Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism are NOT the same thing
And while I am ready to accept that modern usage doesn’t always honour meanings of words, and indeed, changes meanings of words, I tend to agree with our ancient Grammarians that while the speech of clarity brings blessings and prosperity, misleading speech (such as that of our politicians & advertisers) does not. Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism are not the same. Far from it. My purpose here is neither to define Sanatan Dharma nor Hinduism, but to demonstrate a clear difference in meaning.
I often read that the translation the traditional Hindu might provide for Hinduism would be Sanatan Dharma, or that the traditional Hindu expression Sanatan Dharma could be translated as Hinduism.
The word Hinduism is often used today, both inside and outside of India, as more of an identifier of the indigenous religion of India and even I use it for the sake of simplicity and economy of expression. But let’s consider for a moment the difference between the words, with a bit of history, and in terms of the metaphysics of the words themselves.
It’s the suffix ism attached to the word Hindu that catches my eye. As all English Language speakers instinctively know as part of their meta-language is that ism signifies a particular and somewhat singular idea or belief. Communism, vegetarianism, pacifism, consumerism, ethnocentrism. All these words lead back to believing or following a particular idea.
The word Hindu has been used meaning Indian, until the suffix ism was attached by the British in the 19th century. Almost immediately, the West shifted the meaning of Hindu away from it geographical identity and towards a particular and singular religious identity, which in the post-enlightenment West meant a belief, a doctrine. Even the Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid in Delhi has described how he was registered at the gate of Mecca during his Haj as a Hindu Muslim, not for a second considering the word Hindu to be anything other than a geographical signifier.
So, it is reasonable for anyone speaking English to conclude that Hinduism is the “belief” of the Indians, and it would be reasonable for a non-Hindu or non-Indian to ask a Hindu, “What do you Hindus believe in?”
The Sanatan Dharma, on the other hand, is not overly concerned with ideas and belief. Traditionally Sanatan Dharma signifies the dynamic sum of ALL the knowledge of ALL the diverse traditions of Bharat Mata, or Greater Hindusthan, if you will, since the beginning of time. It is not the SUBJECT of knowledge (or the means by which it may be obtained – as in an ism), but the OBJECT of knowledge. It is not something one man or woman can put their hands around, or know or master in a lifetime. There are no ideas I know of that address the Sanatan Dharma as a whole, but rather interpretations and commentaries of small parts of it. Even the word dharma is used today very largely within the framework of the European post-enlightenment category of religion, while, actually, traditional people think of dharma much in the same way modern people think of science.
The British added the ism to Hindu as a means of representing the Hindu, homogenizing, standardizing, and reducing the Hindu to a defined set of beliefs (the doctrine), defined scriptures (the text), and deity (measured against a monotheistic standard). And thus, Hinduism, as defined by the British and others (certainly with a great deal of Indian indigenous read Brahmin input), could comfortably fit within the Euro post-enlightenment categories, and on the Imperial grid of all things.
We know, on these pages, that the Hindu culture, or in these times, the Indian culture, is probably the most intellectually robust culture ever. What one would expect to find in such a culture is diversity, which is the name of Indian culture today as it was thousands of years ago in the time of the Rishis. The uniformity and obedience to doctrine that the monotheist religions demand has always been conspicuously absent from Hindusthan, as great thinking has always been marked by great debates and commentaries, and oral tradition has avoided the rigid limitations and authority of the printed text. Shastra, of course, does not refer to a limited text, nor a printed text, even if a printed text may be included in Shastra. Shastra and most, if not all, sacred texts and Hindu scripture in the traditions of the Sanatan Dharma come from Oral Tradition.
There is no uniform belief, doctrine, or set of beliefs that all Hindus accept. This is completely obvious. There is no ism; it was invented for the purposes of empire. The Sanatan Dharma addresses this nature of diversity constituting the whole.
OM PURNAMADAH PURNAMIDAM
PURNAT PURNAM UDACHYATE
That is Whole – this is Whole
The Whole comes out of the Whole
If the Whole is subtracted from the Whole
Still the Whole remains…
I also address this topic in my autobiographical novel, Autobiography of a Sadhu, an Angrez among Naga Babas.