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Hinduism or “Sanatana Dharma” as per the Mahābhārata

STATUS: Incomplete draft

“Hindu” and “Hinduism” are names given by invaders (Islamic and British) to the indigenous Vedic-Dharmic religion of India. However, we call ourselves as followers (not “believers”) of the Vedic “Sanātana Dharma” or eternal religion. Yet, there is a lack of clarity on what exactly are these “eternal” principles that we’re professing. Hence, in this article, I will sketch a definition of “Sanātana Dharma” with quotes from the Mahābhārata itself.

Why Mahābhārata?

Why Mahābhārata? Because it an itihāsa (“history”) founded on the Vedas. It is well-known that the Vedas themselves call the Itihāsas as the “fifth Veda” (e.g. Sāma Veda Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7/1/2). Itihāsas and Purāṇas are declared as authoritative in the Vedic literature:

Conversely, the Mabhābhārata calls itself as “itihāsa” (BORI 1/1/52, 1/56/18 etc.) and as the “fifth Veda” (BORI 1/57/74, 5/43/23, 12/327/18 etc). Thus the Mabhābhārata is rooted in the Vedas.

Freedom to Roam – “Everyman’s Rights”

When Arjuna wanders into the forest near the river Bhāgīrathī Gaṅgā, a gandharva reprimands him saying that the time is unsuitable for a human’s visit. However, Arjuna objects:

asaṃbādhā dēvanadī svargasaṃpādanī ṡubhā
katham icchasi tāṃ rōddhuṃ naiṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ 1/158/20

“[Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa has said that] this divine and pure river, which can take one to heaven is accessible to everyone. How can you bar access? That is not in accordance with Sanātana Dharma.”

Arjuna is arguing that he has the right to roam in Nature even if it is someone else’s private property. This is similar to “Everyman’s Rights” in the Nordic countries.

Polyandry of Draupadi

A dilemma arises when Kunti Mahārāṇi mistakenly asks her five sons, the Pāṇḍavas, to “split” the wife Draupadi amongst themselves. So they approach Bhagavān Vēda Vyāsa to enquire if it is in accordance with Sanātana Dharma. And Vyāsa replies:

vyāsa uvāca
anṛtān mōkṣyasē bhadrē dharmaṡ caiṣa sanātanaḥ
na tu vakṣyāmi sarvēṣāṃ pān̄cāla ṡṛṇu mē svayam 1/188/18
yathāyaṃ vihitō dharmō yataṡ cāyaṃ sanātanaḥ
yathā ca prāha kauntēyas tathā dharmō na saṃṡayaḥ 1/188/19

It is an interesting question that cannot be reduced to a single “yes” or “no”. Vyāsa narrates the story of how Draupadī, being an aṃṡa of Ṡrī (Ṡacīdēvī?), in her previous births had desired to marry these five men and hence it is not a sin. The answer is found two chapters (190) later, where King Drupada concedes: “I cannot act against what has been ordained. I wish to act as you have said. The knot tied by destiny cannot be untied. There is nothing that results from our own actions. God Himself knows what is best. Since Ṡankara has ordained it to be dharma or adharma, I will commit no sin.”

Women shouldn’t be dragged to an assembly hall

As obvious as this is, Queen Draupadī says:

dharmyāḥ striyaḥ sabhāṃ pūrvaṃ na nayantīti naḥ ṡrutam
sa naṣṭaḥ kauravēyēṣu pūrvō dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ 2/62/9
kathaṃ hi bhāryā pāṇḍūnāṃ pārṣatasya svasā satī

“Earlier, it has been heard that pure and chaste wives are not brought into the middle of a sabha. Where is the dharma of the lords of the earth? According to dharma, it has earlier been heard that wives are not brought into an assembly hall. That earlier sanātana dharma has been lost among the Kauravas.”