When Hindutva politicians speak of sanatan dharma, they quote from Rig Veda, Bhagavad Gita and Manusmriti as if they belong to the same historical period, without noting these texts are 3,000, 2,100 and 1,800 years old, respectively. This seems to go along with the claim of 19th-century European historians that Indians do not have a sense of history.
It is not uncommon to find Buddhist caves across India identified as caves built by Pandavas during their forest exile. Ponds in Mumbai are traced to Ram. No one knows of Bhima, who came from Patan (Gujarat) or Paithan (Maharashtra) in the 13th century, following the attack of Allaudin Khilji. The temple of Puri is traced to the mythical Indradyumna, not the historical Choda-ganga dynasty that came from the south. Very few people in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh know of their Jain heritage and how it was driven out by the rise of devotional cults to Shiva.
Hindutva politicians prefer to see their faith as ‘eternal’ and ‘timeless’ rather than historical, responding to, and transforming with, various economic and political forces. By claiming to be ahistorical, Hindus establish their superiority over faiths like Islam and Christianity, which can be traced to a historical founder.
Thus while one arm of Hindutva politicians is arguing that Ram, Krishna and Shiva were historical characters who lived in North India more than 5,000 years ago, another branch of Hindutva politicians is arguing that Hindu ideas are based on cosmic vibrations from the sun and the stars, decoded by rishis, and so have nothing to do with history and geography.
Sanatan dharma is Mahabharata
Sanatan means timeless. What is timeless? For Hindus, the atma is timeless and rebirth is timeless. These ideas are clearly articulated in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a dialogue from the epic Mahabharata, where Krishna reveals to Arjuna a lore that he describes as being ‘sanatan’.
Bhagavad Gita also talks of the varna system. All jatis, i.e. castes of India, are traditionally categorised into the four varnas. Can we then say that caste is an eternal system, described by Krishna? Krishna traces the varna to attributes (guna) of a being but today’s caste is based on birth. Is Krishna’s sanatan dharma different from the sanatan dharma being practised today? So have Hindus deviated from sanatan dharma?
For historians who study texts carefully, the Mahabharata was composed about 2,100 years ago, give or take a few centuries. So roughly between the Mauryan and Gupta periods. The epic refers to Saka kings who ruled Northwest India in 100 BCE. However, the story it retells belongs to an earlier time, before Buddhists became a major force in the country.
As per Hindus, the story marks a war that marked the end of the Dvapara Yuga and the birth of the Kali Yuga. This has been described by some mythofiction writers, not by historians, as the end of the Ice Age in India, i.e. 10000 BCE. This is a speculation not based on any archaeological evidence. The earliest archaeological evidence we have in India is dated to 8000 BCE, in the Baluchistan region, currently in Pakistan, far away from Haryana which is classically described as the Kuru-kshetra region.
Sanatan dharma is Manusmriti
Manusmriti mentions gold coins that became popular in the age of Kushan kings. Kushans came to India from Central Asia and ruled a vast empire from Mathura in the east to Afghanistan in the west. This means Manusmriti was put together about 2,200 years ago, not earlier. Yet, as per the text itself, it was composed at the dawn of time by Manu, the son of Brahma, with the express intention of telling Brahmins and other varnas how to live their lives.
As per Manusmriti, the four varnas turned into hundreds of jatis (castes) because the various varnas did not respect marriage rules and married across caste boundaries. This is what led to the collapse of civilisation and the shift from Krita Yuga to Kali Yuga.
Manusmriti uses the phrase sanatan dharma when it says that a man should always speak the truth but only if it is agreeable (4.138). He should refrain from speaking agreeable untruths and disagreeable truths. He proclaims that such behaviour is in line with sanatan dharma. Medhatithi, who wrote a commentary on Manusmriti, says sanatan dharma means Veda, as Veda is eternal. So the law derives validity and authority from Vedic scriptures.
Sanatan dharma is Rig Veda
If Buddhists traced all their knowledge to the Buddha, the Brahmins traced all their knowledge to Vedas. Neither really bothered with the historical Buddha or the historical Vedas. Anyone who reads Vedic scriptures will know it deals with rituals and has nothing to do with social conduct. Rig Vedic hymns were compiled and turned into Rig Veda around 1000 BCE, while the idea of dharma-shastra came much later, around 300 BCE
Now in the Rig Veda, we can find the phrase sanatan dharma in 3.3.1. But here the phrase is applied not to humans but to the fire-god Agni who functions as the sun in the sky. The poet Vishwamitra Gathina says that we give gifts to Agni who takes them to the realm of the gods. As friend of the gods, Agni never breaks or corrupts ‘eternal laws’ (धर्मा सनता ). This has nothing to do with social order. It refers to natural rhythms.
But for Hindutva politicians, the existence of this phrase in Rig Veda is proof that Hinduism is 5,000, maybe 10,000 years old, unchanged and perfect, as claimed by Brahmins. How does one argue rationally with such fantasies?