What is SANATANA DHARMA

  • By Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar
  • September 9, 2023
  • 3003 views
  • What is Sanatana Dharma esp. Dharma? What are 2 types of Dharma? Quotes of Thiruvalluvar, Rishi Jamini and Kanada. Why are Hindus always defending their tradition? Hindus need to rediscover the Essence of Sanatana Dharma. 

In the vast tapestry of human spirituality, the threads of Sanatana Dharma, also known as Hinduism, weave a rich and intricate pattern. It is a tradition that has endured for millennia, an ancient wisdom that has sustained generations, and a way of life that has guided countless souls on their spiritual journeys. Yet, in the modern world, it finds itself at crossroads, beset by misconceptions, misunderstandings, and the need to defend its very existence.

A Tragedy of Identity

The plight of the Hindus, the practitioners of Sanatana Dharma, is a reflection of the times. They stand on the precipice of history, compelled to defend every facet of their existence-be it their way of life, customs, dietary practices, religious and social rituals, holy places, or even the essence of their thought process.

The challenge arises from a world where the dominant narrative is often shaped by exclusive and dogmatic belief systems. In a world of ‘One man - One Book’, the complexities and nuances of a diverse tradition like Sanatana Dharma are often lost or misunderstood. The advocates of ‘free speech’ frequently parrot the agenda of a global network of exclusivist sects.

Defining Sanatana Dharma

To understand the essence of Sanatana Dharma, we must first grapple with the word ‘Dharma’ itself—a term that defies concise English translation. 

While it is often translated as “duty” or “religious duty”, its true meaning goes much deeper. ‘Dharma’ originates from the Sanskrit root “dhr”, signifying “to sustain” or “that which is integral to something”. In this profound tradition, there are two corresponding types of Dharma:

1. Sanatana-dharma: This encompasses duties that recognize a person's spiritual identity as the atman (soul) and are universal, applying to everyone.

2. Varnashrama-dharma: These duties are determined by an individual's material nature and are specific to their circumstances at a given time.

Sanatana-dharma transcends the temporal and mundane, representing universal and self-evident laws that stand above the transient belief systems of the world.

dhriyati lokan anena, dharati lokaṁ va - Dharma, at its core, is the unifying force that binds and sustains all aspects of existence. In essence, it can be defined as ‘that which holds’-holding together: 

The existence of this world,

The diverse variety of humanity,

The entirety of creation, from the microcosm to the macrocosm.

It is the eternal divine law set forth by the Supreme Being, a cosmic order that governs all existence. This profound law is the very foundation that upholds and nurtures the entire creation. Embracing Dharma, therefore, entails recognizing this divine law and living in harmony with it. It is through adherence to this law that well-being is bestowed upon human beings. Dharma encompasses not only outward actions but also thoughts and inner contemplations that elevate an individual's character, ultimately ensuring the preservation of all beings.

In essence, people are sustained and uplifted by the principles of Dharma. It is this sacred law that guides individuals towards eternal happiness and fulfillment.

Maharshi Jaimini, the revered author of the Purvamimamsa, elucidates Dharma as- sa hi niḥśreyasena puruṣaṁ saṁyunaktīti pratijānīmahe । tadabhidhīyate |

That which the Vedas indicate as conducive to the highest good.

According to Rishi Kanada, the visionary founder of the Vaisheshika system of philosophy, Dharma is defined, in his Vaiseshika Sutras, as that which leads to prosperity in this world (Abhyudaya) and total cessation of suffering while attaining eternal bliss hereafter (Nihshreyasa)- yato'bhyudayaniḥśreyasasiddhiḥ sa dharmaḥ.

Dharma is the foundation that sustains progress and welfare for all in this world while ensuring eternal bliss in the next. It is conveyed in the form of commands, encompassing both positive directives (vidhi) and prohibitions (nishedha). Manu, the ancient sage and lawgiver, consolidates the essence of various definitions of Dharma.

In its essence, Dharma encompasses the noble principles of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not coveting the property of others), Shaucha (purity), and Indriyanigraha (control of the senses). These universal dharmas apply to all varnas, transcending boundaries and uniting humanity in the pursuit of righteousness and spiritual elevation.

Respected Shri S N Goenka, founder of Vipassna Research Institute, says there is no difference between Dharma and Dhamma. He wrote, “The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma, which, literally, means that which upholds. The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the Doctrine of Reality.”

In book Jaina Darsana by Munisri Nyayavijayaji, translated in English by Nagin J Shah, author writes in Introduction, “Dharma means good conduct and spiritual discipline. And if one practices Dharma truly, then and then only can one attain ultimate good.” Pg. xxv

The logo of the Supreme Court of India reads, Yata Dharmastato Jayah - Where there is righteousness and moral duty (dharma), there is victory (jayah).

In a 2015 interview to Business World, Gurcharan Das, author and former head of Proctor and Gamble India said, “Dharma is a frustrating, almost untranslatable word. Duty, goodness, justice, and law have something to do with it, but they all fall short. Dharma is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing, both in the private and the public life. Dharma provides the underlying norms of society, creating obligations for citizens and rulers, and it thus brings a degree of coherence to our everyday life. What makes dharma different from notions of morality in the other traditions, such as Christianity, is that it does not seek moral perfection.”

Shiva-Shakti Rameshwaram Mandir. 2016. 

Sanatana Dharma: Beyond Religion

While the term "Dharma" is sometimes equated with "religion," it falls short of capturing the depth and breadth of Sanatana Dharma. In reality, Sanatana Dharma is more than just a religion; it is a complete civilization that has thrived in India for countless ages.

Its origins are believed to be beyond human history, rooted in divine revelation passed down through the ages in the Vedas, the most ancient of scriptures. Sanatana Dharma holds that spiritual truths are not confined to a single historical figure or text but have been divinely revealed and transmitted through a timeless lineage.

Many have taken a stance that words ‘Dharma’ or ‘Sanatana Dharma’ in Bharatiya languages, particularly Tamil, are ‘foreign’ and have no roots in Tamil Culture. This propaganda is propelled with the aim of disassociating the linguistic group from the broader Dharmic family. 

However, it is essential to note that there is a substantial body of evidence within ancient Tamil literature, including the revered Tirukkural that not only acknowledges but also upholds the validity of Vedic traditions.

Thiruvalluvar, the celebrated author of the Tirukkural, not only recognizes the sanctity of the Vedas but also attributes the greatness of individuals to their adherence to Vedic principles. He eloquently states, "The glory of Fulfilled texts uttered by Great people is shown by the Vedas." This assertion underscores the profound influence of Vedic wisdom on the spiritual and ethical fabric of Tamil culture.

Niraimohi mandhar Perumai perumai nilathu Marai mozhi kattividum” Neethar perumai, 8th Kural

For those who might question the use of the term "Marai" to refer to the Vedas in contexts beyond Tamil Bhakti Literature, it's worth noting that Tholkappiyam, the authoritative text of Tamil Grammar, also corroborates this terminology. Tholkappiyam identifies mantras as components of the Vedas, further reinforcing the deep-rooted connection between Tamil literary heritage and Vedic traditions.

Niraimozhi Mandhar anaiyirkilarndha Maraimozhi dhane Mandiram Enba

Teli ka Mandir, Gwalior Fort. 2020. 

The Psychology of Surrender

So, why do Hindus often find themselves in a position of surrender, constantly defending their tradition? There are several factors at play:

1. Quest for Inclusion: Some Hindus seek admission to the exclusive club of monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam. They attempt to convince the adherents of these religions that the Rigveda, the earliest Hindu scripture, supports the same core principles as monotheism, albeit through a different lens.

2. Apologetic Tone: Modern Hindus often present Hinduism as an alternative expression of the same truths found in monotheistic faiths, essentially saying, "Our way is just a different way to state your truths." This approach, marked by apology and defense, fails to capture the essence of Sanatana Dharma.

3. Borrowed Concepts: Hinduism's spokespersons sometimes borrow concepts and terminology from monotheism when presenting their faith. This approach leads to a supine surrender to the language and narratives of other religions, diluting the essence of Sanatana Dharma.

The Hindu mind of today is a product of colonial education.

Devotees from Rajasthan at Meenakshi Mandir, Madurai. 2016. 

Sarva-dharma Samabhava  is a Misunderstood Slogan

A common assertion in support of this approach is the slogan "sarva-dharma samabhãva," often cited from the Rigveda (1.164.46) – ‘Ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti, which translates to “It is of One Existence that the wise ones speak in diverse ways”.

However, a closer examination reveals that this assertion represents only a fraction of the complete verse, which is part of a larger context. The neglected three-fourths of the verse is as significant, if not more so, than the cited portion. 

Indram mitram varuNam agnim ãhuh, 

atho divyah sa suparNo garutmãn, 

ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti, 

agnim yamam mãtarivãnam ãhuh. 

(They hail Him as Indra, as Mitra, as Varun, as Agni, also as that divine and noble-winged Garutmãn. It is of One Existence that the wise ones speak in diverse ways, whether as Agni, or as Yama, or as Mãtarivãn.)

 The verse underscores the importance of considering the entire mantra to grasp its intended meaning accurately.

Rediscovering the Essence of Sanatana Dharma

The path to shedding the psychological shackles that bind Hindus lies in reawakening to the sublime spirituality of their own Sanatana Dharma. It entails evaluating other religions and cultures based on the pristine principles of this ancient tradition.

Sanatana Dharma fundamentally rejects the notion of spiritual truth or moral virtue being the exclusive domain of any historical figure, no matter how revered. Instead, it encourages each individual to be their own seeker, their own prophet. One must personally discover spiritual truths for them to hold meaning and validity in their life. Scriptures and spiritual teachers can serve as guides, but true realization comes from within.

The essence of Sanatana Dharma lies in self-exploration, self-purification, and self-transcendence. It beckons individuals to embark on an inner voyage of discovery, to see spiritual truths in myriad forms, and to recognize the divine in all aspects of existence.

Rameshwar Mishra wrote in ThePrint, “Sanatan Dharma is not a government order. It is an investigation of truth or reflection. It delves into how humans can attain happiness and why they become unhappy.”

Kiradu Temples, Barmer, Rajasthan. 2013. 

A Civilization Beyond Religion

Sanatana Dharma, known today as Hindu Dharma, is not merely a religion; it is a civilization that has flourished for ages untold. Yet, it faces the challenge of being perceived through non-Hindu lenses, often perpetuating colonial-era distortions.

Hindus today grapple with a lack of clarity regarding their identity and beliefs. The absence of a unified definition of Hinduism has led to confusion among adherents and outsiders alike. Some perceive it as a collection of disparate sects and cults with little in common, while others view it as a conglomeration of various religious traditions without a cohesive teaching.

Sanatana Dharma, as the universal tradition, has the potential to offer profound insights into contemporary issues. However, the failure to articulate a coherent Hindu perspective on pressing global matters stems from the absence of a clear definition and understanding of Hinduism itself.

Shiv Mandir, Sivasagar, Assam. 2017. 

The Cosmic Vision of Sanatana Dharma

At the heart of Sanatana Dharma lies a cosmic vision of life-a vision that transcends individual beliefs and embraces the interconnectedness of all existence. It teaches that humans are part of a vast web of interconnections, both seen and unseen, and that they owe their sustenance and being to the myriad forces of the universe.

This cosmic view elevates humanity by making individuals aware of their position in the grand tapestry of existence. It fosters an understanding of life as a yajna-an interchange between different forms, a dance of transformation. It is a worldview that grounds and elevates simultaneously, a unique facet of Sanatana Dharma.

In this journey of rediscovery, Hindus have the opportunity to unravel the profound wisdom of their tradition, embracing its true essence beyond the superficial labels and misconceptions that have obscured it for far too long.

Sanatana Dharma beckons, not as a religion alone, but as a civilization, a philosophy, and a way of life—an eternal tradition that transcends time and space, offering profound insights for the modern world.

This article is inspired by the writings of Sri Sitaram Goel and Sri Ram Swarup. Pranams.

To read all articles by author

Author Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar    is Program Manager at Bharatiya Samskriti Trust, a Non-Profitable Organisation dedicated towards the dissemination of Indic Knowledge Systems and resurgence of the Oldest Living Cultural way of life i.e. Sanatana Dharma. He has his Doctorate in Indian Epistemology and was selected as a Fellow from hundred young scholars across India for Studies in Neuro Aesthetics and Indian Rhetoric by Ministry of Culture, GOI. He was a part of Academic Team of scholars across Europe on discussion of Natya Texts. His expertise in Shaiva Pratyabhijna School is well recognised by scholars of Kashmir Shaivism and he has been a regular contributor to their Journals on the works and contributions of Acharya Abhinavagupta. He has several research articles and books to his credit which includes a detailed study of Abhinayadarpana of Nandikeshvara, Devi Mahatmya and others. His advice is also sought in matters relating to prayoga aspect of Tantra Shastra by established centers of Shakti worship like Kollur and Kanchipura.

 

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