. Hence the entire foundation of Hindu religion is on ‘dharma’.

Dharma moola — the ‘source’ of dharma.

Once we agree dharma is at the root of our way of life, the natural question that follows is — what are the sources of dharma? What does one have to follow to establish dharma?

Our ancient scriptures have luckily laid out the ‘moola’ of dharma very explicitly.

The vasishta dharma sutra says that which is in accordance with shruti and smriti is dharma. Additionally, the practice laid down by the noble — shishtachara — is also dharma.

shrutismriti vihito dharmaH | tadalabhe shishtacharaH pramanaM ||

The manu smriti highlights five chief sources of dharma — vedas, smritis, tradition and practices, usages of noble men and self-satisfaction

vedakhilo dharmamoolaM smritishile cha tadvidhaM | acharaschaiva sadhunamatmanastushtireva cha ||

Similarly, the yajnavalkya smriti declares vedas, tradition, practices of the noble, that agreeable to self and desire born out of due deliberation as the sources of dharma.

shrutiH smritiH sadacharaH svasya cha priyamatmanaH | samyaksankalpajaH kamo dharmamulamidam smrutaM ||

In all these pramanas (proofs) one thing that comes out clearly is that “tradition” is a valid, and vital, instrument of dharma. The sustenance and practice of one’s tradition — sadachara — shishtachara — is key to sustenance of dharma.

Not every one on the path of sanatana dharma can be a scholar of vedas or smritis. Hence the practice of tradition and the rituals and customs associated with it is also recognised as dharma for an individual.

A few other pramanas extoll tradition thus

yenasya pitaro yataH yena yataH pitamahaH | tena yayat sataM marge tena gacchan na dushyati ||

Manu, in the above shloka, essentially says one must tread the path taken by ones fathers and forefathers and only then one does not get into evil.

Sage sumantu has the following to say

yasmin kule kramayatamacharaM tvachared budhaH | sa gariyan mahabaho sarvashastroditadapi ||

Under certain circumstances, especially when there is a conflict on what to do, the practices that have come about in one’s tradition is what the learned follow. It becomes more important than shastras (in such circumstances)

Clearly, therefore, tradition — sampradaya — is a critical component of pursuing dharma. And the pursuance of dharma itself is the most important aspect of ‘Hindu religion’.

Another point to note here is that the smritis do not place any restriction on what can, or cannot, constitute tradition. It only says whatever has been determined by the learned and wise, over time, as being a tradition — is acceptable. Hence there is no connection of a tradition being rooted in the vedas or any other single work belonging to sanatana dharma.

Also, by the very definition of tradition, it cannot be universal. Each region of bharata is naturally bound to have its own set of traditions and customs. Each of this is very much an ‘essential religious practice’ for the particular part of bharata.

Acceptance of tradition as essential religious practice

In light of the above, it is only natural that our law — our Constitution — and our courts — accept ‘tradition’ as an essential religious component— for the purpose of determining whether any practice deserves higher importance than individual rights.

The non-entry of women into the Sabarimala temple is a local tradition. Jallikattu is an ancient tradition in Tamil nadu. Kambala is an ancient tradition in coastal Karnataka. Dahi handi is a tradition in vogue since tens of generations now. Bursting of crackers, with a history of at least 500 years, is very much a tradition now.

All of these therefore core tenets of our sanatana dharma. These must be allowed to survive and continue.

Further, to remove any difficulty in interpretation, the Government must do the following two things

  1. Introduce the word “tradition” in Article 29(1) of the Constitution — thereby giving explicit recognition to Hindu practices — “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of Bharat or any part thereof having a distinct language, script, tradition or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same” (One may argue the word ‘culture’ already covers tradition — but as has been proven in the past 7 decades — it has fallen short and hence the explicit mention of tradition is necessary. And technically, there does exist a difference between culture and tradition)
  2. A new sub-clause must be introduced in Article 29 that takes dharmik traditions out of the purview of PIL and extreme judicial scrutiny.

Note: This article first appeared at https://medium.com/@pranasutra/tradition-as-essential-religious-practice-under-sanatana-dharma-4e20a5dce52a and is being republished here with the permission of the author


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About the Author

Hariprasad N
श्रीमध्वाचार्यस्य तत्ववादः | ऋक् शाखः | राजराजायते रिक्तो राघवेन्द्रं तमाश्रये | सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं | Twitter: @pranasutra