From Hinduism to Sanatana Dharma

There comes a time in life when each and everyone of us will start to search for answers for questions like what is the purpose of life, who is God and so on. Often you can turn to your own religion for guidance, and if you are lucky, you will find the answers. But what happens when you are lost? What happens if you are finding it hard to source out for information? What happens if you have the notion that all religions are the same, so one can find answers to these questions in any religion, and that should be sufficient.

Back in 2006, questions like these started popping up in my head. Despite being born in a Hindu family (which I realise now how lucky I have been), I had no idea why we go to temple, why we pray to ‘idols’ and statues, or why we make offerings. Parents were clueless as well, so I had nowhere to turn to when it came to my religion, Hinduism (or so I thought). Therefore, being a scientific-minded person, I turned to books to help me with that.

I remember specifically that I had been watching an amazing documentary about evolution and the big bang theory. I was obsessed with the information surrounding the beginning of this universe, the cosmos, the planets, evolution, natural selection and Darwin. I realised that while the Abrahamic religions claimed that the universe was created only 6000 years ago, science says that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. For me, belief alone was not enough. I needed concrete proof because I was and still am stubbornly logical. That pushed me towards reading two authors, who have greatly influenced my thinking, my philosophy and my life; Richard Dawkins and Ayn Rand.

The first book of Richard Dawkins that I read was The Selfish Gene, in which he explores the biology of selfishness and altruism. It was an illuminating read as it showed that there is no need to infuse divine involvement in replicating genes. Due to my rudimentary understanding of the concept of God, derived from the teleological argument, I came to a conclusion that an intelligent designer is not needed when it comes to explaining the existence of the world. Evolution as an answer was sufficient for me.

I then turned to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, two of her classical hits! These are both amazing books, in my opinion, although she does go over the edge at times in order to bring life to her philosophy. Ayn Rand’s philosophy was called objectivism and it can be summarised as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Her ideas had a profound impact on me as it made a lot of sense, and again pushed me towards believing that God does not exist. At this point in time of life, I had given up on the idea of God or religion.

It was the same time period when I was studying in Anglo-Chinese Junior College, which was a Methodist school and it had chapel service every Monday. I would sit there every Monday during assembly and listen to different pastors and students quoting the Bible and talking about life in general, seeing the Muslim students walk out of the auditorium. I remember sitting there and wondering whether I can walk out as well, because not only did they have chapel service, but they also had a band playing Jesus songs and we had to sing along as well! It felt totally ridiculous to me. I was in the middle of reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion around that time, and I felt that religion and community gathering were only for self-appeasement and self-assurance. Without religion and moral codes, man will be lost. So I accepted that religion was not for the rational-minded, but it was more for people to keep them in check. These were my thoughts back then.

At this juncture I had become a complete atheist, but I kept this mostly to myself. I blogged about my thoughts and some of my friends had things to say to me to counter my arguments. But I did not bring it on strongly. My views are my views, and I need not impose it upon anyone else. I had other conflicting thoughts about atheism as well, and I kept them to myself. It was a moment when I felt like a nihilist, no hope for the future and nothing to hope for in the present as well. That was a depressing thought and I didn’t understand why I was feeling like that. Maybe it was because the thought of God not existing was a disturbing one and it hit me hard. I felt that I should not give up on my search for meaning and purpose of my life.

When I joined NUS for my Bachelors, I saw a poster advertising an upcoming drama production, organised by a few Indian society/clubs, including the Hindu Society of NUS. I contacted the number in the poster to purchase the tickets as my friends were keen to watch the drama production. The person I contacted, Mr S, hooked me up with the tickets and through him I found out that he had been successfully running an online forum on Hinduism. Little did I know that Mr S would have such a profound impact in my life, because he became the reason why I turned back to Hinduism Sanatana Dharma. It was through Mr S that I got to know about the Misconceptions in Hinduism talk organised by NUS Hindu Society and that is how I met Mr K.

My learning journey had started in 2007 after I met Mr S and Mr K. I joined the Hindu Society and got myself involved in a lot of events that helped me in learning more and more about Sanatana Dharma. End of 2008, the Hindu Centre announced that it was to have a Diploma in Teacher’s Training course, to be conducted under the tutelage of Mr K and one Mr R. It was to be a 2 years course, to be held every Saturday from 2pm to 5pm. I signed up for it, attended an interview with Mr R and got into the program. The program was free of charge, provided that we volunteer to take up classes in Hindu Centre after graduation. I did not expect myself to become a teacher but I knew I was going to learn more about Hinduism Sanatana Dharma.

Classes started on 10 Jan 2009. That was the day my journey actually began. Before this, my knowledge about Hinduism was really half-baked. We covered a number of topics about the God, scriptures, caste system, karma, dharma, moksha, bhagavad gita and vedanta. As teachers, we are supposed to have 10 times the knowledge of what will actually be taught in classes. For example, if we are to teach about karma, then we have to be equipped with 10 times the knowledge about karma, than what we actually teach in class. Learning, researching, and discovering new information is my forte, so naturally, I loved attending the classes and I did so without fail. We also learned some Sanskrit chanting and it was the best part of the day for me because I was realising for the first time in my life that I loved to chant.

Once my understanding of the definition of God became clearer through studying Sanatana Dharma, I realised how my atheistic thoughts were wrong. But only with reference to Sanatana Dharma. This is because we do not agree to the teleological argument that there is a separate entity that intelligently designed this universe. This argument goes straight against logical reasoning and invalidates the notion of God being omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. In the words of Richard Dawkins:

“The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’… A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument… demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.” – The God Delusion

In Sanatana Dharma, God does not create but manifests as this universe. This universe is God and the Self is God. There is nothing separate from God (like how the wave is not separate from the ocean). Whereas a Creator God is separate from its created universe. This is the fundamental difference between Abrahamic religions and Sanatana Dharma. Once this became clear to me, I felt all the shackles in my life had been lifted.

The more I came to know about Sanatana Dharma, the more I realised how wrong my initial impressions were. Some of them (and not even a drop in the ocean) are as follows:

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Working with youths in NUS during my days in the Hindu Society, I realised that many Hindu youths are growing up with such wrong impressions about Hinduism. It is the duty of the parents to inculcate these values in their children from young. However, parents themselves are not much aware about Hinduism Sanatana Dharma. It is sad really, because the Hindu way of living is very much part of our life. From the moment we wake up and pray to Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) before setting foot on Her, till the night when we pray for sweet dreams and thank Ishvara for blessing us with a healthy life. There is not one moment in life where I am separate from God.

Sanatana Dharma teaches us how to be happy, how to live a happy life and how to share this happiness with others as well. We are not children born out of sins, like the other religions claim. We are children born out of happiness, to live a happy life, and share happiness with others. This is the resounding message of Sanatana Dharma.

Draupadi’s Dilemma

Draupadi plays a crucial role in the Mahabharatha. This is not just because she was the wife of the Pandavas, but it is also because she was a fiery feminist. There are many instances in the Mahabharatha where she proves this character of hers. One such instance is the gambling episode in which she talks courageously defending her rights despite the presence of many elders and wise men in the gambling hall.

The root cause of the entire gambling deceit was Duryodhana’s greed and jealousy. After having visited the residing palace of the Pandavas in Indraprastha, Duryodhana was depressed out of jealousy at his brothers’ wealth and status. The Pandavas have just organised a great sacrifice called the Rājasūya Yajna, in which Yudhishthira was crowned as an Emperor. To appease Duryodhana’s depression and to acquire wealth equal to the Pandavas’, Duryodhana’s uncle Shakuni, his dear friend Karna and his brother Duhshasana conceived a plot of deceit. Shakuni was well-versed in dice play and therefore, the plan was to invite the Pandavas for a gambling match in dice game, and win over their wealth.

When Duryodhana brought this appeal to his father and King of Hastinapur, Dhrdhirashthira, there were disagreements, but out of love for his son, the King became convinced. Thus, an invite was sent to Yudhishthira through Vidura. Emperor Yudhishthira accepted the invite because as per dharma a king is duty bound to accept invitations of such nature, especially when it comes from the King of Hastinapur. When the game began, the Pandavas were unaware of the deceit planned by Shakuni. Yudhishthira lost all his wealth, his brothers and finally himself. At that moment, Shakuni urged Yudhishthira to redeem all his wealth by staking the one possession he has left; the wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi. Yudhishthira accepted and lost the game, in which case, Draupadi became a slave to the Kauravas. When Draupadi was summoned into the gambling hall, she refused to come as she was adorned in a single piece of cloth, with her period and not having taken her ritual bath.

Being alarmed by the summons and realising the danger of the situation, she instead posed a question to Yudhishthira through the messenger who came to fetch her. After having refused twice, Draupadi was forcefully dragged by her hair into the hall by Duhshasana. In the hall, she persistently posed the same question to Yudhisthira:

“Whose lord wert thou (Yudhishthira) at the time thou lost me in play? Didst thou (Yudhishthira) lose thyself first or me?” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 67, Verse 7)

Draupadi pleads to Duhshasana not to drag her in this plight into the hall and yet she is forcibly done so. She is a devoted wife even in such a situation as she does not resort to cursing her husbands. She says instead,

“In speech even I am unwilling to admit an atom of fault in my lord (Yudhishthira) forgetting his virtues.” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 67, Verse 38)

The question she poses is thus not in the spirit of pointing out the fault in Yudhishthira’s action. It was in the spirit of ascertaining what is righteousness in such a situation of dharma sankata (dilemma). In essence, her question posits whether a wife is still subject to her husband even after the husband has lost himself and become a slave to another person. On one hand, dharma demands that the women be protected. Draupadi was accepted as a daughter-in-law with the promise that she will be well taken care of and protected. However, she was made a slave through deceitful means, and therefore, dharma fails. On the other hand, there is the dharma that a wife is always under the order and disposal of her husband. However, would this dharma apply even after Yudhishthira lost himself to Duryodhana?

This question is indeed difficult to answer. If the answer is “no”, then it would mean that Yudhishthira uttered a lie by mistakenly putting Draupadi as a stake. If the answer is “yes”, then it would mean that Yudhishthira put Draupadi into harm, instead of protecting her in the role of a husband.

This dilemma is only answered by two persons: Vidura and Vikarna. Vidura is a great personality and an embodiment of Dharma. Therefore, he never fails to warn and advice whenever necessary, despite many objections to him speaking out. Vidura firstly warns Dhritarashtra about Duryodhana’s intentions and advises the King to abandon Duryodhana. He further advises the King to embrace Pandavas, as inviting their anger will only cause war in the end. Vidura censures Duryodhana and is quick to pass his judgement. He says,

“In my judgement, slavery does not attach to Krishna, in as much as she was staked by the King after he had lost himself and ceased to be his own master.” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 66, Verse 4)

He says this even before Draupadi is forcefully dragging into the gambling hall. He is well aware that his words would be futile. If all the members in the hall were to raise their voices and show their disagreement with Duryodhana, then adharma (unrighteousness) could be won over. This is why Vidura urges the members of the hall to answer Draupadi’s question:

“Knowing the rules of morality, and having attended an assembly, he that doth not answer a query that is put, incurreth half the demerit that attacheth to a lie.” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 68, Verse 63)

However, the assembly was still silent out of fear of Duryodhana and the Kauravas.

When the arguments in the assembly had reached dangerously new heights, and when Bhima had announced his vow to break Duryodhana’s thigh, Vidura could not take it any longer. As a minister, his duty was to protect the kingdom. Being a righteous person, he quickly rose to pronounce the judgement on Draupadi’s question once again:

“If Yudhishthira had staked her before he was himself won, he would certainly have been regarded as her master. If, however a person staketh anything at a time when he himself is incapable of holding any wealth, to win it is very like obtaining wealth in a dream.” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 71, Verse 12)

Vidura, devoid of any emotion, is speaking only truths that seem disagreeable to the Kauravas. Yet, Vidura does not give up. He continues speaking those disagreeable words because it is Dharma. Vidura is a fine example of how Dharma should be protected. Even if what one is doing in a righteous manner is not bearing fruit, having known that what one doing is Dharma, one should be satisfied.

Vikarna, the youngest brother of Duryodhana, has to be applauded for his boldness in the hall because he knows that this will bring upon the wrath of his brothers. While all the other elders like Drona, Kripa and the rest in the hall were quiet in fear of Duryodhana and in fear of losing their respect, a young man like Vikarna was brave enough to stand up and make a resolution.

Vikarna gives three reasons for qualifying Draupadi as not being won by the Kauravas. Firstly, Yudhishthira was engrossed in the gambling match and thus, Dharma has been forsaken. He says that,

“Ye foremost of men, it hath been said that hunting, drinking, gambling, and too much enjoyment of women, are the four vices of kings. The man, that is addicted to these, liveth forsaking virtue.” – (Dyuta Parva, Chapter 68, Verse 20)

Secondly, Draupadi is the common wife of all five brothers and does not just belong to Yudhishthira alone. Lastly, according to Vikarna, Yudhishthira first lost himself before he put Draupadi as a stake, and that too only when prompted by Shakuni. In essence, Vikarna is saying that Yudhishthira was not in the right frame of mind to think about Dharma while gambling and therefore, it is not right to say that Draupadi has been won.

As we have seen earlier, Draupadi is a courageous woman. Imagine if she had not stood up for herself in the assembly. She and the Pandava brothers would have remained as slaves forever, if not for her courage and her ability to discern the situation of Dharma sankata even in that state. Any other woman in her place would have simply accepted her fate and moved on. But it was Draupadi’s wit that saved the day. Women like her who stand up against adharma need not be ashamed of the harassment they were subjected to, instead they should be praised and epitomized.

We can speculate that Draupadi herself knew the answer to the question that she was asking the assembly. With her words we can decipher that she believes that Yudhishthira was not his own lord while he put Draupadi at stake, therefore, she is not a slave. Vidura and Vikarna confirmed this openly. Draupadi herself confirmed this indirectly, when she said what she wanted for the two boons offered to her by Dhrdhirashthira. For the first boon she asked for the release of Yudhishthira from his slavery and for the second one she asked for the release of the rest of the Pandava brothers. While Dhrdhirashthira offered her a third boon, she did not want anything else. If she had believed herself to have been won over successfully, she would also have asked to release her from the bond of slavery. Since she did not ask for it, we can speculate that Draupadi did not consider herself as a slave for the Kauravas.

Krishna had not been in Dwaraka when Yudhishthira was invited for the gambling match as he had gone to fight a war. When the Pandavas accepted exile for failing in the gambling match, Krishna visited them in the forest where they were taking residence. It was during that time that Krishna assures them of the justice that will prevail. He tells Draupadi that all the women in Hastinapura would have to answer her tears through their own tears, when the men in their family perish during the war. He also tells the Pandavas that had he been in Dwaraka while the invite was issued, he would not have let Yudhishthira go. However, Krishna was absent in that crucial moment. As a result, the whole incident paved the way to the great war, which is the subject matter of the whole of Mahabharatha.

The modern woman’s plight is somewhat similar to Draupadi’s plight at the gambling match. While women (or men) don’t really belong to anyone else, we are often objectified as someone’s property. This happens both consciously and subconsciously. As a result, danger will follow no matter where we go, what we do and how we look like. It is no use to expect a knight in shining armour to come for our rescue. There will be some noble knights (like Vidura and Vikarna) who will come to our rescue, and there will also be silent spectators (like Drona and Bhishma). No matter what, we have to take matters in our own hands and it is always better not to rely on others. This is what we can learn from Draupadi.