Critical Podium Dewanand Religion
The Power of the Word by Frank Morales
Sacrificer Frank Morales
Sacrifice code wfor0365
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
The Power of the Word
by Frank Morales
Dear Vedic Friends,
Namaste, and please find the latest edition of the Vedic Friends Association
Journal. In this issue I am sending the latest article by Frank Morales,
a VFA member and noted writer and scholar on the Vedic tradition. This
is another of his timely and insightful articles, this time on the power
of the words we use when discussing and conveying the philosophy of Sanatana-dharma.
We often do not understand or properly consider the audience we are addressing
and the effect that the words we use have on them and their impression
of the Vedic tradition. We need to be aware of our choices in this respect.
And this article will make that quite clear. I hope you will like it.
Hari om and Hari bol,
Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa)
The Power of the Word
by Frank Morales
The inherent power of the word is a phenomenon that has been both omnipresent
and essential throughout the long histories of literature, philosophy,
religion and politics. The power of words has always been recognized for
both its potentially constructive, as well as its devastatingly destructive,
force. In the Vedic era, the potency of shabda (or the Divine Word) was
lauded for its soteriological, liberating properties, as well as for its
role as a means of epistemic insight into the nature of the Absolute.
The word both liberated and revealed - and both of these functions were
accomplished via mantra, sound frequencies precisely sequenced in such
patterns as to most optimally utilize the inherent shakti - or potency
- of sound resonance. The Divine Word in the form of mantra could heal
illness, relieve suffering and deliver freedom. Many millennia later,
borrowing from the much earlier Hindu concept of shabda, we find somewhat
similar parallels duplicated in the Biblical literature, in which the
Word is seen as being ontologically non-differentiated from the natura
esse, or essential nature, of God. "In the beginning was the Word",
the Gospel of John assures us, "and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God." Thus the power of the word has been attested to in
the history of India, as well as the West.
The converse side of the positive power of words is seen in the destructive
employment of words used, not to convey truth or to heal, but to obscure
and deconstruct reality. Whether we speak of the sinister slogans of the
Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels or the rabidly dishonest propaganda ministries
of now defunct Marxist states, words have been repeatedly used with pointed
polemic accuracy throughout the long history of human discourse. Words
have always been employed by one group of individuals to control and delegitimize
the political, social, religious, and philosophical freedoms of other
groups. Academia has, unfortunately, been far from free of the use of
such ideologically charged - even if infinitely more subtle - polemic
terminology. For the last hundred years, if not arguably longer, the hallowed
pronouncements of ideologically-driven professors and scholars have led
to widespread bigotry and stereotyping of minority groups in America.
Such biased and politically motivated scholarship has led in the last
few decades to the necessary creation of such fields as African-American
Studies, Women's Studies, Holocaust Studies, and now Anti-Hindu Defamation
Studies, as new academic movements designed to balance previously perpetrated
In the following, I will explore only a few of the more insidious terms
used specifically throughout the history of South Asian Studies and Hindu
Studies that have been traditionally used to denote various phenomena
and features of the Hindu religion. Such words have been used in the past
to obscure the factual meaning of many philosophical, theological, social
and ritual phenomena found within the Hindu context. I will proceed by
outlining 1) the commonly used terms for these phenomena, 2) the proper
Hindu view of the actual nature of these phenomena, and 3) I will offer
several alternative terminological devices that will hopefully be more
accurate indicators of the full nature and extent of these Hindu religious
Sanatana Dharma: Reclaiming Our Religion's True Name
The first two terms that we will examine are the terms usually used to
indicate the overarching spiritual/cultural matrix of traditional, indigenous
South Asian religion itself. These are the very terms "Hindu/Hinduism"
themselves. Used often as a matter of convenience even by followers of
the religion itself (including by this author), the term "Hindu"
is not a term that is inherent to the religion itself. Rather, the term
is known to have been first coined by the ancient Persians, who were culturally,
religiously, and perspectivally extrinsic to the culture. The term was
first used by these ancient Persians in order to conveniently designate
the ancient Vedic spiritual culture, and was mistakenly used to refer
to the Vedic religion as primarily a geographic and ethnic phenomenon,
more than as a religio-philosophical world-view. To the ancient Persians,
the word "Hindu" simply referred to the culture, people, religion
and practices of the peoples who lived on the other side of the Sindhu
River. In the ancient Avestan Persian language 's' grammatically became
'h'. Thus, the Persians pronounced the name of this river "Hindhu",
rather than "Sindhu". Thus, ironically, the currently used word
"Hindu" is itself a corruption of the Persian word "Hindhu",
which is in turn a corruption of the term "Sindhu", which is
itself only referring to a river, and not a religion! Thus when the word
"Hindu" is used today to refer to the ancient religion of India,
the term is in actuality a corruption of a corruption of a word whose
meaning is irrelevant to begin with.
The terms "Hindu/Hinduism" are not self-referential terms that
the practitioners of the Vedic world-view chose for themselves or called
themselves. These words are not attested to in any of the ancient Vedic
or Classical Sanskrit literatures, or even in any of the many local dialects
of ancient India until the medieval era. One will not find the term "Hindu"
used to describe the Vedic religion in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the
Puranas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or anywhere else in the Vedic
scriptures. The word "Hindu" is not intrinsic to the religion
of the Vedas at all. It was not, in fact, until as late as the 19th century,
under the colonial rule of the British Raj, that these dual terms even
acquired any legal significance on a national scale in India.
The actual term that the Vedic tradition uses to refer to itself is "Dharma".
The word Dharma is found repeatedly throughout the entire corpus of the
Vedic scriptures, from the Rg Veda to the Bhagavad Gita. There is almost
no scripture in the entirety of Hinduism where one will not come across
the word Dharma as the preeminent name of the religion in question. Sometimes
the word Dharma is used by itself; at other times it is used in conjunction
with other qualifying words, such as "Vaidika Dharma" (Vedic
Dharma), "Vishva Dharma" (Global Dharma), or "Sanatana
Dharma" (the Eternal Dharma). The diversity of adjectival emphasis
will vary in accordance with the precise context in which the word is
used. Of these terms, the name "Sanatana Dharma" has been the
most widely used name of this ancient religion, and is used as far back
as the Rg Veda, the very earliest scripture of Hinduism, and the earliest
written text known to humanity. It is also the most philosophically profound
and conceptually beautiful name for our religion.
While many reading this work have no doubt encountered the term "Sanatana
Dharma" before, not every follower of Sanatana Dharma is necessarily
as familiar with the full philosophical implications of the term's meaning.
Thus it is necessary to explicate the term's full meaning in depth. The
Sanskrit word "sanatana" is the easier of the words to translate
into non-Sanskrit languages. It denotes that which always is, that which
has neither beginning nor end, that which is eternal in its very essence.
The concept of eternality that the word "sanatana" is trying
to convey is a radically different concept than is ordinarily understood
in the Western Abrahamic religions. When the religions of Judaism, Christianity
and Islam employ the concept of eternality, it usually means that x thing,
having come into being, will never come to an end. In other words, "eternal"
for the Abrahamic religions, usually refers only to the future. A more
accurate term for this Abrahamic concept is thus "everlasting",
rather than "eternal" proper.
In Sanatana Dharma, however, the concept of eternality denotes something
quite different from the standard Western notion. In this more expansive
and bi-directional model, the concept of sanatana extends not only into
the infinite recesses of the future, but into the past as well. By referring
to something as "sanatana", the idea is that not only will it
never come to an end, but it has always had necessary existence. Thus,
God (Brahman), the individual self (atman), prime materiality (jagat or
prakriti), Truth (satya), the Veda (Truth rendered into literary form),
and Dharma itself all have necessary existence. They always have been
- and they shall always be.
The Metaphysics of Dharma
Unlike the word "sanatana", the term ''dharma" is a term
that can be properly rendered into the English language only with the
greatest of difficulty. This is the case because there is no one corresponding
English term that fully renders both the denotative and the connotative
meanings of the term with maximal sufficiency. Rather than merely communicating
a nominal subject for which there can be an easy word for word equivalency,
dharma is communicating a metaphysical concept. The denotative meaning
of "dharma" straightforwardly designates an essential attribute
of x object - an attribute whose absence renders the object devoid of
either rational meaning or existential significance. A thing's dharma
is what constitutes the thing's very essence, without which, the very
concept of the thing would be rendered meaningless. To illustrate the
full meaning of this term, we can use the following examples: It is the
dharma of water to be wet. Without the essential attribute (dharma) of
wetness, the concept and existential fact of water loses all meaning.
Likewise, it is the dharma of fire to be hot, the dharma of space to be
expansive, etc. The denotative meaning of dharma is easy enough to comprehend.
It is, however, when we come to the connotative meaning of the term "dharma"
that we then leave the more microcosmic concerns of Vaisesika categoriology
behind, and then enter the realm of the overtly philosophical.
For, according to the Vedic tradition itself, the very empirical cosmos
in which we find ourselves currently situated also has its own inherent
dharma, its essential attributive nature, without which the universe becomes
meaningless. In this more macro-cosmological sense, the term dharma is
designed to communicate the view that there is an underlying structure
of natural law that is inherent in the very intrinsic constitution of
Being itself. The Vedic world-view sees the universe as a place that has
inherent meaning, purpose and an intelligent design underlying its physical
principles and laws. The world is here for a purpose - God's purpose.
The word Dharma, in this more important philosophical sense, refers to
those underlying natural principles that are inherent in the very structure
of reality, and that have their origin in God. Dharma is Natural Law.
Thus, if we needed to render the entire term "Sanatana Dharma"
into English, we can cautiously translate it as "The Eternal Natural
Way". Sanatana Dharma is the true name of our religion.
The term "Sanatana Dharma" more accurately communicates the
axiomatic metaphysical nature of this concept than do the less meaningful
and concocted terms "Hindu/Hinduism". Thus, when the terms "Hindu/Hinduism"
are repeatedly used by both Euro-American and Indian scholars, as well
as by actual followers of this eternal spiritual tradition, we fall very
far short from fully communicating the metaphysical, ethical and ontological
components of the world-view of Sanatana Dharma. The former term - i.e.,
"Hinduism" - is a word mistakenly created to describe a culture
in a purely ethnic, national and social context. The latter - "Sanatana
Dharma" - is describing an illustrious science of Being in a purely
philosophical - and therefore highly rational, and inherently beautiful
- sense. It is understandable that the terms "Hindu/Hinduism"
will continue to be used periodically as a matter of convenience. After
all, it takes time, coupled with continuous education, for people to break
themselves of a two hundred year old habit. For the sake of accuracy,
as well as to uphold the dignity, beauty and grandeur of our ancient and
sacred religion, however, we must always do our utmost to use the much
more meaningful, linguistically correct and beautiful name Sanatana Dharma
when referring to our religion. Our religion is Sanatana Dharma.
Having examined the problematic issues of a very broad term that has
been misapplied in the discussion of Vedic religion, I will now briefly
examine several more specific terms that have been misemployed in the
history of the study of Sanatana Dharma. The first of these more specialized
polemically charged words is the term "idol". This word has
been repeatedly used by purported scholars of Sanatana Dharma (both Euro-American,
as well as Indian scholars) in their study of our religion. Even more
disturbing, however, is the fact that the derogatory term "idol"
has been continuously and unthinkingly used by even religious Hindus,
as well as by supposedly intelligent Hindu leaders, to this very day.
At least once a month, for example, I get notices from various Hindu temples
inviting me to "idol" installations, pujas to the "idol",
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Hindus, the term "idol"
is not an innocently neutral term meant only to signify the objective
reality of a religious statue or some other focal point used as a means
of meditation upon the Divine. In actuality, it is a term that is historically
and theologically devoid of any positive connotations. It is a word that
is purely negative in meaning. First arising from a purely Christian/Islamic
religious and cultural context, the theologically derived terms "Idol/Idolatry"
were quite clearly designed by the creators of the Abrahamic religions
to signify the misguided worship of the graven images of fictitious gods.
By its very definition, the word "idol" means an image of a
false god. In the Old Testament, idol worshippers are repeatedly condemned
to death. In the Koran, the worshipers of idols are relegated to the category
of the demonic. This theological baggage attendant upon the word "idol"
was later naturally imported into the nascent field of indology by the
18th and 19th century European founders of modern Vedic studies. Thus,
over time, what originated as a purely religious term, specifically meant
to designate a false practice and erroneous theological view, progressed
to being accepted as an academic term meant to describe the practices
and views of a "foreign" religion. In turn, tragically, the
greater Hindu community has itself now unknowingly embraced this term
as a legitimate word meant to convey one of the most sacred and integral
mechanisms of Hindu worship.
Unfortunately, when a Christian theologian, a Muslim cleric, or a colonialist-tempered
scholar is using the term "idol", they are interpreting the
specific religious phenomenon of murti-puja in a radically different manner
than is the typical Hindu worshipper. For the Christian and Muslim, murti-puja
is nothing more than the demonic worship of abominable graven images.
For the atheist academician, it is merely an instance of primitive superstition,
worthy of no more consideration than any other intriguing object of anthropological
study. Consequently, each and every time we foolishly call our sacred
images "idols", we are actually insulting the divinities we
are claiming to worship, and proclaiming to the world that we are worshipping
For those scholars who have allowed themselves to develop a more sophisticated
and objective understanding of the phenomenon of murti-puja- that is one
that arises from a Hindu, and thus an insider, perspective - it becomes
rather apparent that the practice that is occurring via the process of
murti-puja (or what is sometimes called archa-puja) is something radically
distinct from the stereotyped image of idol worship that is dishonestly
painted by rabidly iconoclastic ideologies. Followers of Sanatana Dharma
are not blindly worshipping false idols, but are using divine images whose
forms have been revealed via the non-mediated intuitive perception of
the Absolute experienced by the rishis (the enlightened saints and sages
of Sanatana Dharma). Moreover, such images are used primarily as focal
points designed as aids to meditative awareness. Archa-puja is not a superstition,
a form of primitive magical fetishism, or a concocted form of worship,
but rather a tried and tested soteriological and meditative device. This
being the case, I urge both scholars of Hindu Studies, as well as everyday
practitioners of Sanatana Dharma, to refrain from using the derogatory
term "idol" and to instead use one of the more culturally sensitive,
and more academically accurate terms that are used by the tradition itself.
Such terms include: murti, archa, etc. Take your pick.
Is Sanatana Dharma Predicated upon Lies?
The next term that we will examine is the word "myth" as used
to describe the sacred stories of Sanatana Dharma. The related terms "myth",
"mythology", "mythological", etc., have had an interesting
history and a very pointed polemic use in Euro-American discourse on Sanatana
Dharma. That the terms are rife with very negative connotations is doubted
by very few. The way the terms are used today both within academia, as
well as by the general public, is to denote something that is untrue,
false, a lie, "primitive" (i.e., not Euro-American). Several
months ago, during a visit to the dentist's office, I saw a pamphlet on
the table called "The Myths About Sexually Transmitted Diseases".
The ultimate question that all Hindus need to ask ourselves is: is it
really of any intellectual necessity that such a powerfully negative term
as "myth" also be associated with the sacred stories, teachings
and history of Sanatana Dharma?
Polemically speaking, one culture's "myth" is another culture's
sacred history...and vice versa. The academic field of the study of "mythological"
literature was founded by 18th century European Classicists who took their
simplistic misconceptions about their own Greco-Roman, pre-Christian religious
and cultural heritage, and attempted to then graft these misconceptions
onto all contemporary non-Christian cultures - including that of India.
These founders of "mythology" studies - including such individuals
as Sir George Grey, Rudolph Otto and Karl Kerenyi - were convinced, as
is unarguably evident in their writings, that the entire realm of religious
story could be clearly demarcated into two radically distinct camps: Myth
1) The first category is "Myth" proper, that is: the "primitive"
stories about gods, goddesses, spirits, demons, magic and mysticism, etc.
found throughout all of the indigenous, pre-Christian, and non-Biblical
cultures of the world. Such stories are all considered to be certainly
no more than the ignorant "pre-scientific" attempts of primitive
peoples (their words, not mine) to come to terms with and explain such
frightening mysteries as natural weather phenomena (the stereotypical
scenario offered by these atheistic scholars is that the inexplicable
spectacle of lightning and thunder left our ancestors trembling in worshipful
fear!). The study of such woefully mythologically ridden cultures was
then relegated by these supposed mythology authorities to the nascent
fields of anthropology, folk-lore studies, ethnic studies, and art history
studies. The "myths" of all non-Judeo-Christian cultures were
thus falsely portrayed as being archaic, primitive, and not worthy of
serious scholarly study.
2) The second category that religious stories were placed in was termed
"History", that is: Biblical literature and all supposedly factual
accounts of events proceeding such literature to be found throughout the
history of Europe and the post-Columbian Americas. Whereas stories about
Rama as the Dharma-raja (Dharmic King) of Ayodhya were considered quaint
heroic myths, for example, stories of Moses parting the Red Sea were accepted
as being thoroughly historical - this, though there is more archeological
and textual evidence for the former than for the latter being actual historical
facts. In order to study these supposed historical facts about Judeo-Christian
culture, Euro-American scholars employed a very different battery of academic
disciplines entirely, including philosophical, ethical, literary, psychological,
etc. The only overlapping exception to this biased division of study is
the field of philology, which was employed to research both the glorious
history of Europe, as well as the primitive utterings of the Rg Veda.
Apparently, only the "history" of Western man is a worthy enough
subject for liberal arts study, philosophical consideration, and serious
There is the wonderful saying that we have all encountered that assures
us that "history" is written by the victors. Consequently, the
mostly improvable stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, Abraham,
Moses, the Judges, David, etc. are unquestioningly accepted by most European
historians - and tragically by many Indian historians! - as being incontrovertible
and established fact. This, even though the evidence for these supposed
historical facts are in many cases no stronger, or even less so, than
the evidence supporting the historicity of the ancient stories of Sanatana
Dharma. What these Western scholars and their Westernized Indian counterparts
called the "mythical" Sarasvati River, for example, was later
discovered to be a concrete geological fact in our century by no less
empirical evidence than satellite photography. Krishna's "mythological"
city of Dvaraka was, likewise, impertinently discovered off the coast
of Gujarat about three decades ago (anyone out there have a crane?). The
supposed myths of the Shastras seem to have the incorrigible habit of
consistently allowing themselves to be proven factual.
Despite these hard geological and archeological facts, the histories
of the Puranas and Itihasas are - unlike the stories of the Bible - summarily
relegated by modern Euro-American scholars to the misty realm of myth.
Or more bluntly: to the realm of primitive fables. If we would venture
to speculate that what has brought this stark double standard about has
been nothing less than European xenophobia and intellectual colonialism,
coupled with a very strong element of Hindu inferiority complex, we would
not be far from the mark. The terms "myth", "mythology",
"mythological", etc., have been used as a powerful weapon for
decades in order to delegitimize the world-view of Sanatana Dharma, as
well as the Hindu and Indian way of life.
Whether such unscholarly use of these otherwise legitimate terms will
be allowed to continue as a weapon against the sacred stories of Vedic
culture, or whether the use of such terms will be relegated to the same
dust-bin of other such derogatory terms, is up to the will of the global
Hindu community. We ourselves, as Hindus, need to stop using derogatory
terms to describe the beliefs and elements of our religion. Such terms
as "myth" should be absolutely anathema to every sincere and
self-respecting Hindu when speaking about the sacred stories of Sanatana
Dharma. If we ourselves don't have the determination to describe our own
religion in legitimate and positive terms, how can we expect anyone else
As a more positive alternative to these terms, I propose that scholars
who study the religions of South Asia approach their purported object
of research in a similar manner as do scholars who study many other formally
oppressed non-Christian cultures (such as those who study Native American
tribes). In these fields the religious stories of the subjects under study
are often referred to by the more culturally sensitive term "Sacred
Stories". I propose that we scholars of Hindu Studies owe the Hindu
world no less respect. We need to begin referring to the stories of the
Hindu scriptures as Sacred Stories, or divya katha in Sanskrit. We can
later, as informed persons, debate over the actual meaning of these stories
- whether they are literal history - which in many cases they very clearly
are - or are meant to be taken allegorically or metaphorically. Let us
all, in any case be in agreement that these Sacred Stories of Sanatana
Dharma must never again be degraded by terming them "myth".
The perennial use of politically surcharged words to stifle the aspirations
of a people, to deflect the actual meaning of an action or concept, and
to otherwise keep a people subservient to the dominant cultural mainstream
is nothing new. Additionally, it is not new that the very people who have
been the direct victims of such propagandistic terminology will inevitably
come to adopt such terms in self-referential ways. We have the case of
the Ethiopian Jews, for example, who for hundreds of years were termed
"Falashas" - an incredibly derogatory term in the Ethiopian
language- by those who persecuted them. After hundreds of years of such
persistent persecution, sadly, the Jews of Ethiopia even began to refer
to themselves as the "Falasha" community. If a people are called
inferior for long enough a period of time, eventually that population
group will start to call themselves inferior as well. Such instances of
the victims adopting the polemic terminology of their oppressors have
been witnessed repeatedly over the long course of human history - among
the Jews, Native Americans, European Pagans, and Gypsies (Romani). Now
the Hindu community has joined their ranks.
Consequently, the use of inaccurate, and often consciously and maliciously
distorted, terminology has been a double-edged source of oppressive discourse.
The use of such terms has been made use of by an intellectually lethargic
tradition of South Asian scholars who view the religion of Sanatana Dharma,
not as the noble living tradition that it is, but as their personal academic
plaything. On the other hand, Hindus themselves have then blindly accepted
these non-indigenous and inaccurate terms, and unknowingly adopted them
as their own. Thus, while the bulk of the blame must be placed squarely
on the shoulders of the oppressors, the victims too need to free themselves
of a colonialist-induced mentality of inferiority and acceptance of their
oppression. It is my fervent hope that we followers of Sanatana Dharma
will stop using the terminology of our antagonists to describe our religion.
We must begin to call our religion by its true name: Sanatana Dharma.
We must never use the words "idol" and "mythology"
to describe our murtis and sacred stories again. We must reclaim our heritage.
Such positive change might come about slowly, one person at a time. Every
revolution, however, begins with thoroughly grasping the power of the
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