The recent Sabarimala judgment by the Supreme Court of India has once again thrown open the debate about ‘essential’ practices of a religion. The honourable judges have declared, yet again, that any practice that is not ‘essential’ to the religion shall be open to reinterpretation — by the non-religious, secular institution called judiciary!
The honourable judges say the following
“Now, what remains to be seen is whether the exclusion of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years is an essential practice under the Hindu religion in the backdrop of the peculiar attending circumstances attributable to the Sabarimala temple. For ascertaining the said question, we first need to understand what constitutes an essential practice for a particular religion which has been the subject matter of several decisions of this Court”
The judgment quotes Lord Halsbury from a famous British judgment and says the following.
“In the absence of conformity to essentials, the denomination would not be an entity cemented into solidity by harmonious uniformity of opinion, it would be a mere incongruous heap of, as it were, grains of sand, thrown together without being united, each of these intellectual and isolated grains differing from every other, and the whole forming a but nominally united while really unconnected mass; fraught with nothing but internal dissimilitude, and mutual and reciprocal contradiction and dissension”
The above quote by Lord Halsbury begins with a very interesting, and important, phrase — “In the absence of conformity to essentials…”
It is indeed very important for followers of a certain faith to conform to essentials. But the important question is — the definition of *what* needs to be conformed to? For many popular (read abrahamic) faiths, the need to conform to is with respect to practices. But is it the same with the Hindu faith?
The answer is no.
The need, in the Hindu faith, is to conform to principles.
I take the help of the writings of the great Hindu intellectual Sri Guru Dutt Vaid ji to further illustrate this point.
The ‘Hindu’ faith as we know it today, in reality comprises of two distinct layers. At the foundation is what we call as (Sanatana) Dharma. This layer of Dharma provides the core principles of our faith on which all our practices rest.
On top of this layer of Dharma comes the layer of pantha or marga. This could loosely be translated as ‘Religion’.
The Hindu way of life, or Hindu faith, is therefore a combination of these two aspects — a foundational Dharma on top of which individual panthas/margas are built.
What are the foundational principles of Sanatana Dharma then? According to Sri Vaid ji, the following can be accepted as the integral principles.
- Belief in the existence of a superior divine force — call it paramatma, parashakti or any other name.
- The individual being having the freedom to perform karmas, but being subject to a limitation.
- Karma theory — the fact that the result of actions is not in the individual’s hands.
- Both the divine and the human being eternal. The divine is all powerful while the individual is limited in capability.
- The sentient and insentient composed of Prakriti. These are distinct from the Divine.
- An individual is evaluated on the basis of his guna (conduct), karma and swabhava (intrinsic nature)
- Behaving with others just as they would like others to behave with the self.
- The ten attributes of dharma — dhairya, kshama, dama, indriya nigraha, asteya, shuchi, satya, akrodha, dhi and vidya.
- Each individual accepting things only on the basis of knowledge, logic and natural laws.
Thus, the above form a fairly comprehensive list of principles on which Dharma rests. The key notions are the divine force, karma, guna and dharma’s 10 manifestations.
As a test, pick up any Smriti or Sutra work from our ancient rishis. You will find that almost the entire focus of the works are on one or more of the above topics. Right from the rules of conduct to the propitiation of sins, they are targeted at upholding the above principles.
Now, on top of these Dharmic principles, the Hindu faith gives complete freedom to each individual to pursue his or her own religious route. The freedom to choose one’s own personal God, the freedom to choose one’s own rituals and methods of worship and the freedom to determine one’s own pace of sadhana (religious practice).
The only condition being that none of the instruments chosen should violate the basic principles of Dharma.
For example, you can choose to come up with your own method of upasana or worship — but if that ritual makes to take away another being’s money — that violates the principle of asteya and hence is disallowed under Sanatana Dharma.
Some of the offshoots of the Dharma marga are well defined, have a formal organization and have well codified and written rituals and practices. Panthas such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism and many other similar denominations do exist within the Hindu fold. They do have their own religious books that prescribe many methods and rituals. These can be shown to be encoded as essential practices.
However, the formalisation of these practices is NOT a requirement. There are therefore innumerable sects, communities and congregations within the Hindu faith whose elders, traditions and customs have created their own individual routes. All of them take care of only one thing — that their beliefs, rituals and practices do not violate the basic tenets of Sanatana Dharma.
At any given place, at any given time, for any given group of adherents — their own distinct tradition and customs are allowed and counted as ESSENTIAL as long as they adhere to the core tenets of Sanatana Dharma.
This is the reason why it is going to be difficult to find a ‘book’ that declares the Sabarimala vratam as an essential practice, without the practice of which, Hindu faith is in danger. This is the reason why you will not find any book declaring Jallikattu as an integral and mandatory practice of Hinduism. This is the same reason why no book will declare an individual as non-Hindu if he doesn’t burst crackers on Deepavali.
The only test that is valid for a Hindu practice or ritual is whether or not they violate the foundational principles of Sanatana Dharma. All the practices that do not violate Sanatana Dharma are equally valid and equally integral.
To rephrase Hinduism using Lord Halsbury’s vocabulary,
Hinduism is a incongruous heap of grains of sand, thrown together without being similar, each of these intellectual and isolated grains differing from every other; and yet the whole forming a united and connected mass; possessing a strange yet unique adherence to the principles of the parent faith.
The measure of whether a practice is essential or not ought to be made against the core tenets of the system that the practice belongs to. In the current scenario, our Hindu practices are being compared against the system of Constitutional morality and Abrahamic belief systems. They are bound to come up short.
Imagine a student going to a physics exam and being asked to prove Newton’s third law using Mendelev’s periodic table!