Śrīmathē śatakōpāya namaḥ
Śrīmathē rāmānujāya namaḥ
Śrīmath varavaramunayē namaḥ
Śrī vānāchala mahāmunayē namaḥ
A problem so many Western converts to Sanātana Dharma (Hinduism) have is that outsiders like parents, relatives and colleagues – and in fact they themselves in dark hours of doubt – view their faith as very exotic for a person from the West.
On the surface, this is understandable. The whole expression of Sanātana Dharma as we find it today is deeply infused by the situation in India – by the plants, the weather, the geography – in every conceivable way. Here are two obvious examples:
- In the Bhagavad Gītā, Kṛṣna describes his glories with many comparisons. He says that amongst the months, he is Mārgaḻi (Tamiḻ) Māgaśīra (Sanskrit). This is mid-December to mid-January. For a person living in India, this makes perfect sense. This time has moderate temperatures and many celebrations – it’s the the most auspicious time of the year! A person from Northern Europe or Russia will not see this time as very attractive. It’s very dark, with 5-7 hours of daylight, nothing grows and the sky is usually grey and cloudy.
- Viṣṇu and his Avatars are blue as a rain cloud because rain has a very positive, graceful conotation in dry areas like India. Again, for a North European, this is not very intuitive – about half of the year is cold and wet for him anyway, no need for rain clouds!
So, for a person growing up outside of India, fully embracing Sanātana Dharma requires to a certain degree a reframing of the concepts he finds in Sanātana Dharma as lived in India – as he needs to make it fit to his environment.
In this respect, many seekers miss something very very helpful: They are not aware that Sanātana Dharma has already been in the West!
To see this, consider that Northern Germany, the area where the author lives, was christianized with threats and persuation around 1100 – 1200 years ago. The oldest settlements here are from the Neolithic period, so for some 10k years, the people living here were „pagans“. It is documented that Christianity initially failed to attract people. They went to church to avoid punishment but still worshiped their old gods in private. To make sure people don’t fully go back to their old pagan ways, many elements of the pagan religion were taken over into Christianity, while at the same time many traces of the „before“ were thoroughly erased.
Why is this important? Because that pagan religion was at least a cousin of Sanātana Dharma as we find it preserved in India today!
The elements imported into Christianity were rightly identified as pagan by the Lutherans. So, we don’t find them in the many branches of Lutheran Christianity, but we still find them in Catholicism – the „old“ variant of the Christian faith. So a simple equation would be
Catholicism – Lutheran Christianity = many elements we still find in Sanātana Dharma.
A few months ago, the author went for a walk in an old Catholic village in the middle of Germany. Below are some impressions from wayside shrines that reminded him on this old heritage hidden in the Catholic faith.
More Detailed Comparisons
If we look at the minute details of Catholic practises, the link to practises in Sanātana Dharma is becoming ever more obvious:
In Catholicism, there is the old (and often dying) custom of processions. Usually, all four directions are covered during the year. As visible below, the sacramental bread is carried under a canopy during the procession. Note that in Catholic Christianity, the sacremental bread is considered to be the actual flesh of Christ, not just a symbol as in Lutheran theology. So, the priest is carrying Christ during the procession, accordings to Catholics!
We find a very similar practise in India. There, the movable deity from a temple, a proper form of Bhagavan, is carried under a canopy around the temple.
In India, horns are blown at the procession. In Europe, processions are usually accompanied by brass bands. Both in India and in many Catholic areas, there is the custom to create rich decorations with flowers, drawings and flags where the procession passes by.
Each Catholic church has a pot of „holy water“ close to the entrance. People entering the church are requested to make the gesture of a cross with that water for purification. During some services, the priest is additionally sprinkeling „holy water“ on the assembly for purification.
The sprinkling of water for purification is also well known in Sanātana Dharma. There, it is used to purify the utensils used during worship and to bath deities. This water is collected and consumed for purification.
Use of incents
Both in Catholic services and in many rituals in Sanātana Dharma, incense is used.
It is well known that Christian churches have bells to call believers to the service. At the climax of a Catholic service – the „change“, where the sacred bread becomes the flesh of Christ – small bells are rung within the church as well as the main bells in the church tower
At the most important points of deity worship (Puja) in Sanātana Dharma, a bell is rung, too. When food is presented to the deities, some temples ring large, mounted bells.
The standard layout of a North European Catholic church is that the main entrance is in the West and the sanctum is the in East. While Indian temples do not generally share this orientation, churches and temples share another feature: The tower of a North European Catholic church is over the main entrance (churches in Italy and Spain sometimes have different layouts). Similarly, the Gopuram of an Indian temple is the highest temple tower and is the main entrance of the temple.
The author’s grandmother was a devout Catholic. When she lost something, she prayed to St. Anthony in order to find it. When old farmers were seeking good weather for harvest, they prayed to St. John and Paul, saints who were said to be in charge of the weather. Old bridges in Chatholic regions are often accompanied by a figurine of St. Nepumuk, who is reponsible for briges. And there are many more saints who were prayed to for specific topics.
Sounds familiar, right? Indeed, Catholic saints are the functional equivalent to Devas in Sanātana Dharma! In case of St. Nepumuk, even the name reminds on the name of the Godess of fertiliy and rivers he replaced: Nerpus – but maybe that’s just a coincidence.
The mother goddess
We Śrī Vaiṣṇavas worship divine mother Mahalakṣmī, who is inseparable from Nārāyaṇa (hence we always say Śrīman Nārāyaṇa, where Śrīman stands for Mahalakṣmī) and is the mediatrix between him and all conscious entities (Jīvāthmās, approx Souls).
We already mentioned that Catholics have a great reverence for saints. Amongst them Mary, the mother of Christ, is revered and loved the most by many Catholics. There are many dedicated shrines and churches for Mary. Here is one such shrine / altar from south Germany:
Not only to us but also to many Lutherans, this worship of Mary seems to be a twisted variant of the worship of the mother goddess. Further proof is found when we look at Mary’s role in Catholicsism. Here is the Latin version of the second verse of „Ave Maria“, the most important prayer to Mary. Note that Latin is the reference language in Catholicism.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
The interesting part is the second part: ora pro nobis peccatoribus. „Ora“ (verb orare) means speak or pray, „pro“ means for, „nobis peccatoribus“ means us sinners.
So Mary is asked to speak, to pray to God for the Catholic! Even though this is of course never stated as theological doctrice (Catholicism is monotheistic, right?), the word „ora“ invites the believer to take his trust into the mother goddess as mediatrix and project it into Mary.
We have seen that Catholicism has numerous customs we also find in Sanātana Dharma. As mentioned, the reason for this is rather gruesome: Because people did not take up Christianity, which was forcefully imposed on them, many elements from their old religion were imported into Christianity and yielded what is now known as Catholicism.
The similarities we outlined proof that the „pagan“ religions practised in Europe were indeed relatives of Sanātana Dharma, and in our view the proof has much more force than any information on the pre-Christian era that comes to us via Roman historians.
So, when we from the West take up Sanātana Dharma as preserved on the Indian subcontinent, we should never forget that we are reconnecting with our ancient roots by doing so. While Indian culture is part of a continuum that stretches back many millenia, our roots in the ancient past of our continent were forcefully cut-off by the Christianization 1100-1200 years ago. While the insight of our Druids, Shamans and Wisemen is lost forever, the infinite grace of Śrīman Nārāyaṇa has preserved a highly refined and developed form of what they likely knew as Sanātana Dharma in Bharat, in India.
Thus, while there are indeed many things in Sanātana Dharma as we find it today that are specifically „Indian“, this must not distract us from the fact that below the surface of difference lies the unity of a universal religion practised from Spain to Japan and from Norway to Africa – the enternal natural way, Sanātana Dharma.
So, for a person from, say, Germany, a look at the fragments that come to him from the pre-Christian era is worthwile. Sometimes, he may find something that helps to bridge the gap between the local situation and statements in the texts of Sanātana Dharma.
Example: We noted above that Kṛṣṇa compares himself with the Indian month from mid-December to mid-January. In the pre-Christian era, this time was probably a festval for the godess Holda, who reminds us on our divine mother Mahalakṣmī and – coincidence or not – whose celebration is paralleled by the celebrations of Āṇdāl, avatar of Bhūdevi, which is in turn an avatar Mahalakṣmī, in India. In Europe, people barely went outside at that time because of the Wild Hunt. As the outside world did not fully belong to them during this time, people were staying inside to pray and contemplate.
So, for a pre-Christian European, Kṛṣṇa’s comparison to mid-December to mid-January would actually make a lot of sense! This time is cold and unfriendly on the outside, but very happy and contemplative within the house. Maybe modern day’s Christmas has recycled a bit of this mood.
Adiēn Mādhava Rāmānuja Dāsan