Why Sanatana Dharma Found A Place In My Life
I have long struggled with the diametrically opposite feelings religion inspires in me, which Swami Vivekananda aptly captures, feelings of inspiration and revulsion. My greatest challenge in coming to terms with my religious identity was not simply that I am a minority in the Abrahamic west but that my own religion seemed to inspire very little good since the end of the Vedic age. Religion is governed by a code it seems, and successfully partaking in a religious community means you follow it, pray per its injunctions, and uphold the time honored customs that give your community order and purpose. At the depths of my religious existential crisis, I concluded that “religious folk” get their drive and enthusiasm from the thing we Millennials are taught to distrust most: group think and maintaining status quo. Religion, I said, was pure dogma.
Now that I have painted a picture of the hole and emptiness I fell into, let me tell you how I climbed out.
“Nothing makes us so tender as religion:” We are hardwired to survive, and our instincts to survive and thrive drive many of our decisions, making complete compassion a truly utopian concept. But compassion and forgiveness are abundant in families so we know we are capable of it. Extending this nature to outsiders and strangers demands a much broader perspective and a unifying cause. Our spirituality and cannon of literature provide a compelling universal view of “vasudhaivakutumbakam”, or seeing the world as our family. The continuous abidance of our forefathers to this universal view has been carried forward to this day as Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma, which is more so a way of life than a religion. This way of life, like many others, has awesome power to move people to do unbelievable things, including putting communities and a heritage before individual priorities. We embody this ideal through advocacy, whether on a large organized scale or on a personal one. Those of our sisters and brothers that continue to embrace their heritage in the far corners of the world where lawlessness has given way to terror and forced conversions are worthy of our gratitude. Advocacy is possible only when we really believe in the cause, and this can be fostered by a good understanding of the basic elements of our heritage and spirituality. This understanding perpetuates the continued survival of Sanatana Dharma. We are advocates of our ancient past and for a promising future every time we dispel one small false belief about our traditions or values. And likewise, when we accept our civilization’s flaws and acknowledge areas that need improving, we display humility that makes our tradition great. Thus, by being connected to a larger humanity, accepting all living things as co-inheritors of this tradition, religion encourages us to be invested in others’ wellbeing and be conscious of our impact on the world.
Selfless service, noble ideals and the galvanization of a generation- these are all good things that stem from Sanatana Dharma. But simply doing Sandhyavandanam or following Ekadasi is meaningless if we do not understand the benefits of these practices. We must be knowledgeable and articulate when we speak of our spirituality, even among our peers, because that is how we instill common values and goals. “No other human motive has deluged the world with blood so much as religion” and this is why understanding the core tenets of our faith is so crucial. Given humanity’s tendency to spill blood over religion, we must understand the very stuff that evokes us to react so emotionally. I have grappled with caste, the impurity of women and the belief that we are pre-destined at birth for the years. And now that the doors of Vedanta are starting to open to me, I see the misconceptions and misinterpretations that led to these erroneous outcomes. It still upsets me that Hindu women today aren’t more prominent stewards of their faith. The female intellectuals Gargi and Maitreyi are as real as Vyasa and Shankaracharya but we, the Hindus of today, are responsible for making them count in the annals of history. We must advocate not only on behalf of those Hindus struggling in Pakistan and Bangladesh now but also on behalf of those brilliant thinkers, many stellar women, who achieved feats worthy of our collective awe.
And this is how Sanatana Dharma and the whole Hindu tradition became relevant and important to me. I saw in it the values I esteem: a sense of duty, service to country, respect for animals and the environment, all without allegiance to a book, man or god. This “Hinduism” as we have decided to call it, is a faith for the 21st century and beyond. It does not believe that only one path leads us to realization or that God is a force to be feared. It strongly enforces the thinking that the world is one family, places the elderly at the forefront of our concern and puts education above all other conquests. And finally, I’ll return to my fear of dogma. There have been great leaders in the Hindu tradition that I love and wish to emulate such as Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and Chinmayananda. But these men, just like the scriptures and the Gita, represent a view point. No man, book or god are the sole custodians of our religion though they all point in the direction of truth. We must remember this when we interact with our peers and the world. In my opinion, the most I can do to proliferate Sanatana Dharma is to cherish it and dispel its misconceptions among peers and friends. I will defend it peacefully and study it diligently. Thus, through quiet introspection and the goodwill to defend those in harm’s way, both within and outside my community, my advocacy will embody the simplest ideals of Hinduism.
Sandhya Devaraj, 23, is a May 2012 graduate of the University of Maryland. She is currently serving with AmeriCorp’s National Health Corps in Chicago for a year. She was a 2011 HAF Congressional Intern with Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland.